Act I Scene 29


The Optimist and the Begrudger in conversation.

OPTIMIST:    You can’t deny that the war, quite apart from its positive effect on those who have to look death in the eye on a daily basis, has also brought about a real spiritual revival.

BEGRUDGER:    I don’t envy death, having to let so many poor devils look it in the eye, who all have to be dragged up to metaphysical scratch by the universal gallows-duty they call conscription, which fails to do that anyway.

OPTIMIST:    The good become better, the bad become good. War cleanses.

BEGRUDGER:    It takes faith from the good, if it doesn’t take their lives, and it makes the bad worse. The contradictions of peace were harsh enough.

OPTIMIST:    But don’t you sense the spiritual revival here at home?

BEGRUDGER:    As far as our national spiritual revival is concerned I haven’t noticed anything so far, other than the dirt the dustcart kicks up as it cleans the streets, just so that it can sink back to the ground again.

OPTIMIST:    Nothing changes then?

BEGRUDGER:    The spray from the water carts, following behind, turns the dust to mud.

OPTIMIST:    You don’t believe that since the beginning of August, when they all first marched away, anything has got better?

BEGRUDGER:    The beginning of August, yes, marching orders, when men gave mankind’s conscience notice to quit. There should have been an appeal against it to the tribunal of the Last Judgement.

OPTIMIST:    Are you denying the enthusiasm of our brave soldiers as they took to the field, or the pride of those who stayed behind to watch them go?

BEGRUDGER:    Certainly not; asserting that our brave soldiers would have changed places with those who proudly watched them go far more happily than those proud onlookers would have changed places with our soldiers.

OPTIMIST:    Are you denying the magnificent sense of solidarity that the war created at one magical stroke?

BEGRUDGER:    That solidarity would be even more magnificent if no one had been obliged to go and everyone could have been a proud onlooker.

OPTIMIST:    The German Kaiser said: There are no political parties any more, there are only Germans.

BEGRUDGER:    That may be all right for Germany, elsewhere, perhaps, people have slightly higher aspirations.


BEGRUDGER:    As far as nationality goes, it’s pretty clear there are places where people aren’t German.

OPTIMIST:    Who has seen more of mankind’s peacetime decay than you?

BEGRUDGER:    Now mankind carries that putrefaction into war, infecting war with it, so that war itself becomes degenerate and the survival of that putrefaction into peace is assured, not only unimpaired but reinvigorated. Before the physician can cure the plague it kills him, along with his patient.

OPTIMIST:    With mankind in that state isn’t war better than peace?

BEGRUDGER:    If that’s true then peace will still return in the end.

OPTIMIST:    I want to believe war will put an end to all our evils.

BEGRUDGER:    It perpetuates them.

OPTIMIST:    War as such?

BEGRUDGER:     This war at any rate. It feeds on the necrosis these times have brought into being; its bombs are packed with its own bacilli.

OPTIMIST:    But at least they’ve given us an ideal to believe in again. Surely that means an end to our afflictions?

BEGRUDGER:    Our afflictions flourish best when they hide behind ideals.

OPTIMIST:    But look at all the examples of self-sacrifice that will continue to make themselves felt after the war.

BEGRUDGER:    It is evil that will make itself felt, throughout the war and long afterwards. It will gorge itself on sacrifice.

OPTIMIST:    You underestimate the moral forces that war sets in motion.

BEGRUDGER:    I wouldn’t dream of it. Many of those who have to die now were given authority to kill, but they’ll be spared the trouble of procreating anyway. Never mind, the ones who proudly watch them go can compensate for the loss. Over there those sinners who have been declared unfit for military service; over here the fresh blood, reporting for duty.

OPTIMIST:    You’re confusing the superficial corruption we see manifested in any great metropolis with the sound inner core.

BEGRUDGER:    Then it’s the destiny of that sound inner core to turn into its own superficial corruption. The whole course of our culture is leading to the world becoming one great metropolis. In no time at all you can turn a Westphalian farmer into a racketeering Berliner, but it doesn’t work the other way round, and you can’t reverse the process either.

OPTIMIST:    But the fact that there is an ideal a man can fight for, even die for, that has to bring the possibility of us becoming whole again.

BEGRUDGER:    People will die for the ideal but still not be made whole. And they won’t even die for it, they’ll die from it. But whether they’re living for it or dying for it, they’re going to die from it anyway, in war as well as in peace. Because this ideal is what we’ve made living about.

OPTIMIST:    That’s all wordplay. What ideal are you talking about?

BEGRUDGER:    An ideal that ordinary people die for without even having it, without even benefiting from it, an ideal ordinary people die for without even knowing it. The idea of the Apocalypse[1] that lurks in the capitalist (hence Judaeo-Christian) consciousness of those who aren’t fighting, but who still live for that idea, who make their living from it, who, unless they happen to be immortal, will actually die from chronic obesity or diabetes.

OPTIMIST:    If we’re fighting for an idea like that, who can win?

BEGRUDGER:    Hopefully not the culture that has most enthusiastically embraced an ideal whose accomplishment depends exclusively on a power structure that only the ideal itself can create.

OPTIMIST:    I see. The others, the enemy, are fighting for a different ideal?

BEGRUDGER:    Let’s hope so. For one ideal in particular. This one: for

European culture to free itself from the oppression of the other ideal. To free itself, to turn back from the path where we scent such danger.

OPTIMIST:    And you think there’s any sense of that among the enemy’s statesmen, the blatant champions of commercial interests, identified throughout the course of world history as the party of envious shopkeepers?

BEGRUDGER:    World history rolls off the presses twice daily here, maybe too often to command much authority with the Entente. No, statesmen are never aware of an ideal as such, but it can have a long life in a nation’s subconscious, till one day it manifests itself in the actions of a statesman with a very different vision, a different design. Gradually we need to get used to interpreting what we call British begrudgery, French revanchism and Russian rapacity, as an aversion to the iron tread of bloody German boots.

OPTIMIST:    So you don’t think it’s a question of systematic assault?

BEGRUDGER:    Oh, it is.

OPTIMIST:    Then how –

BEGRUDGER:    An assault is directed as a rule against the person being assaulted, seldom against the person doing the assaulting. But we call self-defence assault, when the assaulter is taken a little by surprise; and we call assault self-defence, when the assaulter has been caught a little off-guard.

OPTIMIST:    You’re joking of course.

BEGRUDGER:    I’m quite serious, I regard the alliance against the Central Powers as the final, self-defining act that Christian civilisation is capable of.

OPTIMIST:    Then obviously you believe it’s not the Central Powers but the Entente that has acted in self-defence. But what if, as seems very likely now, the Entente can’t defend itself against this assault successfully?

BEGRUDGER:    Then this war of commercial interests will be temporarily resolved in favour of those with little or no religious belief, so that it can be converted into an unashamedly religious war, in a hundred years or so.

OPTIMIST:    What do you mean?

BEGRUDGER:    I mean that in those circumstances Judaeo-Christian Europe will eventually lay down its arms at the behest of the Asiatic spirit.

OPTIMIST:    And what weapons will the Asiatic spirit constrain us with?

BEGRUDGER:    With these. With nothing more than the concepts of mass-production and advanced technology, those concepts alone will overwhelm the infernal mindset of Middle Europe. China[2] already has mass-production, the other weapon it will be acquire in time. Japanisation will follow in due course. It will all proceed much as it does in England today, where militarism had to be embraced in order to put an end to militarism.

