San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



March 1963

Volpone and the Black Comedy of Humanity
The Film Elektra
The de Kaplany Verdict
The Pan-Islam Movement
Foot-in-Mouth Politics
The Narcotics Problem
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or
The Season of Resurrection




Volpone and the Black Comedy of Humanity

It is so hard to write anything new about Robert Symonds and the Actor’s Workshop, especially when they do a play from the classic theater. All you can say is, “They’re superlative and they get better and better with each play.”

Not only is Symonds now one of the great Shakespearean clowns, he is one of the finest actors in Elizabethan roles I have ever seen. And he never stops growing. Each new role reveals new mastery and new finesse. All the major clown roles in Shakespeare’s later plays were written for one person; it would be very easy for Symonds to evolve the type, settle in, and then just go on repeating himself. This he does not do. Each new part is read with greater insight.

It’s not just that he is a skilled actor and varies his interpretations; it’s that he is still a young, fresh actor, still learning, not just about acting, but about human character. In other words, he grows in wisdom as well as skill.

Volpone is one of the Workshop’s masterpieces, and Symonds’s high point to date. He is not alone. Everybody is at top form, and Robert Phalen as Mosca outdoes himself. Phalen gives the play a special sparkle, and so a new tone, unlike anything I have every seen in any of the several Volpones of my experience.

The costuming by James Stearns is transcendent, and I use that term advisedly. What he has done is to garb his characters in such imaginative splendor that the whole play is shifted over into a transcendent realm where everything is greater than life — a true surrealism, a realism beyond realism.

This is what the Chinese theater does. Its fantastic makeup, costumes, head-dresses, jewelry, and its stylized delivery take up the ordinary conflicts and tragedies and comedies of human relationships and project them as it were against the heavens. We watch our moral problems worked out by demigods, even in the simplest domestic comedy.

Madame White Snake, now at the Bridge, is an excellent introduction to Chinese theater, for the simple reason that it is a typical and perennially popular classic play. It is done in a modified style of the classic Chinese theater and so constitutes an easily assimilable introduction, and it has running subtitles in English. It’s not the greatest, but it is a first step into the world of the greatest surviving theatrical tradition.

Volpone is a very pure example of our own classic theater, and could easily have been written by a more profound and more intellectual Roman or Greek comic dramatist, Plautus, Terence, or Menander. It certainly has more bite than they have, and a deeper insight into human character. When it was last given in San Francisco, at State College, they used the Stephan Zweig adaptation. Why, I never knew. Mencken said of Zweig’s version that a comparison with Jonson’s original showed just how far the human race had advanced in 300 years. All the bile, all the bitter, dark comedy is gone. It is not gone from this production of the uncut original.

In fact, I have one very gentle criticism of Symonds. He is too good a man to see all the possibilities for malevolence in a role. True, the diabolic confidence man in The Birthday Party he read with a new shiver, but since then, he has, in my opinion, accentuated the upbeat in characters like Falstaff and Volpone. I’d like to see him stop playing these jolly bad fat men and for a change play one of the brothers in The Duchess of Malfi, say the one you always think of as skinny, the Cardinal, or some other thoroughly malevolent individual. Conrad, and after him Peter Lorre and Charles Laughton, invented some unforgettable chubby villains.

This week we saw Elektra, too, the Greek movie version at the Presidio. Sometimes it seems to me the Greeks invented tragedy and comedy once for all, complete, with all the basic mechanisms and all the accessories. You can see Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides repeated in any Western, or Menander in Charlie Chaplin or Oscar Wilde, and Aristophanes in any burlesque show. And the close resemblance between the Greek, Elizabethan and Chinese and Japanese theaters never ceases to amaze me.

After all, humans each have two lungs, one liver, two eyes, two hands, two feet, one heart, and so on. And so our divorce courts turn out dozens of Elektras every day. I know a girl whose favorite playwright is Strindberg. “His heroines are just like my mother.” Jonson in his epilogue speaks of the dramatist as the corrector of morals. So too, doubtless, Sophocles thought of himself.

Alas, art is art and life is life, and I doubt if all the thousands who have contemplated the doings of Elektra and Volpone for 2000 and 300 years respectively have ever been moved to consider seriously in their own lives the consequences of adultery or covetousness. Not, at least, to the point of avoiding them.

[March 3, 1963]



The Film Elektra

Movies have become so hyped up in recent years that I find it difficult to judge them. They seem to be made mostly out of blood, nitroglycerine and benzedrine. And skillfully, too, to wring the last erg and decibel of response out of you. So I stay away.

I find that the typical foreign film, full of sadism, pornography and fake social criticism, literally depraves my sensibilities. I lose my discrimination. Since my discrimination is what they pay me for, I just can’t afford to throw it away in indulgences that differ little from the Roman amphitheater.

So I am very chary of making any judgments about movies nowadays. However, I don’t think I’ve been oversold this time. I honestly believe that Michael Cacoyannis has made one of the great films of all time. Elektra bears comparison with the classics of the heroic age of cinema. It is obviously influenced by certain of them, notably Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, and the work of Pudovkin, Ilya Trauberg and Dovshenko. I’d have to see Joan of Arc again to be sure whether Elektra is as good, better, or not quite so good. But it is very close indeed.

“Hate kills,” said Euripides, and all of his plays about the House of Agamemnon demonstrate that hate kills first of all the hater. His Electra and Orestes are the first juvenile delinquents, true sociopaths, in literature.

Irene Pappas is the Euripidean Electra; caught up in an act of heroic vengeance, she is meanly vindictive, concerned primarily with the clothes, jewels and baths that have been denied her, and yet still terrible, the archetype of all the daughters who have ever said “My mother is a whore,” as they faced the judges who were sentencing them for incorrigible hostility to society.

Nothing shows the skill of Cacoyannis more than the compression of Euripides’ great choral odes into a few lines, spoken by a marvelously manipulated chorus who not only move like great dancers, but who are perhaps the best speakers of poetry I have ever heard. Besides, every frame of the choral sequences is organized with consummate artistry, an evolving, flowing, black and white space composition of maximum impact. The overall effect is almost unendurable.

The audience sat on the edges of their seats, enraptured, and at times wept. I have seldom seen an audience so moved, certainly never by a picture that is the total opposite of the sex, sadism and cooked sensations of the currently fashionable highbrow movie.

* * *

If ever there was a musical activity that deserved an all out advance publicity plug, it is the Rudolph Serkin concert for the benefit of Young Audiences, 8:30 this coming Sunday, March 10, at the Opera House. No organization does more, consistently and persistently, to develop musical appreciation and musical participation at the grass roots — or rather at the sprouts’ level.

Serkin will be playing two Beethoven Sonatas and works by Schubert — in other words, not an elementary concert for the kiddies, but Serkin at his best, and he is one of the finest pianists living. All profits will go to Young Audiences, so let’s hope they sell out.

[March 6, 1963]



The de Kaplany Verdict

The de Kaplany verdict* has given rise to all sorts of dramatic discussion. This always happens in sensational cases with any ambiguity in the placing of full responsibility.

I want to say first off that I do not object to the jurors’ decision. They seem to me to have made a wise, temperate judgment that took into account as many of the complex factors involved as it was possible for them to do. They deliberated with care and singular lack of emotion and meted out justice to the best of their ability.

It was not vindictive justice, an eye for an eye. There is something to be said for vindictiveness in more unruly and barbaric societies. Properly defined, it means that the injured person is recompensed with a full equivalent for the injury done him.

Barbaric society might even be defined as the system in which this concept of justice is the prevailing one. Barbaric society is also that period in which the epics and sagas of literature were composed, and if these tales demonstrate anything, they demonstrate that not only is the principle of an eye for an eye destructive of all social order as society strives to rise above barbarism, but that in the final analysis crimes must be treated not as injuries to persons but as injuries to society as a whole.

Society has, of course, a perfect right to vindicate itself, to ensure that social order, peaceful relations, respect for contract as well as life, shall be preserved. If it did not so vindicate itself, it would perish in a night. At first society takes over the punishments of the personal vendetta. It exercises them and forbids the individual to do so. As men become more civilized they learn that such methods are in themselves destructive of social order. We no longer burn adulterous women alive or cut off the hands of their lovers. We no longer hang children caught picking pockets. But we — the Anglo-Saxon world — did, not so long ago.

Even less time ago in crimes passionnels, juries, invoking the legendary unwritten law that a man has a right to kill an unfaithful wife (and of course her lover, too, if he can catch him), refused to convict. Today, with the partial breakdown of marital chastity in our “Post-Christian” society, an outraged husband is looked on as a little nutty if he so much as refuses to lend his wife the car for a weekend assignation.

Mr. de Kaplany’s arrogance after the sentence startled a good many people. It is true that it reflected the serious illness which led the jury to temper his sentence. But it should not be forgotten that in his native Hungary a century ago, as in Sicily today, he might never have been brought to trial.

We are now at a point in our judicial procedures where several still-contradictory tendencies have converged. Society must vindicate itself, and incidentally the injured parties. Moral responsibility must be established — a Christian notion which has no necessary connection with social ethics at all, and which is exceedingly hard to establish in the ordinary acts of life, much less in murder.

Finally, the use of psychiatrists in practically all such cases introduces a new, antagonistic element from another stage of social evolution. A psychiatrist’s evidence should be, although notoriously it only claims to be and seldom is in fact, medical, that is, scientific. A psychiatrist should no more be concerned with the moral issues than if he were studying a bacillus under a microscope. The murderer is a kind of social lesion, like a hot appendix, and for the psychiatrist, should be the subject of diagnosis, etiology, therapy, prognosis, never of moral judgment, least of all the hazy and ambiguous demand, “Can he distinguish right from wrong?”

It is obvious that we are in a transition stage in our handling of murder cases. We are working toward a new justice that will, we hope, someday reconcile all these antagonistic inheritances from the past. For me, the outstanding lesson of the de Kaplany case is simple. The jury had ample time to learn about all these issues and to weigh them carefully. There were plenty of experts and the best legal talent on both sides.

Meanwhile, who goes to the gas chamber? With few exceptions those who cannot afford such legal extravaganzas. The poor, the illiterate, members of minority groups. How many of the ignorant brawlers and stabbers that we gas each year would have died if they had had two-week trials with six psychiatrists and four top-notch lawyers?

[March 10, 1963]

*In 1962 California doctor Geza de Kaplany murdered his wife by dowsing her with acids. Due to his apparent mental imbalance, he was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than to the death penalty.




The Guggenheim Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Art are showing comprehensive exhibits of the work of Wassily Kandinsky, a founder of German Expressionism and one of the first nonobjective painters. I haven’t seen the Guggenheim show, but this one is certainly ample.

There are characteristic pictures of his youth, when he was part of the Jugenstil-art nouveau movement in which so many of the Old Masters of modernism grew up. Others are flamboyant landscapes in even more flamboyant colors. They have the linear design of art nouveau, but in addition a palette and a naïve treatment of form derived from Russian peasant painting. As such they are typical of the Russian modernism of the 1900’s, the painters who first came to international attention in the backdrops of the early Ballet Russe.

Then there are about 25 of the free-form improvisations painted on the eve of the First War. Because he painted so few, these are precious paintings. They are landmarks in the history of art. For a brief while they had a few imitators in Germany and America, but it was not until the rise of American abstract expressionism in the years of the Second World War that they became the ancestors of what is now the dominant school of painting.

The rest of the show is taken up with Kandinsky’s puzzling and disappointing geometric painting. Just on inspection it is impossible to tell why these pictures should have been painted. They are decorative in the most superficial sense, and yet they have an odd, annoying eccentricity that prevents them from fading prettily into the wall. The forms are patterned according to naïve application of the rules of golden section, “dynamic symmetry” design. The colors have no functional inevitability — nor any other that one can notice. My daughter said, coming out of the show, “This man has the taste of a commercial artist.” I’m afraid she is right.

There is no doubt about why Kandinsky painted the way he did. When I was a boy I read his Art of Spiritual Harmony, a windy melange of Goethe, Rudolph Steiner and Mme. Blavatsky. This is a typical manifesto of the intellectual half-world that produced at that time the Rosicrucian Movement in French art, the Nabis, and the followers of Sar Péladan, who claimed to be the reincarnation of the Babylonian god Marduk. I suppose the major representative is the composer, Scriabin.

