San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



October 1966

How the Germans See Us
Germany’s Military Scandal
Ballet and Opera
From Drama to Horror
Pleasant Bed and Board
The Ghosts of Germany
Land of Wine and Poetry
Zigzagging Through the Rhineland
Europe Sets Us an Example
A Heavenly Country Inn
Poetry from a Computer




How the Germans See Us

BERLIN. — It suddenly occurs to me, sitting down to do this column, that I’ve been in Germany 10 days and haven’t seen any American except on the street.

If there were any in the restaurants and galleries they were speaking German. That leaves only the night at the Living Theater — but although much of the audience looked like the most far out young Americans, all but a very few in fact were young Germans patterning themselves on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury or New York’s East Village — of a year or so ago.

I don’t even know where the Press Club is, or if there is one, and I’ll probably never find out. One of our old-time foreign correspondents who so often disagreed with all his colleagues and later turned out to be right, once said to me, “Public opinion is what newspapermen talk about in bars.” I can’t remember if that was Dosch-Fleurot or Von Weigand, but the remark was so true.

What are Germans talking about in card rooms, bars, square intellectual supper places like Restaurant Diener, Gammler (beatnik) hangouts or just at home or at large?

Like most people, they talk about immediate and personal things; politics and religion are bad manners.

In Berlin, certainly, all ideologies are pretty well worn out, all the Great Issues are distrusted, and political leaders provoke mostly only amusement.

If you insist, and feed in the properly programmed leading remarks, you can get back public opinion. Some of the responses are remarkably uniform, however much the respondents may disagree on principles.

First, Vietnam. It is obvious that, first Berlin, and then all West Germany, if the Russians decided to start War Three, could become another Vietnam in a matter of hours.

If the Americans are resisting a massive “probe” from China, via the instrumentality of Hanoi, and thereby demonstrating that they will resist any such probe, anywhere — just as they resist petty nuisance probes from the Russians in East Berlin, you’d think there would be widespread approval of American intervention in Vietnam on the part of Berliners, citizens of an outpost under a mild form of permanent siege.

There is not. The politically sophisticated think the Pentagon is ruled by naïve amateurs, who are permitting their forces to be drawn off from the important points of concentration in world power politics, to a remote flank, where, if Hell breaks loose, they cannot recover and return to the main arena quickly enough to avoid defeat.

In other words, they are being decoyed. Besides, they are fighting a war for their potential enemy — Russia’s war. Just as a half million troops who might suddenly be needed on the walls of “fortress Europe” are pinned down in a remote corner of Asia, so Chinese troops, which would otherwise be probing the borders of Mongolia, are now pinned down in the far southeast of China, logistically almost as much of a headache for them as a trans-Pacific supply is for America.

This opinion is common among conservative people with social connections with military circles. Popular opinion is much like it is in America in the range from Robert Kennedy to Senator Fulbright to the academic and intellectual community, to the New Youth.

Berlin at least has yet to produce any articulate wild men like the Progressive Labor Party people who made all the rumpus at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This donnybrook, incidentally, does not seem to have been given any coverage in the German press.

There are probably people who accept the Johnson-McNamara-Rusk position wholeheartedly, but I haven’t met them. They are certainly not conspicuous.

People are worried about Black Power and White Power. Cicero and Atlanta and all the others bear an uncomfortable resemblance — on an even larger scale — to the “war in the streets” which brought down the Weimar Republic in a shambles of each against all.

It is not easy to explain — for the simple reason that I myself don’t know the answers. Will America resolve the conflicts in some Great Society, before it is too late? I don’t know. Forces of social decay are afoot that seem to make at least as much progress as the forces of social reconstruction.

In addition, as I have pointed out before, Europeans are horrified at the continuous outbreaks of insane violence in America — Dallas, Austin, Chicago — and wonder if it all isn’t part of the same thing — if American’s aren’t going crazy, if maybe they aren’t afflicted with some malevolent social disease.

I can safely say, for one, that here in this fortress city, with the bombs piling up on either side of Checkpoint Charlie and the People’s Police shooting innocent drunks who fall into the canal along The Wall, there is less tension in the air, less interpersonal irritability, than there is in San Francisco, supposedly the coolest city in the USA.

Finally, amongst the informed, well-to-do people at least, there is considerable worry about the world credit crisis, which most of them attribute to Johnson’s fiscal policy, or lack of it. They feel that the White House is engaged in another game of brinkmanship, and for tawdrier reasons than the adventures of John Foster Dulles . . . that, in fact, the economy of the entire capitalist system is being endangered and brought perilously near to the brink of a new world economic crisis like the one in 1929, for purely local, ward politics, electioneering reasons.

