San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



March 1967

New Western Alliance?
The Condition of Our Survival
Time Catches Up to Spain
Gaudi’s Architecture
Contradictions in Spain
Undergrounds in Spain
Catalan Romanesque
Power Struggle in Italy
Lake Como
The Temptation to Remain in Italy




New Western Alliance?

EN ROUTE TO SPAIN. — The coming and going doesn’t stop. Podgorny to the Vatican, Kosygin to London, Bobby Kennedy all over, Wilson here, there and everywhere. No wonder China is in convulsions and Ulbricht is having running and barking fits.

There is every indication that Russia and America are moving toward a general settlement.

The casualties if general peace breaks out will be all those countries, or rather all those politicians, who have grown fat on exploitation of the Russian-American conflict, like de Gaulle or Tito; who have blackmailed both sides, like Nasser; or who simply would not exist but for the Cold War, like Ulbricht.

Chairman Mao is perfectly right — the old “imperialist” nations are drawing together into one great metropole, one international, technocratic economy of abundance.

Outside, and living on their sufferance and charity, will be the underdeveloped countries with their now hopelessly outmoded peasant economies. A favorite slogan of French fascism is “Occident!” — the defense of the West. You may object — but it is unavoidable.

Western civilization is drawing together in self-protection. It is not beleaguered, quite the opposite, it is being pecked, not to death, but to distraction, by ducks.

A favorite euphemism is “developing nations.” They are doing nothing of the sort — India, China, Black Africa — they are all going backwards. Things get worse, not better.

The most conspicuous reason is Malthusian — too many babies, too little food, but even if overpopulation were stopped and reversed (which would take 30 years to show any effects) the fundamental dilemma would remain unsolvable. Where is the money going to come from for the accumulation of capital? With us, it came over two centuries, with wholesale destruction of the peasant economy, ruthless exploitation of the working class, the enormous wealth of gold and silver from the Orient and the New World, the super-profits to be made on the frontiers.

None of these conditions exist anymore, nothing like them would be tolerated and there are not two centuries to work in.

Also, modern economy developed from the centers outward — Florence, London, Amsterdam, New York — from great capital markets. It is hard to visualize such development originating in scattered spots over a periphery stretching from Peking to Conakry, from minor centers all with declining reserves and a falling standard of living.

Decolonization is a proven failure. Western civilization is drawing together in the face of impending chaos. If it does not, it is doomed.

[March 2, 1967]




BARCELONA. — The warmest winter on record — the Pyrenees loomed up ahead of the plane as snowy and massive as the Sierra Nevada of California, but underneath Andorra lay, already green with spring.

One thing about Spain — it sure looks Spanish, even from 800 meters — yellow earth and pink rocks and gray-green forests and bright green fields. It’s a country where you know where you are.

We went to a clean, efficient little hotel — the Rialto, on Calle Fernando of the Ramblas in Barcelona, a welcome relief after our Paris pension. Two hundred and fifty pesetas (about $4, winter rate) for a double and a single, both with showers and w.c. Spain is not as cheap as it was, but it is still cheap.

And then to dinner in one of the great restaurants, the Agut d’Avignon on the Calle Avino. Again — a spectacular dinner for three for $10.

Barcelona has changed so much in the eight years since I’ve seen it that it’s hard to believe. It has been swept up in the “economic miracle” of the new Europe.

There are only a few shoeshine “boys” left and they’re old men and only a handful of tarts around the sailors’ cafés on the Calle Esendilles, and they are aging beauties. The disappearance of young women and boys who enter those two professions out of necessity is one of the first and most conspicuous signs of the new economy. But certainly they are minor signs — or are they? After all they mean that boys and girls no longer need to degrade themselves.

Barcelona in fact looks more prosperous than San Francisco. There are new buildings everywhere, prosperous shops full of every conceivable merchandise including heavy consumer goods on sale at special time-payment rates — there are even discount houses in a city where all prices seem discounts, although they’re nearly double what they were a few years ago. So is the population, now about three million.

