San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1962

Economic Dilemmas
American Poetry Since 1940
Utopia or Perish
Igor Stravinsky
The Tao of Politics
The Death of Marilyn Monroe
The Ineffectiveness of the United Nations
High Sierra Characters
Comfortable Confusion




Economic Dilemmas

Recently the papers have been greatly taken with a group of related economic questions.

The Common Market negotiations are nearing a new climax and the market is about to become much commoner than before. The Committee on Economic Development has issued an eminently sensible program for American agriculture. The railroad unions are clinging to their featherbeds like, if you will pardon my originality, drowning men to straws.

The Great White Father and his economic advisors are worried about the balance of payments. Interest rates are rising. Unemployment is increasing. The stock market is queasy with fits of scuba diving and bends.

There is no question but what the proposed farm program would be a vast improvement over the present lunatic situation. Anything would. Neither political party has a farm program. They have magical charms and rituals which they think will somehow cause the problem to vanish. The mess is so bad that it no longer provokes responses which can be called liberal or conservative, right, left, or center.

It cannot be said of the CED program that it is weighted one way or another. It is essentially a technocratic program and as such wholly admirable.

There is only one trouble with it. It assumes an extended period of full employment. (“Full employment,” I might point out, is an economists’ term which takes for granted the continued existence of a normal labor surplus.) It also assumes close to capacity industrial production. If both these conditions, not necessarily as related as might be imagined, were to endure for 10 years, the new farm program would work. If not, not.

Similarly, the Common Market has been just fine and dandy as long as Europe was enjoying a boom, with full employment, labor scarcity, rising wages, capacity production and ever-increasing capitalization. The great economic gains of the mid-nineteenth century were made in a similar, unfortunately brief, period of free trade.

Times changed. The rapid capital growth came to an end; Europe had all it could absorb with the then level of technology. Unemployment increased. The old tariff barriers rose. Finally Louis Napoleon, once the great apostle of free trade, was overthrown in a particularly nasty war and revolution, and nobody has had a good word for him since.

The Administration is well aware that we have reached our position — “the Affluent Society” — in a time of accelerating inflation. All the signs are that we are now on the brink of worldwide deflation, a deflation all the big economists hope will be controlled. So far the theory has been that it can be controlled by hard money, easy credit, rising interest rates, tax incentives, balanced budgets, stabilized wages, increased free trade.

There is only one trouble with this program. Like the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Prayer Book, it is deliberately designed to satisfy everybody, and so it is actually a series of pairs of mutual contradictions. You can’t have your Keynes and eat him too. There is much to be said for hard money, but it won’t prime pumps.

Maybe this is a kind of dialectical idealism of the New Frontier. Maybe it will work. If so, maybe we’ll solve problems like the farm crisis, automation, free trade. If not, not.

[August 1, 1962]



American Poetry Since 1940

Off to the University of Oregon to give a series of lectures. I am beginning to feel this summer a bit like Eleanor [Roosevelt] in her prime, or even like Stephen Spender. I remember a letter from Dylan Thomas shortly before his death that went something like this: “I am at a Writers’ Conference in Prague. It’s not that I have any special sympathy with the government, but it’s the only one in the world I could find that wasn’t being attended by Stephen Spender.”

After I’d signed up for the series of talks they handed me a subject: American Poetry Since 1940. You guessed right — this took me considerably aback and my immediate reaction was — “Don’t mention it.” Is American poetry since 1940 really worth talking about for an hour a day for two weeks?

The ancient Chinese Buddhist poem says:

The fish in the waterfall
Cannot see himself,
And has no hands to touch himself,
And so can never know
What kind of creature he is.

Immersed in life we have almost no perspective; those who are immersed in the practice of an art have less than none. However an assignment like my present one has caused me to cast about and try to see where I am. After all, my primary life commitment after my family is to the integrity of my own craft of poetry.

What has my generation and the one after it accomplished? How do we stack up against the great dead, or against the classic generation of American modernists, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings and the rest of them? How do we compare with the Proletarians of the 30’s or the self-styled Reactionary Generation that came after them?

Long ago, standing in the Sistine Chapel and looking at the clamorous rhetoric of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, there stole into my mind a thought: “You know, Kenneth, art is by and large a failure.”

Possibly I have listened to too much music, read too many books, seen too many pictures, but past middle life, I seem to be predisposed always to weigh the achievement against the promise and wonder.

Recently, teaching a class in 19th and 20th century French painting, I was appalled to discover that my favorite painter was Pissarro, and before him, Chardin. Their aims were modest, but they accomplished them, completely. As Tennyson says in Locksley Hall, “Better 20 minutes of Puccini than a cycle of Wagner.”*

When we think of the vaunting programs of the Movements and Revolutions in poetry since Baudelaire, contemporary American poetry seems very modest indeed. The surrealist André Breton used to talk about how surrealist poetry would “fundamentally reorganize the human spirit as such.” It didn’t. My contemporaries and successors don’t seem to have any programs at all, not in that sense; they just write poetry.

I guess it is this unprogrammatic attitude to life and art that social critics are talking about when they refer to “Post-Modern Man.” We have outlived the Communist Manifesto and the Imagist Manifesto as well.

The Proletarians of the 30’s used to talk about going to the masses. They never got further than the literary cafeterias of Greenwich Village and the disorderly desks of the WPA Writers’ Project. Today with necks and brains well scrubbed, a surprising number of them occupy the top executive desks along Madison Avenue.

The Reactionaries talked about creating Mythic Archetypes for Conservative Man. Honest, they really did. Well, my columnar colleague Barry Goldwater may have his faults, but one of them is not the stylistic influence of T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. For that we can be thankful.

The conspicuous thing about contemporary poetry is that it has, without thinking about it, become enormously popular. If I could stand the gaff, I could live on the lecture and reading circuit and make between two and three thousands dollars a month. So could any one of some twenty poets of my age or younger.

Books by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti outsell all but the most popular novels. This is not, as you might think, the scandalous success of the Beatniks. The conservative, conventional poetry of Robert Lowell sells almost as well.

Creative writing classes in every college are now busy turning out a kind of mandarin poet; soon you will not be admitted to the ranks of the professional, technical and administrative intelligentsia unless you have published a slender volume of Neo-Metaphysical verse, just like ancient China.

There is no question but that people are listening. The question is, what are they listening to? As poetry slowly diffuses through the social body like milk through water, what is happening to it? What qualitative changes are taking place? Is it any good?

That is another story. Maybe after I have talked about it for two weeks I will know the answer.

[August 5, 1962]


*Tennyson ’s poem (1842) was far too early to have referred to Puccini and Wagner. Rexroth is doing a wry takeoff of the following lines from it: “Through the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day; / Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”



Utopia or Perish

Some time ago I wrote about the great scarcity, in this age of heavily subsidized studies of everything conceivable, of comprehensive and competent studies of the “phase out” into peace.

Since then I have received an exceptionally judicious and provocative document, Number Two 1962, volume 6, of the Journal of the Stanford Research Institute. The issue is called “Nations Without Arms” and the three articles are entirely devoted to this question. They are titled “Altered Patterns of Power,” “Altered Patterns of War,” and “Altered Patterns of Economics.” They are by very solid and knowledgeable authorities in each field.

I don’t know how available this publication is to the general public, but I should certainly think that discussion groups, clubs, study circles and organizations devoted to peace, world unity, foreign affairs and such like could get it by writing for it.

This is anything but the “Ah, gee, fellers, why can’t we all sit around a table like we do at the bull sessions at Quaker work camps and thrash out problems like the hydrogen bomb and the occupation of Berlin?” approach that vitiates the activities of professional peace makers.

The trouble with pacifists is that they are sentimentalists. They are not prepared to accept the tremendous prices that must be paid for the results they want. Since in the future it is going to be ever increasingly a question of peace or perish, what we need is lots of hard-headed yet fearlessly imaginative people who can think and plan for peace.

