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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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

 

 

January 1962

My Choice for Man of the Year
The French Crisis
Urban Deterioration
Some Excellent Plays in New York
The Bail System
Drawbacks of New York
Proposal for an Arts Council
Better Theater at Home
The Disoriented

 

 


 

My Choice for Man of the Year


This is the week a news weekly comes out with its Man of the Year on the cover. With few exceptions, this has always been a man of power, a politician, a general, somebody who, that year, “changed the course of history.”

I don’t know who they’re doing this year, but I for one am tired of all these characters and I wish they’d get out of my hair. Week after week, 52 weeks a year, I read those cover stories about furious busybodies who have made it. They rise at 5:00 a.m., take a brisk canter through Rock Creek Park, dictate 30 letters on their way to the office, employ 12 secretaries, belong to the boards of a hundred corporations, are directors of another hundred charities, make another hundred international calls daily, and take home a briefcase full of homework at midnight.

Once a year one gets the annual full-dress treatment. I wish they’d all go away.

I nominate for Man of the Year and every year, John Doe.

Every morning he gets a chance, he sleeps in. He doesn’t do any more work than just enough to keep the paycheck coming. Depending on his background he enjoys a good dish of corned beef and cabbage or a Poulet Neva with Johannisberg Schloss. In the evening he watches the rassles on television or relaxes at the opera. His wife has all the kitchen utilities she wants. His kids get decent grades in school. If he plays golf or skis he is not very good at it, but he has a good time. Every few weeks he and his wife entertain a few old friends. They talk about Jack Paar or the 49ers or the Theater of the Absurd or nuclear physics or whatever interests them, or they play bridge. Mostly they gossip. Most nights they go to bed early. They live unknown and die inconspicuously.

John and Mary Doe drive the social critics simply crazy. The Does think they are ambitious but they so obviously are not. They are, as they say, “interested only in security.” If everybody acted as they do the newspapers would be in an awful fix. There is no news in security.

We forget that almost everything we read, history in books or in the daily papers as well as in novels, all this is about an infinitesimal proportion of the human race. Churchill or Adenauer, the Brothers Karamazov or Tommy Manville, how many people act like this in actual fact? Who wants to?

In due course, maybe a couple of thousand years, all the makers of history are forgotten by everybody except a few scholars.

Tell me, straight off, who was the Emperor Wu, Thutmose the Second, Catiline, Talleyrand?

John Doe goes on, killing saber-tooth tigers or punching IBM machines. History is people, not personages. John Doe is history, he doesn’t have to make it.

He has my nomination, this year and every year.

[January 3, 1962]

 


 

The French Crisis


NEW YORK. — Sometimes I get to thinking that Walter Lippmann is running down in middle age and then he says something that reveals again the old independence of thought that he brought with him from the New Republic so long ago. In a sort of state of the world speech, summing up the year, he made some remarks with which I agree so heartily that I want simply to repeat and amplify what he said.

Trouble has been piling up for our side all over the world the last few years.

After the war the Americans built up a system of power alignments and alliances not unlike Napoleon’s “Continental System,” which was designed to preserve and protect a French-dominated European continent against Great Britain. Like Napoleon’s, the postwar “American System” has been collapsing due as much to its own internal contradictions and its anachronisms as to pressure from the Russians.

So far this collapse has not been accompanied with the disastrous consequences that met Napoleon. Scare propaganda to the contrary, no Waterloos loom on our horizons as yet.

In the public mind the hot spots in our troubled “Free World” are Berlin and Indochina. As a matter of fact I am inclined to think all the noise is due to the terrific propaganda buildup. This is a war of nerves which both sides have chosen pretty deliberately to enter. It is in many ways a contest or game in which, so far at least, certain elementary ground rules are being observed. Both sides know what they are doing.

Barring some disastrous accident or uncontrollable folly, brinkmanship will stop at the brink. Anyway — it is all out in the light of day and under control.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, out of sight, out of control, in an atmosphere of intrigue, blackmail, assassination and torture, France is on the verge of falling to pieces. The political methods of Bolivia or Paraguay are installed in the heart of civilized Europe.

