Sunday, March 08, 2009

George Kennan

I've been maintaining this blog long enough (albeit erratically) that certain subjects and motifs have begun to repeat themselves. Yesterday was the second time I've offered up something about John Monro, and today I turn back to George Kennan, whom I wrote about back in 2007. Each time I plan an overseas trip I read from Kennan's incomparably honest and astute Sketches from a Life, a selection from the journals he accrued over his 50 years as a diplomat. In the "Preface," he explains,
The pieces were written, for the most part, only when traveling. For this there was good reason. At home, in the performance of daily professional and personal duties, there was normally no time for this sort of thing; beyond which, this sort of writing required, as mentioned aabove, the novelty and treshness of first impression. You would not write this way about things you saw or experienced every day. Familiarity deprived such scenes, as it did people, of their mystery and their magic. (xi)

Kennan's musings about people and places are worth reading in their own right; I also hope that his descriptions and insights, while far more lucid than mine could be, will prompt me to be a more observant and engaged traveler--not someone who scurries hurriedly from museum to cathedral to monument, brushing across the surface of it all without pausing to think about it. Here is a typical passage, written in 1978:

In Stockholm, throughout the evening, I was being made conscious of touches in the scene--in the light sky; in the ponderous Germanic apartment building that housed W.'s office downtown; in the milling-about of the crowds on the paths of the Tivoli, making the most of the brief northern summer; in the vegetation; in the coolness of the night breezes--touches that reminded me that I was separated only by a relatively small body of water of Riga and Reval and the scenes of my youth. And I was prodded from inside with jabs of nostalgia which no one else could ever understand--nostalgia for that bleak Baltic landscape, for its long dark winters and for the wonder of its brief fleeting summers, for the mystery of the white nights, the sense of proximity of something intensely beautiful and marvelous, the thirst for it, and the awareness that it was not to be.

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