Barcelona not only looks like California, it is like California — bursting at the seams with the new economy and with one million immigrants from the south.

Like Los Angeles, it has always been a hazy city under a cap of warm air trapped between hills. Now there are cars everywhere like an infestation of horrible tin vermin. You’d not be at all surprised to see streams of them crawling over the towers of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. (Give them time, they soon will be.) We happen to have encountered exceptionally clear weather. It is quite possible to see the surrounding hills through the smog, but they tell us it’s the first time in months.

At this time of year it is possible to avoid the worst of the tourism with which Spain is afflicted — the bargain-basement tourism which has meant 20 years of steady input of money and so has sparked an economic surge forward which is really only just now beginning.

This month tourists are at a low ebb, and the restaurants and museums are given over to the inhabitants. Those inhabitants certainly know how to live.

I don’t care much for Spanish culture proper, but the Catalans are amongst my favorite people. What they really are is the old Provençal civilization, overwhelmed in the south of France but still living on with the spirit of the Troubadours in Catalonia. The language, of course, is really a variety of Provençal.

Barcelona is like Helsinki — there is an electric charge of vital excitement in the air. Over a million people from the rest of Spain have emigrated to Catalonia in the last few years — but they seem to be assimilated and liberated, sometimes with startling effects, like San Francisco affected the young Allen Ginsberg.

Prosperity, consumer economy, new technology, Catalonian rambunctiousness, all combine to produce a profound social ferment, a yeasty digestion and transformation which penetrates to every aspect of the society with explosive results.

We arrived just as the university blew up in Berkeley fashion — but it’s all part of a general process — modern painting and music, Catalan poetry, social protest, smog and electric refrigerators.

[March 5, 1967]



The Condition of Our Survival

BARCELONA (Spain). — As Europe pushes toward unity the force of circumstances sweeps France along, in spite of all de Gaulle’s truculence. Recent events have shown that the general’s dream of general arbiter, above Europe, above the U.S., above Russia, above China, has failed to come true.

France has just barely managed to keep a “franc area” operative in Africa, but it has not been able to save several important former colonies from chronic disorder and economic decay, even at enormous and little-known expense. Nor has it preserved the old cultural economic community — a great French-speaking African union of states is now most unlikely — the strategic moment when France could play a catalytic role in resolving the Vietnam war and the overall Chinese-American conflict is now obviously even more unlikely to arrive.

The Europe of fatherlands stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals is certainly a living concept — but the moment it became possible of realization the initiative was seized by West Germany, acting with the encouragement of both Russia and the U.S.

An anti-American Europe under French hegemony also stands revealed as the creature of rhetoric and dreams. The economic center of gravity in Europe is the Rhine-Ruhr-Saar industrial metropole — the instrumentality of modern economic power is the technological expertise of “neo-capitalism” — the cybernetic age — and the bulk of the technocrats are in Germany and Britain.

The Cold War moved the center of Europe west for a few years, now it is moving back.

More important, Western civilization is drawing together upon itself. Only if united can it cope with the now insoluble problems and ever-growing chronic catastrophe of the former colonial world.

A century and a half of industrialization and imperialism threw the entire human race out of balance.

Only a worldwide united effort, involving the whole human race and led by those sections disciplined rather than demoralized by that century and a half, is going to save the species.

Most Americans, safe in their New Society, have no conception whatever of just how bad a fix we are all in. Cuba, Algeria, China, these countries are sliding backwards since their revolutions, just as inexorably as any South American dictatorship.

Haiti is at the limits of habitability — a couple more steps and the people will simply die in the streets.

It takes the combined efforts of the leading nations and a massive extra effort by the U.S. to keep India standing still.

The bright spots around the middle of the globe are few and far between and even those can go out in a week — as witness Nigeria.

The Occident is already a garrison society, besieged by the immense disorder it has created.

It is our moral responsibility to unite to cure the sickness we have engendered — but it is also the condition of our own survival.

[March 7, 1967]



Time Catches Up to Spain

BARCELONA (Spain). — Something about this trip — every place we go news breaks out. There was even a political ferment in Finland when we were there, but hard to explain to American readers — and then Finland was such wonderful news in itself.

Best place we’ve been, next to Helsinki, has been Barcelona. That Catalonia is a tourist’s delight is scarcely news — what met us here was “hard news” of the hardest kind.

As Spain moves into the economy of modern Europe, as the regime of the Generalissimo comes to the end of its old mandate, as the generation of the civil war dies out, as the new economy both creates new conditions of life and new desires, and demands new education for totally new classes and professions — the system that has worked for a generation is breaking down.

At the end of the civil war, time came to a stop, Spanish life was frozen while society recovered from its wounds.

Now time has caught up with Spain. Swept into the new technology, the old mechanisms and formulas are shattered and in a cybernetic age time accelerates — each successive moment goes by just a little faster than the preceding one. New objectives, new cadres. A city like Barcelona must raise up an entire class of new professionals to cope with its ever-expanding economy.

So the most ominous cracks and rumbles appear first in education, second amongst skilled workers — and third, amongst the still tiny minority of leaders in the Spanish Church who are trying to pull that anachronistic institution into the 20th century.

Students go on strike. Workers go on strike. Priests and monks demonstrate. The university is closed. Thirty more professors are expelled along with an unknown number of students. When the school reopens everyone will have to pay a new tuition to complete the term and submit to new loyalty oaths and political processing. The workers are jailed but the strikes go on. The clergy are beaten and jailed. Some are expelled from their monastery; others are defended by their superiors.

The issues bear little resemblance to those agitating the University of California, even though the Barcelona spokesmen for Franco dearly love to quote Ronald Reagan, who is the hero of the old guard of the academic Falange.

The issues are the bare minimum of intellectual and social freedom necessary to ensure an education with any relevance to modern life. No educational institution in America except possibly certain seminaries has so few ordinary liberties — the repression of the regime is still close to absolute.

Furthermore, it is all done in the name of an organization which is no longer alive — the Falange — the Fascist Party to which all must swear an oath of loyalty. But the Falange is not an existing power, only a withering mummy.

The real powers in Spain are the United States, the Spanish army, the great landowners and industrialists, the old hierarchy of the Church and the religious orders, the new middle-class Catholic mass organization Opus Dei and the new industrialists of the electronic age.

Only the last two have any conception of the world of 1967 in which Spain is called to play a role. However, they have, if not the greatest concentration of power — certainly the balance of power. The trouble is, balance of power is not a familiar concept in this land of irreconcilables.

[March 9, 1967]



Gaudi’s Architecture

BARCELONA (Spain). — Once a year just before Lent they have a rally of antique cars at the town of Sitges on the “Golden Shore” south of Barcelona about 30 miles. We went down and had a fine time. Compared with the Costa Brava to the north, Sitges is relatively unspoiled.

I wouldn’t want to be there in July and August, but out of season it is the most attractive town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The reason is simple — Sitges started out in the last century as a fishing village where artists and writers from Barcelona went for vacation. Several of them settled there, notably the fine painter Rusiñol.

Later an American millionaire made his home there and hired the architect Utrillo, nominal father of the painter, to restore and reconstruct the heart of the town. This is a remarkable job — much like what would happen if Richardson had rebuilt Chicago, or Burnham and Willis Polk had rebuilt San Francisco, but on a much smaller scale. That is, the Spanish village architecture has been assimilated to a kind of cleaned-up Romanesque (like Abadie in France) modified by Art Nouveau.

From this nucleus the city fathers have spread the same ideas through the old town, which is immaculately clean and beautifully restored — without taking on the “lath and plaster Spanish” look of California model towns of the last generation. (Would that even they still existed!) Beyond the old town the new villas and hotels have been carefully controlled and coordinated into a garden city with a gracious waterfront, certainly as profitable as any other, but not commercial in appearance.

