Kessler Continued: On Rilke, His Lips & War

Following up on my previous post about this extraordinary 900-page book — I finished it last night — here are a few more remarkable passages around which I drew my customary lines, stars, and exclamation marks:

Paris, February 1905:

With [Théodore] Duret to Mademoiselle Courbet, Courbet’s sister. Works of Courbet from all periods, especially interesting the Demoiselles de la Seine (around ‘66) and quite early pictures from Courbet’s childhood when he was fifteen to seventeen. In the Demoiselles, although later than Manet’s and Monet’s Déjeuner, no "plain air,“ no colored shadows on the dresses (perhaps a little blue in the face of one). In the quite early pictures astonishingly there is already Courbet’s unique, completely new application of color with which he started modern painting. So Courbet achieved this revolutionary new way of painting himself. His sister confirms that he received no instruction in painting in Ornans. Everything was genial intuition. With that a major problem in modern painting is solved.

Weimar, June 1906:

Opening of the Artists League Exhibition… The most interesting thing in the exhibition the painting by quite a young artist who is exhibiting for the first time: Max Beckmann, Naked Boy on the Beach. Like Signorelli and with qualities of Courbet and Cézanne, but nevertheless strongly original in the rhythm of its accents and in its tonality, which has a marvelous unity. I introduced myself to Beckmann and congratulated him.

Berlin, two days later:

Beckmann lunched with me in the Carlton. He spoke of the romance of life that he feels so keenly, the romance of the quite common, everyday life. Poe-Whistler… He is through and through a painter, which is seldom the case with Germans.

Berlin, December 1907:

In the evening the Rilkes came to dinner. She has something great and simple, willful, almost masculine. He appears to be the more feminine of the two. When he sits, while speaking, crunched up in his chair, his legs and arms crossed, you get the impression from his thin body and his soft voice, that sounds as if were the pleading, of an ugly young girl. He spoke of Prague, Russia, Paris, always in quite long, soft, somewhat precious sentences.

Berlin, February 1910:

Met the writer Sternheim at the Meier-Graefes’ in the evening. He has a rather elegant wife off of whose money he lives. He was introduced to me yesterday by Cassirer and immediately laid out a plan for a writer’s trust. Today he launched into obscure theories about tragedy. In a tragedy, the hero is not tragic, but the world around his hero, his milieu. That’s why Hamlet for example should actually be called "the world around Hamlet,” Lear, “the world around Lear,” etc… I asked Sternheim what then was the difference between the hero and a madman? Clearly he couldn’t answer for he employed all sorts of metaphysical expressions. Meier-Graefe asked me, while I was leaving, what I thought of Sternheim. I said, “Crazy.” As Meier-Graefe later told me, Sternheim said to him, when he went back to his guests, “How happy I am to have met Count K. Finally a man who understands me!”

Paris, June 1911:

After breakfast went to the exhibition of the Henry Bernstein collection: Cézannes, Renoirs, Bonnards, Vuillards, etc. There I met Rilke, who was completely taken by the Cézannes. He is now so totally obsessed with Cézanne that he is blind to everything else. Of the mountain in the House in Provence he says, “Since Moses no one has seen a mountain thus.”

Paris, July 1911:

My attention today was fixed almost the entire time on Rilke’s enormously fat lips (especially the lower lip) and on the smell of fruit, which dominates his rooms like in the apple room of an old country house, and circulates in the fresh, warm air from outside, old-fashioned and a little old-maid like. This mouth in this atmosphere, a mixture of the old maid and sensuality. 

Paris, May 1912:

In the evening the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music… A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.

Budapest, February 1915:

Sat alone in the Hungaria in the evening and during this first respite from the immediate presence of the war in seven months, I reflected on it. War is a situation to which you become accustomed, alas. You form bonds in war with an intensity and naiveté such as you only do in youth (Schoeler, Below). We are fearful in normal life and only under fire, confronting death, do we ask ourselves why, like the child when the curtain falls in the theater. This “why,” this somewhat naive problem of the fear of death, becomes gradually clear to you in a war. Gradually you grow numb to shrapnel and death. Paradoxically you live life then all the more intensely: friends, nature, all beauty. War has taught me to love and admire man infinitely more, whom it has revealed to me in all of this horror, baseness, greatness, and sweetness. I have seen him as an animal and as a god.

I’ll end there, though the diaries have another few hundred (compelling, sad) pages to go. Much more of the war. A life in Switzerland. The Epilogue, by the book’s editor and translator, Laird M. Easton, is perfect.

Obviously, Journey to the Abyss is a book I highly recommend. I wish Alex Ross’ terrific essay-review, which prompted me to buy it, was by now in front of the pay wall, but it’s not. I’ve just found another long piece about the book, this time from James Fenton in The Atlantic. It’s titled, appropriately, “Everywhere Man.” About to dig in.

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg