San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



September 1966

Communist Hypocrisy
The Terrible Breakup of Our Civilization
A Jazz Club’s Fight for Survival
Crisis in Our National Parks
Camouflaging the Rape of the Environment
What I Will Miss in San Francisco
Rosh Hashanah on the Rhine
On the Plane to Germany
Nature and Nationalism
German Food, French Folly
Arrival in Berlin
Dining in Pre-Hitler Germany




Communist Hypocrisy

I nominate for the Order of the Red Banner, or whatever it was they used to give before Stalin, the guy who said at the HCUA [a.k.a. HUAC] hearing, “Are you trying to find out if I am a Communist? Certainly I am a Communist.”

Back in the days before the war when the Russians were forcibly repatriating the Ukrainians from western Europe and exterminating them on arrival, Eleanor Roosevelt got up in the UN and said to — very appropriately Vishinsky, “You say you are rehabilitating these people, but all the world knows what you are doing. Your philosophy, Mr. Vishinsky, and that of your government, is the Philosophy of the Lie. You believe that the lie can achieve anything, or if it cannot, can hide any failure. You are wrong. In this case your lie has found you out, and I warn you, all your lies will eventually find you out, and if your system continues to be built on them, it will fail.”

For a generation we have had a parade of people before the courts and investigating committees saying, “What! Me! A Communist! Why I’m just an old-fashioned progressive, a follower of Teddy Roosevelt, Bob LaFollette and Thomas Jefferson.”

Most sickening of all were a middle-aged, middle-class couple, sitting in their death cells and writing such stuff in letters to their children.

A revolutionary organization can fight against terror, betrayal, corruption, it cannot fight contempt. The Russian bomb-throwers stepped off at the end of a rope crying “Down with the Czar!” and even the most reactionary ministers of the police had a sneaking respect for them. Who can respect an organization that expels anybody who admits he is a member?

Furthermore, this kind of duplicity breeds distrust and suspicion throughout society. It is not just the reactionary right which is responsible for political witch-hunting. If the witches at the beginning of this sickness in American life had stood up and said, “Yes, I’m a witch, what are you going to do about it?” the witch-hunters would have been out of a job.

At the beginning of the Cold War, on the expulsion of Earl Browder as secretary of the Communist Party, there were, according to both Browder and J. Edgar Hoover, about 100,000 members of the party in America. Today there may just possibly be as many as 7000. Fact is, people do not enjoy being liars.

I can argue with a man who declares he is a Communist, and if his arguments were honest and convincing, I would be convinced. When somebody tries to trick me into signing some manifesto or taking part in some phony front group and tells me he’s just Hiram Johnson come back to life, I simply walk away in disgust.

[September 1, 1966]



The Terrible Breakup of Our Civilization

Recent Thursday columns have been about the hair-raising increase in violence in all forms of interpersonal relationships, individual and social, and about the sudden appearance of candor amongst witnesses before the HCUA.

Candor or no, the most startling thing about the hearings was the revelation of irreconcilable forces in head-on collision in American life.

Now, I don’t doubt for a minute but that it is true that the Committee chose to subpoena the most intransigent members of the opposition to the Vietnam war, with the intent to discredit all opposition of every kind. There are doubtless many people stupid enough to, from now on, identify Robert Hutchins, or Senator Fulbright, or Mark Hatfield, or the Society of Friends, or for that matter myself, with admitted partisan fighters for Chairman Mao operating in American life.

Perhaps the first principle of the cynical politician is “Fools hold the balance of power. If you can carry them, you carry the nation.” This is P.T. Barnum politics, and very popular south of the Mason-Dixon Line, almost as popular as in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles.

There is only one trouble with such calculation in the present instance. Utter intransigence, total refusal to respect the opposition, unflinching head-on charge, mobilized wide support on both sides.

The Progressive Labor Party had thoroughly exposed itself in Berkeley in the course of the past year. As the students all said, “It blew its cool.” It had ceased to be able to mobilize any significant support. Its anniversary celebration of the teach-in of 1965 was a fiasco. The Party Line had changed and all the local Maoists had suddenly started talking United Front with All Peace-Loving and Progressive Forces — indistinguishable from the orthodox Communists who, only a few months ago, they were calling “running dogs of the CIA.”

What the HCUA hearing did was to further polarize an already divided country, and in the most extreme fashion. The hostile witnesses were all young. They were fearless. They spoke with what seemed to be perfect candor. They were mercilessly insulting to a bunch of fat old men. Thousands of young people who had never given a thought to the refinements of Left politics viewed and applauded with relish. The Oldies were getting their comeuppance.

The issues, even so world important an issue as the Vietnam war, were of minor importance.

