The Relevance of Rexroth

Chapter 2: Magnanimity and Mysticism



HOFUKU (pointing at mountains): “Is not this Reality?”

CHOKEI: “It is, but it’s a pity to say so.”1


If I had to pick out a single text to exemplify what I like about Rexroth it would probably be his essay on the classic Chinese novels. In this passage he is characterizing the virtues of those vast, marvelous books:

What are these virtues? First, an absolute mastery of pure narrative. Second, humanity. Third, as the synthesis of virtues one and two, a whole group of qualities that should have some one name — reticence, artistic humility, maturity, objectivity, total sympathy, the ability to reveal the macrocosm in the microcosm, the moral universe in the physical act, the depths of psychological insight in the trivia of happenstance, without ever saying anything about it, or them — the “big” things, that is. This is a quality of style. It is the fundamental quality of the greatest style. It does have a name, although it is not a term we usually think of as part of the jargon of literary criticism. The word is magnanimity. The antonym, I guess, is self-indulgence.2

He goes on to deplore the self-indulgence in one form or another of virtually all twentieth-century writers, from Proust and Henry James to Kerouac and on down. Then he singles out one notable exception, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, the only “completely adult major novel of my time”:

Ford didn’t label his thesis; he probably didn’t know he had one in that sense. His characters didn’t philosophize about it. He didn’t snoop around in their minds with a lot of jargon. Nobody’s consciousness streamed. It all just happened, like it does, and you were left with that — the brutal and the silly and the beautiful facts. It is so easy to be artistic. It is so hard to be mature.3

Variations on this theme recur throughout Rexroth’s writings. In great drama, he says, “psychological and moral depth must be there, but there only to be discovered by those in the audience who themselves have such depth. These qualities cannot be written on the surface or they destroy the integrity of the action.”4 Whereas he agrees with Ford that “Dostoievsky was guilty of the worst possible taste in making his characters discuss the profundity of the very novel in which they were taking part.”5 “The troubled souls of Dostoievsky’s novels are not grown men. They talk endlessly about things that adults learn it is better to keep quiet about. Tragedy ceases to be impressive when it is so garrulously articulate, and at last even to be believable.”6 Rexroth has a special fondness for certain writers who embody a quiet, modest, unselfconscious wisdom — the biographer-fisherman Izaak Walton, the amateur naturalist Gilbert White, the antislavery Quaker John Woolman — while he detests the vanity of artists who glory in their supposedly special role:

Michelangelo was surely
A noisy man, and terribly
Conceited. After all, nothing
Ever happened to him that
Doesn’t happen to all of us.
If you have a tragedy to
Portray, you should be humble
About it, you are serving
The bread of communion.7

In his essay on Julius Caesar’s writings he says: “Masterfully concealed in The Gallic War and The Civil War is a philosophy of human relationships that only maturity can comprehend or even recognize. The masterful concealment, of course, is an essential part of the maturity.”8 The same thing might be said of Rexroth’s own writings. For my purposes in this book I have tended to cite his most explicit pronouncements, but if you read him through you will see that he usually deals with the “big things” with a light touch, and often leaves them implicit, to be discerned between the lines.

But if ever he does reveal his life philosophy, and even sum up its central themes in a single word, it is in that essay on the Chinese novels. Which continues:

During the Second World War I knew a little Quaker from a farm in Indiana who traveled around the country at his own expense and got up in First Day meetings to recite Webster’s definition of magnanimity. He had “come with this concern to thee, because thee might find it helpful.” This is the definition:
      “magnanimity, n.; pl. ­ties. (F. magnanimité, L. magnanimitas.) 1. Quality of being magnanimous; that quality or combination of qualities in character enabling one to encounter danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, to disdain injustice, meanness, and revenge, and to act and sacrifice for noble objects. 2. A deed or a disposition characterized by magnanimity. 3. Grandiose temperament; extravagance of soul. Rare.”
      Having said that the little old Quaker sat down and next week appeared at another meeting. It certainly did help me, probably more than any other words in those hideous years.
      No artist belongs in the very first rank who is the victim of his creations. Only this special kind of nobility guaranteed the independence of the primary creators. Homer has it, but Dante does not. It is a kind of courage, like Johnson’s famous “Courage, Sir, is the first of virtues, because without it, it is sometimes difficult to exercise the others.”9

