The most interesting thing I’ve read this week was an article in the New Yorker called “Diary of an Aesthete,” by Alex Ross. It’s about Count Harry Kessler, who, in 1868 “was born in Paris, the son of a wealthy Hamburg banker and an artistically inclined Anglo-Irish salonnière.”
Kessler grew up a cosmopolitan—diplomat, writer, man of the arts. He was a prodigious keeper of diaries—diaries of the sort that, when discovered decades later as Kessler’s were in a safe on the island of Mallorca, have the same effect on the imagination as a chest of gold doubloons. Ross says that Kessler’s diaries—recently published in English under the title Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918—constitute “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.” They are nothing less, Ross concludes, than “the supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.”
Truth to tell, the reason I’m telling you all this is merely so that I can transcribe for you my favorite paragraph from Ross’s article. It’s a series of sentences so delicious that reading them doesn’t seem sufficient; you want to ingest them bodily. Herein we get a flavor of how, when, and where Count Harry Kessler lived his days . . .
A highlight reel: Kessler listens to the elderly Bismarck explain that the German people are too “pigheaded” for social democracy. He calls on Verlaine, who sketches a portrait of Rimbaud in Kessler’s copy of “Les Illuminations.” He drops by Monet’s studio in Giverny and asks the Master if he ever considered painting the Thames by night. (“Yes, but one is too tired when one has painted all day,” Monet tells him. “And then it would be difficult without imitating Whistler.”) He dines with Degas, who forgets Oscar Wilde’s name. (“It’s like that Englishman who went to die in a hotel, rue de Beaux-Arts, what was his name again?”) He has an audience with the aging Sarah Bernhardt, who floats toward him in a white silk negligee. He loans money to Rilke, although not before making sure of his investment: “I asked him if he believed he could write in Duino.” He discusses airplane design with Wilbur Wright and aerial bombardment with Count Zeppelin. He gives Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss the idea for “Der Rosenkavalier.” He witnesses the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” and afterward goes on a wild cab ride with Diaghilev, Cocteau, Leon Bakst, and Nijinsky, the last “in tails and a top hat, silently and happily smiling to himself.” Travelling from England to France a week before the outbreak of the First World War, he shares a boat with Rodin, who, on parting, delivers the cinematic line, “Until next Wednesday, chez la Comtesse.”
Ah. Ecstasy. Speaking as one who, in 1950, was born in the Bronx to a Certified Public Accountant and the manager of a lingerie shop, a life like Kessler’s is the stuff that dreams are made of. I won’t summarize it here; you can read part of Ross’s piece online or this excellent one by James Fenton in the Atlantic. It would probably also be worth retiring—as I already have—just to spend leisurely spring mornings—as I soon hope to—with Kessler’s diaries.
Here’s something I wondered over. Why is it that this most abbreviated list of Kessler’s acquaintances evokes such delight and amazement? And of course the best answer is that this is the past: the characters are legends, giants, and the thought of sharing intimate moments with them—lending money to Rilke?—seems unimaginably thrilling. They are distant figures—figures by now of high romance—from the dawn of our times. Kessler knew them all.
But in these times, our times, lots of people know everyone. One mark of our times is celebrity, and we all know that all the celebrities know—or could know if they wanted to—all the other celebrities. Think of Bill Clinton sharing a box at the World Cup with Mick Jagger. Think of the yearly World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland; or the attendees at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Think of the rock stars who marry supermodels, the politicians who date actors, think of the whole worldwide celebrity pool intermingling like bees.
Even us non-celebrities have absorbed the idea that we should not just be open to meeting new people, we should be networking. To network is to pursue acquaintanceship for its utility. Celebrities know this. Now we do. If you run into somebody who happens to know somebody who needs a screenplay, well, score one for you. And, now that I think of it, score one for the organizer of the conference you’re attending—the one that exists so that you can hear and perhaps get your picture taken with a celebrity speaker or two and, with luck, make some contacts.
I don’t know if the Count had contacts. I’d like to think he had friends. He was certainly a useful man to know, but what was in it for him to know some of them? To talk about painting with Monet, or poetry with Rilke? To discuss airplane design with Wilber Wright? Merely, I would hope, the delight of friendship for its own sake. But perhaps something more. I re-read that paragraph above and realized that Kessler’s friends here were not in any sense ginned-up celebrities, but specifically the kind of people who create. That, I think, is what drew him to them. To recognize men and women of genius, to befriend them, to hold your own in their company, to meet them on their terms and to find them glad to see you when you show up at their door—his must have been quite a life.