B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


 

San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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

 

 

February 1967

Farewell to Germany
At Home in Belgium
Tips for Touring Belgium
A Writer We Should Know
Anti-Human Urbanism
Skyrocketing Paris Prices
Paris Is Provincial
German Diplomatic Maneuvers
Funny Money
Wandering the Streets of Paris
Rotten French Food

 

 


 

Farewell to Germany


WEST GERMANY. — Goodbye to Germany. It certainly treated us well. Some kind of small fish were running in the Havel and outside the window we could hear the sea birds crying and quarreling all through the moonlit night, and the sheets of wind-drifted melting ice rustling and crackling against the shore.

We were restless too. Just think — in the morning we would be starting off around the world — Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, Marseille, Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Ankara, Tehran, Kabul, Karachi, all around India, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Manila, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Honolulu, HOME.

We certainly won’t live any better than we have in Berlin. Venison and black cherries, Bernkastler wine, bratwurst and weinkraut and Russian carrots, crayfish salad, Dietenheimer wine, filets and potato dumplings, noodles with boletus mushrooms, or chanterelles, pheasant for Christmas, “German champagne” — Sekt — which is much better than reputed in France — all the theater and music we could take — and no telephone — and the swans and the boats floating by on the ever-varying Wannsee.

Now we leave the Literarisches Colloquium. It is sad to leave hospitable people who have been kind and considerate to you for four months.

One of the best things about our stay was that we were let alone. Invitations came to vernissages and concerts, to the new mayor’s reception (the social event of the year). We RSVP’d and stayed home. We never went near the U.S. Consulate or Amerika Haus or the vast Little America just north of us.

Italian and Irish and other foreign journalists and writers came to see us, but the Germans, who had heard that the CIA didn’t approve of me, stayed away, which was good, because we had peace and rest.

The typical Berliner is rather rigid and superficially sophisticated and the intellectuals are that and also monstrously conceited.

Germans consider their bureaucracy something special, their own peculiar worst evil — as a matter of fact all bureaucracies are alike, and Americans have the worst except for some of the other semi-civilized nations.

But German — especially Berlin — intellectuals are assimilated to the bureaucracy or else they are far-out Bohemians. There are very few like the intellectuals in Finland or Sweden — just plain humans. Also — they are middle class.

When you meet a relaxed, forthright and folksy German intellectual, you discover he is an aristocrat and has dropped the von from his name. The person most like myself I met in all Germany was Franz von Rexroth, and he is separated from me by the 300 years ago that my Rexroths left the Odenwald.

Also, of course, German intellectual life is thoroughly academicized. Everybody calls himself herr doktor or herr professor. But this is true of America. American poets nowadays are all doctors and professors also.

In the U.S. I can avoid them. In Deutschland they avoided me. And how nice of them to do so. Very considerate. “The world is full of strangers. They are very strange. I shall never meet them. It is easy to arrange.”

Now we are coming down into the smog of the Rhineland Industrial Metropole and as far as the eye can see at 8000 feet are factory chimneys, in batteries of six and eight, belching smoke.

Why, with all this socialism, don’t they lock up some of these guys? Socialism stops at the doors of the Rhineland industrial aristocracy, that’s why.

Who am I to object, just a wandering von Rexroth, from a long line of iron mongers. But the good grapes grow above on the hills and they’ll be there when the smoke is centuries gone, as they were in Ausonius’s day.

[February 5, 1967]

 


 

At Home in Belgium


BRUSSELS. — Out of Brussels and off again with the evening crowds to Audenarde to visit my good friend Hugo Claus, who lives in the country nearby. We drove off through the darkness to a beautiful remodeled farmhouse, pictures on the walls by his friends and bric-a-brac from his from his travels and a stunning floor of purple marble they had found at a wrecker’s.

“Worn elegance” indeed! It gave the place an air of casual grandeur, relaxed nobility — like nothing else.

But it wasn’t the floor, it was Elie and Hugo Claus and the little boy Thomas. I drew a deep breath and said, “I have been a captive in Allemagne.”

The Belgians are not notoriously easy — but what contrast with the stiff Germans. I felt at home after so long — as I had felt in Sweden and Finland and England — but not for five months in Germany.

The real reason I believe is that German intellectuals are not part of an intellectual world community — and never have been — they are part of their national, city and provincial communities and identify with them first off against the outlander.

