By Thomas Szasz
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976
180 pages
ISBN # 0-8071—196-6.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2004

It is often claimed that the important critic, satirist, polemicist, Karl Kraus, is not well-known in English language areas because his German is particularly difficult to translate. Thomas Szasz allows that Kraus’s German is indeed very difficult to translate, but the thesis of his book is that:

p. xii: “I believe, and I shall try to support my belief with evidence, that he is so little known today because he was on the "wrong" side in the great ideological battle of his time; I further believe that he remains untranslated not so much because his German is so difficult -- though it surely is -- as because his writings run against the grain of our contemporary intellectual mores even more than they did against his.

I have a twofold aim in offering this book to the contemporary English- speaking reader. I want to introduce Kraus to this public. And I want to add a chapter to the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis -- not as such history is usually presented, through the hagiographies of "great" psychiatrists, but as it emerges from the work of a contemporary critic of such a great man -- in this case Freud -- and of his unworthy followers.”

Thus Szasz offers this book to help bring Kraus to the attention of English language readers and “….to add a chapter to the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis….”

Kraus was born in 1874 in Bohemia, but lived in Vienna from age 3. He left the university at age 18 and began to write theater reviews. However, his major work was as a social critic “exposing the moral and social failings of his society.”

In 1899 he founded Die Fackel (The Torch). From 1899-1912 he wrote most of it, but did accept pieces from others. After 1912 he wrote the entire magazine. In sum he published Die Fackel for 37 years and 922 issues appeared.

Kraus influenced and shaped many of the famous avant garde artists and intellectuals of his time, especially the architect Adolf Lous, composer Arnold Schonberg, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and author Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

He died in 1936, disillusioned and reduced to silence in the face of the rise of National Socialism.

Sigmund Freud had a similar background to Kraus. Freud was also born in Bohemia and educated in Vienna. Both were of the same socio-economic class, both were Jews. Both were rhetoricians – those who tried to change the world with language. Despite sharing Vienna and a number of correspondences at least from Freud to Kraus, the two were never known to have met.

Thomas Szasz tells us:

Exactly what is Kraus's role in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis? The materials in this volume supply the information which enables the reader to answer this question for himself. Let me say here only that a history of the formative years of psychoanalysis without Kraus which is how all such histories have so far been written is like the cultural history of Europe during the French Revolution without Edmund Burke, or the political history of America without the Antifederalist Papers, or the history of infectious diseases without Ignaz Semmelweis, a contemporary history of Russia without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”

The book does have fascinating material on Kraus’s view of Freud, and certainly is useful in bringing Kraus to the attention of the English-language audience, however, I think he exaggerates his thesis of the value of Kraus’s attack on Freud.

The difficulty as I read it is two-fold:

  1. Szasz recognizes that Kraus has two enemies in this area whom he attacks: psychiatry, especially Freud and the practice of the psychological and psychiatric folks to use their so-called expertise to put people into asylums or even prison for what were not crimes, but alleged metal illness – illnesses Kraus is convinced were bogus.

    However, even Szasz acknowledges that Freud himself was in significant measure opposed to these legal tactics. Szasz is rather sloppy in conflating the two and not distinguishing when Freud and psychoanalysis themselves are being attacked and when it is just this legal process.

    In fact the most damning and well-written parts of Kraus’s attack are those which attack the legal system and complicity of psychologists in these practices.

  2. It seems to me that the material which Kraus does offer specifically against Freud and psychoanalysis -- which Szasz does valuably share with us, is often very unclear, not argued in any detail, and ambiguous as to whether this is an attack on the seeming (so-called) science itself or more directed toward Freud’s person and some limited specific practices than the whole of what later became so famous.

Szasz comes across to me as an unreliable guide since the most intemperate attacks with the least clear argumentation come from Szasz and not Kraus. Just as a small example, I was troubled by Szasz’s using the analogy that Kraus was to psychoanalysis what Edmund Burke was to the Terror of the French Revolution (a later quote than the one I cite above) when Burke in fact published his famous critique in 1791 and the Terror didn’t manifest itself until 1792. It’s a small thing, but rather typical of some of the suspicious arguments Szasz offers.

However, in the end it is less Szasz’s interpretations that are suspicious than the vagueness and broad generality of Kraus’s attacks. We certainly come to know that he utterly despised Freud and psychoanalysis, but it is much less clear exactly WHY.

Szasz does offer one fascinating and quite useful argument toward his own thesis. He points out the amount of time, energy and ink used by Freud and the Freudians in attacking Kraus. Further, part of the later psychoanalytic defense of themselves against Kraus harks back to a 1910 paper in which Fritz Wittels read a paper to the Vienna Society on Psychoanalysis, of which Freud was both a member and present, in which Wittels “psychoanalyzed” Kraus to explain away his attacks on Freud and psychoanalysis. In later years defenders of Wittels have claimed that until that time Kraus has supported psychoanalysis and that this “change” after 1910 is evidence that Kraus was just an angry, revengeful critic. But, Szasz documents and shows us the writings in which Kraus makes his change from early support to become a critic at least three years earlier than Wittels’ attack, thus putting strain on the later arguments that Wittels’ paper itself created Kraus’s attacks.

