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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1964

Pork Barrel in Harlem
The Invasion of Northern California
Culture on the Go
Disappearing Farmland
Descendants of the Heroic Negro Past
San Francisco Swimming
Wonder and Meditation in the Sierras
Community Planlessness
Mysticism, Ethical and Chemical




Pork Barrel in Harlem

Wednesday I did a piece on Harlem. I would like to return to the subject. Rather, I don’t like to at all, I’m sick of it, but I think I should. All the voices of the public, the pundits and the solons, the columnists and the editors, the spokesmen for Left and Right and Black and White, are busy hunting for scapegoats — those ancient devices for shedding one’s own guilt.

The riots were an explosion of senseless violence, motivated by hopeless and hopelessly ignorant frustration, and were essentially self-destructive. Rioters and police alike were expendable and expended.

Behind them, rank upon rank, Negro and white, stood the community of New York and the community of all America. Pusillanimity, indifference, self-seeking, demagogy, graft and corruption, irresponsibility, charlatanism, merciless exploitation, and again and again, indifference — this was their brief harvest.

Before the “war on poverty” has even begun, $118 million has been appropriated to Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU). Already in the field was the Associated Community Teams (ACT), which has now merged with the new organization.

Some time ago, on the floor of the House, Representative Gross of Iowa questioned the grant of $250,000 to ACT. He said he had read that $187,000 had been spent on personnel and for rent of property reportedly owned by Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Since that time Powell has marched over all opposition to control of this first installment on what promises to be a bottomless pork barrel.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, perhaps the leading Negro social scientist, and a dedicated man, tried to lead the opposition to Powell, tried to insist that the program be free of politics and graft. Suddenly he found that he was without followers. Finally Mayor Wagner, using Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the Urban League, as an instrument, “persuaded” Clark to back away. Back away from what? Adam Clayton Powell.

If this is what happens before the public eye when a most qualified and committed black man tries to insist on responsible behavior — what do you think goes on amongst the slum landlords, the Mafia-Negro lords of dope and gambling, the politicians, the crooked contractors, the race leaders, the corrupt representatives of law and order, out of sight, out of all public control, year after year after year, in Harlem, on Chicago’s South Side, in other Negro ghettos, ever since the First World War?

The industrial system of the Machine Age could not afford Negro slavery. We fought a war to establish that fact. The South refused to accept it and lagged far behind the rest of the country in the development of modern capitalism. The new technology of automation and electronics, the post-capitalist system of the last quarter of this century cannot afford, purely as business enterprise, racial discrimination or poverty or slums. If we refuse to accept that, we will eventually go under, or at the best become a social and economic anachronism, a kind of vast Balkans — fifty Mississippis.

We have put up with a race or color caste at the bottom of our society which did not, as they say, “bottom out” our economy with a minimum base level. On the contrary, it cut a hole in the bottom. Harlem or Mississippi, these are holes in the boat through which all value drained away for years and through which now the well-known tides of change are flooding. The boat will founder unless we do something.

Act? Yes indeed, but something far more decisive than Adam’s ACT. We need a massive attack on every aspect of the problem, all along the line. We need leaders of both races who will come up with solid concrete programs which can be implemented beginning right now — not hysterical cries of personal frustration from delicate Negro novelists and truculent jazz musicians.

Instead, what do we get? In the same paper with my column on Harlem there was an exchange of letters about racial imbalance in the schools between the Council for Civic Unity and Dr. James Stratten, president of the San Francisco Board of Education. Dr. Stratten’s letter was worthy of the satirical invention of Richard Wright or Chester Himes. It was an example of sanctimonious issue dodging so far fetched as to be scarcely believable.

But this is an issue that cannot be dodged — it’s a locomotive coming around the mountain and if the track isn’t cleared there is going to be a terrible smashup. White backlash and black backlash and Casey Jones caught in the middle.

[August 2, 1964]



The Invasion of Northern California

Saturday I was down to “Music at the Vineyards.” This is one of the most satisfactory experiences available in Northern California, one of the reasons I live here. The music is lovely, the site, high above the Santa Clara Valley, as spectacular as most anything in Italy. We drove down as we usually do, along the Skyline, but we came back by the freeway. Again, the Skyline is as fine a drive as any road out of a city anywhere, and I take it whenever I can.

How long will it last? Like a firebreak, it now separates the Water Reservation from the developers and everything to the east will soon be built up. Next step, an eight-lane freeway, connecting with a concrete-covered Golden Gate Park, to handle the commuter traffic. San Mateo Country has long agitated for recreational use of the Spring Valley Water Reservation and they say Mayor Shelley is seriously considering opening it up. I am totally opposed to this idea at this time.

San Francisco’s water, once, with Seattle’s, the purest of any big city’s, is now “mysteriously” polluted. There is no mystery about it. The bugs do not come from Mars or Moscow by space ship — they come from the present abuse of the watershed by uncontrolled development. I am all in favor of turning the whole Santa Cruz Range into a recreation area, or even a park, but the water reservation should not be thrown open until it is protected by the most elaborate safeguards.

Nor should San Mateo County be presented with the gift of a park for which they pay nothing. Already little San Francisco, seven by seven miles, provides all the important social and cultural services for a metropolitan area extending from Vallejo to Gilroy to Stockton. Our narrow tax base supports the “creative leisure” of millions.

What is called “California” around the world, with grimaces of distaste, is rapidly invading what is called, everywhere, “San Francisco” with smiles of almost personal pride. Everybody is glad San Francisco exists.

Like Milwaukee, which I recently visited, “Los Angeles” is an uncontrollable human error of which everybody, but especially the residents, is secretly ashamed. Los Angeles is at our gates, clad in bikinis and dark glasses, pushing its shopping carts, waving its bawling transistors, clouding the air with carcinogens delicately scented with “My Sin.”

Unless the Association of Bay Area Governments can overcome this region’s obsession with cheap taxes, its bitter parochialism, its petty politics, Northern California is going to be a wilderness of freeways, super hot dogs, chromium flea bags, and automobile graveyards within ten years. Then I am in favor of picking San Francisco up bodily and moving it, bay window by bay window, to Denmark or Uruguay.

One of the most startling things, so easily observed in the proliferation of lights year by year below “Music at the Vineyards,” is the way we are obliterating our unmatchable agricultural base — but more of that next Wednesday.

[August 5, 1964]



Culture on the Go

Since I’ve been back from Milwaukee, it’s just been go, go, go. Shakespeare at Stanford, Shakespeare in the Park, The Duchess of Malfi at Stanford, Music in the Vineyards, Lulu at the Playhouse, Nineteenth Century Art at the Legion, Ballet ’64, a show of local artists at the S.F. Museum — that’s all I remember, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Oh yes, Ronnie Davis’s Tartuffe and the new Negro group — the Aldrich Players.

People write in to the boss, “How can you assign such a fearless and astute commentator on politics and community affairs to chatter about art galleries and concerts?” Others, “You filthy mongrel Communist, why don’t you stick to the crazy so-called art of your beatnik friends and stop discussing national and civic issues you know nothing about? I wouldn’t let you marry my sister.”

Rarely am I assigned to anything. I write as I please. That used to be the title of a column somebody ran in my youth and it could well be mine.

I get far less interference from The Examiner than I do from the liberal weeklies, or the illiberal ones, for which I write sometimes. What the column tries to give is the picture of mature, male, civilized, tolerant living in San Francisco. The only thing I belong to is the Sierra Club, and I often disagree with them.

First, let’s go back over that list for some snap judgments. I much prefer the helter-skelter amateurism of the bunch that gave Shakespeare at the Hall of Flowers to the self-conscious performances of the San Diego and Ashland companies. I guess I’m just what we used to call in The Industry a B picture aesthete, but I love high school performances of Julius Caesar in bed sheets. The commercial Broadway theater I find absolutely unendurable. The highbrow theater I find rigid, each group after its kind, and, compared with the theater of the first quarter of the century, artistically reactionary.

I think “Shakespeare in the Park” should be a permanent feature of San Francisco life. BUT, it should be free, it should be outdoors, it should include one play by each of the local groups which would be willing to put one on . . . everybody, the Playhouse, the International Repertory Theater, the Interplayers, the Aldrich Players, the Mime Troupe, and so on.

Usually the academic theater is fresh and imaginative. I found The Duchess of Malfi pretty empty as a production. It is one of the very greatest plays ever written and I do hope somebody with a lot of talent and daring and, most important, feeling for its soul-probing poetry, puts it on soon someplace hereabouts.

Ballet ’64 is the high point of the S.F. Ballet to date. No company gets more workout than ours does, and it is beginning to show. Last year the boys, many of them new, were all at sixes and sevens. This year they’re polished and honed to a fine edge of skill and sensitivity. No other company offers such opportunities to its members to do their own choreography. It sure pays off.

The new ballets were splendid. Most of them were comic, but what is now being learned in comedy will be assimilated later in large, serious forms, and we will discover that we have evolved a new and distinctive San Francisco Style. Already we have broken away from the all-pervading dictatorship of George Balanchine.

There is a similar breakaway in the painting at the S.F. Museum. It’s a long time since I’ve left those halls thoroughly pleased and content with what I’d seen. Modern painting so often alternates between, or combines, sterile modernist academicism and commercial racketeering. My friends Bill Brown and Deborah Remington and the rest have really managed to come up with painting that is new, highly personal, and that insists it be taken seriously.

What does all this mean to The City, to the general public? It means that we offer, second only to New York, the amenities of civilized living. And who wants them? The technical and professional people essential to the business enterprise of the last third of the century.

A city like Milwaukee, where “Cultcha” is in the hands of quarreling elderly society women and artists are treated like trained dogs, is hopelessly trapped in the Industrial Age of mechanical production and exploitation of gross labor power. Someday the purulent fecal bacteria that pollute Lake Michigan will crawl out of the lake and get in the beer vats, and the Beer Barons will cry, “Where is that biochemist we hired two years ago?” and the superintendant will reply, “He broke his contract and fled. He is out in San Francisco digging Stockhausen’s new ballet.”

[August 9, 1964]



Disappearing Farmland

I have before me a copy of the northern California magazine, The Redwood Rancher, open to a pair of pictures. One is of rolling hills covered with vineyards, orchards, and beyond them, savannahs where milk cows graze. The other is of the same country — “after taking” — covered with tract houses that look like well-scrubbed Tokyo slums. They occupy the former agricultural land.

Above them the grazing land, still untouched, stretches away into limitless distances. What’s going on here? What’s coming off here?

The Santa Clara Valley was once the most productive region of the state, watered by artesian wells, covered with high-money crops on the lowlands, vineyards on the slopes, milk shed on the hills, and above to the west, dense forests. What is it now? We are doing things backwards.

Of California’s three to four million acres of class-one cropland, roughly one million has been urbanized. We have lost two and a half million acres altogether from approximately sixteen million possibly arable. We spend millions developing marginal acres and crop and irrigation types and techniques. At the same time we lose 140,000 acres each year of land formerly in highly productive field crops with more than one harvest, and in fruit, nuts, vegetables and melons.

Not only that, smog and other abuse attendant on urbanization or suburbanization damages the adjacent croplands and wasteful use of available water deprives them of irrigation resources.

If these tendencies continue unrestrained a little simple arithmetic will show you that in less than a generation California will become a land of eroded hillsides and hydroponic tomatoes in the windows of rose-covered slums. Already the citrus crop has moved north of the Tehachapi, and is now being harried by the subdividers in the San Joaquin. Whole specialty crops have disappeared altogether from California. The same thing is at least as well along in Florida. It does not require much imagination to foresee the day when the fruit and fresh vegetable basket will be empty and we will be living on milk, beef, grains, and synthetic gunk made from tank-grown chlorella micro-organisms.

