THE LAST DAYS OF MANKIND ACT I SCENE 29
The Optimist and the Begrudger in conversation.
OPTIMIST: You can’t deny that war, apart from its positive effect on those who daily look death in the eye, has brought about a 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: But don’t you sense the spiritual revival here at home?
BEGRUDGER: I haven’t noticed anything so far, other than the dirt the dustcart kicks up as it cleans the streets, so it can sink back to the ground.
OPTIMIST: Nothing changes then?
BEGRUDGER: The spray from the water carts turns the dust to mud.
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; just asserting that our brave soldiers would have changed places with those who proudly watched them go more happily than those proud onlookers would have changed places with our soldiers.
OPTIMIST: War will put an end to all our evils.
BEGRUDGER: It perpetuates them. It feeds on the necrosis that these times have brought into being; its bombs are packed with its own bacilli.
OPTIMIST: But these times have given us an ideal to believe in again.
BEGRUDGER: Our afflictions flourish best when they hide behind ideals.
OPTIMIST: You underestimate the moral forces war sets in motion. An ideal a man can fight for, even die for will make us whole again.
BEGRUDGER: Even those who do die for such an ideal won’t be made whole. And they won’t be dying for it either, they’ll be dying of it.
OPTIMIST: I see. And the enemy is 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.
OPTIMIST: And is there an ideal that wins through beyond that?
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 enjoy time, not so that his legs can run faster than his heart.
OPTIMIST: But doesn’t our own culture contradict all your assertions of materialism? The Germans are a people of poets and prodigies after all.
BEGRUDGER: German culture is not German reality, just the trinketry with which a people of judges and gibbets ornaments its emptiness.
OPTIMIST: Is that what you call the people of Goethe, Schopenhauer? 
BEGRUDGER: Everything Goethe and Schopenhauer attacked the Germans of their own time for, they could bring forward, with even greater justification now. They would be lucky today, as undesirables in their own land, to escape across the frontiers. Goethe had already taken only a sensation of emptiness from the perverse state of mind his nation found itself in during the wars against Napoleon,  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, therefore 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, it makes 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 cultivated. Their command of language even serves to let them give an order, just about. Today the German nation writes in the truncated Volapük of universal sales-speak and if Goethe’s Iphigenia isn’t lucky enough to get herself rescued in Esperanto,  it will abandon the words of its greatest writer to the savagery of an age in which people can no longer divine words or steep themselves in verbal providentiality, an age which bears the stigma of barbarism as proudly as its bombardment of a cathedral.
OPTIMIST: Ah, but Rheims Cathedral was a military observation post! It was pure hypocrisy on the part of the French. Hiding behind a cathedral!
BEGRUDGER: Mankind is its own military observation post now – I only wish it could be bombarded with 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 banalisation of the tongue you demonstrated its superiority to the Romance languages. Now you evidently think otherwise.
BEGRUDGER: I think this way precisely because we’re betrothed, she and I. What’s more I’m faithful to her. And I know that victory in this war, may God preserve us from it, will be the most complete betrayal of her soul.
OPTIMIST: So there’s a 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: 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,  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: 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 will respond, we should all keep fighting on in the dark. In fact till the victorious end and beyond.
OPTIMIST: Be careful! Do you so disparage military service?
BEGRUDGER: Well, of all the mediocrities to choose from in the chaos of a world at peace, the military type was perhaps 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, a point of reference for the moneyed classes’ money-focused field of vision. Even the speculator, who had to obey orders instead of giving them for once, would bounce back from the exercise of duty with a less unpleasant, irritating, oily disposition.
OPTIMIST: But when the speculator dies, it suits you.
BEGRUDGER: The speculators are the ones who don’t die. For those who do the only 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. One day will be the backdrop against which the most engorged and unreconstructed baseness is portrayed in a picturesque and flattering fashion.
OPTIMIST: But you can’t deny people are dying heroically. Just look at the papers, day after day, you’ve seen the column ‘Heroic Deaths’, surely?
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: Our homecoming warriors will deal with that temerity.
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. And beware of the adults who play with the same toys, who even say their prayers with bombs in hand! I’ve seen a crucifix that’s made from bombs.
OPTIMIST: Mere side effects. If the war brings us no cultural blessings, then it will bring the enemy powers none either. Unless, on principal, you see cultural opportunities in guerrilla fighters murdering sleeping soldiers.
BEGRUDGER: I definitely don’t see any in the existence of a propaganda department specifically created to peddle such claims. But even in mankind’s current state isn’t it unprecedented that airmen drop bombs on babies, using a means of war permitted under international law, yet when guerrillas commit a murder to avenge another murder, it’s unacceptable because they haven’t got a licence? Because they don’t murder on 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, unidentified by the appropriate uniforms or 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.
