Rexroth’s San Francisco



H.L. Mencken
Ralph Stackpole and the Coit Tower Murals
Tom Jones and The Ginger Man
Charles Mingus
Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan
The Harlem Riots
Wonder and Meditation in the Sierras
Mysticism, Ethical and Chemical
Wagnerian Tartuffery


H.L. Mencken

A new edition of H.L. Mencken’s American Language just showed up for review. It is an abridgment in one volume of the fourth edition and the two succeeding supplements, done by Raven McDavid and David Maurer. The editors have brought the text up to date. Chapters on slang, dialects, jargon and counter words, new words in conventional usage, the influence of American speech on British, all reflect current usage, as of 1963.

Better still, the editors have a special talent for catching the old master’s turn of phrase. Their additions, set off by brackets, flow on, an integral part of Mencken’s own style.

I suppose, as a critic, I have read every edition of this book since it came out. This time I picked it up idly, just to see what the new editors had done with it, and two days later discovered that I had reread it all. It is still as absorbing as the best detective story.

Why? I already know all the information it has to give. In fact, certain specialized lingos, of jazz, of the Beats, of the old IWW, of beggars and hoboes, of the gay world, and also many facts about the penetration of Americanisms into French and English, I know more about than the new editors, or at least more than they have chosen to impart. Furthermore, the subject itself is a bit of a bore in 1964. The battle for American is long since won. What makes the book so hypnotically enchanting is simply Mencken.

This is one case where the style was the man, for sure. Time was when I was but a little tiny boy, at least in taste and discrimination, my head was full of Walter Pater and Henry James. I thought Mencken was just dreadful, too vulgar to bear mention.

I know that I have gained some sense down the long years. I have a standard by which I can measure that growth. Every time I read Mencken I think he’s better than I did last time. Long since I have come to think him very good indeed.

It’s not just that his prose is muscular and sure. It’s not just that he says precisely what he wants to say, with the greatest deftness. It’s not that he is full of hilarious jokes and mockery. In the final analysis, it is what he was, what he stood for, and that is something that has gone from American life. He was the last of a great line of American writers who defended and propagated a masculine culture in this country. Books, music, art, drama — for Mencken these were not something the girls did at their clubs and matinées, they were vital concerns in the life of males.

His target, as they call it nowadays on Madison Avenue, was not that section of the putatively male population who did nothing except accompany the girls to their matinées, lecture to them at their clubs, decorate their homes, wave their hair and design their hats. He aimed at the men who made the decisions, who built things and changed things, the most masculine of the population. He wrote about music for men who would never dream of taking their wives’ advice about what records to buy for themselves, who had books in their offices and paintings on their walls that they had chosen themselves.

Alas, few are writing for such an audience today. Anybody who does is going to find trouble getting printed. It is utterly amazing what Mencken got away with, writing year after year in the eminently dignified Baltimore Sun. There is not a special interest group that he did not lambaste, not a racial minority he did not poke fun at.

Had Harding not died, Mencken might well have laughed him out of office. His contempt for the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party was equally and witheringly distributed. Often his attack was an all-out barrage, but underneath the shells and shrapnel was the old sharpshooter, carefully picking off the enemy, one by one, with perfect accuracy.

Today all controversial writing seems pusillanimous by comparison. We have solved all questions of violent controversy in America. The things that should concern us, that we should get into knock-down and drag-out fights about, we have agreed to leave to the specialists, the technicians, the social workers and psychiatrists. We export our combativeness, usually to the Kremlin. Like Voltaire’s deity, if the Russians did not exist it would be necessary to invent them.

Meanwhile, from the New York Daily News to Nation magazine we politely share each other’s thinking, as the group dynamickers softly put it, about subjects about which our fathers, led by smoky, beery bachelors like Mencken, joyfully tore each other to shreds in the public prints.

[12 January 1964]

NOTE: There is plenty of Mencken in print, most of it every bit as entertaining and provocative as Rexroth says it is (and every bit as shocking by the current standards of political correctness). A good introductory selection is The Vintage Mencken.


Ralph Stackpole and the Coit Tower Murals

The other night the phone rang and who should be in town but Ralph Stackpole. The next day we had lunch with him and his family at a nameless North Beach restaurant, one of the very few left that in food, service, wine and atmosphere has remained just like the old days. The years slipped away and I might just as well have been having lunch with a young and frisky Stackpole at Beguine’s the day after I arrived in San Francisco in 1927.

