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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



March 1964

Traffic Tangle in Golden Gate Park
Tom Jones and The Ginger Man
Civil Rights Action at the Sheraton
Ideas for a San Francisco Music Festival
More on Civil Rights
Trade Secrets of the Arts
Youth Problems Not Addressed
“Here Begins a New Life . . .”





Last week I was back East, giving a series of lectures at some colleges in Pennsylvania. One of them, and up-and-coming small school run by one of the historic Pietist churches, would like me to join the faculty as a poet in residence — a sort of grand old man of letters, radiating my mellow wisdom over the young. It is a tempting offer. I’ve been in San Francisco for over thirty-five years and maybe I’ve done all I can for the place.

I’m a strong believer in the small college and in the kind of progressive education represented by Oberlin or Antioch — before it fell into the hands of the educators’ educators. And I agree with their religious principles — in fact, long, long ago the Rexroths were Schwenkfelders, the most pietistic of them all, and the tradition never dies out in your blood. I consider myself a liberal or maybe radical Catholic, and I come from three generations of atheists, but I still have a lot of most Quakerish mannerisms. I wonder if I’d be happy there?

It’s sure far. Pennsylvania is a big place that is easy to overlook, even from New York, New Jersey or Ohio. Except for the musical Plain and Fancy, it has been more than a century since anybody wrote a popular song about it — “Once there was an Indian girl, fair Alfarata, dwelt by the waters of the blue Juniata.” They sang it around the bivouacs before Gettysburg. All this century it has been the land of the revolution of declining expectations.

It is as distant from California as can be imagined. In time and spirit it is a stable-state universe we simply don’t inhabit out here. Although, like all the world, it is caught up in the technological whirlwinds that are sweeping away what we once thought was modern society, the so-called post-modern society which we live in San Francisco or New York has never penetrated the Appalachians, and it hasn’t penetrated Philadelphia much.

Every year the social structure seems to grow more rigid, mobility decreases, caste lines freeze harder, the spirit of economic adventure is more scarce. Yet this is a false impression. No group of young men of inherited great wealth is more revolutionary than the fourth and fifth generation power elite of Pittsburgh. They are dedicated to make the town of robber barons, bloody strikes, deadly slums into a community which can guarantee at least a chance at a creative life to all its citizens.

All sorts of new industries of the electronic age are opening up in the state. On the other hand, there is a terrific drag. The old coal-mining areas suffer from the same rotting away of human resources that has smitten all of Appalachia. Most of the north and west of the state has reverted to forest. You can hunt bear a couple of hours’ drive from Pittsburgh. Mountain lions have reappeared, the first seen in a century.

To hold back the wilderness and the ruined small-town slums of people on relief, the small Pennsylvania colleges that once specialized in theology and classics are now reorganizing themselves to meet the needs of the age of technology and automation. It is a curious social movement to watch — in its way not unlike what is going on in old frozen cultures like China or Persia — but without their manifest disabilities. It might be fun to go back and take part in it.

* * *

Just a note on another subject altogether. I was asked, along with many other cultural spokesmen, to suggest names for a board which will be choosing the first recipient for an award not unlike the Nobel Prize. This person should be one who has made a truly major contribution to human wisdom, an artist or thinker whose moral leadership has been powerful, dedicated and unquestioned.

When you start to think about it, you realize how irresponsible the world has become. I am all for youth, but the names that occur to me are all of very old men, Pablo Casals, Martin Buber, François Mauriac. Can you think of any men like that under fifty?

Of course, there is another factor which enters into this special problem. Ethical activism is by definition as inconspicuous as it can be and still be effective. The people who alter the world by positive action for the good are the millions of common good men and women, utterly unknown to fame, who work in total obscurity, amongst commonplace surroundings, for every simple ends. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. By and large, the spotlights of celebrity are reserved for the mischief makers. Anyway — I invite your vote.

[March 1, 1964]



Traffic Tangle in Golden Gate Park

I never drive in or out of Golden Gate Park onto Oak or Fell Streets without thinking, “Sometime I’ve got to write a column about this tangle.” Since I do this almost every day, you can see what a procrastinator I am.