Quite respectable credit now in Europe can cost as high as 10 and 12 percent. This, rather than any military or world political maneuvers, may well account for much of the upper-class distrust of the United States.

[October 2, 1966]



Germany’s Military Scandal

BERLIN. — Last column I wrote about what the people, at all social levels in Berlin, are talking about America. This one I’ll write about what they are saying about their own affairs. First, because it is all over the world press, the military crisis.

This is one of those complicated affairs, like most German military scandals from time immemorial, which it is very difficult for outsiders to understand. I’ll try to make it comprehensible without, I hope, oversimplifying too much.

The story goes back ten years. Under pressure from Dulles, Adenauer undertook to expand the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, including the Air Corps, the Luftwaffe, from nothing to 500,000 men between 1956 and 1959.

Like most crash programs, this one failed. The Bundeswehr is not yet that large. But a substantial army was created without adequate cadres — junior officers, technicians, non-coms. Postwar Germany was hung over with history’s worst debauch of militarism and wanted no part of it. To this day, recruitment of high-caliber personnel is extremely difficult, and lags in all branches.

Recently the Luftwaffe embarked on a program of light, very high speed bombers, theoretically almost as maneuverable as fighters, and capable of delivering nuclear bombs. Seven hundred have been built so far, of these about 8 percent have already smashed up, with the resultant loss of highly trained men, almost impossible to replace quickly, and certainly not expendable in “tryouts.”

The Starfighter originally was designed close to the limit of tolerance for many of its components, to keep it as light as possible for its specific job. This seems to have been a big factor in its repeated failures, and has resulted in accusations of skimping and graft.

Questions in the German parliament led to charges against the Luftwaffe high command by the civilians in the Ministry of Defense, including the minister himself, Herr Von Hassel.

Lieut. General Werner Panitski, inspector of the Luftwaffe, was forced to resign and after him the Inspector General (chief of staff) of the whole Bundewehr, Heinz Trettner. Since then a number of lesser men have resigned, willingly or unwillingly.

This has resulted in a curious and unhealthy alignment of forces — the Social Democrats and the parties of the extreme Right and Left, and the Army, against the Christian Democrats, and specifically against Von Hassel himself.

The Adenauer group within the Christian Democratic Party has been quick to take advantage of the crisis to push for power against the Erhard group within their own party.

Most people think that Von Hassel will be forced to resign, and most deplore the fragmentation of political life which threatens to grow out of this system of expedient cross-alliances.

[October 4, 1966]



Ballet and Opera

BERLIN. — We went to the Berlin Ballet for the first time, and saw two fairly new Cranko choreographies — L’Estro Armonica with music of Vivaldi, and the redesigned Firebird for which Stravinsky has considerably rewritten the score.

It was an impressive evening, but my impressions need very definite qualifications. The present Berlin Ballet has been created out of the ruins by the devotion of a few fanatically dedicated people, led by Gert Reinholm and Tatiana Gsovsky. This year, Kenneth Macmillan, who more than any other person is responsible for putting the British Royal Ballet into the first place formerly occupied by the Kirov, has come over from London to help.

This situation, and the nature of the available material, must be understood before the Ballet can be evaluated properly.

The Vivaldi is a leotard ballet designed to show off technical proficiency. Balanchine, or the British, or even the San Francisco company, could give it great snap and thrill. Unfortunately, the Berliners simply do not have all that much technique to show off. They do, however, make the most of Cranko’s fascinating and sometimes amusing additions to the standard vocabulary.

This is a ballet for dancers trained down like fine race horses, and the company is still too soft.

What they do is meet the problems with intelligence where they cannot meet them with great skill. The Firebird, of course, is a showy ballet where technique can be covered by drama and spectacle. I must say that this production was certainly dramatic and spectacular. And again, the dancers and the direction, and even the changes in Stravinsky’s already drastically changed score, showed great intelligence.

This is what ballet needs today everywhere — more brains, of the kind it had in the days of Diaghilev. The Berliners have the brains. Give them another year of hard, hard, hard work in the classes and they can be one of the world’s leading companies.

Next night to see Verdi’s Macbeth. The librettists who Verdi hired to rewrite Shakespeare gave him only one first-class piece — Otello, which a lot of people think is better than Shakespeare. As drama the opera Macbeth is nowhere, that nowhere occupied by things like Nabucco.

It is overwhelmed by the choruses, the relations between the principals are all reduced to static tableaux.

The Berlin cast did not help by singing in the old stand-and-deliver style of Caruso and Nellie Melba. Macbeth charged around like a young bull in a china closet. Lady Macbeth confused yelling with acting, which was a pity, because she has a fine voice for the role otherwise. Only Peter Lagger as Banquo turned in a satisfactory, all around performance.

