The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

In the summer of 1951, by which time I had completed my Foreign Service career and was already living, as a scholar, in Princeton, the Kennan family made the first of many postwar trips to Kristiansand, Norway, where my parents-in-law resided. They were then installed at their summer home, in the islands some miles from Kristiansand, a place we were later to inherit. These were still the days of ocean liners rather than transoceanic airplanes. On this occasion the liner, one of the fine old Norwegian-American Line ships, proceeded first to Bergen, and thence, with stops at Stavanger and Kristiansand, to Oslo. The first three of those ca/Is were made on the same day.

JULY, 1951

Norway simply took my breath away—not just, or even primarily, the colors of the mountains and sea and sky, but rather the places where the hand of man had softened and ordered this hard nature: the little docks, the villages at the foot of the rocks, the white cottages, the hay drying on fences around the tiny green pastures, an old stone monastery church on a treeless, rocky island near the sea—stubborn, hard, defiant, braving century after century the long winter bleakness, the gales, the loneliness, the rain and the cold, living the poetry of windswept rock and sky and sea and only that.

Shortly after lunch we were in Stavanger. It was blowing great guns by this time, but still

brilliant sunshine. We docked in what seemed to be the very center of the town. Seen from our high decks, on a level with the rooftops, the little cobblestone quayside street below us looked like a stage setting—everything so compact, so neat, so sedate, yet so full of life: warehouses, offices, stores, all doing business before our eyes; bicyclists, horses and carts, people standing in the sunshine just looking at the great ship above them, piles of cargo on the street at shipside. This was a harbor street as harbor streets were meant to be, teeming with life, with sociability, with the intimacy of ship and shore.

Looking across the slip to the street on the other side, I found myself conscious of the subtle but amazing difference in the form and perspective, and plasticity of objects which still divides the old continent from the new. There were two or three old warehouse buildings on the quay. How they differed from American buildings I cannot say; and yet there was an expressiveness and eloquence and meaning about them, combined with naiveté and simplicity, that simply caused one to gasp. That it could have lain in the dimensions of the buildings themselves I doubt. It was something connected with the entire pattern of shape of quayside, of skyline, of space arrangement. I doubt that any of it was deliberate with, or even a part of consciousness for, those who had created it. Perhaps it does not even have any relation to the present generation.

It was midnight when we reached Kristiansand. In the early nocturnal dawn of the white night we walked over to the motorboat harbor, whence we were to be taken, in the family's boat, out to the archipelago. The red dawn was reflected in the water, as I remember it being reflected from the Dana, at Riga, in other days. A row of little sailboats was silhouetted in it, and the effect was overwhelming.

B. and I were let off at the fisherman's house on the south side of the point, where Annelise and I were to stay, and I left the baggage there. Then for half an hour we stumbled around the paths of the peninsula, trying to find our way to the main house. There was a loveliness about everything that surpassed any memories I had retained: the early dawn, the freshness, the cleanliness of air and land and water, the fragrance of evergreen and rock and grass—a little of Bermuda, a little of Maine, a little of Portugal.

Liberated in 1950 from my official duties in government, I naively thought there would be time for everything, and I accepted commitments in many directions. One of these was for service on the board of trustees of one of our great national foundations, and this brought me to meetings in southern California, where I had scarcely ever been before. Here, one of my first impressions.

The reader might care to bear in mind that of the past twenty four years (that is, since I was twenty-three years old) I had spent only five in the United States. I was seeing my country, consequently, with fresh eyes.

NOVEMBER 4, 1951

I have today that rarest of luxuries: a day of complete leisure, with no obligations, away from home, where not even family or house or neglected grounds can lay claim to attention. I am out here for three days on business and am the guest of a friend whose home, swaddled in gardens, looks down from a hill on the rooftops and foliage of Pasadena. It is strange, and somewhat enervating, after watching the death of the year in the growing austerity of the East Coast autumn, to sit now in a garden, to listen to the chirping of birds and the tinkling of a fountain, to watch the foliage of the eucalyptus trees stirring in a summer breeze, and to feel the warm sunshine on the back of one's neck.

My thoughts are full of this southern California world I see below me and about me. It is easy to ridicule this world, as Aldous Huxley and so many other intellectuals have done—but it is silly, and a form of self-condemnation, to do so. These are ordinary human beings: several million of them. The things that brought them here, and hold them here, are deeply human phenomena—as are the stirrings of anxiety that cause them to be so boastful and defensive about it. Being human phenomena, they are part of ourselves; and when we purport to laugh at them, as though we stood fully outside them, it is we who are the ridiculous ones.

I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids—oil and water—that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of miles—and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth through shopping, education, work, and recreation, even courtship, to the final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use—these things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating them. What disturbs me most is man's abject dependence on this means of transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early starvation, thirst, and extinction.

One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of the helplessness.

But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people, there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again, this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very imperfectly.

Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods and in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects: fun-loving, quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven constantly to protect his status in the group by an eager conformism—yet not unhappy. In this sense southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity—with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it must, it will be—as everywhere among children—the cruelest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development elsewhere.

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