Just at the moment the most sensational news is that “plastiques” — homemade bombs — are exploding in theaters showing Brigitte Bardot’s movies because she has refused to pay blackmail to the Secret Army Organization.

Translate this into American terms and it is easy to see how far the processes of social decay have gone. Imagine if some of those well-intentioned, misguided officers who have been in trouble recently for indoctrinating their troops with Birch Society propaganda were openly threatening the lives of Kim Novak and her fans — and, in addition, were of far higher rank and influence than in fact they are.

Whatever the merits of the position, Left, Right, or Center, this sort of activity is certainly symptomatic of a profound sickness of the body politic.

France, after all, is still one of the major European nations, even if she is no longer really a “Power.” If France collapses, and it is all too obvious even from de Gaulle’s year-end speech that the most optimistic prognosis is none too good, her collapse will create a kind of — not vacuum, but a whirlpool, a cyclone of chaos that might well involve all the world in a matter of hours.

The awful thing is that in France, in the heart of Europe, we are dealing with factors as uncontrollable and as unpredictable as those that are operating in the Congo. It would seem that the Russians and Americans by tacit agreement have isolated the Congo and are prepared to let the sickness work itself out. We can do this with the Congo, it is a long way away and the people involved aren’t “us.”

Paris, alas, is not on the banks of La Plata or the Congo. It is on the Seine, right in the midst of “us.” And the French are, so to speak, “us” only more so.

No wonder the General is gloomy and ambiguous. Politicians by and large gain fame and power by avoiding problems. If he can solve the unsolvable problems of his tormented country he will certainly have earned that niche in history he so obviously desires so passionately. If he can’t, I fear we are all going to find ourselves in a fix.

And now for a complete change of subject and a reminder of a happy event: Don’t forget the special concert of new American music from KPFA’s national radio awards competition Friday evening at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

[January 7, 1962]

 


 

Urban Deterioration


NEW YORK. — Across the country to New York in four hours flat. And in New York, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous words, it is easier to get somewhere crawling over the tops of the taxis than it is inside them.

One of America’s most astute social critics, my old friend Paul Goodman, proposes that all private automobile traffic be forbidden in the island of Manhattan except on evenings, Sundays and holidays.

This not a utopian proposal — one of these days it will almost certainly come to pass. Even so, only one small aspect of the problem of living in this monstrously inefficient city will have been solved.

Fragmentation, congestion, disorder, decay — New York is like a giant dinosaur whose biological mandate from evolution has run out. As biologists say of a species — overspecialization, proliferation, gigantism — and the organism becomes extinct, devouring itself the while.

There is no consolation for us in the spectacle. New York is only one of a species, and not even the most deteriorated, and that species so obviously includes San Francisco. Every few months the engineers we pay around twelve to twenty thousand dollars a year each to make our community more livable come up with a new plan for making it more lethal.

The problem is not even American. Paris is a nightmare of smog, noise and herds of stampeded and stalled cars. It takes all day to drive across London on a Sunday. Worst of all are cities like Florence that were built for donkeys and pedestrians.

And the problem is not primarily one of coping with the automobile. It is something else, very simply the approaching total failure of man to live efficiently as a social animal.

It is all the same problem. The very experts we employ propose to turn Golden Gate Park into a freeway, except for a few small areas to be used for parking lots. Twenty percent of the adult inhabitants of the Sunset district — perambulator town, the sanctuary of the American Family — turn out to be grass widows living, except on alternate weekends, with their small children; we can’t agree to stop playing with the 100-megaton matches we found in the pantry; in Los Angeles, irate mothers riot when the grammar school flies the UN flag; Southern “peace officers” beat up Negro ministers and Yankee news photographers indiscriminately and joyfully.

I don’t doubt but that an epidemic, steadily increasing in magnitude, slowly rising in virulence, is sweeping over the world — an epidemic of irrational hostility. People are very simply ceasing to get along.

