San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1961

Public Opinion
Sick Comedians
The Fallout Shelter Craze
Henry Miller
The Kirov Ballet
Pablo Casals at the White House
The Kirov’s Shostakovich Piece
Milhaud and Chekhov
Adenauer and Egrets




Public Opinion

Somebody once defined public opinion as what newspaper men say to each other in bars. After the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Malcolm Cowley observed that “public opinion no longer matters.”

When I was but a little, tiny boy the Japanese executed an appreciable proportion of the leaders of the Japanese Socialists. That was before the Other War and world public opinion was convulsed. The Japanese Cabinet fell and the throne shook.

Between the February and October revolutions in Russia crowds paraded in front of the American Embassy in Petrograd shouting, “Mooney! Mooney!” “What is a muni?” said one American diplomat to another. They found out, wired home, Wilson intervened and Mooney’s life was saved.

Time and again world opinion has mobilized, broken through national boundaries and changed the policies of governments. It is still a force, not the powerful one it was in the heyday of liberalism and reform, from 1880 to 1914, but still, sometimes at least, it is effective.

Although the Russians and Americans both like to claim credit, it was world public opinion that forced the Suez invasion to grind to a halt. It did not save Caryl Chessman’s life, but it did prolong it a few weeks.

During the same hours as Suez, public opinion did not stop the suppression of the Hungarian revolt. It did not even ameliorate the severity of the Russians but probably intensified it. Experts at manipulating riots in front of embassies and demonstrations and vigils of students, the Russians simply laugh them off when they are directed against themselves.

The John Birchers, without doubt, think that agents of the Russian Foreign Office are behind the vigil of university students with which Lewis Mumford has identified himself. A demonstration, even if it is against the Russians but at the same time against nuclear warfare, must, in their book, be Communist inspired.

The sad thing is that the Russians think just the same way. All over the world crowds are milling around in front of Russian embassies and consulates. Everybody in the Kremlin knows, positively, beyond any shadow of doubt, that they are led by agents of the CIA and the FBI disguised as Oxford students, African peasants, Japanese Zengakuren youths, British philosophers, and as for American professors — they all work for the FBI anyway.

This is no small problem. It may turn out to be the main factor in the survival of humanity. How can world public opinion break through the Iron Curtain and the Kremlin walls?

They are not, alas, walls of concrete and barbed wire and stone — but massive barriers of systematic distortion of reality.

[November 1, 1961]



The Sick Comedians

Miles Davis is at the Blackhawk with one of the best groups he has ever had, in fact, this is an all-star royal flush of the type seldom seen in jazz. He is certainly a beautiful musician, and at last he seems to be giving up the pose that he is Miles X, the most hostile man around. This makes for more relaxed music.

If jazz is the great art its practitioners say it is, it can do without the commercial gimmicks, the outrageous “audience personalities” that were the stock in trade of the old guard of the bop generation. If I want to be abused from the stand, I prefer to go somewhere else and have it done by an expert — one of the sick comics.

As a matter of fact, I don’t dig the sick comics. You’ve got to be pretty insecure to be insulted or shocked that easy. In this category I have never included Mort Sahl, who is not sick at all, but an up-to-date combination of Mr. Dooley, H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers.

My old friend Kenneth Allsop, British expert on the speedier aspects of American life (I once discovered that he knew every detail of the Starr Faithful case), wrote a bit recently on “Those American Sickniks.” He says some things that have been on my mind ever since the craze started.

It is difficult to write about the sickniks because one or the other of them has always got a publicity stunt going and I don’t want to be accused of falling for it. A few days ago one of them deliberately used a term of abuse for a male homosexual — yes, that’s what the word was — from the stand. This kind of cheap play for the headlines I don’t buy.

That of course is it. As Allsop points out, most of this jive is not really significant at all. It is just a runaway craze in show biz. Dissent is a hot commodity, as long as somebody else is doing the dissenting. And it is always the family next door that is the butt of sick sarcasm. In other words, we are dealing with one of the minor tension-relieving devices of the sort that is always around in society and always good merchandise. This kind of tension relief can itself become more degrading than the condition it is designed to relieve. It is degrading to snigger at jokes about babies getting leukemia from fallout or Negroes being burned alive in the jungles of Alabama.