Many years ago the son of a man prominent in the political life of the city was killed at this point and it was only too apparent that the fault lay primarily in the organization of traffic flow at the Park entrance. Great hunks of both Park and Panhandle were destroyed and the whole complicated junction was rebuilt. I doubt if things are any better.

Most traffic, especially at peak hours, moves from the Panhandle to Lincoln Way or vice versa, by way of a right-angled cut-off. This means that west-bound traffic makes a left-hand turn across the Main Drive. The lights on Oak and Fell Streets are staggered and permit a steady flow of traffic at 30 miles an hour. But there are no lights whatever between Steiner Street and Lincoln Way, with the result that a massive stream of cars moves unregulated against the theoretical right of way.

East-bound cars coming up the Main Drive have to wait for a break in traffic which may not occur for a considerable time at rush hour due to cars turning off Steiner St., and then scamper through and wait again at the beginning of the Panhandle.

Is there some ordinance against putting a traffic island with a stop-and-go light on it in Golden Gate Park? I don’t know how many fatalities have occurred here — probably none, since the problem is most serious at periods of greatest congestion, but someday one will for sure, just as one did long ago before the junction was supposedly improved. Once again — this is one of those simple little things that requires more gumption than money.

Yet once more, the State Highway Commission has come up with a new plan for the Panhandle Freeway which they consider jim dandy, bound to please everybody and positively beautify both Park and Panhandle.

What is the matter with these people? Why don’t they take no for an answer? All they have to see is a redwood grove, a city park, a beautiful vista, a granite cliff in Yosemite, and they are possessed with the ungovernable desire to destroy it.

A correspondent recently wrote in and said, “What’s wrong with junking the Narcotics Bureau of the Treasury Department and all the present laws along with it, turning the problem over to the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, writing a new set of laws and starting over?” I couldn’t agree more. Furthermore, the question inspires me with the brilliant idea — maybe we should abolish the present Highway Commission and all its enabling laws and ordinances and start over.

The stretch from Baker St. down the Panhandle to the Tea Garden is one of the three most beautiful “paseos” in the world, comparable to those in Oaxaca or Aix-en-Provence, and worth all the Highway Commissions that ever were, laid end to end.

[March 4, 1964]


Tom Jones
and The Ginger Man

If you want to learn easily and objectively, while being entertained, what has happened to the human race in 200 years, go and see the movie Tom Jones at the United Artists, and next evening, the live play, The Ginger Man at the Encore.

By and large, pictures that move don’t move me, but Tom Jones is close to the best that the industry can do. It is a landmark in the history of cinema, as they say in the highbrow reviews, which means that it does not insult the intelligence of an adult.

Fielding’s novel Tom Jones has been called one of the three greatest tales in the history of literature. It set the basic type for the plot of the novel of self realization. Tom discovers himself. He finds out, in the course of a series of remarkable adventures, who he is. It is not just that he learns his true parentage and realizes his potentialities; he discovers what he really is, himself for himself alone — his ego center, as our 20th-century headshrinkers put it.

This is the plot of James Joyce’s Ulysses and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; it is also the plot of the best novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of dozens of other famous works before and since.

In addition, Tom Jones is the greatest of the English picaresque novels, the classic type of the kaleidoscopic adventures of a lovable rascal. Once in a while the picture gets a little flashy, but by and large it is honest and clear. Clear is the word for Fielding, his characters have an uncanny clarity, as though we were watching real people from behind an invisible sheet of glass.

The Ginger Man is also an adaptation of a novel. It has enjoyed a limited reputation amongst the most judicious critics ever since it appeared, as the best of the novels of the English Angry Young Men.

Possibly this is because the author, J.P. Donleavy, is neither English nor angry. He is an Irish American and as full of fun as an old-time professional bar fly from Paddy McGinty’s Beer Parlor. His association with the AYM is due to the fact that he was abroad and part of their circle when the novel was published. Comic he may be, but it is with a gallows humor.

