Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco

September 1966-June 1967


What I Will Miss in San Francisco
Wandering the Streets of London
The Provos of Amsterdam
Bolshevism as State Capitalism
The Arts of Finland
Tintoretto and the Painters of Venice
Buddhism and Hinduism in India
Thai Buddhism


What I Will Miss in San Francisco

When this column comes out I guess I’ll be touring Germany, observing the things that I’ve gone there to observe — Romanesque and Baroque architecture, wine and the winelands, the new theater, music, dance, the German version of the New Youth.

I’ll be homesick. I don’t really like to travel, and I am homesick already, four days before leaving.

I stay in San Francisco because I believe strongly that that’s where the action is. The City is the capital and the point of origin of the new post-modern culture which is challenging and reinterpreting all values and which is spreading as a way of life all over the world.

And especially I will miss my own bailiwick, the Haight-Ashbury, where that way of life is growing healthily as a genuine community.

I will miss the young Negro who walks along the street practicing the flute, sounding a few notes farther out than Buddy Colette, and looking like Krishna amongst the milkmaids.

I will miss the Free Poetry Movement, with mimeographed poems in a pile in the groceries — and a sign: “FREE, HELP YOURSELF TO A POEM.”

I will miss the Mime Troupe, troubling the conscience of the Establishment with great skill in the parks.

I will miss the spontaneous bongo, guitar and folksong hootenannies in the Panhandle.

I will miss the aesthetics of total involvement, which is what a philosopher has called a night at the Fillmore Auditorium.

I will miss the poetry readings at the I and Thou, the Blue U, and where will I find a coffee shop of the new bohemia under the banner of Martin Buber’s great prose poem, perhaps the single most important theological work of the 20th century?

Where will I find as civilized a jazz room as the Both/And? Nobody knows what that name means. But everybody who is anybody knows that John Handy makes jazz history there.

I won’t be entertained at dinner by the rock group which rehearses across the street in a garage and which seems to get better every time they play and who started out pretty good — Joel and the Presidents — with a terrific girl singer, named Welthea.

I’ll miss Marvin Jackmon and Ed Bullins, fine poets and playwrights of the Black Arts Repertory, taking art to the people with great passion and confusion.

I won’t see Bob Barone, president of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood council, riding by on his bicycle.

I doubt if I will find poets of 18 or less writing as well as Stephen Schwartz or Jessica Hagedorn.

And I certainly won’t find another Poets’ Local of the IWW — who have just put out a terrific anthology of their work and that of their friends, called Peace and Gladness, which you can buy at City Lights, and which, as about as representative of what is youth doing as anything I can think of, I’ll be reading on the European airwaves.

May the Haight Street Irregulars keep the grass, I mean home, fires burning ’til I get home.

[13 September 1966]

NOTE: As you can see from the following columns, this trip lasted for nearly a year, taking Rexroth, his teenage daughter Mary, and his secretary Carol Tinker (who later became his fourth wife) all around the world.


Wandering the Streets of London

LONDON. — Certain cities are great for aimless wandering. Best of all is Venice.

The poorer faubourgs of Paris still keep a little of their ancient village character and their proletarian bohemianism, but every year there’s less, and whole neighborhoods have been overwhelmed with Algerians and other immigrants who have come to France to do the dirty work the French will no longer do. This has resulted in a ghettoization worse than that of the Negro ghettos in America. Districts like Clignancourt and La Chapelle are closed to the wanderer by violence and disorder.

London remains one of the places for the person with nothing to do but stroll “for to observe and for to see.” I don’t mean just romantic ambles along the Thames Embankment or in the East End along the docks. The latter is pretty well taken over by warehouses and the Limehouse of Dr. Fu Manchu is gone under the bombs.

I mean just wandering — in unlikely places, the wastes of Southwark or the moil of Shepherds Bush. To judge from their books, knowing London was the favorite sport of the Late Victorian and Edwardian writers — Stevenson, and his romantic followers like Arthur Machen, but H.G. Wells and the realists as well, and of course the man who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of London at the turn of the century, Conan Doyle.