Like Scriabin, Kandinsky was a crank, certain he was revolutionizing art and freeing the Soul of Man. The Soul of Man is a hard thing to free. It puts up a struggle. And as the centuries pass, most of the spectacular attempts to free it, via the arts, slip into perspective as artistic curiosities. Sometimes, like Scriabin’s mystical harmonic theories, or Kandinsky’s similar notions in painting, they incidentally accomplish a breakthrough into new modes of expression. But only by accident are the pictures in this show ever “spiritual harmonies.” Mostly they are the exercises of a doctrinaire who put notions ahead of paint.

[March 13, 1963]



The Pan-Islam Movement

Dar-el-Islam, the Abode of Peace, stretches from the Atlantic headlands of Morocco to the archipelagoes of the southern Philippines, from the squalid mountains of Albania to the rain forests of equatorial Africa, from the Ukraine and the Siberian steppes to the tip of India. In the theology of Mohammedanism, Muslims should be all one, the Sons of the Prophet, united under the rule of his descendent, the Khalif.

This is a noble conception and in the few times it has been only partially realized, civilization has flourished. Life has been, not only safe, but fairly gracious, across the whole girdle of the old hemisphere. Those days are long ago, and today life in most Muslim countries for most people is about as nasty, brutish and short as it has ever been anywhere.

Nasser is not the only man who dreams of restoring the unity and grandeur of Islamic civilization. Pan-Islamism is a self-evident solution to anyone who walks the fetid streets of a Near Eastern town.

Drive it away with force and foreign ideologies and it always comes back, like the pigeons of San Francisco. Enjoying as it does the noblest religious and ethnic sanctions, it places on its opponents the onus of impiety and contempt for their own people. It is hard to see how, in the long run, it can fail to win out, in some form, perhaps purged of its religious bigotry and chauvinism and idealization of its own most serious faults.

On the other hand, world historical movements are not noted for their temperate character. Pan-Islam when it comes may well accentuate precisely the worst aspects of the Muslim world. Historical movements, alas, are seldom launched by bodies like the Friends’ Service Committee or the Fabian Society, but more often by unscrupulous demagogues.

Once again the nucleus of Dar-el-Islam seems to be forming under the leadership of Gamel Nasser. This is not due to unscrupulous demagogy on his part. In spite of what Westerners may think of the lunatic abuse of opponents and other governments by Radio Cairo, or of the dubious prowess of the Egyptian Army, important sections of the Arab world are reforming around Nasser because he has in fact learned how to wait, how to provide a center of gravity, how in the long run to step forward as the only alternative.

Egypt is not a great success, but it is a greater success than Ghana, or Bulgaria, or Indonesia; in fact, it is somewhat more successful than Russia was for the first 20 years of Bolshevism. Nasser has a revolution that works, not any too well, but well enough, considering. Hence its enormous attractiveness in the Near East — “It may be a poor thing, but it’s our own.”

Certainly Nasser’s program is socialistic, but it is also anti-Bolshevik, and, as we are learning the hard way, there just isn’t any “private sector” in countries like Egypt that is ever going to undertake the jobs that must be done. You would think that an orderly confederation stretching across the middle of the Old World, neutral but friendly to the West, and slowly acquiring the wherewithal, the capital accumulation, to buy what we have to sell, would be just the thing America would want most. Possibly it is. If so, these desires manifest themselves behind the scenes.

Like the British before us, we seem still committed to the policy of supporting all sides at once in the Near East. Not on the principle of divide and rule, but just because we can’t make up our minds. We are trying to balance the explosively conflicting interests of the British on the Persian Gulf and in Oman, a purely stop-gap regime in Jordan, and last, the corrupt and decadent Saudi dynasty.

Anyone who thinks we are compounding confusion “to protect the profits of the Arabian-American Oil Company” has a naïve notion of American politics. The enclaves of the oil companies in the Arab countries are far more effective silent forces for social reform than all the noise of Radio Cairo. We are not likely to dispense with the oil — but there is much else we can find expendable.

The first hurdle is the unresolved Arab-Israel conflict. Israel, of course, is potentially the key to prosperity for the Arab world. Watch, once the spurt of revolutions has died down in the Near East, for an attempt to settle the question of Israel. Once that is settled, and the subsidized savagery that prevails over much of the Arabian peninsula is gone, we may well see the gradual growth of a more powerful bulwark of peace than ever was the abortive Baghdad Pact.