It is the courage to endure the inevitable “ruin of all bright things,” to face the fact that “love does not last forever, friends betray each other, beauty fades, the mighty stumble in blood and their cities burn.”10 The “message” of Homer, as Rexroth approvingly paraphrases it, is that the universe has no inherent meaning, everything is ephemeral, the only values are those that people create in relation with each other. “The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of men in direct communication with each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and its meaning, and from nowhere else.”11

This may sound rather “existential,” but nothing is more foreign to Rexroth than what he calls the “angst for angst’s sake” of the “paralyzed rabbit metaphysics of existentialism.” “I do not respond to the ‘existentialist dilemma’ at all. Its inventor, Søren Kierkegaard, has always seemed to me a sick man who treated his girl friend wretchedly. A man ‘badly in need of help’ as the head-shrinkers say. . . . I do not look on my Being every hour as a dreadful meeting with reality. I like it.”12

If Rexroth often evokes the “tragic sense of life,” at other times his works reveal a more mystical consciousness. These two attitudes would seem to contradict each other, but he appears to treat them as complementary, equally valid perspectives — sometimes contrasting them, as in the dialectic of his philosophical reveries, sometimes combining them, as in his plays, which have tragic Greek themes but which, like Japanese Nô plays, culminate not in a dramatic climax but in a transcendent resolution of karmic entanglements.13

He describes his point of view as “a religious anarchism” or an “ethical mysticism,” and in one place, in lieu of elaborating, he refers the reader to some of his major influences: “For better statements, I refer you to the work of Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, D.H. Lawrence, Boehme, D.T. Suzuki, Piotr Kropotkin, or, for that matter, to the Gospels and the sayings of Buddha, or to Lao Tze and Chuang Tze.”14 This may seem a rather eclectic list, but it does give a good idea of the different facets of his “religious” philosophy. Which might be summed up in his lines:

What is taken in
In contemplation is poured out
In love.15

In his autobiography Rexroth describes an experience he had when he was four or five years old, sitting on the curb in front of his house in early summer:

An awareness, not a feeling, of timeless, spaceless, total bliss occupied me or I occupied it completely. I do not want to use terms like “overwhelmed me” or “I was rapt away” or any other that would imply the possession of myself by anything external, much less abnormal. On the contrary, this seemed to me to be my normal and natural life which was going on all the time and my sudden acute consciousness of it only a matter of attention.16

In their deepest and most enduring form such “mystical” experiences are often associated with meditation and spiritual discipline; but Rexroth implies that the same awareness comes to all of us at moments, though we may scarcely know what is happening, and it is strangely easy to forget as we once again become caught up in the compulsive turmoil of the world.

The peace which comes from the habit of contemplation . . . is not rare nor hard to find. It offers itself at moments to everyone, from early childhood on, although less and less often if it is not welcomed. It can be seized and trained and cultivated until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life. Without it life is only turbulence, from which eventually meaning and even all intensity of feeling die out in tedium and disorder.17

“At the core of life,” he says in his essay on the Tao Te Ching, “is a tiny, steady flame of contemplation.”18 Even without knowing anything about it, people instinctively return to this “quiet center.” It is always there, even amid the most turbulent situations; but some scenes are especially conducive.