He isn’t young any more, but neither am I, but he, for one, is certainly still frisky. He was full of ideas and enthusiasms and gave every indication of living to be a hundred and ten. San Francisco has had several heroic ages, but talking within Ralph, one of the better of them, the years between the wars, came back to me in an overwhelming living recollection.

Who is Ralph Stackpole? Probably today only a small percentage of the readers of this column will know. He was for 20 years or more San Francisco’s leading artist. Quite a bit of his sculpture can be seen around town, notably the figures on the steps of the Stock Exchange.

For old timers he is best remembered, however, for a vast array of monumental sculpture that lasted for a year and then vanished like the dew — the statues of the last San Francisco World’s Fair [1938]. They were not all by him, but most were by younger people whom he had taught or influenced, and they were dominated by his mammoth figure of Pacifica, the embodiment of the theme of the Fair.

Nothing is left of all that work. It promised to become a new, characteristic San Francisco style, a blend of influences from the whole Pacific basin and yet truly indigenous. How clearly the courts and fountains of the Fair come back to mind — all those noble figures, full of grace and sunlight. They certainly made it one of the most gracious and urbane of all world’s fairs. And they bespoke a joy, a faith and hope for the future of a quality we shall not live to see again.

They were hardly in place before war once more had swept over civilization. When the lights were lit again in Europe, art had taken a new turn toward alienation, defiance and disgust with civilization itself and all its values.

Before we went to lunch, I took my secretary up to see the murals in Coit Tower, also done under Ralph’s leadership. For years I remembered them as conveying something of the sensation of waking up with the funny papers over your face.

I was amazed to discover that they really are pretty good. They were painted by most of the leading artists of the community, under an emergency program that preceded the WPA and which was designed primarily to get money into circulation, not to accomplish anything. Yet they are a very solid accomplishment indeed.

In all the years of the New Deal nothing to compare with them was done anywhere in the country. In fact, the only WPA Art Project job that comes anywhere near them is again right here in San Francisco — the murals by Hilaire Hiler and his associates at Aquatic Park. No better picture of California in the ’30s exists anywhere. True, there are masses of strikers and demonstrators and unemployed brandishing copies of the Western Worker, but they are inconspicuous really, alongside the harvest workers and factory hands and longshoremen and just plain people, all suffused with the most extraordinary buoyancy — joy, hope, faith in the future, once again the mood of San Francisco even in the very depths of the depression.

Ralph is still that way, full of beans. For 15 years he has been living in France, most of those years in one of the wildest parts of France, the Massif Central. His French wife takes good care of him and he spends his time sculpting. His work is growing and changing every year. The last show he had in Paris created a sensation — amongst the French — and gained him a new bevy of young followers. Most remarkable thing about it was its simple originality in a period when everything looks disparately up to date and yet all alike.

Now he says he is doing something quite different again. I am sure it will be full of the same passion for living. As Edgar Lee Masters said in Spoon River of somebody very like Ralph Stackpole, “It takes life to love life.”

And, just to make the story complete, where had he been? Down in the jungles of southern Mexico visiting Leo Eloesser, another 5-foot-tall giant of the days before the Deluge, another old man crazy about life — but he is another story I’ll tell you sometime.

[23 February 1964]


Tom Jones
and The Ginger Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8 March 1964]

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


Charles Mingus

Sometimes I wonder. Maybe Spengler was right and the time for Art has passed. It certainly seems impossible for Americans to write “serious” music.

We were talking about the Greenwich Villagers who got thrown out of the Washington Square Open Air Art Show for advocating Mom Art and marching about amongst the Pop exhibits singing “Mom goes the weasel!” when my secretary suggested that we should start the Not Art Movement and exhibit in lonely magnificence on museum walls the canceled checks paid to artists for agreeing not to paint pictures. I think this is a wonderful idea — and attuned to the necessities of the Keynesian economy, too.

Not Art would be a most hygienic movement in modern music, that’s for sure. The world press is all upset about Roger Sessions’s Montezuma, a sort of latter-day Aida that laid a vast egg — a moa egg, as it were — at its premiere in Germany. You wonder how he could lose. The subject is shooting fish in a barrel: all you have to do is put Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico to music and you’ve got it.