The result, though far from perfect, is an example of how good a beach resort can be made if people care — certainly a startling contrast with Saint-Tropez.

There are greedy, avaricious, vulgar Spaniards, just as well as Americans — how does a small community keep them under control? The answer in Sitges seems to be a head start with a liberal endowment, and from then on eternal vigilance.

Back to Barcelona — next day — we spent seeing the Gaudis. In case you don’t know, the Catalan architect Gaudi is one of the greatest artists of the Art Nouveau period — as great as the Austrian painter Klimt or the composer Busoni, second only to our own architect Sullivan, or to Debussy — the greatest Art Nouveauer of them all.

Gaudi’s buildings transcend Art Nouveau and really create a world of their own, as fantastic as an expressionist movie or the dream buildings and tunnels and towers of an amusement park.

Thirty-five years ago I was one of the few Amigos di Gaudi outside Barcelona — now he is frightfully fashionable and the city’s principal tourist asset.

We saw the city apartment houses — the most famous is being reconstructed at the moment and the pension is closed — then drove out of town to the Colonia Guell (a model village built for one of the Guell tile factories) with a grotto-like church that rises out of a little hillside like a complex mushroom.

There was a wedding in progress and unlike most modernist churches, it stood the test of use — it was a great work of architecture highly personal and yet a living church.

Back to the city to the Sagrada Familia, which tourists call a cathedral — it is not. The present Amigos di Gaudi are completing the church according to his preliminary drawings and models. Gaudi was only able to finish the west portal and towers.

There’s been a lot of fuss about this and a manifesto against it signed by Le Corbusier. I do not agree. As long as the Sagrada Familia was just an empty portal it was not architecture, much less a living church — but a curiosity like those pseudo-Gothic ruins the 18th-century English loved to build in their country estates. Architecture is not sculpture — it needs people using it. Gaudi worked on the job, trowel in hand, constantly altering his original conceptions — and after all even Chartres is in several different styles.

[March 12, 1967]



Contradictions in Spain

BARCELONA (Spain). The changes in Russia and the Iron Curtain countries have been characterized as the giving way of ideological regimes to the managerial society.

Mussolini’s Fascism was a primitive attempt to combine ideology and managerial organization — along with profoundly contradictory forces inherited from the past — into one corporative state.

It failed because it was absorbed by Nazism and because, before that, it was unable to develop its own genuine elite and administrative cadres with an adequate notion of what they were about — and real power. Power remained with the “old contradictory forces.”

Nazism of course had a kind of crackpot Hyde Park soapbox ideology. Salazar is very much an intellectual. So was Nkrumah.

The Spanish dictatorship is singularly undistinguished. It is the only totalitarian regime outside Latin America with no intellectual pretensions whatever.

The ideologue of Spanish fascism, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, was executed by the Republicans during the civil war. His program was characterized more by chivalric rhetoric than by ideology and with his death all creative thinking in the Falange stopped.

The “Movimento” became the titular guide and leader of post-civil war Spain — but its leadership was much like that of the Spanish hero El Cid, who rode at the head of his army in his last great battle, a corpse in armor strapped to his horse.

Furthermore, the enemy of the Falange is almost equally mummified. The regime in Spain is mostly against the French Revolution. Church and state and army are marshaled against the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while at the same time they guarantee greater laissez faire to the old capitalist class than Goldwater would permit in the U.S.

But the freedoms of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration are not meaningful to the new technological society. They want planification, not free enterprise with its disruption of boom-and-bust cycles. They want the freedom to reject unfruitful hypotheses as soon as they are outworn, freedom to say, “Einstein was wrong.”

The frontiers of scientific hypothesis are the matters of fact of the new technology. Laissez faire is for exploitation of the wheel, the gear, the lever, the inclined plane and the pulley. Freedom means something different to men who are applying plasma physics to daily life. A regime like the Spanish one is still locked in conflict with Galileo and the teachers of physics in the army academy doubtless think plasma physics is medication of the bloodstream.