There are no simple solutions. Conflict, hostility, the urge to self-destruction, even just plain anger — these are the most recalcitrant problems in the comparatively simple field of the interpersonal relations of individual men. If anger still is a besetting sin of monks and nuns who have spent their lives in convents (and, as any religious can tell you, it very often is); if irrational hostility and inability to communicate are the most stubborn blocks to the solution of marriage difficulties (as any counselor can tell you, they very often are), how much more difficult it is going to be to keep 2 billion people, now divided into hundreds of antagonistic groups, all with genuinely conflicting interests, from destroying themselves utterly.

One factor that is well brought out in the final essay on economics is seldom understood by the general public. We are at this moment on the brink of breakthrough into a new technology which can change our life on this planet far more drastically than ever did the agricultural and urban revolution that began civilization, or the industrial revolution that began modern civilization.

If we can only learn to stop gnawing on each other, we not only can satisfy the crying needs of mankind, material and social, in pretty short order, we can go on to overtake and surpass the fondest dreams of the most visionary apostles of any “revolution of expectations.”

Always before, utopia has been something in a book; you could take it or leave it alone; it didn’t matter. Now mankind is faced with the absolute necessity of making the transition within a generation from a world where man is still wild to a real utopia, manifest in actual fact.

This is without any exception the most difficult task that has yet confronted any species to occupy the earth. And bear in mind — there isn’t any alternative.

[August 8, 1962]



Igor Stravinsky

Coming and going as I’ve been this summer, there is a small observation I’ve been planning to squeeze into this column sometime and have so far missed. It never seems to be germane to whatever the main topic happens to be — but maybe I just better put it in regardless.

This year is Igor Stravinsky’s 80th, and all over the world there are special tributes and testimonial programs. Traveling as I’ve been, I’ve run into several myself. They all have one thing in common, and this is true of such activities in the Bay Area. None of them include his latest work.

Petrushka, Apollon Musagète, Histoire d’un Soldat, the Pergolesi suite, even the opera — somewhere these are being performed this year in commemoration and tribute. But not the “serialism” of the last few years. Needless to say, this annoys the old master very much.

Perhaps this is the greatest compliment the public can pay him. He’s 80 years old and he’s not tired yet. He is still 10 years in front of his public, just like he was in 1912. Artists may grow richer and deeper after 60. Not many of them forge so dramatically ahead that they outdistance their own fans.

As a matter of fact, only the greatest musicians seem to improve with age. Beethoven of course, or even Bartok — but not, in my opinion, Schoenberg. The best Schoenberg has always seemed to me to be the compositions of the years of the “great turn,” when he became, so to speak, Schoenberg sui generis. Once he got it all figured out, he seems to have lost his excitement.

Not Stravinsky. I remember a visit to him some years back, at Thanksgiving time. There were four of us, spaced about 10 years apart, and Igor and Madame Stravinsky. It’s trite to say he was the youngest person present — but it’s true. He was endlessly curious about everything under the sun, alive to topics and issues and controversies as far from music as could be imagined. And this was not an old man’s curiosity, an amused onlooker of the passing show. He was engaged — vitally interested. Everything mattered to him.

Since one of the things people with lots of money seem to enjoy most doing with it is “supporting music,” I think it would be awfully nice if, before his 80th year is over, somebody would subsidize a Bay Area performance of the contemporary Stravinsky. It is late, but maybe there might even be time to commission a piece or two. After all, it’s a sure route to immortality.

And now a little story, possibly apocryphal so I won’t use anybody’s right name. It seems there was once an elderly composer who had an extensive season one year in Venice. Let’s call him Boris for short. During the weeks he was there he became good friends with the Archbishop of Venice. They dined together and had long talks about everything under the sun, since they were both, though very elderly, very, very alert for their age.

In due course the Archbishop of Venice became Pope. One day the composer came to Rome to conduct a concert there. The telephone rang at his hotel. It was the Papal Secretary inviting him to dinner with the Holy Father. Old and sophisticated as he was, he nevertheless came a bit unglued. He had a rehearsal. He didn’t have anything to wear. A familiar voice broke in from an extension and said, “Come as you are,” so he canceled the rehearsal and came as he was.

