Cosmopolitanism versus Globalization (An Ode to Count Harry Kessler).

Posted: January 23, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Harry Kessler. Portrait by Edvard Munch.

The other day I picked up the diaries of Count Harry Kessler, and started to read….for fun.  Yes, fun.  Unfortunately, the book really is not that much fun. I must say, unless you want an extremely in-depth look at the everyday life of a German diplomat/art critic from the late 19th century into the early twentieth, this book may not be for you.  Kessler was no great artist, writer, or politician.  He would probably not be remembered today, except for his über-detailed diaries that provide gossip, art critiques, travel narratives, and mini-biographies of thousands of his acquaintances. Though the minutiae of his thoughts can get overwhelming, I was constantly chuckling in amazement at Kessler’s seemingly constant run-ins with the famous cultural and political figures of his day and age.   Let me give you a short list of the people who marked Kessler’s social gatherings, world tours, and Belle Époque ‘power lunches’:

Otto von Bismarck (German Chancellor)  Friedrich Nietzsche (Philosopher)

William Morris (English Artist)                  Paul Verlaine (French Poet)       

Auguste Rodin (French Sculptor)            Hugo von Hofmansthal (Austrian Writer)

Vaslav Nijinsky (Russian Dancer)            Pablo Picasso (Spanish/French Painter)    

Igor Stravinsky (Russian Composer)       Rainier Maria Rilke (German Poet)  

Walter Rathenau (German Industrialist)  Herbert Asquith (British Prime Minister)  

Berthold Brecht (German Playwright)      Josephine Baker (American Dancer)





This is just a small sampling.  Every day, the man seemed to rub shoulders with the people of his world who were making history.

You may notice from that list how cosmopolitan Kessler was.  He was well versed in art, philosophy, history, economics, music, languages, etc.  One day he was discussing art theory with his Dutch friend Henry van de Velde, and the next he was hobnobbing with his fellow Prussian military officers.  He identified himself as German, but he could have easily passed for English or French since he was raised in all three nations. As an adult, he lived for extended periods in Italy, Greece, America, Mexico, Germany, France and England.  His life sometimes seemed disparate, but he fit it all together since his homeland was the world.

Today, there are no more Count Harry Kesslers.  But, this is a paradox.  After all, we now live in an era of globalization, in which the world is increasingly ‘shrinking’ and becoming more ‘flat’.  If I want to peruse a Dutch stranger’s photographs, I can do so easily. (See my previous post)  Acquaintances let me know of their personal lives in California, Germany, or Norway with the help of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  But, I am no Harry Kessler, and neither are my social network ‘friends’. We are usually so enraptured with our own interests, beliefs, and practices that social networking simply becomes an anthropological and psychological peep-show.  No interaction between cultures; simply passive consumption.  Count Harry Kessler would be shocked at how small the world is, but how few cosmopolitans there are in it.

  1. Peter Stern says:

    I agree with Michael: globalization is rooted in paradox. There’s the one he mentions and there surely must be more. For instance as globalization spreads, local cultures lose some of their unique vibrancy thereby becoming less exotic and interesting.

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