He was cosmopolitan, and a member of a new aristocracy. He grew up in Paris, in England, in Germany, and on Staten Island. Though his mother was Anglo-Irish, Count Harry Kessler was, or became, intensely German, as if by a sort of tragic choice; and he also became, through his experiences and through the anguished searching of his spirit, something close to a representative man.
The diary he wrote, starting in 1880 when he was 12 and continuing until his death in 1937, is said by the editor and translator of the volume, Laird M. Easton, to be one of the greatest ever written, “comparable in its stature to those of Samuel Pepys, André Gide, Henri Frédéric Amiel, Beatrice Webb, or Virginia Woolf.” Kessler moves between countries and is intimate with high society in England, France, and Germany. He seeks out great artists and gives us memorable portraits of Verlaine in old age, of Degas and Renoir, of Rodin and Maillol, of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, of Cosima Wagner, of Richard Strauss, of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and of other great dancers and theatrical figures of the age. He tells us of the intrigues of the German Imperial Court. We see him helping Hofmannsthal to work out the plot of Der Rosenkavalier. We accompany his party to the premiere of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and to the dinner afterward with Nijinsky, Cocteau, Misia Sert (as she later became), Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Bakst, Ravel, Hofmannsthal, and—a late arrival, covered in gems from the Persian Ball—the Aga Khan, who, “sitting next to Nijinsky with his jaw and vulgar face, was like a fat sack of real money next to a fantastic dream of wealth.” The cast list alone makes this an amazing diary.
The German culture was everything to Kessler, and he watched as Germany seemed to triumph, after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in an awesome expansion that would have given it an empire stretching from the Belgian coast to the steppes of Russia. He closed his eyes and looked again, and that triumph had turned into an all-encompassing defeat.
Deceived though he was on this occasion, he had a gift for identifying the great historical developments of the day. He saw the conquest of the air, heard the crowds wondering in dismay at the latest long-range artillery to be deployed against Paris, saw the dawn of submarine warfare, and knew at first hand the dreadful cost of the trenches. He was drawn to events. In 1911, in London, he learned that a couple of anarchists were besieged in a house in Whitechapel by 1,500 policemen, Scots Guards, and artillery—the famous Siege of Sidney Street. So he set off to see for himself, and he must have cut a distinguished figure in the poverty-stricken East End, the dandified German count. He knew these parts well, visiting them on other occasions to watch young men boxing, and perhaps (like Wilfred Owen) in search of an erotic adventure. On this occasion he came looking for a piece of living theater:
Several hundred thousand spectators were crowded in the streets and squares nearby while all the rooftops, windows, and even the trees around the squares were black with people. The entire crowd was completely peaceful as if they were in a theater as the two people in the house were fired upon and finally burned out. The crowd remained calm even when someone was shot accidentally. Mass psychology.
Kessler does not mention that the home secretary, Winston Churchill, was the one responsible for calling in the Scots Guards and the artillery against the two men, or that Churchill watched events from close quarters, somewhat to the disgust of his peers, and refused to let the fire brigade enter the blazing house where the two burned bodies were eventually found. Kessler’s interest, rather, is in the psychology of the crowd, the siege as spectacle.
He was always attracted to the theater. In 1900, when the Comédie-Française burned down, he rushed to the scene and, incredibly, into the building itself:
At first I remained outside; then, as rescuers ran into the theater and began to bring out ridiculous things, old sofas and the like, I also went over through the dark vestibule and up the grand staircase. Above was the fire. The flames were already beginning to enter the corridor through the loges from the auditorium. Suddenly a loge door flew open crackling, then a second, then a third. The huge auditorium stood open. The entire chamber is a whirlwind of glowing dust, one single, red sea of light in which vibrating atoms of fire waft upward, undifferentiated elements, not flames. These become thicker only on the periphery where the fire breaks hissing through the silk curtains of the loges and licks the roof of the corridor with long tongues. In the gallery of busts the oeil-de-boeuf windows fall clattering one after the other and a fleeting light from a flame falls on Houdon’s Voltaire, who views the wreckage ironically.
In the same year, Friedrich Nietzsche, the crucial intellectual figure for Kessler’s generation, died. Kessler, who was close to Nietzsche’s notorious sister, Elizabeth, went to Weimar for the funeral and found himself obliged to assist in the making of the death mask. Nietzsche’s health had declined, and his mind had gone, so Kessler never could record his conversation. What we get is a memorable description of him, in 1897, asleep on the sofa:
The mighty head rested, as if too heavy for his neck, sunk on his chest, hanging halfway to the right. The forehead is quite colossal, the mane of his hair still dark brown, and also the shaggy, swollen moustache. There are wide, black-brown shadows sunk deep under his eyes into his cheeks. In his flat, loose face deep furrows from thought and desire are engraved but gradually fading and becoming smooth again … He was exhausted by the muggy, thunderstorm atmosphere and would not awaken, despite his sister stroking him several times and calling to him, “Darling, darling” caressingly. Thus he resembles not someone sick or crazy but rather a dead man.