OPTIMIST:    But they haven’t put an end to it.

BEGRUDGER:    I hope they will. That England will not put an end to itself through its militarism, and that the price of material victory is not spiritual impoverishment. Otherwise Europe will become Germanised. Militarism seems to be a condition whereby a European people defeats itself in the very act of defeating militarism. The Germans were the first to surrender all sense of self in order to become the world’s most powerful military nation. May the others not go the same way, above all the English, whose nobler instincts for survival have so far saved them from universal conscription. Self-preservation currently seems to insist on this ubiquitous compulsion, which is not only a desperate remedy but an extremely questionable one. England may vanquish itself along with Germany. But the only nation strong enough to survive the era of advanced technology in war doesn’t live in Europe. That’s how it seems to me sometimes. But may Christ let it be it otherwise.

OPTIMIST:    Ah, your Chinese; surely not a nation fitted for warfare.

BEGRUDGER:    Well, they let themselves do without modern military technology now, or maybe they tried it in some earlier, unknown epoch, and their souls survived intact. They could carry it off again very easily, if need be, in order to exhaust the Europeans. They may do some military messing around: but to a moral end. Now there’s a religious war worthy of the name.

OPTIMIST:     And what ideal wins through?

BEGRUDGER:    The ideal that God did not create man to be a consumer or a producer, but to be human. That the staff of life is not the stuff of life. That the belly should not outgrow the brain. That life is not exclusively for the accumulation of compound interest. That man has been placed into time in order to have time, not so that his legs can run faster than his heart.

OPTIMIST:    That’s what Christianity was about once.

BEGRUDGER:    No, Christianity proved too incapable of standing up to the vengeance of Jehovah. Its Promised Land was too tenuous to stave off the voracious earthly appetites that compensate for heavenly compensation here below. So we have a mankind that doesn’t eat to live but lives to eat, and dies for precisely the same reason. The brothel and the slaughterhouse, and in the background the chapel where an isolated Pope wrings his hands.

OPTIMIST:    So in a word the ideal is the struggle against materialism.

BEGRUDGER:    Yes, in one word: the ideal.

OPTIMIST:    But in that case isn’t German militarism simply a conservative system to counteract the proclivities of the modern world you so disdain? It surprises me to find a conservative thinker speaking out against militarism.

BEGRUDGER:    But it’s no surprise to me to find a progressive speaking for militarism. You have it absolutely right: militarism isn’t what I intend, it’s what you intend. It’s the instrument of power which the prevailing ideology always uses to implement its aims. Today, just as the press does, it serves the apocalyptic ideas capitalism inherited from Judaeo-Christianity.

OPTIMIST:    But the statements from the enemy powers all speak about nothing except defending freedom from autocracy.

BEGRUDGER:    It’s the same thing now. In mankind’s subconscious, even among the least free, there does exist a longing to defend freedom of spirit against the dictatorship of money, and human dignity against the autocracy of consumerism. Militarism is the instrument of power that a dictatorship uses to establish itself, instead of being employed as a tool to fight the very presence of that dictatorship in the state in the first place. Ever since lethal weapons became an industrial product they have been turned against mankind, and the professional soldier no longer even knows why he’s deployed. Even Russia is fighting autocracy. With its last civilised instincts it is defending itself against a force that all-threatens human intellect and dignity alike, against the siren-call of the unholy military pact which the passivity of Christian thought so readily, so disastrously acquiesces to.

OPTIMIST:    So do all these heterogeneous peoples who have been drummed into this war together, do they really have this longing for freedom in common? Russian autocracy and Western democracy?

BEGRUDGER:    That polarity in itself proves that the extent of their common ground spreads far beyond any political objectives. The very coming together of these opposites demonstrates that Germany’s pernicious policies, its unconsciousness even of diplomacy’s most basic precepts, are an expression of the desperate need for a change of direction.

OPTIMIST:    That Allied mix still makes for a motley crew.

BEGRUDGER:    It’s the mixture that shows the authenticity of the hatred.

OPTIMIST:    A hatred that has used the falsest of arguments.

BEGRUDGER:    Hatred always does, but even in its falsest arguments there is evidence of the veracity of its instincts.

OPTIMIST:    So do the Germans need to set off to find cultural regeneration in this realm of lies as well?

BEGRUDGER:    They certainly do, but German victory would make the trip pointless. They won’t have been disabused of their most dubious truths. It’s more than possible after all that the ‘lies from abroad’, assuming they weren’t ‘made in Germany’ anyway, contain more lifeblood than any of the truths from Wolff’s Press Agency in Berlin[3]. Abroad there is a distinction between the lie that springs from emotion and the truth that springs from discernment; here they tell the truth through their teeth and it all springs from newsprint anyway. In Latin lands the lie is a kind of intoxication, but here it is a question of science and is, therefore, a dangerous organism. There the liars are artists, nobody believes them but everyone wants to listen, because the lie expresses what they feel: the truth. Here they lie without using one word more than is absolutely necessary for the job in hand; the liars are engineers, guarding their lies about war and about life.

OPTIMIST:    Well, any accusations that the German conduct of the war is barbaric are simply utter nonsense.

BEGRUDGER:    We trust to God and assume that German warfare, except for a few measures taken as reprisals, which quite by chance always hit the civilian population, and except for cases like the Lusitania[4], which middle class morality now calls an ‘incident’, is no more barbaric than anybody else’s warfare. But if other countries believe that the way Germany conducts war is barbaric, then they have a right to feel the way German conducted peace was barbaric too. And it must have been, otherwise it would not have been premised, for so many generations, on preparing Germans for war.

OPTIMIST:    But the Germans are a people of poets and prodigies[5] too. Doesn’t German culture contradict your assertions of materialism?

BEGRUDGER:    German culture is not German reality, just the trinketry with which a people of judges and gibbets[6] ornaments its emptiness.

OPTIMIST:    A people of judges and gibbets? Is that what you call the German nation? The people of Goethe and Schopenhauer[7]?

BEGRUDGER:    It can call itself that because it is well-educated, but since it is it ought to be prosecuted before an international court under its own oh-so-crowd-pleasing penal code for causing such a serious breach of the peace.


BEGRUDGER:    Because everything Goethe and Schopenhauer had in mind when they attacked the Germans of their own time, they could bring forward, with even greater justification, against the state of the German people now, and far more keenly than Le Matin[8] in Paris. They would be lucky today, as undesirables in their own land, if they managed to escape across the frontier. Goethe had already taken nothing but a sensation of emptiness from the perverse state of mind his nation found itself in during the wars against Napoleon[9], and our colloquial language, along with newspaperspeak, would thank God if it was still up to the contemptible standard Schopenhauer found it in. No people is further removed from its language, and therefore from its source of life, than we Germans. Any Neapolitan beggar stands closer to his own tongue than a German professor to his! Yes, this is a nation cultivated like no other and since its PhDs, without exception it’s said, can cut the mustard when it comes to gas bombs (unless they find a job with the War Press Corps) it makes all its military commanders Doctors of Philosophy too, to keep things equal. What would Schopenhauer have said to a faculty of philosophy that confers its highest honour on an entrepreneur of murder-machinery. Our modern major generals are very cultivated, au fait with absolutely everything, even British envy has to allow that. Their command of language even serves to let them give an order, just about. Today the German nation writes in the truncated Volapük[10] of universal sales-speak and if Goethe’s Iphigenia[11] isn’t lucky enough to get herself rescued in Esperanto[12], it will abandon the words of its greatest writer to the ruthless savagery of the pirate presses and, in an age when people can no longer divine words or steep themselves in verbal providentiality, it will recompense itself for its loss with deluxe editions, bibliophily and the similarly indecent acts of an aestheticism which bears the stigma of barbarism as surely as does the bombardment of a cathedral.