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 a 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. Still if there’s a really diverting item of news we might do the Russians some justice. We record it because of its oddity – something bizarre’s all right, like when the Russians silenced their guns for the Catholic Christmas and left messages of peace and prayer in our enemy trenches.
OPTIMIST: And we paid them back surely!
BEGRUDGER: We 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 Orthodox Christmas – and 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: You can’t generalise.
BEGRUDGER: I can. Depend on unfairness from me. If militarism was used to fight the scum who’ve stayed 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. 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 form of playing at soldiers. The other side of life’s coin is equally unpleasant. Let’s wish humanity 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 those nurseries entirely.
OPTIMIST: Things evolve from generation to generation. Our culture grows with these great times. War has given our writers renewed inspiration.
BEGRUDGER: It should have given them a kick up the arse!
OPTIMIST: Rubbish! 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. 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 old. ‘I have carefully considered everything.’ Coming times will show more clearly than ever that rather more careful consideration could have successfully averted indescribable horrors. But as the line stands, in isolation, it has the effect of a poem Look, here – look at the proclamation, on the column, you’ll really be able appreciate the effect.
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 in Gersthof. Sparta had Tyrtaeus, poet of war; Wolf is our true Tyrtaeus!
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. I am convinced that the citizens of Vienna really did become a serious people overnight; as the press so succinctly puts it, ‘far beyond pride or human frailty’ they grasped the situation’s gravity; in a year they will no longer desire the trivial offerings of Wolf’s Music Hall, whether the war is over or not. I am certain.
BEGRUDGER: It’s immaterial whether that’s true or not; whether we approve of the good times rolling on, or disapprove. I rather approve of it.
OPTIMIST: Then I don’t understand you.
BEGRUDGER: Within a year Wolf’s will respond to the demands of these great times and grow ever greater, its advertisements plastered on every corner over that line, ‘I have carefully considered everything’; and a true perspective on a false way of life will be established. Within a year, with a million men interred, the bereaved will look Wolf in the eye and see an expression like a bleeding fissure in the earth, wherein they will learn that times are hard and there will be a matinee as well as an evening show!
OPTIMIST: You are deliberately setting out to make the times look petty when they must appear great to the most myopic individual. If these times have brought us anything, surely it’s an end to your way of seeing the world.
BEGRUDGER: May God grant it!
OPTIMIST: And God grant you nobler convictions. There’s a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, come with me, the proceeds will all go to war relief -
BEGRUDGER: No, the poster’s enough – right next to Wolf’s Music Hall! But what’s that? A stained glass window? And if my myopic vision doesn’t deceive me – it’s a mortar! Is that conceivable? Yes, and whose job was it to get these two under one roof? Mozart and mortars! Such a concert platform!
OPTIMIST (after a pause): The rest of us see the future in a rosier light.
BERUDGER: I’m short-sighted. I see only blurred outlines; imagination has to do the rest. My ears hear sounds others can’t hear; they discompose the music of the spheres, which others can’t hear either. Now I can only say I’m saying nothing and when possible say what I’m saying nothing about.
OPTIMIST: For instance?
BEGRUDGER: That this war, if it doesn’t kill off the good, may establish a moral island for them, while it transforms the rest of the encircling world 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 culture will not replenish itself but can, at best, 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 which can never be ended by peace, but only by the cosmos waging war against this rabid planet! That human beings will 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, it 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 after all. You have put your hope and your 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.)
 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 Adolf Hitler used the word it gives an almost ‘spiritual’ ardour to German unity.
 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’.
 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.
 Befreiungskrieges, Wars of Liberation; German states joined the European coalition against Napoleon.
 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’.
 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.
 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.
 Rheims, founded by the Gauls and a major Roman city, was heavily bombed by the Germans; its ancient cathedral, where many French kings had been crowned, was severely damaged and the ruined cathedral became one of the central images of a propaganda campaign that accused Germany of attacking European culture and European civilisation itself; restoration of the cathedral began in 1919 and is still not complete.
 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 poetry was extensively set to music by Robert Schumann, also Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Wagner, etc. He was critical of Germany’s despotic rulers and 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 believed Heine’s style had muddied the clarity of prose, dressing it up as a cheapjack version of poetry’s multivalency, and had turned poetry into gaudily decorated prose; this pig’s ear gave birth to the feuilleton and to the press’s manipulative triviality; it was important because it drained language of its most vital function: veracity.
 ‘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’.
 ‘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.
 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.
 ‘Ich habe alles reiflich erwogen’; from Franz Josef’s ‘Manifesto to my Peoples’, August 1914.
 Vienna has large advertising columns, plastered with accumulated layers of posters for events, etc.
 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.
 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.