What is the answer? This is just one more of those dilemmas in late twentieth century life where irresistible forces are deadlocked with immovable objects. There are two simple answers. Remove class-one cropland from urban development completely and facilitate financing of marginal land use for residential tracts. Will this happen? Almost certainly not.

Apathy, ignorance, voter resistance — you can emotionalize the Redwoods or Bodega Bay, but it is a lot harder to emotionalize a prune or a tomato. Contrariwise, the San Jose, Walnut Creek, Napa, Sonoma regions are proud of what they are doing to themselves. Someday they’ll be sorry, but then it will be too late.

[August 12, 1964]



Descendants of the Heroic Negro Past

Last week I was down to Asilomar to a four-day conference on the Negro Writer in America. I suppose to people to whom the subject and all its problems were new, it was an educative experience. Maybe I’ve been around too long. After a couple of days of being told all about how we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys, I began to suffer from elastic fatigue, like an overworked bridge. No doubt we are and they are, but I’ve known it since infancy.

The meeting was a tense one. Goldwater had been nominated. The Harlem riots were in full swing. Everybody was just a little too emotional. Most of the speakers, whether they wished it or not, became pretty charismatic under the pressures of audience response and performer projection.

They were perfectly justified. The situation is unimaginably worse than most all white men and a very large percentage of Negroes can even comprehend. The options are closing in places like Harlem. Soon there will be no option at all.

At present the newspapers hunt for leaders. The grim fact is there are no leaders. Many of the speakers at Asilomar persisted in talking of the Harlem riots and other recent riots as though they were demonstrations that had gone awry. They were nothing of the sort. They were riots: explosions of anger with no objective but vengeance and escape from hopeless frustration.

As for the nomination, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, but especially if we are Republicans, we had better face the fact that some of the Negroes in this country are saying, “I have always considered myself an American Negro, but I am beginning to wonder how totally committed I should be to a nation in which even a sizable minority would nominate such a man on such a program.” Don’t write in and tell me I’m anti-Goldwater. I am simply stating a fact that needs to be taken into consideration. I heard such sentiments from writers, school teachers, social workers, housewives, journalists — all sorts of people.

Such patterns of action and reaction make for ominous thunder and blinding flashes of illumination but they do not cast a steady light on problems which are obscure, tortured and yet so impossibly simple of solution. And of course, such emotional pressures kept pushing the conference away from a discussion of the specific problems of the American Negro writer and turning it into a civil rights rally.

I did learn one thing, something I had always suspected. I said to Arna Bontemps, himself a Creole of color and a gentleman of letters of the type who once made French literature so greatly humane, “When I was a little boy, there lived next to us, on a farm we had in Michigan, a famous agronomist who taught at the nearby agricultural college. He was a descendant of the educated freemen who had been driven out of the Carolinas in the bitter reaction to the slave revolts before the Civil War. His ancestors and mine had been associated as conductors on the Underground Railway. On the wall of his study were pictures of John Mercer Langston, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and signed photographs of Mary Church Terrell and Ida Wells Barnett. I would sit with his children on the banks of the swimming hole that formed the border of our two meadows, and listen to him tell us stories of the heroic Negro past.

“What happened to those children? What happened to all the children of the Negro elite of the years before the First World War? Why should it be necessary for a State Department official this very day to bawl out the leading Negro fraternity because their members and all the Negro middle class are so apathetic in defense of their own people? There are no Negro doctors, lawyers, dentists, insurance brokers at this conference. Did the descendants of the great men and women of the past all migrate to Canada?”

Arna Bontemps replied, “As a teacher, I have met descendants of John Mercer Langston who did not know who their great ancestor was and who were embarrassed when I told them about him. They, like most other middle-class Americans, have been snowed under by the standards of the television culture.”