Most intellectuals, including all but the most chauvinist French and the Russians, belong to an international conspiracy — it is nous against ils, Us against Them, and Them are always wrong.

The Germans are with Them against you, although God knows they try to be international. They can’t help being part of their own middle class bureaucracy.

Elie Claus, like so many beautiful actresses and models, is a superlative cook. Again, I realized that I had not really been eating since I left San Francisco except when we cooked for ourselves.

The next day Hugo went into Brussels to direct a movie he is doing about the Battle of the Bulge and Elie took us to Ghent where we ate mussels for lunch and went to see the great Van Eyck altarpiece and toured the city.

Long ago, 1926, there was a wonderful old man — who looked like he’d been painted by Van Eyck — who guarded the altarpiece and after you’d seen it, if he thought you deserved it, gave you a little pamphlet of his own composition — Many Hours of Elevation with the Van Eycks. The pamphlet was long gone and the man dead 40 years, but the young guard said older people often mentioned him.

Then to the Hôtel Pomme d’Or in Audenarde. This is one of the best restaurants in Belgium of the vanishing class of small town inns unspoiled by too much fame.

Full pension is only $6 for a room without bath and the extra-priced “menu gastronomique” is only $3.50.

The wine list is substantial and does not contain a single false note, though it ranges from Pouilly Fusse to Cheval Blanc. We had potage des poissons aioli, scallops in sauce Nantua, young hare in sauce of sour grapes and onions, and ice cream soufflé. We decided to settle in Audenarde.

[February 7, 1967]

 


 

Tips for Touring Belgium


BRUSSELS. — My advice to all travelers is, if you go to Belgium, stay out of Antwerp and Brussels — at the most spend only one night. Concentrate on the small cities and towns.

Belgian Gothic architecture is amongst the best and even metropolitan cathedrals like Ghent and Brussels are relatively unspoiled.

Most remarkable is the taste and imagination shown in blending Flemish Renaissance and Baroque sculpture into the Gothic structure. The Belgians are very fond of putting life-size statues of the 12 apostles high upon the columns of the nave, something I especially like.

There are plenty of tombs and monuments, but they are always part of the overall organization, never the awful clutter of the British worship of the dead which destroys even Salisbury and Durham.

Almost every town has a splendid church and most of them an equally splendid town hall. Audenarde, hardly known to fame, has spectacular ones. But it also has that Hôtel Pomme d’Or with gastronomique menu at 175 francs. Brussels and Antwerp have nothing to compare at less than three times the price.

Their cheap hotels are dirty and run up extras on your bills. Their taxi drivers give you 10 francs change for a 50-franc bill you’ve given them for a 20-franc ride.

Tipping is a greater evil in Brussels than in Paris — you have to go to Paris, you don’t have to go to Brussels.

The Brussels Museum is rather shocking — after all, it’s the capital of a country with a great art tradition. There are some good Breughels and some Rogier Van der Weydens. The rest are not first-rate examples of Flemish art.

The modern museum is absurd. It is so obvious the modern, rich Brusselloises prefer eating to paintings.

In Ghent there was a painting by Van Rysselburg of Verhaeren reading his poetry to, amongst others, Gide, Vielé-Griffin, Maeterlinck. It was painted about the time my father and mother and I visited him.

How strange the changes of taste! In 1912 he was the world’s most famous poet. Now he is forgotten, even in France and Belgium. But his immense mustache and his scarlet velvet jacket looked just the same as I remembered them for over 50 years.

[February 9. 1967]

 


 

A Writer We Should Know


BRUSSELS. — What we really went to Belgium for was to see Hugo Claus.

I am not a writer liker. I much prefer the company of doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. Many stockbrokers can talk intelligently about art and music and letters. Almost all American writers talk only about money. The avant-garde talk about dope. They all drink like high school boys.

Hugo Claus is one of the small number of writers in the world whom I not only like, but feel the deepest friendship for. He has intelligence, taste, a command of general ideas and highly civilized appetites, and a superlatively beautiful wife who is a superlatively beautiful cook. All very unliterary.

Who is Hugo Claus? Well, he is Belgium’s best known writer after Georges Simenon.

Too much money and too many years of indulgence have made Simenon a bit of a problem. Hugo Claus is more like Maigret, if Maigret had been a poet and playwright and novelist and not a detective — in other words, like Simenon likes to think of himself as being, and may well be for that matter, behind the golden mask.