But, alas, unless you are a college music teacher, Roger Sessions is guaranteed to bore you if he whistles three bars of “Yankee Doodle.”

So with the recent Spring Opera production of Susannah. I would go to hear Lee Venora sing the telephone directory. She is one of my favorite people. All the other principals in the show worked like dogs — to what? — to sell the audience a dog. Yet I looked on the crowd around me, and what did I see? They were enthusiastic. Next day all my colleagues thought it was wonderful. Were they kidding? Except for trivialities like Aria da Capo and Four Saints, I have never seen an American opera that I didn’t think it would have been better, for this man at least, if it had never been.

The same goes for practically all other “serious” American music. Maybe the Supreme Court, dedicated as it is these days to creative sociology, might be prevailed upon to enjoin Americans from writing music.

The unserious music is a different matter. Tuesday night we went to hear Charles Mingus open at the Jazz Workshop. Not only is Mingus one of the two or three most important jazz musicians in America, he is one of the three or four most important musicians and composers of any sort. In jazz only he and Thelonious Monk never tire me or bore me. After one set of Ornette Coleman, I’ve had enough, he’s wearing. Also, he is a young man and the iron has yet to bite as deeply into his heart as it has into Mingus and Monk.

The Modern Jazz Quartet neither bores nor tires, but John Lewis is not in deadly earnest either, as are Monk and Mingus. The MJQ is not, as has been said, salon music, but it is light chamber music. There’s nothing wrong with that — so was Vivaldi.

It is not just that Mingus is both musically profound and enormously facile, he, like Thelonious, thinks in wholes. Each piece begins to build the minute it starts. It grows organically, in form and meaning, like a child grows into a man. Not only that, but the meanings are clear and cogent. Sometimes you wonder about Thelonious Monk. What are the complex ideas he is talking about as a composer at the piano? Something he read in a book he found in Lost Atlantis? Mingus is much less an uncommon man; his insights and his pain are something everybody can share.

It is tragic music, with a tragedy that far transcends current American conflicts that have come to obsess so many jazz musicians. I never sit and listen to him, now that he is famous, without my mind going back to the Black Cat in the last years of the war, long before it was a gay joint, with young Mingus spinning beautiful self-supporting structures of sound out of his bull fiddle while some clown made a jazz-like racket on the piano and somebody else blurted and bleated on a pawnshop horn.

He used to carry that big fiddle around with him as though it were a piccolo, everywhere he went. I remember late one winter night, coming on Mingus leaning against a lamp post, dense fog whirling around him, bowing softly to himself a long wandering melody, infinitely sad, rather like the Gregorian chant once sung in time of plague, “Media Vita,” or like some desolate Russian church music. My girl and I stopped short with a start and stood listening to him for a long while, till at last he returned and looked at us and said, “Rexroth. Peggy.”

The other night it happened again. In the midst of a similar, but wiser, more mature, more complex passage he looked up again and grunted like Lionel Hampton and said, “Rexroth.”

I almost burst out crying.

[24 May 1964]


Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

Once again let me urge you to visit the show of classic sculpture from India now at the De Young Museum. This is an experience not likely to be repeated in your lifetime.

My colleagues in reviewing the show have mentioned the Greek, or at least Hellenistic, influence which is apparent in several of the pieces. It is not generally known that after Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire to its eastern limits at the Indus River he established a number of Greek, or Greek garrisoned, cities in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cut off from the rest of the Greek world, Greeks ruled here until the beginning of the Christian Era.

This was the Bactrian Kingdom which at one time included most of Afghanistan (Bactria is the Afghan city of Balkh), Turkestan, Pakistan, and even, for a while, a large section of India south of the Indus.

We know little of the rulers, but they left behind their faces on the coins, the finest examples of portrait coinage ever done. Their subtle, arrogant faces look much like the British gentleman adventurers of the East India Company who were to come after them in 2000 years. Eucratides even wears something remarkably like a pith helmet.

Here Mahayana Buddhism grew up, flourished, and spread across Asia to Japan. With it went artists and decorators who filled the temples and monastic caves of Further Asia with paintings and sculpture that derive their plastic inspiration from the far away Greek Mediterranean. Their artistic output was incredible; its limitless bulk staggers the imagination. Although I suppose it was what we would call today a kind of commercial art, the product of studios organized on a modern production basis, it is nevertheless unquestionably the finest expression of the Greek genius after the days of Alexander, except possibly for some work done for the Romans during the reign of Augustus.