Whoever wrote the little psalms of the Tao Te Ching believed that the long calm regard of moving water was one of the highest forms of prayer. . . . Many sports are actually forms of contemplative activity. Fishing in quiet waters is especially so. Countless men who would burst out laughing if presented with a popular vulgarization of Zen Buddhism, and who would certainly find it utterly incomprehensible, practice the contemplative life by flowing water, rod in hand, at least for a few days each year. As the great mystics have said, they too know it is the illumination of these few days that gives meaning to the rest of their lives.19

Rexroth’s nature poems are full of such experiences. In this one he is lying under the stars:

My body is asleep. Only
My eyes and brain are awake.
The stars stand around me
Like gold eyes. I can no longer
Tell where I begin and leave off.
The faint breeze in the dark pines,
And the invisible grass,
The tipping earth, the swarming stars
Have an eye that sees itself.20

Sometimes, as above, the experiences are described more or less explicitly. More often they are simply hinted at:

When I dragged the rotten log
From the bottom of the pool,
It seemed heavy as stone.
I let it lie in the sun
For a month; and then chopped it
Into sections, and split them
For kindling, and spread them out
To dry some more. . . .

Late that night, as he steps out of his cabin to look at the stars —

Suddenly I saw at my feet,
Spread on the floor of night, ingots
Of quivering phosphorescence,
And all about were scattered chips
Of pale cold light that was alive.21

This was no doubt a real sequence of events, but at the same time it seems to suggest a parallel inner settling and illumination — and it does this in a manner truer to the “unselfing” character of the process than if he had said I had such and such experiences. As in many of the great Chinese and Japanese poems, a state of mind is conveyed through the lucidity of what at first appears as merely an objective nature scene. The outer landscape corresponds to the inner one, the macrocosm to the microcosm.

In a manner almost reminiscent of Whitman, Rexroth evokes the vastest connections and reflections —

The immense stellar phenomenon
Of dawn focuses in the egret
And flows out, and focuses in me
And flows infinitely away
To touch the last galactic dust. . . .
My wife has been swimming in the breakers,
She comes up the beach to meet me, nude,
Sparkling with water, singing high and clear
Against the surf. The sun crosses
The hills and fills her hair, as it lights
The moon and glorifies the sea
And deep in the empty mountains melts
The snow of Winter and the glaciers
Of ten thousand thousand years.22

In his last poems, mainly written in Japan, these moments of “cosmic consciousness” are expressed in increasingly Buddhist terms — above all in terms of the ultimate vision of the Avatamsaka (Flower Wreath) Sutra:

      the Net of Indra,
The compound infinities of infinities,
The Flower Wreath,
Each universe reflecting
Every other, reflecting
Itself from every other . . .23

Rexroth’s work seems to reflect a significant Zen influence, but actually he was quite critical of many aspects of Zen and professed a greater affinity with other forms of Buddhism. He lambasted popularized Western Zen as an irresponsible, pretentious fad, but he also criticized traditional Japanese Zen for its complicity with military regimes, from the samurai to World War II, and he seems to have had little taste for the cultism and guru worship too often found in Zen as well as in other Oriental religious disciplines. He would no doubt have granted that Zen meditation is one of the most effective ways to cultivate the peace of contemplation “until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life.” But he seemed to feel that too urgent a striving for enlightenment may miss the point. Buddha’s last words are said to have been: “The combinations of the world are unstable by nature. Monks, strive without ceasing.” Rexroth, in a more Taoist frame of mind, advises:

The combinations
Of the world are unstable
By nature. Take it easy.24

The truest illumination, he says, arises as a side-effect of a way of life, not as an experience sought for its own sake.

I believe that an ever-increasing capacity for recollection and transcendence is developed by a kind of life rather than by manipulation. Buddhism is certainly pure religious empiricism. It has no beliefs, only the simply and purely defined religious experience which becomes for the experiencers an always accessible and ever-abiding present reality. The foundation for this is neither nervous-system gymnastics nor theological notions. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, whose culmination is the “unruffledness” — Nirvana — which underlies reality.25

He didn’t think much of the idea of using of psychedelics as a short cut to mystical vision — at most he conceded that they had given many young people their first hint of the “interiority” repressed by middle-class American culture. In this context he often quoted St. John of the Cross: “Visions are symptoms of the defect of vision.” For Rexroth the transcendent religious experience is not a vision of some different, supernatural world, but a reawakened awareness of this one.