Staying with the Nietzsches, Kessler was woken up by long, raw groaning sounds. It was Nietzsche crying out with all his strength in the night.
I first made the acquaintance of Harry Kessler through Edvard Munch’s full-length swagger-portrait of him in Berlin. (Kessler had patronized Munch.) Then for a while I was absorbed in the world of German graphic art, and would have loved nothing better than to own copies of Pan, the art magazine with which he was involved, which published original graphic work. In 1996 a German exhibition of the sculptures of Maillol drew attention to the extensive account of Kessler’s dealings with Maillol contained in the recently discovered diaries, and I was inspired to go to the German Literature Archives in Marbach, near Stuttgart, and read for myself.
Everyone had known that Kessler, a leading cultural figure, author, diplomat, politician, and spy, had kept a diary for most of his life (1868–1937). But the earlier part of this work was presumed lost until, as Easton tells us here in his introduction, a safe-deposit box was opened in 1983 on the island of Mallorca, and turned out to contain Kessler’s journals and correspondence, along with newspaper clippings and photographs. These found their way to Marbach, where a team of scholars carefully transcribed the journals. The German edition of the whole diary runs to nine volumes.
On first examination, Kessler struck me as a wonderfully comic character. In his role of patron to Maillol, he spent a great deal of effort persuading the resolutely heterosexual sculptor to take an interest in the male nude, and specifically encouraged him to use as his model a young rally-cyclist, Gaston Colin, with whom Kessler was having an affair. The Marbach archive has the photos (some reproduced here) that Kessler took of Colin posing nude for Maillol, and the correspondence, the petits bleus, sent by Colin to his lover from various stages of the Tour de France.
This linking of patronage and private erotic interest is typical of Kessler’s way of working. He brought people together. He supported the architect and interior designer Henry van der Velde. As a friend of Nietzsche’s sister, nothing could have been more natural to him than to choose van der Velde to design a proposed Nietzsche memorial, which was to be a colossal park with a stadium and a temple that would honor the spirit of Nietzsche’s works, the feelings of heroism and joy. Kessler thought that such a building could be muscular and strong and
even slyly massive beneath this appearance of lightness, like the physiognomy of Nietzsche himself, with his formidable, Bismarckian bone structure under the exquisitely delicate Greek surfaces of his brow and mouth.
Somehow the dead features that Kessler had helped coat in plaster had to become a building. No wonder van der Velde was perplexed. Somehow Maillol’s statue of Gaston Colin came into this scheme as well. And if there were funds left over, beside the memorial there would be an Institute for Genetics, “for the beautification of the race.” Nude bathing, “so one is not forced to use ugly bathing suits,” was an integral part of the plan. According to Kessler, “When I was in school in England until the age of fourteen I never wore a bathing suit and never told a lie.”
Stadiums, nude bathing, eugenics, and, one might add, a strong whiff of anti-Semitism—doesn’t this all remind one of something? It is true that various components of Kessler’s obsessions early in the century were shared by the Nazis later. That is partly because they were the obsessions of the Western world. Stadiums: In 1911, Kessler records that van der Velde objects that there aren’t even enough modern sports one could play in the stadium. “I answered,” writes Kessler, “that we were building a stadium in Berlin, the Swedes one in Stockholm, and that the English have built one for the Olympic games. In Athens the ancient stadium will be used.” This ancient, original stadium was the only one used in the 19th century, while the London stadium, put up at White City for the 1908 Olympics, was the first in modern Europe (and 20 years earlier than the notorious Nuremberg stadium).
So Kessler and his architect are talking about a new idea, but one that will spread internationally over the next century, until every major city boasts a stadium. As to eugenics and racial purity, Kessler’s meaning is not entirely clear, for in the same period, after a club dinner in Berlin, he records his impression of the
new generation, young people between twenty and thirty years old, who seemed to me to be much more racially pure, slender, sporty, and agile than we were; smooth-shaven, fresh, energetic faces like those of young Englishmen and without the faded sick sweetness of young worldly French from high society. Most of them have traveled widely, in China, in New Zealand, in America.
It almost seems as if being clean-shaven and well-traveled were a part of racial purity.
The ideal of beauty, though, was definitely male, with more than a touch of Whitmanism. It was men bathing naked in rivers. It was the officer’s muscular thigh straining against the flank of his horse. It was working-class boys stripped almost naked for the Whitechapel boxing ring. It was Nijinsky’s dancing. It was Gaston Colin posing naked for Maillol. It was the nude in art, but the nude conceived, not as a kind of aesthetic category hovering above the level of physical desire (high-minded nudity made respectable by a cache-sexe), but the nude as the very expression of desire itself.
