San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1961

Remembering the Spanish Civil War
Ballet and Opera
Who for Mayor?
Needed: A Master Plan for the City
A World of Refugees
The Two Cultures
A Geopolitical Easement
H.G. Wells’s “Open Conspiracy”
Breadth of Vision versus Narrowness of Interest




Remembering the Spanish Civil War

Over the weekend some little bits in the papers — the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war in Spain. Khrushchev’s draft program for the Communists, “Wall-Streeter Appointed Head of CIA,” and a remark by a famous journalist, “Of course, the case can be made out that if Franco had not won the war, Spain might be Communist today, which would be a worse tragedy than the present situation.”

Tragedy is not an objective matter, but a subjective response to a situation. The civil war was certainly a tragedy for the radical intellectuals of my youth. There we learned that the Bolsheviks, just arrived at the high point of their influence and prestige in the West, were interested not in Socialism, but in power — their power. We watched them destroy a liberal democratic government, duly constituted and popularly elected, and slightly to the right of the New Deal — and hand victory to the Fascists.

Our side, the three great democracies, refused to send arms to the Spanish Republic, long before any single Communist had anything to do with the government. But the Russians sent first food, then arms, then men, then the GPU, and then the Moscow Trials. Once they had consolidated their power, they reenacted, step by step, the hideous farces that Vishinsky was playing in Moscow — with Spanish Socialists cast in the role of Trotskyite mad dogs and Fascist agents. It is to the credit of the Spanish people that, trapped in a war they by then knew they would lose and subject to a reign of terror, the defendants did not break and “confess” and the judges refused to convict.

But tragedy is subjective and that was long ago and my generation has grown soft with 25 years of bloodstained prosperity.

One of these days Spain will break again, and when the break comes, what choices will the embittered common people of Spain make? They will make whatever choices are open to them, they certainly can’t choose alternatives that do not exist. What alternatives are being offered to the glittering promises of Chairman Khrushchev’s “Draft Program”?

True, true, these may be wholly false promises, and if anyone should have learned from the past, it is the Spanish working people. Alas, the very first lesson of history is that people do not learn from the past. Quite the contrary, they repeat the follies of their fathers like automatons.

If there is one lesson Cuba should have taught this Administration it is that you can’t fill an intelligence agency with unemployed automobile salesmen. They have, shall we say, somewhat limited perspectives. They see what they want to see. An office on Wall Street does not necessarily rob a man of all brains.

Corporations lawyer, Rhodes scholar, man of the world, let’s hope this fellow teaches his cohorts to listen, and not just to what people like themselves are saying in Harry’s Bar. In Iran, in Spain and Portugal, all over South America and in hundreds of other slums and peasant villages, people are trying to make up their minds, trying to choose. Choose what? That’s it.

[August 2, 1961]



Ballet and Opera

A final report on the New York City Ballet, this time after, not before having seen it. Did I say Rockettes? Much of the two shows would have gone better between the superfeatures at the Supercolossal Palladium in Oconomowoc. Really. What has this sort of thing to do with ballet?

Neither Stars and Stripes nor Western Symphony is ballet — they are strictly commercial productions, and unfortunately not productions by a strictly commercial company. In other words, Fanchon and Marco and the Rockettes were show business, and the people knew what they were doing and did it well. George Balanchine should tend to his knitting; that, he does superlatively.

Unfortunately, he has always been tempted by the yen to dance in the slippers of Flo Ziegfeld. Remember those awful movies to which he subjected poor Vera Zorina? If you are going to be corny, you’ve got to be good at it. But to be good and corny you’ve got to be born to — the what? Not the purple, I guess the tomato.

In justice to the company, we must bear in mind that San Francisco has to put up with road-show programming. We get exactly the same fare as must be dished up in the worst of the sticks. This really is what accounts for the corny, so-called “popular” programs all these companies show here.

The Don Sebastian Variations were all right, the Glazunov Pas de Dix was, to put it mildly, snappy. Maybe they were racing the Russians for a time record. La Sonnambula was superlative. The opera is a flimsy thing and most unconvincing. I can’t think of a better example of how to improve a good deal of the theater — just have everybody shut up and dance. There’s much too much loose talk in the world as it is.