If Tom Jones is the type English picaresque novel, The Ginger Man is the anti-type. Its thesis might be described as a demonstration of the utter impossibility of being Tom Jones in a contemporary city. Its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, is a rascal, true enough, but he is an empty rascal, and he gets progressively emptier, until he becomes just a sort of hole in the story.

Tom Jones is an entrepreneur, Sebastian Dangerfield is a delinquent. Fielding wrote a mocking story of 18th-century man on the way up, the type of the emerging capitalist class, as the Marxists would call him. Before he got far with his tale, he was overcome with admiration for his own invented hero. Donleavy wrote of the adventures of the same kind of youth, in a time when history has made him redundant, and so Sebastian Dangerfield is just a sociopath. It is not that he goes down hill morally, it is that he gets in the literal sense of the catch phrase — “absolutely nowhere.” Imagine, if you can, a funny Journey to the End of the Night.

And yet Sebastian is lovable, as so many characters on Death Row are. He rouses every motherly instinct, and all our philosophical pity for the senseless waste of existence. He is just another of the billions of codfish eggs that never hatched in the bosom of the sea. But more than that, drunken, crooked and slyly effeminate, he clings to the masculine clarity of vision that made the author if not the hero of Tom Jones great. He steadfastly refuses to call things what they are not. Far more than Henry Miller’s heroes, his honesty is shameless and stark, and so his lack of sham judges all the sham with which we garb our own actions.

Bawdy as it is, there is something very evangelical about The Ginger Man. It is a retelling of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The Emperor in this case is that figure St. Paul used to call “the ruler of this world,” where “this world” is that immense category that St. Paul used to link with the flesh and the devil.

I’ve been so busy talking about what these two tales mean that I have said nothing about The Ginger Man as a play. It was dramatized by Donleavy himself, and he missed none of the salient points of the novel. The play, in fact, more compact, has more impact. Tom Rosqui, Erica Rosqui and Robert Benson have a great good time. They are lucid, forceful and enthusiastic. Priscilla Pointer, who seldom gets a chance to do broad character roles, is hilarious and must be seen to be believed.

[March 8, 1964]


NOTE: Tom Jones is discussed in more detail in Rexroth’s Classics Revisited.



Civil Rights Action at the Sheraton

At the risk of being called a Red baiter, I would like to underline the lessons to be learned from the civil rights action at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel. While James Baldwin has been sending delicious thrills of guilty terror up the spines of his white audiences, threatening them with a Black Muslim Night of the Long Knives if they aren’t nice, the alignment of forces in the civil rights struggle has taken what may be a decisive turn.

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X are never going to climb in the window and razor the lily white throats of Greenwich Village hostesses. But as long as the respectable Negro leaders and behind them the Talented Tenth of the Negro middle class temporize at all in the demand for full freedom now, and as long as the white people remain indifferent or hostile to complete equality of every kind, there will be a steady drift in the civil rights struggle towards the most intransigent and irreconcilable leadership.

“Now” is the key word in all this conflict. The Negro has been juridically free for a century. Speaking legalistically, the pending civil rights legislation is unnecessary and only underscores rights which already exist in theory. Much good they have done.

Today the demand is for the concrete realization of all rights — now. As long as they are withheld, the more Negroes, especially youth, with secede from the United States as “their” country, the more they will form alliances with forces that promise them the fullest measure of satisfaction — now.

The problem in America is not really any longer a color problem. It is the problem of the permanent functionally unemployed, of the narrow but bottomless pit of poverty which underlies our affluent society and which we can no longer afford in this age of technological revolution. The Negro as in most cases a member of a color caste confined to the ranks of the now unneeded, unskilled, can only solve his problems by solving the contradictions which underpin our society. To do this he must gain allies from the whole society, and allies who understand the vast scope of the changes his equality will necessitate.

We can no longer afford Harlem. Neither can we afford West Virginia or the Cumberlands or the slums of Birmingham or the skid row of Seattle. Capitalism can’t afford them. Marx thought a chronic labor surplus was essential to the profitability of capitalism. Today the reverse is true. Poverty is unprofitable. It is bad business.

I am not prepared to get in a silly wrangle over the political complexion of the Du Bois Clubs. It is apparent to anybody who is dry behind the ears. The point is that the settlement with the San Francisco hotels was won by the Ad Hoc Committee with the assistance of the Du Bois Clubs.

They not only seized the leadership and won a major settlement, they mobilized great numbers of young white people for the action. This is the first important victory under this leadership since the left shelved the struggle for Negro rights for the duration of World War II, and abandoned their followers with a sense of rankling betrayal that lasted over 20 years.

This is certainly as ominous a turn of events as can be imagined. Malcolm X has not climbed in the window with a razor — but another hand has reached in and is writing on the wall — Mene, meme, tekel upharsin. Let him who will real and ponder.

[March 11, 1964]



Ideas for a San Francisco Music Festival

I have always thought of my very good friend Jerry Ets-Hokin as an extreme type of shrinking violet, not unlike the late Shenandoah in a high wind. However, his proposals for a San Francisco Music Festival are characterized by genuine modesty and prudence, two non-dirigible virtues.

It is certainly true that we cannot afford a festival like Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence. We have neither the resources in money and accommodations, nor any possibility of getting that kind of parade of talent. We can, though, afford a modest local effort for a short period.

He suggests two weeks only, in a lull in the tourist season, perhaps the last week in June and the first in July. He thinks we should use mostly local talent, that the festival should be thought of primarily as a showcase of the musical resources of the Bay Area, from composers and conductors to virtuosi on the glockenspiel. He suggests that the program be concentrated, both in time and space — two important shows a day (Salzburg and Aix have three) and as far as possible using the facilities around the Civic Center.

I don’t see anything wrong with this at all, especially if the original budget estimate of $500,000 is withdrawn. There is no question but what things like this bring visitors to The City, and visitors of the kind who, if they are tempted to stay, are the kind of citizens we want, technical, professional and administrative people who contribute to the life of the city and are unlikely to fall on the relief rolls.

I think we should plan in terms of the least possible expenditure of money. I say this not because I am tight, but because I think that if we start out by saying, “What valuable resources do we have that don’t cost money” we will be starting at the right end. Let’s work toward a budget, not from one. If you start out talking and planning in terms of money, the natural thing to do is raise the ante as you go along.

What can we accomplish with what we have at hand? What kind of show can the people who live here, love San Francisco, and want to see their own music festival, put on? We might be surprised to discover that we are just naturally of international importance, not great big importance at first, but two weeks of music that is far from provincial.

The four-star music festivals bore me to tears. When I lived in Aix, I left town for the duration. What have you got? The same old big names that you can see at all of them, and programming that is either hackneyed or “très chic,” or, more often, both. And for an audience, all the world’s most expensive tarts, the borzoi set, elderly exiled Romanian oil millionaires in monocles, most of them members of the three or four exotic sexes, and none of them able to tell a C-clef from a sousaphone.

Fortunately we can’t afford to stage that kind of music festival. Let’s begin with a nice homey one, with the emphasis on music, and see where we go from there.

I have one suggestion that I would like to state as strongly as possible. There has been talk of letting “the musicians” run this thing. I can’t imagine a more serious mistake. Walter Paepke had this notion, and on his death a committee of artistes took over and came near to wrecking the Aspen Festival for good. Some of my best friends are musicians, BUT.

Musical activities should be managed by soap manufacturers or electronics engineers or corporation lawyers, or anything except musicians. I don’t care if they play the shawm and the virginals, splice tape of squawls and chitters, fiddle with authentically bent bows, or play tone cluster jazz in smoky night clubs, these cats are all alike.

Thelonius Monk is one of the greatest artists America has ever produced, but what would folks think if the Termini brothers were to announce that they were turning over the management of their New York jazz room to a committee headed by Thelonius Monk and consisting of Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and John Coltrane? The practitioners of high musical art don’t differ an iota in temperament from the men who play jazz. In fact, the onerous conditions of work force the jazz men to behave a little more responsibly. No, no, no committee of divas and artistes — that’s what the capitalists are for.

