Two Viennese Moralists Quotations

Elias Canetti / 1905–1994 / Principality of Bulgaria (then under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire) / Social Theorist, Novelist, Dramatist, Essayist, Memoirist, Aphorist

Note: Though born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Bulgaria during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, Canetti’s family moved to Vienna in 1912, when he was seven years old. He lived there until the Anschluss in 1938, when he was 33. He was thus Viennese by upbringing and culture.

Note: All quotations are taken from Das Geheimherz der Uhr [The Secret Heart of the Clock] (1987), unless otherwise indicated.


There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.

Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972 [The Province of Man: Notebooks 19421972] (1973).

What proof have we that inorganic objects can feel no pain? Who knows if a book may not yearn for other books, its companions of many years, in some way strange to us and therefore never yet perceived?

Die Blendung [The Blinding] (1935).


I repulse death with all my strength. If I accepted it, I would be a murderer.

He will not do death the honor of taking it into account.


Life experience” does not amount to very much and could be learned from novels alone, e.g., from Balzac, without any help from life.

Relearn Astonishment.

Experimental Literature

I was never drawn to experiment with language; I take note of such experiments, but avoid them in my own writing. The reason is that the substance of life claims me completely. To indulge in linguistic experiments is to ignore the greater part of this substance, leaving all but a tiny portion untouched and unused, as if a musician were to ceaselessly play an instrument with his little finger only.


Fear thrives strongest; there is no telling how little we would be without having suffered fear. An intrinsic characteristic of humanity is the tendency to give in to fear. No fear is lost, but its hiding places are a riddle. Perhaps, of all things, fear is the one that changes least.

Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend [The Tongue Set Free: Story of a Youth] (1977).

When I think back on my early years, the very first things I recognize are the fears, of which there was an inexhaustible wealth.

Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend [The Tongue Set Free: Story of a Youth] (1977).


Everything one has forgotten screams for help in dreams.

Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972 [The Province of Man: Notebooks 19421972] (1973).


Kien was almost tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days.

Die Blendung [The Blinding] (1935).


Yes, this was his home. Here no harm could come to him. . . . Every human creature needed a home, not a home of the kind understood by crude knock-you-down patriots, not a religion either, a mere insipid foretaste of a heavenly home: no, a real home, in which space, work, friends, recreation, and the scope of a man’s ideas came together into an orderly whole, into—so to speak—a personal cosmos. The best definition of a home was a library.

Die Blendung [The Blinding] (1935).


There is almost nothing bad that I couldn’t say about humans and humankind. And yet my pride in them is so great that there is only one thing I really hate: their enemy, death.

Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend [The Tongue Set Free: Story of a Youth] (1977).


For I believe that part of knowledge is its desire to show itself and its refusal to put up with a merely hidden existence. I find mute knowledge dangerous, for it grows ever more mute and ultimately secret, and must then avenge itself for being secret.

Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend [The Tongue Set Free: Story of a Youth] (1977).


Any life is laughable if one knows it well enough. It is something serious and terrible if one knows it even better.

Der andere Prozeß: Kafkas Briefe an Felice [Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice] (1969).


It amazes me how a person to whom literature means anything can take it up as an object of study.


Nothing among all human emotions is more beautiful and more hopeless than the wish to be loved for oneself alone. Who are you anyway, next to countless others, to deserve such preference? . . . As though the earth had only one heaven, and heaven only one earth, we lay claim to the validity of both and, if we have one, we want to be the other. In reality, however, we are filled with planets, and countless heavens open their doors to us.

Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972 [The Province of Man: Notebooks 19421972] (1973).


One single beautiful sound is more beautiful than a long discourse.

Old Age

I noticed in the front row a small, very pale, almost white man, old, tremendously alert, old in the only way I love old age, namely more alive for all the years, more attentive, more unrelenting, expectant and ready, as though he still had to make up his mind about most things and must not disregard anything.

Public Discourse

Is there still a possibility of public truth?
The prime condition for that would be that you pose your own questions, not just answer them. The questions of others have a distorting influence, one adapts to them, accepts words and concepts that should be avoided at all costs.
Ideally, you should use only words which you have filled with new meaning.

There is something impure in the laments about the dangers of our time, as if they could serve to excuse our personal failure.

Reading and Research

You can tirelessly keep on reading the same author, revere, admire, praise him, exalt him to the skies, know and recite each of his sentences by heart, and yet remain completely unaffected by him, as if he had never demanded anything of you and not said anything at all.

You keep taking note of whatever confirms your ideas—better to write down what refutes and weakens them!


The hand which scoops up the water is the first vessel. The fingers of both hands intertwined are the first basket.

Masse und Macht [Crowds and Power] (1960).


Whenever the truth threatens, he hides behind a thought.