Maybe it’s all chemical — maybe a cloud of imperceptible star dust has changed our metabolism.

Maybe — but certainly and for sure one aspect of our mass frustration and its resulting generalized hostility is the way in which we are permitting our physical environment to lapse into chaos.

And — never forget — we are entering upon irreversible processes. Pretty soon, as Grandma used to say when we made faces, we’re going to freeze that way.

[January 10, 1962]

[See Paul Goodman’s essay Banning Cars from Manhattan]

 


 

Some Excellent Plays in New York


NEW YORK. — As a matter of fact, I am not much of a theatergoer in the conventional sense. At most Broadway plays I have an uneasy sense that my leg is being pulled. Even at its best, what Broadway does is done much better in the movies, and as you may have guessed from their absence in this column, I don’t like movies. Once they started to talk, it was more than I could take.

Anyway, when you come back from New York people always say, “What plays did you see?” and I suppose I should earn my pay and satisfy my public’s demand. So, to tell the truth, I saw a couple of really good Broadway plays and some off-Broadway ones that were even better.

Pinter’s The Caretaker is a beautiful job. This is the best America has done by one of the most important postwar playwrights.

I am very fond of Tennessee Williams as a person, but his plays usually leave me a little queasy and their sure-fire formulas bore me. The Night of the Iguana may well be the best thing he has done since the plays that established his reputation. He is mellowing too — although The Iguana is a shocker, he does seem to be relaxing his virulent hatred of women.

Usually I go to Tennessee’s plays to see Jerry Paige, one of my favorite women, and just try to pay as little attention to the play as possible. She is not in this one. Margaret Leighton takes the role usually given to her and projects it perfectly — frail, frightened, faded and love lost. Bette Davis, who has played almost as many bitches in the past as Lon Chaney ever played monsters, comes up this time with one of her most convincing and most human ones.

Gave a reading New Year’s evening at the Living Theater and next day went to a production of William Carlos Williams’s Many Loves. Everybody connected with this thing from Bill Williams to the electricians I look on as a personal friend.

Julian Beck and Judith Malina are modern saints. For 12 years they have run, without a penny of subsidy or foundation aid, the only theater in America that consistently offers, not the latest craze from Paris, France, but the work of American modern playwrights.

Nonetheless, I’m afraid this play won’t do. The separate episodes, originally one-acters, are excellent, and Judith does a superb job as an alcoholic housewife in one of them, but the continuity that strings them together is sentimental tosh — all about the Poet being above morals, responsibilities and the common decencies of humanity.

This is simply false. And at this point in history, backed into the moral corner we are backed into, it is frivolous and malicious. Malicious mischief is the legal term.

Luccile Lortel, wife of my friend Louis Schweitzer, has opened a new off-Broadway theater, the Theater de Lys, with a curiously moving vaudeville — Brecht on Brecht. This is a selection of Bert Brecht’s poems, prose, speeches, testimony before Senator McCarthy, songs, episodes from several plays — all delivered concert style by six actors and actresses, who when not performing, sit on high stools on the bare stage.

It’s got Lotte Lenya singing the Black Ship song from The Three Penny Opera, one of the major theatrical sensations of the 20th century.

Best of all it’s got an absolutely hair-raising performance of the Jewish wife episode from The Private Life of the Master Race by Viveca Lindfors. Mostly monologue, this is an extremely difficult piece to put across. When she is through, you feel as if you’d been dropped down an elevator shaft into a refrigerator.

The group from the Second City have closed as a show and opened as a club on Fourth and Mercer Sts., just back of NYU. We went direct from the Brecht show to the Second City and I fear these young American social satirists seemed a bit thin after Brecht’s deep, searching compassion.

Still, nobody is better at this sort of thing — now becoming a kind of craze in highbrow clubs all over the country. And Severn Darden is, for sure, the most extraordinary actor to come up in the American theater in his generation. Barring acts of God, this young fellow is going to go to the top and stay there a long, long time.

