San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



July 1966

Lively Arts versus TV Culture
Grand Canyon Dams?
A Very Disappointing Bolshoi
The Last Genuine Community in San Francisco
Actor’s Workshop Crisis
Marxism and the Persistence of Alienation
A “Liberty and Laughter” Symposium
New Racial Frictions
The International Cultural Revolution
Ballet 66
Performances in the Parks
Petitioning for Peace




Lively Arts versus TV Culture

To continue the discussion of San Francisco’s cultural problems I’ve been busy with the last few Sundays in this column. The major problem facing the big cities of the world for the rest of this century is the improvement of the quality and meaning of life for the general population, but especially for previously deprived sectors at the bottom of the social ladder, or off the ladder altogether. If we do not do this, our society will inevitably sink deeper and deeper into demoralization and finally destroy itself.

This has absolutely nothing to do with 19th-century notions like capitalism or socialism, it is a universal problem. Communist Moscow, Social Democratic Stockholm, capitalist New York all have the same troubles, and Peking will, too, as soon as the people are permitted to take a breath and relax ever so little. Probably behind the current Chinese purges is the inability of the bureaucracy even now to cope with the very small measure of “postmodern” society they have already created.

Last week we had an excellent opera, The Turn of the Screw, several top jazz musicians in town, a fine comic opera at Music At The Vineyards, all sorts of other goodies, but the most important single event, sociologically speaking, was the show of the Performing Arts Workshop, under the direction of Gloria Unti, at the Buchanan Street YMCA.

The next most important was the extraordinary mare’s nest of rules and regulations the Recreation and Park Commission cooked up to keep the Mime Troupe out of the parks. Don’t tell me that’s a mixed metaphor. Ever try to digest a cooked mare’s nest?

I find it not worth the expenditure of heart to cope with Ronnie Davis myself. His truculence and disregard for other people defeat his own purposes, which, at least as he announces them, are mine as well. Worse still, he plays, objectively, the role of a provocateur, whatever his intentions. What is important at this juncture is not the Mime Troupe, but the final result of its quarrel with the commission.

We need, as a first step, to open up to the widest, most varied, most intensive use the public facilities we now have which can enable us to stimulate and foster cultural activities at the grass roots, or rather, pavement and street corner level.

Those parks which the commission closed to public performances are the ones where such things are needed most. All the parks paralleling Fillmore street, from Pacific Heights to Buena Vista Park, should be used for something every weekend. It is self-evident that the Mission, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill districts are precisely the areas where we should encourage neighborhood cultural activities.

Furthermore, the stipulation that all public performances should take out expensive insurance and hire a private policeman automatically rules out all but commercial exploitation. The mobsters can stage publicity stunts with their topless girls from the North Beach dives, but a local teenage rock group can’t possibly perform.

Both as to membership personnel and function, all our city commissions dealing with cultural questions are obsolete. The committee members are all living in a bygone age and the only power they have is to make mischief, to halt and hamper creative action.

We should have art exhibitions in all our schools, all the time. We should have something going on evenings in our school auditoriums. We should have, not one art fair or festival in a central location, but neighborhood fairs in every district in the city. Groups not dependent on private facilities should be not just petted, but sought out and encouraged to perform in the parks and schools.

Let the Park Commission face up honestly to the problem of the content of the Mime Troupe’s plays and either censor or not censor. Meanwhile, what about the Aldridge Players? The Performing Arts Workshop? Dozens of dance groups and little theaters? Why not the Opera Ring? Dozens of amateur music groups, folk, rock, jazz, and classical? Why not the Poetry Center every week in the little outdoor meeting hall in the redwood grove in Golden Gate Park? Is this ever used? Hardly anyone even knows it exists.

If Jack Shelley or the Board of Supervisors, or both, wanted to be remembered gratefully in history, they’d appoint a working committee, not to “study” (which is modern political jargon for “waste time and money”) but to put in operation just such a program, right now. Eleven dedicated people could start so much action right this summer that they’d make history.

There is another problem, maybe the biggest, in “bringing culture to the people.” Most of the American people are not out in the parks on sunny weekends nor are they going to walk a few blocks to a school or recreation center of an evening. They are home watching television.

Some way or other we are going to have to overcome all the obstacles of expense, union rules, time, sponsorship, and open up the air waves to the same kind of popular, noncommercialized, locally originated cultural activity. And we are going to have to figure out how we can use such programs to encourage the spectators to turn off the television set and turn themselves on to live participation.

The difficulties in this whole field stagger the imagination. But there are no real difficulties in developing the use of the city’s present recreational and educational facilities. There are only bureaucratic ones, and the always abiding human ones of sloth, greed and vulgarity.

[July 3, 1966]




Last week I gave in answer to several correspondents once again my opinion about marijuana, and now I will continue with a few remarks about LSD.

The trouble with LSD right now is that it is very nauseating. That is, everybody is talking about it, as the saying goes, ad nauseam. I’m sick of hearing about it and I add to the noise with reluctance.

As a convivial drug it seems to be more violent and unpredictable in its effects on behavior than alcohol. Its physiological effects are not only violent and unpredictable, it seems to have drastic damaging effects on the liver or kidneys, in rare instances and for unknown reasons.

Like most hallucinogens, it seems to affect both the autonomic nervous system and the brain, and it may do irreparable damage to both.

It seems to be with some people psychologically addicting and to produce or unleash irreversible psychosis. Note that all this is full of “seems” and “may be” and that they qualify statements of very grave danger.

That is the point. We know almost nothing about LSD, how it works, what its immediate and long-term effects may be, what people can take it safely, who cannot.

For these reasons alone it should be returned to controlled scientific experiment and withheld from the general public, even for medical use, until we understand it better.

This is not at all likely to happen. I doubt seriously if it can ever be brought back under control. A Pandora’s box has been opened and the social consequences of widespread use of this and similar drugs can never again be rounded up and put back in the box. The problem then becomes one of what kind and what degree of control is realistically possible and will not do more harm than good.

As for the notion that personal integration, moral redemption, love of mankind or mystical vision of God can be found in a cube of sugar sprinkled with a little dope — the idea is so absurd that you would think it not worth disputing.

That thousands of highly educated and sensitive people would believe this shows what has happened to our civilization. It is significant that most “acid heads” come from middle-class families with no religion or with something called that which is empty of spiritual content. A dose of acid introduces them to the only interior life they have ever known. The drug-induced delusions of hyperesthesia — brilliant colors, enrapturing sounds — give them their first and only taste of heightened sensibility.

“Visions are a sign of imperfect vision.” This is well known to the mystics of every major religion the world over. With some, as for instance the practicers of Hatha Yoga, states similar to those produced by LSD are the result of long and intense gymnastic exercises of the autonomic nervous system and are considered steps on the way to enlightenment.

But all Yogis agree that after perfection in the method is obtained the devotee realizes that illumination was there all the time and needed only to be turned to.

“If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where else will thee turn?” said the old Quaker to his daughter. There is nowhere but there to turn, and if it takes a spell of seeing funny lights, hearing noises, and thinking you are wrong side out on the other end of infinity to find that out, so be it.

I doubt, however, that that is the result of the use of LSD. On the contrary, the superficial side-effects of the struggle for personal realization and spiritual illumination become substitutes for the real thing, the central unqualified experience where no bell rings, no light shines and the ego ceases to be concerned with itself.

[July 5, 1966]



Grand Canyon Dams?

Even the anti-conservationists must have been shocked when the tax collector cracked down on the Sierra Club for daring to disagree with the Great White Father. The public, justly or unjustly, suspected direct interference from the White House. It is maneuvers like this which in the long run will tell more about the administration of Johnson the Second than even the war in Vietnam, which maybe he really can’t get out of.

The accumulation of minor but constant abrasions of the public trust, arm-twisting ward politics, and distortion or suppression of facts — these are the things that have already alienated many of the working press, Left, Right, and Center, in Washington, and are now beginning to affect an ever-growing number of the ordinary electorate.

By the time of the next presidential election this attrition may have worn away all chances of re-election, maybe even renomination. More and more people are saying of this administration not that it is liberal or conservative or radical, but that it is immoral.

One thing the American presidency cannot stand is a crisis of confidence, because, whatever else the function of the President, he is the embodied confidence of the country in a way no other head of state, except perhaps de Gaulle, personally, is.

The Grand Canyon dams are unnecessary. There are other sources of power for the Southwest. They are not now needed for water, for agricultural or urban use. Again, there are other resources.

The upper dam will reduce the flow of water in the great canyon to a trickle except at flood time, the lower dam will back water up into the canyon. Both will destroy the wildlife of the canyon floor and bring to a halt, until they are silted up, the geological processes that formed the great canyon.

At the best, once they are built, the Grand Canyon of Colorado will be a beautifully embalmed corpse, a wonder of the world like Lenin’s Tomb.