The real objects are their own transcendental meaning. . . . The holy is in the heap of dust — it is the heap of dust. . . . True illumination is habitude. We are unaware that we live in the light of lights because it casts no shadow. When we become aware of it we know it as birds know air and fish know water.26

People tend to describe such moments of awareness in terms of their own diverse religious beliefs, but the actual experiences seem to be pretty much the same, and are also found among nonreligious people. Though beyond rational conceptualization, they do not necessarily imply anything supernatural. Rexroth is quite clear about this distinction. He is refreshingly free of New Age gush and too perceptive to be taken in by the superstitions and pseudosciences so widely believed in even today. Recalling the otherwise intelligent people of his own generation who swallowed astrology or Reichian orgone boxes, he observes: “Anyone who had taken a course in high school physics would have known that this stuff was arrant nonsense but the trouble was that these people had lost belief in high school physics along with their belief in capitalism or religion. It was all one fraud to them.”27

He is almost equally skeptical about the scientific pretensions of modern psychology and psychoanalysis. In his amusing article My Head Gets Tooken Apart he describes a time when he was paid by an Institute of Personality Assessment and Research to participate in a three-day investigation of “the creative personality.” After a hilarious account of the battery of tests, interviews and questionnaires he is put through, he concludes:

What did it all mean? Nothing. . . . This unvarnished hokum with which our society intimidates itself is far less effective — far less scientific — than the varnished hokum of other days and peoples. Any Sioux medicine man, any kind and attentive priest, any properly aged grandmother, any Chinese herbalist, could have found out more in a half hour than these people did in three days. . . . I for one would, if I had my rathers, far rather trust myself to the boys in horns and bearskins who painted the Altamira cave.28

Some of the traditional practices, he implies, may at least possess a kernel of intuitive insight into the basic human situations. Hokum or not, people are instinctively drawn to whatever seems to express the psychological or spiritual archetypes, the perennial inner conflicts and relations and aspirations. “What is sought in Alchemy or the Hermetic Books or the Memphite Theology, or irrational fads like flying saucers, is the basic pattern of the human mind in symbolic garb.”29 And that basic pattern is found there because it came from other basically similar minds:

What the Gnostics projected onto the screen of their profound ignorance as a picture of the universe was in reality a picture of their own minds. Its mythology is a symbolic portrayal, almost a deliberate one, of the forces which operate in the structuring and evolution of the human personality . . . an institutionalized panorama of what Jung has called the Collective Unconscious. . . . (This notion, as Jung has pointed out, does not involve any mysterious undersoul shared by all men — it is a collective picture because all men respond to life in much the same way, because they all have the same physiological endowment.) We can operate upon our minds by the manipulation of symbols if not on the cosmos.30

For Rexroth there is no question of believing in the objective validity of any occult or religious system; what he is interested in is the “interiority,” the “values that cannot be reduced to quantities,”31 which may find expression in such forms. Insofar as religion is an attempted explanation of objective reality, it is progressively outmoded by advances in mankind’s knowledge; but it may, he says, have a continued relevance to inner, subjective realities:

Ideally, religion is what would be left after man knew everything. . . . As the speculative constructions of religion fall away as explanations of “reality” they assume the character of symbolic masks of states of the soul. If they persist in the practices of a cult, we say they have been etherialized. It is precisely their irrationality which keeps dogma and ritual alive. If they can be reduced to “common-sense” explanations or denials they die away. Only the mysteries survive, because they correspond to the processes of man’s internal life, outward visible signs of inner spiritual realities.32

Rexroth liked to say, “Religion is something you do, not something you believe.” He had a fond interest in traditional folk-religious rituals and festivals of all sorts, to the point of extolling even their most threadbare modern vestiges. “I don’t care if it takes Daddy a year to pay off the bills for the First Communion Party or the Bar Mitzvah or the wedding. For a moment there has been at least a token acknowledgment that even the poorest and most humdrum life is of transcendent importance, that no individual human being is insignificant.”33 In this spirit he himself participated in various religious communions — Buddhist, Vedantist, Quaker, and even Catholic.

