Open Letter

APHORISMS by Karl Kraus


From Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms of Karl Kraus, edited and translated by Harry Zohn, University of Chicago Press, 1990. This book is out of print, and the excerpts below have been rearranged under different headings. Readers may also be interested in Karl Kraus, a study of his work by Harry Zohn, published in 1971 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York.


Let language be the divining rod that finds sources of thought.

Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.

I have decided many a stylistic problem first by my head, then by heads or tails.

When I don't make any progress, it is because I have bumped into the wall of language. Then I draw back with a bloody head. And would like to go on.

A linguistic work translated into another language is like someone going across the border without his skin and donning the local garb on the other side.

One can translate an editorial but not a poem. For one can go across the border naked but not without one's skin; for, unlike clothes, one cannot get a new skin.

Someone who can write aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.

One cannot dictate an aphorism to a typist. It would take too long.

An aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.

The most incomprehensible talk comes from people who have no other use for language than to make themselves understood.

Language is the only chimera whose illusory power is endless, the inexhaustibility which keeps life from being impoverished. Let men learn to serve language.

I master only the language of others. Mine does with me what it wants.

I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not have and which I could not put into words.

The closer one takes a look at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.

Reading and Writing

In literary work I find enjoyment, and literary enjoyment becomes work for me. To enjoy the work of another mind, I must first take a critical attitude toward it— transform reading, that is, into work. For which reason I shall more easily and gladly write a book than read one.

My readers think that I write for the day because my writings are based on the day. So I shall have to wait until my writings are obsolete. Then they may acquire timeliness.

I no longer have collaborators. I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.

I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear.

The author is so deep that it took me, the reader, a long time to get to his surface.

Something I cannot get over: that a whole line could be written by half a man. That a work could be built on the quicksand of a character.

A plagiarist should be made to copy the author a hundred times.

An acquaintance of mine told me that reading one of my essays aloud gained him a wife. I count this among my greatest successes. How easily I could have been in this unfortunate situation myself.

A good writer does not receive anywhere near the number of poison-pen letters that is commonly assumed. Among a hundred jackasses there are not ten who will admit to being jackasses, and at most one who will put it in writing.

Nothing is more horrible than my self in the mirror of hysteria. Nothing is more vulgar than my style in the hands of another. To imitate me is to punish me.

In the beginning was the review copy, and a man received it from the publisher. Then he wrote a review. Then he wrote a book which the publisher accepted and sent on to someone else as a review copy. The man who received it did likewise. This is how modern literature came into being.

Most writers have no other quality than the reader: taste. But the latter has the better taste, because he does not write—and the best if he does not read.

My request that my writings be read twice has aroused great indignation. Unjustly so. After all, I do not ask that they be read once.

To write a novel may be pure pleasure. To live a novel presents certain difficulties. As for reading a novel, I do my best to get out of it.

Where shall I find the time to do all this non-reading?

Let my style capture all the sounds of my time. This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries. But later generations should hold it to their ears like a seashell in which there is the music of an ocean of mud.

When I take up my pen, nothing can happen to me. Fate, remember that.


Why didn't Eternity have this deformed age aborted? Its birthmark is the stamp of the newspaper, its meconium is printer's ink, and in its veins flows ink.

There are people among us still who look as though they've just come from Christ's crucifixion, and there are others who seem to be asking, What did he say? Yet others exist who write it all down under the title "The Events on Golgotha."

Newspapers have roughly the same relationship to life as fortune tellers to metaphysics.

Journalism only seems to be serving the present. In reality it destroys the intellectual receptivity of posterity.

A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.

The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.

Journalists write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write.

A historian is not always a prophet facing backwards, but a journalist is always someone who afterwards knew everything beforehand.


In a well-run mental household there ought to be a thorough cleaning at the threshold of consciousness a few times a year.

One cleans someone else's threshold of consciousness if one's own home is dirty.

Analysis is the tendency of the schnorrer to explain how riches come into being. Invariably that which he does not possess has been acquired by deceit. The other fellow just has it; but fortunately the analyst is in the know.

Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.

They pick our dreams as if they were our pockets.

The new psychiatrists say that everything and anything can be traced back to sexual causes. Their method, for example, could be explained as the eroticism of father confessors.

Psychoanalysts are father confessors who like to listen to the sins of the fathers as well.

Psychology is a bus that accompanies an airplane.

Psychoanalysis: a rabbit that was swallowed by a boa constrictor just wanted to see what it was like in there.

Your conscious probably hasn't much use for my unconscious. But I have implicit faith in my unconscious; it will be able to deal with your conscious.

If something is stolen from you, don't go to the police. They're not interested. Don't go to a psychologist either, because he's interested in only one thing: that it was really you who did the stealing.

They have the press, they have the stock exchange, and now they also have the subconscious!


