Oh God. Another Dinner with Rodin: Journey to the Abyss, Part 2

Count Harry Clemens Ulrich Graf von Kessler, photo taken in 1917 by Rudolf Dühkroop

Clear back in June 2012, WC posted a partial review of an edited collection of Harry Kessler’s diaries, translated from the German by Laird Easton, the author of a 2002 Kessler biography. Easton assembled and translated a large selection of those diaries to English, titling them Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918. The collection was published 2011. WC bought the edited diaries in digital form, made it 215 pages into the 950 page work, and pretty much gave up. WC wrote a review and description of this remarkable man. And admitted to setting Kessler’s diaries aside, to complete reading when WC had more time. And then forgot about it.

Recovery from knee surgery involves tediously long intervals lying down, leg elevated and knee wrapped in an ice pack. Readers may recall that WC managed to bruise his ribs as well, making sleeping difficult. Late one night, browsing the digital books stored on his laptop, WC stumbled across Easton’s translation of Kessler’s diaries, and decided to finish reading them. So, An Incomplete Education at hand,1 on-line references open, WC resumed where he had left off ten years earlier.

Harry Kessler, the Red Count, the connoisseur of culture knew everyone, partied with everyone and kept meticulous, detailed diaries from age eleven. An early entry, from 1880, when Kessler was twelve: “This morning the emperor comes on the promenade and speaks to mamma.” That would be German Kaiser Wilhelm I. There were rumors of an affair between Kessler’s mother and the Kaiser. That 1880 diary entry, not known until Kessler’s early diaries were found in 1983 in a safe in Mallorca, reveal a preternaturally aware young diarist.

The first third of Easton’s collected diary entries, the part WC read and wrote about back in 2012, reports Kessler’s extended contacts with the literati and the famous before World War I. The list, the associations and the anecdotes, are far past amazing. As WC described back in the 2012 blog post:

Kessler met with the aging Otto von Bismarck,who told him that the German people were too “pigheaded” for democracy. He visited Paul Verlaine, who sketched a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud on Kessler’s copy of Les Illuminations. Kessler dropped by Claude Monet‘s studio in Giverny to discuss painting the Thames by night. He dined with the aging Edgar Degas and they discussed the late Oscar Wilde. He met the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt. He loaned money to Rilke. He discussed airplane design with Wilbur Wright and aerial bombardment with Otto von Zepplin. He gave Richard Strauss the idea for Der Rosenkavalier and witnessed the premiere of Rite of Spring and partied afterwards with the cast, including Nijinsky.

But it turns out that diary entries after 1912 or so, just past where WC gave up back in 2012, get increasingly dark, as the shadow of World War I begins to loom over Europe. Kessler, in his diary entries, is initially infatuated with he prospect of war and the hyper-militarism of Germany at the time. But the grimness and the atrocities committed by German soldiers change that infatuation quickly. He writes of one village in Belgium,

The bare, burned-out walls stand there, street after street, except where there are household objects, family pictures, broken mirrors, upset tables and chairs, half-burned carpets as witness to the conditions before yesterday. Pets, pigs, cows, and dogs run without masters between the ruins. . . . Five or six men were being led away by soldiers, hatless, stumbling, white as corpses. One held aloft, cramped, his right hand to show that he had no weapon. They were probably going to be shot.

As Kessler graphically describes the various manifestations of thuggishness and brutality he witnessed on the front, he seemed to be studying and reporting on Fascism before it had a name. The diary entries show Kessler in public remained patriotically committed to the war, but his fervor was gone, and in the privacy of his diary he began to loath the waste, death and brutality, and the destruction of beauty. By early 1918, when Krupp’s giant gun – which he helped design – was shelling the Paris where he had loved and lived, Kessler seems almost fearful of victory. “The energy and imagination of Germany, its superiority grows into something demonic,” he wrote.

Until we have created a romance of peace that would equal that of war, violence will not disappear from people’s lives,

His new world view, which he vigorously voiced in speeches and articles, steered clear of Communism but incorporated pacifism, internationalism, and, in line with the philosophy of Walther Rathenau, a kind of guild socialism. While Kessler’s later diary entries reflect his disenchantment with war and politics, there’s still that unabashed delight in art and artists. He had tea with Virginia Woolf, persuaded Josephine Baker to dance in his library, and attended the premiere (and after-party) of The Threepenny Opera.

But it seemed to WC that the post-1918 diary entries lack the sheer exuberance of those which came before. The American Century was under way, and Kessler had little taste for what he saw as our blatant mixture of moralism and materialism; in his estimation, democracy in the Anglo-American mode perpetuated the usual oligarchic forces behind a pseudo-populist facade. He sensed that his artistic paradise had no future. And his musings are eerily prophetic.

Yet the diary entries show Kessler to have been an aesthete to the end. Kessler never diverged from the young Nietzsche’s belief that art justifies life. Kessler viewed works of art as “living creatures belonging to the same species as himself.” The creation of art animated him even more than the creator, and that is what lifts his diaries far above the level of gossip. He writes wonderfully of the importance of revisiting the deepest works of art at different stages of one’s life, for, he says, they will change appearance, “like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day.” Make haste when you are young, Kessler advises, or “it is too late, and you have missed the morning light on the masterpieces.” That daylight brightly illuminates these diaries; he believed, to the end of his life, that one painting or poem could change the world.

Librettist (Der Rosenkavalier), editor (a superb German translation of Hamlet), author, publisher, politician, companion,  duelist, soldier, diplomat and much more, he was above all a skilled, insightful diarist, a witness to a critical period in Western civilization. WC doubts anyone will ever puzzle out all the relationships, the concealed meanings, the complete context of many of those diary entries. But they are remarkable and chronicle a remarkable, if mostly forgotten, man.

The image that stays most vividly with WC? He was a friend of the dying Frederick Nietzsche; just before Nietzsche’s funeral, he reached into the coffin and closed Nietzsche’s eyes.

Oh, and WC promises to be more diligent about all those half-completed books.

1 Some readers may not be familiar with Jones’ and Wilson’s 650 page crib sheet to high culture. An Incomplete Education aspires to provide all of the information you were supposed to get in a classical liberal arts education, in one convenient, if wise-ass, volume. It’s a Cliff’s Notes to high Western culture.

2 thoughts on “Oh God. Another Dinner with Rodin: Journey to the Abyss, Part 2

  1. And thank you for 2 gifts in the new year:
    1. An Incomplete Education. Never heard, will get it immediately. Life is too short to study/experience/know everything, alas.
    2. “…the usual oligarchic forces behind a pseudo-populist facade.” Yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That last quote is now, and has been forever the human species. Not much hope for change. I still can’t figure our what the deplorables in the US want. Perhaps just to fight, to feel that romance.


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