OPTIMIST:    Ah, but Rheims Cathedral was a military observation post!

BEGRUDGER:    I don’t care. Mankind is its own military observation post now – I wish it could be bombarded by cathedrals.

OPTIMIST:    I don’t understand all this about the German language. You’re the one who behaves as if you’re positively engaged to it; in your polemic against Heine’s[13] banalisation of the tongue you demonstrated its superiority to the Romance languages. Now you evidently think otherwise.

BEGRUDGER:    Only a German could imagine I feel any differently. I think this way precisely because we’re engaged, she and I. What’s more I’m faithful to her. And I know this war will bear that out and that victory, may God preserve us from it, will be the most complete betrayal of her soul.

OPTIMIST:    You still think the German language ranks the highest?

BEGRUDGER:    And the German speaker the lowest.

OPTIMIST:    In your opinion other languages come lower than German?

BEGRUDGER:    But their speakers rank higher.

OPTIMIST:    So do you think you’re in a position to establish some coherent connection between language and war?

BEGRUDGER:    It’s like this: the language that has completely ossified into platitudinous phrases and stock responses will be ready and eager, in strident tones, to find blameless in itself everything it finds blameworthy in others.

OPTIMIST:    And is that supposed to be a characteristic of German?

BEGRUDGER:    Essentially. It’s a ready-made product in its own right now, which can be sold on to give a raison d’etre to present day speakers; it consists of nothing more than the soul of an upright citizen who had no time to celebrate excess because his life began and ended entirely with business, and if that didn’t amount to much at least he left his bank account in credit. 

OPTIMIST:    Aren’t these notions a bit far-fetched?

BEGRUDGER:    They’re fetched from what’s farthest away, the language.

OPTIMIST:    Isn’t every other country looking for trade?

BEGRUDGER:    They don’t give up their lives for it.

OPTIMIST:    The English have made a business out of war but they’ve always let mercenaries do their fighting for them.

BEGRUDGER:    The English aren’t idealists, they don’t want to risk their lives for their businesses.

OPTIMIST:    And mercenary and merchant come from the same Latin word[14], how’s that for language!

BEGRUDGER:    A pretty trite example. Soldier itself is more of the same, from ‘sould’, Old French for a soldier’s wages. The only difference is the soldier who goes off to die for the fatherland gets less gold and more glory.

OPTIMIST:    But our soldiers really are fighting for the fatherland.

BEGRUDGER:    They are indeed, and we’re fortunate it’s with enthusiasm, otherwise they’d have to be coerced. The English are no idealists. On the contrary they’re decent enough, when doing business, not to refer to it as their fatherland, they don’t even have a word for fatherland[15], they borrowed ours; they leave ideals well alone when their export trade’s at risk.

OPTIMIST:    They are shopkeepers.

BEGRUDGER:    And we are heroes.

OPTIMIST:    Yes, but you still keep saying the English are fighting for an ideal along with all the rest of them.

BEGRUDGER:    I’m saying they are capable of doing so under the pretence of realism, while we pursue business under the pretence of idealism.

OPTIMIST:    Do you consider it’s an ideal to obstruct German business?

BEGRUDGER:    Definitely, it’s what’s called professional jealousy, that’s all. In reality it’s about knowing whose business premises can be expanded without inflicting cultural damage and whose can’t. There are nations that shouldn’t consume too much, because they suffer from cultural indigestion. The neighbours feel the effects in no time, only their pain is worse. World trade should forever isolate the German spirit, which German culture has known nothing about for a very long time anyway. Besides, increasing exports is anything but conducive to maintaining spiritual relations with the world. The English can carry on like that without doing any damage to the puny souls we care to impute to them. They can safely treat themselves to life’s essentials, such as luxurious consumer goods, and be best friends with business as well as the monarchy. German nature, supposedly a restorative for the world[16], deals with all heterogeneousness as an unholy alliance.

The English are cultured because they know how to distinguish between a little bit of introspection and problems of consumption. They don’t want some grubby competitor to force them to work for more than six hours in a day, so that they can devote the rest of it to those pursuits the Lord created Britons for: God and sport, and a preoccupation with God is the stuff of inner speculation after all, even if it is just hypocrisy, because there’s a sentiment that at least takes us beyond the daily grind. And that’s what matters. By contrast the German works twenty-four hours a day and any spiritual, intellectual and artistic commitments, etcetera, which he might neglect with that kind of workload, are attended to while he works, so he can utilise the resulting subject matter for ornamentation, for brand logos, for packaging. He doesn’t want to miss an opportunity, does he? And this amalgamation of inner being and life’s basic needs, this alignment of life’s sustenance with life’s substance, and the simultaneous employment of the substance of life to serve the sustenance of life, like the department store motto ‘Art at the service of the salesman’[17] – this is the ill-fated element in which German genius will flower and fade. This and nothing else, the execrable spirit of perpetual conjunction, contrariety, conditioning is the root cause of world war. We’re all shopkeepers and heroes in the same company.

OPTIMIST:    The cause of this world war, as everyone knows very well, is that Germany wanted to have its place in the sun.

BEGRUDGER:    And as everyone knows very well too, but no one acknowledges, if Germany seizes that place then the sun will set. Whereupon the North German Daily News[18] will respond, we should all keep fighting on in the dark. In fact till the victorious end and beyond.

OPTIMIST:    You’re a begrudger.

BEGRUDGER:    So I am, and I’ll happily concede you’re an optimist.

OPTIMIST:    Wasn’t it you who used to sing a hymn of praise to German efficiency, or at least preferred it to a shambolic Southern European jungle?

BEGRUDGER:    It was and I still do. German efficiency – supposing it can stand up to indiscriminate warfare – is a talent and like any talent every time and place has its fare share of it. It is practical, tractable and it will serve the kind of personality that can deploy it far better than a dysfunctional milieu wherein even the most passive mind has prominence. But how much of its essential character should a nation relinquish in order to provide the wherewithal to cut a straight path across the façade of life! There is no kudos in acknowledging this, but when the Final Judgement of mankind is made (no summons was ever issued before the war of course) the timorous demands of the man of individual character will no longer carry any weight. He may have longed for order in a grim existence, and all the more so in the chaos to which such a grim existence is condemned in these parts; he may in this predicament have made use of modern technology as a pontoon bridge to himself; he was content that the people around him consisted only of chauffeurs and would unhesitatingly have deprived them of any right to vote.  But now it’s all about the personalities and the characters of nations.

OPTIMIST:    And which nation is going to win?

BEGRUDGER:    As a begrudger I am obliged to look into the darkness and dread that victory will go to whichever nation has preserved the least sense of individualism, the Germans. That’s what I see in my darkest hours, on the spiritual frontiers of European Christianity. Moral malnutrition comes next.

OPTIMIST:    And this is the outcome of the world war?

BEGRUDGER:    Of the war in Europe, and until there is a verdict in a real world war against the spirit that unites Europe. The insurrection of the Slav and Romance peoples, supported by so many other nations, will remain just an episode in this drama, until Europe as a whole has had enough of German rectitude, enough of German stench bombs, enough of German military conscription, and Asia finally teaches it what’s what. That’s what I fear sometimes. Yet mostly I’m an optimist, though not your kind of course. Because that is the one time I can feel hopeful some good will come out of this and I can see all this victoryism as nothing but a sacrilegious waste of time and blood, that’s only there to extend the deadline of inevitable defeat.