It does no good to say, “A bunch of young political thugs exposed themselves as subverters of the sacred processes of democracy.” Young people who are rebellious against a society saturated with fraud and violence and for countless reasons which have nothing to do with the Vietnam war, will answer, “Who you shuckin’?”

It doesn’t matter how many respectable people, young and old, might have been outraged and drawn into conscious opposition to every form of opposition to the war. There are more disrespectful people than you could count with a computer. The repetition in the last sentence but one was deliberate — opposition to opposition to opposition — the tensions mount, conflict spreads through society like a metastasizing cancer. Civilized relationships die, humane values vanish and are replaced with running sores of irreducible conflict.

Take for a moment a purely behavioristic attitude towards the contemporary scene. Forget the issues — civil rights, containing communism, abolishing colonialism. Do you realize that the United States has been in a state of practically unrelieved riot for years? Racial conflict grows and grows, and the issues are further from resolution than ever.

In this case the moral sanctions are all on one side, but that doesn’t matter. Legal desegregation lags, with resistance all the way, and where it occurs is “token.” De facto segregation and discrimination increase at a rate about 10 times that of token desegregation. Meanwhile, conflict intensifies and American society begins to polarize between two racial power centers.

Africa, and the whole world south of the North Temperate Zone, sinks deeper and deeper into shambles. In 20 years of decolonization the Rich World has grown fatter and sassier and the Poor World has reached the “Malthusian Limit.”

Most of the raw-material-and-agricultural-exporting nations outside Europe and North American can no longer sustain life in their people, taken as a whole.

Cardinal Heenan of England recently said, “The national income of the whole of India, nearly 500 million people, in 1965 was $31 billion. That of Africa, 200 million people, was $30 billion. That of Latin America, 200 million people, was $60 billion. This is a total of $120 billion, roughly the sum which the Western Powers and the Communist governments spent that year on armaments.”

Indonesia is one of the most fruitful, richly endowed regions on earth. It can no longer feed itself. And in 10 years of civil war, on the most conservative estimate a half million civilians have been massacred on both sides. To give a political interpretation to what God said to Jonah, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

What proportion of the millions dying in the terrible breakup of our civilization could tell Marx’s Capital from The Holy Koran, much less from the Federalist Papers? Their deaths are a terrible question, and what is our answer?

[September 4, 1966]



A Jazz Club’s Fight for Survival

Come Sunday the Both/And is staging a big benefit at the Fillmore Auditorium. Benefit for who? For itself.

This is ironic indeed. No single institution of any kind whatsoever has brought more vital contemporary music and musicians to San Francisco over the past two years.

The Both/And is the home of John Handy, whose group is certainly producing the most exciting new jazz anywhere, and who, jazz or nonjazz, is one of the finest musicians ever produced by California. The Both/And is comfortably full most of the time and crowded on weekends. Yet they are running close to being a nonprofit public facility. Why?

Top jazz musicians are expensive. It is almost impossible to make enough money out of 5000 square feet of floor space to pay them unless you resort to measures — high-priced, diluted drinks, mercilessly “pushed” by the waitresses, enforced turnover each set, cutting corners on all other costs, including labor — which destroy the only atmosphere in which good music can flourish.

This the management has refused to do. They have tried to keep their place the kind of jazz room they themselves would like to frequent, to listen to the kind of music they like.

Topless waitresses would increase the take, but they would bug the musicians, not by themselves — musicians are as appreciative of half-bared female beauty as the next man — but through the kind of crowd they would draw.

The fact is, a night club atmosphere is not conducive to good music, yet the jazz room — to make a necessary distinction from a night club — has to function like a night club to “make the nut.”

John Handy, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman are as important musicians, by any standards, as any, of any kind, in America. Nobody gives them foundation grants. Nobody subsidizes their tours. Nobody pays them out of the hotel tax. Nobody suggests the taxpayers provide them with a new building to play in.

Would it help if the jazz rooms were bigger, like the old-time cabarets, served food, as well as drinks, could admit juveniles?

The Blackhawk of famous memory, after a long hassle with the authorities, opened a sort of annex for minors, screened off like the visiting room in the county jail. It didn’t seem to help enough, because they went out of business.

Meanwhile we pour fortunes into the subsidization of mediocre square music. From scholarships for toddlers to new opera houses, the return for social investment in contemporary square music pays off with one great artist or one great work to a thousand academic sterilities.

While, believe me, if Pablo Casals had had to put up with the working conditions of Charles Mingus, he would have killed himself or taken up law or medicine 75 years ago. Anyway, come to the Fillmore, big show, stellar attractions, help a most worthy cause.

[September 6, 1966]



Crisis in Our National Parks

Labor Day has passed, another summer has gone, and the population explosion in the National Parks has escalated like the hydrogen bomb escalated the atom bomb.

I know that is a mixed metaphor, but the floor of Yosemite Valley as a recreation area is a mixed metaphor, too.