They had dinner together and walked and talked in the Pope’s private garden in the evening. After a long visit, considering it was the Pope, it was time to go. The Holy Father, as the composer kissed his ring, said, “What troubles you, Boris, my son?” “Well,” said the famous worldly composer, full of years and wisdom, “Your Holiness, I hate to confess this, but at my advanced age I still have great difficulty accepting adverse criticism.”

“I know, Boris,” said the Pope, “me too.”

A few days ago the news came over the air of the pathetic death of a beautiful woman [Marilyn Monroe], a girl with a stupendous talent, but love lost. She had an indomitable will and with it she forged her way to the top, at least to the top of the peak that was nearest and clearest on her horizon. Millions of men pinned up her picture in lonely rooms and fell asleep dreaming of her. They say she believed that no one loved her, that she never had a chance. When she got to the top of the peak there wasn’t anything there.

On the other hand, think of two old men, whose lives, like those of all people, had been full of tragedy, and full of enormous success as well, as most people’s are not, talking together in an evening garden on a hill in Rome, and admitting to each other that they are still recalcitrant in the face of life.

No one can judge those whom life undoes or know the limits of another’s loneliness and agony. Still, as a great American poet [Edgar Lee Masters] said in his best poem, written to his pioneer mother, “It takes life to love Life.” Too true, but where do you find it?

That poet himself died by his own hand.

[August 12, 1962]



The Tao of Politics

The other day I was talking to a Republican committeewoman from the Deep South. I just can’t imagine a better way to get a thoroughgoing, inside-job briefing in Democratic politics. In addition, she is one of the wittiest and most intelligent political minds I have met since the days of Burton K. Wheeler.

The Great White Father [President Kennedy] had just lost one of his bits of must legislation because of the opposition of his own party in Congress. She said, “Y’know, ah’ve hunted with the Bouvier Sisters, and ah’ll tell yuh somethin’ about ’em. Those folks, the whole kit an’ kaboodle of ’em, think every day is Shove Day. An’ yuh know what’s a gonna happen? They gonna shove theyselves raght out o’ th’ White House.”

I think she had something. “Power All The Way” is simply not an effective motto in politics. Far better is Talleyrand’s great maxim, “With time and patience the mulberry leaf may be turned into satin.” He lived through the most revolutionary period in history and always managed to come out on top of the heap. Not only that, but in his own wily and slippery fashion, he was always able to cherish and advance the interests of France.

The Tao Te Ching is right. What makes the wheel go round is the hub, what makes the room is the space the walls surround, what makes an effective rule of the land is the knowledge of inaction. The smart politician keeps his word, knows how to forgive with maximum effectiveness, knows how to dodge and let his opponents fall with their own violence. “Politics is the art of the possible.” That’s right, and so is jiu-jitsu.

John Foster Dulles, a man with whom I very seldom agreed, once said, “People are always saying how smart Stalin is. He isn’t smart at all. He believes that the ends of politics, both internal and external, can be attained by the straightforward exercise of brute power. In every case where he had the chance to implement this policy he failed disastrously. It is only in those cases where circumstances forced him to forego a show of brute force that he succeeded.”

How true. Khrushchev obviously has learned this lesson and bends with the breeze when it blows too hard and only attempts to advance when the wind dies down. His own shows of force have been pure bluster designed only to rattle his opponents . . . except for Hungary and there of course he came a cropper. Hungary is a fine example of the most expensive way to solve a problem.

So it goes in our own domestic politics. The fact is that the House and Senate are full of people elected on much more substantial majorities than the President. They may be wrong, but from where they stand amidst the corn and cotton, he rode into office on their coattails, not the other way around. The only way to deal with such people is to persuade them that your program is something that they thought up in the first place.

Roosevelt could always blame a coalition of Southern Bourbons and Republican reactionaries. The present legislative deadlock is due as much to the opposition or at least indifference of precisely the wing of the Democratic Party the President is supposed to represent.

Maybe things would be expedited if Messrs. Heller, Schlesinger Jr., Rostow, et al. took a short course in Taoism or Zen Buddhism. Once a swordsman was dueling with a Zen sword master and the contest went on for a long time. Suddenly he coughed and his head fell off and his body tumbled into 30 parts. He hadn’t even noticed the cuts as they occurred. That’s the way it should be. That really is “Power All The Way.”

