My chemical warmance


The last days of mankind

Scene 45-A
Karl Kraus

(The Begrudger and Optimist in conversation.)

In the past war was a tournament for the few who had power. Now it’s an industrial-armaments-driven threat to the entire world.

OPTIMIST: The development of armaments can’t possibly be allowed to lag behind the technological advances of the modern age.

BEGRUDGER: No, but the modern age has allowed mankind’s imagination to lag behind his technological advances.

OPTIMIST: I see. So wars are fought with the imagination?

BEGRUDGER: With imagination nobody would fight them.

OPTIMIST: Why not?

BEGRUDGER: Because then the exhortations of a mentally retarded doublespeak, born of a decrepit ideal, would have no scope to befuddle people’s brains; because then we would be able to imagine the most unimaginable horrors and would know beforehand how short a step it is from all the gaudy phrases and rapturous flag-waving to the field gray of despair; because the prospect of dying of dysentery for the fatherland, or losing both feet to frostbite, would no longer mobilize maudlin pathos; because at least a soldier could march away to war with the certain knowledge that he would become lice-infested for the fatherland. Because we would know that mankind has invented the machinery of war only to be overpowered by it, and because we would not eclipse the madness of that invention with the even greater madness of letting ourselves be killed by it. With imagination we would know that it is a crime to expose our lives to misfortune, a sin to reduce death to a lottery, that it is an act of folly to manufacture battleships when torpedo boats are built to outwit them, to make mortars when trenches are dug to ward them off, and folly to drive mankind into rat holes to escape his own weapons, so that peace can only be enjoyed in an underground world henceforth. With imagination to replace the media, technology would not be the source of life’s afflictions and science would not seek life’s destruction. Heroic death hovers in clouds of gas and our traumas are measured in a newspaper’s column inches! Forty thousand Russian corpses, enraptured by barbed wire, could only make an item in the late edition, to be read out to the dregs of humanity by a soubrette in the interval of an operetta cobbled together from those words of self-sacrificial weaponmongery, “I Gave Gold for Iron,” just so that the librettist could make a curtain call. Never was there a greater display of a paucity of community spirit than now. Never was Lilliputian pettiness on a more epic scale the makeup of our world. Reality is reduced to the dimensions of a newspaper report, panting as it struggles to keep up with reality. The journalist whose columns confuse the facts with his own fantasies stands in the way of those facts and makes them more fantastical. And so sinister are the machinations of the press and its agents that I find myself almost believing that every one of those miserable specimens who afflicts our ears with inescapable and interminable shouts of “Extra! Special Edition!” — is responsible for instigating a universal catastrophe. The printed word has empowered a vacuous humanity to commit atrocities that its own imagination can no longer comprehend, and the curse of mass circulation returns those atrocities to a media that generates ever-regenerative evil.[2] Everything that happens, happens to those who describe it but have never experienced it. A spy, led to the gallows, walks the long way round to provide the newsreel camera with engaging scenery; he has to stare into that camera for another take to ensure his facial expression satisfies the audience. Don’t let me follow this train of thought as far as mankind’s own gallows — but I have to, I am its condemned spy, heartsick from the horror of the void this tide of events reveals not only in men’s souls but even in their cameras!

OPTIMIST: Unpleasantness is the inevitable concomitant of great things. Maybe it’s possible the world didn’t change on the night of the 1st of August 1914. However, it seems very clear that imagination does not feature among the human qualities war finds useful. But if I understand you right, don’t you deny that modern war has any room for human qualities anyway?

BEGRUDGER: You do understand me right; it allows no room for them at all, because the reality of modern warfare can only exist by virtue of the negation of any human qualities whatsoever. And there are none left.

OPTIMIST: So what is left?

BEGRUDGER: There is human quantity, numbers, human quantities that are evenly depleting themselves as they seek to prove that they can’t compete with quantities of mechanical firepower which are utterly revolutionary in nature; because even mortars can overwhelm humanity en masse. Mustering the evidence, it is the lack of imagination alone that makes possible, inevitable, what remains of mankind’s machine-power revolution.

OPTIMIST: If the quantity of people is evenly depleted, when does it end?

BEGRUDGER: When the two lions are left with nothing but their tails. Or if, by some miracle, that doesn’t happen: till, in terms of sheer numbers, the larger party is left with the advantage. I shudder at having to hope for that. I shudder even more at the terrifying prospect of ideals-to-die-for triumphing. Continue reading