Here once again we run into one of those seemingly hopeless deadlocks which have arisen due to the profound changes in the quality of modern life and the ever-accelerating demand for more and more. What is the answer?

Everybody knows about Yosemite or Yellowstone. Break up the concentration at the main sightseeing attractions, take the automobile and the public campgrounds off the floor of Yosemite Valley; if people refuse to walk, provide elephant trains, develop new facilities in those areas naturally most resistant to damage by traffic.

Few people realize that other parks — for instance, Sequoia — have at least as severe a problem. The holiday traffic is Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park often equals and at times has surpassed that in Yosemite. Yet Sequoia has much less money to run on, and far less money for improvements.

One thing we need to do is separate the various present functions of our national parks and concentrate on those that are of the essence and discard others.

For instance, a national park is not a resort, and its use as a resort like the Russian River or Tahoe destroys it as what it is supposed to be.

Yet perhaps the majority of two-week occupants of the camps on the floor of Yosemite Valley demand that kind of environment. For a generation the Park Service and the operator of the concessions at Sequoia resisted this tendency in every way, some of them rather naïve, they could think of.

Yosemite started off as a resort and there the operator, the Curry Company, has exerted a slow, massive pressure which eliminated most of the worst features of this kind of use. But in recent years the sheer bulk of people has pushed back. There are just too many people with blaring radios, throwing beer cans, many thousands more than there are employees of the Park Service and the Curry Company.

The Valley has to be evacuated as soon as possible, “long-term plans for controlled phase-out” are no longer enough. We are dealing with an emergency.

Sequoia-Kings Canyon needs, above all else, money. Lots of money. It has nothing but space to diffuse its visitors into.

Precisely the kind of country most auto campers like best, the upper Transition Zone forest at about 6 to 7 thousand feet, dotted with warm lakes — at least compared with those in the high country — and away from the things that traffic will ruin — like Giant Forest — the park is mostly made up of just this country.

If money were available, dozens of quiet and beautiful camps, out of the way and yet of easy access, could be developed in a matter of a couple of years.

[September 8, 1966]



Camouflaging the Rape of the Environment

The Sierra Club certainly came up with a great advertising slogan: “Shall we also flood the Sistine Chapel so the tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” They put the finger on the spurious propaganda of the organized onslaught on all and every conservation force and tradition.

The proponents of the Grand Canyon dams say they will not injure the canyon in the least, but will improve it. They will improve it, open it up for recreational use for the common people, at the expense of only a few feet of out-of-date fossils.

What are our National Parks for, a few Sierra Club kooks who enjoy climbing El Capitan and shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel, or for healthy happy families who can dash around the lakes that will appear on the floor of the Grand Canyon in power boats and get a close-up view of the wonders of its geology?

What is more important, petrified cuttlefish, or human beings? True conservation is conservation of people, not rocks.

There are arguments like this for every single attack on what remains of our wilderness and our natural beauties. The anti-conservation organizations pay good money to PR people to think them up. Soon the lumber companies will have logged off all the virgin stands of redwood except for the small state parks and a few roadside strip groves.

They will be left for automobile tourists to photograph. That’s all the tourists want anyway.

But, say “scientists” hired by the advocates of total logging, after the appallingly destructive floods of last year, “The redwood forest is not a true climax formation. It springs up best on burnt over land, gullied hillsides, and the sandbars left by massive floods. Redwood is a rapidly growing tree and the new forest will reach true maturity, which is the size sufficient to make it valuable once again as lumber, in less than 50 years.”

Or: “The lands being filled along the shores of San Francisco Bay are useless mudflats at present, many of which, at low tide, are unsightly swamps. The only people who get anything from them are the salt manufacturers and the duck hunters. The Bay will be greatly improved if it is lined with lovely housing developments for the small boat set, in imitation of Venice, California or Italy. It will be a far greater tourist attraction and recreational asset than it is at present. What are we conserving, ducks, shrimps or human beings?”

Or: “If we flood an area in Alaska larger than Lake Erie we will create a wonderful recreation area, open to easy access by ordinary people, in what is now a useless wilderness, and we will be giving the people of Alaska badly needed electric power, and besides, the land is mostly free. What are we conserving, wolverines or men?”

Or: “The Park Service admits that it cannot operate the National Parks efficiently. Their policy of limited use has broken down. What we need are more roads, opening up the country to the common people, who are not kooky foot-burners who like to hike, but good robust Americans in portable homes. We need more, not less, recreation facilities, dance halls, bars, restaurants, ski lifts, funiculars, camp grounds in easy walking distance of the beauty spots, bear feedings at the garbage pits to entertain the kiddies. People go to the National Parks for vacations — for relaxation, for a good time. If free enterprise is permitted to meet this demand, the National Parks can be put on a sound financial basis.”