I know there are those who object strongly to redoing plays and operas as ballet. I know, too, that this is what happened to the drama in Greek and Roman times. People got bored with Sophocles and Plautus and preferred to see dancers and mimes, and one day the drama was all gone. Okay, I’m decadent — but most contemporary serious drama bores me to death, and even the highest of the highbrow stuff is drunk with talk. How much better Jean Genet would be if none of his characters ever said a word!

Allegra Kent was simply stunning as the sleepwalker in La Sonnambula — and yet how simple and modest the dancing is. There is nothing like a long drawn out bourrée in a nightgown for pathos. I was reminded of Melissa Hayden in La Traviata last season with the Chicago company. But most of all I was reminded of Tanaquil Le Clercq. It was a perfect role for her, and her presence haunted the stage.

The Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer is a magnificent idea, magnificently mounted — a real ooh and aah decor. But it is just too long. Dim lights, swirling skirts, bowing gentlemen, and the voices singing on and on . . . after a half hour you get pretty drowsy. As one of the girls in the San Francisco company said, “I can’t imagine a better way to fall asleep.” A disputable but valid observation; but surely a beautiful ballet and original.

* * *

A most adult selection for the upcoming opera season. Sometimes I think that Boris Godunov is the only completely grown-up opera. I like it almost as much as Butterfly. I wonder what Blood Moon, the new piece with the Garcia Lorca libretto, will be like. It was “produced under the Ford Foundation Program for American Opera.” This bodes ill. After watching what they are doing to the American theater, I am all for confining them by law to the manufacture of automobiles, something I believe they do quite well. Who knows?

The Ford Foundation conspiracy of mediocrity may have stripped a gear and come up with something real good this time. Surely it is hard to foul up Garcia Lorca. But then those boys have got billions and they say you can do anything with money. Seriously, I’m all agog.

Opera is a bit like Gothic architecture, it is pretty hard to do nowadays and make convincing. The gemütlichkeit and schwärmerei that are essential to opera, that teary, beery, sad and optimistic sentimentality went out in August 1914. Since that day there have been almost no operas written capable of staying put in the repertory. But hopes spring eternal. Maybe Blood Moon is it.

As for the opening bit, Lucia de Lammermoor. What a dog! Why do they always choose such things for opening night? I know the answer, “Who listens?” But if nobody listens, why not shoot the works and perform Lou Harrison and make up for lost time? You know, that’s a real good idea, and might produce more new and vital modern opera than all the Ford billions. Just bill the show as Lucia or Pagliacci and then quietly substitute Boulez or John Cage. Nobody but the critics would ever know, and they are always a little tipsy on opening night, what with all the brittle laughter of dangerous women. Think of what you could get away with.

[August 6, 1961]



Who for Mayor?

Behind the scenes it is pretty well agreed who has the best chance of getting elected Mayor in the coming election. He seems to me to be an estimable gentleman as politicians go. What we need most at this juncture, and are not likely to get, is somebody who has absolutely nothing to gain from the office and maybe a good deal to lose.

In other words an idealistic, dedicated public servant who simply wishes to put his intelligence, administrative skill and personal influence — which usually means wealth, or at least the wide respect of the business community — at the disposal of the city for a few years. I have no desire to play king-maker, he wouldn’t take the job, and this will scare him badly — but just as an example, somebody like Paul Bissinger.

Usually I couldn’t care less about who is Mayor. San Francisco is a bumbling, inefficient mechanism which largely runs itself. This means it runs on inertia, pure and simple. Newton’s law that everything is bound to go along as usual until something drastic happens is the first law of San Francisco politics. It is built into the structure of the city and, for that matter, into the minds of the inhabitants — laissez faire and dolce far niente.

This is what gives San Francisco its charm. We’ve always assumed that we have had unlimited funds of charm, we could charm away any problems that bothered other cities. Alas, at last our account is overdrawn. “Let everything go” and “It’s sweet to do nothing,” which is what the foreign languages above mean, not only no longer work as civic principles; they are rapidly devouring what charm we have left.

Now don’t go and tell me that what I am going to say sounds like an idiotic poet or art critic. What we need in the next few years in this town are men of wide general culture and good taste at the helm. What has been happening to this city is simply vulgarization. It’s a dollar and cents proposition. We are destroying our heritage, fouling up all those things that make San Francisco the place where everybody wants to live. It is not the wicked capitalists that are doing it. It is the penny ante operators.

For better or worse, the largest real estate speculator in northern California is just bursting with civic consciousness. His efforts in his own field are none too well coordinated, but they are efforts. Against him is set a vast tide of chiselers.

Mostly it is not economic determinism or any of that noise at all. It is just vulgar stupidity and moral laziness and lack of imagination. I wish every responsible person in San Francisco could take a trip to Pittsburgh and see what a few enlightened men have done, just by giving leadership. Pittsburgh, Pa., of all places!

There a couple of grandsons of the Robber Barons have shown that they know fully as much about human ecology, town planning and architecture as the people who teach it in universities. And just incidentally, in demonstrating their possession of this very aesthetic learning, they have made pots of money rehabilitating their town.

[August 9, 1961]



Needed: A Master Plan for the City

Always check. Somebody told me that the upcoming world premiere Blood Moon of the SF Opera was an adaptation of Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Well, it isn’t and I have a letter from Herbert Scholder setting things straight.

He says, “The story of Blood Moon is set in the Old South of 1859. Mary Costa plays an octoroon, Ninette, who falls in love with a wealthy young Southerner. She also becomes a famous actress. It’s really an original libretto written by Gale Hoffman, based on a scenario by the composer himself, Norman Dello Joio. The whole plot is based — but very, very vaguely — on the life of Adah Isaacs Menken.” So now you know.

Wednesday last I did a piece about how San Francisco is slipping deeper and deeper into a slough of vulgarity, civic provincialism, sloth and disorder, and becoming a far different place than the San Francisco everybody has loved for so long. Our local elections are supposed to be “nonpartisan,” that is, non-party, though of course they are not.

This fall, irrespective of party, we certainly need to at least try to get men of wide general culture, imagination and courage, because we are entering the most critical period in many years, certainly since the fire and earthquake. During the next four to 10 years we will be taking steps that can never be called back. We will be moving directly into the “City of the Future,” the San Francisco of the latter years of the twentieth century. If we take the wrong steps, our children will be condemned to live with a civic monster which they will be unable to reform. It looks like we have already destroyed our waterfront irrevocably. A few more mistakes like that and we are sunk.

Once again there are rumors that the Army is going to relinquish most of the land it holds in the city. This land includes some of the finest urban sites in the world. I wouldn’t say the Army itself has done a very good job of residential development in recent years. In fact, they have built a tidy, sterile slum overlooking the Golden Gate.

If the Presidio, or a good share of it, is turned over to private enterprise and “developed” in the same style, we will have built nothing but future blighted areas, and areas that will be blighted before the development is amortized.

It is indisputable that the now flattened Western Addition was a blighted area. But don’t forget, blight was not originally built into the structures. These were once the most gracious upper-middle-class homes in the West. Even now a thoroughly rehabilitated Victorian house or flat is hard to beat for comfortable, efficient homeyness.

The palatial old flat in which I live is run down and in a declining neighborhood. But to rebuild it today as a seven-room house would cost about $30,000. What is going to happen is you start off with jerry-built rabbit warrens, however “ultramodern”?

The old Hall of Justice and jail may be derivative textbook architecture, but at least it is a pretty good copy of one of the finest palaces in Florence. If that thing by the freeway is a palace it is a palace for White Leghorns. Plans to redevelop Grant Avenue or Fishermen’s Wharf bog down in petty wrangling with shortsighted, greedy people.

So it goes, all over town. Courage and imagination are immobilized by cowardice and stupidity and the engineers take over with the motto “The slide rule is the measure of all things” and we get a city being rebuilt to be inhabited by automobiles without people.

We need so many things. We need a municipal theater. We need a bona fide library, not an ornate blimp hangar. We need an adequate home for the ballet and similar-scaled performances. We need decent support for the Symphony, the Opera and the museums. We need a coordinated development of the entire waterfront from India Basin to Fleishhacker Zoo.

We need a wholesale onslaught on downtown, which is a neon jungle if there ever was one. If they want another freeway, why not build it straight up Market Street? It couldn’t be any worse than it is now. If every building on Market Street under eight stories high was torn down and the whole thing rebuilt as they have done in Pittsburgh, every property owner along the strip would make money.

But who has the imagination to see that? If Grant Avenue was closed to automobile traffic and planted with a parkway, again, everybody would make more money.

In sum, what we need are not new commissions, but an Art Commission and a Planning Commission with a daring, all-embracing master plan, with real power to put that plan into effect, step by step, and people with daring, taste and intelligence to do the planning and sell the future to the now indifferent or exasperated citizenry.

[August 13, 1961]



A World of Refugees

Although Rexroth is a German name, my folks came over with Penn and I am pretty anti-German. I tend to react emotionally — “Well if they didn’t get out of the country in 1848 they weren’t worth saving.” Still, on sober second thought, I know they are people — people just like us, in fact altogether too much like us in some of our less admirable ways.

One Germanic trait which is admirable and which we are losing is a powerful attachment to home and family. I sometimes wonder if I am the last man left in California whose primary vocation has been just being a father, a husband, the “head of a home.” I am sure many of my associates have found me absurd — even Germanic.

While the headlines scream and the diplomats play first a round of stud poker, then a round of Russian roulette, then a hand of baccarat, and the syndicated pundits discuss the geopolitical implications with the utmost gravity and the ultimate word in inside dope, something is happening to human beings on a purely human level.

Before 1914 you could take the London Underground to the end of the line, or the Métro to the Chevreuse Valley, and find yourself in peasant villages where most of the population had lived since at least the fall of the Roman Empire, and where, down all those years, only the more intrepid had ever visited Paris or London.

In that dreamlike peaceful world before the other war things stayed put, and nowhere more than in Germany. I remember traveling there as a child and it looked as though the same cows had chewed the same mouthfuls of grass on the same meadows, and the same smoke had curled up from the china pipes of the same Captain Katzenjammers for 20,000 years.

So I think of these uprooted people, rushing hither and yon with bundles and rucksacks and all the millions like them our time has known. Jews, Arabs, Crimean Tartars, Indians and Pakistanis, Japanese Americans, North and South Koreans, North and South Annamese, Spanish Loyalists, Tibetans, the list goes on and on. No continent has escaped.

Even the poor, feeble Paraguayans and Bolivians had a try at it. Who remembers the Haitian emigrants in Santo Domingo slaughtered by Trujillo? All these people were humans, like you and me, with wives and children and homes which even if they were yurts or igloos were the equivalent of that one you are making FHA payments on.

The Russian and Polish pogroms, the Herrero War, the Dutch in the East Indies — these petty operations horrified the world in our grandparents’ day. We have split the atom and are about to land on the moon, and we live in a permanent state of pogrom.

Communist or capitalist, our politicians still act as if they were at the Congress of Vienna that settled the Napoleonic Wars — and in the civilized nations in the mid-twentieth century, men, women, and children run like lemmings. Fulton Sheen once said he had never been able to decide if he was living in the dawn or the sunset of civilization. Me too.

[August 16, 1961]



The Two Cultures

Aristotle, beginning his book on ethics, points out that he is going to be talking about free men, that a slave in incapable of ethical action because his will is not his own. Elsewhere he says that without proper knowledge the will cannot be free. If you don’t know what you are choosing, obviously you aren’t choosing.

Socrates believed that if man knew the good he would infallibly choose it — that evil was ignorance. Unfortunately this is far from true. For 15 years in our day, millions of people consciously and deliberately chose evil, knowing it was evil, and this in one of the most civilized nations in history.

However, certainly you have to know what you are doing before you can be said to act responsibly. For a week astronomers and astrophysicists and mathematicians and other scientists connected with astronomy have been meeting hereabouts and discussing their problems.

The general public, burdened with the guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Strontium 90 piling up in the bones of children, has come to look on scientists, and especially those connected in any way with astronomy or physics, as pretty immoral men. They were responsible, they should have acted differently. But they were not responsible. They too were caught in the vast blind confusion of the world.

How many times have we been told that our knowledge of things has so far outdistanced our knowledge of ourselves that it is going to destroy us if we don’t restore a sane balance to the two kinds of knowledge? Sir Charles Snow has become world famous for what was at first just a short essay [“The Two Cultures”] in an obscure periodical. He said that we are evolving two disparate educational systems and out of them two antagonistic castes of men. The astrophysicist falls asleep when his wife drags him to the symphony.

Picasso hasn’t the faintest idea of what makes his Citroen run. Jazz musicians believe it is square to speak coherent English. The television repairman finds most comic books too deep for him. How many poets or professors of moral philosophy could explain the effects of recent radio telescope discoveries on the steady-state theory of the universe? Or even explain what those words mean? Ezra Pound? T.S. Eliot? How many men who can read pages and pages of mathematical physics like other people read detective stories could tell you what was happening in Stravinsky’s Threni or in Marx’s Capital?

Like the expanding universe, our intellectual world is pulling apart in all directions, and the further out our ideas are, the faster they seem to be flying apart. Unless we can develop techniques for grasping all of this manifold universe of ideas at once, in some way or another that can give it all significance, we are all in the position of Aristotle’s slave.

We live in a world where knowledge is power of the most dangerous sort. Unless this knowledge is comprehension and not just accumulation of facts, it is power all right, but it is senseless power like the amperage of a lightning storm or the foot pounds released in an earthquake.

For “develop techniques” substitute “develop a new type of man.” People say, “The days when it was possible to be a Leonardo da Vinci or a Francis Bacon are gone. Human knowledge has become too immense and too specialized for one man to comprehend it.”

This is not true. In the Renaissance science, art, philosophy, psychology — all the departments of knowledge — were incoherent. They could not be comprehended really adequately by one mind because each of them was full of a chaos resulting from simple errors of fact.

This is certainly far less true today. Sound knowledge is easy to simplify and so simplified, far easier to organize into one comprehensive scheme. It is easier today to be a universal man than it was in Leonardo’s day.

Until we can have in our society large numbers of men who possess this ability to think soundly in universal terms, we are quite literally playing with our own destruction.

Adlai Stevenson spoke to the astronomers as if he knew what he was talking about. It is good indeed that a politician should address a convention of scientists and make sense. It is a pity there couldn’t have been a poet, a musician, an economist to talk to them too. But who? Allen Ginsberg? Maybe “Philly Joe” Jones.

It’s not a laughing matter. Culturally speaking we have got to pull ourselves together or we are going to fall apart at the seams.

The other night I visited some people and listened to the reading of a new opera. It was a private social gathering and not good manners to use journalistically, so please forgive me. Musically it was most impressive, open, clear, modest music with lovely sonorities.

The expert libretto was about how, if we discover the transmutation of the elements, this power demands an alchemy of the human heart — we must change as we have changed the lead to gold — and, in the words of W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”

The stunning thing about it was that it was by one of the most important living astrophysicists, who was attending the current convention. He seemed to be quite as much at home in music, or for that matter in art or politics, as he was in revolutionary theories of the cosmos.

Things are looking up — but alas he was not an American, nor was he a Russian, and it is in those two countries that men like him are needed most.

[August 20, 1961]



A Geopolitical Easement

As they say in the ads, “Consult your broker.” He will tell you that it is very unwise to buy a piece of property with an easement unless you know exactly what you are getting into and are protected against all future contingencies. (An easement is a right of use or access which one person enjoys in the property of another.)

Today we are stuck with an easement, just as though we had to go through somebody else’s parlor to get into our front door. The situation is just made for trouble and there doesn’t seem to be any way of ever making any significant change.

Not only do we have a tenant in the midst of somebody else’s house in Berlin, but we have no way of getting to him except by traipsing through in the middle of dinner. You would think that anybody would have had sense enough to avoid such a fix, anybody with any brains certainly.

Diplomats and statesmen are supposed to have a lot of brains. But down the centuries there has been really very little evidence of it. Most of their brains seem to go to keeping themselves employed. Like all civil servants, they are great advocates of made work.

A thoroughgoing job at the end of the Second World War would have put the striped pants and cutaway boondogglers out of work for generations. Instead, they were permitted to build in geopolitical jokers all over the world to ensure that they and their successors were kept busy and well paid for the rest of the century.