In the end the primary reasons (though “reasons” is a strong term – not a great deal of reason giving, more like assertions) that Kraus uses are:

  1. Psychoanalysis is non-scientific, failing any serious test of testability.
  2. It represents an artificial set of values (normalcy as seen in dominant-society Vienna at the time) which is especially anti-art and anti-genius.
  3. It is authoritarian, virtually a new secular religion, a totalitarianism of the analyst.
  4. It demeans art and artists in giving psycho-historical analyses of dead artists.
  5. It is involved (though not solely responsible) for the co-optation of medical opinion used to put people in institutions or even jail for simply living and valuing differently than the dominant society.
  6. It carries within it “… vast potentialities for its abuse.”
  7. Kraus saw psychoanalysis as an ideology destructive of individualism and personal responsibility, two of Kraus’s most important values.

Despite my reservations on just how strong Szasz’s case is for his central thesis, the book is of great value. It is divided into two parts. The much longer first part is the case which Szasz makes for his thesis that Kraus is an important historical critic of Freud. The second part contains translations of most of Krause’s comments on both psychology and psychiatry and, of course, on Freud, that Szasz can find.

In is in the first section – Szasz’s analysis – where Szasz presents the view I am least convinced of. However, he at least points to a number of criticisms which Kraus (and others) were making and some of them seem even interesting today if flushed out more than Kraus did. That’s not to criticize Kraus. He was not an academic, but a satirist and polemicist. Thus he often exaggerates his case and doesn’t make detailed or full arguments. That’s his style and as such it is marvelous. But it doesn’t quite add up to the sort of critique which Szasz represents it as.

The second section, the translations from Kraus are especially valuable since once can read those completely independent of Szasz’s comments and make up one’s own mind about just how powerful a case Kraus presents.

Recall that in addition to the attack on Freud and psychoanalysis, another aim of Szasz’s book is to bring Kraus to the attention of readers of English. There are some great things in the passages which do this. Szasz points out that Kraus uses language to persuade, but so does Freud, it is the primary tool of analysis (as opposed, say, to medicines in other forms of the mental health field). In the final analysis on the language issue Szasz says:

“Simply put, both Freud and Kraus were concerned with the fundamental problem of demarcation, separation, and classification; that is, with sorting out answers to the question "What or who belongs where?" This enterprise is, of course, fundamental to ethics and law, ideology and politics, and indeed to all matters pertaining to social conduct and control. Freud's basic aims were to annex morals to medicine, to create a crypto religious ideology and be its leader. Kraus's basic aims were to demonstrate the moral and political consequences of debauching language in the service of special interests -- whether political or psychiatric, legal or journalistic -- and to purify language and thus help individuals to protect themselves from the obfuscators of language. It is not surprising, then, that Freud and Kraus demarcated and classified things differently, and that the forms of their rhetoric faithfully reflect their respective goals and values.”

There was an interesting tidbit when Szasz talks about Kraus’s death and a curious sentence Berthod Brecht wrote about him: “When the age came to die by its own hand, he was that hand.”

Szasz rejects that analysis, but edits the sentence to read: “When the age came to die by its own hand, Kraus’s hand was the hand – firm but virtually solitary – that tried to stay that hand.” (p. 82).

I’m not as convinced as Szasz that Kraus was so solitary in that work, but he certainly was the leader. Was it, however, to “stay the hand” that Kraus aimed or to announce the death as in a tragedy?

Overall I am very happy I read Szasz’s book. I learned a lot; he provided me with one interpretation of the very useful set of readings he includes in translation; and he stimulated me to want to think more about and look into the Kraus/Freud relationship. But I come away suspicious that Szasz has overstated his case and that he is more moved by a preconceived ideology than by the data itself.

I want to leave the reader with a few quotes from the end of the book, the writings of Kraus, which I found to be particularly interesting or delightful:

  1. The famous oft-quoted line from Kraus on the difference between and urn and a chamber point as a image of the use of language.

    “I ... have done nothing more than show that there is a distinction between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with elbow room. The others, those who fail to make this distinction, are divided into those who use the urn as chamber pot and those who use the chamber pot as urn.”

  2. “War: first one hopes to win: then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.”

  3. When there were no such things as human rights, the exceptional individual had them. It was called aristocracy, and was considered to be inhuman. So democracy was created. How? By taking human rights away from the exceptional individual, thus making everyone equal .

  4. The world is a prison. That's why solitary confinement is the best place in it.

  5. The press stands in approximately the same relation to life as reading tea leaves stands to metaphysics."
Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu