Last April, I read an extraordinary review-essay by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross about the following book: Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918. Ross, one of my favorite cultural writers, told a vivid story of someone with seemingly unlimited reach in European cultural circles, someone who might have breakfast with Rilke, discuss art with Rodin over lunch, spend an early evening looking after a deteriorating Nietzsche, and look ahead to a weekend with Vuillard. Or Degas. Or Monet. A man who kept note of it all — not just logging it, but commenting, analyzing, thinking on the page.
Ross’ piece is still subscription-only (11/23/12 update; he’s posted it his on site), but Amazon’s page for the diaries offers this bit from his New Yorker review:
A document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century…also a staggering feat of reportage. The war fever infected Kessler…[he] does not hide the grimness of the scene. For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914…The supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.
Within about 10 minutes of reading Ross’ review, I’d put the book on my Must Buy list, and by the time my birthday rolled around in June, a loved one had gifted it to me. I’m only 330 pages into the 850 total, but I can say that it is indeed extraordinary.
Here is Kessler in his early 20s, in 1891, writing to himself from Paris:
Went with Papa in the evening to the Folies-Dramatiques. On the way home spoke to him about my project of a trip around the world, and he gave his consent. If everything goes well then from November until next October over Egypt, India, Indochina, Java to Australia, then New Zealand and North America.
That’s how Kessler rolled.
Berlin, February 1895:
For my part the way in which a girl places her feet while dancing or how a young officer holds his horse with his thigh gives me a joy that, in this way, none of the so-called orthodox works of art can. I find in such movements, of which a drawing, for example — even done by the Japanese — can only provide a snapshot, a secret beauty, an unconscious style, which enchants me more than all the perfect of fixed forms.
Paris, July 1895, amid a visit to Paul Verlaine:
Finally he promised me to draw a portrait of Rimbaud as well as he could from memory, the existing ones, with the exception of the Fantin-Latour, are all bad. He also spoke again today more than was necessary about earning money, but he is so naive in this that his grasping had actually nothing repellent about it. It resembled more the fondness for sweets of a child than the usual greed.
Yesterday and today I read for the second time, after four years, Schopenhauer’s Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is notable how many new voices books, which like this one are deeply thought, acquire over time, and how difficult it is — I notice this in my marginal notes — to recover the old impressions and thoughts. Such a work, read for the second time — and this is even more true for literature — is like a yardstick against which you can measure the change in your self over time. And there are also works, the most powerful and the deepest, that you must read over and over again throughout your life, which, like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day, in the morning light, in the glow of the afternoon, and in the cool gray of evening, are always changing and becoming new. You cannot waste time when you’re young, otherwise it is too late, and you have missed forever the morning light of the masterpieces, perhaps their most splendid lighting.
When it comes to art, what the idiot looks for in an artwork is the confirmation of his way of viewing, thus the satisfaction of his vanity. The artist is supposed to prove to him what a fine observer of nature he — the eternally complacent, the good citizen, the Sunday art connoisseur — is. True art demands, however, renunciation temporarily so that afterward you can walk away all the richer. All art that does not enter the nerves and senses of those who enjoy it, so that they who have experienced it see or feel the world from then on with something of the genius of the artist who has moved them, is, in the end, not worth being produced.
Munch painted my portrait.
My reading continues.