[August 15, 1962]



The Death of Marilyn Monroe

Like everybody else I am still haunted by the death of Marilyn Monroe. I suppose everyone with any sensibility at all heard the first news with a sick qualm at the pit of the stomach. Partly it was the realization of the long foreboding, the doom had been there in the background, dimly visible through the publicity releases for a long time. “It’s happened at last,” we all said. And since she provided millions with an erotic image, how many must have been seized by a little spasm of fantasy, “If only I could have prevented it.” The dream recoiled and involved the dreamer in an instant of imagined responsibility.

We talk about the American Dream. Alright, if Marilyn Monroe was the American Dream, what has gone wrong with it? Lillian Russell didn’t die so, nor Gaby Deslys, nor Sarah Bernhardt, nor Dolly Varden, nor Ida Rubenstein, and Mercedes DaCosta is still alive and recently published her memoirs. Actresses and dancers and singers and great courtesans who have given the public what in dreams they couldn’t find privately have by and large been successful at it. Morgan put his mistress on the silver dollar, and Dolly Varden fish are a nuisance to anglers in all the trout streams of northwest America. I am sure that every time Morgan’s girl spent that silver dollar, her faith in herself was enormously renewed. Perhaps they were priestesses of the Bitch Goddess, but she took care of her votaries. At each contact with her they gained strength, like the demigod who could fight with Hercules as long as he could make contact with his mother, the earth. They didn’t ask too much meaning from existence, and not too much love. The meaning was in the doing, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Hercules held his opponent over his head until he grew weak and then he strangled him easily. What was the contact this girl couldn’t make? On the face of it, how absurd it seems to talk about her insecurity. True, she was cheated out of the role she most wanted to play, and could have played perfectly — Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. The part was given to a cold girl who can only do three things well, walk, walk faster, and run — but a girl who minded. The remarkable thing is that that is the only time the industry ever double-crossed her. In its own immense bumbling way, like River Rouge trying to manufacture Alençon lace, it tried to find things for her to do.

When she really got the chance, she did them very well. She must have known the satisfaction of good work well done. Why wasn’t it enough?

Now Aphrodite was a slippery and adulterous goddess, but she never cried out of the gloom of any of her shrines and said, “I cannot believe in the existence of what I am the goddess of.” The goddess bespeaks the minds of her worshipers. We have the idol we deserve.

The marriages which break up today are so often the ones that, seen from the outside, look ideal. Actresses and physicists at the pinnacle of success commit suicide. The worst beatniks are to be found at the Ivy League colleges, the worst delinquency areas are the two-car garages, three-bathroom suburbs.

Now the extraordinary thing about this state of affairs is that no one at all has anything resembling a convincing explanation. It isn’t materialism. Most Americans still cling to some kind of vague belief in some kind of Deity, and on the other hand, the entire Far East has always been godless in our sense. It is certainly not imaginary entities like Oedipus complexes. If they exist people have always had them.

The society we have invented for ourselves to live in seems to be, like the hydrogen bomb we have invented to exterminate ourselves, too vast a thing for us to comprehend. Somewhere a feedback valve has got connected to the refuse pipe and is pouring poison into the control center — and nobody knows what it is or where it is. At least I don’t. Do you?

[August 19, 1962]



The Ineffectiveness of the United Nations

Rumor has it that Mr. K. — N., not J. [i.e. Nikita Khrushchev, not John F. Kennedy] — is planning to attend the opening of the U.N. An exceptional number of Soviet journalists and bureaucrats are booked into New York, and there are political maneuvers and pressures developing of the sort that usually presage a major gesture on the part of the Russians. Not least of course is the timing of the cosmonauts.

It would be fine if this all meant something. It would be fine if we really had achieved a Parliament of Man and Khrushchev, President Kennedy, Prime Minister Macmillan, General de Gaulle, Chancellor Adenauer and all the rest of the individuals who have in their hands the decisions as to the destiny of man could get together and fight it out before the eyes of the world until they came to some kind of conclusion.

