My chemical warmance

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The last days of mankind

Act III
Scene 45-A
Karl Kraus

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(The Begrudger and Optimist in conversation.)

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BEGRUDGER:
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.

OPTIMIST: So how do we defend ourselves against being starved out?

BEGRUDGER: In a war that revolves around a nation’s most fundamental assets, the trough of money and the trough of food, the infernal plan to starve us out is surely more ethical and equitable than the employment of flamethrowers, landmines, and poison gas. The means of war is a reflection of the real business of this current conflict. Markets become battlefields and vice versa, thanks to a cultural goulash that makes art the handmaid of industry. But industry is as likely to employ artists as to dedicate its profits to cripples. False principles in life remain false principles in death. Quite apart from that the blockade is surely an exhortation to the Central Powers to protect their populations by ending an insane war. If the accountant hasn’t already killed the knight in armor of yore then he should; even the knight can see that what is really at stake is not a tournament but the marketplace.

OPTIMIST: It’s the business of this war —

BEGRUDGER: Exactly, this war is all about business! With this difference: One side means exports when it says ideals, the other just says exports, and that contrast alone, that transparency, at least allows for the possibility of real ideals, even if they don’t actually exist. I came across a roll of toilet paper in Berlin with quotations from Shakespeare on every sheet, to illustrate the humor of a various situations. Shakespeare is the enemy’s author after all. But Schiller and Goethe were there. The toilet roll embraced all the great writers of German culture. Never before have I had quite such a clear vision of this people of poets and philosophers of ours.

OPTIMIST: But can’t you be persuaded of the necessity for a war like this, when you say it’s a war about quantities of people? It will sort out the problem of overpopulation for some time to come, you have to concede that.

BEGRUDGER: And make a proper job of it. Legalization for abortion would ease the problem less painfully, without provoking a world war.

OPTIMIST: The prevailing moral climate would never consent to that!

BEGRUDGER: I never imagined it would, when the prevailing moral climate lets fathers (fortuitously undead) crawl through life as destitute cripples, and lets mothers bear children to be blown apart by falling bombs.

OPTIMIST: You’re not claiming things like that happen intentionally?

BEGRUDGER: No, worse: utterly at random! It’s no one’s fault that it happens, but it happens knowingly. Extensive experience ought to have informed the consciences of those who have invested in airborne slaughter, as well as those entrusted with its execution, that while intent on hitting an arsenal they’re bound to hit a bedroom or, in lieu of a munitions factory, a girls’ school. They should know that over and over this will be the outcome of attacks which are later acclaimed as successfully targeted air strikes.

OPTIMIST: It’s accepted in warfare now; since the skies are conquered —

BEGRUDGER: — villainous mankind has to use them to terrorize the earth. Read Jean Paul’s description of the ascent of a Montgolfier balloon. [3] Five pages that could not be written today, because visitors to the skies no longer bring with them reverence for the proximity of Heaven, instead, like airborne burglars, they use their safe distance from the earth to launch assassination attempts on it. Mankind has no interest in progress, except as a means of revenge. We attack life with everything that should make it better. We make a burden of everything that could ease our load. The ascent of a Montgolfier balloon is a benediction; the take-off of an airplane is a threat.

OPTIMIST: It’s dangerous for the airman dropping the bombs too.

BEGRUDGER: There’s no real risk of him being killed by the people he’s about to kill; he can evade the defenders’ machine guns while they are defenseless against him. He can avoid an honest clash with another, evenly matched murderer; if anything that so desecrates the element in which it takes place could ever be called honest. Though wielded by the “brave,” aerial bombardment is armed cowardice, contemptible as the submarine which introduced the doctrine of armed deceit, the deceit that allows a dwarf to triumph over an armor-clad giant. But the babies the airman kills aren’t armed. It is the most egregious of all this war’s disgraces that an invention that brings mankind closer to the stars enshrines his worldly wretchedness in the skies themselves, as if there wasn’t enough elbowroom for it on earth.

OPTIMIST: What about the babies starving through enemy action here? You point the finger at us but don’t others avail of the selfsame methods

BEGRUDGER: I would never exclude French planes, performing the same heroic deeds of villainy, from the shame of mankind. The distinction lies, along with the question of who was the initial aggressor, in temperament, with one side going through the horror, understanding what it means, or trying to forget it, while the other side, not satisfied with firing shells, sends jokes with them, and offers the people of Nancy “Christmas Greetings”[4] in the same package. Here again the grotesque amalgam of artifact (to wit bombs) with human sensibility (to wit jokes) and then of jokes with spiritual hope — this is the greatest outrage of all, a supreme act of indecency; the humor of the hangman, the licentiousness of a morality that has hauled love to trial before the bench. This is war for the greater glory of the armaments industry. We don’t only want more exports and more cannon to achieve that, we want more cannon for their own sake: and they have to be fired. Our very existence, our way of thinking is subsumed by the interests of industry. We live under the cannon. And since the cannon are God’s allies, we are lost.

(Change.)

Translated by
Michael Russell.

Notes

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[1]
Originally from I.29.
[2] From Schiller’s play ’Die Piccolomini’, ‘The Piccolomini’, the second of his trilogy of plays about the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); this was one of Europe’s bitterest and most destructive wars, in which religious differences were, not unusually, manipulated for cynically political reasons; “Das eben ist der Fluch der bösen Tat,/ Dass sie, fortzeugend, immer Böses muss gebäre”; this is translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as: “This is the curse of every evil deed/ That, propagating still, it brings forth evil.”
[3] Jean Paul, Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), German writer, best known for his eccentric, discursive and humorous novels; his appetite for the world around him was frowned upon as unstructured and indiscriminate (especially by Schiller), but it has been said of him, “he had a surprising power of suggesting great thoughts by means of the simplest incidents and relations.” ‘Kampanertal’, “The Campanian Valley,” was written in 1797. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740-1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745-1799) invented a hot air balloon and made the first manned ascent in one in 1783.
[4] An article in The New York Times, 27 December 1914, describes the bombing of the French city of Nancy by a German airplane and a Zeppelin on Christmas Day; it concludes: ‘the airmen…dropped their photographs…with a message conveying the ‘best Christmas wishes to Nancy from the Kaiser.”

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