Best of all were the sets, ominous Bronze Age constructions like modern sculpture — the late Wilfred Zogbaum for instance — and crazy projections for the witches and the hallucinations, like a bad trip at a rock dance. Why can’t we break the stranglehold of the scene painters’ union and have things like this in America? Zogbaum lived in San Francisco. Did he design our Macbeth, years ahead of this Berlin fellow? He did not, nor has anybody connected with the opera heard of him to this day, I’ll wager two groschen.

[October 6, 1966]




HAMBURG. — This is one of those fine cities without a Mona Lisa or an Acropolis where you can escape from the hordes of tourists that now overwhelm most of the world. There are plenty of foreigners about, including a surprising number of Asians and Africans, but they are mostly there with a purpose.

Americans who have never seen Hamburg imagine it to be a combination of Jersey City and Chicago’s Old Town. On the contrary, it is a remarkably gracious city, full of parks and boulevards and stately homes along its many lakes and waterways . . . a bit like Copenhagen, but less delicate. It seems very British, too, like London might have been if it had been rationally developed.

This is the thing — this is what these great industrial and commercial cities of Germany and Scandinavia bring home to you so powerfully — commerce and industry are not incompatible with a reasonable and humane environment. The social system of Hamburg is certainly not socialism, it is a more efficient form of capitalism than you’ll find in Chicago. It is a social system which has long since learned that it does not pay to destroy the quality of life.

The core cities of Milwaukee and Chicago once looked much like the section of Hamburg where I am living on the banks of a tree-lined canal, of water clean enough for swans and fish. Today they have either been flattened more thoroughly than the bombs flattened Hamburg, and replaced with those Towers of Namelessness we call Urban Redevelopment, or they are ecological cancers that threaten the very life of America.

Having seen plenty of pictures of Hamburg after the war, I expected it to be at least as scarred as Berlin. There are areas that have never been rebuilt, but they are not conspicuous. Most of the important buildings were restored, with more care than restorers usually give to paintings or antiques.

The other empty spaces have been filled with inoffensive modern architecture, although there is one Skidmore, Owings and Merrill type vertical ice cube tray or plastic bait box — one of those things that seem to fly after you around the earth, like the Holy House of Loretta.

For the first night on the town we went to see James Hanley’s Forever and Ever. This is a play with two principal characters with line loads about twice the weight of Hamlet’s and with little action. It can talk itself to death or build up an almost unbearable terror at the absurdity of the human condition, depending entirely on the skill of the actors.

I would love to see it done in America, but where we would find the horrifying midget who plays the part of a ventriloquist’s dummy, I’m sure I don’t know. We could import Heinz Schubert from Hamburg, along with the manic despot of a father, played by Hermann Schomberg — I think they both speak perfect English. Hamburg’s most severe critic said it was an unbelievably flawless performance by the whole cast, and so it was.

It sure scared the squares in the audience — although the old ones must have been raised on a more vulgar version of the theme — the grandeur and agony of a life of misery and delusions of grandeur — this was a specialty of the great silent movie star, Emil Jannings.

Next day we watched a rehearsal of Camus’s The Beleaguered City. This was a rather academic job, like a “serious” but not first-rate German movie. I am always impressed by the disappearance of rhythmic direction. The director wanted a formal, doll-like movement of his extras across the stage, and rigid, hieratic gestures from the groups. The actors of course wanted to act. The result was formlessness.

What he did not realize was that the effects of the avant-garde stage he had seen in the books were obtained by tapping out a rhythm, by drums or by records. The effect was something like Herb Blau, but without his special verve.

I for one think the German intelligentsia should stop torturing themselves with the Nazi past. Guilt is not penance. Penance is facing up to the evils of 1966 in terms of the last third of the century. Only a hidden truculence is bred by constantly returning to things like Camus’s interpretations of the horrors of “le monde concentrationnaire.” There are plenty of horrors loose in the world right now that need doing something about.

[October 9, 1966]



From Drama to Horror

HAMBURG. — We went to see Antonio Bibalo’s opera which created so much of a fuss in the world press when it was commissioned by the Hamburg Opera House — Henry Miller’s The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. It is astonishing that it has never been given in California, since it is by California’s best-known writer (but not best known in California).

It is a very showy piece, with a circus ballet, a nightmare, and other divertissements. It is long winded, in Miller’s fashion, but by no means as long winded as Wozzeck. It was beautifully sung, acted and danced.

Everything was just fine except the music. That is decorative, lowbrow modernism, full of rattles and chirps and tinkles. Supposedly it is descriptive or even imitative, but where it is clearly so, it is so overstated as to be absurd. Something is going on all the time, but since all those somethings don’t add up, it exhausts the attention. Its constant petty eventfulness is not in the least stimulating, on the contrary, it is boring.

