After the years it seems to me that there are people one has learned to know through reading who in their sensitivity and imagination and creativity make it a joy to be in their company.
Perhaps they are not “great” as is normally reckoned, as writers, or historical figures, or whatever. But they are the lasting great who give one a taste for life.
Greatness, such as Joyce’s or Toscanini’s, or Ginette Neveu’s also gives one a taste for life. But these are more personal and truly give an ‘ethical’ in the loosest and best sense quality to one’s living.
Among my choices I can start for now with Harry, Count Kessler, Lincoln Steffens, Katherine Mansfield, and perhaps Princess Marie Vasilchifov, whose diaries of Berlin during World War II present us her world with remarkable observational and descriptive power but also show someone of special ethical character in a person who claims no special qualities at all.
Let me say a few words in this blog entry about Harry, Count Kessler.
Some of us keep the future as unknown. Perhaps we can guess but we have no confidence in our guesses. Or we know and cannot stand what we see, so we reblind ourselves.
Harry, Count Kessler knew from 1923 or so on what was going to happen in Germany. And he had to live with that knowledge, which was indeed tragic in the Shakespearian or Greek sense. It is remarkable to be able to know, as opposed to guessing.
“W.H. Auden called him probably the most cosmopolitan man who ever lived.”
And “a crown witness of our times.”
“Aesthete, patron, diplomat, diarist, peace campaigner, defender of the Weimar republic and exile from Nazism, this ultra-sophisticated German count belongs to a type that probably no longer exists: a moneyed and cultivated amateur whose brains and background brought him effortless access to politics, society and intellectual life in any capital where he set foot.”
“In the first half of his career Kessler was one of the most ardent and well-known champions of aesthetic modernism in Imperial Germany, becoming a friend and patron to pioneering artists and writers of his day, most notably French sculptor Aristide Maillol, Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, English theater designer Gordon Craig, and Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, in his capacity as director of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar and vice-president of the German Artists League, served as a spokesman and lightning rod for embattled modern art.
In the aftermath of the First World War, in which he served as a soldier, propagandist, and secret agent, Kessler embarked on a public career as a committed internationalist and pacifist, a stance that led ultimately to his exile from Germany upon the Nazi seizure of power.
And he also wrote a part of the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier.
He had a profound understanding of how politics worked and how the personalities and backgrounds of people effected their political actions and the effects of those actions.
His diaries are translated with a short introduction by Ian Buruma.
And there is a book about him and his times called The Red Count.
And those diaries make his mind available to us in a most remarkable way.