by Count Hermann Keyserling. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1928. 8vo. 399 pp. $5.00.
THERE is an element of mischief in this book. It is the purposeful and ponderous mischief of a philosopher, but nevertheless obvious, and even confessed in the preface, where the author says that ’whosoever takes offence at one or another piece of banter is simply not playing the game.’ That safeguarding clause is directly associated with the text from Romans iii. 23, ‘For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,’ which we are assured bespeaks the true soul of the book. Whether or not the Bible verse is part
of the joke, the Count has unquestionably been having some fun with himself ‘stirring up the animals’ in Europe.
He says, moreover, that, he has reverted in this work to a mood, or sector, in the spiral of his developmental ascent, corresponding to that of the Travel Diary. Yet we imagine that the Diary, though so much the earlier production, has an illusion of authenticity for most readers that the present volume will in some degree lack. That is partly because most of us either know Europe better than we do Asia, or have a larger cargo of preconceived opinions about it, and therefore match our own ideas more obstinately against those of the author, and partly because the pundit pose becomes the seat of judgment better than the Shavian.
Nevertheless this is a book to be taken seriously, and is profitable to the reader precisely in the degree that, he approaches it in the spirit of a disciple. For its author has had a unique intellectual experience of Europe. Ancestral and racial ties, student associations, social contacts, linguistic comprehension, all the fruits of a varied cosmopolitan existence ripened by meditation in systematic, self-imposed seclusion, truly qualify him for a hearing. He has the art of saying things that fertilize our existing fund of knowledge, and, without adding greatly to its mass, enrich its quality.
A true American—he is the unhyphenated soul — will also derive amusement from this book; but we fancy that it will make the author disliked in many European quarters. Some of this dislike will be based on misunderstanding, perhaps, for it is not easy to follow all the involutions of thought, the qualifications and subqualifications, and the balancings against each other of elusive and debatable national characteristics, that crowd to the point of prolixity some of the chapters. The translator —good fellow that he is — has made it as easy as possible for the reader; but Keyserling should have such an interpreter for America as Herbert Spencer had in John Fiske. Without such elucidation the superficial reader may lay the volume down with a hazy impression that the English are inspired dunces, the French versatile plodders, and the Germans profound nonentities.
A chapter, or better said an ‘essay,’ is devoted to each of the greater nations of Europe and several of the smaller ones, and to the Baltic States and the Balkans as groups, followed by a synthesis in a final chapter called ‘Europe,’ Some of the essays have previously been published separately. Russia is dismissed as part of Asia, and Spain is psychoanalyzed and found to be part of Africa. Starting from the premise that the World War was an inevitable crisis in European culture inaugurating a new stage of evolution. the author appraises each important element of the Continent’s population as a possible asset of the New Europe in process of formation. His appraisal is frank and not always flattering, and is confined mainly to the intellectual and spiritual donation that each can contribute to the potlatch. It is no dry enumeration, but is enlivened with the scintillations of the auction room. Although Keyserling is probably partial to the Nordics, he tells us that the only tension he ever observed in Sweden was ‘the one between a state of sobriety and a state of intoxication,’ and that the Norwegians, ‘even more than the Swedes, can be called the dregs of a race’—meaning that they have sent their best blood abroad until only the old maids remain at home. Hungary is taken as a text for a pæan to the aristocrat, and Switzerland is described as a fossil democracy. The chapter on the author’s native Baltic lands, with its undertone of personal reminiscence, is one of the most interesting and convincing in the book.
The last chapter, entitled ‘Europe,’ which is written in a more earnest style if not in a more earnest spirit, and which might serve better as the prolegomenon than as the conclusion of the volume, contains an original message. To be sure, it includes the author’s commendation of a rather fantastic summing up of the American as ‘a European with the manners of a negro and the soul of an Indian.’ That is a case where Keyserling probably draws too wide a generalization from too small a particular, as when, after recording a remark by my good host Lycurgus, of the Kilauea Volcano House, he explains that the island of Hawaii is ‘inhabited chiefly by Greeks. ’
But there is food for thought in the passage enumerating ‘the numerous points of coincidence’ between America and Bolshevist Russia. ‘The life-philosophy of Russia, too. is materialistic and antimetaphysical. The sex emancipation which is the aim of young feminine America differs in no essential from the ideals and achievements of Russian womanhood. In exactly the same way American caste ethics are beginning more and more to resemble Russian class ethics, and American justice is growing more and more like Russian class justice: American intolerance toward everything un-American is also beginning to resemble the intolerance of the Russians. The same applies to the machinelike equalization, which derives from the same reasons in both countries. The lower the original social stratum, the more does the collective become the ideal. In America, as in Russia, and in the same sense as in Russia, the individual is sinking back into the undifferentiated mass.’
A thread of pathos runs through the book, and especially through this last chapter, picturing Europe as the author conceives it in the future: for it is the homeland dream of the hopeless émigré. In parting, the book will hardly appeal for current campaign consumption; for it does not include Ireland, nor does it refer to the Irish except to allude to Bernard Shaw’s prediction, that now that things have quieted down at home they will probably migrate to the Balkans.