One expects, in this period, such an intense level of conscious homosexual preference to combine with a certain degree of misogyny, especially if the love involved is a love for heterosexual men. Kessler loses his great loves to marriage, and this clearly gives him dreadful pain, which he faces with difficulty. Lesbianism seems to appall him, and he describes an encounter with Colette and her female lover in revolted detail. Kessler associates women with sexual prudery of a kind not found in all cultures, “nor even,” says Kessler,
among men if they are not influenced by women. You need only see boys among themselves, or students, or the officer corps, the junior officers, traveling salesmen. The woman, syphilis, and the church have created this hypertrophy of shame.
Yet, when he describes the pioneering male couple, the artists Shannon and Ricketts, he notes—without admiring them for it—that they both hate women and that in the past Shannon has posed for the women in Ricketts’s paintings. He goes on:
According to [William] Rothenstein, a similar relationship exists between Swinburne and Watts-Dunton, who also still live together, as women haters who have gone deaf over the years.
The next paragraph, though not explicitly confessional, tells us much about Kessler’s erotic perambulations:
In the evening the Strand, Piccadilly. The great elemental phenomena that have moved me deeply: the sea, the mob, only then mountains, streams, plains, stretches of sky. The metropolis contains the same poison of longing as does the sea. The same mobile melancholy, dreamy, objectless melancholy.
If he was losing himself among the mob in Piccadilly or the Strand, or on another occasion inexplicably composing his mail on Tower Bridge (the upper level of which was once notorious for prostitution), he was putting himself in the way of sexual adventure. And here he finds his way to a boxing match in a Whitechapel music hall:
Only men and boys, no women, no colors, merely black, gray, and, up above, the pale pink of the faces in a thin, gas-lit haze of smoke. The boxers fought naked, or almost as good as naked, in swimming trunks and shoes. A few magnificently slender and thoroughbred young fellows among them. Not completely full-blooded like the Greeks but beautiful, slender half-bloods.
And since we can also tell that he was gathering information about Oscar Wilde, and that he had no objection, in principle, to prostitution, we can guess that this “poison of longing” sometimes found satisfaction.
Some experiences recorded (a trip in a balloon, an encounter with Wilbur Wright) make us think of Kessler as belonging to the dawn of our era. Here, at Edward Gordon Craig’s production of Ibsen’s Vikings, we witness the invention of modern theatrical production style:
The chief reforms: he completely abolishes the ramp lights, and the stage decorations almost completely. He uses only overhead lights and props. The stage is surrounded as if by cloths that remain almost invisible behind the changing lighting effects and the colored veil of lights. You feel as if you were looking into a kind of infinite space. Your entire attention is concentrated, however, on the action that takes place, lit up brightly and variably, according to the mood in this sidereal, so to speak, infinity. These basic ideas seem to me of great value, and the impression is in any case much stronger than with the usual papier-mâché decoration because the imagination has more room and the attention is concentrated.
On other occasions, Kessler can surprise us as being a product of a completely alien culture and time, most notably when the military ethos beckons him to action. It is easy to forget, for months at a time, that he is and remains a soldier, an officer in a regiment. He moves in an artistic milieu, meeting the greatest writers and artists of his day, always seeking out and extending help to the most promising newcomers. He records the thoughts of Rilke and Hofmannsthal. He launches Max Reinhardt on his career. He dines out with Diaghilev.
Then something happens—his honor is impugned—and we watch him go to work in a manner almost incomprehensible to us, with the purpose of forcing his opponent before a murky and secretive court of honor. This is the world of challenges and duels, and Kessler appears to play his cards well: when a letter, crafted by Kessler, arrives in Weimar, his opponent takes to bed with a high fever. Five days later, he is dead. Kessler’s reaction is cold:
I have observed myself and noted that I feel little other than astonishment, and partly a kind of relief, held in check by the prospect of being seen as a murderer and the impossibility of proving now my accusations. He was not the sort of enemy who evokes noble feelings in one. In any case Palézieux has been astonishingly lucky. To have died precisely now, when there was probably no way out for him any longer, the moment he challenged me.
Perhaps the unfortunate Palézieux, cornered by the wording of Kessler’s letter into explaining why he would not challenge Kessler to a duel, took strychnine and killed himself. The poison did not work immediately, and passersby in the street where he lived could hear his heavy groaning. Kessler writes to Hofmannsthal:
The man has escaped me. What remains for me is an emptiness and a kind of incapacity to “understand” things, to grasp them as real. Of pity for him, nothing, to be honest, at most for his wife who, truth be told, has also been lucky. I would rather have dueled with him. It would have been cleaner than this melodramatic conclusion. Now an odor remains, an atmosphere that will only slowly dissipate. If one of us had fallen, then at least the entire stink would be gone. What is ugly about life is that it so often only provides uneasy half solutions that are so seldom pure and tragic ones. In the end one has only raised more dust where one wished to make a clean sweep.