Smog, noise, confusion, an endless, merciless avalanche of cars roars through the streets of London today, yet still behind modernity is the old life, lurking in nooks and crannies.

Tiny shops, out of the way pubs, and dreary rooming houses still harbor the strange supernumeraries of the dramas of Sherlock Holmes. Yet it has long ceased to be fashionable amongst writers to “know London” and I am considered an oddity by my London colleagues, whose circulation is limited to the West End and the literary faubourgs — Bloomsbury, Chelsea, Hampstead, Notting Hill, each the domain of a different generation.

Anyway, after visiting the museums I spent my time in peregrination. Mary did the shops and decided Way Out London was not as good as Way Out San Francisco and went back to the museums. Carol did a thorough church-crawl and managed to see all but a very few of the great City churches, Wren and otherwise.

I’ve done the same, not once but several times, and I must say, the massive impact of a hundred London churches leaves you absolutely convinced that architecture at its best is the undisputed queen of the arts. I know of no comparable experience in music or painting, not even Raphael’s Stanze or Tintoretto’s Scuola di San Rocco — the best comparison is Ravenna, the purest concentration of great architecture there is.

Carol was disappointed in All-Hallows-Barking-at-the-Tower, which doesn’t live up to the promise of its name, but she was enraptured by the white and gold splendor of Magnus Martyr, made famous by T.S. Eliot.

St. Clement Danes is on an island in the middle of the Strand and she was never able to discover how you get through the traffic. Later, friends said the only way to get to it was to take a taxi.

The traffic may be a nightmare and the food nauseating, but London is my city and if San Francisco continues to degenerate as it has the past 10 years, that’s where I’m going to go.

[8 December 1966]


The Provos of Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM. — This is the first column about the famous Provos of Amsterdam. The New Youth and their capers have achieved their greatest world press coverage in, first, Berkeley, second, Haight-Ashbury, third, Amsterdam.

The Provos of Amsterdam have replaced windmills, tulips and wooden shoes as the leading tourist stereotype of Dutch life.

Outside the San Francisco Bay Area there is certainly no organized movement of youth as significant. The Provos are most significant for precisely their organization — which, in comparison with the snake-dancing Left Social Democratic youth organization of Japan [the Zengakuren], much less with any neo-Bolshevik group, is no organization at all, but a self-controlled spontaneous continuous eruption. [...]

The first thing to understand about the Provos is that they are not political at all in the sense that term is used by the American left.

Like their San Francisco counterparts, they are anti-political. They are opposed to the Vietnam war, but they are also opposed to the Cominform and the Chinintern, to Ho as well as LBJ, and they have developed a remarkable immunity to Maoist infiltration.

Most of the objectives of Bolshevik and neo-Bolshevik action and propaganda are simply the objectives of the Foreign Office, the Narkomindel, of Russia or the Chinese Foreign Ministry. If actions cannot be tied to these objectives they are suppressed.

Like most of the youth of the world (outside China) the Provos couldn’t care less.

They are interested in humane immediate demands, not in geopolitics. They are interested in changing the quality of life, not in the power of far-off bureaucrats nor even in economic, wages and hours, or political objectives in the Netherlands. [...]

What are the principal demands of the Provos? Control all automobile traffic and get the autos out of the old city altogether. Restore all the canals as traffic ways. Stop the pollution of both air and water now, by immediately effective drastic measures. Make birth control information and devices freely available to everybody.

What’s wrong with this? I’m for it all in San Francisco. The remarkable thing is that so is almost everybody in Amsterdam, including the Dutch Catholic leaders.

The Provos have become not just the voice of youth, but the irrepressible spokesmen for everybody — everybody with any sort of social conscience or sense of what makes for a decent humane community life. [...]

As the first generation to grow up in a world of nuclear reactors, computers and automation, the Provos are concerned with harnessing this new technology and preventing it from dehumanizing the environment and destroying the great virtues inherent or potential in the community of Amsterdam. After all — they are the people who will be operating the technological society for the rest of the century, and as they enter upon adulthood, their first demand is that this technology be harnessed so they can ride it. At present it has yet to be broken to bit and saddle.

In their relations with one another, in their lives as Provos together, what are they like?