Still, audiences seem to like it. It has a full ballet, otherwise it could be mounted very cheaply, and it certainly should be done on the West Coast, possibly in the San Francisco Spring Opera.

Next afternoon, a much more important piece of music and dramaturgy — a rehearsal of Gunther Schuller’s The Visitation. This is an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial to a Negro hero. It’s got everything, a full orchestra and a jazz band on the stage, gospel singers, ballet and music that is both deeply moving and very adventurous.

Why is it that the Hamburg Opera House can commission works by Americans and get something, while the Ford Foundation subsidization of new American operas a few years back produced nothing but comic and embarrassing disasters?

Finally my host insisted on taking me to the portside entertainment district, full of cheap strip joints, with barkers like vultures — they run 24 hours a day! It was early afternoon when we were there and there was plenty of action.

And then one of the famous Hamburg closed streets, where the practically naked prostitutes are displayed in showcase windows, crowded together like pigs, and bargaining with the customers in the street.

The whole scene is a cheapjack inferno I will not soon forget, a real look into horror.

The Hamburgers all have sociological apologies for it, but nobody seems to think about the exploitation and destruction of the girls.

I do wish the Mayor and the Tourist and Convention Bureau officials of San Francisco could visit Hamburg’s “North Beach.” This is what we will have produced on Broadway if we keep on, and not too far hence. Or is that what they really want to do? Maybe they shouldn’t come to Hamburg, it might give them ideas. It made me sick at heart for man’s bestiality to man.

[October 11, 1966]



Pleasant Bed and Board

KREFELD (West Germany). — Here I am in Krefeld of all places, a city to which even Germans come only on business. It’s not all that bad, it is just that it is an industrial city without, as far as I can discover, any role in history, any monuments or tourist attractions.

I came principally to see a new director’s production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, but I will write about that come Sunday. What pleases me about this place, after some grim experiences in Bonn and Düsseldorf, is the hotel.

I am staying at an old mansion, converted to a bed and breakfast pension of great elegance, called, of all things, Hotel Runte. It is very pleasant to eat breakfast in the Bismarckian dining room and watch the yellow leaves fall through the smoky air from the huge old trees that line the sunken garden. The rooms are vast, there are floral moldings and Cupids on the ceilings, the furniture is mostly Wilhelm II, but a lot of it is earlier, the rugs are marvels of German taste in Turkish rugs.

There are few, if any, private baths, strictly speaking, but in a screened-in corner of my room is one of those German sitz baths in which you can soak in hot water quite luxuriously. (I loathe showers.) The hall and stairs is a miniature Schloss Huegel.

There are places like this all over Germany, but the trick is to find them. First-class international hotels are exactly alike all over the world — they make you feel right at home, so why travel? For my taste, there is only one thing worse, and that’s a second-class international hotel, with rooms like progressive lunatic asylum cells, furnished in 1950 U.S. motel, and with food guaranteed to make you queasy and keep you queasy. The only inhabitants who aren’t bores are the large numbers of very pleasant Indians who seem to like them. Otherwise, you’re in with a lot of retired South African schoolmasters.

I suspect that the best way to locate these old villa hotels is through Cook’s. The only foreigners you ever see in them are English. Maybe the English have a special homing sense like birds, or else can smell them out like bird dogs.

Although the Germans have avoided the worst aspects of American destruction of the environment, and have provided purely business in business cities like Krefeld, with parks, tree-lined streets, and boulevards with parkways down the center, the pollutions of the air over the whole Rhine-Ruhr junction passes belief.

Gary, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles at their worst have not surpassed what people assure me are exceptionally fine autumn days. There is plenty of oil and gasoline smoke in the air, but you can tell from the smell and the color of the light that it’s almost entirely industrial in origin and mostly from coal.

The inhabitants seem to be unaware that this is avoidable, that today Pittsburgh is a city with clean air. They say funny things like, “Well, of course, you Americans could afford to build completely new blast furnaces to eliminate smoke.” Or even better, “It may be irritating to strangers, but medical research has proven that it builds up powerful resistance and even immunity to respiratory infections.”

[October 13, 1966]



The Ghosts of Germany

BERLIN. — I’ve just finished a whirlwind tour of the mid-Rhine cities and I’d better get it down before it all slips away. As You Like It in Bonn, The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Krefeld, ballet in Düsseldorf, Harmut Lange’s Marski in Frankfurt. In between a moderate amount of museum crawling, cathedral gaping, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the electronic music center at Essen, and miscellaneous visits to people. Besides, two days with Franz von Rexroth at a village above Wiesbaden, and a day’s trip to the Rexroth family seat at Michelstadt.

