Beginning, Middle and End

Journalists call the beginning of an article the "lede." Whether a sentence, a whole paragraph or more, it's a come-on in prose, the writer's attempt to get the reader on board for the ride. "The Winter Palace," an essay in poet W.S. Merwin's collection The Ends of the Earth (Shoemaker & Hoard, $15), begins with a lede that's hard to resist: "A few yards away, in the tall fir trees beyond a shallow fold that ran up the mountainside, there were thirty-five million butterflies." The time was January 1987, the locale was a newly declared wildlife sanctuary in the Mexican state of Michoacan, and the 35 million were monarchs, which winter on that site and 10 others in Mexico. Merwin says he consulted the world's leading expert on the yellow-and-black beauties in writing the essay, and one can only be glad; otherwise some of the creatures' feats might be hard to credit -- that, for instance, they find their way to places where neither they, their parents nor their grandparents have ever been. Any given butterfly's knowledge of the route is part of its "guiding inheritance, along with the aptitude for transforming itself from an egg into a caterpillar, and from a chrysalis into an adult able to fly."

After the lede comes the body of the essay, where the meat is served up. When a critic as astute as German man of letters Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) writes about a subject as rich as his fellow journalist Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the cut can be rich, marbled and juicy. Kraus was a gadfly. Living and working in Vienna, he published and wrote for Die Fackel (the Torch), a satirical newspaper that skewered pretension, lunacy and corruption wherever they could be found -- and in early 20th-century Austria, they were rampant. In his essay on Kraus -- reprinted in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934 (Belknap/Harvard Univ., $18.95), edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone and others -- Benjamin pays tribute to his subject's refusal to let even the smallest outrage go by without comment.

Citing someone else's remark that Kraus "stands on the threshold of a new age," Benjamin replies: "Alas, by no means. -- For he stands on the threshold of the Last Judgment. Just as, in the most opulent examples of Baroque altar painting, saints hard-pressed against the frame extend defensive hands toward the breathtakingly foreshortened extremities of the angels, the blessed, and the damned floating before them, so the whole of world history presses in on Kraus in the extremities of a single item of local news, a single phrase, a single advertisement." Topics in other pieces gathered here range from highbrow analysis ("Criticism as the Fundamental Discipline of Literary History") to pop-culture commentary ("Reflections on Radio," "Mickey Mouse").

Endings are hard. You want to leave the reader with a line that is not only memorable but does justice to the piece as a whole. Few have accomplished this dual task better than Hannah Arendt, in "Auschwitz on Trial," from Responsibility and Judgment, edited by Jerome Kohn (Schocken, $16), which reports on several trials, conducted in the 1960s, of lesser Nazi officials from the notorious death camp. Arendt uses the occasion to point out the nightmarish results to which the camp rules led, and she concludes with an ironic story. A woman traveled all the way from Miami to Frankfurt, Germany, where the trials were held, to see a Dr. Lucas, "the man who murdered [her] mother and family." As a young girl, she had been transported to Auschwitz with her mother and younger siblings. The prisoners were told that mothers could stay with their younger children, and this girl's mother dressed her to look older and handed her one of the babies, hoping to keep everyone together. "When Dr. Lucas saw me," the woman recalls, "he probably realized that the baby was not mine. He took it from me and threw it to my mother." What the woman did not know was that at Auschwitz, "all mothers with children were gassed upon arrival." At the trial, Lucas denied everything, but as Arendt notes, "she who had sought out the murderer of her family had faced the savior of her life." And then Arendt adds the unforgettable last line: "This is what happens when men decide to stand the world on its head."

-- Dennis Drabelle