Rexroth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco

August-December 1960


The Tao of Fishing
Riding in the Mountains
Japanese Art of Grace and Modesty
Why I Like Opera
Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals
Aida and Ornette Coleman
Matters of Taste
Mathematical Elegance and Classic Fiction


The Tao of Fishing

For the next couple of weeks we are going on a pack trip in the southern Sierra. Nothing startling. We don’t intend to make fires by striking two photographers together, sleep in trees, or dine on muddy dandelions. Just a square type outing,

We will go to Mineral King, above Visalia on the edge of Sequoia National Park, and ride over the hump and have the man leave us with a couple of donkeys. From there on we’ll travel or “set” as we please. If we don’t want to pack up the donkeys and travel, the children can ride them around the meadows. It’s the finest part of the Sierra, the high plateau and peak country just west of Mt. Whitney. If you get off the main trails, as you can with donkeys, it is still pretty unspoiled.

I know plenty of places where there are beautiful lonely lakes, lots of fish, good feed for the donkeys, and few or no people passing by all summer. There are all kinds of peaks to climb if we want to climb them, some you can ride a horse up, others amongst the trickiest in the country.

The red and black Kaweah Range that we will be circling about is the only highly colored group of mountains in the Sierra Nevada, and in my opinion, the most beautiful in California.

For going on 30 years I have spent most of my summers this way. Last year we were in Europe, the year before in the Gros Ventres Mountains in the Wyoming Rockies. I’ll be glad to get back. I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. There I have done the bulk of what is called my creative work. At least it is in the mountains that I write most of my poetry.

Life in the city in the winter seems too full of distractions and busy work. Who said poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility? I don’t know about others, but I find most tranquility camped by a mountain lake at timber line. There whatever past emotion and experience I choose to recollect and write down, take on most depth and meaning.

Dry fly fishing has the same effect on me. It seems to me it is a kind of higher mathematics, practically embodied, of the study of the free flow of water. It combines all the virtues and none of the strains and responsibilities of both art and mysticism. Besides, you catch fish. You don’t have to read books on Zen and Taoism and do funny gymnastics with your breathing and put your legs in painful contortions.

Fly fishing is Taoism in simple and fascinating action. If you let it, it produces, and by much more natural methods, the same results, the crystal clear calm of heart that so many people seek by so much more difficult ways. Maybe if Lao Tse and Bodhidharma had just known about it, they would have been fishermen and not mystics. Of course, you can’t use it, like Zen, to impress gullible chicks in espresso bars. Or can you? I’ve never tried. Maybe I should.

Most men are like that fellow Hercules wrestled with, Antaeus. If they can make contact with the earth every once in a while, they keep their strength. Of course, a lot of people don’t know this, and so they wonder what’s wrong with them [...].

[7 August 1960]

NOTE: This theme is discussed in more detail in two Classics Revisited essays, on the Tao Te Ching and The Compleat Angler.


Riding in the Mountains

Well, we all came back from our pack trip unscathed and fit as fiddles. We decided to go deluxe and ride every day instead of being packed in and left with a couple of donkeys. This, of course, delighted our little girls, and as for father, there’s nothing like 20 or more miles a day on horseback over mountain trails to jar off the grease. [...]

It’s a wonderful way to capture just a little of the feeling of the Old West. In fact, I guess it’s the only way left. When I was a boy, bumming around the West out of Chicago, I bought myself a little zebra dun up in the Horse Heaven Country in central Washington. I rode him all over the intermountain country, drifting from job to job — just like Hashknife Hartley, the Cowboy Detective, or one of Ernest Haycock’s heroes. Each fall I’d board him out where I happened to be, and next spring I’d come back and get him.

I, too, have ambled down off the rimrock to the green homestead in the box canyon, building a wheatstraw “cigareet” with one hand while the sun set over the distant mountains. To my children this will be as improbable as though I claimed to have fought at Waterloo or Thermopylae.

How little time ago, and it’s all gone. Still, you can imagine it back, riding down the switchbacks of Black Rock Pass, the Kaweahs rising in front of you and a lightning storm battering the pinnacles. I can, anyway, and whatever my daughters imagined, they so obviously just loved it.