I have never traveled this way before, and my advice is, don’t do it. The big industrial towns don’t much matter, but places like Trier, Speyer, Mainz, Worms are worth relaxing in for several days each. Dashing about by freeway — the great German autobahns — is just another aspect of the deadly uniformity of internationalized living.

I have enjoyed Europe most when traveling in more compact countries, by foot in England, by bicycle in France. But I guess those days are gone forever. It’s not that I’m too old. It’s as dangerous now as in America. The roads are too crowded, even the small back roads.

What about the theater I’ve seen? First, I am impressed by the almost total lack of an experimental theater. There just isn’t any in any cities except Hamburg, Berlin and Munich. The official, state-supported theaters have taken over the style of the old avant-garde and more or less institutionalized it, so that every place has something like the former San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, more radical than Irving and Blau, usually less so than John Hancock and Marc Estrin.

The audience is mostly middle class, rather dowdy in appearance, the women look much like the ladies on an English country bus. It is difficult to imagine what they see in some of the fiercer plays of Bert Brecht or in the work of his disciples like Lange, who have developed his duplicity to a basic principle. Nor what they see in the Freudianized “abstract” choreography of George Balanchine. No audience could look less like they suffered from the alienation of the modern artist. Yet they seem to enjoy what they see. Of course, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an audience play, which can be appreciated on more levels than Shakespeare.

A great surprise was the Düsseldorf Ballet. I knew about Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin, but I had never met anyone from the Düsseldorf company. I was amazed. They did Balanchine’s long Tchaikovsky number, which is a deliberate attempt to challenge Les Sylphides, an erotic pas de trois in the contemporary taste by the director, and then, of all things, Petroushka, a ballet not to be attempted by just any old company. It all went smooth as molasses in July.

Furthermore, there was every evidence of a school in which the company worked hard. German dancers have a tendency to be soft, imprecise, undertrained, and most of the boys just fake.

The Düsseldorf company is not to be compared to Balanchine’s highly trained greyhounds, much less to the British Royal or the Kirov, but it is certainly a major company. I think Sol Hurok could do worse than bring it to America.

I asked about this, and most people seem to think that the major American impresarios will not touch German drama and dance, first, because they think the audiences will boycott the show, and second, because they themselves have not forgiven the Germans for Hitler and the Jewish extermination.

I haven’t written about this before, because everybody writes about it, but it can’t be avoided. The past is still there. Germany is still crowded with millions of the ghosts of the murdered, and the Germans over 25 or so are still haunted by them. The young can’t understand and they say, “God in heaven, Mama, that stuff all ended 20 years ago. Stop talking about it. I had nothing to do with it and it means nothing to me. It all sounds like a bunch of crazy people on some other planet.”

Remorse is the expression of guilt which can find no self-forgiveness. It is hard, maybe it is impossible, for a whole nation to find penitence, penance, reparation and peace of mind afterwards.

Two generations will have to die off before this six-million-headed ghost is exorcised. By then, I suppose, we will all be busy with another wholesale operation to make the world safe for democracy, and the process will start over, but next time in the caves and trees by the people who have forgotten the alphabet.

[October 16, 1966]



Land of Wine and Poetry

TRIER (West Germany). — Here I am precisely where I have been wanting to get back to for many years. We are stopping for the night at Guesthouse Schenck, a little way up the Rewer from the Moselle, about three kilometers beyond Trier.

For a while in the declining days of Rome, Trier was the capital of the empire. The last of the Roman poets, Ausonius, a sensual and wise — he also thought, falsely, that he was witty — aristocratic landowner from Bordeaux lived in Trier off and on throughout his life.

His vineyard at St. Emilion, near Bordeaux, still produces my favorite wine — Château Ausone. It is a wine of great complexity, stouter than most any from Bordeaux, and gives off a different sensation each tiny fraction of a second while you are tasting it.

The vineyard once belonged to Henri IV and the wine greatly resembles that robust, complicated sensualist.

Ausonius owned a vineyard on the Rewer too, and he must have been very happy here. Later critics have given him a bad press. Happy poets are never fashionable. They say his poem “The Moselle” is decadent, and not up to the standards of the Augustan Age.

Maybe, but critics notwithstanding, poets have always thought it one of the finest in all Latin literature.

Today the Moselle is flooded and controlled, more a canal than a river. The clear bright water with the fish swimming amongst the reflections of the wine leaves is gone. Ausonius would have trouble recognizing it.

But he would recognize the Roman mind at work. He was a great one for admiring feats of engineering as well as wine, women and nature.

In this steep canyon, overhung with vineyards, the brook is still clear and bright and twists down its gorge as the road, roaring with traffic, twists up beside it.

