Man frage nicht, by Karl Kraus

15 September 2014

Two translations and the original:


Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke,
Wordless am I,
and won’t say why.
And silence reigns because the bedrock broke.
No word redeems;
one only spoke in dreams.
A smiling sun the sleeper’s images evoke.
Time marches on;
the final difference is none.
The word expired when that world awoke.


Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.
I have nothing to say
and won’t say why.
And there’s stillness since the earth broke.
No word was right;
a man sleeps only from his sleep at night.
And dreams of a sun that joked.
It passes; and later
it didn’t matter.
The Word went under when that world awoke.


Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte.
Ich bleibe stumm;
und sage nicht, warum.
Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte.
Kein Wort, das traf;
man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf.
Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte.
Es geht vorbei;
nachher war’s einerlei.
Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte.


The first translation is by Max Knight, and I read it whilst at university. The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, which last year reignited anglophone interest in this Viennese satirist of the early 20th Century. He railed against seemingly everything, except for a few writers that were touchstones of his. The mainstream Viennese press of the day was his particular target. He condemned the militarism that conjured the First World War. Yet his writing dried up at the time when the Nazis were taking power south of the border in Germany, which confused many: what could be more worthy of outrage than this? Without epxlicitly citing it, this was his response.

In a quite damning review of Franzen in the London Review of Books, Joshua Cohen calls the poem ‘sub-Brechtian’ and a ‘wan excuse for not addressing Hitler’s seizure of the chancellorship’. I disagree: this is an artefact of collapse, important to witness and understand as such. It is completely desolate, and very moving.

[Knight translation ripped from Wuthering Expectations, though not credited there. Original ripped from]


2 Responses to “Man frage nicht, by Karl Kraus”

  1. saetzebirgit Says:

    “It is completely desolate, and very moving.”: Indeed. A very sad poem, expressing the same feeling what Adorno means years after with his famous sentence about Auschwitz.

    • The Adorno quote has a number of analogous ones. The poet Keith Douglas, who I must post some pieces from, wrote in a letter before his death in the Second World War that “My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present.”

      But there are also exhausted, desolate attitudes from writers when not faced by war. In ‘The Crack Up’ (which I have inconveniently misplaced my copy of), F. Scott Fitzgerald writes a few memorable lines on a drying up of his own, which provide a useful sidelight when considering the ‘extreme’ situations that Kraus, Douglas or Adorno write of:

      “I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had developed a sad attitude towards sadness, a melancholy attitude towards melancholy, and a tragic attitude towards tragedy – why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.
      “Does this seem a fine distinction? It isn’t: identification such as this spells the death of accomplishment.”

      “I shall manage to live with the new dispensation, though it has taken some months to be certain of the fact. […] there is a price to pay. I do not any longer like the postman, nor the grocer, nor the editor, nor the cousin’s husband, and he in turn will come to dislike me, so that life will never be very pleasant again, and the sign Cave Canem is hung permanently above my door. I will try and be a correct animal though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand.”

      (And anybody reading this who wants to investigate that further will note that the abridgement I’ve made above moves over a rather challenging statement of Fitzgerald’s own.)

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