OPTIMIST:    Be careful!

BEGRUDGER:    Why, I can say it all openly. You won’t pass it on; and the hangman doesn’t understand my approach. I could make myself plainer. But I’ll let the Prussians go the whole hog and keep my thoughts to myself.

OPTIMIST:    There are contradictions, even in what you keep to yourself.

BEGRUDGER:    Not in fearing our victory and hoping for our defeat.

OPTIMIST:    Isn’t there a contradiction between your praise of the German character and your criticism of it?

BEGRUDGER:    No, there is no contradiction between praising a civilisation that can make the external paraphernalia of life run like clockwork, that can replace dirt roads with tarmac, that can even provide ghostly phantasms for the ever gullible imagination instead of oh-so-worthless self-awareness, and criticising a culture that will disappear for the sake of that very same clockwork-like regularity, promptness and proficiency. No contradiction, just tautology. I’d feel quite at home in a more or less dystopian world, where everything was well ordered and society had become vacuous enough to provide me with a collection of theatrical walk-ons, each one indistinguishable from the others, so I could be relieved of the strain of remembering people’s physiognomies. But I don’t necessarily want this to be the general condition of mankind; I’m a long way from putting my own indolence before the nation’s aspirations for felicity; I should consider it very remiss if the population could really be lined up like battalions of bread rolls in a chain of fast food restaurants[19].

OPTIMIST:    So will you clarify this contradiction for me, you say you consider the best people in public life to be the military.

BEGRUDGER:    That’s no more of a contradiction than the other one. Of all the mediocrities available in the chaos of a world at peace, the military type was simply the most serviceable. At least service sets some limit to unbridled aimlessness. Discipline, the discharge of duty for its own sake, is the very etiquette of banality. It acts as a point of reference for the moneyed classes’ money-focused field of vision. Even the share speculator, who has to obey orders instead of giving them for once, bounces back from that service with a slightly less unpleasant, less irritating, less oily disposition.

OPTIMIST:    That’s almost praise for war, surely!

BEGRUDGER:    No, it’s just the strain of it. But here’s something surer! Death will nullify any of the benefits.

OPTIMIST:    That’s true. But when the speculator dies, it suits you.

BEGRUDGER:    The speculators are the ones who don’t die. The most important thing is that arrogated claims about the glamorousness of death are presented as compensation for the cost of the exercise. The heroism of the incompetent is the most spine-chilling prospect of this war. Some day it will be the backdrop against which the most engorged and unreconstructed baseness can be portrayed in a more picturesque and flattering fashion.

OPTIMIST:    But people really are dying heroically. Just look at the papers, day after day, you’ve seen the column ‘Heroic Deaths’.

BEGRUDGER:    Ah yes, it’s the same column that used to announce the conferment of titles on our most prominent captains of industry. And this unhappy happenstance now provides a halo of shrapnel debris around the surviving representatives of the commercial interests others are dying for.

OPTIMIST:    You mean the ones who stayed at home?

BEGRUDGER:    Yes, they will reimburse themselves for any losses they suffer due to an obligation others pay the ultimate price for, the obligation to die in the service of an alien idea, universal military conscription.

OPTIMIST:    Well, that’s the kind of temerity our homecoming warriors will know exactly how to deal with.

BEGRUDGER:    Our homecoming warriors will break into the home front like burglars, and that’s when the war will really begin. They will seize the very profits they were denied and all the great principles of war, murder, looting, rape, will be child’s play compared with the outbreak of peace.  May the God of Slaughter save us from that impending offensive!  A furious ardour, unloosed from the trenches, no longer amenable to orders, will grasp at every weapon and every pleasure in every area of life, and bring more death and disease into the world than the war itself could ever have hoped for. May God protect the children from the sabres that will be used to chastise them then and from the bombs that have been brought home as toys.

OPTIMIST:    Obviously it’s dangerous for children to play with bombs.

BEGRUDGER:    Beware of adults who do the same, and sometimes say their prayers with bomb in hand! I’ve even seen a crucifix made from one.

OPTIMIST:    Those are just side effects. In the past it wasn’t always the case that war encountered such an overzealous denigrator in you.

BEGRUDGER:    In the past it wasn’t always the case that I encountered such an overzealous misconstruer in you. In the past war was a tournament for the few, the few who had power. Now it’s an industrial-armaments-driven threat to the entire world, and you want to be optimistic about it.

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, wars are fought with the imagination?

BEGRUDGER:    No, 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 grey of despair; because the prospect of dying of dysentery for the fatherland, or losing both feet to frostbite, would no longer mobilise 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. And 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; because man would feel he had to defend himself against an enemy he only sees as a rising plume of smoke, and would divine that being on the same team as his own armaments factory is a poor protection against the products of the enemy’s. 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 (where you’re only lost if you stick your head above the parapet too soon), 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’,  and just so that the librettist could make a curtain call. This self-devouring selfishness leaves us only with emotional reactions to what happens to us and to those who are closest by, to what we can immediately see and feel and touch. In the absence of a protagonist isn’t it clear to everyone that the players are all sneaking away from the theatre, abandoning this ensemble we all belong to, with nothing but the destinies of their own characters in tow? Never was there a greater display of a paucity of community spirit than now. Never was Lilliputian pettiness on a more epic scale the make-up 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. But then isn’t the messenger as much a culprit as the message? The printed word has empowered a vacuous humanity to commit atrocities that its own imagination can no longer comprehend, and the terrible curse of mass circulation returns those atrocities to a media that generates ever-regenerative evil[20]. Everything that happens happens to those who describe it but have never experienced it. A spy, as he’s led to the gallows, has to walk the long way round to provide the newsreel camera with engaging scenery; he has to stare into that camera for yet 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 witnessing the horror of the void that this unparalleled tide of events has revealed not only in men’s souls but 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 first 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. 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 the prospect of having to hope for that. But I shudder even more at the terrifying prospect of the party of ideals-to-die-for taking the lead.

OPTIMIST:    Which would that be?

BEGRUDGER:    The smaller one. The larger party would be debilitated by the very scraps of humanity it has preserved. But the smaller party would keep fighting, with its fervent belief in a God who has desired that outcome.

OPTIMIST:    We need a Bismarck. He’d soon make an end of it.

BEGRUDGER:    There’ll be no one like that.

OPTIMIST:    Why not?

BEGRUDGER:    If the world can go as far as demonstrating its sense of balance with its bombs, no Bismarcks are going to emerge.

OPTIMIST:    How else do we defend ourselves against the enemy’s infernal plan to starve us out?

BEGRUDGER:    In a war that revolves around a nation’s most fundamental assets, that’s to say the trough full of money and the trough full of food, the infernal plan to starve us out is surely more ethical and more equitable than the employment of flame-throwers, 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 names a styrene candle factory after the god Apollo (Apollo Inc.)[21] and makes art the handmaid of industry. But industry is as likely to employ artists as to dedicate its profits to helping cripples. False principles in life will remain false principles in death, and again the means diverges from the end. If two consumer co-ops are at each other’s throats, then the more ethical one relies on the police to restore order, not the consumers themselves, and if it contents itself with excluding the other co-op’s customers, or even excluding its goods, it is acting in an entirely ethical fashion. But quite apart from that, the blockade is surely an exhortation to the Central Powers to protect their populations from danger by ending an insane war. If the accountant hasn’t already killed the knight in armour of yore then he should; even the knight can see that what’s at stake is not a tournament but the market for cotton.