[March 17, 1963]



Foot-in-Mouth Politics

I’ve been thinking of going into the business of manufacturing an idiot board for politicians, like the thing they prop up behind cameras on TV that is supposed to keep you from saying things you shouldn’t. You could sell them in different colors on all sorts of subjects or rent them out with pretty girls in white gloves and black stockings to service them. After a little practice it might be possible for our leaders to give a reasonable facsimile of knowing what they were talking about.

Recently a local politician stated that the provision of birth control information through regular public health channels would open the doors to Neo-Paganism. Nobody flashed him the signal that health services, public and private, have provided such information in his community for a generation. Presumably such a statement was intended to appeal to that largely imaginary giant — “the Catholic vote.” Nobody flashed him the information that Roman Catholic theologians, doctors and population experts are just as worried about the population explosion as anybody else and that such a statement does not represent their thinking on the question.

Next month Knopf is publishing The Time Has Come — “a Catholic doctor’s proposals to end the battle over birth control” — by John Rock, M.D., the Harvard professor of gynecology who discovered the first oral contraceptive pill. I have just read an advance copy of this book, and I urge every concerned person, especially those in authority, to put in an order at his bookseller’s. It certainly clears up some misconceptions.

Next, Doctor Rafferty announced that he suspected that the faculties of our schools and universities were leaning too far to the left. Everybody got terribly scared and a frightened outcry went up. Then he explained that he thought maybe if there were too many Keynesian economists on the economics faculty they should be balanced by advocates of good old-fashioned capitalism. What, pray tell, is that?

A hundred and more years ago Macaulay, who was hardly a Moscow agent, pointed out in his History of England that Britain owed her prosperity to the national debt. As William Randolph Hearst Jr. remarked the other day, his father was a staunch advocate of something suspiciously like the theories of John Maynard Keynes. If Keynes represents the Left of economic doctrine, I hate to think what represents the Right — carelessly ghost-written speeches for minor functionaries of the NAM at provincial luncheons, I guess.

Doctor Rafferty is making noises like a man with his eye on a future office of much greater power.* One of my girls in black stockings and white gloves should flash him the information that such officials are usually elected with the confidence of people like owners and managers of small banks, regional heads of large corporations, business lawyers, even stock brokers . . . not by old ladies in tennis shoes.

Nowadays such determinative individuals have studied economics in places like the Harvard Business School, or Stanford, or some other place where economic theory has developed considerably beyond Keynes, in directions it would never occur to me to call Left. But you can never tell what might occur to someone else.

[March 20, 1963]

*Max Rafferty, the rabidly reactionary California State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1963-1971), unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1968.



The Narcotics Problem

Dick Nolan is hurting my conscience. In recent weeks he has devoted considerable space to the narcotics problem. I always have intended to write a series of pieces on this subject, and have put it off, week to week, month to month, and finally it’s year to year. So the least I can do is say, “Richard, I agree with you all along the line.”

Because society does its best to keep the addict out of sight and out of mind (the public mythology envisages him as a dope fiend out of a horror movie), and the addict himself tries, unless he is a posturing Beatnik, to keep himself inconspicuous, it is amazing how little even well-informed people know about the extent and gravity of this problem.

Recent years have seen a malignant romanticization of narcotics in certain kinds of fiction. It is part of the mythology of the hippies and the Beats, and, alas, of jazz. Now the Chemical Mystics are getting into the act. Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, amongst many others, have written of the effects of the so-called hallucinogens, those drugs which produce effects somewhat like the side-effects of mystical vision experienced by a very few historic mystics.

As controlled experiments, by mature subjects, under advanced medical supervision, there is nothing wrong with research into the pharmacology of psychiatry — this is what such activities should be. This is not, on the part of hundreds of young people, what they in fact are. They are “kicks” dressed up in the jargon of sensational pseudo-mysticism.

I suppose all this would be harmless enough, or no more harmful than alcohol, except that LSD, mescaline and similar hallucinogens are not easily obtainable, least of all by the youngsters of the beard and sandals brigade. So a cheap and handy substitute is marijuana — and what is wrong with marijuana, as everybody who is at all hip knows, is that it is “High School.” The weedhead, growing every week more befuddled, is under constant pressure to “graduate” to heroin.

Further, the entire social world of the marijuana user is a direct imitation of that of the “real” addict. In dress, habits, personal relations with his in-group, and most important, in his sociopathic rejection of the rest of the world, the squares, the marijuana user is exactly the trainee and student of hard addiction.

As for the real addict, the victim of the drugs derived from opium — morphine and heroin — the ordinary person has no conception of the misery, actual acute physical torture, in which such people live when their drug is in short supply. Since it costs from $30 to $150 a day to support a habit, you may be able to form some idea of what sort of constant criminality the addict is driven to. True, most of it is petty criminality — prostitution, shoplifting, car theft, picking pockets, small-time holdups; the addict must be continually on the hustle. Every day he or she — many prostitutes are addicts and many female addicts are prostitutes — must raise the money to pay The Man.

The alternative is, in the words of a leading medical authority, “an intense illness, the major symptoms of which are yawning, sneezing, lacrimation, running nose, goose flesh, rapid pulse, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, hot and cold flashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscular twitches — all accompanied by intense pain, insomnia, a generalized feeling of extreme craving, and a constant anxiety.”

It is not the feeling of independence and well-being when under the influence of drugs that makes the dope racket so profitable — it is the agony of the withdrawal symptoms.

A lot of people make very large sums of money in dope, out of the degradation of their fellow men. Take the profit out of it and the illegal drug trade will vanish immediately and an immense amount of crime along with it. No one has ever found any other way to do this than by treating the addict in free clinics. Contrary to a lot of propaganda, where these have been tried, they have always worked, first to reduce drastically the addiction rate, secondly to cut down on petty crime and vice.

Let me recommend Drug Addiction: Crime or Disease, the reports of the joint committee of the American Bar and the American Medical Associations, published by the University of Indiana Press, and a companion volume, Narcotic Addiction in Britain and America, by Edwin M. Schur, the same publishers. The first thing we need is public information, sound, scientific, unbiased. What we now have is mythology, superstition, prejudice, ignorance and plain vindictiveness.

[March 24, 1963]



Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or

I’m getting mellow. The critics thought the San Francisco State College production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or something less than very good. “It demands,” said one, “the utmost virtuoso performance.” Another judged that State had bitten off more than it could chew.

I thought it was just dandy, and so did my daughter. It, the opera, lying still unproduced, doesn’t demand anything — it’s just some words and notes on paper. I guess I didn’t go demanding too much. I made, beforehand, all the allowances for a student production, and I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s a hard opera to sing — not in the high spots so much as in the long gabby tracts in between. It’s true that you have to be a Lucrezia Bori or Lily Pons to make the Queen of Shemaka’s loquacity convincing at all. I always thought it served the King right, marrying a woman who was that talkative. Then, too — I never thought Bori or Pons did make her very convincing except in her great moments, and those are very convincing indeed, whoever sings them.

Rimsky seems to be undergoing a revaluation. He is being sung all over these last couple of years after a long period of being not quite respectable. I think that’s fine, too. I am aware of his importance in musical history, the greatest, except Mussorgsky, of the Russian tone color composers, the parent of Stravinsky, and so on.

I know all about the great step forward in Kaschei, but what I like best about Rimsky is that he wrote candy music. Real pretty music, like Russian Easter eggs. He thought lyrically rather than structurally. Tunes came to him as he walked along the Nevsky Prospekt, and he wrote operas around them.

He thought of himself as a great craftsman and refused to sanction any cuts in his scores. He also thought of himself as a political revolutionary and was so regarded by the youth of Russia in 1905. It’s hard to realize that Le Coq d’Or was understood by its contemporaries as a mordant satire on the folly of the Czar’s eastern adventure — the Russo-Japanese War. What survives are the tunes.

The lyric imagination is rare in music. There will never be enough Mozarts or Tchaikovskys or Puccinis or Rimskys to go around. For the fact is, the world’s great composers are not too often given to tunes — just as great mathematicians are not necessarily good at sums.

So I relaxed and accepted San Francisco State’s Le Coq d’Or for what it was and had a lovely evening. I could look back to the first in America, the last year of the First War and the honeymoon of the Kerensky government, when all the world promised to be fresh and new very soon. That was one of the swan songs of the Edwardian world.