We are of course conserving men, not chipmunks or glaciers. But we are trying to conserve them by preserving for future generations what little is left of the natural environment, in which the species man came into existence in the first place, and flourished for a million years.

Our radical destruction of that environment is, in the American West, a matter of only two generations. Two generations out of at least 350,000. Think of that line of people going back in a series of begats like the genealogies in the Bible to the Ice Age.

And yet we seldom think of that inheritance when we hear someone say, “When my grandfather came to California there were grizzly bears where Skyline Boulevard is now.”

Or: “I’ve seen the bunch grass go and the Spanish oat take over in that land since I was a boy. You can’t raise beef on it anymore unless you feed all year round.”

Or: “Let me show you a series of pictures. It took just 10 years for Williams Meadows to turn into a rocky gully a hundred feet wide.”

We have reached the tipover point. The man-made environment is so vast that nature survives only in small islands, threatened constantly by biological changes from outside even under ideal conditions of protection.

We hold this land in trust for the 350,000 generations still, D.V., to come, barring our own passion for self-destruction.

Contact with the environment from which he came is strong medicine for the preservation of the species of man, it recreates him in the true sense, and it may well be essential to his survival.

We may discover that once we are all living in Megalopolis under a Dymaxion roof, we simply will start to die off.

Certainly the urban civilizations of the past, far less artificial, have never replenished themselves except by immigration from the countryside.

A virgin redwood forest, an unpolluted Lake Baikal, may be like hormones, tiny particles of the face of the globe, without which we cannot go on living.

[September 11, 1966]



What I Will Miss in San Francisco

When this column comes out I guess I’ll be touring Germany, observing the things that I’ve gone there to observe — Romanesque and Baroque architecture, wine and the winelands, the new theater, music, dance, the German version of the New Youth.

I’ll be homesick. I don’t really like to travel, and I am homesick already, four days before leaving.

I stay in San Francisco because I believe strongly that that’s where the action is. The City is the capital and the point of origin of the new post-modern culture which is challenging and reinterpreting all values and which is spreading as a way of life all over the world.

And especially I will miss my own bailiwick, the Haight-Ashbury, where that way of life is growing healthily as a genuine community.

I will miss the young Negro who walks along the street practicing the flute, sounding a few notes farther out than Buddy Colette, and looking like Krishna amongst the milkmaids.

I will miss the Free Poetry Movement, with mimeographed poems in a pile in the groceries — and a sign: “FREE, HELP YOURSELF TO A POEM.”

I will miss the Mime Troupe, troubling the conscience of the Establishment with great skill in the parks.

I will miss the spontaneous bongo, guitar and folksong hootenannies in the Panhandle.

I will miss the aesthetics of total involvement, which is what a philosopher has called a night at the Fillmore Auditorium.

I will miss the poetry readings at the I and Thou, the Blue U, and where will I find a coffee shop of the new bohemia under the banner of Martin Buber’s great prose poem, perhaps the single most important theological work of the 20th century?

Where will I find as civilized a jazz room as the Both/And? Nobody knows what that name means. But everybody who is anybody knows that John Handy makes jazz history there.

I won’t be entertained at dinner by the rock group which rehearses across the street in a garage and which seems to get better every time they play and who started out pretty good — Joel and the Presidents — with a terrific girl singer, named Welthea.

I’ll miss Marvin Jackmon and Ed Bullins, fine poets and playwrights of the Black Arts Repertory, taking art to the people with great passion and confusion.

I won’t see Bob Barone, president of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood council, riding by on his bicycle.

I doubt if I will find poets of 18 or less writing as well as Stephen Schwartz or Jessica Hagedorn.

And I certainly won’t find another Poets’ Local of the IWW — who have just put out a terrific anthology of their work and that of their friends, called Peace and Gladness, which you can buy at City Lights, and which, as about as representative of what is youth doing as anything I can think of, I’ll be reading on the European airwaves.

May the Haight Street Irregulars keep the grass, I mean home, fires burning ’til I get home.

[September 13, 1966]

As you can see from the following columns, this trip lasted for nearly a year, taking Rexroth, his teenage daughter Mary, and his secretary Carol Tinker (who later became his fourth wife) all around the world.



Rosh Hashanah by the Rhine

When this column comes out I guess I will be somewhere in the Rhineland and it will be Rosh Hashanah. I find that sentence, that I have just written, so moving that it is hard for me to go on.

I wonder what the actual experience will be like?

The Jewish New Year begins with a Day of Memory and ends with a Day of Atonement. Like the baby in our cartoons on January first, amongst primitive people the world is born completely new each year, time starts over.