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 exist.

OPTIMIST:    Don’t tell me they’re blockading us for the sake of ideals!

BEGRUDGER:    Not in the least, they merely want to defeat our ideals and reclaim them for us by curing Germankind of an anti-cultural inclination to use its ideals to package its products. For Germans ideals are just goods, a kind of artistic free gift to be shipped off with the rest of the merchandise by the hauliers. They think God and art are indispensable tools for building, say, an underground railway. It’s a cancer. I came across a roll of toilet paper in a Berlin stationer’s with quotations from Shakespeare on every sheet, to illustrate the humour of a variety of situations. Shakespeare is the enemy’s author after all. But Schiller and Goethe were there too, 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:    You see some cultural impulse at work in everyone else’s war, while German war is just about commercial expansionism. But wouldn’t economic prosperity put German life straight, intellectually and spiritually?

BEGRUDGER:    No, it wouldn’t, exactly the reverse. The total absence of that intellectual life was the prerequisite for these economic aspirations. The self-induced intellectual famine their achievement holds in prospect would be beyond imagining, if there was any imagination left in stock that is.

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. Fears about overpopulation may be replaced by fears of underpopulation. Legalisation 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. With regrets, but it still happens. Extensive experience in this area 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 someone’s bedroom instead or, in lieu of a munitions factory, some girls’ school. They should know that over and over again this will be the outcome of attacks which are later acclaimed as successfully targeted air strikes.

OPTIMIST:    Be that as it may, it is an accepted method of warfare now, and since the skies have been conquered –

BEGRUDGER:    – so villainous mankind has to use the opportunity to terrorise the earth. Read the description of the ascent of a Montgolfier balloon in Jean Paul’s ‘Kampanertal’[22]. 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 for us. 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 aeroplane is a threat to anyone who isn’t in it.

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

BEGRUDGER:    Yes, but there’s no real risk of him being killed by the people he’s about to kill; he can easily evade the defenders’ waiting machine guns while they are defenceless against him. He can easily avoid an honest clash with some other, evenly matched murderer as well; if anything that can so desecrate the element in which it takes place could ever be called honest. Even though wielded by the ‘brave’, aerial bombardment represents armed cowardice, as contemptible as the submarine which introduced the doctrine of armed deceit, the kind of deceit that allows a dwarf to triumph over an armour-clad giant. But the babies that the airman kills aren’t armed and if they were they couldn’t attack him as painlessly as he attacks them. It is the most egregious of all this war’s disgraces that an invention that brings mankind closer to the stars serves to enshrine 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?

BEGRUDGER:    The governments of the Central Powers are free to spare their babies such a fate, by weaning their parents off the patriotism they suckled on at school. But if we assume the enemy powers are as guilty as we are: dropping bombs on hostile infants as a means of reprisal – while that’s  a train of thought that does full credit to German ideology, it’s an intellectual dugout which, by all that’s German, I wouldn’t care to take refuge in myself.

OPTIMIST:    You want to point the finger at German conduct in this war but you won’t recognise that the others avail of the selfsame methods.

BEGRUDGER:    I certainly do recognise it, and it would never occur to me to exclude French planes, all performing roughly the same heroic deeds of villainy, from the shame of mankind. The distinction seems to me to lie, 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 along with them, and even offers the people of Nancy ‘Christmas Greetings’[23] in the same package. Here again the grotesque amalgam of artefact (to wit bombs) with human sensibility (to wit jokes) and then of jokes with spiritual hope – this union is the greatest outrage of all, a supreme act of indecency that gives new potency to lives already impoverished by over-regimentation, a kind of communal compensation for the real discipline, exertion and decency they lack. It is the humour of the hangman, the licentiousness of a morality that has hauled love to trial before the bench.

OPTIMIST:    Compensation for discipline? So you do welcome discipline as a way of preventing disorder then?

BEGRUDGER:    But not as a lever of power! Better chaos than order at the cost of mankind! Militarism as a PE lesson or militarism as a state of mind – maybe that’s where the difference is. In essence militarism is a tool. If, unwittingly, it becomes the tool of a power that contradicts its essence and if, in the face of a humanity endangered by that power, it becomes a puffed-up end in itself, then there will be irreconcilable enmity between militarism and the human spirit. Its facility for honour, in alliance with a cowardly technology, will turn into gimmickry; its self-imposed sense of duty, within the framework of public coercion, will degenerate into a lie. It is nothing more than subterfuge, nullifying a slavery that can only prove its despicable potency from behind its war machines. So thoroughly has the means become an end in itself that even in peacetime we only think militarily, and conflict is merely the device for procuring new weapons. A war for the greater glory of the armaments industry. We don’t only want more exports and more cannon to make that happen, we want more cannon for their own sake: and they have to be fired. Our very existence, our whole way of thinking is subsumed by the interests of heavy industry; a heavy load. We live under the cannon. And since the cannon are God’s allies, we are lost. That is how it is.

OPTIMIST:    But you could look at it from the perspective of a Nietzschean[24] ideal and come to a fundamentally different conclusion.

BEGRUDGER:    Yes, indeed, one could then experience the amazement Nietzsche felt when his ‘Will to Power’ did not manifest itself after the battle of Sedan[25] in 1870 as the triumph of the spirit, but in the form of multiplying factory chimneys. Nietzche was a philosopher who ‘imagined new things’. That’s to say a he imagined a spiritual revival coming out of 1870. In the light of 1914 maybe he shouldn’t have let himself believe that in the first place and be bamboozled by the victory his own ideas. Perhaps he might now disown the conqueror who sets off along the path of war with the ‘Will to Power’ and other assorted intellectual armaments in his knapsack.

OPTIMIST:    If the war brings us no cultural blessings, then it will bring the enemy powers none. Unless, on principal, you are determined to see cultural opportunities in guerrilla fighters[26] murdering sleeping soldiers.

BEGRUDGER:    I definitely don’t see any in the existence of a propaganda department that’s been specifically created to peddle such claims. But even in mankind’s current state it is surely unprecedented that airmen can drop bombs on babies, using a means of war permitted under international law, but when guerrillas commit a murder to avenge another murder that’s unacceptable because they haven’t got a licence; because they don’t murder on someone else’s orders but from another, more compelling impulse, not duty but rage, the only motive that can go even a little way towards excusing murder; because they are unauthorised killers, unable to identify themselves by the appropriate uniforms or by their attachment to some particular command structure, unit, sham formation, or however all these infamies are to be described. Don’t ask me to adjudicate on the moral difference between an airman who kills a sleeping child and the civilian who kills a sleeping soldier. It is up to you, taking into consideration the risk and not the question of the killer’s licensed answerability, to decide which is the braver option, attacking a sleeping soldier or attacking a waking baby.

OPTIMIST:    You may be right about that, but you’ll have to use a microscope to look for any traces of humanity on the other side.

BEGRUDGER:    I certainly shall if I’m looking in our newspapers.

OPTIMIST:    There’s the regular feature: ‘Russian Devastation in Galicia’.

BEGRUDGER:   Well, I’ve never been able to tell from that whether the Galician castles are being plundered by Polish peasants or our Hungarian soldiers. But more than once beneath that headline, as if it had broken free of the demand for lies, I have glimpsed a story of an honourable Russian deed.