Hugo’s outstanding characteristic is the same as Maigret’s, an immense humanity.

Go over the list of the international avant-garde in the theater of the moment — Ionesco, Weiss, Osborne, Adamov, Pinter, Arden, Arrabal, Gombrowicz, Mrozek — there’s little love of life here, and in some cases a positive hatred of other people.

And there is certainly little physical health. I’ve met most of these people, and they’re sickly types. A supper of champagne and lobster, a night of love, and a heavy breakfast would kill them one and all.

This is why most modern drama is not really tragic; only those who love life can know the meaning of tragedy. Hugo Claus is a tragic sensualist.

Recently I read a series of erotic poems by Hugo. They were actually all translations, from a half dozen languages. Many I had done myself, but at first I didn’t recognize them. They were suffused and unified by a splendid sensuousness that was his own, and that was a celebration of the joy of loving — his wife — not a common subject of love poems.

I don’t know why Claus is so little known in America. These is something self-isolating about certain specially Belgian temperaments. Ghelderode is very hard for Americans to emotionally comprehend. But Bosschère, Verhaeren, Maeterlinck were popular enough in their day, and who could be more popular than Simenon?

Two plays of Claus’s have been performed in New York, A Bride in the Morning and Sugar. They don’t seem to have been very successful, even with the intellectuals. Perhaps they were badly done. I once suggested to Herb Blau that he do a new Claus play and he looked at me as though I had suggested Pxxbehmoggamogga by Tricz, translated from the Kwakiutl.

Another problem — most European playwrights put stuff in the hands of the most stupidly commercial Broadway agents, so it is impossible for them to get off the ground in the only theater that will take chances — the better college theaters and places like the Interplayers and the Playhouse. The agents are too greedy.

An even more serious problem is the Eric Bentley bottleneck. This man has made himself the exclusive funnel through which the contemporary European theater reaches academia. If it ain’t in one of Bentley’s anthologies and it ain’t on Broadway, it just ain’t.

Claus has just finished, shown, and is now reworking an up-dating of Seneca’s Thyestes and he is working on an opera and a movie — that is, both are in actual process of production. I’d love to do the Thyestes in San Francisco, it should really wallop an audience.

We went to see his Tyl Eulenspiegel in Brussels. This is epic theater at its best, something like the most human Brecht — The Caucasian Chalk Circle for instance — and something like Shakespeare’s history plays. Imagine the temperament that did Falstaff doing Robin Hood. Tyl Eulenspiegel shares with Henry IV the same harum-scarum feeling that everything is always by nature at loose ends.

[February 12, 1967]

 


 

Anti-Human Urbanism


PARIS. — One last bit on Belgium before Paris. Brussels had one of the leading Art Nouveau architects — Victor Horta, perhaps not the equal of the Catalan Gaudi or the Scot Mackintosh or San Francisco’s Willis Polk, but pretty impressive and much too little known.

He is certainly unknown to Brussels, and appears in no guide books, and the hotels and official services have never heard of him, though there is a street named after him in the city center.

Go to the Belgian Institute of Architects and get a list of his buildings and directions to them. One, a small office building of glass and steel, or rather iron, is just around the corner. It is extraordinarily like Willis Polk’s Halladie Building, and even has a veddy British clothing store on the ground floor, the Old England. Most famous is the Tassel House off the Avenue Louise, the quintessence of the chic of 1900.

I tried to buy a book about Horta, but none seems to exist. Belgians don’t care much about their artists and writers, just their cooks.

The Cathedral (the Collegiate Church of St. Michael and St. Gudule) is an exceptionally fine example of Flemish Gothic, as handsome as most of Britain’s churches of the same period.

The ancient civic center, the Grand Place, could be almost as impressive as Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Alas, it is a parking lot, jam-packed with cars, and the stately buildings with their elaborate gold leafed filigree look down on a thousand resting automobiles.

Which brings us to Paris. The first thing you notice, returning to Paris after several years, is that it has been completely taken over by the automobile.

The air is dense with smog, the streets are lined solid, night and day, with parked cars, and all the beautiful squares are crowded parking lots. No discretion, no restraint — from Place Concorde to Place St. Sulpice, all have been destroyed for human use.