Allsop says, “Old hand comic Joe Adams said of the sickniks, ‘They all act like big nonconformists, but they’re all aiming to get on the Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen show.’ ”

He couldn’t have chosen a better example. Steve Allen himself is a genuine nonconformist in a good many ways. He is passionately devoted to a number of causes for the good of man which are usually considered not good merchandise for the air waves. As far as he knew when he took them up he was only damaging his rating. But the public — the big public that watches television, not the small public that can be crowded into 20 chi-chi night clubs around the country — turned out to respect him for his causes. To everybody’s great surprise, honesty and magnanimity turned out to be hot commodities, too. The only thing is, like that last high E, or a triple flip on the flying trapeze, these are audience-luring abilities that can’t be faked.

I know — I am a dissenter, too, and one day I discovered that I was becoming a pet of Madison Avenue. It’s pretty scary. Makes you want to go back to writing about love and flowers and children.

I don’t suppose a plug for the Kirov Ballet will even be welcome. But if you haven’t got tickets maybe you can pick up cancellations. I for one am all agog.

And last, the Film Festival. When, oh when are we going to give this show the treatment it deserves? Sitting in a neighborhood theater in an audience of some 200 makes you think it really isn’t very important. But indeed it is.

Behind the backs of most of San Francisco it has become one of the major showcases. And when the Festival is on in Cannes, you can’t get through the streets. The whole Riviera goes crazy. The comparison bears thinking about.

[November 5, 1961]



The Fallout Shelter Craze

Last spring President Kennedy pointed out that the Russians, by raising the Berlin issue once again, and by raising it in the intransigent terms they did, were setting in train a war of nerves. He went on to say, substantially, that he hoped that after we had been embroiled in a war of nerves for six months or a year we would still be able to realize that that was what was happening to us.

The essential ammunition in a war of nerves is morale. The object of a war of nerves is precisely the failure of nerve on the part of the opponent.

I would not wish what I am going to say to be interpreted as an “attack” on civil defense. At the moment the shelter craze seems to have spared San Francisco. I do not know anyone who has the slightest intention of constructing a shelter.

It is hard to tell, reading the big city papers from around the country and the news weeklies and journals of political comment, if there is anything actually happening or if this is all one vast publicity hallucination.

Real or unreal, the very prospect of civilian defense in a war of extermination seems to have led to a serious loss of morale and failure of nerve in an appreciable proportion of the population.

In the final analysis, “morale” is just a longer way of spelling “moral.” It has overtones of emphasis on courage. But then Sam Johnson, when asked by Boswell what he considered the chief virtue, replied, “Courage, sir, because without courage the opportunity to exercise the other virtues is often lacking.”

We are great ones for washing our dirtiest linen in public. The Swedes, wisely or unwisely, have completed a program which will put most of their population under as effective cover as possible in the shortest possible time. The point is that they have done it without fuss or feathers, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world.

The best sources of information are unable to agree as to whether the Russians have a shelter program at all, or one of the best in the world.

In the eyes of the majority of mankind the contest between Communism and capitalism is a moral struggle, not an economic one, and every act and turn of policy is judged in moral terms.

What must the peoples of the world think when they read stories of whole populations panicking before the slightest threat of danger has appeared? California cities declaring war on each other, sovereign states promising to shoot down the invading refugees from other states, private enterprises hawking backyard air-raid shelters that are self-evident death traps?

“England’s finest hour” was not an hour, but months and years under punishing air raids that were as near extermination as German ingenuity could make them.

Our hour has not struck and very likely never will. It is pretty shocking to discover that what is still only a war of nerves can produce highly vocal advocates of a public policy of homo homini lupus — man is wolf to man.

That is not what it says in the Declaration of Independence.

[November 8, 1961]



Henry Miller

As is well known amongst literary inside dopesters, Henry Miller has been a very serious contender for the Nobel Prize for several years now. Do you suppose, if he had won it this year, that would have made any difference to the police who have been arresting book dealers for selling Tropic of Cancer? I doubt it.

Rambles like this are always taking place in the social gap between the more and the less educated sections of the population. This is one of the high-tension areas of modern life, at least as hot as that belt of radiation recently discovered around the planet.

There was a Polish sociologist, Waclaw Machajski, who had a theory that that is all 150 years of revolutions were really about — the bitter resentment the illiterate feel for the literate, and now, as education has become democratized, the under-educated for the over-educated.

This is the reason prosecutions of books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, Howl, generate such terrific heat. They give a policeman with a high-school education fits, not because they are dirty, but because they are over his head, and therefore, in some subtle, incomprehensible way, subversive. He will walk in to buy a cigar past 30 pornographic girlie magazines, every day of his life, and never bat an eye. In fact, he himself probably digs such art and literature with zest and vim and vicarious lust and vigor. Thirty years ago so mild and foolish a book as Jurgen gave what H.L. Mencken called the booboisie the moralistic rabies. Shakespeare’s bawdry is still expurgated, even in avant-garde productions.

Henry Miller’s three best books were written during the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow Trials, when all the intellectuals of the world were at one another’s throat, betrayers and betrayed locked in the bitterest heart-broken struggles. There is no sign of these times in the Tropics and Black Spring. They are just unabashed statements of the facts of life. As such, necessarily, they are profoundly comic and moderately bawdy, as life is in fact.

We think of the intellectuals as living in a world of words, of unreal ideas and ideals — “both feet firmly planted in the air,” said FDR. Actually it is the under-educated man who lives in the midst of a smoke screen of verbalisms and evasions. They are just so worn smooth with time and use that they slip around like ball bearings and give a false structure to reality — like the cycles and epicycles of Greek astronomy.

Titter or Peek or Black Stocking Parade are not shocking. They are soothing in a simple sort of way. Tropic of Cancer is, and always will be, I am afraid, shocking to some because it is infinitely closer to life itself.

The universe of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a comfortable place. It didn’t take him and Virgil and Beatrice very long to walk clear through it from bottom to top, and watch all his personal enemies getting their just deserts.

A book by Fred Hoyle on the structure of the universe is pretty shocking. Just think a while about billions of nebulae made up of billions and billions of stars each, all rushing away at speeds that approach the speed of light. Life is like that. Just imagine if you were born into it right now, a fully formed adult. I certainly can’t conceive of a more shocking experience. It is a good thing we are born as senseless babes and the thing creeps up on us unawares.

Literature, even anti-literature like Henry Miller writes, is pretty much a fraud. Even the greatest books are just lengthy magical incantations, designed to make life go away and not be there at all.

The older you get, the more all human expression seems a hoax, the elaborate passwords of a conspiracy nobody admits exists. But the greatest artists and the greatest painters do try. At least, when we get a peek at reality we don’t titter — we are more likely to guffaw.

In the Lankavatara Sutra Buddha laughs at the turning of a flower in his hand, and all the Buddhas of all the billions of universes burst into uproarious laughter. This vision, the unknown author implies, is reality itself.

Press, Pulpit and Police, us guardians of society, we could do with a little of such vision — maybe even a daily dose.

[November 12, 1961]

NOTE: Rexroth wrote a superb essay on Henry Miller here, plus some shorter reviews here.



The Kirov Ballet

My daughter Mary has very sound critical opinions, especially about ballet. Of the Kirov Ballet she said, “The technique is perfect. The choreography is good, but old fashioned. The interpretation is nowhere.” I concur.

This sounds as if I didn’t think they were too hot. Quite the contrary. Irina Kolpakova is one of the very greatest dancers I have ever seen, and I have seen them all from 1910 to date . . . so much so, that I sometimes get to thinking I used to bring black orchids to Carlotta Grisi and Fanny Essler.

There is no point in distributing bouquets amongst the rest of the cast. Many a provincial ballet would be glad to have the girl at the end of the line as a prima assoluta. The men are terribly good — some of them are a little dizzying. In fact, they gave a few of the variety numbers in the Gala I the air of the Olympic games. I don’t even know the names of a couple of their capers.

Except for these gymnastic displays, which always bring down the house, the general style of the Kirov is an all-pervading air of easy relaxation. It seems effortless. Sometimes the theatrical illusion is so perfect that you forget you are watching dancers — it just seems as though that was the way everybody always moved around the stage — or in life, for that matter.

I have never seen a company where extension and elevation were so perfectly blended with control and the compound was so perfectly concealed. In most dancers these are rather antagonistic virtues.

Sure, Edward VII or Mrs. Potter Palmer would have found the choreography dated and the interpretation childish. But that’s Russia. Let it be dated. If it weren’t for the Workers’ Fatherland, we’d have trouble understanding our great-grandparents.

And maybe the sweet naïveté of the Kirov’s Sleeping Beauty is really better art than a little Freud, a little Jung, and a dash of Martha Graham, hot from the griddle in New York City.

One thing — as always with all Russian companies — these people radiate good will like infrared lamps. I don’t really believe the Narkomindel processes all show business in the cork-lined cellars before export, I think the Russians just naturally like people.

It may not be Socialism, but at this distance it certainly seems to be wholesome. What do you suppose the Russians make of our exports? What would they make of Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac?

The papers are always telling us they’ve got characters like that over there. I guess they can’t dance.

[November 15, 1961]



Pablo Casals at the White House

Aristotle once said that democracy was the worst form of government. This has been a bitter pill for modern democratic Aristotelians to swallow.

They always try to explain it away. “What he really meant was rule of the mob.” Indeed he did not. The utmost he could conceive of in extension of the franchise and right of participation in government was very considerably to the right, as we would say nowadays, of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers. A democracy like ours would have left him stunned with horrified disbelief.

Somebody else once defined democracy as the rule of the lowest level of intelligence necessary to make up a numerical majority. This is, if you think about it for a moment, not really an abusive statement, but a statistical one. All extreme classes, pressure groups, all highly differentiated social forces cancel each other out, and leave only the average, the common middle ground, the statistical mean.

This, of course, is why democracy is above all other forms of government the favorite of the middle classes. Like a gambling machine, the sorting process leaves them automatically in control. And so, of course, where you don’t have a middle class sufficiently large to cover all of this political middle ground, democracy breaks down if it ever appears.

However, this is not a column about what is wrong with Russia, Pakistan or Paraguay. If you haven’t guessed already, it’s about Pablo Casals in the White House. The papers have been busy pointing out that nothing like this has happened since Thomas Jefferson. Think of that! Not a decent note of music in six generations.

And remember that chamber music is, or was in its heyday, written for precisely such occasions — for the entertainment of rulers of state and their guests.

Even I can remember a surviving custom from those days — before the First War most chamber music was given in foyers and intimate halls where it was not polite for anyone but the grand dowagers to sit down — rather like a modern cocktail party.

Somewhere in the past hundred and fifty years there must have been a president or two with good taste. But they didn’t dare show it. A publicly admitted liking for string quartets would have been political sudden death. There are still plenty of gallus-snapping politicians who are sure it goes with a secret Communist Party book and a taste for the worst in sexual deviations.

President Kennedy is no political chump. If it was dangerous to dig Buxtehude, he would play him only in the late hours and listen to him only on earphones — and if necessary give him up altogether and never miss him.

Suddenly in America it pays to be civilized.

What would Mencken — author of an essay on Gamalielese, the prose style of President Harding — think if he could come back today? He most certainly would have been invited. He would even have found some of the company a bit over his head.

And Pablo Casals, of all people.

How well I remember the days when Joe Kennedy was turning the heat on Roosevelt to keep the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic. Everybody else who played a role in those terrible days is dead or no longer cares. Pablo Casals is the one voice of power raised in accusation of Franco and in defense of the Republic.