I wish the Actor’s Workshop would use some of that Ford gold to bring him out here. Maybe it’s just as well. As of now, he is developing entirely on his own terms. Almost no actors ever manage this, and it is an indication of the sheer power of his personality.

[January 14, 1962]

 


 

The Bail System


NEW YORK. — Some day I should write a book about my friend Louis Schweitzer. This is the man who gets in the news for giving taxi drivers their cabs, who made KPFA a present of the New York station WBAI and who generously goes about using a moderate fortune to do good hot off the griddle without the interference of intermediaries.

A while ago an attorney friend mentioned to him that the New York jails were full of people, some languishing there for long periods, because they were unable to raise bail. Instantly he started doing something about it, in characteristic direct-action style.

Whatever the merits of more liberal parole of convicted prisoners, and other programs of judicial and prison reform — it is certainly obvious to anybody that the bail system discriminates against the poor and against them only. Except in grave cases of manifest danger to society, a person has the right to freedom until he is proven guilty.

Yet many people are held for long periods under the worst possible conditions, lose their jobs, are unable to consult attorneys in a normal fashion, cannot round up witnesses and evidence for their defense, and so on and on — the injustice is all too obvious. Besides, they cost the city or state a lot of money and a vast deal of trouble.

Schweitzer set up a little program, called the Vera Foundation after his mother. A group of final-year law students interview the prisoners waiting in the tank at the magistrates’ courts to have their bail set. They ask them a list of questions designed to find out if they are comparatively stable and likely to show up for trial. These are quickly checked by phone and if necessary personally, and then recommendations are made to the magistrate.

In many cases the prisoner is paroled, as they call it in New York, released on his own recognizance as it is called in San Francisco. Prisoners’ lingo calls it “sprung on your OR.”

Contrary to what you might think, this program has met with the enthusiastic cooperation of judges, district attorneys, police, and even bail bond brokers. So far it is operating as an experimental project with a control group, chosen by lot, who are equally processed but who do not get recommendation. The results have been astonishing. There have been practically no “no shows” as the airlines call them.

There is an article in the January issue of Crime and Delinquency which those in the law and in police work might read with profit. It’s such a beautifully simple solution to an age-old, nagging, recalcitrant social problem. I see no reason why it shouldn’t work in San Francisco even better than in New York.

Not the least merit of the project is the way it involves the highest quality of young law students in criminal work on a direct-contact, internship basis.

Nobody can deny that things would be a lot better if the straight A students who disdain criminal practice and go into corporation law were to be lured into at least some criminal work, and particularly into the defense of the “indigent accused.”

[January 17, 1962]

 


 

Drawbacks of New York


Sometimes I feel, visiting friends in big old houses in the countryside in Connecticut or New York’s Putnam County, that I am very foolish indeed to be living in San Francisco. I just want to go back East and spend my latter days in gracious living in a Stately Home.

The people I grew up with have all made it in Mad Alley or on Broadway or in some other nasty place and finally escaped out the top. There’s no denying they have it better than the badminton set in Belvedere.

They bought their Klees or Bonnards when they were cheap, personally, in some little gallery on a side street. No decorator has ever entered their homes. A half century of American literature in presentation copies lines their shelves. It’s sure civilized.

What am I doing out here in this half-weaned mining camp, in a state full of high-priced rural slums, hideous highways, nouveaux riches and no climate?

And then I think of the cost. The ones I know are the survivors. Where are the others? I am pretty sure I could never have taken it. I would be one of the others, not one of the survivors. And what does it cost now? You can get a nice apartment on Golden Gate Park for under $200. Not as nice a one on Central Park costs $750 a month.

It would cost me $40,000 a year to live in New York the only way I would want to live there. I hardly clear a sixth of that. But, as Mark Twain said, “I haven’t done a lick of work since I left the river boats — it’s all been play.”