Nights under the thick stars, dawn swims in the cool mirror of a lonely lake, golden trout that quarrel to climb on your fly, vast stretches of park-like forest where nobody ever comes, meadows like square mile bowling greens full of elderly bucks with top heavy antlers — they are still there. Some day I’ll be too old, but I will still have some wonderful memories to wander in. [...]

[14 August 1960]

NOTE: See Rexroth’s Autobiography for more on his early trips out West.


Art of Grace and Modesty

You’ve got to admit it, the “Season” in San Francisco certainly opens with a bang. Opera, theater, Arts Festival, Pacific Festival, sports, Jazz Festival, even the movies, everything bursts out all over the place. And what a nice “season” it is, too, without a capital — a kind of dreamlike half autumn, half summer — halcyon days straight out of Tennyson’s “Lotus Eaters” or a science-fiction utopia.

For the Pacific Festival the de Young Museum people have put together a splendid Japanese show, gathered mostly from museums on the Pacific coast. Honolulu and Seattle particularly have sent some of their finest things. (Is Honolulu on the West Coast? Sort of, I guess.)

There is nothing to compare with some of the great masterpieces in Boston or Washington, or even Kansas City — those collections were formed long ago when the Japanese were ashamed of their traditions and sold some of the world’s most important paintings for a song. But the general level of this show is far higher than for instance any single late-formed Western collection like the one recently acquired by the city.

One of the loveliest paintings I know is here from Seattle, a gold and green and blue Descent of Amida with Attendant Saints. It is a perfect representative of modest religious painting. There is none of the breathtaking impact of the famous Amida and two bodhisattvas rising like triple moons over the mountains by Eshin Soozu Genshin which you can find in most books on Japanese art. This is a quiet, gentle, lyrical painting, like, as they say, a cool hand laid on the brow.

All the best pictures in the show are of that character. There is an unpretentious ink blot landscape by a disciple of the great Sesshu. There is a brisk brush drawing of the Chinese poet Tu Fu riding along on a mule, wrapped in thought. Tu Fu is my favorite of all the poets in the world, and I have myself over the years translated some 50 of his poems.

There are plenty of paintings, Japanese and Chinese, of the poets Li Tai Po and Po Chu I — but Tu Fu is an uncommon subject, so first thing I did was stock up on reproductions of this one at the desk. That, incidentally, is one of the nice things about this show, there are a lot of reproductions available to remember it by.

How calm and mature Far Eastern art seems in comparison with our own! I will never forget once when I had only one day to spend gallery crawling in Washington. I spent the morning looking at the great Far Eastern collections in the Freer and ate lunch in a little French restaurant, strangely uncrowded for Washington, and then went across the park, still rapt away in the bright interior peace of the morning, and started through the National Gallery.

It was like switching from Gregorian chant, say the Office of Compline, heard before going to bed at Solesmes Abbey itself, to John Philip Sousa parading down Fifth Avenue on the Fourth of July. Even the Raphaels seemed to bellow at me from the walls. I couldn’t take it, but ran away and went for a walk in the park amongst the autumn leaves.

How seldom Western religious art seeks, let alone conveys, peace, grace and illumination. What a lot of beheading and disemboweling and riot and melodrama! When she was little, I used to show my daughter Mary the favorite picture books of my own childhood, one of them Masterpieces from Doré. She always used to say, when we came to the Paradise Lost pictures, “Here’s them angels, fighting again!”

I have seen most of the great museums and private collections of the world, and I can think of only a handful of paintings to compare with the best from the Far East in this quality of grace and illumination — untroubled spiritual magnanimity. They are all distinctly “minor” pictures. There is one major exception, Velasquez’s Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha, where the transfiguring presence of Christ is somehow caught up, as in a sacrament, in the lustrous still life in the foreground, and maybe Piero della Francesca.

There is the portrait of Luca Pacioli, the monk and mathematician, in Naples, demonstrating a theorem under a mysterious crystal — you can find it in Burckhardt’s Renaissance and it is on the cover of Newman’s World of Mathematics. There is the “Wilton Diptych” in London — the Blessed Virgin descending from Heaven with a bevy of mild girlish angels rather like Kate Greenaway’s maidens. There is Filippo Lippi’s Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard in the Badía in Florence, which you can find in most books on Italian art.