During San Francisco’s bitter Freeway Fight, the opponents said, “The French people wouldn’t dream of putting a freeway along the Seine.” At that moment, they were doing precisely that, and all along the side of the Louvre everything is torn up still.

Paris was once the ideal of the conservationist school of urbanists, people like Jane Jacobs and all the other anti-urban renewalists who have struggled to preserve small-scale community life in New York or San Francisco.

No more. The most anti-human of all urbanists, Le Corbusier, was won out. Paris is surrounded by his “Radiant City” mass housing; one nightmare is a zigzagging serpent eight stories high and one kilometer long.

The first Corbu house I was ever in, back about 1924, has a small butler’s pantry with swinging doors on both sides — and no place, while they were swinging, for the butler.

Now his ideas have gone on to even greater heights of destructive folly. Malraux plans to erect the highest building in the world on the site of the Gare Montparnasse, creating traffic problems that will effectively destroy about a square mile of the Left Bank, and all of Montparnasse. How far can hatred of the home of one’s youth be carried?

[February 14, 1967]

 


 

Skyrocketing Paris Prices


PARIS. — Has Paris changed? Not essentially. The toilet paper is still harsh and frail as the hearts of the girls of Montparnasse. It has certainly become one of the most expensive cities on earth.

It is quite impossible for an adult who values his health to live on Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day scale. For Paris that book is out of date. I investigated his recommendations in and near Montparnasse and they are all at least 20 percent higher.

We went to the Pension Orfila, 60 Rue d’Assas, which is a block from the Luxembourg Gardens. This is straight out of Maupassant, one of the last places of its kind. The food is not cordon bleu, but that typical of lower-middle-class and upper-working-class French families, not unlike an old-time North Beach French restaurant. The price is about $7 a day, full pension.

You can’t go any lower and stay well, not unless you get out of the center of the city. That is the answer. If you want to “live like the Europeans do,” get out of the international sections of the cities.

I am sure you could find good cheap accommodations, if you knew how to look and had the time, in purely French middle-class pensions or boarding houses even within walking distance of the air terminus at Pereire (but not the Invalides Terminus).

True, one of the delights of Paris is fine food, but you discover that in Paris fine food is for the rich. In comparison with provincial cities like Périgord or Lyons, most cheap French restaurants are no better than cheap New York ones, and many are much worse.

The word bistrot once meant a family-operated restaurant for people with very limited budgets indeed. Then the students and bohèmes and following them the grand rich invaded the bistrots and now the Herald Tribune runs articles about “a charming little old world bistrot where the true Paris of Before the War survives unspoiled with meals at the reasonable price of $12, without wine.” Un huh!

I can’t figure out how the French working class lives. The base wage for a semi-skilled worker is about $40 a week and everything he and his family have to buy is as expensive as it is in New York, and shoes and clothes are dearer and of very poor quality . . . and utterly without style. Yet the Avenue de la Ouest, the market street of the very poor district behind Montparnasse, has plenty of guinea hens at $5 each, filets at $2.50 a pound, and fancy fruits and vegetables out of season.

There are very few horsemeat shops left, and those horrors of such streets, the viandes cassées, are gone forever, and nobody under 40 remembers that they ever existed. Viandes cassées are the leftover goods from restaurants. In the window used to be bitten cutlets from Lapérouse still in their little lace pants, inside were buckets of garbage that the poor took away in their pails for a few centimes a quart. No more. Now it’s pintade, and huitres at $5 the dozen. Who buys? With what?

[February 10, 1967]

 


 

Paris Is Provincial


PARIS. — When writers and artists and musicians from Warsaw, Belgrade, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Prague visit Paris nowadays they all have the same comment — “How provincial it all seems!”

Those cities, for differing reasons, are more or less isolated politically, but their intellectuals are grappling with truly contemporary problems, and seeking truly contemporary answers.

Talking with Simon Vinkenoog in Amsterdam, or Olaf Lagerkrantz in Stockholm, or Oili Makki in Helsinki, or Hugo Claus in Audenarde, I never for one second felt any strangeness, any sense of foreignness — we were all citizens of one country, newspaper editor, weaver, dramatist, we all spoke one international language, a kind of Esperanto of the spirit.

This is not true of German intellectuals. They are completely identified with the German Establishment. They may be alienated, but it is with a German and an Established alienation.