Still, after an agonizing reappraisal, to use the language of diplomacy, he forgets and forgives and plays in the White House for his enemy’s son.

As the poet John Dryden said in a somewhat similar situation —

’Tis well an old age is out,
A time to begin anew.

[November 19, 1961]



The Kirov’s Shostakovich Piece

The most startling of the Kirov Ballet’s performances was a piece on the invasion of Russia and the siege of Leningrad, danced to the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony. This was the only modern topical number they gave here and it raises all sorts of questions and speculations.

In the first place, from 1927 to the 20th Congress, anybody in Russia who dared confess a liking for such choreography would have been exiled, anybody who painted such settings would have been killed.

Bolshevik Russia was once the true home of the most avant-garde activities in the theater arts. The German theater of the Weimar Republic — Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, the Bauhaus — all received their initial inspiration from the Constructivist and Futurist theater of Russia.

When Hitler took power these people all migrated to America. Many of them were Communist sympathizers, some were active members of the German Communist Party. But they knew that if they sought refuge in Russia they would be broken or shot. All their predecessors in the Russian theater of the ’20s were dead or in concentration camps.

The extraordinary thing about the Kirov’s Shostakovich piece is the complete rupture with this heroic past. The glacial artistic climate of the country has thawed and a hundred flowers have bloomed.

But if this ballet is an indication, they have not been seeded by memories of the theater of Meyerhold, the painting of Rodchenko, the “constructions” of Tatlin. In fact, the connection is with America — not, as one might expect, with the revived Expressionist ballet of Germany.

The choreography is a mixture of Agnes de Mille, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. The sets might have been done by one of the teachers at the San Francisco Art Institute.

I think this is a symbol and a symptom of something very important going on in the world. The revolutionary society of the 20th century has turned out to be, not the noble utopia imagined by socialist writers, but precisely the mass culture of the United States. The visions of Saint-Simon, or Bellamy, or Wells, or Trotsky even, may have been more elevating, more pure, but the vision of Henry Ford is in possession.

To us who are inside it, this mass culture is full of evils and seems unlikely to last out the century. To the poor and dispossessed it is the future.

To my generation the great promises of modern civilization were betrayed in our middle youth. To the Russian engineer, as well as the Indonesian doctor, they look suspiciously like the life of gray flannel exurbia that gives our sociologists fits.

Old-fashioned myself, I really prefer Meyerhold to Balanchine. These young Russians never heard of him, or if they have, think of him only as an unhappy memory of a blood-drenched past.

[November 22, 1961]



Milhaud and Chekhov

The most enjoyable experience of the past week was the chamber music concert at the Hall of Flowers. The place was packed. This gave great pleasure to the sponsors, who had worked hard to make a go of it, but it also occasioned them considerable surprise. Not me.

It is remarkable how much chamber music the Bay Area is capable of lapping up during a winter. All the colleges, the Composers’ Forum, the Jewish Center, several night clubs on Sundays, and so on and on. From fall to summer the entertainment guide in Highlight is full of chamber groups. Of course you find a good many more in New York papers, but don’t forget, most of those are vanity concerts, bought and paid for by the performers. This, happily, is not a local custom.

Besides the people who go to chamber music there is the increasing number of those who do it. Pretty soon you won’t be able to get on the staff at Mount Zion [medical center] unless you can twiddle on the cello.

Contrary to the fears of sociologists, canned music, records, television, radio, have not caused domestic music to wither away, but quite the contrary. The immense flood of records and the day-long radio concerts of classical music not only have stimulated the production of domestic music, they have greatly improved its quality. It is all very well to talk sentimentally about quiet evenings at home at Grandma’s around the harmonium. Go up in the attic and rout out the sheet music they used to play.