Dams as sources of both water and power will be obsolete within a relatively short time. We have already passed the breakthrough in the desalting of sea water. The problem now is progressive cutting down of the expense. There are many desalinization plants now operating in the drier parts of the world and many more are scheduled to be built in the next couple of years.

We are on the verge of breakthrough to unlimited power from nuclear fusion. But right now it would be far cheaper to subsidize, or at least underwrite, the production of electricity from the low-grade coals of the Intermountain region and the Southeast, by burning them in the mine or at the pit head and transporting the heat and power by wire rather than by railroad gondola. The sources of such fuel are superabundant, especially in the Rocky Mountain states.

And last — the intervention of the administration in the Redwood National Park controversy has only served to delay matters while the saw mills continue to cut. The White House-sponsored park proposal is a smaller, less desirable park than the “lumber interests” were prepared to accept in the first place. The starry-eyed conservationist lucubrations of the present Secretary of the Interior give me a queasy feeling. I prefer Eisenhower’s man who once proposed turning the National Parks over to the resort industry, lock, stock, bears. As many British trade unionists says of the Tories, “At least you know where you stand.”

[July 7, 1966]



A Very Disappointing Bolshoi

The USSR covers an awful lot of territory. You would think, between the Baltic, the Caucasus, the North Pole and the Pacific shore, somewhere there must be enough people with some taste and some influence to effect changes in the Bolshoi Ballet. Apparently there aren’t.

This trip they have shown us a representative selection from their basic repertory, the full-dress, full-length ballets, some of which originated with them, all of them with choreography by Marius Petipa or his disciples unto the tenth generation. Presumably these are the things they can do best and from which they draw the inspiration and style for their special contribution to dance, their special taste.

If this is the Bolshoi Ballet in very essence, in very essence it is totally tasteless. Once in a great while there is a faint flicker of bad taste, but it obviously occurs by accident.

Mostly there is no taste at all. We are confronted with a commodity manufactured for export, reduced to the lowest common denominator digestible by anybody, without any effects whatever on digestion or nutrition.

Since it isn’t just for export, but for home consumption as well, what sort of consumer public for the arts now exists, 50 years after the Revolution, in Russia?

Is the answer a lower-middle-class audience of complete parvenus to whom aesthetic considerations simply have no meaning whatsoever?

One would be tempted to say yes. It would jibe with current radical Marxist theories about what is wrong with Russian society. Unfortunately for the theorists, the Kirov company in Leningrad, doing exactly the same ballets, is a perfect model of consummate taste.

Mencken once said, “Never forget, Stalin comes from Georgia, and that means the same thing over there that it does over here.” A friend from one of the Iron Curtain countries said to me once in Paris, after a similar theatrical experience, “Moscow is their Los Angeles.”

My daughter says that the full-length Petipa Don Quixote has never before been performed in America. Okay, now it has. If I had my druthers, I’d rather not have been party to establishing the record. Nothing can be done with this thing with its Minkus Mouse music and its disorganized libretto and sterile choreography.

Maya Plisetskaya is a great dancer but only a medium actress and her interpretation of the role of Kitri had a certain cheapness about it — almost as cheap as the role itself. It was an evening best forgotten.

Maybe it is possible to make Giselle convincing. To me it is inherently ridiculous and would be greatly improved with Joan Sutherland dancing the lead. Bessmertnova sure tried, and managed to turn in a better Giselle than did Margot Fonteyn when last we saw her.

Don Quixote is such a grim experience it was hard to keep attention to detail. In Giselle it became apparent that they had sent on tour the third or fourth string for the back line.

“Let the imperialists pay for their training and rehearsal,” seems to be the theoretical justification. A bad excuse for the costumes and sets and general design, including the overall choreography, would be — “It’s traditional.” Like public hangings, it’s a tradition best abandoned.

What it looks like in fact is that they’d got caught short and called up the local costume house and said, “H’ya Moe, send us over your cut-rate line.” Nothing demonstrates better than experiences of this kind that ballet, like opera, is total theater. You have to sit grimly, with a strong grip on yourself, forcing yourself to pay attention only to the dancing, and that only of the leads. That is superlative, but in what a setting?

Swan Lake is one of the greatest utterances of the Romantic Epoch. Like a granite rock in a stream, the more worn it grows, the more classic it becomes.

Aeschylus was “romantic” to the first Athenian audiences. Custom cannot stale nor vulgarity utterly destroy its classic variety.

Plisetskaya made a superb Odette, but only a so-so Odile. These people are all too wholesome. They should be put in a time machine and shipped to Freud’s Vienna for two weeks before attempting to portray evil. They have no super-egos.

