By Isabella Ferron
I would like to join the Austrian Forum with a short article about the Austrian author, journalist and essayist, descending from a highly assimilated Jewish family originated from Prague, Anton Kuh (Vienna 1890-1941 New York). Anton Kuh, as I hope to show, was not only a very unique writer but also a contemporary observer and commentator of his time. A monocle-wearing Bohemian, Kuh constructed his identity according to the concept of supranational Empire, timeless and not influenced by the national idea of State. Kuh was known for his short form texts, in which he created a sort of illustrated book collecting the different images of the Zeitgeist (the Spirit of Time). His entire oeuvre is bound to the problems of his period, thus it can not be understood outside its temporal and historical context of Fin-de-siècle Vienna and the following Interwar period.
Today, Anton Kuh is a long-forgotten writer, even among German and Austrian scholars. A friend of Franz Blei, Robert Musil, Alfred Polgar, Franz Werfel and many others, he was famous in the 1920s: his satirical language (much like that of Karl Kraus and Kurt Tucholsky) is hard to understand even in its native German. After his death his work was closed in a box and given to some friends to keep it secure in their basement. There, it has been forgotten for ages, so it can not be spoken of a reception of his oeuvre, only few dealt with it and recognised its value. Thus his work was never translated in any other language and this makes his oeuvre highly inaccessible for a non-German reader. But Anton Kuh is worth knowing. His exceptional frame of mind, so I will argue, is still very up-to-the minute, for the questions he asked and the social, political and philosophical problems he dealt with.
Kuh published biting, satirical works, and short pieces of prose, in them he confronted the problems of his days in Fin-de-siècle Vienna and interwar Vienna and Berlin, in a witty, ironic and critical way. Kuh spoke against the Zeitgeist, that was decaying. Above all, he was celebrated as Vortragskünstler, i.e. as an artist of the speech giving art, as he was very good at speaking without a prepared text in front of a big public in the Viennese coffee houses. In his speeches he portrayed the crisis of modernity and the end of a world of values. Strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Philosophy, in which he found the conceptual instruments to express his critique of German nationalist understanding of culture and tradition, Ludwig Börne‘s thought and Otto Gross‘s anarchist method of depth Psychology, Kuh was able to paint and pinpoint the neurosis and clichés of a decaying society, much like Karl Kraus or Robert Musil. He belonged to the group of the so called Kaffeehausliteraten, that is to the group of Viennese intellectuals and leading writers of the time (Peter Altenberg, Egon Erwin Kisch, Karl Kraus, Alfred Polgar, Arthur Schnitzler, Freidrich Torberg and Franz Werfel) who met in the coffee houses, where they critically discussed and carefully watched from the safe distance of the coffee houses‘ windows the outside world. Seated inside, they reflected and observed the end of the Habsburg monarchy that was moving to its catastrophic end. Kuh characterized the Kaffeehausliterat as a person, who has time to sit in a coffee house and contemplate and reflect on other people’s actions. He came to the conclusion that most people act or live life without thinking about their actions, thus they live without experiencing life in a superficial form of existence. From these observations Kuh produced sketches, historical pictures, atmospheric snapshots of a dying world. He hardly accepted the end of the bourgeois society, and, contrary to other pessimistic intellectuals like Karl Kraus, he was optimistic about its future.
In the numerous feuilletons, speeches and essays Kuh wrote, he expressed his growing skepticism in the German concept of the Geist, in the Spirit, and in its political meaning. For example, in the short text The Geist Marchiert (The Spirit Marches, 1918), mostly referring to Kurt Hiller’s cry for political activism of the intellectuals, Kuh declares his rejection of the German liberal ideal of the Geist, which denotes a particular way of life and thought. The Geist is considered as „graduierter Wille“, graduated will, a medium and a way, an attempt to represent the truth, but its destiny is solitude and isolation and it can be realized only by its creative works, whereas Kuh defines Geist as „Luftlinien vom Gehirn zur Sache“, i.e. the Bee-lines from the brain to the object, namely the shortest route between the intellect and the observed object. The dispute about the Geist is first of all a controversy about elitist power longing and an authority-worshipping Germany philistinism that led to Hitler’s rise to the power. Up until his forced emigration to America, Kuh was still hoping that the Austrians will put up a strong resistance to the German push for annexation. This text prophetically anticipates his sense of disappointment he felt when he left.
