I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
Franzen explains the purpose of The Kraus Project in a long, stirring, instantly controversial article just published in the Guardian. (It is not clear whether or not this essay appears in The Kraus Project, but I hope it does, as it's certainly a book-worthy piece.) The article explains his attraction to the bitter-tongued Karl Kraus, to whom the always provocative Franzen clearly relates:
Kraus was known, in his day, to his many enemies, as the Great Hater. By most accounts, he was a tender and generous man in his private life, with many loyal friends. But once he starts winding the stem of his polemical rhetoric, it carries him into extremely harsh registers.
Franzen recognizes that Kraus's once-famous shrill commentary often failed to persuade -- instead, Vienna sank into hellish apocalypse, and Kraus's words did not help at all. Likewise, Franzen knows that his own urgent public statements about ecology or birds or cats or technology or Oprah Winfrey have often backfired, and the essay in the Guardian often reads like a cry for understanding by a writer who is often mocked for his earnestness -- a writer who, for all his success, has not often been well understood.
Karl Kraus was a liberal Jewish journalist in a country torn between communists and fascists. Today, we may feel put upon by the Tea Party on one side and Occupy Wall Street on the other -- but for Karl Kraus there was Bolshevism on one side, Nazism on the other. But are the moral and political choices we make today actually less stark than those of Kraus's time? Franzen's The Kraus Project seems intended to suggest that the choices we make today are just as stark.
Furthermore, Franzen seems to be paying tribute to Kraus in order to justify his own meddling in politics and social commentary. And why shouldn't he? It's not like the points in this essay do not cut sharp.
Vienna in 1910 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can't face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn't really a problem; we can't even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense. Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna's in 1910, except that newspaper technology has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.
Kraus's bleak critiques of his society, as represented in Franzen's essay, are literary and cosmic as well as topical. The passage that Franzen cites as his personal favorite remark by Kraus happens to echo the also bleak Fyodor Dostoevsky:
This thing that calls itself a world because it can tour itself in fifty days is finished as soon as it can do the math. To look the question "What then?" resolutely in the eye, it still has the confidence to reckon with whatever doesn't add up. And the brain has barely an inkling that the day of the great drought has dawned. Then the last organ falls silent, but the last machine goes on humming, until even it stands still, because its operator has forgotten the Word. For the intellect didn't understand that, in the absence of spirit, it could grow well enough within its own generation but would lose the ability to reproduce itself. If two times two really is four, the way they say it is, it's owing to the fact that Goethe wrote the poem "Ocean Calm." But now people know the product of two times two so exactly that in a hundred years they won't be able to figure it out. "Something that never before existed must have entered the world. An infernal machine of humanity."
This is powerful stuff -- weird, nearly mystical. The dread of "two times two" also connects with one of the primary messages of Franzen's Guardian essay: the critique of techno-consumerism, the idea that we now need to guard ourselves against Apple, Amazon and Twitter.
Unfortunately, much of Franzen's essay is a critique of techno-consumerism -- and yes, pace Karl Kraus, it is shrill. I don't agree with almost anything he says in these sections, though I do appreciate his literary skill in landing these points:
I confess to feeling some version of [Kraus's] disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally "male," celebrates the internet as "female," and somehow neglects to consider the internet's accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation – who criticised capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way – start calling the corporatised internet "revolutionary."
Franzen chooses his targets glibly here. Surely Twitter is not the problem with anything in the world (and Karl Kraus's Twitter-less world was surely no better). However, I don't think Franzen is trying to present an airtight case against Twitter in this essay. Instead, he's displaying his pique. He's indulging his right to be cranky in public, and he's invoking the legacy of the cranky Karl Kraus to justify his doing so.
Amidst these often excessive technological musings, Franzen delves deeply into the difference between the hipster branding of Apple products, and states his preference for the pedestrian branding of Microsoft. But doesn't Franzen know how much banality has been enabled by Microsoft, as well as by Apple? Still, even within this tangle of techie opinionation, Franzen writes with thrilling intensity and sarcasm:
Not only am I not a Luddite, I'm not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites. (It simply seemed practical to them to smash the steam-powered looms that were putting them out of work.) I spend all day every day using software and silicon, and I'm enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name. (Working on something called an IdeaPad tempts me to refuse to have ideas.) But not long ago, when I was intemperate enough to call Twitter "dumb" in public, the response of Twitter addicts was to call me a Luddite. Nyah, nyah, nyah!
If I were hashing this argument out with Franzen in a bar over beers (God only knows what beer branding would not offend Jonathan Franzen, but he strikes me as a Pabst Blue Ribbon or perhaps a Rolling Rock guy), I would point out to him that, just as he and other tech-abstainers are not necessarily Luddites, it is also the case that many hard-core techies understand the downside of immersion in technology, and seek refuge in nature. After all, it was Larry Ellison, the super-wealthy founder of tech giant Oracle, who bought an island in Hawaii. Larry Ellison didn't buy a Starbucks, or a gilded cubicle -- he bought an island, which is a prospect that would undoubtedly appeal even to Jonathan Franzen.
Even when he misses his targets, as he does often here and elsewhere, Jonathan Franzen is a writer who makes his points stick. I suspect he's now channelling Karl Kraus to help fortify his armor as he sallies forth and gets into more fights. This is armor that Jonathan Franzen will need.