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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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

 

 

December 1961

An Age of Inoffensiveness
Postcolonial Problems
Personal and Municipal Responsibility
Mandarin Ethics
Patronage, Personal or Governmental
General Strike for Peace?
Christmas Events
“Don’t Do as I Do . . .”
The Holidays We Need

 

 


 

An Age of Inoffensiveness


Dropped into the Purple Onion to idle away a while. It’s a good show. The Goldcoast Singers I’ve already written up. They are certainly smooth and witty — I think the right word would be “natty,” which is nicer than “nifty.” Better bred anyway.

Ketty Lester is a pleasure and a very interesting contrast to Ada Moore down the street. Miss Lester is younger and still shopping around for a thoroughly individual style. Sometimes this gives her the tone of an impersonator, but she does it well and she’s full of talent.

T.C. Jones is one of the last of the great female impersonators. Where indeed are the roses and lilies of yesterday? Julian Eltinge, Bert Savoy, Carol Norman, the Creole Fashion Plate, où sont les neiges d’antan? Who could ever forget Bert’s hilarious trip up the Evil Tower with Marge in Paris, France? Old Savoy records are amongst the higher priced collectors’ items today.

Who remembers Francis Renault, perennial headliner at Finocchio’s, who in his palmiest days once by an editor’s mistake got on a national magazine as a cover girl?

Julian Eltinge was a family friend and I remember visiting the location where he was playing the good sheriff who disguised himself as an eastern actress to catch the bad rustlers.

Most of the boys in the business nowadays are pretty dreary. You’ve got to hand it to T.C. Jones, he really works and turns out real entertainment and real acting, but born too late for Palace Time or the Follies.

The old impersonators were bawdy in an inside job sort of way. I suppose what has happened is that the organized pressure groups have taken after them as they have after everything else in show business. “Sir, how dare you make a mock of an inoffensive section of the populace that includes some of our finest writers, artists, actors and professional men? Sir, we will no longer buy your soap.”

Nowadays, if you are a funnyman naturally endowed with a Jewish or Irish accent you have to go to a voice coach and get rid of it. Negro comics have vanished, to be replaced by Dick Gregory’s self-conscious sociological satire. Nurses cannot be represented as poisoning their patients, nor can undertakers appear with lugubrious demeanor.

There’s nobody left but the Sicks. That of course is what is wrong with them. They are there by reaction, occupying a vacuum created by the ironing out of all bumps of diversity in that awful flickering box.

The other evening I had a visit from the editor of a national magazine. Organized pressure for tame conformity was beginning to worry him. As I have remarked in this column, the American public is beginning to get tired of flaccidity and placidity. A few years ago Madison Avenue discovered that “dissent was the hottest commodity along The Street.” Then what happened? The lunatic Right organized itself as a highly efficient pressure group.

The minute you print a controversial article on a subject which has nothing to do with the Red Menace, but on questions that involve the essence of the “American Way of Life” these people are so anxious to defend, you become subject to systematic intimidation.

Minority rights, organized labor, civil liberties, capital punishment, the restlessness of youth, the narcotics problem, even the accepted practice of health insurance or mental hygiene — these are all hot subjects.

Advertisers are written to, and not only advertisers; these boys and girls know the very account executives in the advertising agencies that handle the special accounts and they are subject to the same intimidation.

True, old hands in the game, the biggest agencies dealing with the biggest accounts laugh this stuff off. But everybody is not old and big and wise. One letter can mean the loss of a good many thousand dollars if it reaches somebody who panics easily.

As the President pointed out recently, this onslaught is not directed against those who advocate policies identified with Communism or even the native Left, but against, in politics, what might be called the liberal Conservatives, and in cultural activities, against all but the dullest conformity.

I think the world was better when Senator Borah, William Jennings Bryan, Abie Kabibble, the Two Black Crows, Eugene V. Debs, burlesque shows, Bert Savoy and Mr. Dooley were all at large in the land, each raising his special brand of commotion. It was certainly livelier.

Let a hundred flowers bloom, say I, and if that be subversion, make the most of it.

[December 3, 1961]

 


 

Postcolonial Problems


I am going to say something outrageously heretical. I wonder if liberation is always and without question a good thing?