I suppose so. There must be descendants of Thomas Jefferson or Daniel Shay, Francis Wright, Victoria Claffin or Robert Dale Owen abroad in the land. I have never met them and I doubt if I ever will in the circles I frequent.

[August 16, 1964]



San Francisco Swimming

Don’t get the idea that The Examiner has decided in secret conclave around the mahogany table to mount some sort of campaign — the discussion of Fleishhacker Pool and related matters results from a moment of happy inspiration. The response, as they say, has been gratifying. I too want to respond. Swimming facilities in San Francisco have bothered me for years.

Long ago, when it was first built, Fleishhacker Pool was unfenced, lighted, open after working hours, and all winter. Quite a few people used to swim in the ocean, at Baker and China Beaches, and where the Marina Green and Yacht Harbor are now, and at what is now Aquatic Park. You could see somebody in the water every day of the year.

Neptune Beach and other spots around the Bay did a thriving business. So did Sutro and Lurline Baths. So did Crystal Plunge with its unheated salt water, where Charles Sava turned out a succession of champions. In addition, the restaurant above Fleishhacker was, as city concessions go, a pretty good place to eat — and then there was Tait’s at the beach.

Nowadays, after dark, the area around Fleishhacker Pool is one of the most disorderly spots in California. Why not develop the pine woods as a sort of outdoor café, light the pool, raise the windbreak a little higher and the water temperature just a few degrees, fence off the entire section instead of the pool, reactivate the restaurant, and invite the “hooligans” in?

Of course it would present quite a problem in keeping order, but no worse than it does now, and I suspect you’d get enthusiastic cooperation in self-policing from the majority of the adolescent customers. As it is, the pool is inadequately used at any time and the whole neighborhood is dangerous after dark. Roofing the thing is prohibitively expensive and I doubt if it would increase its use. Of course it is ridiculous to close it “for the winter” just as San Francisco’s best weather sets in. And, overtime or no, it should be available at least for the daylight hours after work.

We need another Olympic standard pool, a swimmers’ pool. I can’t imagine a better use for the Fine Arts Palace main building. We forget that this place was open once and proved impractical for precisely the uses now proposed for it — concerts, art fairs, tennis courts, etc., etc. — nothing worked. It surely would make a good big covered pool. But would its curvature disqualify it as “Olympic”?

The neighborhood pools are fine, but they are too small and they are monopolized by battalions of school kids, and closed up just when adults want to use them. What we need in San Francisco is swimmers. Proportionate to the increase in population over the past generation, we seem to be growing more and more afraid of the water.

[August 19, 1964]



Wonder and Meditation in the Sierras

When you read this I will be far away in a tent in the High Sierras with my daughters, Mary and Katharine. This time we are going up to Tuolumne Meadows and have ourselves spot-packed — that is, we will ride in on horseback and have our stuff carried on mules and when we’re ready to come out they’ll come and get us.

This is about the most comfortable way to camp in high, wild country, off the beaten track. It cuts down your mobility, but it is more comfortable than traveling every day, and usually cheaper. The Curry Company packers know all sorts of places where you can be pretty much by your lonesome for your vacation and only a day’s ride from the road.

People often speak of going into the wilderness to get away from it all. Maybe that is what I did when I was young, because I remember months together spent alone or with my first wife, Andrée, living out of a rucksack and seldom seeing anybody. The Sierras were less used then and it was easier to do.

We spent our time in meditation and wonder — climbing is an exercise of wonder and fishing is an exercise of meditation — gathering our strength from within ourselves. When we would see people in the distance, we would avoid them, and we were always irritable when we had to come down for supplies and mix briefly with other humans.

I guess that is what age does, what they call maturing, because now my motives seem to me quite the opposite. I go to the mountains not to get away from it, but to get with it. As 11 months roll by I feel myself getting more and more mechanical in my attitude towards other men. Imperceptibly men take on the masks and costumes of causes and tendencies, and classes and forces and ideologies and all the false faces of generalization with which we classify human beings.