This is one of the most fascinating episodes of history, and it is tantalizing because we know so little about it and what we do know is so extraordinary.

We know that the plays of Euripides were performed in courts that looked out from the Hindu Kush over the deserts of Central Asia. We know that Hercules and Vishnu, Bacchus and Shiva were confused on their coinage. We know that Buddhism, originally a kind of atheistic religious empiricism, was turned into a Mystery Religion of the Mediterranean type.

A Mahayana Sutra, The Questions of Milinda, has as interlocutor the adventurer Menander who, driven out of Bactria by invading barbarians, conquered a sizable piece of western India. Here and there along the coasts as far south as Bombay are gravestones with Greek names. Some dedicate the dead man’s soul to Buddha and his Bodhisattvas, some to the Hindu gods, some to the deities of the homeland, half a world away.

All this has little enough to do with the main body of Indian art. Modern Indian critics and historians, intensely chauvinistic, resent any implication that they owe anything whatever to the West, at any time, ever. It is true that the main India tradition in sculpture had its origins northeast of the Ganges and in the non-Aryan south, and in the course of time came to push aside all Hellenistic influence from the northwest.

Had this been a show of the art of Pakistan, the story would have been different. It is there that most of this Greek-inspired sculpture — called, by the way, Gandharan art, after a place in Pakistan — is to be found.

A last detail — for a long time philologists were puzzled by an Aryan language spoken by a few savage, murderous, filthy robber bands in the mountains and valleys of the Northwest Border. They were certainly the most debased and intractable of all the inhabitants of an intractable region. Then somebody pointed out that the language was simply a degenerate form of the language of Plato.

A friend just asked me, “Is this sort of thing good newspaper copy?” Why not? I can’t be controversial three weeks running. I get elastic fatigues, like a tired bridge. It is unusual and fascinating information. And it is relevant and bears pondering. Amongst what sort of savages in what lonely mountains do you suppose English will survive two thousand years hence?

[21 June 1964]

NOTE: Two of Rexroth’s plays are set in Afghanistan during the period discussed here — see Beyond the Mountains (New Directions).


The Harlem Riots

The debbil-debbil theory of history is a great comfort in time of trouble. Devils with bat wings, just like in Doré’s Paradise Lost, flew through the air from the Kremlin and stole Cuba from the benign, paternalistic, welfare state of Batista, just when he and his American helpers were about to banish poverty, vice and illiteracy from Cuba forever. One hundred and twenty-five percent of the population were inalterably opposed to Castro and all his works and still are. All we need is to spend a billion dollars more on the CIA and the debbil-debbils will all fly away, back to the Kremlin, or even better, to Peking.

If any genius, specializing in adverse public relations and secretly in the pay of the Russian Foreign Office, had wanted to anger and outrage the ordinary Negro American citizens around the country, and spread trouble in ever widening circles, he couldn’t have chosen a better means than blaming the Harlem riots on the Communists. Anybody who has ever bothered to take the subway to 125th Street and walk around for a half hour knows perfectly well what caused the Harlem riots.

If I had a sick dog I would chloroform him before I would board him out in Harlem.

It is very true that the adolescents who stormed through the streets, stoning policemen and looting stores, showed no respect for law or order or person or property. Have the New York police, rotten with bribery, ever shown respect for law? Are they accustomed to show respect for the person of an indigent Negro petty thief when they get him in the station house rumpus room and show him the goldfish?

What respect for property is shown by the owners (some of them upper class Negroes) of rat-swarmed slums with hallways that look like the tenants indulged nightly in artillery duels, with one set of plumbing facilities, almost always broken, for a nine-room flat with people stacked five in a room, with heat that works only fitfully in the coldest winter months, if at all, and which goes out of commission once the temperature hits 10 above zero.

Do the housing inspectors who accept bribes to ignore these conditions respect property? How about the Negro religious and political leaders who quarrel in public over the division of the loot from the numbers racket? Do they show respect for God or man?

The fact is that the Negro slums of New York have become an intolerable and insoluble problem. So have those of Chicago and a dozen other northern cities. They will produce hysterical frustration and insensate violence until they are evacuated and their entire populations started off on another course.

When will that happen? Maybe never. So we can look for a generation of turmoil. But don’t say we weren’t warned.