In Judaism time recollects itself. What does time mean as it is portrayed in the ritual and readings in synagogue or temple? It means the constant renewal of the covenant of the Eternal. The year gone by was another rung in the Jacob’s Ladder of that abiding promise, another step in the fulfillment of that inscrutable destiny.

New Year’s Day is a special day of appeal to the spirit which moves on the surface of the waters of chaos in mercy and strength, creating now, continuously, as in the first chapter of Genesis.

The day of renewal is the day of mercy, and mercy comes from memory. If we remembered all things, we would find it very easy to forgive all things. If we were to be judged in the light of infinity and eternity, now, at this minute, in what we are doing.

The day of the strength of the Lord, says the prophet Joel, is great and very terrible, and who may abide it? And this thought is echoed in one of the most beautiful hymns of the prayer book.

And so the shofar, the ram’s horn, is blown, to echo the thunder in which the Law was given on Mt. Sinai — the tremendous music of the power of the Eternal. Jews, who do not kneel in prayer, kneel on this day, and the more orthodox prostrate themselves.

During the ceremonies the men wear the kittell, a long white robe of purity. In the evening the orthodox go to running water and cast upon it the crumbs in their pockets . . . a custom referred to by Jesus.

What can one think on Rosh Hashanah beside the Rhine? What does memory mean in this place? In our time the Jews were cast upon the water like crumbs of bread expelled from the pockets of civilization.

“Cast thy bread upon the waters,” said the author of Ecclesiastes, “for thou shalt find it after many days.” He was an ironist. Did he believe it would return a hundredfold?

The Nazis were men like us, citizens of a civilized nation, no crazier than we. The Jews were men like us, followers of a religion that has helped to civilize all of us, with faults and virtues just like us. Men — indistinguishable as men to an intelligent being from Mars — did this to each other.

This terrible sin, agony and sacrifice, what did it gain? Was it an atonement?

Was the human race purged in those years of horror of irrational hatred and the lust for cruelty? As fellow humans, we suffered in the camps and gas ovens, but we also hung the children on the hooks. The Day of Memory.

Have we learned mercy from memory? If we have, it is on some hidden plane of being, in some secret place. As all the world sinks deeper into violence and hate, the mercy of understanding is certainly not apparently increasing on the face of the earth.

[September 15, 1966]



On the Plane to Germany

Well, after great confusion, here we are, airborne in a Lufthansa 707, on the first leg of what promises to be a trip all around Europe and then around the long way to San Francisco, off American soil for maybe six months. Already we are in Europe.

As we passed over Tuolomne Meadows, they passed out last night’s Frankfurter Rundschau. I see by the papers that Amerika is holding its own over there. Muhammad Ali, the Box-Weltmeister, is appearing tonight for interviews and passing out autographs in Frankfurt.

I’m all for Cassius, though many of my colleagues of the press are not. He does speak his mind, which is more than can be said of many a gentleman of boxing, who seldom speak more than “Hello Mom, I’m OK!” and give scant evidence of mind.

Which calls to my mind, whatever became of Henry Armstrong? I interviewed him long ago, before the Second War, and discovered that not only was he intelligent and articulate, but he was a pretty good poet. Better than Cassius. Though Cassius does have a certain Bob Dylan charm.

George Hitchcock is the only sports writer who ever mentioned Armstrong’s talent, though when Tunney announced he was reading Shakespeare to train for Dempsey it made world headlines.

In Darmstadt they are doing Edgar Varèse, Gyorgy Ligeti, Stockhausen, all in one concert. The paper says Varèse’s “Octandre” and “Ionization” are great milestones in the development of modern music. So true.

But Varèse lived in San Francisco for quite a while before the war. Who knew it? Bill Saroyan, the painter Hilaire Hiler, me. Did the San Francisco Symphony or any of its patrons? No.

Stockhausen will be on the West Coast this year. Teaching at the University of California’s Davis campus. How many symphony orchestras on the coast are having him? How many fashionable hostesses are crowding to invite him to intimate dinners of sympathetic souls? Heh, heh. He is certainly one of the three contemporary milestones. But who wants a milestone for dinner?

Right now an American advertising agency is waging a campaign for Lufthansa which is scandalizing the PR business. They claim they’re super-Teutonic — compulsively efficient, meticulous, disciplinarians. I hear the head office in Cologne is dubious about the appeal of this Von Stroheim image.

I can’t notice it on the plane. As far as the chief steward and his girls are concerned, they may be that way, but if so they’re sure sweet tempered and quiet about it. Once a customer broke a bottle of beer. Kindly amusement. As the after-lunch coffee came through, we hit the jet stream, and off the dolly went a stack of empty cups, with Stockhausen effects. Great joke. I must say the muss was genichts with dispatch.

Eastbound travel has always seemed much more dramatic than westbound to me. I think of Archibald MacLeish’s poem — “And here face down beneath the sun, And here upon earth’s noonward height, To feel the always coming on, The always rising of the night.”