Footnote: Wednesday our Inquiring Photographer asked a number of people for suggestions of improvements in Golden Gate Park. I’ve been planning a bit on this subject and would welcome correspondence. Please write me your ideas.

[March 15, 1964]



More on Civil Rights

When that committee of Negro intellectuals visited Robert Kennedy last year, they came away almost hysterical with grief and exasperation. Because he was prejudiced? No. Because he didn’t know what he was talking about, or what they were talking about either.

The depth of white incomprehension of the Negro and his problems passes belief.

In a sense the Southerners are right when they say they “know Negras.” The two races have lived in a symbiotic relationship for hundreds of years in the South. Very few Negroes indeed are without some tincture of white blood. But nobody every points out that three hundred years of kitchen miscegenation means that even fewer white southerners who come from old families are without Negro blood, too. This is why they fight so desperately. They know that once Jim Crow goes from the South, social integration will follow.

The situation in San Francisco is quite different. The Negro is not mixed into the social life of the city, even on a segregated basis. Very few left-liberals, much less ordinary people, know Negroes personally. In many fields of possible employment, the Negro has simply been overlooked. The white community is far less well informed about the other community than was Robert Kennedy. He, after all, was briefed by his aides. The average white San Franciscan of good will knows nothing whatever about his black brother.

We are obviously heading straight for an impasse in race relations in San Francisco. What can we do about it? Take a leaf out of the nonviolent resistance book. . . . Personal involvement, direct action, and “go limp.”

I don’t mean “Have a Negro to Dinner Week,” although that might not be a bad idea, but something more decisive. What would happen if the employers of San Francisco simply gave in? There is nothing objectionable about the hotel settlement, except the artificiality of a set quota — but let that pass. Suppose every employer of more than 10 people who reads this column sits down and dictates a personal letter to [SF Mayor] Jack Shelley, saying, “I am willing to abide by the terms of the agreement signed by the hotel owners. I will hire up to 15 to 20 percent Negroes, as jobs in my business become vacant and as people qualified to hold them present themselves.”

What would happen? The hot potato would be passed back to the Negroes. The bitter truth is, there aren’t people qualified to hold the jobs that are now available in the skilled trades, the professions, and administration.

They have been sent to us from the South untrained for modern life. We must set about meeting this functional unemployability with remedial education or we are inviting disaster. If it costs too much money, let the federal government take it from those states who refuse to train the Negro, and give it to the states who will.

[March 18, 1964]



Trade Secrets of the Arts

Last Monday we went to the Chamber Music Society concert in the Hall of Flowers. Half the program was devoted to Renaissance contrapuntal music — Italian, French, and English. Once again, there was a capacity turnout, as there is each year for this kind of music. It is supposed to be dreadfully highbrow, and yet people seem to like it.

I do wonder, talking to friends after the program, whether very many people understand what they are listening to — even the musicians in the audience usually just relax and enjoy it, without mentally following the intricacies of the scores. The pieces that most resemble later music, especially Bach, are the ones that get the most applause, and extraordinary compositions like the madrigal by William Byrd they sang last week are received in silence.

There is nothing wrong with this — quite the contrary. I, for one, think the public knows altogether too much about art as it is. It was James McNeill Whistler who taught idle women to mimic the studio chatter of artists. Nowadays everybody at art show openings and in the lobbies of concert halls at intermission strives to sound as knowledgeable as any artist or critic or combination thereof.

As the trade secrets of the arts, which are also highly skilled crafts, leak out to the general public, everything gets debauched in a do-it-yourself free-for-all. Finally we reach the point we are at today, where all standards have been forgotten and the secrets, once imparted to swooning bands of enraptured devotees, have been lost altogether.

