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The Papers of George F. Kennan

One Nation Under ArmsA Review and A Reflection

I have just finished reading Todd Purdum’s devastating, illuminating article from Vanity Fair about the papers of George F. Kennan (1904-2005), Cold War architect.

This trove is an invaluable asset for scholars, historians and journalists. (I’m not sure if any journalists remain.) To see this Cold War architect’s plans in detail (especially the margin notes on the blueprints) will help us to better understand the design, construction and evolution of the ideas that buttress our present monolithic empire.  Material like this from the horse’s mouth is so much more enlightening than all the other clever and perceptive analyses made by others, after the fact.

“To savor the profusion of letterheads and typefaces, the variations in penmanship and paper weights, is to feel oneself an eavesdropper on long-ago conversations come suddenly to life.”  - Todd S. Purdum “One Nation Under Arms” The Papers of George F. Kennan, Vanity Fair, Jan, 2012

It occurred to me that while Kennan may have started the Cold War ball rolling on the political/diplomatic front, the clinically mad mathematician, John Nash implemented the strategic, technical and paranoid broad strokes that became the metrics of the security and secrecy obsessed state we now occupy.

Speaking of “after the fact,” I do keep coming back to the films of Adam Curtis. (I wish they were all more readily available.)  His perceptions of our psychological, political and social evolution are dead on and seem to sync perfectly with Kennan’s angst-laden conclusions. Curtis’ emphatic point, well made and well documented, concerning the myth of international terrorism I think is the most important (and most ignored) conclusion of his most popular series, “The Power of Nightmares.”

Is it inevitable that our species should come to its sad conclusion at the burnt out end of American empire?  I suppose that even at our founding there was that terrible hubris that can only achieve its full toxic unfolding in a monotheist mindset (yes, even in a deist mindset).

Just as Curtis details the social and political aspects of our impending extinction, so Sam Beckett has detailed our spiritual extinction. I have just finished viewing films of his complete works for the theater (available on Netflix). It is pretty hard to make it through all this without having to come face to face with the irrevocable conclusion that the world mankind has come to so dominate would have been better off had we never existed (in spite of our monumental sense of literary irony, our species’ lovable, self-deprecating humor and our disarming Vaudevillian pratfalls). Beckett brings this spiritual death home on a decidedly personal, individual level. In the recently published Letters 1941-1956, Beckett celebrated his new-found avocation of gardener-god.

“Fifteen or twenty years of silence and solitude . . . I feel this evening that that would suit me, and suit me the least badly possible. I have bought a wheelbarrow, my first wheelbarrow! It goes very well, with its one wheel. I keep an eye on the love-life of the Colorado beetle and work against it, successfully but humanely, that is to say by throwing the parents into my neighbor’s garden and burning the eggs. If only someone had done that for me!”

“Almost no one alive today has a mature, firsthand memory of a country that used to be very different—that was not a superpower...An American today who is 25 or 50 or even 75—such a person has lived entirely in the America we have become.” Purdum, Ibid

More and more I have found myself delighted to exist at the end of history. How delighted? Because in our end is our beginning, to paraphrase Eliot—and everything in between. In our end we will see this place, our home, clearly, for the first time. I think that, even though I came to majority in the halcyon, post-war Eisenhower years, I still had a deep, emotional grasp of the period that began with my birth in 1937. I had a number of critical coincidences in my childhood that aimed me as surely toward my present state as if programmed for the target.

I see more and more that the last efforts of my dotage lie in the direction of mining our collective past for clues as to how to fully express these last days. As Rilke said in his "Notebooks of Malte Laureds Brigge,"

“But if all this is possible, if it has even a semblance of possibility,—then surely, for the sake of everything in the world, something must be done. The first comer, the one who has had these alarming thoughts, must begin to do some of the things that have been neglected; even though he is just anyone, certainly not the most suitable person: since there is no one else. This young, insignificant foreigner, Brigge, will have to sit down in his room, five flights up, and keep writing, day and night. Yes, he will have to write; that is how it will end.”

Having had this traumatic vision of our end makes it extremely difficult to even converse with “normal” people on levels beyond such vital topics as the latest new car models, celebrity infidelities and sports scores. I feel as if I emerged from the mouth of Plato’s cave to see, not a blazing sun, but a black hole. I now regard most discussions of politics, progress and especially spirituality as being hopelessly irrelevant. 

I am more and more disinclined to even try to proselytize for this sobering idea.  At a discussion the other evening the conversation took a decidedly apocalyptic turn, and I said to the dozen assembled, “Well you know we are among the last humans to walk the planet.” I instantly realized I had gone too far. I looked out on a tableau of dazed, blank stares not unlike the expressions that adorned the faces of the circus crowd at the end of Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “The End of the World.

I believe that, the closer we get to the end, fewer and fewer will actually see it coming—kind of like the perception of global climate change in America today.  Perhaps, after all, there is a Divine Providence keeping us in the dark, like docile cattle before the knife.

"He knows nothing. Let him sleep on."  - Beckett, "Waiting for Godot"

Cicero was right. All that matters now are a library and a garden. A loaded Beretta might buy a little time but will just put off the inevitable—as Cicero well understood when Mark Anthony’s assassins came for him.

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