But in an eastbound plane the sensation is so much stronger — we seem to be disrupting time as we try to overtake the turning earth. There is a fourth-dimensional sensation about flying against the sun, day slipping away behind you, and the shell of darkness sliding over the earth to meet you.

It is as though, if only you went fast enough, you’d find yourself a day into the past, each time you went around the earth.

Now the sun is setting over Montreal in a dramatic sky of gold and red high-piled clouds, and soon we will be speeding to meet the night, which in turn will be rushing to meet us out of Newfoundland.

[September 18, 1966]



Nature and Nationalism

How strange it is in the twilight, Montreal sparkling on its dusky hills, to go down the St. Lawrence, which turns from purple to black as we go, retracing the voyages of Cabot and Champlain, 30,000 feet above the ghosts of their wallowing little boats, only a few seconds ago in the life of man, and an infinitesimal instant in the history of life on the earth.

How important it seems to us — the change from a log to a dugout to a canoe, to a sailboat, to a little ship, to steam, to oil, to the air.

Maybe on Jupiter there are great plasma animals who think deep slow thoughts as all the moons revolve in the methane sky and one of them has just said to another, “You know, I believe something has flickered over the land surface of the third planet that has always been so barren. Much of the continents seem to me to have changed color suddenly.”

“Possibly it is life,” says the other. “I doubt it. No ammonia. No methane. The oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere would produce a metabolism so rapid the most primitive living cells would burn up before they got started.”

As we go out over the dark ocean and the moon comes up, I think of how much we have learned about nature and how little we still know — and more important — how little we have learned from nature.

Canadian politics fascinates me. The day we were in Montreal, Provincial Cultural Affairs Minister Jean-Noël Tremblay announced that culture was a natural extension of education and as such exclusively a provincial concern.

From now on French Quebec would go its own way and the cultural affairs of his province were none of the capital, Ottawa’s, business.

He spoke each time of French Canada in unmistakable tones as a separate nation. This means the abandonment of all pretense of biculturalism. From now on French Canada will be French and what English Canada does is no concern of Quebec. The logical deduction from his statements is something very close to secession.

One consequence, ironically, would be the abandonment of the French-speaking population outside Quebec — which is a lot of people. Over the years French separatism has grown until now it is the almost unanimous attitude of French-speaking Canadians.

Few Americans realize the gravity of the ever-growing crisis and if, one day, their northern neighbor suddenly splits in two, they are going to be immeasurably astonished.

How curious a thing it is, nationalism. Unlike the secession of the Southern States, Quebec has nothing whatever, economically or politically, to gain, and very much to lose.

What a fantastic disease nationalism is. In my childhood everyone of intelligence believed that nation states were obsolete and soon would vanish in the Parliament of Man. Nationalism was a peculiar vagary of obscure comic-opera Balkan terrorists in blouses, baggy pants and immense mustaches. Socialism seemed to be the future.

Today, after having almost destroyed Germany, nationalism is subverting the power of the second most powerful nation that has ever existed and is thwarting the power of the first most powerful, making it look both ridiculous and cruel.

[September 20, 1966]



German Food, French Folly

Eating dinner off Newfoundland I decided that nationalism is meaningless. Lufthansa should jack up its Montreal caterer. San Francisco German chefs are better than most Canadian German chefs.

The food was better than most airline food. It was international in a pejorative sense. Salad — tuna mayonnaise with two prawns and three asparagus tips on top. Okay, I loathe tuna salad — the last refuge of a bridge hostess — but the French think tuna mayonnaise very scrumptious. The main dish was a Wiener Schnitzel but very Italianate, the Schnitzel was in the way of becoming a vitello.

Mit spaghetti, a very Tedescan spaghetti — but not German enough. (I just love real German spaghetti — hamburger, celery, onions, tomatoes all cooked up together with the spaghetti and seasoned with kummels.)

For dessert Canada spoke up with a flan Anglais, one of those mysterious English custardy, cornstarchy things that taste like a variety of synthetic banana. For savory, Canadian cheddar, which I just love. For wine, Riesling — Wormser Liebfrauenstift Kirchenstück, which did nicely.

Dawn over the ocean and sunrise over La Terre, the soil of France with Cornwall underneath. We could identify Plymouth and St. Austell Bay, where we lived for a summer — strange to see from Land’s End to Dorset with Jersey ahead to the left. What a little country to have been so great.

We were welcomed in Paris by an order from the Controle forbidding passengers en route from America to Germany to disembark — a great inconvenience to the airline.

I prophecy that beginning from De Gaulle’s Phnom Penh speech, the harassment of Americans in France and general truculence toward allies of America like Germany or England will rise to a crescendo.