Years ago, before the Other War and before the Bolsheviks had got everything translated into double talk, the Socialist movement had a lengthy, full-dress discussion of imperialism. Was it good? Bad? Indifferent? Did it advance the good society of the future or retard it? Were the leaders of colonial revolutions and national liberation movements natural allies of the progressive forces of the imperialist countries, or were they essentially reactionary?

Now the remarkable thing about this discussion is that the Left of those days were in favor of imperialism and the right were against it.

Lenin’s Imperialism is in fact a wholesale crib from the work of a mild right-wing British Socialist, too mild in fact to even be much of a Fabian. What Lenin did was to point out not the justice of the anti-imperialist struggle, but its utility to a party of conspirators struggling for power. His thesis put simply is, “Any stick is good enough to beat a dog with.”

The argument that the exploitation of colonies solves the economic contradictions of capitalism had been disproven before he ever uttered it, and not by bourgeois economists, but by Marxist theoreticians and by simple statistics. Colonies are enormously expensive and troublesome, even dangerous, to the upper classes in the ruling country — except for a tiny minority.

For better or worse those old arguments are dead, settled once and for all by history. Since the Russian revolution the most powerful instrument of Bolshevism has been, not the working class of the industrial nations, but the national and colonial revolt that has spread with ever mounting intensity over all the old colonial world.

Since World War II the traditional colonial powers have struggled themselves — to outgrow old habits and to learn to outbid the Russian in promises of freedom and aid. I don’t think they can do anything else. It is too late to change; we are all caught in the trap of history.

But is this policy an unqualified success, either for us “imperialists” or for the inhabitants of the colonial countries?

“Of course they can have their freedom when they are ready for it. We are just preparing them for democracy.” This has always been considered the ultimate in hypocrisy. How about it? The Congo, Indo-China — around the corner lies “freedom” for the inhabitants of Angola and Mozambique.

Maybe there are better ways of doing this. Freedom is not a bribe, something you throw up for grabs just to get the boys on our side.

Certainly this is the most important international problem of our time. But if the Americans and the Russians continue to look on it as a poker game in which all the cards are wild, we may pull the house down around our ears.

[December 6, 1961]

 


 

Personal and Municipal Responsibility


During the past week there has been considerable editorial discussion of municipal responsibility. As society becomes more complicated and depersonalized, ever widening areas of life drop out of limited and immediate personal contexts and either go to waste or have to be taken over by the State.

The crisis in the Actor’s Workshop, the absolute necessity for an intensive and extensive youth program — widely separate as they may seem, these are two aspects of one problem: the decay of direct responsibility.

Some time ago I was on a panel discussion with one of the White House advisors. I said, “Wait, do you realize that an appreciable percentage of the youth of America, if they could have listened to this seminar for the last week, would say that we were all frauds and liars and hypocrites? I have no basic disagreement with you, but I think we are ignoring the fact that all over the world countless young people reject our whole universe of discourse out of hand as pure fake. Ours — and Khrushchev’s as well.”

“I don’t buy that,” said he, and proceeded to tell us all about the fine, up-and-coming youngsters at Harvard, Radcliffe and MIT. I saw I was getting nowhere and dried up.

But it is a fact. Conant of Harvard recognized it even if Walt Rostow didn’t. There is a worldwide groundswell of trouble rising. Millions of youth simply do not believe a word of the code of the society of adults in which they are being asked to participate.

This is not political; would it were, then it would be concrete and could be dealt with. It is not even moral, except in a rather remote sense. It is a psychic alienation, a true “schism in the soul.” J.D. Salinger’s hero in The Catcher in the Rye is not a switchblade-toting slum gangster. He is a boy at a fashionable prep school. Yet to him the values of the society he must soon enter are all simply phony.

By now it is sufficiently obvious what has caused this. It is not poverty and slums, except where, as in Harlem, life is so awful as to be near unlivable. As a matter of fact, delinquency rates are skyrocketing in exurbia in the midst of the Opulent Life. It is the breakdown of the family, and within the family the collapse of all structures of — not “authority,” a word of scorn in our permissive age — but of responsibility.

The primary function of the family is to teach the basic patterns of what fashionable jargon calls “interpersonal relations.” Here, whether in the Long House of the Iroquois, the polyandrous family of Tibet, the harems of Arabia, or the putatively monogamous family in Marin or Westchester Counties, are learned the skills of dealing with people, of resolving tensions, of natural divisions of labor and function, of loyalty, honesty, and ultimately, of course, love.