Science is spectral analysis. Art is light synthesis.

In art the important thing is not that one takes eggs and fat, but that one has fire and a pan.

Love and art do not embrace what is beautiful but what is made beautiful by this embrace.

Imagination has the right to feast in the shade of the tree that it turns into a forest.

An excellent pianist; but his playing must drown out the belching of good society after dinner.

What is the Ninth Symphony compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory!

Many talents preserve their precociousness right into old age.

Plenty of horse traders now pin their hopes on Pegasus.

A snob is unreliable. The work he praises might just be good.

Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution.

Ideas and Opinions

An idea is a love child. An opinion is recognized by bourgeois society.

Sound opinions are valueless. What matters is who holds them.

He who expresses opinions must not let himself be caught in a contradiction. He who has ideas thinks amidst contradictions as well.

It is better not to express what one means than to express what one does not mean.

In one ear and out the other: this would still make the head a transit station. What I hear has to go out the same ear.

Many share my views with me. But I don't share them with them.

It so often happened to me that someone who shared my opinion kept the larger share for himself that I am now forewarned and offer people only ideas.

An idea's birth is legitimate only if one has the feeling that one is plagiarizing oneself.

Education is what most people receive, many pass on, and few have.

In a hollow head there is much room for knowledge.


The superman is a premature ideal, one that presupposes man.

When there were no human rights, the exceptional individual had them. That was inhuman. Then equality was created by taking the human rights away from the exceptional individual.

Democracy means the permission to be everyone's slave.

Democracy divides people into workers and loafers. It makes no provision for those who have no time to work.

Parliamentarianism means putting political prostitution in barracks.

The secret of the demagogue is to appear as dumb as his audience so that these people can believe themselves as smart as he.

Social reform is the desperate decision to remove corns from a person suffering from cancer.

Anesthesia: wounds without pain. Neurasthenia: pain without wounds.

Since the day man first tried to conquer space, the earth has been mobilizing.

Technology is a servant who makes so much noise cleaning up in the next room that his master cannot make music.

The development of technology will leave only one problem: the infirmity of human nature.

He died, bitten by the Aesculapian serpent.

Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature.

Progress makes purses out of human skin.

The ugliness of our time has retroactive force.

Religion, Morality, Patriotism

Religion, morality, and patriotism are feelings that are manifested only when they are outraged.

Morality is a burglar's tool whose merit lies in never being left behind at the scene of the crime.

Morality is the tendency to pour out the baby with the bathwater.

The pimp is the executive organ of immorality. The executive organ of morality is the blackmailer.

The triumph of morality: A thief who has broken into a bedroom claims his sense of shame has been outraged, and by threatening the occupants with exposure of an immoral act he blackmails them into not bringing charges for burglary.

In the struggle between nature and morality, perversity can be a trophy or a wound, depending on whether nature has taken it or morality has inflicted it.

Scandal begins when the police put a stop to it.

Squeeze human nature into the straitjacket of criminal justice and crime will appear!

Penalties serve to deter those who are not inclined to commit any crimes.

Perhaps things would be better if people were given muzzles and dogs laws, if people were led around on leashes and dogs on religion. Rabies might then decrease in the same measure as politics.

When someone has behaved like an animal, he says: "I'm only human!" But when he is treated like an animal, he says: "I'm human, too!"

There are people who can never forgive a beggar for their not having given him anything.

A white lie is always pardonable. But he who tells the truth without compulsion merits no leniency.

Prussia: freedom of movement with a muzzle. Austria: an isolation cell in which screaming is allowed.

Life is an effort that deserves a better cause.

A weak man has doubts before a decision; a strong man has them afterwards.

Pangs of conscience are the sadistic stirrings of Christianity.

The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.

The time is coming when the Golden Fleece will be furnished by the Golden Calf.

Keep your passions in check, but beware of giving your reason free rein.

To be human is erroneous.

Lord, forgive them, for they know what they do!


Satire chooses and knows no objects. It arises by fleeing from them and their forcing themselves upon it.

One shouldn't always name names. What should be said is not that someone has done it, but that it was possible to do it.

Through my satire I make little people so big that afterwards they are worthy objects of my satire and no one can reproach me any longer.

If someone calls me vain and mean, I know that he trusts me and has something to confess to me.

From a torch something drops occasionally. A little lump of pitch.

A pun, though despicable in itself, can be the noblest vehicle of an artistic intention by serving as the abbreviation of a witty view. It can be social criticism in the form of an epigram.

Satires which the censor understands are rightly prohibited.


Erotic pleasure is an obstacle course.

Insights into erotic life belong to art, not to education. But sometimes these have to be spelled out for the illiterates. And it is mainly a matter of convincing the illiterates, for they are the ones who write the penal code.