The most mortal of sins, said Immanuel Kant, is to consider another man as an instrument or a means and not as an end in himself. Yet our whole society strives, inhumanly and insensibly, to make instruments of us all, one to the other. We are all corrupted by a world in which everything and everyone is a means to something else. I resist it always, but it creeps over me like an infection, the virus that turns each other man, himself an “I” like myself, into a thing in my eyes — and so secretly turns me slowly to a thing likewise.

So if I go away for a little and associate with rocks and stars and flowers and fish, the living perspective comes back. Alice over in Africa, the President in the White House, the murderer on Death Row, the Pope in the Vatican, the people that pass in the street — they cease to represent anything but themselves — human like myself. They aren’t Marxists or Catholics or Democrats or Americans or Eskimos or Negroes. They’re just like me. We’re all here together and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Some people find great comfort in repeating that all men are immortal souls, equally precious in the sight of God. That is an estimable sentiment and a great truth. Sometimes I think we use it to dodge the issue — we think of an abstraction called “all men” stretching indefinitely away like a fresco of heaven by Fra Angelico, all equipped with haloes, harps and beatific smiles and all very much alike.

It is August, and as I lie under the sky of late summer and watch the Great Nebula of Andromeda swim past overhead — a cloud of millions of stars all as big as our sun — I think of the world down below the mountains. There are over 2 billion men out there. Each one of them is an animal like me, naked under his clothes. Under his skin his body is full of blood and bones and meat and mysterious capsules and sponges which hold his life. Sometimes these things hurt him and one day they stop working and he dies and decays away. He doesn’t represent anything except himself, a self called Barry or Nikolai or Wang or Nkekerere. There will never be another one like him. Each one of him swims by my imagination like the Andromeda Nebula, a 2-billion-fold cloud, and each one of him says to me the word that denies absolutely that he can ever be a thing, the word I call myself — “I.”

[August 23, 1964]



Community Planlessness

Looking back over the columns of the last few Wednesdays, I am impressed by how many of them are concerned with problems which arise from community planlessness, inertia, leave well enough alone, and everybody for himself. As the world grows more complicated and more crowded, the old free and easy ways don’t work anymore.

Today the conservative is the conservationist. If we are going to preserve the values of the past, or the democratic way of life, or free enterprise, or rugged individualism, or competition, or the capitalist system, we have to plan. We have to plan imaginatively, and expertly, and we have to conserve valuable resources and human relationships.

That is why people have called the new Radical Right not conservative but reactionary. The Good Old Days of everybody for himself are largely legendary, but insofar as they ever existed, we can no longer afford them, and attempts to go back to them only cripple and will eventually destroy the very thing they try to preserve — free enterprise in life as well as in economics.

It is precisely Karl Marx’s argument that capitalism cannot plan rationally and that its dog-eat-dog chaos will eventually destroy it from within. Marx wrote almost nothing about socialism. What he did say was vague, exhortative, and utopian. His book is called Capital, not Socialism. It describes an economic system of irrational forces which is headed for breakdown because of its failure to take account of human needs. Soon it will be a hundred years old and capitalism has not broken down yet, although reading his book it is difficult to understand how it could have lasted a week.

The answer, of course, is that we do plan, we do take account of human needs, we do try to envisage our own future creatively.

In the give and take of social bargaining that goes on in our economic life and in which the government has come to act as overseer, we do work out plans that enable each contending force to act as freely as may be in the joint enterprise in which we are all partners. We have in fact always done this, even in the 19th century when theorists preached unbridled competition and the principle that the compounding of a multitude of individual evils would result in the common good.

We are drawing to the close of an era of safe and sane government in the Bay Area in which expensive and creative planning was kept at a minimum. For a long time we jes growed. Today in every department of our community affairs we are entering a period of sharpening crisis due to those years of playing it safe. It is our own free enterprise that is being strangled by lack of expertise, lack of vision, lack of accepted authority.