One of the most profound pieces of art criticism, or rather, criticism of art criticism, I ever saw was a cartoon by Jim Williams, who used to draw Out Our Way and Born Thirty Years Too Soon for the News. One of his aged, warty, bulb-nosed, ragged-overalled mechanics that he loved to draw, in this case a house painter, was mixing a can of paint. Standing over him was the milquetoast customer, anxious for a little self-help information.

“What’s that you’re putting in the paint?” said he.

“Muriatic acid,” answered the wise old man, “it makes the paint stick better.”

I have taught rather technical art appreciation courses off and on most of my life. I sometimes wonder. Maybe if I, and thousands like me, had scalded our listeners with a little muriatic acid misinformation, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in today.

* * *

A phone call from an old friend about the column I did Wednesday.

“Did you intend to imply that the important thing about a statement from employers of willingness to hire Negroes at any level for which they are qualified is that such a statement puts on record the fact that the opportunity is there? Nobody may show up to take such jobs, possibly not for years, until we have trained a new generation. It makes all the difference to the members of that younger generation to know that if they do stay in school and acquire a skill or a profession, that the door is open, that they are going to get a chance to use it.”

This is the essence of the matter. One of the gravest problems in race relations is what writers on the subject call “self-hate.” All too many Negroes have a rankling, subconscious, half-belief in the propaganda of the white supremacists. It doesn’t help if you know that a Ph.D. degree in chemistry will only get you a job washing bottles.

Just like life, my correspondence in answer to my request for suggestions for improving Golden Gate Park has been running about half conservationist and half anti-conservationist. It is surprising the number of people who want to build something, pave something, introduce facilities and activities that would cut down on the functions of the park as a park. On the other hand, the other 50 percent would like to inhibit, or at least control, some of the activities already there.

We are still unusually blessed in San Francisco with open space, in The City and in Marin and San Mateo Counties too. From now on it is going to require constant vigilance to hang on to even part of what we have — vigilance, but also careful planning, and strong arguments that demonstrate conclusively that conservation is profitable.

It’s the open spaces that have made this column so random this week. It is a beautiful spring day, balmier than the most perfect day in June in the East, and it makes me balmy, too. I don’t want to sit at a desk. I want to get out in those open spaces, before they’re all gone.

[March 22, 1964]



Youth Problems Not Addressed

The outstanding characteristic of the adult speakers at that conference on adolescence at the California Medical Center was their unanimous and innocent presentation of the old bag of exploded “radical” ideas as a lovely sack of brand new candy. I once called this technique the hoax of pseudo-novelty. Proposals that were revolutionary in 1750 and were discredited by 1800 are still being pitched as the latest thing, bound to cure all if only given a chance.

Don’t these people ever listen? The kids on their panels were asking for discipline, direction, authority, guidance, and not least, sound information. The adults were busy selling a load of worn-out notions, permissiveness, free love for babies, the evils of Victorian prudery, and so on ad nauseam.

I have always just loved that one about Victorian morality — as though pride, anger, disloyalty, sloth, dishonesty, covetousness, lust, were perfectly OK in Babylon, amongst the Eskimos, or before June 20, 1837, in Great Britain.

The kids were asking the adults to assume their responsibilities as adults, and the experts were in fact — “objectively” as Stalin used to say — justifying in super-hip and super-progressive terms the abdication of responsibility by the square, middle-class parents they were supposedly berating.

Meanwhile, at the Fillmore Y, the Du Bois Clubs were hosting a conference of the officially radical youth. The end product of this get-together was even less meaningful. With only a couple of exceptions which could not be ignored, like defense of the Rumford Act, the resolutions passed by the conference were simply verbalizations of Russian foreign policy, or demands for greater freedom for the Communist Party, which is the same thing in the long run.

I am all for letting Gus Hall lie to school children if he is properly answered. I am opposed to suppressing the Communist Party because I am opposed to putting air-tight dressings on septic wounds. But all this has nothing to do with any radical, truly radical, approach to the problems of youth in America in 1964. The Reds are as abstract and remote as the sociologists and head shrinkers.