Within the stable family there takes place a constant flow and interchange of organic meaning — this is what life is “about.” When this pattern is shattered, life loses the source of its meanings.

Faced with this situation in modern life it is easy to say, “We must rehabilitate the sterling virtues and clear duties of our grandparents.” Alas, this we cannot do. The terrible fact is that responsibility has been abandoned on the doorstep of society.

The only kind of authority left for millions is delegated authority, and even it has been delegated by default. So for better or worse, although no sane man believes that a committee can take the place of a parent, or a Youth Center the place of a happy home, we have to do the best we can.

Maybe we are all sliding into a jet-propelled lucite incubator, operated by voting levers and tax receipts, but so it is. I abominate shifted responsibility and delegated authority. But it is that or perish; nothing else is available.

If people won’t support a vitally creative theater as responsible individuals, maybe they will as a collectivity.

Is a social worker or a recreation director a loving mother or father? But who is going to babysit with the bobby soxers when mother and father are off getting drunk or developing their personalities?

[December 10, 1961]

 


 

Mandarin Ethics


To pick up where I left off last week, I am only too well aware of the hypocrisy of those who talk about “freedom, not license” or “freedom must be earned.” Statements like this are platitudes and, like most platitudes, they are usually used dishonestly. But this does not mean that they are dishonest statements.

Alas, the terrible thing about almost all platitudes is that they are only too true. That’s what makes them platitudes. The dishonesty lies in the people who mouth them for nefarious purposes.

To be free means to be able to act autonomously, to have a significant, if small measure of self-determination. Those whose lives are determined by others or by accident are not free.

Freedom is not a good in itself, but a condition out of which good arises. In the sense of moral good, it is a necessary condition.

Acts which are not the result of free choice are not moral acts, however good they may be socially, for oneself or others.

Furthermore, throughout most of history only a tiny minority have had any freedom at all.

The privileges of the privileged classes were various small areas of freedom in conduct which, over thousands of years, gradually grew into a sort of system. Courtiers and priests worried about rights and duties and honor and virtue. The king — Pharaoh or ruler of France — was bound by ritual, mystery and authority. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of the population worked hard, lived nastily and died young. Morality was not for them, much less freedom. What their betters governed their own conduct by, we call a “mandarin ethic.”

What has happened in the world is that this mandarin ethic, which only prevailed in England after 1680 and in France after 1750 and then only in extremely limited circles — in France only in the court and a few salons — has now spread to the banks of the Congo and the slums of Baghdad.

We, the mandarins of Western civilization, have taken the word freedom, set it afire and handed it to almost two billion people who have no conception of its meaning.

Freedom from white supremacy means the right to race yachts in San Francisco Bay. In The Congo, however, it seems to means the right to eat Italian soldiers in the streets. Even in civilized Uganda there is a struggle to keep it from meaning the right of unbridled land abuse and wholesale destruction of wildlife.

We, the responsible classes of the civilized countries, seem to interpret our freedom as the right to use these peoples the way viciously quarreling parents exploit their children against each other. We had better wake up to the fact that we are only free to respect, nurture and cherish those whom destiny has delivered into our hands.

How? God knows. League of Nations mandates, United Nations trusteeships, neither have worked. But here is one place we’d better find a modus vivendi.

If we don’t find a method of living, we’ll be presented with a method of dying.

[December 13, 1961]

 


 

Patronage, Personal or Governmental


Since I wrote about the problems of the Actor’s Workshop a congressional committee has been here, heard testimony on the plight of the performing arts, and gone. Agitation to use some of the hotel tax money for the arts is growing. Public opinion is being mobilized.

I really suspect that a Secretary of Fine Arts or Culture or some such title is a scheme dear to the hearts of the Kennedy family, especially and obviously the women thereof, and I imagine, one way or the other, they’ll get what they want before big brother goes out of office.

The thing that surprises me is the way the artists themselves agitate so wholeheartedly and uncritically for State support.

When government supports something it never supports it as a pedestal holds up a statue; it always and of necessity insists on some measure of control. All too often it holds up an interest or an activity the way people are held up on dark streets.

There may be no other solution for the arts in our intensely commercial society. But it is folly to embrace this as a solution unqualifiedly good. This is, for sure, one place where “politics is the art of choosing the lesser evil.”

How lesser is it in fact? We all know the boys that hang around the bars by the courthouse. There are few of them I would care to know socially under any circumstances.