This is the essence of the present, scarcely suppressed, Spanish conflict. The danger in Spain is that Spanish culture is what anthropologists call a “shame culture” — a society of irreconcilables in which refusal to admit difference is a matter of honor.

I am sure that Barcelona, the most civilized Spanish city, has 100,000 people who would die in the streets to prevent bullfights from being outlawed.

Such irreconcilability bodes ill for the day the lid of the Franco repression of contention is lifted.

[March 14, 1967]



Undergrounds in Spain

BARCELONA (Spain). The most significant thing about the Spanish underground is that, at least in Barcelona, it isn’t very far underground. The favorite sport in Barcelona restaurants seems to be having loud Marxist arguments. This is as true of the high cuisine ones as of the fishermen’s bodegas. It’s a bit like Greenwich Village in 1930.

I would say, after meeting quite a few people of all classes, that Barcelona politically is right back where it was before Franco ever left the Canary Islands. There is one great difference — the one million immigrants, mostly from the south and the impoverished sections of the highlands. Politically they seem to have been largely assimilated to the patterns of Catalonia. Many are convinced Catalan nationalists. They want their new home semi-independent of the old Spain they have left.

What other underground movements are there? The FAI, the old Iberian Anarchist Federation, still has a big following amongst the older types of workers — much less in the new industries. It has a well-organized underground apparatus based in Paris and Toulouse and operates across the border with impunity.

In the new industries the Communist Party is stronger, as it is amongst the urban employee class.

Before and during the first years of the Civil War the CP had no strength whatever in Spain. Its disastrous power in the last years of the war was due solely to Russian money, guns, terror, and the International Brigades.

Since then it has had the solidest base abroad and the least rash, most Machiavellian underground workers. And it has kept going an organized government-in-exile of sorts, often riven with murderous factionalism but never quite ceasing to be operative. And of course it has the prestige of the USSR. Communism therefore is far stronger today in Spain than it was in 1936.

Monarchist, Carlist, Liberal Republican, Social Democratic movements are not really underground and the vast Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is not just above ground. It, not the Falange, is the ruling power in the state.

A lot of nonsense has been written, Left and Right, about Opus Dei. It is not long on political theory, ideology or theology. In fact, it is a mass movement of Spanish Catholicism into the Catholicism of America of the first quarter of this century. In the Spanish context this is quite revolutionary; out of context, Opus Dei is not unlike the Knights of Columbus.

Behind or beneath Opus Dei there is a Left Catholic upsurge still confined to intellectual priests, seminarians, monks and professional and technical intelligentsia — young men who are demanding that Spanish Catholicism abandon superstition and authoritarianism, and wealth, and base itself on the evangelical following of Christ and the apostles.

They read French and German and Catholic radicals and they dare to bear witness, openly. So they can hardly be called an underground. If there will be anyone in a position to mediate the coming struggle for power it may well be the Catholic Left. Everybody else hates everybody else — to the death.

[March 16, 1967]



Catalan Romanesque

BARCELONA. — Barcelona may not be New York or Paris, but it has considerable to offer in the arts. It is one of those subsidiary capitals, like San Francisco, with proportionately greater activity than the main centers. Like San Francisco or Helsinki or Warsaw, it is also the radiating and concentrating point for a very special region — fiercely independent.

Barcelona is also the most modern, largest and most successful city in Spain and very much on the new frontier of the technological society.

In the last few years the dictatorship has greatly relaxed its antagonism to Catalan cultural autonomy and the Catalan language is once more legal and has its press and theater, the most vital in the city by far.

Unfortunately the best Catalan play while we were here was a light comedy which depended on a thorough grasp of the language — which I do not have.

We went to the opera and saw Granados’s Maria de Carmen, a semi-folkloristic short opera with charming music. It was none too well performed, even for the old “stand and deliver” school, and the lead singer was miscast and too light of voice.