Who was it sang the Queen? Bori? I no longer remember. I thought Willy Pogany’s setting the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. Today doubtless I’d think it frightful. Whatever the faults of this latter evening’s Coq d’Or, it was sufficient to the evening thereof.

[March 27, 1963]



The Season of Resurrection

Sakura, sakura . . . the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is overflowing with cherry blossoms. Spring is in full flush like a buxom bride. Soon it will be Easter, or Pesach, as you prefer. Today is Passion Sunday, next Palm Sunday, next Easter . . . tragedy, death and resurrection, as far back as we can penetrate into prehistory and in the most primitive surviving societies, men play out each year the drama of spring, the burial and awakening of the seed.

We believe, however skeptical we may be, that somehow we will gather what we sow. Somewhere the values we lose in life will be conserved and burgeon into harvest. Evil and waste will be redeemed. Where? How? Transcendentally, on another plane of being altogether?

There’s little evidence that good wins out eventually in this world. Still, man persists in dignifying his hope with ritual. The frozen earth thaws, the green shoots come up, and the processions pass with billowing incense and singing and splendid vestments. Men pray that the Rites of the Year may be reflected in the Rites of Passage, that renewal of life in nature may be duplicated in their own lives.

The ancient Egyptians had little terra cotta figures of Osiris as a swaddled mummy. On the upper surface were fine holes in which they put grains of wheat. The interior was filled with Nile water and when the green sprouts came up, each man thought of himself as Osiris, who had been dead and who lived again.

Does the world in fact get any better? I sometimes wonder. There’s a newspaper that boasts it prints all the news that’s fit to print and that never prints crime news. Reading it the other day I was startled to discover that I had just gone through three pages of practically solid crime news, the activities of heads of states, leaders of parties and mobs, wielders of power and wealth. Africa, Southeast Asia, the Arab states, France, Texas — story after story of men acting precisely like incorrigible juvenile delinquents. Pharaoh of Egypt and Pilate of Judea were rather better behaved on the first Passover or the first Good Friday, it seems to me.

Recently an eager beaver of an interviewer asked me, “Mr. Rexroth, what is your opinion of what modern theologians have come to call the Post-Christian World?” The innocence of the question was too tempting altogether. I answered, “Pretty much what St. Paul thought of it.”

While we are on the subject of religion, assuming that’s the subject we are on, I read in the paper that the archdiocese of Chicago announces that the necessary money to build a new St. Mary’s Cathedral is now in the bank or is pledged. One thing about the Roman Catholics, they take it seriously. It’s hard to think of any other institution in modern life that could exceed a $15 million goal in so short a time.

Big Bill Thompson used to get himself elected on the platform, “Keep the Pope and King George out of Chicago.” His more ignorant followers were convinced that if he were defeated, there was an aluminum dirigible secreted in the vaults of the Vatican which would take off with His Holiness, pick up His Majesty en route, and they’d take over Chicago with the aid of the armed Democrats. It’s a pity it never happened. It would have been a great improvement on what did happen.

So at least a new St. Mary’s will sprout from ruin, like the new grain from the mummy of Osiris. Is new grain sprouting from Hiroshima, Nuremburg, from the body of Lumumba, from the concentration camps of Jordan, from Taiwan, from the Bay of Pigs? No. Or if there is, it’s most inconspicuous.

Somewhere, in some other realm maybe, the U.N. Building, the Capitol, 10 Downing Street, the Luxembourg Palace and the Kremlin, are all covered with cherry blossoms and daffodils. The stones and glass have blossomed like gardens, celebrating the rebirth of the human heart. Somewhere. Someplace man’s folly must be redeemed. There must be another dimension where everything comes out all right. Maybe a fourth dimension. Or a fifth. Or maybe a fiftieth.

Meanwhile, when this appears I will be down at Big Sur Hot Springs conducting a seminar for four days on, as near as I can make out from what the people have asked me to do, on why, down through history, men have found it so hard to do what they want to do. Six sessions on a mystery nobody has ever been able to answer.

Still, the awakening of spring will be all around us on the flowery hills and the sea otters will be nursing their comical pups in the surf.

[March 31, 1963]


“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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