August 1914 sees war de-clared. Kessler has sent his English mother and his sister to stay in England. By the end of the month he is in Belgium, noting the reprisals his own army has taken against the inhab-itants of Seilles, where 20 Germans had been attacked and killed. In response, 200 Belgians were court-martialed and shot, and the town was completely destroyed. Kessler sees five or six men being led off, probably to be shot. He himself is clearly shaken by this, but like it or not, he is part of it.
These street fights are demoralizing for our soldiers. They become accustomed to stealing and drinking. In Liège every day whole companies drink themselves unconscious with Bordeaux and schnapps stolen from the burned houses. It will be difficult to root out these habits. In any case one has the right to carry out such terrible executions … [only] if our people conduct themselves faultlessly. That is the return payment that the enemy can expect from us. Otherwise this war will degenerate into an expedition of Huns. Through the fault of the Belgian population, it is already much crueler and more barbaric than the war of 1870 or even the Napoleonic wars. You have to go back to the Thirty Years’ War to find something similar to the ghastly drama in Seilles.
The society man, the aesthete, the lover of fine printed books and of the paintings of Cézanne, Vuillard, and Seurat, the cosmopolitan who a month before had been dining with the Duchess of Sutherland at Lady Ripon’s, here reveals another side. He is shocked, yes, but ultimately pitiless. The Duchess of Sutherland is arrested, working at a hospital in Namur. She expresses compassion for the Belgians, even the ones who had shot at the invading German troops: “They are like children, they love their country.” But to Kessler, the Belgians have no right to behave “like children.” The imperative of German political destiny overrules Belgian rights in this matter.
Germany, he believes, must have the Belgian coast. If it does not, Britain will have Belgium and will destroy the German empire. There is no room for pity. Instead, in these early days of the war, there is room only for an “inner transformation,” for the mystical “new man” of the new Germany. It is brutal, this mystical turn of events, and Kessler for the next few years is trapped with its consequences, even as a new mood of pacifism, incomprehensible at first to him, takes hold among former friends away from the front.
The war section of the diary is a superb and vivid account of his gradual disillusionment. After years on the Eastern Front, he is sent to Switzerland, where, under the flimsy cover of cultural work (he helps set up, amongst other things, Germany’s UFA film company), he attempts secret negotiations with France. Upon the defeat of Germany, he is sent to liaise with Pilsudski in Poland. By 1921 Kessler is a pacifist, lecturing on peace in the company of Einstein.
Easton gives us, he says, about a quarter of the complete diaries for 1880 to 1918. Many of his historical notes are good and helpful, although one wonders about him as a guide to art history when he tells us that the symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin is “largely forgotten today.” Most problematic, however, is the translation, which is plagued by what linguists call “false friends.” The German word genial seems to have been translated throughout as “genial,” when it usually means something more like “brilliant” or “fantastic” (“of genius,” rather than “smilingly well-disposed”). Unterwegs gets rendered as underway when it clearly means “along the way.”
Kloster gets translated as cloister, and we learn of Rilke’s rooms in a cloister in Paris—which sounds gothic and picturesque. But the Hôtel Biron, where Rilke, Rodin, Matisse, Isadora Duncan, and Jean Cocteau all had lodgings at some point (Kessler knew all of them), had previously been occupied by a religious order that ran a girls’ school there: Kloster means “monastery” or “convent.” The building is not gothic at all but an 18th-century hôtel particulier, or mansion, familiar today for housing the Rodin Museum. How many people will guess all of that from reading “Visited Matisse in the afternoon in a part of the same Sacré-Coeur cloister in which Rilke lives”? It wasn’t a cloister, and it wasn’t the well-known Sacré-Coeur.
One could go on, unfortunately. Every time there’s a mystery in the text, we come to guess at a mistranslation. An opera singer asks the playwright Maeterlinck to “introduce me to Gand.” Well, yes, she means “introduce me to Ghent,” his native city. By the same token, “the Rubenses at Anvers” are more familiarly “at Antwerp.” Max Reinhardt’s house, “Under the Tents,” had me baffled—such a strange name for a house. As it turns out, the director lived in the Palais Wesendonck, where he also had his school, on a street with the 18th-century name In den Zelten—which means “In the Tents”—near the Reichstag. This is such an important book—Easton is not wrong in his high assessment of it—that one hopes it receives a very careful revision before appearing in paperback. It is a great act of historical witness, and a great source of scandalous insight and gossip. But whether we come to it with high or with rather low motives—either way—we want it to be accurate; we want it to be Kessler.
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