OPTIMIST:    You’re referring to an article about a particular violation?

BEGRUDGER:    Well, when our Hungarian Honveds and Deutschmeisters take off their caps in order to ask for a glass of water, as we’re informed they do, do they doff them to the ladies of their own countries or the women of enemy lands: former or latter? I’ll leave the answer to your optimistic outlook, which is securely based on the reporting our War Press Corps.

OPTIMIST:    Don’t you think we do any justice to the enemy at all here?

BEGRUDGER:    Well, yes, occasionally we do some justice to ourselves, with comic caricatures on imbecilic postcards.

OPTIMIST:    No, there are times we do treat them fairly.

BEGRUDGER:    If there’s a really diverting item of news, well, we might do the Russians a bit more justice then. We’ll record it because of its very oddity – the intelligentsia of Central Europe wouldn’t want to let any truths about Europe’s most libelled nation slip out – so something bizarre’s all right, like the time the Russians silenced their guns for the Catholic Christmas and left messages of peace and prayer in the enemy trenches.

OPTIMIST:    And our Austrians paid them back surely.

BEGRUDGER:    They certainly did, a Doctor Fischl for example, a solicitor’s clerk until the first of August, since then enlisted into these great times, had a field postcard published: ‘Tomorrow the Russians celebrate their Christmas – that’s when we’re going to give them a real pounding’.

OPTIMIST:    That was a joke.

BEGRUDGER:    Quite right, it was a joke.

OPTIMIST:    One doesn’t like to generalise.

BEGRUDGER:    I do. You can depend on unfairness from me. If militarism was used to fight the scum at home, I would be a patriot.  If it accepted only the good-for-nothing for military service, if it waged war in order to surrender the dregs of mankind to the might of the enemy, I would be a militarist! But militarism likes to sacrifice the worthy and bestow glory on the worthless, and when it all falls apart on some far off battlefield it uses its own power to proclaim itself victorious. Only this viewpoint can explain the forbearance with which the mass of people endure the insult to human nature that is universal conscription. The scum know it’s the ideal of militarism itself which is being fought for, and in this certitude they may even fight for the fatherland, an alien idea to them first and last, despite the fact that their school books have drummed that ideology into their heads on a daily basis. Otherwise wouldn’t they feel that being compelled to die for an alien idea is like serfdom, a serfdom that’s a thousand times more oppressive than its most reactionary embodiment, in the abomination of Czarism? But when all is said and done, perhaps it’s an innate idea. How else could men who have never known the privileges of a military career be forced into sharing its dangers? How else be torn from their own professions, their livelihoods, their families, to be shoved into a barracks and then die for the protection of Bukowina. The fact that if they refused to die for Bukowina they would be shot dead pretty damn quick is an immediate inducement that for many an individual does provide a perfectly good explanation. But the system could never have been established if the majority of people didn’t believe that though they seem to be victims of autocratic ambition they will eventually achieve victory over the victors. You see, even I’m an optimist. I cannot resolve to treat mankind as a hopeless rabble, ready to give itself over, at someone else’s behest, to destitution and death and the deepest of deep shit.

OPTIMIST:    The heightened emotion induced by the call of the fatherland is surely a better explanation than any kind of compulsion or self-interest.

BEGRUDGER:    The fatherland? Well, whoever’s directing the play that’s the voice that’s always going to claim the strongest motivation for itself. But the exhilaration that lulls our usual sense of vulnerability into a false sense of security wouldn’t work on the more wide-awake intelligentsia; not if such exhilaration didn’t contribute to the feeling that, in this case anyway, victory might raise that intelligentsia up to be the very lords of life themselves.

OPTIMIST:    But not of war.

BEGRUDGER:    They simply save themselves the effort of thinking about that, for once they can relax. They don’t need to rack their brains, until the enemy comes along to do the racking for them, which is something they no longer have enough imagination to imagine. War turns life into a nursery, where it’s always the other one who started it, where there’s always one child extolling the same crimes he accuses the other of committing, and where petty squabbling takes the shape of playing at soldiers. But in wartime people learn to pay little heed to the war games of children. As a preparation for the childishness of grown-ups they really come much too early.

OPTIMIST:    If anything children’s war games have been given an entirely new impetus. Are you familiar with the game ‘Let’s All Play World War’?

BEGRUDGER:    The other side of life’s coin is equally unpleasant: Let’s All Play Kindergarten. Let’s wish humanity every success in getting its infants to starve one another to death or carpet each other’s nurseries with bombs, and in doing so eliminate the clientele of wet nurses entirely.

OPTIMIST:    If it were up to you mankind would have written itself off before the war. Thank God it’s alive and well –

BEGRUDGER:    You mean: and well-armed.

OPTIMIST:    Things evolve from generation to generation. You mentioned those five pages of Jean Paul’s, which couldn’t be written today. I hardly think Count von Zeppelin’s invention[27] has made it impossible for Germany to produce writers. We have writers today who are not to be scoffed at.

BEGRUDGER:    Nevertheless I shall scoff.

OPTIMIST:    No, war has given German writers renewed inspiration.

BEGRUDGER:    It should have given them a clip round the ear.

OPTIMIST:    The usual boorish prattle, not a word of truth. Whatever you may feel about the war, our writers have been consumed by the firestorm of these great times, which has swept away the banality of everyday life.

BEGRUDGER:    The firestorm and everyday life suddenly turn out to have something in common: the clichés our writers, compliant as they are, have so quickly adopted. They took offence even more promptly than their stupefied customers expected. German writers! You’re a practised optimist, but your optimism will degenerate into mockery if you put forward such pieces of work as evidence for the greatness of our times. I still make a distinction of several moral degrees between the poor Philistines who have been forced out of their offices into the trenches and those miserable scribblers at home who do something far worse than deride the horror; they produce editorials and doggerel, processing tenth-hand expressions, already false at first hand, throwing in the firestorm from the mouth of the common man to create their unscrupulously potent brew. I haven’t found a single line in these works I wouldn’t have turned my nose up at in peacetime, with an expression more suggestive of nausea than the emotion of sharing in a revelation. The only decent line I’ve come across is in Franz Josef’s proclamation, pulled off by some sensitive stylist who had presumably immersed himself in the experience of being extremely old. ‘I have carefully considered everything.’[28] The times that are coming now will show more clearly than those we’ve already lived through that more careful consideration could have successfully averted indescribable horrors. But as the line stands, in isolation, it has the effect of a poem, perhaps even more so when you think of the thought process behind it. Look, here – look at the proclamation, on the column[29], you’ll really be able appreciate the effect.

OPTIMIST:    Where?

BEGRUDGER:    – Ah, a pity, the very bit of the proclamation that contains that line has been plastered over by a poster for Wolf’s Music Hall[30] in Gersthof. Sparta had Tyrtaeus[31], its poet of war; Wolf’s is the true Tyrtaeus of this war! And now at last there is really is some poetry.

OPTIMIST:    I know the way you look at things, it’s all exaggeration. There is no such thing as coincidence as far as you’re concerned. It’s no more than a poster for Wolf’s Music Hall; I’ve no great fondness for the place myself –

BEGRUDGER:    Oh no?

OPTIMIST:    – a poster like any other, an old one, pre-war. The main venue’s rented out now, the café may still do business, I don’t know, things don’t change overnight; it’s all superficial anyway, I’m still convinced –

BEGRUDGER:    Naturally you’re convinced.