It would pay a spectator of sensibility to look these up in books of reproductions and then go and study this unspectacular but thoroughly representative collection of Japanese art, and ponder on what they have so easily, and what we have so seldom.

Of course, concentration on nuance, on refined sensibility and quietness has its dangers, too. Our art, even at its greatest, may get lost in noise — think of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Japanese art, and especially Japanese poetry, can dribble away in sentimentality and finicking.

I think this is why the currently popular American imitations of Japanese haiku — the 17 syllable little poems that are epigrams of the sensibility — almost never come off. American poetic imitators of the Japanese miss the deep foundations of the culture — all too seldom they do not come over at all in translation — and seize on the superficial sentiment.

At its best, Japanese poetry makes a perfect introduction to the understanding of Japanese painting. Since my one venture into verse translation in this column provoked a rash of pleased fan letters, once again I’ll leave you with some little poems to bear in mind when you look at the pictures. They are all from the classic period of Japanese verse, in the “long” form — of only 31 syllables.

As I watch the moon
Shining on pain’s myriad paths,
I know I am not
Alone involved in Autumn.

—Oe no Chisato

I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

—Lady Izumi Shikibu

As certain as color
Passes from the petal,
Irrevocable as flesh,
The gazing eye falls through the world.

—Lady Ono no Komachi

As I approach
The mountain village
Through the Spring twilight
I hear the sunset bell
Ring through the drifting petals.


[18 September 1960]

NOTE: Some more of Rexroth’s Japanese translations can be found here. Some of his Tu Fu translations can be found here.


Why I Like Opera

As the opera season rolls along I will probably be writing about one or the other of the shows each week. First off, I’d like to say something about opera as such, or at least what it is for me.

I enjoy opera as mass entertainment, just like the circus or the funny papers, but more expensive. For my taste it can stand just so much intellectual content and then it becomes dull. I don’t even like “great music” in opera, unless Verdi is great music. I consider Wagner the all time low of bad taste in the history of art. The only Mozart operas I like are the funny ones.

Deep, pretentious operas with difficult and ambitious music like Wozzeck give me the shudders. I go to opera for the same reason I listen to Frank Sinatra. When Frank starts reciting The Waste Land to twelve-tone jazz, I won’t be there to listen.

Carmen has always struck me as being about as serious as opera can get and survive as entertainment. Bizet’s music is clean, bright and efficient. Prosper Mérimée was not a first-rank writer of his time. Nowadays he would be a successful, steady contributor to the better grade second-rate magazines.

In Carmen he created a tragedy whose characters hover on the narrow line between the Great Archetypes of the major classics and the Great Stereotypes of mass culture. The librettists sharpened the story into a compact drama, and in obedience to French formula, added the balancing “good girl,” Micaela. It is easy to object to formulas like this — but they are all right if they work. Racine added just such a good girl to the dark and bloody tragedy of Hippolytus and Phaedre. He certainly didn’t improve Euripides, but he certainly made the story French.

Why has no one ever written a successful opera using Hamlet as a libretto? Or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, or Ford’s Broken Heart? Both of them are even more “operatic” Elizabethan plays than Hamlet. The reason, of course, is that they are too good, too deeply moving as drama. The text would destroy the unity of reaction in the audience.

Someone will raise the objection, “But the Chinese and Japanese produce opera which is Great Art, why can’t we?” That’s just it, the Chinese and Kabuki plays are no great shakes as literature, and the music is by and large routine. Every dramatic situation has a musical formula which varies little. They are great popular art.

It is the modern western world which makes the distinction between Great and Popular. Carmen has its own kind of greatness. One of the things that makes it truly great is that it is a perfect blend of all the necessary ingredients of popularity. [...]

[25 September 1960]


Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals

[...] I guess there are those who expect a big think piece from me about the Monterey Jazz Festival. I didn’t go. I don’t like jazz festivals. I don’t even like “concert jazz” of the sort made popular by Norman Granz.