What attracted me [to Catholicism] was not its Christianity, but its paganism. . . . The liturgical life of the Church moved me because it echoes the most ancient responses to the turning of the year and the changing seasons, and the rhythms of animal and human life. For me the Sacraments transfigured the rites of passage . . . . In the rites of passage — the fundamental activities and relationships of life — birth, death, sexual intercourse, eating, drinking, choosing a vocation, adolescence, mortal illness — life at its important moments is ennobled by the ceremonious introduction of transcendence; the universe is focused on the event in a Mass or ceremony that is itself a kind of dance and a work of art.34

Needless to say, he was opposed to practically everything about the Catholic Church except its traditional rituals; but like many people he seems to have taken part in those religious practices that appealed to him and simply ignored the aspects that didn’t. “Today we have large sections of our most literate population voluntarily adopting the religious behavior and beliefs of more primitive communities for purely pragmatic, psychologistic, personal reasons.”35 His Catholicizing was mostly within Anglo-Catholic communions, which offer the rituals while rejecting the central dogmatic authority of the Roman Church.

However that may be, it has always puzzled me how someone like Rexroth could have anything to do with any Christian church. It is one thing to practice some type of meditation or take part in some ritual or festival that everyone understands is simply an arbitrary form to focus one’s life or celebrate communion; it is another to seem to lend credibility to repugnant institutions and to sick dogmas that are still widely believed. As Rexroth himself says in a different mood:

For thousands of years men of good will have been trying to make Judaism and Christianity morally palatable to sane and civilized men. No other religions have ever required such efforts at etherialization. . . . Why do people bother? If they must have a religion, the basic texts of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism need no such reworking. It may be necessary, particularly of the Buddhist documents, to trim off the exotic rhetoric, but it is not necessary to make them mean exactly the opposite of what they say.36

Whatever his personal taste in rituals, Rexroth’s writings on religion are usually lucid enough. As always he is seeking what might be relevant, suggestive, exemplary. In his study of the nineteenth-century radical Catholic Lamennais, for example, it is Lamennais’s “spiritual sensibility” that interests him, “not the details of his changing theology and philosophy.” “His doctrines changed, his life did not, and so it is his life and the literary, one might say, poetic, expression of that life consistency which is important.”37

One thing for sure, there’s nothing puritanical or unworldly about Rexroth’s mysticism. He says that the theme of his poems in The Phoenix and the Tortoise is

the discovery of a basis for the recreation of a system of values in sacramental marriage. The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility — from the Dual to the Other. These poems might well be dedicated to D.H. Lawrence, who died in the attempt to refound a spiritual family.38

Like he said, there is a lot of bullshit in Lawrence — mushy rhetoric, corny primitivism, dated sexual polemics, even vaguely fascistic tendencies. What remains important is his struggle to get back to the primal realities, to restore the vital, organic connections; beginning with the most intimate one. Writing of Lawrence’s love and nature poems, Rexroth says: “Reality streams through the body of Frieda, through everything she touches, every place she steps . . . everything stands out lit by a light not of this earth and at the same time completely of this earth . . . . Beyond Holy Matrimony lies the newly valued world of birds, beasts, and flowers — a sacramentalized, objective world. ‘Look, we have come through’ — to a transformed world, with a glory around it everywhere like ground lightning.” And of his death poems: “Lawrence did not try to mislead himself with false promises, imaginary guarantees. Death is the absolute, unbreakable mystery. Communion and oblivion, sex and death, the mystery can be revealed — but it can be revealed only as totally inexplicable.”39

Rexroth’s own love poems manifest a Lawrencian reverence for sex as an ultimate, unfathomable mystery:

Invisible, solemn, and fragrant,
Your flesh opens to me in secret.
We shall know no further enigma.
After all the years there is nothing
Stranger than this. We who know ourselves
As one doubled thing, and move our limbs
As deft implements of one fused lust,
Are mysteries in each other’s arms.40

Ever so delicately he evokes the fleeting timelessness of the communion of lovers:

The future is long gone by
And the past will never happen
We have only this
Our one forever
So small so infinite
So brief so vast
Immortal as our hands that touch
Deathless as the firelit wine we drink
Almighty as this single kiss
That has no beginning
That will never

Kabbalism or Tantrism or the Song of Songs, he likes to invoke the mysticisms that play on the connection or parallel between human and divine love, that see sex as a sacramental communion, or even as a mode of contemplation:

Love is the subjective
Aspect of contemplation.
Sexual love is one of
The most perfect forms of
Contemplation, as far as it
Is without ignorance, grasping,
And appetite.42

This is what he means by “from the Dual to the Other”:

For the undeveloped heart,
The news or even the sight
Of the destruction of thousands
Of other human beings
May assume only the form
Of a distant cry . . . .
However, as the dual,
The beloved, is known and
Loved more and more fully, all
The universe of persons
Grows steadily more and more real.43

One of Rexroth’s deepest influences was Martin Buber, the Jewish “philosopher of dialogue.” Buber, he says, is “practically the only religious writer a non-religious person could take seriously today.”44 Religious he certainly is, but in a special way that has led his philosophy jokingly but not altogether inaccurately to be called “Zen Judaism.” After an early occasion when he felt that his preoccupation with a special “religious experience” had led him to fail to respond fully to someone who had come to him for help, Buber wrote:

Since then I have given up the “religious” which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fulness but each mortal hour’s fulness of claim and responsibility. . . . If that is religion then it is just everything, simply all that is lived in its possibility of dialogue.45

Buber sees the most fundamental reality neither in subjective experience nor in the objective world, but in the “realm of the between.” “In the beginning is relation.” “All real living is meeting.” In his great I and Thou he distinguishes two basic types of relation: I-It and I-Thou. I-It is a subject-object relation of using or experiencing; the It (or He or She) is only a “thing among things,” susceptible to comparison and categorization. The I-Thou relation is unique, mutual, total, and inevitably temporary. “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”46

Rexroth stresses that Buber’s view is not a sentimental preaching of “sharing” or “togetherness” (“our current Togetherness is simply the massing of frightened cyphers”), nor an advocacy of collectivism as opposed to individualism. “Individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part.”47 Both Buber and Rexroth sharply distinguish collectivity (a collection of units) from genuine community (an ensemble of persons in direct living relations with each other).

Rexroth criticizes Buber on three main points: when he becomes an apologist for Zionism (although Buber’s Zionism at least was never belligerent: he worked arduously for a genuine rapprochement between Jews and Arabs); when he concludes his study of libertarian communalist currents (Paths in Utopia) with too much wishful thinking as to the promise of the early Israeli kibbutzim; and when, in the last part of I and Thou, he arrives at the notion of God as the “eternal Thou.” Rexroth objects to the repugnant aspects of Buber’s biblical God; but more generally he distrusts any sort of “metaphysical greed” for some absolute relation. “Any art which has a happy ending in reserve in Infinity is, just to that degree, cheating. . . . It seems to me that the fullest realization of the self comes in the acceptance of the limits of contingency. It is harder, but more ennobling, to love a wife as another human being, fugitive as oneself, than it is to carry on imaginary conversations with an imaginary Absolute.”48 More fundamentally, however, acceptance of ephemeral, contingent relations is the very essence of Buber’s standpoint; the notion of an “eternal Thou” is not really a necessary implication of his philosophy. “However Martin Buber might disagree doctrinally, take away his God and nothing important in his philosophy has changed. It remains a philosophy of joy, lived in a world full of others.”49

