Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



Women’s Liberation
Architecture and Religion


Women’s Liberation

Since everybody else is writing about it, I might as well speak my piece too. Women’s Liberation is almost as fashionable as ecology. The clitoral orgasm ranks with offshore oil as a topic of polite conversation. Being the direct descendant of a long line of suffragettes, including a great grandmother who wore masculine clothes, it all strikes me as a little unreal, and for a time puzzled me by its emotional violence and vindictiveness. The reason of course is that I have always avoided women who aren’t liberated. So much of the action in the black movement, the gay movement, the women’s movement, the students’ movement, and every other little movement that has a meaning of its own, puzzled me until suddenly I realized one day that I had spent my life in the radical and revolutionary bohemia with traditions and social and even family continuity back to the 18th century, in which the freedom and integrity of the individual was completely taken for granted; sex, color, condition of servitude was ignored.

What we are seeing today is a series of revolutions of people and classes who have never been revolutionary and are not used to being revolting. When I read Kate Millet and Shulamith Firestone I am constantly being brought up short in amazement. What kind of men have they known? Or what kind of women, for that matter? The answer is The Great American Male who double-parks in front of his favorite whorehouse and The Great American Female whose motto is “No minkee, no sackee.” In this region I am sure I would be a stranger and afraid in a world I never made, ignorant and impotent. I don’t really give a damn if these people straighten out their interpersonal relations or not. I’m afraid of what will happen when and if they are liberated. Except, every year they get more fouled up and when they get fouled up they get nasty and when they get nasty they get deadly, and when they get deadly I don’t want to dance with them.

Miss Millet and Miss Firestone are so right, righter than they know. Women run America, from U.S. Steel to the Frances E. Willard Grammar School. The female administrative assistant does the work, makes the decisions, books the planes, and portions out to the bosses t.i.d. valium while the male president or school principal attends business luncheons and even business breakfasts where the principal activity is consuming too much low-grade alcohol. The women are anonymous, invisible and powerless, although if each one flipped one lever of the nearest business machine the entire economy would come crashing down.

America is the most expensive country in the world to get sick in and dying is practically prohibitive. The AMA, like the building trades, keeps the number of doctors in America down to the level necessary to ensure our rank in the 12th place in world public health, while women, entering medicine, are subjected to relentless, not discrimination, but persecution from pre-med to retirement. Since they usually go into GYN and OB they usually don’t retire. These two specialties have a life expectancy comparable to that of trapeze performers. On the other hand, a highly trained PhD public health nurse executive with three or four years more education than the doctors “over” her, makes about one-tenth her masters’ income. Go into a big architect’s office. What do you see? Women. They aren’t, as you think, draftswomen; they are architects. They do the work. The bosses take the clients to business lunches, make fetching sketches and consume low trade alcohol. How many buildings have you ever seen in a magazine or anywhere else signed by a woman? There are but two mildly famous women architects in America, and they are famous only among architects. The public has never heard of them. In the big New York publishing houses the second echelon editorial work is done almost entirely by women. The bosses take authors and agents to business lunches and consume low-grade alcohol. Women have all the responsibility but they have none of the power. The only power they can exert is by the exploitation of their sex as a commodity, and, as America gradually turns gay from top to bottom, they are losing that.

The principal trouble with the propagandists for Women’s Liberation, especially the ones that get in the picture magazines, is their unbridled emotionalism, the result not of being women but of being systematically frustrated and exploited. Like all the other movements in the contemporary turmoil they show a singular concentration on the essentials — complete equality — socially, economically, domestically, and in opportunity. It’s pointless at this stage of the game to engage in violent battles over the question of “natural differences.” If every opportunity is guaranteed open, the biological variations will sort themselves out. I for one am not impressed by the Russian woman’s “freedom” to be a coal miner, although, à chacun son goût, or à chacune sa goûte.

Will juridical equality bring about a ceasefire in the bitter war of attrition waged in the bedroom? I doubt it. Today in America blacks have juridical equality and the laws so guaranteeing are simply restatements of identical laws passed after the Civil War. Much good it’s done. Well, some. Ten years ago an old Negro militant friend of mine said, “I never thought I’d live to see light at the end of the tunnel.” There’s a light there alright, but for 10 years it’s been turning redder and redder.

The brutal fact is that the real problems — ecological, economic, social, moral, ethical, religious, sexual, intersexual — cannot be solved within the context of this society or any society at present known. And every year the problems get more insoluble, more lethal, the whole kit and kaboodle errs from the prime foundation, and before noble men and women can live together as perfect equals we’ll have to start all over. The chances are the beautiful lives will be led in a million years by the descendants of the squids, the octopuses, the cockroaches, and the shriveled descendants of homo sapiens will be a kind of lice in their pseudopodia.