I have an arrangement with Government. I let it alone and it lets me alone as long as I don’t cheat on the annual payoff. I obey all laws scrupulously because I don’t enjoy the type of interpersonal relationships you get into if you don’t.

I have worked out this technique of getting along with Power in two moderately civilized cities, San Francisco and New York — and in Chicago. (It occurs to me that I eat in the Reform Club and know a fair number of MPs socially in London — there must be some difference.) I may be in the dock tomorrow, but so far things are working out pretty good.

I shudder to think what would be my fate as a poet, painter, playwright, critic, or even a columnist on a powerful newspaper if it were entrusted to the tender mercies of the boys who hang around the bars by the courthouse in Fargo, Cody, Fort Dodge and Wilkes-Barre.

As Cromwell said, so I say to my colleagues so eager to deliver themselves into the hands of the duly constituted authority, “Gentlemen, by the bowels of Shakespeare, I beseech you. Bethink you that you may be mistaken.”

There is probably nothing else to do, but why pretend it is going to be nice? Furthermore, even if all sorts of liberties are built into a state-supported arts programs, time passes. What men have written they can strike out. Contracts are all, always repudiated by time.

As we move deeper and deeper into the mass society that lies ahead of us, I don’t think there is much doubt but that our culture will become more and more conformist and stereotyped. Sooner of later we too will have our Zhdanovchinas — our bureaucrats who will lay down the law to elderly lady poets and historical novelists.

It is remarkable that San Francisco has come as far as it has, considering the bitter fact that there is almost no large-scale patronage in the city’s past.

There is no point in naming names. One of the largest patrons of the arts and other community interests never lived here as a grown man. The biggest patron of music was shockingly ignorant of and actively uninterested in the other arts. Huge endowments like the Morgan or Mellon bequests — or even the Ryersons of the Lorillards in New York and Chicago — just never happened here.

In the palmy days of patronage nobody knew enough about art. And, as the son of the city’s best-known patron once pointed out to me, “We just don’t have that kind of money. By DuPont or Rockefeller standards, we are all lower middle class.”

I just made a phone call. Alan Mandell of the Actor’s Workshop said, “As of last night we needed $16,000.” I know 50 people who could each write a check for that sum and never miss it. But it doesn’t look as though they are going to. So it’s ordinary people of the real “lower middle class” like you and me — or the politicians.

[December 17, 1961]

 


 

General Strike for Peace?


Christmas will soon be here and this is the time for columns on Peace on Earth and all that sort of thing. Amongst my mail in recent weeks there has shown up a number of moving appeals for a worldwide general strike for peace.

This excellent notion emanates from a small circle of New York intellectuals who practically everyone else in the country would think were about as far out as it is possible to be. Some of them are connected with the Living Theater. If the ambiguous and ironic Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance at the Actor’s Workshop led to accusations of Reds in the wainscoting — what would such critics make of so insolent an activity as the advocacy of a general strike?

Let me say right off, I think it is a simply marvelous idea. I think there would never be another war if next month everybody would stop work until the heads of states got together and kissed and made up, Americans and Russians, Israelis and Egyptians, Belgians and Congolese, French and Algerians, white and black Southerners, left-wing Democrats and Birchers, absolutely everybody down to the Society of Eastern Artists and the Abstract Expressionists and Turk Murphy and Ornette Coleman.

What is the point of all this hostility? It doesn’t do anybody a bit of good. It only makes things worse. Let’s all just stop it, as of Jan. 1, 1962.

It seems to me people have been advocating something like this for some time. I remember a man called Buddha. He had the idea quite a while ago. And Christmas, that has something or other to do with the same subject, if I recollect rightly.

How simple it is to cut straight through to the heart of the matter and just say, “Stop.”

But they won’t stop. Nobody in his senses believes that the hostility rampant in the world is going to evaporate overnight or over the next centuries, just in response to a moving appeal for peace of heart. Insecurity and fear and lack of self-respect are rooted deep in the human situation, and with them, their reflections in action — hate, anger, hostility, violence, the lack of respect for others.

“Job security” is something perhaps you can gain by striking. Self-security for the majority of a couple of billion people is not so easily come by.

As it says in the book, the hydrogen bomb is an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual reality, and the reality is harder to get rid of than the outward sign. A few Greenwich Village cocktail waitresses won’t show up for work one day. A few off-Broadway actors will take the day off. A few idealistic bohemians, already as outside society as they can be, will ignore the squares for a day.