For me jazz is intimate music. It depends on a close audience participation. One of its points of origin was the New Orleans brothel, certainly an intimate enough atmosphere. Another was the intense group “folkloristic” life of Congo Square. Another was the small and even more intense group of the revivalist church. Even in the period of the craze for big ballroom dancing, jazz was most successful in the smaller places. True, the big bands of the swing period played for immense audiences, but in the years since, the trend has been back to the small group in the small club and only a few big bands have been able to keep going.

I think the audience relationship determines the music. I can’t bear the Dixieland Revival. It’s music for drunken college boys who bang on the table, clap, and stand up, blubber, “Shay fellows, lesh have good ole ‘Tiger Rag’,” and fall down. Good time music if that’s your idea of a good time. If not, not.

The music of Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, is essentially popular chamber music. It is a product of a special kind of night club. It is true that the ordinary night club atmosphere destroys it. But that just goes to show.

Jazz belongs in dark and quiet dens full of natural shoulders and bouffant hair-do’s. It needs the light tinkle of glasses and the brittle laughter of would-be dangerous women. It is not football, polo, or sulky racing. The Modern Jazz Quartet playing in the middle of a race track to 8000 people is just as ridiculous, no more, no less, than the Budapest String Quartet would be under the same circumstances.

Furthermore, what is wrong with modern jazz is the exclusive domination of “stars.” This has destroyed all but the most childish form — “You take a chorus and I’ll take a chorus and he’ll take a chorus, and we’ll all go out together.” In other words, everybody is a star, and each one, except sometimes the poor drummer, has his chance to show off.

I am longing for the day when I can go into a club, sit through a set and not hear a single instrument solo for more than four bars. I don’t care how good the musician is — this is why most people “outgrow” jazz — the form is insufferable after a few years. Think of the effectiveness, and the inexhaustibility of the solo instruments in [Stravinsky’s] The Firebird or in Debussy’s Trio Sonata. We never grow tired of them. Both pieces have had a powerful influence on modern jazz. Think of how tedious they would be reduced to the form of theme and variations and broken up into 32-bar solos with “rhythm section” accompaniment!

This is the real primitivism of modern jazz — not its imagined African background. Amusingly, this is the principal formal difference between modern African “jazz,” if you want to call it that, and our own. The popular African music is incomparably more complex and contrapuntal.

Obviously, the jazz festival only reinforces this star system. A premium is placed on Big Names, virtuosity, gimmicks and stunts. The circus atmosphere corrupts the natural response of the jazz musician to the closely participating audience. Serious new musical developments are appreciated for the wrong reasons, as though they were quadruple somersaults and double barrel rolls in mid-air or home runs. Jazz is not a spectator sport. It is an art which depends entirely on audience participation. [...]

Ornette Coleman is another dish of tea. He is one bright hope in jazz in this period of worn out clichés. (Charles Mingus is another.) Next week I’ll write about him. Go and hear him at the Jazz Workshop.

[2 October 1960]

NOTE: For more extensive discussion, see Rexroth’s Some Notes on Jazz and Five More Articles on Jazz.


and Ornette Coleman

You couldn’t ask for a worse opera critic. Unless something is very wrong, I just wallow in it.

So does my daughter Mary, who is just the mental age for which most of the operas were written. (She is 10.)

I guess my favorite opera is Aida, operatically speaking, that is — Boris [Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov] and the Mozart operas are music, and transcend opera altogether. Aida has everything, and with a slight spurt of imagination, you can even see the kitchen sink amongst Rhadames’s trophies. As Verdi’s sumptuous music and noble sentimentality roll out over the auditorium, I always settle back to enjoy the show of the year.

Mary has already learned the techniques of the compleat opera goer. She studies the people in the opposite boxes, compares their gowns to Renoir and Clouet, compares the performance to a previous one in Europe, and, I suppose, frightens the neighbors. What is more essential to truly civilized entertainment than the presence of beautiful women? What greater reward has middle life to offer than the chance to take one’s daughters out to dinner and the opera? Nothing. Nothing. [...]

After the show the daughter returned to her mother, who is fed up with opera, and I went down to hear Ornette Coleman at the Jazz Workshop. Although my head was full of Verdi at his best, I must say these four young men stood up very well.

I don’t understand all the furor about this music. The public is one thing, but aren’t the critics familiar with modern “classical” music? Why does everyone find Coleman so difficult and strange?

