Just back from Marjorie Perloff’s lecture, “The Mediated War: Karl Kraus's Docudrama The Last Days of Mankind” at the Getty. I’ve devoured her books, but never had encountered her live. Unsurprisingly she’s both astonishingly erudite (quoting texts in half a dozen languages) and acute (distinguishing between satire—which presupposes an ideal norm—and irony, which does not). She’s also completely engaged in her material; she talks about it because she's fascinated by it and wants us to be fascinated, too. Unlike some other famous scholars, the subject matter is not a prop deployed to demonstrate a superior cultural status. She totally succeeded in imparting her enthusiasm for Kraus to us.
I knew from her books that she was unmatched in the gift of making the most opaque literature seem accessible and entertaining. What I didn’t know before this lecture was that she has the even rarer ability to explain a joke in a way that doesn’t ruin the humor. Kraus is very funny, but his humor depends on puns which are lost in translation, and detailed knowledge about life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which are not part of most people's toolkit. She made his jokes live again.
Her take on Kraus is that he was World War I’s most astute media critic, and that his war against buzz and slogans and spin might be more relevant in 2015 than in 1915. Kraus’s obsessive collecting and quoting outrageous abuses of language in newspapers and ads during wartime might—in other hands—have proved a dreary, arcane topic. But Perloff not only made the historical context vivid and alive (so we might enjoy his jokes better), but framed her remarks so that the present-day relevance was unmistakable. A virtuoso performance.
[Image: Das Gerücht/Rumor (Rudolf Herrmann, 1918) ... with a still from a YouTube news video of Angelina Jolie in Iraq]