Friday, October 10, 2008

"Marrow fat pea"

Maxine had a nice post earlier linking to a scathing editorial email about newspaper errors. Perhaps that was why my eye fell, as I ate lunch and idly leafed through the pages of the New York Review of Books, on these paragraphs of Adam Kirsch's piece (subscriber-only) about Paul Reitter's new study of Viennese journalist Karl Kraus:
"My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks," Kraus said, and no quotation was too trivial to be used in evidence. Even misprints served the purpose—especially misprints, which Kraus interpreted the way Freud, at just the same time, was learning to interpret slips of the tongue. In 1912, for instance, he published an item titled "I Believe in the Printer's Gremlin," which reproduced a provincial newspaper's announcement of a performance of "King Lehar, a tragedy in five acts by W. Shakespeare."

To Kraus, who revered Shakespeare, the conflation of Lear with Franz Lehar, the operetta composer he regarded as the acme of kitsch, was "no laughing matter. It's horrible," he wrote in his gloss on the item. As with a Freudian slip, precisely the fact that the mistake was accidental is what makes it significant: "The printer was not trying to make a joke. The word that he was not supposed to set, the association that got into his work, is the measure of our time. By their misprints shall ye know them." No wonder Kraus proofread each page of Die Fackel up to a dozen times, not just insisting on correct spelling but making sure that every comma appeared exactly halfway between the adjoining letters.

But if Kraus were simply a press critic in this sense—pointing out errors and clichés, or even exposing biases and conflicts of interest—he would not remain such a significant figure, seventy-two years after his death. He would be merely a kind of blogger avant la lettre, appending his "glosses" to newspaper items in the way that bloggers today post hyperlinks along with carping comments. The analogy even extends to Kraus's working methods: as Timms writes, he would compose an item for Die Fackel by "pasting a newspaper clipping on a larger sheet of paper, to define an opponent's position. That position would then be encircled—penned in by Kraus's minute handwriting." (It seems appropriate, given this kinship, that the complete German text of Die Fackel is available online, through the "Fackel Gate" Web site of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.)


  1. If marrow fat peas don't yield mushy peas, I think I like them better!

  2. I like Benjamin Franklin's piece from the Pennsylvania Gazette on how "the fact that the mistake was acceidental is what makes it significant" (in "Printer's Errors," he cites misprints in the scripture which reverse the meaning or bad typographical mistakes: died for dined, hanged for changed). He offers this advice to would-be mean-spirited error correctors which was true in 1730 and is true today:

    "Upon the whole you came off with the more favourable Censure, because your Paper is most commonly very correct, and yet you were never known to triumph upon it, by publickly ridiculing and exposing the continual Blunders of your Contemporary. Which Observation was concluded by a good old Gentleman in Company, with this general just Remark, That whoever accustoms himself to pass over in Silence the Faults of his Neighbours, shall meet with much better Quarter from the World when he happens to fall into a Mistake himself; for the Satyrical and Censorious, whose Hand is against every Man, shall upon such Occasions have every Man's Hand against him."