Tonight as the sun sets, there is the same grape-green quarter moon in the rose haze, the same smell of grapes first touched by the late night cold that have been making sugar all day, the same golden autumn weather, with the roses blooming amongst the falling leaves and the same trout cooked in the same juice of unripe grapes.

Erubris has changed to Rewer and carts and chariots have changed to automobiles, but something stays, at least for a while. Something is more permanent even than the great stout pink brick Roman basilica that even the cannons of the last war could not destroy.

[October 18, 1966]

NOTE: Some of Rexroth’s translations from ancient Greek and Roman poets (including one by Ausonius) can be found here.



Zigzagging Through the Rhineland

ON TOUR IN WEST GERMANY. — After seeing the sights of Trier, we drove down the Moselle and then up and over the hills by circuitous routes through the Rhineland and down again to the Rhine and across at Bingen.

After intensive tourist activities, you begin to feel that by far the nicest thing to do is simply drive through the countryside.

Returning to Europe at five-year intervals, the first thing that impresses you each time is the great leap forward to what they like to call “Americanization.” The various economies, at slightly different rates of development, have begun to pass, like ours, from the old industrial capitalism to the new technological, managed society.

Great sectors of the German economy are still at the point the American economy had reached in 1940, but the most significant sectors have in many cases moved beyond America.

The fabric of the society is tearing itself to pieces, trying to retailor itself to the demands of the new economy — except in a few cities like Berlin, which were already highly functional planned communities.

This means noise, congestion, confusion, crowded housing, still more crowded hotels and chronic disorder in the flow of traffic. That Dutchman Umleitung builds more and worse roads than that amateur French highway engineer Detour does in America.

It is quite impossible to estimate driving time, even in the international autobahns, the great through freeways which were invented in Germany. You are lucky if you can make as many kilometers as you would miles in America. The city of Frankfurt, which seems to be involved in three or four simultaneous and mutually contradictory experiments in traffic control, is worse than Rome, and that’s pretty worse.

For most Americans, though I am sure not for Germans, Germany does not seem to be chock-a-block with great architecture, great paintings, great historical monuments to the degree that England, France and Italy are. So there isn’t any pressing reason why one shouldn’t just get away and drive by zigzag and wandering routes through the beautiful landscapes.

Up out of the vast Moselle valley, terraced with vineyards and golden in the autumn sun, with the broad water gleaming below and laced with lines of barges, off through the forests, down again, up again and out across the broad wheatlands like the plateau above the Loire in France, through old villages of timbered houses, off through the rolling hills of the Rhineland, through more picture-postcard towns, and through fields where, if you are knowledgeable, you can see the new agricultural economy overtaking the old, and across the Rhine by ferry at its most legendary crossing — that is quite enough satisfaction for a day’s tourism.

[October 20, 1966]



Europe Sets Us an Example

BERLIN. — Nowhere, not even in California, is “the crisis of the cities,” as urbanists have called it, as intense, as grave or as conspicuous as in Germany.

It seems even worse than it is because the Germans are trying to do something about it. Subways are being built, freeways are being buried under the streets, old street car tracks are being torn up, some bombed-out areas are still in the process of being reconstructed and others are being turned into parks.

Germany had the great increase in the birth rate after the war which was experienced by all the nations that lost many lives; the country was flooded with refugees from the East — both Eastern Germany and the Slavic countries.

For years it has enjoyed an economic boom, a rate of increase of national product, capital investment and per capita wealth comparably only to Japan and Russia in the early years of this century, but outpacing both.

This resulted in a labor shortage which still exists and which brings workers from Italy, Yugoslavia, Algeria, Negro Africa, Spain — even from Britain, France and the United States, part of an intra-Europe migration comparable to the great migrations of the Goths and Huns and Lombards during the decline of the Roman Empire.

Only Berlin has escaped an almost unmanageable overcrowding. The remarkable thing is that this besieged city has held its population steady, even increased it a little.

Berlin was beautifully planned in the first place, and the most flexibly planned part of it is now West Berlin, so the Berliners can adapt themselves to the demands of the new social order with some ease.

No city has done better than Stuttgart. True, miles of streets are torn up, and as my Guide Bleu says, “La circulation est particulièrement intense.” Mais, oui.

But work in progress or no, Stuttgart is already a marvel of creative urbanism. Much of the city center was destroyed and has been replaced by modern office and shop buildings of exceptional handsomeness, with arcades, galleries and malls.

The city centers on the large gardens of the old palace, a park about the size of the Luxembourg in Paris, which contains most of the public buildings along its fringes — the parliament, the opera house, the state theater, the museums.