An evening spent with a few easily available records by Webern, Boulez, the later Stravinsky and Bartok, would acclimatize the ears to Ornette Coleman. These are the Old Guard, the comparatively orthodox modern musicians. These is no need to adventure into the truly modernistic contemporaries.

I don’t mean to imply that Ornette Coleman is importing devices from classical music directly into jazz, in the fashion of Gunther Schuller or Fred Katz. He is not. Most of his novel material comes from close musical study of the novelty passages of so-called rhythm and blues orchestras, the popular bands of the Southwest style.

The rest of his innovations are only a natural development of the main stream of modern jazz since the bop revolution. What is wrong with jazz is lack of scope. It doesn’t say enough, in enough different ways.

Coleman has succeeded in giving it new scope. He says more, about more. He does this, however, by purely musical means, and without ever going beyond the rather defined limits of the jazz idiom. People say he doesn’t swing, but they say that about everybody new and different. The group doesn’t just swing, you could roll and bump to it if you wanted to. Underlying all the musical adventuring is a solid foundation of the music of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana country dance halls and cheap clubs.

Last week I spoke about how bored I was getting with the endless virtuoso solos of modern jazz. Of course I am quite well aware that the Coleman group uses the same form. But I think there is a difference. There is not just a close musical relationship between the solos of each member of the group, there is a strong dramatic relationship, too, a genuine passionate conversation. It’s like Aida.

Furthermore, although I find people who jabber about Bach and jazz in the same breath absolutely insufferable, I am afraid I know of no better example of how Ornette Coleman develops a musical statement than Bach’s famous Chaconne. By which I do not mean that he is as great as Bach or even in the same category. It is just that each restatement refers back to its predecessor and ahead to its successor in the same way. It is a kind of one-line counterpoint. The solos of Lester Young, on the other hand, are a continuously unfolding harmonic development.

I do think, however, that the group is at its most exciting in ensemble. It’s when they all get going at once in all directions, with Cherry and Coleman crossing each other in the most extraordinary dissonances that they are at their best. I do wish they’d do a whole set like that sometime. It might be the Lexington and Concord of modern jazz.

[9 October 1960]


Matters of Taste

[...] One of the privileges of having good taste is the right to disagree with other people who have it too. Only new arrivals in the arts consider themselves duty bound to like everything everybody else does.

I, for one, have a profound distaste for everything connected with German Romanticism and its grandchild Expressionism — except Paul Klee, if you have to include him. I don’t like Mahler, or Bruckner, or Schoenberg, or Berg, or even the later serialists. They give me the meemies. It isn’t the idiom. Now that Stravinsky has come to use the same idiom as Schoenberg and his disciples, I like it fine — when Stravinsky does it.

I don’t like Nolde. I don’t like Kokoschka. So there. I don’t think there is anything wrong with people who do like them, it’s just that — a difference of taste.

I seem to have touched a nerve in Wozzeck. People have written letters the purport of which has been, “Uh-huh. We knew you’d sell out. . . . You’ve been sucked into the Establishment.”

Really. If anything is part of the Establishment right now, it is precisely Wozzeck. It is windy rhetoric and twelve-tone howling about monstrous generalities that are diverting attention from the very ordinary, very specific problems bedeviling humanity.

Man’s most serious problems are concrete, not abstract. What the Indian peasant needs is not Communism or Free Enterprise, what he needs is a square meal. France is headed into chaos, not because of Jean-Paul Sartre’s demonstration that the soul of man has nowhere to lay its head, but because of vested interests in fraud — in a simple and simply crooked misrepresentation of simple social facts.

I am sorry, but I must be an incorrigible pagan or maybe a bit of a fellow traveler of St. Thomas Aquinas. I do not respond to the “existentialist dilemma” at all. Its inventor, Soren Kierkegaard, has always seemed to me a sick man who treated his girlfriend wretchedly. A man “badly in need of help” as the headshrinkers say.

I don’t think uncomprehending man confronts an ominous and indifferent world without a single weapon. I believe he has reason, or will, or a coherent religious belief to sustain him. I, for one, am pretty sure I have a reason, reasonably sure I have a will, and I fancy that I have chosen to put together a coherent system of belief — religious or not. I do not look on my Being every hour as a dreadful meeting with reality. I like it.

