The Incursion of Journalists into Posterity
Joseph Roth, “The Incursion of Journalists into Posterity,” 1925. Translated by Louis Kaplan
When German journalists write books, they almost need an excuse. How did they come to write books? Do the mayflies, who live but a day, want to climb into the ranks of the higher insects? Do they, who belong to the day, want to enter eternity? Professors and critics line the path that leads to posterity. Poets [Dichter] anointed at birth often want to draw a precise border between journalism and literature and introduce a numerus clausus for “daily authors” [Tagesschriftsteller] in the empire of posterity.
Germanification of foreign words has very seldom been felicitous or valid. The words have most often taken on a precise but skewed sense (an un-German sense), like for instance the word: jour-nalist [Tagesschriftsteller]. A journalist, however, can be—should be—an author of the century. Real timeliness is in no way limited to 24 hours. It is time-ly and not daily.
Timeliness is a virtue that couldn’t even harm a poet who never writes for the newspaper. I have no idea why a fine-tuned sense for the atmosphere of the present should hinder immortality. I have no idea why knowledge of humans, the wisdom of life, the capacity for orientation, the gift of pinning things down, and other weaknesses that journalists stand accused of could damage genius. The real genius even delights in these errors. The genius is not turned away from the world, but turned towards it. Genius is not distant from the current living moment but near to it. It conquers the millenium because it masters the century. The misfortune of being misunderstood and misrecognized is not the trademark but an accident of the genius, which shares this pain in fact with average-talent journalists. Good craftsmen also go misrecognized from generation to generation.
Therefore—and although I, too, am a journalist—I don’t harbor any mistrust against books by authors who write for newspapers. Much poetry [Dichtung] has already run through the rotating machines of a newspaper and eternal truths have elevated the value of the paper whose destiny it is to end up in hushed and far-off corners.
The newspaper has to thank Alfred Polgar and Egon Erwin Kisch much more than can be paid with honoraria. What Polgar, following his own instinct, wrote “on the margins” of the time was, by the dictate of necessity, printed below the line. The tempo of Kisch’s “mad dash through time” does not define the transient nature of Polgar’s observations, and though his statements last only momentarily, they can be more eternal than the tedium of so-called “tranquility.” …
Kisch offers in his Mad Dash through Time (Hetzjagd durch die Zeit, Erich Reiß Verlag, 1926) not only a continuation of his Raging Reporter (Der rasende Reporter, 1925) as it could seem. The title is journalistic, belonging most properly above a newspaper essay. But the essays collected here, the reportage, novellas, journal entries, are the stuff of 26 novels—not that they need a treatment from a novel author.
They have already found their destiny. Reportage doesn’t need to be elevated to the rank of an “art genre.” It has its own artistic form precisely because it reports “only facts.” What Kisch communicates is the reality of a sensational rank. How much “art” is needed to make naked reality into an artistic truth? In a novella (“The Dead Dog and the Living Jew”), the author demonstrates his purely poetic ability, the craft of poetry. In the rest of the volume he uses it to lend actual experiences formal validity. Polgar once wrote about Kisch:
Today on proud steeds, Tomorrow: Garamond bold interleaved
Speed is a virtue of a good journalist. But sedation is far from a proof of the authenticity of the poet, if he scoffs at tempo and is scorned by tempo in turn.
Alfred Polgar’s book is called On the Margins (An den Rand geschrieben, Rowohlt, 1926). The modest title is a feather in the cap of the ironic author and will honor the buyer. Deep truths are written on the margins.
Polgar writes little stories without fable and observations without summary. He needs no actual “content,” because every one of his masterly articulated words is full of content. No occasion is too small for him. Precisely on small occasions is where he shows mastery. He polishes the daily so long that it becomes uncommon. What is he then to do with the uncommon? It’s no match for him. What is he to do with the “exciting events”? Every one of his sentences contains sensational events of language. His form is so subtle that no rough stuff, no palpable plot can entrust itself to that form. Sensational stories handle the poet with caution and avoid getting too close. They fear him. He could mock them and—woe is they!—they would no longer be sensational. His form bribes the truth. When he lets a heavy tragedy end in a joke one doesn’t even realize that the joke was random and the tragedy heavy. When he writes about something, it was him who made it “something.” There is nowhere another observer (working in German) who so resembles a Form-Giver, who so surpasses hundreds of other givers of form.