May 26, 2012

Gaddis' Kennan Biography: Preliminary Musings

I have been meaning to discuss John Lewis Gaddis' biography of George Kennan here (George F. Kennan: An American Life), but as often have been unable to find the time. In the meantime, however, I wanted to highlight what I thought was the most judicious review I've seen to date (by Frank Costigliola, an academic who also edits Kennan's diaries). Costigliola's review appeared in the NYRB towards the end of 2011. While Gaddis' work has almost universally been praised as "magisterial" in its treatment of Kennan's life (make no mistake, it is an impressive biography, which rightfully earned Gaddis a Pulitzer) I do tend to agree with Costigliola that in parts his depiction of Kennan is "ultimately clipped and flattened." Touching on this, Costigliola writes:

The older man once described to Gaddis his habit, going back to childhood, of picking up on seemingly disassociated sights, sounds, and other stimuli and then bringing them together with other elements in his experience to fashion a concept or a connection uniquely his own. Throughout his life he had “read all sorts of mystery and beauty and other things into landscapes and places, and also into music.” He sensed what most other people could not. “Every city that I went to had not only a different atmosphere but a different sort of music and intonation to it…. I was immensely sensitive and responsive to differences in the atmosphere of places.”

In his seventies, Kennan tried to describe this almost painful acuteness. Visiting Stockholm, “something in the light, the sunlight, the late Northern evening suddenly made me aware of…Latvia and Estonia,” not so far away, “and I suddenly was absolutely filled with a sort of nostalgia for…the inner beauty and meaning of that flat Baltic landscape and the waters around it. It meant an enormous amount to me.” He then added, “You can’t explain these things.” Gaddis, perhaps understandably, did not try; such reflections do not appear in the biography. [emphasis added]

I hope and plan to give Gaddis' biography a fuller analysis here at some point in the coming months, but simply wished to post sooner that I am sympathetic to Costigliola's concern as per the above.

On a related (if somewhat tangential) note, recently reading Kennan's Sketches From a Life (a compilation of various of his diary entries) I found this depiction of a large Communist demonstration he ran into walking around Hamburg during his first full-time foreign service posting in 1927 noteworthy. Kennan writes:

Yesterday was a rainy Sunday. I walked down to the post-office in the morning and ran into a huge Communist demonstration--thousands and thousands of people standing in the drizzling rain before the Dammtor Station, with their red flags and arm-bands, listening to soap-box orators, singing the Internationale, marching around behind sickly fife and drum organizations, buying propaganda literature and Sacco-Vanzetti post-cards.

I stood around and watched, listened to snatches from the speeches, looked at the people themselves. And the strange thing was that for all my contempt for the falseness and hatefulness and demagoguery of communism, I had a strange desire to cry when I first saw those ranks of people marching along the street--ill-dressed, slouching, brutalized people.

It was the first time in my life that I have ever caught a hint of the real truth upon which the little group of spiteful parasites in Moscow feeds, of the truth that these ignorant, unpleasant people were after all human beings; that they were, after centuries of mute despair, for the first time attempting to express and to assert themselves; that under the manifold hokus-pokus of the red flags and the revolutionary ritual they had found something they considered to be essentially their own, something that they believed in, and were proud of; that tomorrow, just as yesterday, these same people would again be mutely absorbed in the work of the world, with barges, railways, drays, factories, street-cars, and what not, while other people--the industrialists and journalists and politicians--gathered the fruits of their labors and held the center of the stage; but that today was their day, and they were marching under their banner, sullied and cheapened as that banner might be; that they were marching sullenly and defiantly, but with hope and a tremendous earnestness.

Here, it seemed to me, was certainly error and hatefulness and pathos; but here, also, was seriousness and idealism. And after all, in the present state of the world, I am inclined to regard any sort of idealism, be it ever so beclouded with bitterness and hate and bad leadership, as a refreshing phenomenon. [emphasis added]

While this snippet arguably explains why a Joe Alsop would describe George Kennan as "an almost too-sensitive man", it nonetheless neatly encapsulated for me similar musings having witnessed, for instance, various Occupy Wall Street gatherings. After all, at a time where unemployment levels among youth in major European countries like Spain are in the vicinity of 50%, austerity risks radicalizing a new lost generation, where geopolitical risk looms large through the Middle East, and where in the United States populist fires may re-ignite more forcefully given still highly significant economic head-winds amidst an uneven, quasi-recovery, that we are still being subjected to dreary moans from acolytes of systemically dangerous too big to fail/bail/manage etc. bulge brackets about Basel III, the Volcker Rule, and Dodd-Frank--this in the midst of such aforementioned major historic forces at play and old demons possibly being unleashed--well, it is indeed tempting to cherish some form of idealism given such a steady cacaphony of corporatized idiocy.

Posted by Gregory at 12:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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