The original endowment was spectacular enough, but what has been done with it since the war is a marvel. It is certainly the finest example of public landscape architecture in Germany.

At night, when the fountains are going and the low “firefly” lights along the walks glow on the lake, and the softly lit public buildings glimmer at the ends of each vista, you realize you are being possessed by a major work of art.

It makes a difference — Stuttgart impresses the visitor as being a city with a kind of subconscious community joy. I don’t mean that everybody is always happy — it is just an all-pervasive tone, so different from the all too apparent tensions that seem to fill the air in Paris or in most American cities.

Of course, Stuttgart, with its glass cups of soft new wine at every table, has other things besides urbanism to give it this tone of joy. It is startling to an American to see a park like the palace gardens so heavily used at night — when Central Park in New York is no longer safe at midday.

It is not just a difference in statistical abstraction called a crime rate, although there is considerably less crime in Germany than in America. It is that American society is no longer homogeneous, no longer possesses a functional unity.

A terrible violence is loose in the United States, corrupting all interpersonal relationships. There are thieves and prostitutes and political and racial conflicts, and poverty, and overcrowding, and boom prosperity and sudden wealth in Europe too — but European society is not going to pieces. On the contrary, it is becoming more cohesive and coherent.

What is happening to America? This is the question all Europeans ask, and walking in the warm autumn evening under the full moon, in Stuttgart’s beautiful park, amongst the sparkling fountains, where the lovers stroll arm in arm, and the little children carry toy lanterns, you ask it too.

What is going wrong in America? Why should the quality of the public life of these people so obviously be continuously improving, while ours, with all our wealth, is deteriorating before our eyes? What have we done that we ought not to have done? What have we left undone that we should have done?

[October 23, 1966]



A Heavenly Country Inn

STETTEN (West Germany). — I am writing this in Stetten, a village, now a suburb, about 15 kilometers above Stuttgart, where the vineyards give way to the Swabian forests. It is not on many maps, and it isn’t very easy to find on those that do show it, and it is complicated, what with all the road building, to get to.

But if you visit Stuttgart for any length of time, get to it you should. It contains what is beyond question one of the best country inns I have ever stayed in, and I have stayed in hundreds — Hotel Hirsch.

The hotel part is brand new, the restaurant is old and famous to native Stuttgartners. It is operated by the family of Fritz Heim, father, mother, son — the chef — his wife and a couple of pretty waitresses who seem to be kin. The service is flawless and inoffensively personalized.

I never recommend places with private bath, but this is an exception. Usually the demand “private bath” means you will see only Americans.

Most important is the food and wine. They have their own hunting preserves, kill their own venison and catch their own trout. There are 10 different dishes on the venison menu alone, in wine with wild mushrooms, with ling berries, with sour cherries, with almond rice, in ginger beer with saffron rice, with cranberries, in ragout with peppers and mushrooms, and so on and on. Just think, you could stay 10 days, eat venison every day and never repeat.

The price? From $1.25 to $4. Most important, the meat is properly cured and won’t make you ill.

But you don’t have to eat deer. There are plenty of other dishes, averaging about half that price.

And then there is the wine. Stuttgartners drink the local soft, slightly petillant wines of low alcoholic content which are something like the Beaujolais drunk in and around Lyons — but not that you buy in bottles.

Wine like this simply doesn’t travel at all, and although the whites made mostly from Riesling grapes and the reds made from Trollinger are famous, you have to go to Stuttgart to drink them.

Many are at their best when only one year old. A Stettener Pfeffer Riesling 1965 drunk in sight of the vineyard, with wild trout cooked in the juice of unripe grapes and served with morel mushrooms ranks along with Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the dancing of Tamara Toumanova.

Maybe even better than any work of art is venison cooked with sour cherries and washed down with a quarter-liter cup of rusty red Stettener Moenchberg Trollinger, comparable only to the love affairs of dreams that never come true.

And just think, if you have business in Stuttgart, once you’ve figured out the route, you can drive to work. Pending that, the hotel will see you get there if you call from the city.

[October 25, 1966]



Poetry from a Computer

STUTTGART. — We went to call on Professor Max Bense at the Technical High School. He is one of the world leaders of the concrete poetry movement — the others are in Japan and Brazil.

You’d think, reading the poetry, that it was written by starving youths in disheveled pads. Indeed not. It is part of the general movement of exact esthetics, electronic music, computerized color organs and similar automated art which is growing throughout the world.

Its exponents occupy an anomalous position between the writers, artists and musicians of other schools, and the technicians and scientists. Neither group takes them very seriously, but they take themselves with deep draughts of earnest solemnity. They really believe that soon they will be able to feed a computer a program of metaphor clusters and personal relationships and it will buzz and blink and come up with Aeschylus or Sappho, only better.