The immediate cause of the Second World War was a row over an easement — the Polish Corridor, a few hundred acres of real estate in one of the more miserable parts of the earth. You would certainly think they would have learned.

It just goes to show that experience is the worst of all teachers. John B. Watson, the behaviorist, discovered that the burned baby does not fear the fire. He will stick his finger in the candle flame a hundred times before he learns.

Now we are stuck with Berlin for as far ahead as anyone can see. Whatever settlement is made of the present crisis, it is not going to be the last. There is not going to be a united Germany in this generation. All talk of it is pure oratory. Nobody wants it except the anti-Communist East Germans.

The man upstate who wrote me proposing that Berlin be moved in toto into Western Germany had by far the sanest solution. Being so sane it has no chance whatever of succeeding in politics. I don’t think there is much chance of war at present over Berlin. But Berlin is not going to vanish at a summit conference. It is going to go on being there, a thorn in everybody’s flesh, making trouble for years to come.

There is one group that profits by all this commotion — the Berliners themselves. Not only do we have a tenant at the end of an easement, but one who runs out into the hall and yells, “Punch him in the nose!” What do these people mean, they are disappointed in the softness of the Allied answer to the Russians?

It’s the same old German arrogance, the same self-pity, the same self-righteousness. It may be part of the German myth, what they call the Nibelungen Geist, to go out in a blaze of glory. But I am not Hitler in his bunker. I don’t like that sort of thing a bit.

Willy Brandt may get a thrill out of contemplating the destruction of civilization for the sake of the vanity of the inhabitants of his city. It doesn’t thrill me a bit and I object most strongly to being shoved by the likes of him.

[August 23, 1961]



H.G. Wells’s “Open Conspiracy”

As I remember, it is at the end of H.G. Wells’s novel of the war of the future, The World Set Free, written incidentally over a generation before the atom was actually split, that he closes the horrible story of the terror and ruin and decay of civilization with a vision of the still more distant future.

High in the snows of the Himalaya stands a palace, fantastic and antiseptic, of glass and steel and concrete. There, looking out over the Indian plain, a group of men sit talking. They are the elite of that far-off world, and they are talking of the vocation of responsibility. The leader of the discussion is a sort of combination of Einstein, Gandhi and Walter Rathenau and he discourses at length on the nature of hidden spiritual leadership.

Wells read Plato’s Republic early on, and although Plato himself was certainly what today we would call a fascist, although not in any sense a Nazi, and Wells was one of the last and finest expressions of democratic humanistic socialism, he never abandoned one key idea learned from The Republic. This is the notion that certain people are called by destiny to be what Plato called Guardians, leaders and nourishers of the welfare of their less happily endowed fellows.

After, in Lord Grey’s phrase of August 1914, the lights really had gone out over Europe, never indeed to be relit in our time, Wells issued a manifesto, published first in fact in the very editorial section in which this column is appearing, calling for an open “conspiracy” of the elite, to save mankind from its all too manifest suicidal folly. He urged all the leaders of science, the arts, philosophy, business, engineering, all the makers and shakers of the peaceful activities of man, to get together and try to halt the avalanche towards social disaster.

The French novelist Jules Romains had a somewhat similar idea, and wrote a long series of dull novels advocating it. So did the sociologist Pareto. So far the open conspiracy has yet to be organized, and the avalanche roars on downhill.

And here I am in Aspen, Colorado, high in the Rock Mountains, talking about Job and Antigone and Freud and Tocqueville and Machiavelli and Marx with people who at least assume that they too do a bit of moving and shaking. I have often wondered, since the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies was founded by Walter Paepcke, the very civilized Container Corporation man (whom you certainly remember for those very civilized, what is the word — “propadeutic”? — advertisements in the class magazines combining great quotations and great art), if he, Paepcke, had been influenced in his scheme by Wells and Romains and Pareto.

We are high in the mountains, if not amongst the eternal snows of the Himalaya. The architecture is antiseptic enough, even if it no longer seems fantastic, and it’s built of glass and steel and concrete.