They are very like the permanent residents of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury community. Like that community, they have their bums and lunatic fringe, but though they are most conspicuous they are least important.

What long ago I called the movement to optional dress has spread far beyond the Provos to most Dutch youth and people go about in flowered trousers, long hair or shaved heads, 19th-century army dress tunics, everything except togas.

The actual Provos, perhaps to distinguish themselves, tend to be more conservatively dressed — in white jeans and white T-shirts or other simple and usually very clean garb. Although like the rebel youth of most of the world, the Provos have discarded alcohol for marijuana as a mild social intoxicant, they aren’t very obsessive about it, and still less are they hung up on pills and acid. They are militantly anti-cigarettes. They may use LSD betimes, but unlike the American psychedellies, they don’t bore you to death talking about it. However, they do share with the LSD cult and with Allen Ginsberg a vociferous “I love everybody” approach to, well, everybody. That includes “support your friendly Amsterdam police” — with a relentless campaign of nonviolent teasing which seems to have the fuzz beside itself.

Every Saturday night there is a “happening” — they use the English word, as they use English and American songs and often speak English among themselves. These happenings are a kind of dadaist mass demonstration against, each time, some patent community evil.

The fuzz go on filling the paddy wagons with kids who have just laid 100 fried eggs and 100 rotten oranges on the steps of the Royal Palace, and the Amsterdamers stand around and cheer. They want the Royal House of Orange to give up the Palace and turn it into a cultural center.

Personal — or interpersonal — intimate life among the Provos is remarkably free — free of tensions, obsessions, guilt and emotional exploitation. Their ethic of philosophical anarchism obviously works.

Just as Quakers seem to have less trouble practicing the “impossibilist ethic” of Christianity, so the Provos practice mutual aid, mutual respect, total freedom, inviolable integrity, just by doing what comes naturally.

What is this new society in the shell of the old they have created? It is the society of the technological age — when naked exploitation of labor power is no longer the necessary basis of the economy and when man needs no longer be wolf to man. They have simply walked into it without asking permission. In 2000 AD we’ll all be in it or we’ll all be dead.

[13, 15, 20 December 1966]

NOTE: For a more critical view of the Provos, see the second chapter of the situationists’ pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life.


Bolshevism as State Capitalism

WEST BERLIN. — The best way to understand what has occurred in the Iron Curtain countries in the last 20 years is to start off with a clear definition of Bolshevism.

Bolshevism is not communism or even socialism in any sense in which those words were understood before 1918. It is a very primitive form of state capitalism. It is a method of forcing a backward, semi-colonial country through the period of capital accumulation which the major capitalist nations went through in the early years of the 19th century.

To “accumulate” an industrial capital structure from within an agricultural economy requires such a degree of exploitation of the peasantry and working class that no modern people is prepared to accept it without wholesale coercion.

Bolshevism is not a social system which occurs after the society described in Marx’s Capital has passed away; it is an artificially constructed resurrection of the society described at the beginning of that book.

The Bolsheviks have established themselves in common opinion as great Left theoreticians. They were not. They were reactionary right wingers in all the disputes of the pre-War I socialist movement.

Their real contribution was a theory of power, how to prepare for it, how to seize it, how to hold it, all ideologies and principles regardless.

It is important to understand this background or it is impossible to understand what happened in the Iron Curtain countries after the Second War.

Due to its theoretical poverty, and the vulgarity of its leaders, Bolshevism had proven itself an extremely inefficient method of “primitive accumulation” by the time the Second War broke out.

But if Bolshevism didn’t work well in the semi-colonial country where it was evolved, what happened when it was applied to what had been in many ways the most highly developed economy on earth — to Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin?

The industrial complex may have been shattered, but it was far from destroyed, and in detail it was superior to anything elsewhere on the continent.

True, in the first years, the Russians hauled away everything that could be moved, especially machine tools. But proportionately this damage has been greatly exaggerated.

For 15 years an inefficient system for ruling a very backward economy, standing at the beginning of capitalism, was superimposed on one of the most advanced economies. This led to hopeless, incurable, constantly nagging contradictions all along the line.