As for the concert itself, it was all lovely — except for the Milhaud at the end. This was the shoddiest sort of corn. What is wrong with this man? Why the enormous swings of quality? Some of Milhaud’s things are amongst the landmarks of modern music. Others are amongst the most banal. I always think of music as being like bicycling or swimming or making love — there is an individual minimum level of accomplishment beneath which you don’t ever sink, once you’ve learned how. Not Milhaud. We forgive Respighi or Villa-Lobos or most any American composer for lapses of taste, because we never take them completely seriously as civilized musicians. But Milhaud is inordinately civilized. It is just that at times it doesn’t seem to do him a bit of good.

* * *

One of the best things the Actor’s Workshop has ever done is the Chekhov Three Sisters now in its second week. As they used to say in the nineteen hundreds, “When better plays are written, Chekhov will write them.”

What a flawless dramatist he was. Not just in what goes over to the audience — great drama as perceived by the spectator — but what marvelous inside jobs, real grease-paint dramaturgy! A Chekhov play, seen from the actors’ and director’s point of view, is like a subtle mathematical problem, a chess game, or an organ fugue. Every word and gesture tells; nothing is wasted.

Everybody was at top notch. I doubt if Priscilla Pointer has ever turned in a better performance. And besides, she has found a chance to develop a certain softness and wistfulness which has not been an outstanding quality of her stage personality hitherto.

I could do with a more subtle interpretation of the vulgar sister-in-law, but this is certainly the most difficult role in the play and you can’t have everything.

* * *

As you know, I am not given to nightclubbing, but I do drop into Opus Too now and again, because it isn’t at all show-businessy, but quiet and friendly.

Ada Monte is singing — one of the star song stylists, as they call them in the trade. For sheer artistry in entertainment she’s hard to beat. I don’t know why she doesn’t stay in the big time. Yes I do, as a matter of fact. She is just too independent to take the guff.

Coming up at Opus Too are cabaret skits by a friend, Martin Ingerson. This lad has more vital ideas about pocket drama than anyone I’ve met. His little plays should go over big, the form itself is all the rage now in New York and St. Louis and along Chicago’s Rush Street.

[November 26, 1961]



Adenauer and Egrets

We are getting mature — the sociologists are right. We are almost as mature as the British. The secret of successful diplomacy is little talk and big do. Not necessarily “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” but at least, “Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer.”

The papers say that the President and Adenauer parted in perfect accord. The Old Man is supposed to be so happy to know that America won’t let him down. The State Department is still safely under the inspired tutelage of Bonn.

As a matter of fact, what the White House has given the public is a soothing prescription of pious generalities. There is every indication that the German Chancellor was told that he would have to accept American freedom to operate in a wide area of negotiation. And that he accepted it with the usual diplomatic face-saving, ritual phrases.

When he came over here the inside dopesters all said that he had come to demand German dominance in NATO, the equipment of German forces with nuclear weapons, the equal sharing of the German High Command in decisions for nuclear war — in essence their liberty to start such a war unasked.

One thing at least is obvious from the White House communications. He got none of this. We can all breathe easier.

What stupendous effrontery they have, these people! I just love to be told by Germans, “Why don’t you forget all that stuff. It has nothing to do with today.” Oh, hasn’t it? They are still the same people.

Now that we are mature, like the British, maybe we can take up space in the papers with ornithological interests. Only really mature nations can use columns of space every day for weeks when the first golden grommet in a century is discovered nesting on the lesser of the Scilly Isles.

Between Stinson and Bolinas Bays is the main heronry for the egrets of the northern Bay Area. Here in a relatively small clump of trees are born the white birds that later will decorate miles of marsh and river bottoms.

This plot of land has been bought as a real estate development and the egrets will be evicted unless the land is purchased and turned into a bird refuge.

Trouble is, egrets don’t evict; they will keep coming back until they are exterminated.

The Audubon Society has an option on the land, but needs plenty of money to buy it. You can get information or send money to the Marin Audubon Society, Box 441, Tiburon, Calif.

Perhaps ourselves we could not save; the herons we could. The world will be better off in two million years run by intelligent herons, anyway.

[November 29, 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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