All the struggling and seesawing going on now in a dozen different fields is going to have to reach a tipover point soon, into regions of large daring and creative consensus accompanied with popular knowledge and enthusiasm. If we don’t tip over that way, we are going to tip over backwards into deadlock and decay.

[August 26, 1964]



Mysticism, Ethical and Chemical

For me, camping in the high mountains is a time of recollection and ordering of thought and attitudes. It is an examination of conscience for the bygone year, like the examen that a monk makes each night before he goes to sleep. This year I took along on the mules’ pack saddles some Chinese poetry, some French poetry, natural history and astronomy field manuals for the children, and some books on religion — a new selection of Baron Friedrich von Hügel, Spiritual Counsel and Letters of F. von Hügel edited by Douglas Steere, and a couple of more recent writers, notably Alan Watts.

Von Hügel has given me counsel and illumination ever since I discovered him when I was about 15. I think he remains the most profound, the most sensitive and incomparably the most balanced and sane religious writer of the 20th century, and one of the greatest minds produced by the Roman Catholic Church in modern times. Not so long ago he was under suspicion as a “modernist.”

Today his ideas have gained their way beyond his fondest expectation, and if anything he seems a little conservative and cautious. His reputation has been rehabilitated, but I wonder how many people read him? They should, Catholics especially, because he was wise medicine against the sickness of the age.

So much modern writing on religion preaches a religion without tears, visions without responsibility. Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts have been engaged for years now in popularizing and making available to the lower-middle-class masses in the rose-covered slums and the Zenicks in the cold-water flats a bargain-rate illumination that can be taken without work. In fact, Huxley before he died, and Watts now, advocate buying it at the drugstore. Lysergic acid is the answer — the Beatific Vision at 50 cents a shot. After you’ve gone through cannabis sativa, peyote, methys and old-fashioned junk and seen the face of the Pharmaceutical Absolute, there’s always Synanon or a Federal Hospital to clean you up and start you over again.

This is the sad end of North Beach Zen Buddhism and the whole postwar craze for ecstasy on the cheap. It is obvious why this came about. Heard, Huxley and Watts are full of snide remarks about superficial dogmas, moralistic codes, Victorian hypocrisy, the whole vocabulary of abuse you can hear at any cocktail party. The word for this is antinomianism. Coupled with this is their own dogma that all religions are one. All are concerned with the revelation of one identical procedure for the attaining of ecstasy, all the hard-won distinctions for which men have fought wars and burned each other merge in one sentimental mush flavored with dimestore incense. The word for this is Gnosticism.

Instead of one of those outworn moralistic codes, the ethical systems of the vulgarizers of religion are simplicity itself — all you have to do is buy a paperback book at the drugstore one week and come back and buy a bottle of LSD the next, and whooey—! You can be Buddha. The word for this is charlatanism.

As a matter of fact, all religions do hold certain principles in common. One of them is that the experience of illumination, the ecstasy of the mystic, comes unexpectedly to most people for a brief moment or two in their lives as a special grace, but that otherwise it occurs only as the final fruit of a life lived far more responsibly than ordered by even the strictest of those moralistic codes. The Catholic contemplative, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, follow counsels of perfection — illumination comes as the crown of a life of intense ethical activism, of honesty, loyalty, poverty, chastity, and above all charity, positive, out-going love of all creatures. The good life creates the ambience into which spiritual illumination flows like a sourceless, totally diffused light.

One of the most noticeable things about the doctrines of the modern mystagogues is that their goal, the object of their striving, grows ever more unreal, more abstract. Better, said Chesterton, worship a wooden idol than The Absolute. The ground of being is not an abstraction — it is a concretion.

If the word God means anything, it means the most real thing there is, incomparably more real than anything else. The religious man does not seek the experience, just as an experience for himself — a kick, he seeks the reality, and may not notice that he so much as has an experience. It is this distinction that makes all the difference.

[August 30, 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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