Readings — From the January 2014 issue
From a 1933 diary entry by George Kennan (1904–2005), with the heading “January, Riga.” Kennan was working for the State Department at the time, in a diplomatic post in Latvia. He went on to become a leading foreign-policy adviser and historian of the Cold War era. He was a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1956 until his death. The Kennan Diaries, edited by Frank Costigliola, will be published in February by Norton.
It seemed to him that he would have made a talented academician, with the proper training. As a matter of fact, he felt that he could have done well in almost any field except the one which interested him, fiction.
But what difference did it make, after all, if he had talent? Was not all life a story of undeveloped talents? How many talented men had there been among those millions who died during the war? No, no. God alone knew why talents were born into the world, but it was quite evidently not for the enrichment of humanity. Nature was generous.
He was thoroughly pessimistic in his outlook on his contemporaries. He believed that the race was definitely declining. The decline of the race did not, in his opinion, mean that there would be no decent, intelligent, courageous people. It meant that such people would become fewer and fewer, that they would be comparatively powerless and mistreated and would live in the consciousness of being doomed to failure, ineffectiveness, and early elimination. In general, their position would be like that of the Russian émigrés in Western European cities.
For years he had rejected all serious study of the Russian emigration, as of a movement without a future, as the condemned relic of a society whose limitations were only too well known, and he had devoted all his attention to the Bolsheviks, in the future of society. This conviction did not desert him. But upon the realization that he himself, in any case, was not a Bolshevik, his attention gradually changed and had oriented itself on the émigrés, for in them he saw the reflection of his own personal future. He scrutinized them with a dread eagerness in order to learn whether they had developed any philosophy which might lighten their burden, or whether their plight was one of unmitigated suffering and tragedy.
At first he was unhappy in his marriage. It forced upon him what was in reality a thoroughly bourgeois mode of life. This horrified him. It was apparent to him that bourgeois life was an acceptance of death. It was one long, careful preparation for a fine funeral with an ornate coffin and the town’s best undertaker. No wonder revolutionists had felt no compunction in exterminating the bourgeoisie. It was the essence of the philosophy of the good burghers that they were ready for their extermination.
But the demands of marriage were inexorable, and after two years of perplexity, he began to face the facts and finally ended up by capitulating entirely. What else could he do? He had taken on a responsibility which was in direct conflict with his own work, his own hopes, his own life. It was no one’s fault. It just was that way. The only thing to do was to recognize that you had been caught and to make the best of it: not to beat frantically against the bars of the cage.
So he became a model married man. He knew that faithfulness, taken by itself, was a ridiculous and unhealthy ideal. But if one were to take at all seriously his own personal life, then there was no choice but to observe order and clarity in sexual matters as in everything else. Promiscuousness was not sinful, it was merely sloppy. It was a lack of neatness. It was always accompanied by confusion and disorder and uncertainty. And if monogamy was unhealthy, then a certain amount of physical discomfort was the price one paid for one’s personal dignity, for the sense of neatness and definiteness in one’s personal life.
I saw him again, a year after the capitulation. He complained a little. To abandon hope: that in itself was not so hard. That could happen to anyone. But to feel how you gradually got stupid, how you gradually lost the ability to see yourself with any sense of proportion, to lose the sense of the tragedy of the whole thing: that was hard. That made it seem as though life had lost its last significance.
If his wife had been less dependent on him he would probably have committed suicide at this stage. He had abandoned so many lives with so little hesitation and with so little concern over what was coming next, he said, it could surely not be hard to abandon this one.
He had long since lost everything resembling patriotism. “Why,” he used to ask, “should I love my country? It deceived me repeatedly and taught me nothing. My birthplace was completely indifferent to me. Why should I not be indifferent to it?
“America, after all, is too broad and confusing a conception to warrant any genuine loyalty. What have I in common with the average Southerner, or the New York Jew, or any one of a hundred types? America is hardly a national conception anymore. It is a sort of international entity. The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers. There it lies now, this human overflow, sprawling out over the continent in all its ignorance and all its sordidness, a society conceived in selfishness and dedicated to the proposition that one man’s suffering is no other man’s business, incapable of regulating its own public life, waiting stupidly for the advent of catastrophe.”
When I saw him last, he was still despondent. But if you were to have asked him the causes of his despair, he would not have been able to tell you. That which he feared had come to pass. He himself had forgotten, and perhaps his mind and spirit were no longer capable of reviewing the delicate processes through which the abandonment of hope had been brought about.
But this lapse of memory was not important. For hope and despair, like so many other manifestations of human nature, were primarily matters of habit, rather than the results of any immediate stimuli.
“Deutschland erwache! [Germany awake!]” screamed the slogan on the newspaper.
It was, he said, a matter of indifference to him whether Germany woke up or not. It was equally distasteful to him awake or asleep. Like many an individual, it was pitiable and slightly repulsive in its sleep, loudmouthed and obstreperous in its waking hours. God knew which condition was preferable.
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