Where did the surplus value that should have gone into recapitalization go? It didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t come into existence. The economy of a Stalinized East Germany simply ran at a dead loss. The milking of German production by Russian trade agreements was not determinative. After all, the German economy was milked by the victors, especially the French, under the Versailles reparations, but this did not prevent Weimar Germany from outstripping both France and England in rate of growth, and that in an atmosphere of continuous financial crisis.

[29 December 1966]


The Arts of Finland

HELSINKI. — As a final roundup of all my experience of Finland I have just finished rereading the Kalevala. This is the Finnish national epic and its influence is as great as ever was Homer’s on the Greeks.

Like so much else in the Finnish tradition, this is not really an ancient work but quite a modern one, yet its roots go back into the prehistoric.

Early in the last century a country doctor and amateur philologist, Elias Lönnrot, began collecting the folk songs and narrative ballads of the peasantry, especially those of the people in the most remote regions along the borders of Lapland and the forests of Karelia.

He became convinced that these songs all went together to make up a connected epic narrative, similar to Homer, or the German Nibelungenlied. In this assumption he has been proven wrong, but no matter.

As he reworked the incoherent folk materials into a whole, he produced the most successful expression of what used to be called a national consciousness, and in contemporary slang is called a national self-image, in all modern literature.

The Kalevala saturates Finnish life. Its deep resonant evocation of the natural environment, the rich dark green or snow white land of forests and lakes and pastures where peasants and herdsmen, hunters and fishers go about their timeless ways, its strong matriarchal bias, its ironic acceptance of the tragic nature of life, its dry humor, its praise of intelligence and hospitality as the prime virtues — all these elements go to sustain the unique Finnish character to this very day and amongst the most advanced sections of the intelligentsia as well as amongst the common people.

Finnish glassware and ceramics, and the most functionalist bent plywood furniture, all embody a sense of form that goes straight back to the folk art.

The puukko, the knife which is the universal tool and weapon of peasants and hunters and carried by Finnish soldiers, fits perfectly at the beginning of a sequence which leads to the most recent silverware and cutlery.

Nowhere is this powerful continuity with the past and with the environment so manifest as in textile design. The famous ryijy rug now popular all over the world goes back to prehistoric times as a basic type, and the designs on the most modern grade imperceptibly back into the finest examples of the cottage industry of the 17th century.

On the other hand, rugs by Oili Maki, Eva Brummer, Toini Nystrom and the other remarkable women, all connect directly to modern Finnish painting.

The textile artist whose work today most appeals to me is Oili Maki, a most inventive and dynamic young woman with a fine sense of what is most native in design.

Before I left I ordered from her a suit, an Arhippa suit, a narrow wale corded fabric of dull reds and browns, collarless, closed with bronze buttons and a brooch like a Scottish cairngorm.

It puts Carnaby Street to shame and should make Liberace go hang himself. Yet I also look like some ancient Finnish hero from the Kalevala who had been miraculously preserved, clothes and all, deep in an oxygenless peat bog. Wait till you see it! I promise to wear it to the Opera. Wow!

[12 January 1967]

NOTE: Rexroth discusses The Kalevala in Classics Revisited.


Tintoretto and the Painters of Venice

VENICE. — Thoughts scribbled in a café by the Scuola di San Rocco.

Giorgio Vasari said of Tintoretto that his was the greatest mind that ever gave itself to the art of painting and I for one think he was, and still is, right. No other painter has ever affected me as he has.

Not only did I change after seeing two pictures over 30 years ago, from geometric painting in spectrum colors to an utterly different style — and that long before the Seattle group or Pollock or anyone but André Masson — but I believe Tintoretto changed my philosophy of life, my sensibility and eventually my whole personality. Only a few works of art are capable of such effects on anyone.

Some music can do this — William Byrd, Bach, Mozart, the later Beethoven chamber music — I suppose if one discovered Gregorian chant in youth it might have such an effect — I never discovered it but grew up with it.

Seminal books more often have such effects — I can look back on many from Homer to Martin Buber’s I and Thou or the Dharmapada, each one of which was a shaping stroke on my personality — like blows of a chisel on a sculptor’s stone. But painting, no. Who ever says of a painter that he affected him like Plato’s Republic or the Gospels? A few painters 60 years ago perhaps could say that of Cézanne.