The Russians and Americans, the Israelis and Egyptians, the blacks and whites, will all still be there. What a pity we can’t write a leaflet that will make them all love one another.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” Nineteen hundred and sixty-one years. Who listens?

[December 20, 1961]

 


 

Christmas Events


Christmas Eve. There have been all sorts of things happening I could write about.

My daughter Mary has a small role in the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. For me this is the biggest thing of the season. It is terribly important to a parent, the first time your child appears on a genuine stage. Nine years we’ve been going to the Christmas Ballet. I’m sure she knows every step and wiggle of the choreography of both Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker.

I wonder why nobody has ever written a Christmas Pastorale as a ballet? One of the great joys of the south of France is the Provençal Pastorale Maurel, with all the occupations and conditions of man on pilgrimage to the crèche. It would really make a splendid ballet with very little adapting.

We used to envy Mark Schorer as we watched, year by year, his daughter Suki grow up in the ballet company. Now the process has begun for us. Sometimes I wonder. It is certainly her choice of a career, not mine. There is only one harder job than a ballerina, and that’s a combination counterman and fry cook in a busy all-night restaurant. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

Chamber music again last Monday at the Hall of Flowers. The place was jam packed and the music was exquisite. The beautiful Hindemith of the first night still lingers in my head, and this time there was a hilarious Prokofiev quintet. Prokofiev is always at his best when he is having a jeu d’esprit. I suppose he is, if possible, a greater comic musician than Poulenc. Gaiety in music, especially chamber music, is not easily come by.

Next concert, on Monday, Jan. 15, is the San Francisco Woodwind Ensemble in a most imaginative program. I’ve never heard anything on it; in fact most of the selections I’ve never even heard of.

Openings of San Francisco’s Burning at the Playhouse and Beckett at the Actor’s Workshop — these will have to wait until I’m back from New York, though you can take it from me they are both well worth seeing.

Henry Cowell being performed at the San Francisco Symphony. One by one us home town boys get there. How little a time ago it seems I met Henry at the New Music Society, a meeting in the old studio building at Franklin and Sutter, long since torn down. And now we are both getting elderly and successful.

I for one don’t notice much difference; things just seem to cost a lot more.

* * *

A busy, busy week. The children have seen all the windows and all the Santa Clauses and had a tour of Podesta and Baldocchi’s. All the shopping is done. All the presents have been mailed or put under the tree. We’ve had a party. We’ve read Dickens’s Christmas Carol and Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen.”

I know. Lots of my friends think I am sentimental. They think Christmas is a commercial orgy or the relic of a Sun Myth ceremony. They say, “How much do the teachings or the personality of Christ mean in this disorderly and acquisitive and proud world?”

Not much. How much did they mean in the reign of Tiberius the Emperor? It was the Saturnalia that night in Rome and as Mary went into labor, drunken Romans were rolling on their couches and gladiators were bleeding in the arena.

There is not much more peace in the world today, but perhaps there is just a little more good will. At least the rejoicing is supposed to be for the birth of a child in poverty and cold. At least here and there a man or woman stops for a moment and takes thought and realizes that there are redemptive forces, weak as a newborn child but destined to live in suffering and glory, forces that operate in the human heart and in the night-bound world.

[December 24, 1961]

 


 

“Don’t Do as I Do . . .”


Satyagraha — the Indian term for the art of nonviolence. Politics — the art of doing one thing and saying the opposite. Authority — don’t do as I do, do as I say. Hegel, and Marx after him, called it dialectics.

In the field of human activity, eventually all things stand on their heads. Another social thinker, Max Weber, pointed out that it is precisely the noblest ideas that are invoked to justify the basest ends . . . and baser than basest means.

Taking Goa away from the Portuguese is, in fact, no more reprehensible than most political actions. Those who have power use it. I doubt if the Goans will be any better or worse off. How would they have voted in a plebiscite that was absolutely unintimidated? Who knows?

On the other hand, it is India that opposes a plebiscite in the vastly more important Kashmir, where no one doubts the vote would have gone for Pakistan, at least until recently, when Pakistan began to have hard times.

What difference does it make to the black savages of New Guinea if yellow men or white men raid their villages once a year for tribute?