De Gaulle has embarked on a course of total defiance of America and this is an act of folly which will almost certainly bring him down. The speech unequivocally brands America as sole aggressor. Had the Americans not intervened, peace and joy would reign in all Indochina, and the Vietnamese would love each other like brothers.

Is this just the folly of an aged and conceited man? Indeed it is not. It is a bid for power in a strategic sector of the world. That is what is so tragic. There are many things De Gaulle could have said in Cambodia, and more that he could have done that would have brought peace appreciably closer.

There are conceivable drastic actions which could be taken by a consortium of France, Russia, England and India which would bring it about right now.

Or, if such associates are not to his taste, mon général could have assumed the leadership of the Third Force — from Yugoslavia to India — which would, if all the Third Force nations only acted positively and together, prove irresistible to countries as unlike as Canada and Japan, whose populations would have forced them on.

Alas, these men do not want peace. They want power.

[September 22, 1966]



Arrival in Berlin

Like all the world nowadays, Frankfurt Airport is being torn up and rebuilt. The tiny temporary waiting rooms are jam-packed, the electric announcement boards don’t work right and nobody seems to know anything. The lady in the newsstand gave me two quarters change for a 50-cent purchase out of a dollar. When I asked for marks instead she gave me 1 mark 50 pfennigs. I suppose I should have argued it out — but it was my own fault. I have traveled enough to know you should always arrive in a country with some of its currency in your pocket.

Lufthansa cannot fly the air corridor through East Germany — so we took the shuttle plane of another airline, which proceeded to lose my suitcase. When I described it as bright red and made of fiberglass, the girl at Lost and Found looked at me as though I were a madman — or possibly the leader of a new post-Op school of U.S. art. I think she still has visions of shoes and skirts suspended in a scarlet aquarium. (Four days later the bag was found in Munich.)

Again — I know better. Don’t rely on tags. Paint your name and address on your luggage and chalk under that each trip as “Kenneth Rexroth, 250 Scott St., San Francisco, Calif.” and in chalk — “San Francisco — Berlin via Montreal, Paris, Frankfurt.” I always put on “Journalist, DON’T X-RAY — Audio Tapes and Films” if I am carrying such objects.

“À Berlin,” as they used to say in French. Well, here we are, General Herkimer. We were met by Martin Honer, a young man from the organization for cultural relations with foreigners. He immediately established himself as a trusted friend, without being in the least pushy about it. He saw us through customs with dispatch, sent a tracer after the lost suitcase, got our money changed, took us by taxi to the schloss of the Literary Colloquium on the shores of the Wannsee where we will be staying while we’re in Germany.

He straightened out all the details of our coming travels and the relations of the two organization sponsoring us, took us to dinner at Hardtke’s — a famous old restaurant, or rather trio of restaurants, Teutonic enough to be in Milwaukee.

This is a good place to know about — it is very cheap — the fixed-price luncheons are 4 marks or 4.75, the evening meals are à la carte but range in price from 4 to 7 marks; for lunch eat at the one on the Kurfürstendamm, the main street; for dinner, the larger one on Meinekestrasse.

And where did we go after dinner? To, of all places, to see the Living Theater in a performance of The Brig.

A couple of years ago the Living Theater was prosecuted for tax evasion, the director was sentenced to jail, and after he got out they fled America for good. Since then they have been touring Europe, with great success.

I don’t care much for The Brig. It is a propaganda play which so overstates its case against the dehumanization of militarism that it has a reverse effect. No Marine Corps punishment brigade could be like that and endure. After seeing the play, you believe that bad Marines are taken in hand by lovely lady psychiatrists who give them colored blocks to play with.

More important — irrational cruelty is not the primary evil in either war or militarism, but the steady attrition of personal integrity, “inner directedness,” “self-actualization” and the resultant withering of humane values. In a sense the play says this in a symbolic manner — but the symbolism is so crude it can be taken for a simply false picture of reality.

The conventional middle-class critics of the European press gave it rave reviews — it was the Left who saw its inadequacy. Members of the audience about us in Berlin were mostly young, in the costumes of London’s Carnaby Street or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. They were not impressed. They thought the playwright blew his cool, which is the standard criticism of the young of the New Left or the Revolt of Youth of all ideologically motivated propaganda. I agree.

[September 25, 1966]




Already I am quite in love with Berlin, for two quite simple reasons.

Its exposed position as an outlying bastion of the Cold War scares away tourists. It is like Europe used to be before the wedding of the affluent society and the travel agencies. This keeps prices down and makes for natural relations between the visitor and the natives. Even the museums are uncrowded, only a few Germans passed through, looking at the bust of Queen Nefertiti during the time I spent in her company.

The Louvre in the purlieus of the Mona Lisa looks like Piccadilly Circus on a football match night, and all of medieval Florence is as swarmy as Coney Island, in season and out.