OPTIMIST:    – I am, convinced that the citizens of Vienna really did become a serious people overnight and, as the press so succinctly puts it, ‘far beyond pride or human frailty’ they grasped the gravity of the situation; I’m convinced that in a year’s time they will no longer have any desire to participate in the trivial activities on offer at Wolf’s Music Hall, whether the war is over or not. I am absolutely certain about it.

BEGRUDGER:    Look, I’ve got no opinion on the matter, I think it’s quite immaterial whether that’s true or not; whether we approve of the good times rolling on, or disapprove as you do. Unlike you I rather approve of it.

OPTIMIST:    Then I don’t understand you.

BEGRUDGER:    Because I’m convinced of this, you see, and only this, that it doesn’t make any difference anyway. But I’ll predict this: Within a year Wolf’s in Gersthof, not so much a music hall now, more of a symbol, will respond to the demands of these great times and grow ever greater itself, it’s advertisements will be plastered on every street corner, over that line: ‘I have carefully considered everything’, and a true perspective on a false way of life will thus be established. Within a year, with a million men interred, the bereaved will look Wolf’s in the eye and in that countenance will be an expression like a bleeding fissure in the earth, wherein they will learn that times are hard, and that today there’s a matinee as well as an evening show!

OPTIMIST:    It really cuts me to the quick to hear you speak like that – deliberately setting out to make these times look petty when they must appear great even to the most myopic individual. If these times have brought us one thing, surely it’s an end to your way of looking at the world.

BEGRUDGER:    May God grant it!

OPTIMIST:    And may God grant you nobler convictions. Maybe you could develop some tomorrow, during a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, come with me, the proceeds will all go to war relief to –

BEGRUDGER:    No, the poster’s enough – right next to Wolf’s Music Hall! But what’s that peculiar picture? A stained glass window? If my myopic vision doesn’t deceive me – a mortar! Is that conceivable? Yes, and whose job was it to get these two worlds under one roof? Mozart and mortars! What a concert platform! Happy conjunction or what? We shouldn’t weep over it. But would the natives of Senegal, whose help the enemy has called on in the struggle against us, ever allow such godlessness in their culture.

OPTIMIST (after a pause):    I think you’re right. God knows you’re the only one who looks at it that way though. It passes the rest of us by and we continue to see the future in a rosier light. You see something and therefore it must exist. But your mind has to conjure it up before you can see it.

BERUDGER:    Because I’m short-sighted. I’m only aware of blurred outlines; imagination has to do the rest. My ear hear sounds that others can’t hear and for me they discompose the music of the spheres, which others can’t hear either. Think about it, and if you can’t reach a conclusion by yourself, let me help. I enjoy talking to you; you’re the prompter who gives me the cues for my monologues. And I’d be happy to stand before the audience of public opinion with you. For now I can only tell them that I’m saying nothing and, when possible, say what it is I’m saying nothing about.

OPTIMIST:    For instance?

BEGRUDGER:    For instance: That this war, if it doesn’t kill off the good, may well establish a moral island for the good, who were already good before. But that it will transform the whole world that encircles that island into a great wasteland of deceit, decrepitude and inhuman godlessness, in which evil, insinuating itself because of and by means of distant war, can grow fat behind ideals of straw and gorge itself on sacrifice! That in this war, the war of today, culture cannot replenish itself but can only save itself from the hangman by suicide. That it is more than sin: it is falsehood, daily falsehood, from which printer’s ink flows like blood, the one fuelling the other, spreading ever wider, a delta into the great sea of madness. That today’s war is no more than an outbreak of peace and so cannot be ended by peace, but only by the cosmos waging war against this rabid planet! That human beings have to be sacrificed in unprecedented numbers, which is not so much lamentable because they are driven by an alien volition, as tragic because they have to atone for an unknown crime. That for anyone who feels this unparalleled injustice, inflicted by this worst of worlds, is like being tortured, only one last moral expenditure remains: to pitilessly sleep away this fearful hiatus, until ransomed by God’s word or by God’s displeasure.

OPTIMIST:    You are an optimist. You’ve put your hope and trust in the destruction of the world.

BEGRUDGER:    No, everything is just taking its course, like my nightmare, and when I die it will all be over. Sleep well. (Off.)


[1] The idea of an apocalyptic struggle which overturns the world order, bringing the defeat of evil and the triumph of righteousness, or more significantly of ‘the righteous’, developed in Judaism and became central to Christianity (Book of Revelations) and Islam (the Mahdi); though it is probably true that the 20th century saw Armageddon sidelined in all but fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity. For Kraus this idea of an apocalyptic ‘victory of the righteous’ informs the dark alliance between capitalism and militarism (with or without religion). It is worth noting that this is another version of the apocalyptic endgame that dominated the Gotterdämmerung politics of Hitler; for him victory required the destruction of capitalism and the Jews.

[2] Kraus believed China had the ability to embrace modern technology yet retain its spiritual heritage intact; European technology was out of control (and in control); it had displaced spiritual values. China’s spiritual surety along with vast human resources would overcome a broken, soulless Europe. A prophetic vision in part; he was right about China’s economic might; he’d have to look hard for its moral purpose.

[3] Bernhart Wolff (1811-1879), German Jewish media mogul; an employee of the world’s oldest news agency, Agence France Presse (1835) who set up his own agency, Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau (1849-1934) in London and Berlin, at the same time as another AFP defector, Thompson Reuters; later Reuters and WTB would reach a cartel-like agreement, giving WTB dominance in northern and eastern Europe while London-based Reuters got the British Empire. WTB was in bed with Germany’s rulers very early on, signing a secret agreement with Prussia in 1869, which gave Wolff 100,000 crowns and preferential access to the telegraph system, in return for disseminating information provided or ‘spun’ by the state. WTB disappeared in 1934 when Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, had it nationalised.

[4] RMS Lusitania, a Cunard Line passenger ship torpedoed by German submarine U-20, 7 May 1915, off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, as she sailed from New York, heading into Queenstown ( now Cobh); she sank in less than half an hour with the loss of 1,198 of 1,959 passengers. There was a huge increase in anti-German sentiment in the United States; the sinking played some role in bringing America into the war.

[5] The phrase ein Volk der Dichter und Denker, ‘a people of poets and thinkers’, seems to have been first coined by Wolfgang Menzel (1798-1873), poet and literary critic; its resonance is in the claim it made about Germanic culture even before a unified Germany; the word Volk means both ‘people’ and ‘nation’, but it carries a huge emotional and nationalistic weight entirely absent from the English equivalents; as we know from the way Adolph Hitler used the word it gives an almost ‘spiritual’ ardour to German unity.

[6] Kraus immediately turns the pompous self-congratulation of the ‘poets and thinkers’ cliché on its head, replacing it with the rhyming phrase ‘ein Volk der Richter und Henker’, ‘a nation of judges and hangmen’; Note the German saying: ‘Wo kein Richter, da kein Henker’, ‘Where there’s no judge, there’s no hangman’.

[7] Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), German philosopher who rejected Kant and Hegel’s belief that individual morality was directed by society or reason; human beings are driven by instincts they do not control; by the Will or ‘Wille zum Leben, ‘Will to Live’; human activity is directionless but there is moral choice (Schopenhauer was an early proponent of animal rights). He sought solace in art and asceticism. As the Will to Live was all-powerful, Schopenhauer believed firmly in the deterrent value of the death penalty.