The French are different. France is not a nation, it is a decayed civilization. The foundations of that civilization were laid in the 16th and 17th centuries and given their final form in the mid-19th.

What we think of as typically French, in any field — art, dress, literature, cuisine — was shaped during the reigns of two rulers who nobody in France admits to liking — Louis XV and Napoleon II. The molds have been cast, any copies taken will have the same shape.

To have essential change, you would have to break the molds. Theoretically, that was what the Dadaists and the Surrealists were going to do, break the molds. Instead, they were absorbed and then it became apparent that what had seemed the most destructive revolt was simply the decadence of the old forms.

Today, Robbe-Grillet is not even a decadent Stendhal; he is a rundown Dumas. Contemporary French poetry is much like the indistinguishable books of verse written by the petty mandarins of American academia that flow across my desk, all exactly alike, year after year.

France is in a period of social and political consolidation in which everything is homogeneous and homogenized. It is a time much like that of the first Napoleon, which is one of the most barren, creatively, in all French history.

The first night in Paris we had dinner with an old friend, a lifelong apparatchik, a real specialist and trouble shooter for the left, a very good poet and critic, a journalist who has traveled all over the world. One would certainly expect a man like this to be thoroughly internationalized. Yet he made a remark I shall never forget, which pretty well sums up what has happened to French intellectuals.

With a proud smile he said, “Do you realize that for a week last autumn we had more gold, more dollars and more Eurodollars than you did in Fort Knox?”

“We?” “You?” Buster, I didn’t have a dime in Fort Knox, and I don’t know what a Eurodollar looks like. Constant concern with such considerations is spiritually obliterative.

Perhaps that is why the one institution which still preserves something of its international character, and which still operates in the vanguard of modern thought, is the advance guard of the Catholic Church.

Both Marxism and Existentialism are withering on the vine in their official forms, yet the ideas first raised by those creeds are today being discussed and revalued in the most creative fashion by Catholic thinkers, most especially the Jesuits and Dominicans.

The most radical economic organizations are the Young Catholic Workers and the Young Catholic Farmers.

We went to Mass at Saint-Séverin, on the edge of the student quarter and the slums of Montebello. Liturgically this is one of the most radical churches in the world. Ten years ago they were already saying most of the Mass in French, facing the congregation, and with several priests concelebrating.

[February 19, 1967]

 


 

German Diplomatic Maneuvers


PARIS. — Politics is the art of the possible, and that is achieved by saying one thing and doing another, because the pressures behind the politicians are always driving for the impossible.

Nothing shows this more clearly than the events of recent months. Europe is not rebelling against America. Atlanticism may be giving way to a new Continental system — but this is actually American policy and has come about by American coaching.

The Erhard government fell because of a put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum from the White House — as I said it would after his visit to Washington.

Similarly, the opening to the East is American policy — and the Germans, by suddenly seizing the leadership in this field, have, first, undercut the initiative of de Gaulle — who was heading toward a bilateral Franco-Russian pact, something dreaded by all Europe, East and West.

Second, they have destroyed the very foundations of the Ulbricht regime in East Germany, which is why the spokesmen for the German Democratic Republic are now attacking Kiesinger so rabidly. They see themselves out of their jobs in a matter of months. If Stalin were still alive, they would soon be dead.

By dropping the “Hallstadt Doctrine” — refusal to recognize any nation that recognizes East Germany — the grand coalition has suddenly acquired a whole bevy of client states — their enthusiasm strictly proportionate to their proximity to Germany — that is, Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania are far more enthusiastic than Poland and Czechoslovakia — the latter share disputed borders with Germany.

But the constantly reiterated hints by Willy Brandt that Germany, if reunited, will accept the Oder-niesse line have the Poles baffled and helpless to withstand the tide. Anti-Germanism has been the Polish politicians’ principal merchandise.

Equally baffled is Tito. If the American objective, now being driven toward by skilled German diplomats — far more astute, wily and ruthless than any America could muster on her own — is realized, the walls go down, the barbed wire goes down, visas are abolished, trade opens up, the American-Russian-German pacification takes place — the Third World is going to be reduced to total impotence. No more trading of blackmail, one side against the other, and no more enormous subsidies.

So Tito hurried to Moscow to try to stave off the inevitable. January was a month of top-level conferences and visits.