The sets were unbelievable — something like those in small-town opera houses and stock companies in my boyhood in the Midwest. I am sure that when the opera was new, Granados objected to them as too old-fashioned and too vulgar.

But the music was very pretty and the whole thing was certainly Spanish enough to satisfy anybody on his first night in Spain.

The ballet that followed, also to Granados’s music, was something else. There certainly wasn’t anything modern about it — the taste was somewhat more up to date than the Kirov, but it was good taste of its kind, and the company was well trained and the choreography excellent — again, of its kind.

Catalan intellectuals put it down — presumably because it is not like Roland Petit or Merce Cunningham, but it is certainly, from a dancer’s point of view, an excellent and too little known company.

Next day to the Museum of Romanesque Art. This is one of the great experiences. Catalan Romanesque murals are famous, especially since the beautiful UNESCO book. Beautiful as it is, it doesn’t do them justice.

The rooms of the museum have been reconstructed to the proportions of each original church or chapel and the fragmentary paintings mounted in plain walls in the original relationships.

Although many come from small village churches, most are far less primitive and amateurish than you expect — but represent the fully developed Romanesque sense of form with its emotional distortions and sense of mystery.

The earliest ones are not unlike certain Coptic and Abyssinian paintings, not just pre-Christian but pre-pagan in religious sensibility. These artists were, you feel, descendants of the painters of the Altamira cave and the sculptor of the Lady of Elche. Critics say things like this about Etruscan painting — but I think the feeling is stronger in Catalan Romanesque.

The rooms are organized in a chronological circuit and you can watch the ancient sensibility — with for instance the four evangelists with Egyptian animal heads, St. John looking like Thoth and St. Mark like Zervan and all the bodies covered with hundreds of staring eyes — give way to the new Gothic spirit until finally the Virgin is as gracious and as personal as the Annunciation of Amiens, the vision of Ezekiel gives way to a human and humane girl mother.

[March 19, 1967]



Power Struggle in Italy

Every place I go I bring trouble — Erhard falls in Germany, Wilson freezes England, strikes rock Spain, the minute I show up. Now the Socialist-Christian Democrat coalition is in trouble in Italy and I’ve only just got here.

The trouble is the same as everywhere, conflict between deflationary pressures from the financial conservatives — and from the U.S. — and the demands of the working class for an ever-increasing share of the economy of abundance.

Socialism versus capitalism is an outworn explanation for this conflict. In Spain free enterprise is still unbridled and rampant, England, Italy, France, Sweden, Russia, grade across the spectrum in more or less that order — yet it is precisely in Russia and her vassal states that the struggle is most intense, although there the antithesis, inflation-deflation, is concealed in Marxist evasion — a socialist commonwealth could not possibly have inflation.

The first break in the Italian coalition came when a group of Socialist senators broke rank and voted against the government’s bill to control the wages of state insurance employees. Previous votes on the bill’s amendments had been presented as votes of confidence, but when the bill itself was defeated the Moro-Nenni cabinet did not resign. Instead the high commands of both parties went into huddles.

The Socialists came out with what amounted to an ultimatum: “We have no interest in staying in the government except to carry out the agreed-on program of social and economic reforms and defend the day-to-day interests of the workers and common people.”

This of course is what the British Labor Party says — but then, they are in sole power, so they can equate deflation with socialism and get away with it. Behind Moro stand financial conservatives, worried about Italy’s “overheated” economy.

Behind Nenni stand his rank and file — the most militant of any Social Democratic party in Europe, and behind them the Communists, the largest Communist organization outside Russia and China and the most progressive and unorthodox anywhere — unless you call, in the opposite sense, China that.

Nenni has tremendous leverage because if he were to re-enter a Popular Front movement with the Communists he would control Italy in short order — or precipitate civil conflict.

And Nenni and the Communists have both discovered that old guiding principle of Sam Gompers, “The slogan of the AFL is very simple: MORE!”