It is high time for children to enlighten their parents about the secrets of sex.

Sexual enlightenment is that hard-hearted process which for hygienic reasons forbids young people to satisfy thei
r curiosity th

al education is legitimate in that girls cannot be taught soon enough how children don't come into the world.

Chastity always takes its toll. In some it produces pimples; in others, sex laws.

There is a pedagogy which at Eastertime decides to break it gently to young people just what hangs from the Christmas tree in that mysterious room.

The Judas kiss which Christian civilization gave to the human spirit was the last sexual act it permitted.

I am not for women but against men.

A fine world in which man reproaches woman with fulfilling his heart's desire!

They treat women like a refreshing potion, refusing to admit that a woman may be thirsty.

Greek thinkers did not disdain whores. Germanic salesmen cannot live without ladies.

It is not the custom the custom to marry a woman who has previously had an affair. But it is the custom to have an affair with a woman who has previously got married.

Virginity is the ideal of those who want to deflower.

Blushing, palpitations, a bad conscience—this is what you get if you haven't sinned.

As regards masochism and sadism, it is safe to say that a healthy person displays both perversities. The only ugly thing in each case is the word.

What are all the orgies of Bacchus when compared to the intoxication of someone who completely surrenders to continence!

Family life is an encroachment on private life.

The conjugal bedroom is the coexistence of brutality and martyrdom.

A father's pride, laid on thick, has always made me wish that the fellow had at least experienced some pain during procreation.

Many things that are tasteless at table are spicy in bed—and vice versa. The reason most liaisons are so unhappy is that this distinction between bed and table is never made.

Society needs women of bad character. Those who have no character are a dubious element.

Women at least have elegant dresses. But what can men use to cover their emptiness?


How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.

Among some nations, the aptitude for reading war communiqués is by now probably a substitute for the fitness to fight.

War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off.

The real end of the world is the destruction of the spirit; the other kind depends on the insignificant attempt to see whether after such a destruction the world can go on.

A sorcerer's apprentice seems to have utilized the absence of his master. But now there is blood instead of water.

One ought to acknowledge the significance for mankind of the simultaneous invention of gunpowder and printer's ink.

What can be decided by a world war? No more than that Christianity was too weak to prevent it.

Children play soldier. That makes sense. But why do soldiers play children?

What mythological confusion is this? Since when has Mars been the god of commerce and Mercury the god of war?

"In this war we are dealing…" "Yessiree, in this war we are dealing!"

"The end is not yet in sight." "Oh, but it is!"

"To capture the world market"—because merchants spoke thus, warriors had to act thus. Since then there have been captures, though not of the world market.

When the word "peace" was uttered for the first time, there was panic at the stock exchange. They screamed in pain: "We've been earning! Leave us this war! We've earned this war!"

Paternoster is a kind of elevator. Bethlehem is a place in America where the biggest munitions factory is located.

If someone had told the devil (to whom war has always been pure pleasure) that one day there would be people with an unfeigned commercial interest in the continuation of war—the profits from which even helped them to attain social standing—why, the devil would have directed that person to go tell it to the marines. But later, after he had verified this fact, hell would have glowed with shame and he would have been forced to realize that all his life he had been but a poor devil!

The Company One Keeps

Solitude would be an ideal state if one were able to pick the people one avoids.

A gourmet once told me that he preferred the scum of the earth to the cream of society.

I must be with people again. For this summer-- among bees and dandelions-- my misanthropy got really out of hand.

Many desire to kill me, and many wish to spend an hour chatting with me. The law protects me from the former.

Not greeting people isn't enough. One also doesn't greet people one doesn't know.

What torture, this life in society! Often someone is obliging enough to offer me a light, and in order to oblige him I have to fish a cigarette out of my pocket.

The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.

Nothing is more narrow-minded than chauvinism or race hatred. To me all men are equal: there are jack-asses everywhere, and I have the same contempt for all. No petty prejudices!

The unattractive thing about chauvinism is not so much the aversion to other nations, but the love of one's own.

One's need for loneliness is not satisfied if one sits at a table alone. There must be empty chairs as well. If the waiter takes away a chair on which no one is sitting, I feel a void and my sociability is aroused. I can't live without empty chairs.

His way of pushing into the background was a general nuisance.

He who gladly does without the praise of the crowd will not miss the opportunity of becoming his own fan.

I take the liberty of conferring on myself all the blessings of a coterie.

If I were sure that I should have to share immortality with certain people, I would prefer a separate oblivion.

If you wish to form a clear judgement of your friends, consult your dreams.

I don't like to meddle in my private affairs.

To those who have doubts about my health I will admit that I suffer from gout. But I won't let anyone deny that I can also feel a thunderstorm coming.

If the world had any idea of how afraid the comet is of contact with it!

When the end of the world comes, I want to be living in retirement.