Tintoretto not only had perfect control of more and different artistic resources than any other artist — but he had more wisdom and he had an unvarying, unselfconscious nobility.

Raphael is noble but hardly wise; Vermeer is wise but not noble; Michelangelo is neither and self-conscious to boot — self-consciously noble, which is a contradiction in terms and also a moral absurdity. Leonardo is self-consciously wise, which, except in The Last Supper, destroys his nobility — he is an intellectual.

But Tintoretto is utterly convincing — a hundred paintings that say life is vaster, more meaningful than we can see. We are like shadows cast by creatures who live in a world which is truly real or at least we see ourselves and others only in our shadow aspects — like the men in Plato’s cave. Tintoretto turns us around.

But it is not Tintoretto only. All the great Venetian painters have this quality to some degree except perhaps Titian, a painter I do not like. The Bellinis, Giorgione, Carpaccio when he wasn’t being a false primitive, even the worldly wise sensualists Veronese and Tiepolo have a profundity lacking in any other painters of their times. It’s something you have unawares — nobody can deliberately create it. So the constructed profundity of Rembrandt has always struck me as childish — like Dostoevsky — and Michelangelo’s deep thoughts as deluded rhetoric.

This resonance, this timbre of mind and heart permeates all Venice like the sounds of her bells on a Sunday morning. Here, you feel, are people who have made a success of a special and satisfying way of life.

If you get away from tourist Venice with its gondoliers and hawkers and touts and tarts you come in electric contact with an extraordinarily rich and confident community life. Social confidence — how few people have it!

The Swedes, the Chinese until recently, the Greeks, the English once — the Americans are constantly pretending to have it, a sorry sight. We do not think of the Venetians down through history as an especially calm people. Yet to judge from their paintings, it is serenity as a personal and social virtue they most esteemed.

It is with fascination you watch the Bellinis adapt the Greek Madonna icon to a different formal order and a different sensibility until at last they achieve a lucidity and peace never to be surpassed. Only in Venice do you see commonly that subject beloved of the Orthodox painters, Abraham and Sarah entertaining the Trinity unaware — a Christian retelling of Baucis and Philemon — God as the unexpected guest of man, Wisdom, Power and Love.

And how did a personality like Giorgione find its way to art? He gives no evidence of needing art — but secretes a serene radiance like a pearl. Raphael too seems to have grown his paintings as he grew his hair, but they have a hard formality unknown to the Venetians and a little too much like Picasso.

All the elements are there in Tintoretto — air, earth, fire and water in overlapping and interlacing networks — Raphael is a pyramid or sometimes more complex architecture of stone. The effect is due to specific gravity as in Cézanne or Picasso — this side up — Tintoretto and Tiepolo are vortices in free space.

[2 April 1967]


Buddhism and Hinduism in India

NEW DELHI. — To understand the origins of the problems of India it is necessary to go far back in time.

Six or seven centuries before Christianity the ancient Vedic religion of the Aryan invaders was in an advanced state of decay and the primitive polytheism and animistic cults of the pre-Aryan peoples were not adequate vehicles for further advance of civilization.

India was, however, far from uncivilized. The Greek historian Arrian who wrote of Alexander’s conquest speaks always with the greatest respect of the wisdom of the Indian emperors, the profundity of the religious leaders, the wealth and freedom of the city states and the high standard of living of the common people — far higher, says he, than Athens’.

The Greeks entered India just as Buddhism was gathering strength and spreading across the north.

Now Buddhism was a revolution, a reformation, comparable to the European Protestant Reformation and French Revolution combined.

It enormously simplified and clarified the problems of Indian philosophy — it defined religion simply in terms of the religious experience itself, a strictly empirical approach that cut through dogma and myth to the man himself “doing religion.”

It abolished the caste system, polytheism, suttee, ritual prostitution, transformed beggary by overwhelming it with monasticism, forbade all violence to men and animals and so undermined the chronic warfare of the small Indian states, considered all men as equals before the law, and in a paradoxical way asserted the importance of the individual soul by denying it.