And from everyone, Brandt and Kiesinger have emerged with increased power. Today it depends on Germany, not France, whether Britain gets into the Common Market.

De Gaulle, clinging to the hallucination that he can destroy America and reduce the Sterling Empire (once the British Empire) to just another patrie called “England” by monkeying around with the money, is slowly being pushed, or rather is painting himself, into a corner.

[February 21, 1967]

 


 

Funny Money


PARIS. — Funny money is the favorite delusion of chronic debtors. Bryan promised the mortgage-bound Midwest farmers that free silver would free them from slavery to Wall Street. The Social Creditors believed that by basing the currency on the GNP and establishing a minimum guaranteed income, they would cause the capitalist system to silently, effortlessly wither away.

There certainly exists a “liquidity crisis” in the world today. There isn’t enough gold to go round and paper based on that gold, due to the proportionately narrowing base — capital demands increase far faster than gold or dollars — becomes ever more expensive.

Any nation whose industrial and heavy consumer goods production is not internally financed by a favorable trade balance based on exports essential to the rest of the world and therefore comparatively invariant, is in the position of slipping back and forth, creditor one year, debtor the next, because capital must continuously be imported to keep up expansion.

This is the position of France. France cannot really compete with Germany or England in anything except wine, perfume, endive, strawberries and gewgaws for women.

De Gaulle may object to American capital export to France and American business takeover — but without American (and German) investment, France would be an undercapitalized backwater in the heart of Europe — a kind of pre-War II Mississippi. (In those days, I used to say, “If you want to know what America would be like if the South had won the Civil War, look at France.”)

France today is booming and certainly seems solvent. But success in the capitalistic world is not measured by how much debt you can run up, and carefully concealed, France is a gigantic debtor.

The non-financial mind — Midwest farmers or French general — always thinks that the paper represents the actual debt and that if you could just magic the paper the debt would vanish.

Debtor and creditor are not paper or even financial relationships — they are power relationships — economic and political power. Whatever happens to the paper or the gold on which it is based — within a short time the whole web of stocks and bonds and factories and mines and fields shake down into the old pattern.

You can’t solve economic problems by changing the pictures of the gentlemen on the money. M. Debré, speaking for his master, seems to think that by doubling the price of gold he will reduce the pound to a purely local currency and destroy the financial hegemony of the United States.

All he will do is create a temporary disturbance in the world’s bookkeeping, increase temporarily the flow of credit and — if Johnson the Second suddenly undercuts him, as he has on the détente with Russia — ensure the Western gold-producing states will vote for LBJ in ’68.

[February 23, 1967]

 


 

Wandering the Streets of Paris


PARIS. — In a science-fiction novel, Odd John, the hero, a mutant super-intellect, locates a similar person by long-distance telepathy. He meets her in a Paris café. She is a beautiful girl, accompanied by an immensely aged crone.

He says something about her grandmother and she says, “That’s my daughter. I am 700 years old, as you will be someday. We never die except by our own choice.”

He proposes that all the supermen and women about the world get together to save the ordinary humans from their deadly folly.

She says, “No, thank you. I am quite content as I am, in the calling I have followed for the past 300 years.”

“What are you?”

“I am a Paris streetwalker.”

I don’t know if I could take it for 300 years — but walking the streets of Paris, although not for love or money, is one of the finest occupations I know. Today it was raining but I wandered anyway.

I had a long conversation with a vegetable man whom I helped pick up part of his display that had been rammed by a truck that backed into it on the slippery sidewalk.

I got into an exchange of pleasantries with a Swedish girl, as we watched the water from the Pont Neuf. “Sous le Pont Neuf coule la Seine/La vie s’en va avec sa peine.” Then I sat and listened to a Mass for the Dead — it must have been the daughter of someone important, the casket was small and white, for it was a Solemn High Mass with a choir and many mourners. I sat quietly in the back of the church and wondered, as the great poetry and melody of the Dies Irae surged through the aisles, what connection it had with the dead little girl.

Then I went to an exhibit of kinetic Op Art — I have no idea who the artist was, but it was very kinetic, with a glittering Mobius strip that crawled around and around in a black and white box and periodically uttered a shattering growl. Then colored lights flashed. Dies Irae.

I passed the Café Flore and took a peak at the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. Pas bon.