I suppose, as the machine’s built-in obsolescence takes over, it will come up with Oscar Wilde — transistorized.

All this stuff is very interesting, but except for some electronic music, it is as primitive as the first chipped pebbles of Eolithic Man.

The sensible experimenters in the field are the ones who know this. The others are cranks. Many of them have no interest in literature or the arts as such — all that, they’re sure, will soon be forgotten, once their miniature circuits begin to buzz.

Professor Bense was quick to point out that, once perfected, the machines of exact esthetics are simply tools and depend as much on intuition and unanalyzable factors in the programmer as brushes depend on painters.

Most of the poetry struck me as pretty simple-minded, of the sort anybody could do once he caught on, like:


But there were pages and pages of little hieroglyphs, where the computer had traced a series of evolving “most satisfying” relationships, in Golden Section rectangles, rather like Mayan glyphs, which were in fact interesting enough to read, like a mysterious book of magic in an unknown language, at least for a couple pages until your attention tired.

[October 27, 1966]




MUNICH. — After traveling about in northern and Rhineland Germany, where often you feel that most of the people have returned, not to the Germany of the days before Hitler, but to the days of the Kaiser, now we are back in the contemporary world, in what Toynbee calls the Western oikumene, and what I call the World Ill.

In the café on the corner hang the bug-eyed paintings of that world-famous Munchener, Herr Doktor Keane — honest! As you walk in the English Gardens, a park astonishingly like Golden Gate Park, aggressive women and shy men roll their eyes at you.

In the little rotunda a wandering rock group are singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “I Was Born a Hundred Thousand Years Ago,” and a number by the Mamas and the Papas.

As I come up, the chubby blonde collecting the money says, “Hi, Rexroth.” Although they sing absolutely without accent, I discover that their English is limited to “How’s Jack?”, “How’s Allen?” and “Wow!” The word Ferlinghetti, however, they pronounce in perfect Italian, so at first I don’t recognize it.

Munich is the favorite city of most Americans, and Germans look on it as an outpost on an imaginary extension of the Mediterranean. It is not at all the city Americans who have never seen it imagine it to be — built of outsize cuckoo-clock architecture and populated by Wagnerian sopranos and Captain Katzenjammers in dirndls and lederhosen.

That Bavaria is gone forever, except where a few villages keep up a masquerade for tourism.

In the first place, Munich is incredibly busy. The roundabout in the former city center — in front of the railroad station — the Stachus, has the heaviest automobile traffic in all Europe. Since it is all torn up for a new subway, if you reach it at the height of the rush hour, as we did, you don’t have any doubt but what indeed it is the heaviest traffic in all the world — no heavier would be possible.

Yet in we came, around we whizzed and off we went at right angles with no strain or fuss, though I must admit the first sight of it made my hair stand on end.

Busy as it is, Munich is also more relaxed and relaxing than any other large German city except Stuttgart and Berlin. The pressures of New York, Paris or London seem to dissolve in the foggy air — just like San Francisco. It is also conspicuously rich and elegant, with solid streets of grande luxe living, like Fifth Avenue in the old days, a more massive, unbroken display of fashionable shops, restaurants, hotels, galleries, than all but a small section of Paris.

It is a Bohemian city with a large student population and many artists and writers, from all over Germany, who live there by choice. In other words, it is very like San Francisco. Even the architecture seems as much Italian as German.

We are living in the Pension Erna Morena, formerly the villa of a famous actress, now operated by her daughter. It sits back at the end of a blind alley, off Kaulbachstrasse, behind the Ludwig Church, in its own garden. It is one of the very few places in Munich coded in the Varta hotel guide with a little man in a nightcap, meaning “exceptionally quiet.”

The rooms are immense and furnished with antiques. The effect is a bit like living in a museum of what Harper’s Bazaar calls “worn elegance.”

No, there are few or no private baths. Down the street and around the corner is Restaurant Halali, the most moderately priced of Munich’s more famous restaurants, where you can get luncheon for a dollar, drinks extra, or a venison dinner with wine, soup, salad, dessert, coffee and Asbach brandy for about $4.50.

Life can be very good in Munich, maybe as good as in San Francisco. Certainly the city seems to be absorbing the great changes taking place in modern society better than any American city.

The streets may be all torn up, but in a year or so they won’t be, and there isn’t any culture crisis. There is opera, symphony, ballet, four state theaters, chamber music, jazz, rock dances, Dixieland and folk concerts.

Nobody is going bankrupt or leaving for Lincoln Center, and nobody proposes to destroy the English Gardens with an autobahn or sell off the forest parks and get them on the tax rate.

[October 30, 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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