Secondly, Berlin is an urbanist’s dream. The reason is plain to the student of history. From Frederick the Great to the present it has never known the advantages of being developed by Free Enterprise.

The international term, laissez faire, is French, not German, and it is not even a German concept.

The princes, then kings, then emperors, of the Hohenzollern house, and their ministers, like Bismarck, practiced a kind of regal state socialism. Berlin was, as their capital, especially the focus of this way of life, this concept of how society should be organized. Capitalism, industrialism, finance, all aspects of modern economy were allowed to develop, in fact encouraged, but subject to careful control — most of the time, anyway.

When the system broke down, it simply stood on the tracks and waited until a repair crew and a new driver took over.

For all their great learning in Marxism, the German Social Democrats have, whenever they have been in power, revealed themselves as essentially followers of Marx’s opponent, the more authoritarian and simple-minded Lasalle.

This is as true today as it ever was. It is even true within the rather rigid limits imposed from without, on the other side of The Wall.

And, of course, although sociologists are still debating exactly what sort of monster the Nazi regime was, it linked, in its very name, two concepts which had first been joined, in the Western world at least, in Berlin — nationalism and socialism. The fabric of Berlin is the physical reflection of this, this what? I suppose it is even deeper than a metaphysical principle. It is an ingrained emotional attitude.

It is a city of boulevards and parks and lakes past belief, the outcome of centuries of planning and controlled growth.

Zoning laws are such that some surprising businesses can be found, concealed in the center of handsome residential neighborhoods. This makes for a strong development of local feeling, a communal decentralization stronger than that of the old faubourgs of Paris.

Even the shattering effects of war and the Cold War have not been able to break this up. The new arrivals take over the old loyalties and grow into them. The reason is plain — they can’t avoid it. The city is put together that way and creates its own ecology.

[September 27, 1966]



Dining in Pre-Hitler Germany

Don’t say I don’t get around, trying to find for you the best places to eat. I can’t stay in all the hotels and pensions in a week, and besides, I am a guest of the Literary Colloquium in an old mansion on that beautiful, broad embayment of the Havel called the Wannsee. This is quite a place.

It was the first mansion of a millionaire in the days of Bismarck, and built in Bismarckian Romanesque, rather like the 1860-80 Cincinnati school gone crazy. You wouldn’t be surprised to see immense goldfish swimming through the air, in and out the windows.

During the Nazi regime it was a favorite brothel where the mighty came for elaborate orgies. Now it is an international guest house for writers and other artists whom the Berlin intellectuals want to get to know.

During the winter all sorts of people will be coming — from France, Butor and Yves Bonnefoy; from America, Creeley and Ferlinghetti and Olson; filmmakers from England, artists from Poland.

In the States this would mean I’d just be wasting my time trying to avoid a mess of drunks. So far everybody keeps out of everybody’s way and the creative calm amidst the greenwood is profound.

To return to the subject of food. Yesterday we ate lunch on the top floor of Bilka, the overgrown dime store by the Zoo station in the city center. In good weather you can eat outside in a little roof garden with a fine view of downtown. The fixed-price meal is less than 75 cents. The portions are small and the food is edible. That’s the best to be said for it, but what do you want for that price? It is possible to find even cheaper places.

Last night we had dinner in Schlichter, one of Europe’s finest restaurants. Considering, the food is remarkably cheap. An order of venison, beautifully cured and cooked, was $6.50, and most dishes, including the specialties of Berlin, were less than $2. Service is all à la carte. Even so, an elaborate dinner ranges between $10 and $20 with wine — and you’re eating in the analogue of La Perouse in Paris — only it is not beset and bedeviled by tourists.

We had cold fruit soup, lachs (salmon), venison, smoked pork loin with sauerkraut, kidneys and mushrooms (Mary felt chaste and had an omelette), two wines, a Moselle and a red wine from northern Germany made from hybrid grapes — a little like a mixture of Taylor and Zinfandel. Thank God it was served cold, a little goes a long way.

The bill was high, but considerably less than you’d pay in any first-class American restaurant. It was all served with a kind of quiet splendor, very unlike the hordes of epaulletted fussbudgets who scare tourists in similar French restaurants.

On the wall were paintings by the owner’s brother, pretty good examples of the middlebrow modernism of the Weimar Republic.

The whole atmosphere was that of a conscious restoration of pre-Hitler Germany at her best — urbane, international, and beautifully mannered. So was the conversation, with one of the leaders of Group 47 and his wife, a young photographer.

This is the Germany that has almost won out at each historical crisis. Let’s hope that this time it will hold fast. It is one of the world’s better ways of life and it is a miracle that it has been able to come back at all.

[September 29, 1966]



“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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