The workers and common people of whom Nenni speaks don’t care about inflation, in the long run its hurts only the fringe of the other classes who live on fixed incomes. Is the economy overheated? Fine! It keeps them warm. They believe that money and credit are just distributive devices and it is up to the financiers to see that they distribute — more. More refrigerators. More beefsteak. More Fiats. More social security.

How a coalition of antagonisms, more united with less, can endure, I don’t know, but politicians do, they can compromise anything.

[March 21, 1967]



Lake Como

MILAN (Italy). — Well, we certainly entered Italy right end to. An old friend of mine runs a most lavish villa for one of the foundations on Lake Como and had a car to meet us at the Milan airport. The villa lands occupy the entire peninsula at the turn of the lake, which in case you don’t know, is shaped like a Y with its stern pointed into the Alps.

It was once the villa of the younger Pliny, the great Roman letter writer — and its gardens still conform to his description. A fortified castle was built by the Lombards and lasted through the Middle Ages, commanding three routes into Italy.

Later it was a favorite haunt of Stendhal, who often stayed across the lake, took a boat over and walked on the wooded promontory with its romantically ruined castle and splendid Renaissance villa — probably with his somewhat florid and crazy Milanese adventuress mistress. He said he was happier there than anywhere else in all his troubled and eventful life. He saw Milan in the best years of Napoleon and returned to it long after the retreat from Moscow when Italy entered the dark night of reaction, from which it only now, after a hundred years of struggle, is breaking free.

It certainly is a paradise. My friend’s colleagues on the foundation call it his Shangri-La. I wonder how meaningful it is to the international conferences it houses today?

Walter Paepke thought that by setting the power elite down in the beauty of a Rocky Mountain valley and getting them to discuss the contemporary relevance of the great ideas of great bygone men he would civilized the capitalist system.

Maybe — people at the top of the power structure now entertain Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg — but few of them read Plato for pleasure.

The most conspicuous result of the Aspen program was that the Chamber of Commerce of what had been a deserted ghost town asked the foundation to evacuate the music school from the town because it was bad for business — the business being an immense ski brothel (which shocks even case-hardened habitués of Megève) and the Aspen Valley is filled with new rich who hate the foundation. Maybe their grandchildren will read Plato and listen to Milhaud.

We could only stay a day at Lake Como but it certainly gave us peace at heart, as my friend’s personal, if not foundation, hospitality gave us faith in man.

Why don’t the lakes of the Alps have this effect on the international power structure? Most of the skullduggery of world politics for hundreds of years has been planned on their shores. Anyway, they make a lovely setting for Joost’s Green Table ballet.

[March 23, 1967]



The Temptation to Remain in Italy

MILAN (Italy). — Why go anywhere else when there’s Italy? The first time in adult life I left Italy, over the Simplon, and looked back and saw the land where the pomegranate blooms and the nightingales sing, lying all gold in the afternoon, tears filled my eyes at the thought I might never see it again. But I did several times.

Now coming back once again, with gray hair, my temptation is to stay. Italy will still be beautiful — but someday I won’t be coming back. Why do I leave? What have I got elsewhere that isn’t better here?

Italy generates in me a steady state of exaltation, an abiding joy. Saints are supposed to feel that way. Certainly it is better than any drug. I can’t imagine any more paradisiacal entrance to a land full of paradises than the Bellegio peninsula on Lake Como.

White Alps, blue water, yellow and pink villas, and the hillside covered with Christmas roses under the cypresses and umbrella pines and violets and anemones and masque flowers beginning to come out, and all topped by a great ruined castle where the Lombards stood in vain against the Franks.

Then through the high foothills to Milan and a day of steady sightseeing, the great Brera Museum, St. Ambrogio, Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Cathedral and the four other churches.

Some of my favorite paintings are in the Brera — the Tintoretto Discovery of the Body of St. Mark, which with its companion piece in the Venice Academia, revolutionized my own concept of painting some 35 years ago.