[8] ‘Le Matin’ (1883-1944), French daily newspaper, initially founded by American businessmen; on the eve of the First World war the paper had a circulation of over a million; it was populist in its approach and nationalist in its politics; after the war it became not only anti-Communist but increasingly anti-democratic.

[9] Befreiungskrieges, Wars of Liberation; German states joined the European coalition against Napoleon.

[10] Volapük, artificial language created by Johann Martin Schlever, German priest (1879-1912); on instructions from God in a dream. The vocabulary is mainly from English, with some German and French. Interest in Volapük peaked at the end of the 19th century. In Danish the word now means ‘nonsense’.

[11] Goethe’s ‘Iphigenie auf Tauris’, ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’ (1779, prose; 1786, verse); it reworks Euripides’ Greek play, c.414 BC. About to be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, Iphigenia is saved by the goddess Artemis; ever since she has been a priestess of Artemis at Tauris, where passing strangers are sacrificed; she wants to go home. Orestes, her brother, cursed with madness for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, is reunited with Iphigenia; they hatch a plan to save Orestes from sacrifice and allow Iphigenia escape with him. Deceit is the heart of the escape in Euripides; Goethe’s Iphigenia is a pure woman who will not stoop to deceit; she not only saves herself and her brother, but provides catharsis for a savage, dysfunctional, power-hungry House of Atreus; a dynasty surely at home in dysfunctional First World War Europe.

[12] Esperanto, an artificial language created by Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof, real name Eliezer Levi Samenhof (1859-1917); his first book on Esperanto was published in 1887. Zamenhof grew up in Russian Bialystok (now in Poland) speaking Russian, Belorussian, Yiddish, Polish, German; this seems to have driven his belief that a universal language could contribute to peace; Esperanto means ‘one who hopes’. The vocabulary is mainly from Latin and the Romance languages. Esperanto was popular in the early twentieth century, reflecting internationalist ideals; as such it was viewed with suspicion by totalitarian regimes; Esperantists would later be executed in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Kraus doesn’t take artificial languages very seriously; the ‘survival’ of Goethe in Esperanto is as absurd as it would be in Volapük.

[13] Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), one of Germany’s most important Romantic poets; born into a Jewish family he converted to Christianity in 1825. His lyric poetry was extensively set to music by Robert Schumann, also by Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and others. He was critical of Germany’s despotic rulers and the growth of militaristic nationalism; for a time he lived in Paris, with much of his work banned.Kraus wrote ‘Heine und die Folgen’, ‘Heine and the Consequences’ in 1910; though he had often defended Heine, especially against criticism that was thinly disguised anti-Semitism, he also believed that Heine’s style had, in other hands, come to muddy the clarity of prose by dressing it up with a cheapjack version of poetry’s multivalency, and had turned poetry into gaudily decorated prose; this was the pig’s ear that gave birth to the feuilleton and the manipulative triviality of the press; and it was important because it drained language of its most vital function: veracity.

[14] In the German the word for ‘mercenary’ is Söldner, from Sold, ‘payment’, ‘wage’ (especially a military wage); the German Soldat, translated naturally enough ‘soldier’, has precisely the same origin, coming into German from Old French. This doesn’t work in English; we have ‘soldier’, from the same source, but ‘mercenary’ comes into English from Latin; however the root word, in this case merces, still means the same, ‘reward’, ‘wage’; whichever language, the words have a common origin: fighting for cash not ideals.

[15] ‘Fatherland’ is considered to be a translation of the German Vaterland, coming into English some time during the 17th century. Only Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848), father of Benjamin, disagrees; in his ‘Curiosities of Literature’ he claims that he introduced the word into English personally, from the Dutch vaderland: ‘I have lived to see it adopted by Lord Byron and by Mr. Southey, and the word is now common’. 

[16] ‘Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen’, ‘German nature will cure the world’, from the poem ‘Deutschlands Beruf’, ‘Germany’s Vocation’, by Emmanuel von Geibel (1815-1884), poet and playwright; supporter of the 1848 revolution but even more enthusiastic about the establishment of the Empire in 1871.

[17] ‘Die Kunst im Dienst des Kaufmanns’, ‘Art in the Sevice of Business’, an exhibition in Munich, 1910. In ‘Passagenwerk’, ‘The Arcades Project’, a vast meditation on the arcades of nineteenth century Paris, the glass-roofed rows of shops that were early palaces of consumerism, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) writes: ‘The arcade is a centre of trade in luxury goods; in its design art enters into the service of the salesman’.

[18] ‘Die Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung’, ‘North German Daily News’(1861-1945), published in Berlin; nationalist and conservative in outlook up the First World War; sometimes even funded by the government.

[19] Kraus’s reference is to the Aschinger chain of restaurants. In 1892 August and Carl Aschinger established a beerhall that concentrated more on food than beer; the business grew into one of the first chains of fast food restaurants; their headline dish was pea soup served with as many bread roles as you could eat; the company’s bakery proudly produced more than a million of these rolls every week.

[20] 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’.

[21] This seems to be a reference to Apollogesellschaft, an important manufacturer of candles which had developed into more diverse commercial (primarily chemical) activities and would eventually become part of one of the earliest global conglomerates ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). Styrene is an unsaturated liquid hydrocarbon used to produce brighter, longer burning candles than traditional tallow-based methods. In classical mythology Apollo is the god of the sun and light, of music, poetry, the arts, medicine; and the god of truth. For Kraus this matters because our profligacy with what words mean compromises our ability to use them to distinguish truth from untruth; when we trivialise language we corrupt the tools of reason.

[22] 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.

[23] An article in The New York Times, 27 December 1914, describes the bombing of the French city of Nancy by a German aeroplane 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’.

[24] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900); his writings on religion, morality, culture, philosophy, and science were hugely influential in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as was his poetic, rhetorical, aphoristic style; His main ideas include the death of God, the Will to Power and the Übermensch (which is more about humanity transcending its limitations than the English translation ‘superman’ suggests); his ideas are often so elliptical that they have been fixed on by every conceivable philosophical and political ideology.

[25] Sedan was the conclusive encounter of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871); fighting continued for some time afterwards, but Napoleon III had been captured and Prussian victory was assured. Germany established itself as the main power in continental Europe with its most powerful and professional army.

[26] Kraus uses the term Francs-tireurs, French for ‘free shooters’; these were irregular formations of French fighters in the Franco-Prussian war and the term came to be used to describe guerrilla fighters anywhere.

[27] German rigid airship developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917); initially important for reconnaissance, especially effective in the North Sea; later used for the first major bombings of cities.

[28] ‘Ich habe alles reiflich erwogen’; from Franz Josef’s ‘Manifesto to my Peoples’, August 1914.

[29] Vienna has large advertising columns, always plastered with accumulated layers of posters for events.

[30] In Kraus’s forensic examination of Vienna’s soul this poster is major evidence of the triviality, trashiness, complacency, selfishness and vacuous disregard for reality that consumed his city. (Pro n.69)

[31] Tyrtaeus was a poet living in Sparta in the 5th century BC; only fragments of his work survive, celebrating the Spartan constitution, the nobility of the citizen-soldier and exhorting Spartan warriors, often echoing Homer in style; ‘It is a fine thing for a man to die in the front line of battle, fighting on behalf of the fatherland’. The poet and soldier Theodor Körner (1791-1813) was known as the German Tyrtaeus; he died as a volunteer fighting the Napoleonic armies in 1813; his poems were published posthumously.