Unfortunately, as the years go by it becomes increasingly apparent that that is not what the U.N. is. It is not a legislative assembly for the planet and it shows no tendency of ever becoming so. It is a forum. It is an immense safety valve, or a whole congeries of safety valves.

It is not the engine that runs the world and there is little promise that it ever will be. A safety valve is not a source of power, it is only a device for dissipating excess power which might otherwise make trouble.

Further, as the U.N. has filled up with new nations who not only have no power, but who are fantastically weak, each one a little power vacuum, it has become crippled by its very success. It has come to represent everybody, but when you add up all these everybodies, you get an audience, not a legislature. Laos was not solved, if it was solved, by any Parliament of Man. It was solved in another one of history’s smoke-filled rooms. The bosses sat around and played political stud poker until after a long hard game everybody was near enough to breaking even that they could afford to call it quits. This is just plain old-fashioned Machpolitik; it hasn’t changed a bit since Richelieu — or Rameses the Second.

The nearest thing to a successful operation of the U.N. in recent years was the Congo. Internally the Congo is nowhere. The U.N. is keeping the Congolese alive. They aren’t dying of starvation, not many of them, and they aren’t killing each other, not many of them. Externally the Russians were not disciplined by the U.N., they were defeated by logistics and by the failure to create effective alliances — just like Napoleon before Moscow.

Mr. K. is coming, if he is coming, to New York to set off a bomb or at least a long string of loud firecrackers. But it will be a bomb of words. As such it will not be negotiable. Words, like paper money, are negotiable only if they represent power to deliver. It is too bad, but power is not negotiated before audiences of handsome men in exotic costumes.

It is negotiated in hard-boiled give and take in smoke-filled rooms — cash on the barrelhead. It don’t like it this way a bit. In fact I think it is a very nasty business, but so it is.

It would be nice if the increasingly threatening problems of mankind could be solved the way the Friends’ Service Committee solves things at an annual meeting. Alas, that time has not come, and there is no sign that it is going to arrive this autumn in New York.

[August 22, 1962]



High Sierra Characters

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK. — That could be the dateline on half my books. Those that weren’t written here were mostly written in a cabin in Devil’s Gulch in Marin County, now an abandoned ruin in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. That was a lovely place, built above two waterfalls, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters, a ten foot square hut buried in a canyon in the middle of three abandoned ranches. Progress caught up with me and the greater good of the greater number evicted me. Now I’m middle aged and write in civilized surroundings.

It’s 35 years since I first saw the Kings River Canyon and the headwaters of Kern River and caught my first Golden Trout. Progress has caught up with me here, too, but not to the same degree. I went in over the same trails, serviced by the same pack outfits, as Jack London and George Sterling and Steward Edward White. Clarence King came this way, and John Muir, William Randolph Hearst Sr., too. This is the classic High Sierra of California tradition.

In those days there was no road into the Kings Canyon, and only a steep, hot, gravel road straight up into Giant Forest. There was no High Sierra Trail and the John Muir Trail was still full of gaps. The way into the country was either through Hume Lake, then a shambles of a deserted logging village, or Mineral King, a mining camp which was turning into a summer resort. The country was more or less run by a small collection of outrageous characters, California mountain men the likes of which there will never be again.

There was a packer who controlled the Kings Canyon traffic, Poly (for Napoleon) Kanawyer, a little wild man who rode like the Tartar invasion, drank like Jonah’s whale and hunted like Nimrod himself.

His father had preceded him, and developed the first resort in the Canyon, the site of which still bears his name. Past 80, Poly’s mother was washed away fording Kings River, got to her horse’s head, swam him out and showed up in camp a little late, apologetic for the delay — “I got a little wet crossing the river.” All the Valley papers came out with editorials bemoaning the passing of the virtues of the pioneer woman. And they were so right.

There was Shorty Lovelace, an even smaller, even wilder man, who trapped along the border of the Park, the watershed of the Kings and Kaweah Rivers, in the winter, and guided hunters and fishermen in the summer. I first came on him in Big Arroyo, on horseback, a fly rod in either hand, drunker than a peach orchard boar, hooting and hollering, and flipping fish out on the bank for the dudes, as fast as he could flip.