The Piero della Francesca Virgin and Saints with an egg suspended over her head, a strange, entranced picture of a vision of creatures different from ordinary men, rapt away in another order of being, and the Luini frescoes, especially the reconstructed chapel.

So much modern taste has been formed by study of the Florentine painters. Their sculptured and colored figures set in boxes of deep space and distorted with an all-pervading mannerism have been congenial to the rigid classicism of the period from Cézanne to Surrealism.

Lombard painting has much to recommend it: an easy grace and sensuousness that goes back to the primitives, the contemporaries of Cimabue and Giotto.

And why is the Cenacolo of Leonardo the most successful of all the great set pieces of the Florentine High Renaissance? It is tattered and shattered and half obliterated, yet it still carries something that Michelangelo and Raphael lack.

The Last Judgment has nothing to do with Christianity — it is some special vision of Michelangelo’s uniquely tortured soul — and besides, it looks self-conscious and contrived.

Raphael’s School of Athens is certainly one of the purest and noblest utterances of man — but it verges on chemical purity and an inhuman nobility.

The Last Supper is a consummate dramatic statement by a man who had come late in life to that depth of understanding and universal sympathy which we think of as being peculiar to Sophocles and Shakespeare.

We do not, certainly, think of Leonardo, over most of his life, as being Christian at all. I doubt if he believed in a single sentence of the Nicene Creed — except “And was made man.”

That, of course, is what makes the painting so great — his penetration into the simple and devastating tragedy of one man amongst 12 other men, a penetration so acute that it restates the tragedy in terms in which human nature is transcended. And it is all so simply and unpretentiously done.

Here for once Leonardo knew that the greatest art is the concealment of art. Mathematicians have analyzed the positions of the little loaves of bread and the gestures of the hands and every other detail — the picture is more complex, more “abstract” than all the products of analytical cubism, but reproductions of it hang on thousands of walls with candles before them.

[March 26, 1967]




VENICE (Italy). — We arrived here at night in a sudden spell of bitter cold. The airline stewardesses simply deserted the passengers at the airport and they had to find their way to the autobus by themselves, then at the terminal and end of auto traffic at the Piazza Roma in Venice matters were even worse. There was no one in the airline building — just a lonely television talking to itself. No porters, two water taxis. No one at the hotel reservations desk.

Landing in Venice can be utterly confusing if you’ve never been there. We helped some people make connections and then lugged our luggage to the vaporetto (the water street car) and off we went up the Grand Canal in the darkness.

The hotel I have stayed at for years, the Casa Paganelli, was closed and we went to one nearby, the Albergo Savona. I can’t recommend this place too strongly. It is brand new in a city where almost nothing is new, well appointed, with wonderfully courteous and considerate management and help.

Winter rate, two rooms with bath, three meals a day, for the three of us was $20. Summer rates are higher, but the Savona is quite as good as a couple of first-class, much less second-class, Venice hotels I have stayed in.

I have never been in Venice at the height of the season. It must be a nightmare. It is lovely in October and May. But in winter it is truly extraordinary because it is given over to the Venetians, hardly a tourist to be seen away from the Piazza San Marco.

I saw all the sights alone — nobody in the Scuola San Rocco, nobody in the Ducal Palace, and both of them like refrigerators. It was wonderful weather really, brilliantly clear, cold, dry and windy, and Venice sparkled.

The number of pests crying “Gondola? Gondola?” or “You like see glass factory?” or offering to guide you to the Tintorettos or the brothels or just plain begging, was at a minimum. Venice is delightful for her Levantine culture but this Levantine fault is no longer good business.

Venice, above all other places, is not the place to arrive unannounced and unprepared. For people of modest means, I recommend the Savona and the Casa Paganelli, and for people who like British-style pensions the Culcino on the Zattere, in Ruskin’s old house.

Get full pension — Venice restaurants are not worth shopping about and you’ll have too much to see.

Take the airlines that deliver you by boat from the airport to the garden at San Marco.

[March 31, 1967]


“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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