Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kennan on Life as Tragedy

Tragedy lies in the unavoidable conflict between man's animalistic, instinctive, primitively emotional and partially subconscious nature, on the one hand, and his capacity, on the other, for higher, more generous, less self-serving motives and impulses: for true love and friendship and charity--for a real nobility of spirit, in short. In this--in man's endlessly torn, self-conflicting nature, which the monastic orders have tried (but rarely succeeded, I suspect) to overcome, lies the first and probably the greatest sources of the tragedy. But another lies in the abundant injustice and frustration with which man is confronted at the hands of his natural environment, of the laws of chance, and of his own physical vulnerability, helplessness, and mortality. I am thinking here for example of the fact of bereavement--the fact that we do not normally die when those we love die, so that either we are left to mourn for them or they, as we know in advance, are left to struggle along without whatever help and support we might, if permitted to live, have given them. There is, again, the fact of our own mortality: not only the sadness and sometimes the agony of dying, but also the recognition that life, however successful, has never been more than partially fulfilled. And finally, if one has seen much of the human affairs, and particularly if one has been a historian, there is the recognition of the fleetingness, the impermanence, of all human undertakings and achievements.
 Kennan letter to Lukacs, July 8, 1984, from Through the Cold War.

For Teachers: Kennan to Lukacs

"The real rewards of the teacher always lie in the developments remote from the present and confused with a host of other origins, but that should not detract from the dignity of the profession or the satisfaction to be gained from it."
George Kennan to John Lukacs, November 18, 1953

I'm currently reading Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs, ed. by John Lukacs (2010). The quote above comes from Kennan to Lukacs, as Lukacs, an immigrant to America from Hungary, seeks guidance from Kennan about his career choice. Expect more quotes from this wonderful book to appear in the near future.