And then I realize, that old mining camp is civilized in a way New York certainly is not. A famous liberal editor once said to me, “You know, Rexroth, we couldn’t use that column of yours. We’ve got a Line. It’s all right as long as you are following the conventions of what you call Liberal-Labor Orthodoxy, but nobody can tell when you are going to go off on a tangent and take a swipe at some Liberal Sacred Cow. There’s nobody harder to handle than an unorthodox liberal. San Francisco must be a funny place.” Well, the boss prints it and the people read it.

Driving down through Connecticut we stopped for lunch at Stonehenge. This is an excellent country inn, near Danbury on Route 7, near Salisbury as you might imagine from the name. We had a perfect lunch, fillet of sole bonne femme, lettuce with oil and vinegar, rye bread, a good Rhine wine — a Rüdesheimer, as I remember. It was perfect — low winter sunlight, skaters on the pond, deep snow under the sparse trees.

It is really worth stopping there if you can afford it. The bill was approximately what I used to earn when I came West and went to work as a cow outfit cookie and horse wrangler — for a month’s work. Of course, I got food, a horse, tack, and blue jeans. If they gave you all those with the lunch I missed out on all but the food.

* * *

Back here in San Francisco everything’s jumping, but especially chamber music. I’ve got it coming out my ears, but I love it. The KPFA Chamber Music Contest was jam packed. I mean the standing room was packed. I found the music excessively academic. It was hard to believe that all three judges had participated in the choices. It seemed to me to be a perfect reflection of Roger Sessions’s taste.

William Sydeman may be getting famous, but it sounded like a composition-class job to me, although Nathan Rubin on the viola was something to hear. Best of all was Pauline Oliveros’s Variations for Sextet. You felt she’d heard it as she wrote it. It wasn’t paper music. In fact, she sat near me listening and the music really sent her. She was a pleasure to watch, digging herself with enthusiasm.

Jennie Tourel singing on the Berkeley campus. What is there to say? This woman, who has been around all my time, sings with absolutely perfect taste and with a voice untouched by time. As always with Jennie, the program was a stunner. About three times the work of any opera, all delivered with complete ease, relaxation, dramatic good humor.

More chamber music at State College, more chamber music at the S.F. Museum, but best of all was the San Francisco Woodwind Ensemble in the monthly concert series at the Hall of Flowers in the park. This was another flawless evening, listening to five people who simply loved what they were doing and did it superlatively. The audience is getting at ease with itself, too, and generates that feeling of friendliness so many churches wish they could produce in their congregations.

San Francisco’s Burning at the Playhouse. Let me add my bit of praise to the universal chorus. This is the best musical show I have ever seen or hope to see written and produced by the nonprofessional or little or whatever you want to call it, theater. More next week, when I will write at length about this show and Mark Harris’s play at the Workshop.

[January 21, 1962]

 


 

Proposal for an Arts Council


Now that the paper has come forward with an estimable and thoroughgoing program for the city, I’d like to contribute a little notion of my own. I’m far from being so bold as to think I can be programmatic about it single-handed, but perhaps I can start some discussion.

I would like to see set up in San Francisco a nonofficial coordinating and planning organization which would take for its province the entire cultural life of the city, but which would concern itself directly and actively primarily with the arts. I don’t think of it as having any vested power beyond that of its collective opinion. Its job would be to give advice, but if it were properly constituted, that should be powerful advice.

There has been a good deal of talk hereabouts for some time about the need for such a body. Most of those who have been talking about it have called it an Arts Council. This seems to me to be a good enough term.

Also, there exists a considerable agreement as to how it should be organized and how it should function. It should not be an elective body, least of all a membership organization. Essentially it should be an ex-officio steering committee. Its members should be there by virtue of the role they already play in the city’s cultural life.