[December 1970]


Architecture and Religion

I planned to do it and kept putting it off. Finally I got around to visiting San Francisco’s new Roman Catholic cathedral. Maybe I had been afraid to go inside. Sticking up there like a hypertrophied desk cigarette lighter, it didn’t bode well as an architectural experience.

Is it provincialism? True, the skyscraper is an outward material sign of the inward reality of an inhumane social order. Nevertheless, they do build rather pretty and interesting skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, along with a lot of monstrosities. In San Francisco, our high-rise buildings have been, with very few exceptions, so hideous as to be comic, or at best, immense expressions of mediocre provincialism. This wasn’t true once. Maybeck and Willis Polk were uniquely original architects. The Mills Building may be provincial Burnham, which is provincial Richardson, but it’s a nice looking building.

Is architecture in some way a direct expression of a kind of social sensibility, that German bogey, the Folk Soul? It is certainly true that San Francisco does not have a single architecturally significant church, and churches are certainly a direct expression of their congregations. The most satisfactory is probably the extremely modest old Danish Lutheran St. Ansgar’s, which is modest indeed. Frank Lloyd Wright once remarked that San Francisco was the world’s outstanding example of what human greed and vulgarity could do to one of the world’s most beautiful sites. That was before contemporary Hong Kong had blossomed out into hundreds of hideous 20-story concrete barracks. Do you suppose there is something in the air or water that makes San Franciscans aesthetically defective? It’s certainly true that although it swarms with painters it’s the worst market for pictures of any large city. The Bay Area’s leading painter has dealers in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, and even barbarous Los Angeles. It is not worth his while to have a San Francisco dealer.

But there is something else wrong with the cathedral. It is a completely irreligious structure, comparable to the St. Louis or the Lausanne airports — in which comparison it comes off poorly indeed. If it expresses anything, it expresses power. Not the power of God. Not the power of the soul. Least of all the power of the mystery of being. But secular power. The baroque grandeur of St. Peter’s in Rome does that, too. But, still, amidst all the gilt and twisted columns and monumental sculpture and painting, religion, God, the soul, mystery do lurk in the corners, like mice, maybe, but they are there. No holy mice could ever get into St. Mary’s. This is not some special evil of the Catholic Church. All the old, organized Christian churches are caught up in a frantic drive for total secularization. Meanwhile, we are in the midst of the greatest religious revival since the Reformation — but they don’t know about it in the churches. The Roman Catholic church abandons Latin, Gregorian chant, incense, gorgeous ritual, while the children of the parishioners sit in the lotus posture and do zazen, induce visionary experiences with drugs, strobe lights, hypnotic music, and incense, or shave their heads, dress up in bedspreads and romp about the streets chanting “Hare Krishna.” The churches go right on, blindly preaching the Social Gospel and Muscular Christianity they have resurrected from 1860. It’s not that people like the Berrigans are social revolutionaries — that’s fine. It’s that they are Low Churchmen, busy emptying wonder out of religion. What makes any truly realized religious experience revolutionary is that it is based upon wonder, on total realization of a transcendent experience which is incompatible with any materialistic society. Organized religions all perpetuate themselves by making unholy alliances with worldly power and appetite, and grounding out the revolutionary potential of any vision of total reality. If all the Christians, Buddhists and Mohammedans in the world suddenly became good Christians, Buddhists, and Mohammedans, organized society as we know it would instantly collapse, just as would happen if all the Communists suddenly became communists.

Notice that the major Christian churches in America all have well-financed, active organizations for social action and youth work, with plenty of money to spend and commissions of scholars busy translating the Bible into Kiwanese — and all this has had no effect. Membership in the organized churches steadily declines. Then the Jesus Freaks came along with that old-time religion, old-time hymns, the King James Bible (which the churches had convinced themselves “youth couldn’t understand”), a charismatic, ecstatic, pentecostal worship, and they swept the country.

The idea that youth would be captivated and captured if the most fundamental experiences of life were exorcised with a philosophy indistinguishable from the lectures of the late Norman Thomas could occur only to people who have never had any fundamental experiences in life. Life is miraculous and mysterious. It is out of its miracle and mystery that true social action that changes the world is born. Radical young people, hippies, and freaks trot hither and yon over the world seeking the places where the green grass grows all around, and I have never known one who has gone through Barcelona and visited Gaudi’s vast mysterious, miraculous Church of the Sagrada Familia who wasn’t totally thrown by the experience. It does what the light shows of Fillmore West tried to do. That’s the kind of church architecture which speaks to the contemporary religious revival. They’ll come just to experience the architecture and if you add far-out music, vestments and incense and sermons which stress the miracle of life, they’ll come in droves. If you build a cathedral that looks like the underbelly of a freeway, once the older generation who do exactly what the Holy Father tells them dies off, who is going to come? Then, what are we going to do with the great big building?

[February 1972]


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.