Like them, I am beginning to get bored with the high-flown professions of dubious characters out to do me good. Me for the lowly and oppressed.

Like most of my highbrow friends, I feel as though I had been debauched by 50 years of ideologues.

Like, man, I dig all that Zen and nonviolence and universal love and all the rest of the current noise, but like man, level with me — what are you really up to? That is too long to print on the scarlet banners of the downtrodden, but it is every bit as good a motto as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” which the French put on jails, or “Workers of the World Unite,” which the workers never minded.

In these years every Christmas there comes into my mind a phrase popular with our leading theologians: “Post-Christian Civilization.”

For years it was possible to live enclosed in a world of prayer meetings, young people’s groups, church suppers, or Easter Duties and bingo, or, for that matter, temples almost empty except on the High Holidays and bankrupting Bar Mitzvahs . . . and pretend that this was religion as a grand social force. It is no longer.

In the suburbs and exurbs, if not the slums, people are flooding back into the churches. What they have brought with them worries the clergy. There is a sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t belong there.

Let him who is without the lust for power cast the first stone at Pandit Nehru.

Our spiritual leaders puzzle over what has happened to us. They say, “No civilization was ever founded on more noble professions. No civilization ever observed them less.”

We are alike. The Indians wouldn’t hurt a cow or a monkey. The Japanese officers who planned Pearl Harbor were many of them Zen Buddhists. We have carved in stone: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Translated into deeds this seems to mean, to repeat, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

Especially you, Krishna Menon.

[December 27, 1961]

 


 

The Holidays We Need


“The Holidays.” How important they are to us, these 12 days at the turn of the year. Unless we are devout Catholics or Jews, they are just about all we have left from a past that was full of feasts and fasts.

Even if we are religious, our modern secular civilization rides over and almost obliterates our own special festivals. Easter in Naples or Pesach in Israel are quite different things than they are for anybody in New York or San Francisco.

Civic holidays are not the same thing. Washington’s Birthday, the Fourth of July, the 11th of November, Labor Day, they are all conceived in a different spirit and celebrated in a more mundane fashion.

The French have made a great popular, almost religious festival out of the 14th of July — but possibly because it happens to coincide with an ancient Gallic midsummer rite. In France, Toussaint, the feast of the dead, is likewise still marked by its mass folk character. This is due to several factors. It not only combines our Halloween and Memorial Day, but it is the old historical commemoration of the dead, in the Church as well as in pagan Gaul.

Then too, in a series of disastrous wars the French have lost an appalling number of people.

By and large the births of politicians, the founding of states, the launching of revolutions, the memory of wars do not lend themselves to mass devotion.

The once fashionable founder of the American literary cult that called itself “Humanism” — the Harvard professor Irving Babbitt — said a very smart thing. Back in the 20’s he, of all people, visited Russia and witnessed the elaborately staged celebration of the anniversary of the Revolution. He observed that it, as well as a lot of similar activities, melodramatized rather than signified life.

I think he may have been wrong in his specific criticism. I should think the 7th of November would mean a great deal to a devoted Bolshevik, and the general population at least enjoy a festivity. But it is certainly true that a holiday which is an expression of the deepest experience of the life of a people is the opposite of melodramatic.

Most of us have come to live lives all too much like those of a city editor or the organizer of a charity drive. Life is just one world-shaking crisis after another.

We don’t of all things need a day which only intensifies this state of affairs. What we do need are times when the rhythms of the sun and stars, and of our own lives, are allowed to shine forth with special intensity.

We are born, grow up, eat and drink, marry, have children, choose a vocation, die. In a well-ordered community these all-important events are marked with what are called Rites of Passage — the Catholic Church calls them sacraments. At the turning points of our personal lives we should pause and face the transcendental significance of being human.

As humans, we are tiny motes in the vast, unending revolutions of a universe so much larger than we are that its origin, destiny and meaning are inconceivable. In the rites of the changing of the year we face another wonder — the linking up of the incomprehensible significance of the sun and earth and stars with our terribly limited and terribly familiar meanings to ourselves — six feet, more or less, of bone and corpuscle that lasts only a very short while, but that has its own mysterious meaning.

So even the vestiges of days that recall us, as they recalled hundreds of generations of our ancestors, to the weakness and the power of our destiny are to be treasured.

When man no longer believes in his own transcendences, he sickens, grows crazy, dies, of tedium.

[December 31, 1961]

 


“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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