Here in the Bay Area we can halt and reverse the process before it is too late. But it is far later than we think, so we’d better get busy. Or those debbil-debbils from Moscow will sneak in through the air when nobody is looking because everybody will be busy earning $200 a week making surveys.

[29 July 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.”

[23 August 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 cannibis 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.

[30 August 1964]


Wagnerian Tartuffery

“Well,” said I to the boss when I turned in last Sunday’s piece, “thank heaven opera season is coming up and I can stop writing about religion or where are we all going. I’m beginning to sound like a common scold.”

Alas, what should I go to at the Opera House but Parsifal. I have never understood why this thing holds the stage even at the Wagner temple of Bayreuth. Long ago James Gibbons Huneker said of it, “You see a lot of women-hating men, deceiving themselves with spears, drugs, old goblets, all manner of juggling formulas, yet being waited upon by a woman — a poor, miserable witch. In Act II, you are transported to the familiar land of Christmas pantomime. A bad magician seeks to destroy the castle of the noble knights, and evokes a beautiful phantom to serve his purpose. There are spells, incantations, blue lights, screaming to make the blood run cold.”

So my mentor, in lines that have been quoted at every American performance by unnumbered critics. My former landsmen and schoolmates, Brockway and Weinstock, use the words “ill, weary, petering out, dubious, ripe beyond palatability, rope of shoddy, phosphorescence of decay, silly, sickly innocence, sanctimonious, neurotic, completely undigested twaddle, portentous machinery with singularly stale and flat results, nothing moves, shrill, strident, pale, negative, stultified action, plainly dreary” — all in two pages, and in addition quote once again the famous Huneker passage. I don’t know what Shaw said about it, but it must have been something.

It’s all so unclean. My daughter Mary said it was like a seance with a very expensive Gypsy fortune teller. Nietzsche was right when he broke with Wagner and saw him as one of those muddy minded vulgarizers of ideals who were busy dealing Western civilization blows from which it would never recover.

Whatever musical invention Wagner had once, by Parsifal it had become sludge, washing around in a dirty, empty mind. It isn’t even limburger and sauerkraut religiosity, it’s just maundering. You look at your program and you discover you’ve scribbled it in the dark with all sorts of funny cracks and despairing yelps, and then you realize you’ve been trouncing a tar baby. It is best to pass by on the other side of the road, wagging your head.

The production didn’t help. The front scrim was almost impenetrable and peering through it for hours produced noticeable eye strain. At the back were three or four more layers of scrim against which they kept projecting the Rorschachs of the Weltgeist. Poor Irene Dalls hardly ever got up off the floor but had to wallow around like somebody in a Mandan, North Dakota imitation of Martha Graham. They’ll be calling her Dusty Dalls backstage for the rest of the run. God knows, she tried, and deserved a better fate. Why don’t people refuse such roles?

And as for the Opera — if they want to use up all the surplus scrim they got cheap from the camouflage department after the last war — why not put on Pelléas and Mélisande? Now that’s a real opera, and as scrimy as all get out. The general effect is that something went wrong with the aquarium pump, but it is great music and a moving, actable plot. Besides, it’s frightfully chic. As probably the most perfect expression of Art Nouveau, we’d be riding the crest of the current revival.

The next show we saw just happened to be, in a sense, about precisely Wagner, Parsifal and all that jazz — Ronny Davis’s Mime Troupe in a commedia dell’ arte version of Molière’s Tartuffe. What a pleasure! How clean and bright! After Parsifal I certainly felt somebody needed his mouth washed out, and Tartuffe got me back to sanity, sanitized and deodorized.

Davis gets better all the time, himself as actor and director, and his people as actors with a real new style. It’s all so free and easy, like a bunch of bright kids doing it for pins. And it is so thoroughly in the immemorial comic tradition now dying out under the demands of a sterile professionalism in this TV culture. Outside the Chinese theater, we’ve had nothing like it in town since Louie left the Kearny Burlesque.

So I haven’t been able to avoid religion in this piece, because, not only are both Parsifal and Tartuffe explicitly concerned with that subject, but Molière was a profoundly religious man — like Rabelais — and his plays have a hidden evangelical power, like the Gospel parables. While Wagner — do you really want to know where all this fake religiosity came from? Go back and read the documents and correspondence. He wrote it shamelessly and cold-bloodedly for one thing only — money.

[20 September 1964]


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.