The ideal arrangement, it seems to me, would be to have a fairly large group — committee is a misleading word — meeting once a month, of the people who are actually in charge of things. This would include, amongst others, the Museum directors, the directors of the Opera and Symphony, similar people from the Ballet, the Actor’s Workshop, the S.F. Art Institute and the Conservatory, possibly also the colleges, the City Librarian, possibly the educational radio and television stations, and perhaps a selection of other people coopted because of their importance in the cultural life of the city. This latter category might include representatives of another theater or two — other dance groups, private galleries, the editors of the newspapers, architects, city planners, even an actual artist or writer or two.

It is pretty obvious what such a group could accomplish. In the first place, these people could get to know each other, which, believe it or not, many of them do not do now. The greatest evil of modern city life is its ever-increasing fragmentation. Nobody knows what anybody else is doing, and this includes the people who are supposed to be running things.

Hideous public buildings, freeways, eyesores and nuisances proliferate without control. Major cultural activities of the community get into all sorts of difficulties due to lack of coordination or inexpert planning. Nobody knows anybody else’s needs. Nobody knows how to use the people and possibilities of any but his own department.

In Russia they handle things like this with a Commissariat of Fine Arts. It has unlimited power, unlimited funds, unlimited lack of imagination.

From the White House down to the poorest artists’ organization there are rumors of impending governmental support for the arts. Possibly a body without power, with little funds, but with plenty of imagination could start now to circumvent some of the evil effects of government interference with the arts. For surely this is coming.

Now it’s the hotel tax to be distributed; later it will be federal monies. Those that pay the piper call the tune, unless the piper is very sure about what he wants to play.

[January 24, 1962]

 


 

Better Theater at Home


Catching up on the local plays, one thing for sure, they are a lot better performed and staged than the off-Broadway theater. Last season the contrast between the amateurish high-school-like production of Hamlet at the Phoenix Theater in New York and our own Lear was laughable. Yet from all over “Megalopolis” — the New York area — they ran school buses to see a job they could just as well have done at home in East Orange, New Jersey. Did the folks in Selma charter a bus to take in Lear? If they did, I didn’t hear tell.

Beckett. Yes and no. There is something common about Anouilh’s mind. It’s all scaled down and cheapened from the levels reached by T.S. Eliot’s play on the same subject.

However, Malachi Throne as the king and Tom Rosqui as Beckett were a great pleasure to watch. The play is really about the king. It is a kind of tribute to the vanishing “moyen sensuel” — the 19th-century Frenchman of rich appetites and common sense. He seemed horrible to poor self-dramatizing Emma Bovary, but today we could do with a lot of him over there in that unhappy country — and a few less ideology-crazed cannibals.

Another thing, the Workshop, hitherto weak on women — except for a few leading actresses — has come up with a whole rout of very pretty ones. And they are a great pleasure to watch, too. I say, what good is costume drama, including Shakespeare and Racine, if it doesn’t manifest a lot of pretty girls?

Stock companies provide a curious kind of social and dramatic criticism automatically. Malachi Throne as the fouled up brother in The Three Sisters and as a Plantagenet king the next month gives you to think. They are really the same character, it is not just that he plays them the same way. One, lost and wasted in a sterile provincial town, the other at the helm of history. “There but for the grace of God —” indeed.

Friedman and Son. No and yes. The first two acts transmit something of the light, ironic snap of dialogue of the Yiddish theater at its best. Not the highbrow Yiddish theater, but a few steps up from Yiddle and His Fiddle — the common garden variety of Yiddish theater.

Wolfe Barzell as Schimmel made me feel terribly homesick for midnight suppers at the Cafe Royal or Rappaport’s on Second Avenue, with long excited post mortems on the night’s show. But the last act goes to pieces in disorganized corn. I am all for moving statements of the order of “America is promises,” but it requires more skill and depth to bring them off than are apparent in this embarrassing third act. Incidentally — Donald Buka can’t act — or if he can, he acts too much like an actor. But that Wolfe Barzell! What a pleasure!

One footnote: Will some specialist in ecclesiastical millinery please, please take after the local costumers and stay with it until he gets results? Medieval bishops and archbishops and choirboys did not dress like they did in the first quarter of the 20th century in the United States. If people looked absurd running around in lace cottas in Boris Godunov, they look no less so in medieval England.