Ambition is the death of thought.

You don’t have to know a philosopher’s every syllable to know why he rubs you the wrong way. You may know it best after a few of his sentences, and less and less well after that. The important thing is to see his web and move away before you tear it.

One needs time to free oneself of wrong convictions. If it happens too suddenly, they go on festering.

His meals were always punctual. Whether she cooked well or badly he did not know; it was a matter of total indifference to him. During his meals, which he ate at his writing desk, he was busy with important considerations. As a rule he would not have been able to say what precisely he had in his mouth. He reserved consciousness for real thoughts; they depend upon it; without consciousness, thoughts are unthinkable. Chewing and digestion happen of themselves.

Die Blendung [The Blinding] (1935).

Everything you rejected and pushed aside—take it up again.


He sometimes tells himself that there is nothing more to be said, simply because he won’t get around to saying it.—How contemptible!

You need the rhetoric of others, the aversion it inspires, in order to find the way out of your own.

Say the most personal thing, say it, nothing else matters, don’t be ashamed, the generalities can be found in the newspaper.

The process of writing has something infinite about it. Even though it is interrupted each night, it is one single notation, and it seems most true when it eschews artistic devices of any sort.


Karl Kraus / 1874–1936 / Kingdom of Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire / Journalist, Publisher, Lecturer, Poet, Dramatist, Essayist, Aphorist

Note: Though born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic, Kraus’s family moved to Vienna in 1877, when he was three years old. He lived there for the rest of his life.

Note: Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations are taken from Die Fackel [The Torch], the newspaper that Kraus published, edited, and contributed to between 1899 and 1936. After 1911, he contributed essentially all of the copy for the magazine himself. English translations of most, but not all, of the quotations from Die Fackel reproduced here may also be found in Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms (1976).


An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half.

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


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

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

Beim Wort genommen [Taken at His Word] (1955).

Berlin and Vienna

In Berlin, things are serious but not hopeless. In Vienna, they are hopeless but not serious.

Books and Writers

Where will I ever find the time not to read so much?

Sprüche und Widersprüche [Sayings and Gainsayings] (1909).

One must read all writers twice—the good as well as the bad. The one kind will be recognized; the other, unmasked.

There are two kinds of writers. With the first, content and form belong together like soul and body; with the second, they match each other like body and clothes.


We are sacrificing ourselves for our ready-made goods; we are consumers and live in such a way that the means may consume the end.

“In dieser grossen Zeit” [In This Great Time] (1914).

Criminal Justice

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


Culture is the tacit agreement to let the means of subsistence disappear behind the purpose of existence.

“In dieser grossen Zeit” [In This Great Time] (1914).

When the sun of culture is low, even dwarves will cast long shadows.


Democracy means the opportunity to be everyone’s slave.


Nothing is more narrow-minded than chauvinism or race hatred. To me all men are equal: there are jackasses everywhere, and I have the same contempt for them all. 


The esthete stands in the same relation to beauty as the pornographer stands to love, and the politician stands to life.


The tyranny of necessity grants its slaves three kinds of freedom: opinion free from intellect, entertainment free from art, and orgies free from love,

“In dieser grossen Zeit” [In This Great Time] (1914).


If I return some people’s greetings, I do so only to give them their greeting back.


The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people worse than they are.

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

To be human is erroneous.

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

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


Jealousy is a dog’s bark which attracts thieves.


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

Kraus’s Public

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.

I trim my opponents to fit my arrows.

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


Life is an effort that deserves a better cause.

You don’t even live once.


Today’s literature: prescriptions written by patients.

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


There is no more unfortunate creature under the sun than a fetishist who yearns for a woman’s shoe and has to settle for the whole woman.

A “seducer” who boasts of initiating women into the mystery of love is like a stranger who arrives at a railroad station and offers to show the sights to a tourist guide.


I have often been asked to be fair and view a matter from all sides. I did so, hoping something might improve if I viewed all sides of it. But the result was the same. So I went back to viewing things only from one side, which saves me a lot of work and disappointment. For it is comforting to regard something as bad and be able use one’s prejudice as an excuse.


Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature.

Pro Domo et Mundo [For Home and World] (1912).

Progress … has subordinated the purpose of life to the means of subsistence and turned us into the nuts and bolts for our tools.

“In dieser grossen Zeit” [In This Great Time] (1914).


My unconscious knows more about the consciousness of the psychologist than his consciousness knows about my unconscious.

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

So-called psychoanalysis is the occupation of lustful rationalists who trace everything in the world to sexual causes – with the exception of their occupation.

Reason and Passion

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


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

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


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


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

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 the war! We’ve earned the war!”

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


There are women who are not beautiful but only look that way.

Sprüche und Widersprüche [Dicta and Contradictions] (1909).

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