Back to the pension up Rue de Seine with crowds of people buying food for supper in a driving rainstorm — and then through the rainy twilit Luxembourg Gardens just as the cops’ whistle blew for closing.

That night we went to see Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight at the Vieux Colombier, which is having a season of Expressionist plays — after having finished a series of Sternheim and Wedekind.

I think the girls were completely dumfounded. Nobody ever believes the Paris theater is as bad as it is until they see it and then a lot of people can’t believe their eyes — they think there must be some French theatrical, formal theory at work that they just don’t dig.

Not true. The highbrow theater in Paris is like nothing so much as a burlesque of the Iowa Little Theater Movement in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies.

There is a formal tradition at work in the classic theater, but the operatic gestures and sledge hammer recitation of the French alexandrine — a wooden meter at best — is comic to modern non-French audiences.

The French try to update Racine and Corneille with sundry current furbelows, cubist, surrealist, theater of the absurd, as the fashion changes, but this only makes for incongruity.

The fact is — there isn’t any French theater of importance. At the moment, the good plays are all German, English, Italian, American or Rumanian.

There are two short plays by Nathalie Sarraute — No Exit without any exit. The way this Sartrean jive lingers on is amazing.

Why is France so dead culturally today? For much the same reason that American Negro poetry, once so vital, is now so mediocre. The best brains now have a chance to go into business or engineering. France is in a state of social liquidity and reorganization, like America in the 20s. Boom times, the times of Babbitt. Once all you could do if you wanted to break out of a frozen, stratified caste system, was write poetry or paint pictures. Now you can be one of de Gaulle’s young technocrats or the branch manager of a half-American-owned business forging ahead into the computer age.

The old French middle class simply persecuted the artist — as they did Baudelaire, Manet, Flaubert, Courbet — and the artist struck back vital blows, though only a couple thousand people bought the books and fewer still the pictures.

Today the new transistorized middle class do buy books and paintings and their taste is that of parvenus — they buy Robbe-Grillet or Bernard Buffet. Everybody’s making money and everybody’s happy, and the art is awful.

[February 26, 1967]

 


 

Rotten French Food


PARIS. — Maybe I should face the fact that I don’t like France. During all the 10 days here I was queasy, and the last day but one I was deadly sick with continuous nausea and diarrhea — it always happens.

I think I got food poisoning from a meal in one of Paris’s most famous restaurants.

Why? Belgian food is essentially French food — yet it never makes me ill. Alsatian food is essentially German food, yet it does, and the food just across the border does not. It doesn’t seem to make any difference what you pay for it, either.

In Mexico, or Spain, or southern Italy you may get sick, but if you do you get real sick. Twenty-four hours after I arrive in France I become mildly nauseous and I stay that way — even once for a whole year.

I think there are two reasons. The French continuously re-use sauces and gravies. On the back of the stove is a pot of proteins in dissolution started by some old girl who knitted names in socks in the French Revolution.

Those broken-up long molecules and disorganized amino acids are poison to anyone who hasn’t imbibed them from birth. Worse, the handling of food is profoundly unsanitary.

The French are without a doubt the dirtiest of all civilized people — the rights to litter the street, defecate in public parks, spit anywhere are equated with “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”

French kitchens, to Americans, British or German public health officers, must be nightmares.

True, French maids are always cleaning — but not in the corners and under things; dishwater is never hot; French cuisine depends for its subtlety on an all-pervasive sepsis.

Years ago we used to go over to the Ghetto — the Rue des Rosiers — to eat a clean meal every few weeks. Now, hélas, the Rue des Rosiers’ inhabitants have become assimilated and French kosher is as unsanitary as French tref.

We went for a walk one afternoon in that district from Les Halles down Rue Saint-Denis and over to the Ghetto. No, we weren’t doing the brothels, we were visiting churches — Saint-Eustache, Saint-Leu, Saint-Merri — some of the oldest and handsomest churches in Paris. They were each as filthy as the streets outside and as foul smelling as the vespasiennes [urinals].

After all, a church is not all that hard to keep clean, and there’s no shortage of volunteer help. They’re all like that — Notre-Dame is dirty, Saint-Sulpice is worse and the Delacroix murals are invisible under a hundred years of grime.

The guide books are always telling you here is a Clouet, there is a Le Sueur, here is another great painter. They all look alike — like dirty, worn-out oilcloth.

[February 28, 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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