The recurring apocalypse

“L’homme a toujours pensé aussi bien.”
Claude Lévi-StraussAnthropologie structurale


Karl KrausThe Last Days of Mankind was the perfect reading for the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. If there are times you ever feel like this generation or this country invented stupidity Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind will provide the corrective. The examples of folly mocked by Kraus in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of a century ago sound so familiar that one is amazed that we can’t even be original in our foolishness.

The scenes Kraus describes during the First World War could easily describe our own recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beginning with the unthinkable terrorist attack, soon followed by the confused double-speak of motives and objectives, the jingoistic patriotism, the idiotic and fawning press, the ever shifting rationalizations. Filled with the same cast of war profiteers, cowardly politicians, vacuous reporters, tortured prisoners and dead heroes. Substitute president for emperor, vice president for Kaiser, Bhagdad and Faluja for Luzk and Upper Isonzo and you wouldn’t know the difference.

The Last Days of Mankind

Perhaps my favorite character in this absurdist comedy is Alice Schalek. It is hard to imagine that Kraus could have so perfectly characterized the twenty-four hour cable news anchor decades before the advent of television, before radio even. But there she is, her solipsistic bathos no different than it is a century later:

Schalek: Lord, how fascinating.There he sits as though carved of wood. I think there’s even a hint of twinkle in his eye. The common man, in person. What are you thinking? What emotions are sweeping your soul? Why did I never before the war see these splendid figures I now meet everyday? Some on the home from may call the war the abomination of the century—I did so myself when I still sat at home. But those in it are gripped by the fever of adventure. Call it patriotism, you idealists; hatred of the enemy, you nationalists; call it sport, you modern men; adventure, you romantics; call it blissful strength, you students of mankind—I call it liberated humanity!
Officer: What do you call it?
Schalek: Liberated Humanity!
Officer: I wish they would give us a furlough once in a while.

Inspired by her vision of Liberated Humanity, Alice Shaleck now wants to experience what combat “really” feels like by shooting one of the guns. The officer explains that in real combat there are times they do not want to fire their weapons as they need to keep their position concealed from the enemy. Yet military necessity gives way to journalistic “verisimilitude” and she fires the gun anyway, revealing their position and attracting enemy artillery fire—no doubt making her report seem even more “realistic.”

Another memorable scene includes the patriotic renaming of menu items to remove any reference to the hated French.



~ by severalfourmany on December 21, 2012.

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