One thing the kids at Cal Med asked for was concrete enough — proper sex education in the schools. Some of the liberal experts were worried it would overstimulate them! The kids didn’t want it for kicks. As they pointed out again and again, they wanted it because parents, clergy, authorities generally, were not fulfilling their responsibilities.

This is something almost all educators and public health workers in San Francisco are most emphatically for. What stands in the way?

And finally, in the same paper was a story about the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution and its warning that we are rushing into a world in which labor power, old-fashioned virtuous hard work, will be obsolete. What are we doing to prepare our adolescents for that? A very great deal less than nothing, but that is another column.

[March 25, 1964]



“Here Begins a New Life . . .”

“Incipit Vita Nova — here begins a new life.” So Dante starts his collection of mystical love poems. So, too, these words could well start the services of the Christian and Jewish rites of spring.

Passover commemorates that night when Israel came out of Egypt and the house of Jacob from amongst the strange people. At a moment in history the Jews escaped from the house of bondage and embarked on a new life, a 3000-year-long adventure of the spirit, full of wonder and danger, martyrdom and glory.

People nowadays often speak of the captivity in Egypt as a period of slavery. As a matter of fact, the Egyptians did not practice slavery in the strict sense of the word; wandering in the desert, the weak-willed looked back to the flesh pots, the ease and luxury of Egypt, to what today we call “security.”

It is spring. The sun crosses into the northern skies and the earth beneath it awakes. Life begins once more its adventure, millions of years old and always new. “Here begins a new life” burgeoning towards harvest and the fruitfulness that precedes the decline of the year. Seeds in the earth, salmon spawn in the water, bear cubs in their caves, men in their affairs — new life begins.

Easter, the old life has died and gone into the tomb and been resurrected, transformed into something more splendid than could be imagined.

Life surely is resurrected in the cycle of the year. The purpose of the great religious rites of the year is to link the drama of nature to the individual lives of men. The materialist critics of the 19th century thought they had disproved Passover or Easter when they demonstrated that they were survivals of a nature worship as old as man. On the contrary, nothing “proves” these holidays better. They are literally holy days, days in which we recall to ourselves the holiness of life itself.

These are the days the ancient Britons celebrated in processions at Stonehenge, days when the Mayans danced before their pyramids in Yucatan, and the Australian blackfellows made pictures of blood and feathers on the desert sands.

Judaism and Christianity give these things a transcendent significance and at the same time apply that significance personally to the life of each individual person — but they are still the days of the immemorial rites of spring, only invisibly transformed.

If I possibly can, I always go out in the country at the beginning of Holy Week, and spend three days walking by myself and thinking in the midst of nature making itself new. It is not just that the ceremonies of the end of the week are more significant if they are realized as an expression of the earth itself; it is easier too if I am surrounded by reborn life to realize that life, always more abundant life, is there in myself, always ready to awake, always moving towards rebirth.

The transcendent meaning of resurrection is all about me in the spring air. The golden tassels on the maple, the bright new leaves on the buckeye — these are signs of the flowering of the spirit, which if I do not prevent it, goes on within myself, all the time.

“Here begins a new life” — there is a world of wonder in which this is always true, life is always new born and radiant with worship — All the works of the Lord, bless the Lord.

It is not easy always to believe this. Spring is cruel too, harvest is purchased at the cost of waste and tragedy. Darkness and mourning precede the lighting of the new fire, the blaze of light, the banks of flowers, the incense. So too in ourselves, there are times when the lights all go out, when there is nothing left but desolation. It is certain that each one of us will face tragedy in our lives, as certain as that we will each face death.

The test of transcendence is what it can transcend. Did the interior vision of the Passover transcend the time when the Angel of Death did not pass over? Did it transcend Buchenwald and Auschwitz? There, then, in the hearts of men and women marching to the gas chambers?

We know it did. Likewise we know the opening into a new life is there in us, in the midst of our individual terrors and desolations and debaucheries and degradations. Why or how is a mystery. We can never explain it, and this is why Easter keeps its ancient meaning, the mysterious meaning that it shares and proves with Stonehenge.

[March 29, 1964]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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