Whatever the faults of San Francisco’s Burning, it is a play by a local writer, and what’s more, a local poet, of a thoroughly unconventional character. Putting it on at all required courage and imagination — a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. There is no question but what the Playhouse is just a whole lot braver than the Actor’s Workshop.

The music is monotonous. It needs modulation and dramatic shaping, both in the melodic line of the songs and in the continuity of recitative and song. As it is, numbers which could well end up as popular songs are lost. Tiny as the stage is, I think the actors could move around more. Like the music, the choreography needs pointing up — sharpening. Usually they are geniuses at the Playhouse at making that vest-pocket stage look like the marble halls of Rome or Jerusalem.

Fresh from New York and back at the Workshop and the Playhouse, my main reaction, if you must know, is, “What a lot of lovely women we’ve got in comparison with the highbrow theater back East!” I never saw anybody like Audrey Robinson, who plays the Countess of Barth Malone at the Playhouse, off-Broadway, or on it either for a’ that and a’ that.

Lastly, a correction. Due to my ambiguous proofreading a “not” fell out of last week’s copy. The Connecticut inn, “Stonehenge,” is NOT near Salisbury. In fact it’s half way across the state. It’s near Ridgefield and Danbury. I do hope I don’t make trouble for anybody.

[January 28, 1962]

 


 

The Disoriented


After a lifetime in and around “the media” I have long since come to believe the PR man’s first commandment — “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Likewise I know that the minute you exhibit a public villain you start manufacturing enthusiastic imitators.

After all, I belong to the generation that used to frighten the girls in sixth grade with imitations of Erich von Stroheim. So I have kept still about the Radical Right.

Let’s hope the recently assembled headshrinkers and rat racers managed to give this social problem the only kind of airing that won’t run the danger of spreading the craze. I realize that mental patients, at least at the beginning, tend to be pretty resistive to those who set up to diagnose and treat them.

And of course, the argument — “Those people are mostly sociologists. All sociologists are Socialists. All Socialists are really Communists. All these people are really Communists” — is an absolutely convincing series of iron-clad syllogisms from the point of view of the lunatic Right. Lack of insight, lack of contact with reality — it is not easy to get past such mental barriers with reason. But reasonable exposure may help others.

Right, Left and Center — these terms of personal orientation have little to do with the matter. That is precisely what we are dealing with — disoriented people with only the feeblest hold on any realization of themselves as persons. Frustration, life tedium, alienation, inability to communicate vitally with others — out of these crippling inadequacies that beset modern life arise the sicknesses of the heart that are the special curse of modern man.

We tend to think of the morbid political movements of our time as social forces, bigger than individuals and operating in spite of them, rolling over them like the forces of geology or astronomy. Indeed they are not. They are simply the arithmetic totals of the acts of single individuals.

A Nazi had to take a Jew and stick him in a gas oven at a certain place at a certain time. A Russian youth had to denounce his father as a Trotskyite to a GPU office at a certain place, at a certain time. One Nazi, one Jew, one Komsomol, one Old Bolshevik. Added up, they become historical phenomena, but the first occurrence is in the single lonely human heart.

All over the world today there is rising a vast tide of inchoate hostility. It has nothing to do with capitalism or Communism; it has nothing to do with Imperialism or Nationalism. It lies over, against and in opposition to such phenomena. It’s in Jakarta or Calcutta or Moscow as well as in New York and Paris. It’s in the dreary Beat pads of North Beach and Greenwich Village and in the even drearier illimitable suburban slums of Los Angeles.

It is always there, always growing. When it falls into the hands of the demagogues and the Elmer Gantrys, the con men who are specialists in exploiting socially acceptable paranoia, the ever-narrowing community of sane society is once more endangered.

Somehow, it always does. Somewhere there is a reservoir of rascals, almost as big as the bottomless reservoir of misery they know so well how to exploit.

[January 31, 1962]

 


“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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