I am sitting at the window in the midst of the woods, in northwest Marin County, while the rain is coming down like a fire hose. I came over to brood and work on a ballet scenario.

My own column is beginning to influence me. For reading matter I brought along two Penguins, S.L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilieff Ballet—1909-1929 and a new translation of the greatest of the Icelandic Sagas, Njal’s Saga — known as Burnt Njal in the old Everyman’s Library edition.

The first is a joy to read even if it does make me feel old. “Time was when the little toy dog was new . . .” What a terrific rumpus it all was! You discover how realistic the comic novels of ballet by Brahms and Simon, Bullet in the Ballet and Six Curtains for Stroganova, actually are. (All ballet fans should read these books, too.) Raptures, follies, quarrels, all epic — but so much creativity.

As the poet Richard Eberhart says, “It is not possible to live always at the pitch that is near madness.” When they say to me, “Were the first thirty years of the century really like that?” I am going to stop being modest or afraid to sound middle aged. I am going to say, “Yes. Don’t you think two world wars, a world economic crisis, and the Russian Revolution have cost anything?”

Njal’s Saga is one of the five greatest works of prose fiction. Sometime, in slack periods, I would like to devote a column to each of them. But apropos of now, here is the story of man in a thoroughly hostile and indifferent environment, but full of will and reason and faith, and a great deal of cunning and common sense as well. It is a tragedy though, in which the weaknesses and flaws in man’s relationships to man work out to a terrible dénouement. It is believable, as the Romantic tragedy is not, because it is underlain with courage and honor and loyalty. Without them it wouldn’t be a tragedy, but just another foolish debacle.

[20 November 1960]


Mathematical Elegance and Classic Fiction

Still brooding in the woods. Days and days of rain. Hardly a bee ventures out of the hive in the wall of the house during the day. At night an owl comes and sits under the eaves and grumbles. Curtains of rain obscure and reveal the low mountains. Tatters of cloud drift between the Douglas firs and the redwoods. Out of my window in every direction there is a Chinese ink-brush painting.

After a week of rain the California autumn, which isn’t a real autumn, begins to give way to the California spring, which comes four months early. The first green shoots appear under the withered grass. The yellow maple leaves fall, pulled down by the rain. The buckeyes fall from their jackets and the purple green plums of the laurel fall.

Slender varied thrushes come from the Northwest and sit silently, close to the fir trunks under the rain, or flutter through the branches of the madrone, eating the ripening berries. In the shabby gray patches of withered thistles, where there were goldfinches a while ago, now there are flocks of natty black, gray and white Oregon juncos.

There are mushrooms everywhere along the muddy lanes. The streams begin to rise. Soon the salmon will be coming up them to breed and die.

The earth is pregnant with another year.

I’ve been too busy lately with things of no importance. It is good to sit and look out the window at the drifting mist, to read, and write, and walk in the rainy forest.

It is good to read only books that have nothing to do with the problems of the day that are bound to pass. All the books on the shelf beyond my desk were written hundreds of years ago. I will reread some of them with sherry and a cigar beside the fire in the evenings. The others I can just look at. I know well what is in them.

People have written to ask what I meant by the five greatest works of prose fiction. They are there on the shelf, too, but first I would like to talk about the books that stand at the head of the row, and that, as a matter of fact, I have been reading now. They are Thomas Heath’s History of Greek Mathematics, his three-volume Commentary on Euclid, his Works of Archimedes, and Apollonius on Conic Sections. Taken together, these books are a presentation in English of the main body, or the heart, of Greek mathematics.

I discovered them when I was a boy of 19. Few books have influenced me more. I got them one by one from the library and read them in a kind of exaltation. Although they were frightfully expensive by the standards of a self-supporting adolescent, I saved my money and bought them as fast as I could.

Now the most important ones, the history, the Euclid and the Archimedes, are published as paperbacks by Dover Press for a few dollars. Since those days the mathematical works of Pappus, Proclus and Diophantus have been published in French translations in Belgium — amongst the most beautifully printed books I own — and there is a little set of Greek Mathematical Works in the Loeb Library.