A vital part of Buber’s work is his presentation of Hasidism, a popular mystical movement that arose in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Rexroth discusses at length the history and nature of Hasidism, and how it differs in some ways from Buber’s sophisticated reinterpretation of it; but what stands out regardless is a “holy good humor” and an affirmation of community all too rare in religious movements. Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim somewhat resemble Zen or Taoist or Sufi anecdotes, but they have a more communal and ethical character. Like the latter, they often reveal a decisive event in a person’s life, but this is generally not so much an experience of enlightenment as a moment of inner moral “turning.” There is no definitive spiritual attainment; each new situation, each new encounter, calls for one’s whole being. The Hasidic tales take place in the context of a quite orthodox traditional Judaism, full of superstitions, antiquated social relations and unappealing religious forms; yet in spite of all this,

what comes through most is joy and wonder, love and quiet, in the face of the continuously vanishing world. It is called God’s Will, but the movement of the universe . . . is accepted on very similar terms to those of the Tao Te Ching. Song and dance, the mutual love of the community — these are the values; they are beautiful precisely because they are not absolute. And on this foundation of modesty and love and joy is raised a moral structure which heals and illuminates as hardly any other Western European religious expression does.50

Rexroth is always enthusiastic about these ethical or “world-affirming” mysticisms, always quick to praise and encourage any tendencies toward joining contemplation and community, toward integrating religious life with ordinary life in the world. Mysticism has, of course, more often been used to provide a justification for ignoring ethical responsibilities and social realities. The experience of transcendent unity has been taken to imply that all the suffering and turmoil in the world is only illusory and need not concern us. The paradoxical statements of mysticism (transcendence of duality, “All is one,” etc.) may be appropriate figures of speech to hint at an indescribable experience, they may even be true in a certain sense, but it is confusing different levels of reality to conclude that they are also true in the ordinary sense. The simplest refutation of this sort of transcendental sophistry is to note that even those who preach it take some aspects of worldly life quite seriously (notably the money they charge).

Rexroth never falls for it. Whenever it appears he is quick to denounce it. “The real reason for the popularity of the Occult Ancient East was pointed out long ago by Kipling: ‘Ship me somewhere East of Suez . . . where there ain’t no ten commandments.’ If your religion is just exotic enough, you don’t need to bother about responsibility. You can get away with anything.”51 Nor does Rexroth buy the notion that one must first “heal oneself” before acting in the world. As he often noted, the great mystics of the past are virtually unanimous in insisting that the two go together. “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.”52 A classic statement of priorities by one of the greatest Western mystics: “If a person were in such a rapturous state as St. Paul once entered, and he knew of a sick man who wanted a cup of soup, it would be far better to withdraw from the rapture for love’s sake and serve him who is in need” (Meister Eckhart).53 The same is implied, but with a significant additional nuance that Rexroth especially appreciates, in the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva:

A bodhisattva, in case you don’t know, is one who, at the brink of absorption into Nirvana, turns away with the vow that he shall not enter final peace until he can bring all other beings with him. He does this, says the most advanced Buddhist thought, “indifferently” because he knows that there is neither being nor not-being, neither peace nor illusion, neither saved nor saviors, neither truth nor consequence. This is the reason for that benign, world-weary expression on the faces in Far Eastern religious art.54

But a farseeing compassion ultimately implies opposing the social system that prevents it from being fulfilled. Rexroth adds a modern supplement to the bodhisattva vow:

While there is a lower class,
I am in it. While there is
A criminal element,
I am of it. Where there is
A soul in jail, I am not free.55


Chapter 2 of Ken Knabb’s The Relevance of Rexroth (1990). Reprinted in Public Secrets.

This text as a whole is not copyrighted. However, all the quotations from Kenneth Rexroth are copyrighted. Click the “Notes” link below for details.

[Contents of this book]
[Chapter 1: Life and Literature]
[Chapter 3: Society and Revolution]
[Notes and Bibliography]