In its beginnings, as first leaders of its discussions, among the guests were Albert Schweitzer and Robert Hutchins, who together make up a sort of combination of Einstein, Gandhi and Walter Rathenau, with perhaps, in one case, just a dash of Adolph Menjou thrown in. The quest for a vocation of responsibility goes on while the band plays Haydn and Varèse and Telemann and Bartok and the Juilliards play Beethoven quartets.

Well, the time has almost come for the curtain to rise on the first act of that forgotten novel. There are signs of stirrings of the final act, but they are still only stirrings. Aspen is one. There are others here and there, mostly activities of the great American Foundations. That’s it. They are almost without exception American.

Powerful forces of irresponsibility are at large in the world today. At the top are demagogues who promise everything in return for the blind delegation of authority. This means simply, socially organized irresponsibility. At the bottom is the rising tide of nihilism and personal irresponsibility. Nobody believes the demagogues anymore and there is very little else around even asking for relief.

It’s late. It is later than you think, as they say on sun dials. On what mountains are the true guardians shaping our destiny?

Not anywhere on earth certainly. Maybe on the mountains of the moon, talking wisely mercifully to each other with their phosphorescent antennae. Oh flying saucers! Come quickly!

[August 27, 1961]



Breadth of Vision versus Narrowness of Interest

Maybe I didn’t want to play king-maker, but I certainly got an enthusiastic response to my choice of Paul Bissinger as an example of the kind of man San Francisco needs as Mayor for the coming term.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the nature of creative community leadership, sitting here for the past week in this seminar at Aspen. The remarkable thing about this little gathering is that just listening in, you can’t tell the executives from the resource people. Present are one of the more liberal state governors, a Canadian M.P., a couple of modest think tanks from the White House, an advertising man, an artist, an oil man from Arabia, several leading academic people, a doctor, an assortment of businessmen (amongst them a California real estate developer) and, possibly in attendance in case of emergency, a psychiatrist.

The point about this group of people is that it includes a disciple of the great art critic Berenson, two Catholics extraordinarily learned in the philosophers of their faith, several people who know a great deal about music, others with a variety of interests both broad and deep.

What we have been talking about, using the social literature of the ages as a springboard, is essentially the relation of freedom and responsibility both personally and in social action. I don’t notice, in these discussions, that any one person or kind of person has any monopoly on concern and breadth of vision.

I can’t help thinking how nice it would be if we were the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Of all the cities on earth, San Francisco is the town that deserves better than it gets politically. It has great assets, its spectacular beauty of site, its cosmopolitan, polyglot population, its Latin and Oriental traditions, its rich cultural life — museums, opera, ballet, the universities and colleges in and around it, its intensely creative intellectual life, and, as a summation for the consumer, so to speak, the greatest possibility for easy, gracious, thoroughly civilized living to be found on this continent.

These are its commercial assets in the strictest sense of the word. Plenty of other cities are better endowed with those commercial assets we learned about in geography class. We are hardly strategically located for the manufacture of steel or copper, or the distribution of beef, hogs and wheat.

Yet the cities that are, often challenge us in the maturity of their community responsibility.

It is not a question of class interest, the bosses versus the workers, or the People versus the Interests; it’s a question of breadth versus narrowness of interest. How can we best use the potential we surely have of true community responsibility? Are we making any creative use, as a city, of the talents of the leading banker, the leading industrialist, the top labor leader, the best doctor, the best academic brains, yes, even the men with the greatest political know-how?

As they say, to ask the question is to answer it. Indeed we are not.

San Francisco was once an extraordinarily cohesive little society, almost like a Greek city-state. In spite of its share of the “shame of the cities” back in the days of Lincoln Steffens, of the muck that the muckrakers raked, it managed to become the city it is — unique in America. The muck, real mucky muck anyway, is long since gone.

But since the war, like every other community, the old cohesion has vanished. If we continue on the course of fragmentation and petty self-interest that has characterized the last 15 years we are going to destroy our most valuable commodity, the one thing we have to sell that nobody else quite has to the same degree.

What is that? I suppose the word is civilization, the art of being a civic entity, or urbanity, the art of being creative inhabitants of a city.

If we permit ourselves to degenerate into just another huge inefficient conglomeration of white-collar Neanderthals drawn together by the lure of the fast buck, even the fast buck itself will disappear.

[August 30, 1961]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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