During the early 1920s Kuh became well-known for his controversy with Karl Kraus, which he described in his work Der Affe Zarathustra (The Ape Zarathustra, 1925). With his brilliant linguistic talent he condemned Kraus, who was fighting against hypocrisy, chauvinism and bourgeois ideals with a moralized cruelty. Kuh hardly criticized Kraus’s apocalyptic analysis in Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The last days of Mankind, 1915-22) with its wholesale condemnation and literary extermination of the Habsburg empire on its way to decline and death. Kraus’ work was in Kuh’s eyes a kind of death dance he could not agree with. Growing up in the milieu of the Fin de Siècle Modernism, Kuh understood and accepted the on-going crisis as an element of development, as a potential way of life. He would not describe this decay, as a crystallized manifestation of the collapse of some ideals, as for instance Wittgenstein with his cultural pessimism or Kafka with his absurdly hopeless world did. On the contrary, Kuh tried to ridicule the existential fragility and the city’s harsh contrasts in the midst of a crisis of authority and power in order to stir people’s awareness.
In 1926 Kuh moved to Berlin, „fortan in Berlin untern Wienern, statt in Wien unter Kremsern zu leben“ („It is better to live in Berlin among Viennese than to live in Vienna among Kremsern“), he said. In Berlin he wrote for several newspapers and he even participated with Franz Blei in the film Maria Stuart from 1928. With Hitler’s rise to power, Kuh, who was a Jew and seen by the Nazis as Kulturbolschewist, left for Paris, then Prague and London and finally emigrated to New York, where he died of a hearth attack in 1941. In New York he lived and published under the pseudonym of Yorick and wrote against Nazism.
In his short texts, published under the title Luftlinien (Bee-Lines), he described the pre First World War era and the interwar period. For instance, in the short texts Central und Herrenhof. Lenin und Demel, (1916) he describes the Café Central as meeting place where people can discuss about socialism, pan-slavism, a place where the multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism of the Habsburg Empire can still be observed and experienced. Further, he expresses his taunting ideas about ‚bank-employees with ethical background‘ to reveal the cruelty of some institutions arosen during the economical crisis at the turn of the century. The Herrenhof Café, on the other hand, where Freud and Gross took up their quarters has become more and more european and has progressively lost its characteristic Viennese nature.
In another short prose, Das Hofauto (published in Der unsterbliche Österreicher, 1931), i.e. the court’s car, the car is metaphor of the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. The last car of the Royal family is not simply the symbol of a prosperous period, but also – as Kuh said – a “lovely” form of the Austrian crash. It realizes in itself the agony of the State (Staatsagonie).
In the representative text Erlebnisse eines Monokels (Impressions of a Monocle, 1931), Kuh depicted the interwar period from the perspective of a monocle’s impressions delivered to the reader in the form of soliloquy. The monocle is characterized as a Friedensmonokel, as an eyeglass of peace, because it has been built before the outbreak of the First World War and therefore endowed with signs which make it the symbol of a lost world. This is primarily an assessment of the total crisis, economical, political and mostly moral. People’s furtive and haughty glances directed at the monocle indicate their clear distance from a worldview – represented here by an object such as the monocle – that led to the defeat of a social order. Kuh is ironical about his land Austria, which he defines as a country of a meek disposition, whereas mankind bears a compassionate soul. With the help of the monocle’s impressions Kuh is able to conceptualize Schauen, i.d. the process of observing, and Schreiben, the writing, as concepts with nearly the same meaning: that means that Kuh firmly asserts that literary production has a social function of critique and denunciation. The monocle’s owner (I would argue he is Kuh himself) describes himself as a psychologist who collects – with the help of his eyeglass – faces, appearances and attitudes. Through the monocle’s monologue Kuh portrays the disenchantment, the disappointments and the worries of his generation. This soliloquy takes a lucid snapshot of the historical time at the turn of the 20th century that still enchant. By it Kuh looks into the role of man in the world and his responsibilities for the cruel actions taking place during the Great War. Austria’s pity he jeers at, loses every values front the war, front the prejudice and the social injustice Kuh always unable to stand.
– Luftlinien. Feuilletons, Essays und Publizistik. Hg. von Ruth Greuner. Wien: Löcker Verlag 1981.
– Juden und Deutsche. Hg. Von Kilcher, Andreas B.. Wien: Löcker Verlag 2003.
– Der Unsterbliche Österreicher: Essays und Satiren. Nachdr. d. Ausg. München, Knorr & Hirth, 1931, Aufl. 1. Berlin: Dearbooks 2013.
– Der Affe Zarathustras. (Karl Kraus). Eine Stegreifrede gehalten am 25. Okt. 1925 im Wiener Konzerthaussaal. Wien: Deibler 1925.
– Zeitgeist im Literatur-Cafe: Feuilletons, Essays u. Publizistik; Neue Sammlung. Hg. von Ulrike Lehner. Wien [u.a.]: Buchgemeinschaft Donauland 1985.