Monday, 14 October 2013

Count Harry Graf Kessler, Global Diarist

James Fenton wrote in “The Atlantic” in a review of Laird M. Easton’s “Journey to the Abyss :The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1880-1918” (Vintage edition,2013) “Count Harry Kessler became, through his experiences and through the anguished searching of his spirit, something close to a representative man. He seeks out great artists and gives us memorable portraits of Verlaine in old age, of Degas and Renoir, of Rodin and Maillol, of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, of Cosima Wagner, of Richard Strauss, of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and of other great dancers and theatrical figures of the age. The cast list alone makes this an amazing diary.” 
Kessler started his diaries at age twelve and wrote them religiously until his death at 69. But to me he is important because he enticed Henry van der Velde to come to Weimar. And I tasted his enthusiastic globe-trotting by seeing how he reacted to the America I know best! Here goes:

San Francisco, March 25, 1892. (He was 24.) To the Leland Stanford University in Menlo.It was built by Senator Stanford in the memory of his son, who died young and he bequeathed it 20 million dollars…This is one of the most beautiful and most original architectural monuments that I have seened in the United States, a completely unique, American architecture,with a glimmer of romantic antiquity, without the all-too-obvious intention of being romantically antique.” P.75. I agree with his canny analysis of an architect being simultaneously original and rooted in history.”( I gave my first university lecture there on Newer Media and Humanism in 1962, aged 35!)

New York City, January 16, 1892.”In the evening dined at the Degeners’ with young people, almost all from German fathers and mothers. They all speak German, with an accent, and among themselves they speak English. Before and after Degeners’attended a political dinner of the Reform Club at the Sherrys’. Met Springer, Williams, and other leaders of the Democratic Party. When I returned, an “Honorable So-and-so” from Georgia was speaking about the tariff issue with so much passion that the champagne glasses were shaking. When someone says something that hits a chord, they all stand up and shout for minutes, shaking their napkins. Certainly the Americans are,of all the people I know, the ones with the best lungs. I brought up the deficient street cleaning, repair of the pavement, etc. Why aren’t the people responsible thrown out? Everyone is too busy to bother about something like that, that’s why they let it happen, and the same thing is true of politics. That’s why politics in the hands of crooks who turn it into a business and bums and idlers who have nothing better to do.” P.53. Heh, could be a Tea Party blast last night. Kessler is canny.

New York. February 15, 1892. Monday. To Bedloe’s Island to climb the Statue of Liberty.One of those fresh warm spring days that race through your blood like champagne. The sight of the vast sea of houses and the blue hills of New Jersey, encircling the wide glittering bay, was inexpressibly beautiful, and again the ships, the ferries, the sails ,all life, all activity, all force. Why are there so few such moments in life in which you feel as if you must shout and laugh due to the joy of existence.”P.59. Heh, Count Kessler, been there, done that, again and again on the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan, only twice on the bow of the Queen Mary and S.S. France, returning me and my family from teaching in London! But I recognize the thrills. They never fall. And I’m reminded that my mother was about to be born in Ausable, Michigan while the Count was counting his happy experiences.

Washington, January 30, 1892. Saturday. “Bad weather. In the morning to the Osborns. Then to the “shaking hands” with the president. Everyone who wants can come to the White House at one o’clock and shake the hands of the president. This ceremony takes place in a large hall in the west wing of the building. Today due to the bad weather whole families with the small children came in with wet raincoats and dripping umbrellas, forming long zig zag lines on the bright yellow Smyrna carpet. Men from the West, with large cowboy hats; fat store owners, their fleshy fingers covered in rings; little middle-class girls giggling in the corners of the large hall; an assembly such as one generally sees at a bus station. As the president entered, they all rushed in his direction and surrounded him. (Benjamin Harrison, (1833-1901), the twenty-third president of the United States.) Then everyone passed and gave him their hand.The president, a short, inconspicuous man with a full gray beard, returned the handshake with an indifferent demeanor. Frequently he said, "I am very glad to see you.” In a half hour the celebration is over. You sense here what it means, in a demagogic sense, to be the first servant of one’s people.” P.57. Egalitarianism at its lowest expression!

After dinner went to Arlington Heights. You pass through Georgetown: countless Negro shanties out of which a black child’s face with large white eyes stare. On the streez´ts were more blacks than whites, an indescribably a ragged, dirty pack.” Once a Count, always a count. You can count on it. The Civil War had not really happened. And so it goes, the kind of irresistible book suited for bed table or klo. Kessler makes diaries a major genre. And you have 830 more pages to relish. Around the globe with the perceptive Kessler. And when you exhaust the diaries (1880-1918) read Laird M. Easton, The Red Count: The Life and Letters of Harry Kessler, $41.94. And the rest of the diaries (1918-1937) under way!

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