An excerpt of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book, The Kraus Project, ran last month in The Guardian under the headline “What’s Wrong With the Modern World.” It prompted a week’s worth of online dissent, much of it more persuasive than the original essay. And if you are secure in your Franzen animosity, then The Guardian debate has already met your needs. If, on the other hand, trying to explain what’s wrong with the modern world by translating a fin-de-siècle Austrian satirist strikes you as a project almost endearing in its total perversity, then you will have reason to be more complexly disappointed.
Karl Kraus edited the magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) and wrote unrelenting, deliberately impenetrable criticism. Mr. Franzen acknowledges that Kraus’s work is tied “to long-forgotten controversies, to rivals now obscure, to newspapers and literary works that only scholars read anymore.” He argues, though, that it also speaks to “our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.” The Kraus Project includes translations of four short works, plus extensive footnotes from Mr. Franzen describing how he came to read Kraus while studying in Germany after college and delineating the parallels between Kraus’s Vienna and the modern world. He makes the case, for example, that the “feuilleton” lifestyle journalism Kraus decried as glib and derivative is analogous to today’s online discourse. (Muddying this comparison is his equally plausible reading of Die Fackel itself as “like a blog.”)
A childhood drawing of mine hangs above my son’s changing table. It’s a mostly unremarkable work, a giant, floating rectangular head with spiky Bart Simpson hair and a nose that resembles an electrical outlet, rendered in fading green marker on flan-colored paper. And yet it has one feature that distinguishes it from the average preschooler’s half-assed artistic endeavor. Emerging from the head is a speech bubble as round and buoyant as a cumulus cloud. And inside the bubble is one word: FUCK.
The story behind the drawing is disappointingly mundane—I was coloring on the floor of my dad’s office, overheard him drop an F-bomb, asked him how to spell it and rewarded his honesty with a Take Your Daughter to Work Day souvenir that only Louis CK’s refrigerator could love—but hindsight imbues it with profane meaning.
Because some 30 years later, I am still that snub-nosed potty mouth (albeit with a neck and a few more teeth), but now the matriarch of a household in which cursing—or “cussing,” if you live in a state that contains a Waffle House franchise—is wholeheartedly embraced.
Stating that, “prejudice is entertainment, prejudice is fun,” Louis CK stripped himself of any social standard for morality at the very beginning of his show at the New York City Center. On the second night of the New York leg of his national tour, one thing was made clear, Mr. CK’s brash shtick is what he is, well, sticking with. In the HBO special Talking Funny (April 2012), Mr. CK told Jerry Seinfeld—who believed in rehashing old jokes that were a hit with the audience every time he tours—that people come to see the comedian and not some live re-run of an older show. The balding redhead trusted his audience enough to throw a completely new routine their way, and he did just that on the night of the 23rd.