One spring he showed up in civilization with a bad limp. “Broke the ball and socket out of my hip.” “What did you do?” “Crawled with the snowshoes to the cabin, set it and laid out till it got well.” I think they sent him up for poaching in his extreme old age. Now his base cabins on Sugarloaf Creek are tumbled ruins, lonelier than Karnak or Baalbek.

Over in the Kern the men were even harder, but quieter, steely-eyed Nevada desert types with spotted calf hides covering their pack boxes, pinto horse-hide chaps and stock that would jump three feet in the air every time you coughed. All along the Kings upland were summer camps of cattle outfits. I knew them all — Cutlers, Bartons, Crabtrees, Goyens. They are all gone now and the Park has closed out their claims.

Only an old lady lingers on. Every summer she still comes up to Horse Corral Meadow. There’s a roadhead there now, at least an appallingly bad road gives up at that point, and all sorts of comings and goings. The barbecues when everybody got together at fall gatherings are long gone, and Old Ike, with his drooping moustaches and his little fox terrier riding across his saddle, is only a ghost on the trail now.

The High Sierras are getting civilized — or at least Los Angelized. Here and there the old-timers linger on and in fact are breeding new-timers like themselves. I don’t know of any such in California, but the other day I was up in Oregon, visiting a big ranch that raises rodeo stock for most of the shows in the West. The daughter said, “I’m not much of a rider. The other day I got over in a Cossack drag and the horse started to gallop too fast, and I couldn’t get back up. Gee, I sure got cussed out. I guess I’ll never learn to ride.” Hmmm. In my most reckless salad days you couldn’t have got me to even try to learn a Cossack drag, not for all the rice in China. Try it sometime, just for size.

[August 26, 1962]



Comfortable Confusion

Recently, apropos of the Sherri Finkbine case [a highly publicized abortion controversy], a Catholic priest and monk wrote a sarcastic letter to the press. He suggested that it might be more humane, more economical and more rational to wait and see if the expected child was born deformed and then, if it was, kill it. Of course such a suggestion is just as shocking as it was intended to be, but we need more of this kind of bitter irony. So much of our thinking on the most important issues of human conduct is so flabby that any ironic wisdom or even good sense cuts through it like a hot knife through butter.

The question of the moral sanction for abortion in any given situation is important enough, certainly. Legalized abortion may be moral or immoral, but worse by far is a state of society in which men lost the ability to face up to reality. In Japan today abortion has become the commonest form of birth control. The leaders of Japanese opinion don’t try to weasel out of this fact with a lot of sentimental nonsense; they admit the situation is deplorable. They do not share our built-in repugnance to the practice, but they don’t like it, and their public health people are trying to do something about it.

I, for one, am about as opposed to abortion under most circumstances as it is possible to be. That is not the point. To explain my position I have a well thought out scale of values. I have long since discovered that it is fruitless to engage in argument on this subject. Argument is not met with argument, but with a sort of envelopment of mush. This is a subject on which people don’t want to think clearly. I am sure that if I took a forthright position on the other side, I’d meet the same tactics.

Think of the dozens of controversial subjects which now beset us like demons. Shall we get tough with the Russians or shall we embark on a course of unilateral disarmament? Will desegregation result in miscegenation, and if so what of it? Should we entrust more and more of our affairs to government or less and less? Should divorce be made more difficult or easier? How about birth control? Capital punishment?

There are strong, clear arguments on both sides, but how often are they stated? You can’t even get an honest opinion about the Federal discount rate. So many people don’t want answers; they want warm, comfortable confusion.

It’s not for nothing the man was a monk. I am not a Catholic, but one thing you can say for the church, its members have clear answers that you may think wrong, but they make sense. So at the opposite pole do, not the dupes and the fellow travelers, but the hard-boiled leaders of Communism. So do some mystics and some scientific rationalists.

Let’s hope that behind our backs, people who know what they are doing really run the world. Sometimes it looks to me as though the world is being run by a shapeless heap of human feather beds, all stuffed with goose feathers of evasion.

[August 29, 1962]


“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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