This is almost all there is left of Greek mathematics, less than a two-foot shelf of books. Western civilization is founded on these books, just as much as it is founded on the Bible and Homer, Plato and Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians. Like Homer and the tragedians, and in a sense, like the other books, too, they are great works of art.

The Greeks scorned any practical application of mathematics. Apollonius’s Conic Sections were a study of what seemed a minor aspect of geometry, with no connection with everyday reality whatsoever. For over a thousand years this continued to be true. Then Descartes restated conic sections in modern algebraic terms, and they became the foundation on which is reared most of today’s science. The orbits of the heavenly bodies are conic sections. Without them, the equations of Einstein and Max Planck would never have existed. The curves of statistics are formulas of a similar kind. Artificial satellites follow such curves.

In the first instance, however, the great mathematicians have always been artists. We can use their formulas to fly to Mars or to exterminate the human race, their equations and constructions are indifferent to the morals of the use we make of them. As such, in themselves, they have something more important to teach us.

The mathematical term for beauty and perfection in the work is “elegance.” In this term are embodied a group of moral qualities — the human mind’s confidence in its own order, nobility and discipline, and the realization that the order of the universe, beyond the narrow confines of the human mind, is also of the same kind. On this realization, all art, philosophy and science are based. It is the first human lesson of experience, and if it is not learned, man, in the words of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, is only an animal, and the thing of a day.

The greatest works of literature are great because they too share this grandeur and show it forth. The great works of prose fiction are great, not because they try to talk about deep things, as do so many novels of the passing day, but because they are themselves profound.

Any fool can chatter about nobility and magnanimity and courage. It is another thing to embody these virtues. The love life of a Japanese prince, the conflicts in a Chinese harem, the adventures of a crazy country gentleman in Renaissance Spain, the sad story of chivalry and betrayal in a Britain that never existed, the capers of a pair of fantastic giants, the domestic affairs of a handful of Icelandic farmers, a boy and a young Negro drifting down the Mississippi, the guilty troubles of three neurotic Russian brothers, a little English boy growing up, the disasters of a French popinjay — out of these unimportant materials, as trivial in themselves as the lines and circles of Euclid, the great prose dramas of mankind have been made.

These are the books which have, each in its own distinctive guise, each so different from the others, the same nobility and mystery that Archimedes surprised in the spiral and Apollonius in the parabola. To them too, in the mathematician’s sense, can be applied that rare word of final artistic approval — elegance.

The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki; The Dream of the Red Chamber by a doubtful Chinese author; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Njal’s Saga; Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; Dickens’s David Copperfield; Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel; Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; and not least of all, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Not everybody has the equipment to follow the speculations of the great philosophers, saints, scientists and mathematicians. Everybody can read a good story, and in these stories, so widely different and so absorbing, the human mind is again at its finest. Today they can all be found in cheap paperback editions. One by one I hope, as the months go by, to write about them.

[27 November 1960]

NOTE: Instead of in these columns, Rexroth later discussed all of these works in Classics Revisited, except that he substituted The Pickwick Papers for David Copperfield.



For a month my girls have been in a slowly mounting fever of excitement. Cards have piled up on the mantel, presents have piled up under the tree. The tree is 12 feet high — we live in a Victorian flat — under it is a Bavarian crèche that’s been in the family for years. On another mantelpiece is a Provençal crèche of santons, little figures of every human occupation and condition, on their way to the manger.

We’ve had a party. We’ve been to see the Ballet do the Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast. We’ve seen all the store windows and all the Santa Clauses. We’ve walked entranced through one of America’s most amazing sights — Christmas at Podesta and Baldocchi’s. Finally, there was midnight Mass at the Church of the Advent and then me in red coat and whiskers distributing the presents.

We get all we can out of Christmas. Some of my intellectual friends think it is too commercial. Some think it is hypocritical. Some think it is a relic of Sun worship.

We don’t care. We like it. Even if for some people the motives are one-upmanship and status, it’s good for them to even pretend to be generous at least once a year. I don’t care if merchants make a lot of money selling toys that disintegrate in an hour and negligees that come off red all over you. If those were the worst evils of Free Enterprise we wouldn’t have much to worry about.