Hinduism is a counterreformation, a counterrevolution. It is not the ancient Vedic religion, but a revolt against the humanism, democracy and logical empiricism of Buddhism and a reassertion of the power of the priestly caste who united behind them and threw against the secular religion of Buddhism all the forces of the pre-Aryan primitive cults and all the intellectual subtlety of a profoundly anti-empirical anti-logical philosophy.

Not unlike their 17th-century English counterparts, the early Buddhist philosophers developed a system of empirical, rational, but not “rationalistic” logic which underlay all their thinking.

Buddhism succumbed or was absorbed in eastern or central India. All the old evils returned. In the northwest the powerful Buddhist order was totally exterminated by the first Muslim invaders.

Why was so reasonable and popular a social movement so vulnerable?

Primarily because it was a monastic religion in which the householder played a secondary role and in which, due to its doctrines, it was never possible to recruit the basic force underlying all Indian society — the extended family.

Secondarily, because it really was nonviolent, hundreds of thousands of Buddhists were slaughtered like lambs — (the Hindus fought back). And third because, outside the intellectual caste, isolated in the monasteries, it had become just another Indian superstitious polytheistic religion, with all the old evils dressed up in Buddhist language.

Soon it had vanished completely from the land of its birth, only to be revived in a purified form in the last 30 years — during which time it has grown amazingly

Hinduism survived even the Muslim conquerors by accentuating all those characteristics of Indian society which already were reactionary in the seventh century B.C.

True, it produced learned and subtle philosophers and theologians, but they were known only to the tiny educated minority and their speculations always served to justify their privileges, purchased by the ever deepening superstition of the people.

The caste system proliferated until Indian society was shattered into hundreds of mutually antagonistic and ignorant groups. Underneath the ultimate source of power lay in the Indian extended family.

Today the Muslim Raj is long gone and the short-lived British Raj which succeeded it. Both tried to reform Indian society. Both failed. Now it is up to that society itself. They wanted it that way. Now they’ve got it.

[13 June 1967]


Thai Buddhism

BANGKOK. — [...] I have never been wild about Siamese art, altogether too pointy for me. Joking aside, it has always seemed too stereotyped, like commercial art, to me. Inside the country you change your mind.

Modern Thai culture has achieved an almost unique synthesis. There is no division between fine and applied art.

We expect this in the Romanesque and early Gothic times, and in primitive societies, and to a certain degree in some Chinese and Japanese sculpture, though not in painting. Usually it is the result of powerful, long operating traditions.

But Siamese art is not all that old and it came to full flower late in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Seen in a Western museum, Siamese Buddha figures look like outsize bric-a-brac. Surrounded by the tireless craftsmanship of a wat — a temple compound — they fit into place as the culmination of a decorative instinct that turns every inch of space into a sacramental expression of the Buddha spirit. The Thais are certainly amongst the world’s most cheerful and friendly people — the Eskimos of the tropics.

Though Bangkok may he ruled by a more or less benevolent dictatorship, everybody on the streets, after India, seems blissfully happy and full of love for all creatures.

But this is precisely the Buddha spirit that sees all life as illusion, all striving as pain, all individuality as imaginary, all things as delusions, and yet answers with a laugh and sees beauty everywhere.

So with the art of Thailand — the colossal statue of Buddha in his final Nirvana is simply the end of an unbroken series which goes back to the handles of spoons, harness ornaments, the pattern of shoes, a series characterized by a kind of plastic good humor, unbroken and unbreakable.

We watched a novice ordained as a monk and the choir of monks, the congregation of laypeople, the boy and the abbot, all were having such a jolly good time.

And Thai Buddhism is so uncomplicated — “Stop striving after unreal things. Love one another. Learn to wait quietly for the Light” — an enjoyable religion.

Maybe that is why they are such good cooks. Half the shops in Bangkok seem to sell food, either groceries and meat shops or restaurants. They love to eat — but they are rarely fat. Food is an enjoyable illusion that fosters conviviality.

[18 June 1967]

NOTE: Rexroth discusses Buddhism in more detail in Lafcadio Hearn and Japanese Buddhism.


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.