As a matter of fact, our house is full of Christmas presents that date back far through the years. In front of me as I write is my easel, given me by my first wife, now long dead, over 25 years ago. I can still see it draped with tinsel and hung with ornaments standing in the dark outside the door, a surprise.

Maybe my girls are orderly and conservative, but they still have most of the dolls and toys and all the books they were ever given. It is beginning to be a problem housing them. All around me are presents Marthe has given me — and so for her — the Skira histories of art, the cast of the Minoan Serpent Priestess on her dresser — it all depends on what you do with your money and how really much you want to please the other person.

I could do with more for Christmas. I think it shocking that the shepherds and sheep are gone from Golden Gate Park. I wish there were more theater for children. The ballet is wonderful, quite the best thing of its kind in America. But I wish we had Christmas pantomimes like the English and especially the pastourelles they give in Spain, Provence and Italy, with all the santons on their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the scissor grinder, the cowboy, the miner, the baker, the three aged people, the hilarious clowns, and the gaudy wicked gypsy who is converted at the last moment — all done to lilting folk tunes.

Still, however nostalgic I get for Christmas in Aix-en-Provence with the frosty haze under the giant plane trees on the Cours Mirabeau, the banks of oysters and ursines in front of the cafés, the Pastoural Maurel and Gounod’s Provençal opera Mireille at the theater, and Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire pale as an iceberg in the cold windy air — I think we manage better at home. In America we can combine all the Christmases of all the different peoples from which we have come. I have often debated having Hanukkah lights and spinning tops — alas, there are no longer gold coins to give the children.

What difference does it make if it is all just a Sun Myth? I don’t believe that, and that kind of criticism of the Bible has gone out of date in scholarly circles. But suppose it is true? What we need, what our lives are so impoverished of, are precisely great festivals to mark the turning of the year, the sleep and awakening and fruitfulness of the earth. Those of us who still belong to religions that mark the similar moments of our own lives, birth, puberty, vocation, marriage, death, are lucky. 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.

We say that the secular religion of our time, the worship of the State, or Historical Determinism, or Race, or the Working Class, do not give the individual this sense of being the ultimate source of all the importance there is in human life. They do not provide Rites of Passage and Sacraments that ennoble each man in his career from birth to death. Neither do they link man to the cosmos through the drama of the changing seasons and the fecundity of the earth. We, say we, heirs of the Western European Tradition, the Jewish Law, the Greek poets and philosophers, the Christian Gospels, we have given human destiny its meaning and dignity.

I wonder. There’s a story, an old pulpit anecdote which, like many other things said in the pulpit, may or may not be true. It seems that shortly after Perry opened up Japan, the Emperor instructed all Japanese who went abroad for any purpose to prepare reports on the role of the teachings of Christ in Western Civilization. For 50 years ambassadors, houseboys, fishermen, students, scientists, gardeners, businessmen — everybody who went abroad, turned in his report.

Finally, the Emperor’s Commission decided they had enough material. So for another ten years a committee of experts collated the documents and tabulated the statistics. At last the great report was ready. On its recommendations hung the future of Japanese civilization. The committee was called into a solemn audience with the Emperor. The chairman stepped forward. The Emperor commanded: “After 50 years of exhaustive study, tell us, what is the effect of the teachings of Jesus Christ on Western Civilization?” And the chairman of the committee bowed low and said, “None.”

Today over two-thirds of the world, our professions are no longer believed. On Christmas Eve many of our minds turn to Albert Schweitzer. Some of us even send him money. He represents our conscience in Africa. But I have just read a health report from the newly independent country where he has worked for so many years, and his name is not even mentioned. How many people now shooting each other in Laos have been influenced one iota in their conduct by the activities of Tom Dooley? On the other hand, to this day there is a stained-glass window in Liverpool Cathedral, one of a series of “modern saints,” portraying “Chinese” Gordon, the hero of a war fought to force the Chinese to smoke opium, and a martyr to the conquest of Africa.

A curious thing has happened to Western Man. He is suddenly being called on to put into practice the noble principles he has been talking about in one form or another for 3000 years. Turning to them at last in humility and penitence is the only thing left for him to do. Even they may not save him, but surely nothing else will.

[25 December 1960]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.