Levashev’s Rothbart was neither evil nor very birdlike in motion. The so-called Khrushchev last act is still there, and a great improvement. My daughter says he didn’t sign it because he didn’t want it dropped as counterrevolutionary after he was kicked out.

In the last act the corps went completely to pieces — tired. It’s too big a show for girls who aren’t yet adequately muscled out.

Highlights was absurd. The sort of thing you saw in expensive Paris night clubs about 1925, or artistical interludes in Ziegfeld’s Follies. And there was that embarrassing pagan rout again. Who is responsible for inflicting this imbecility on defenseless audiences?

The Nutcracker is hard to kill. It is a school ballet, designed to show off everybody in the shop, from the incontinent class of two-year-olds to the girls who take ballet to keep their weight down, with hot parts for all the primas and étoiles and nobles. It is a children’s ballet, designed to give dignity and wonder to a child’s imagination. It is the sort of thing the Bolshoi should be able to do best.

So they completely rewrote it, both scenario and choreography. They turned it into a spectacular, a mixture of Ziegfeld, the Folies Bergères, and those awful things Balanchine did for the movies. It ended up undignified and not a little neurotic, for half-sophisticated adults.

Maximova and Vasiliev were wonderfully beautiful, fluent and easy. They danced as though they were all alone, romping together in a picnic. The piled-up confused stages did not compare with the Ice Follies, and besides, they didn’t glow in the dark.

[July 10, 1966]



The Last Genuine Community in San Francisco

Ed Bullins and Marvin Jackmon are not only two of our best young local playwrights, but they are two of our most enterprising young men. After a long drawn out tragicomic hassle with the authorities over the use of the old American Theater building on Fillmore Street, they moved the activities of the Black Arts Repertory Theater into the pool halls and clubs of the ghetto.

They are reaching the people they want to reach. They not only draw a new audience into the club, they seem to amuse and stimulate the regulars.

The Negro intellectual is doing something that hitherto has been almost impossible to do — he is reaching the world of ordinary black people and operating there on mutually satisfying terms.

By and large whitey stays away, which is probably just as well. The language means something else to him. The plays and skits communicate a different thing, often in complete contradiction to what the lines communicate to a black audience.

I don’t know for sure if I have gone over to the Black Panthers and am prepared to raise the battle cry — “Black Power!” But I’m sick of watching the white community fuddle the dog. The Man doesn’t know what’s happening and when he finds out, it is going to be too, too late.

As for example, the rumpus over the Diamond Heights high school. What will happen if the black community says, “Okay, palefaces, take your kids off to their own ghetto and educate them in the systematized hypocrisy of middle-class values. We’ve had enough. But we warn you, we are going to bypass the Booker T’s and Toms and Beni Oui-ouis you have on your boards and commissions, all the Phi Beta Kappa Negroes with gold keys to the white toilet. We are going to demand and get an education for ourselves with our own values, our own history, our own prejudices. We don’t want you around anymore.” What will happen then?

The immense ghettoes of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, are no longer soluble problems. Dozens of American cities have passed the point of no return. It is no longer possible to create an integrated community. Not just racially, but morally integrated.

What you have are disintegrating communities — morally, socially. San Francisco still has the chance. Will it take it? No. It already has one such community, the Haight-Ashbury District, entering on the Panhandle, the east end of Golden Gate Park Poly High.

It is precisely the Poly High School district which has learned how to use its bootstraps. This has become the city’s last genuine community, with a rapidly developing, self-sustaining neighborhood culture. Here deslummification proceeds block by block, without benefit of urban renewal.

Here is a community which produces out of itself, and largely pays for itself, a whole range of artistic activities, music, dance, discussion groups, coffee shops, poetry readings, theater — all patronized by the locals.

Since the mob took over North Beach, it is the last stand of the kind of life that once made San Francisco famous all over the world. If the Establishment, the Authorities, the Interests, the Powers That Be have their way, the sooner it is gone and replaced by the faceless herds who breed in their 10-story chicken coops, the better.

[July 12, 1966]



Actor’s Workshop Crisis

Once again San Francisco is disgracing itself over the Actor’s Workshop. Let’s face facts. San Francisco doesn’t deserve the Actor’s Workshop.

It is ironic that I have compared the City to Pittsburgh again and again since first I started this column. Few places on earth have a more devoted group of rich young men — they’re no longer all that young — radical in their approach to the community’s problems, aware of the most significant developments in the arts, socially at ease with the literary, artistic and scientific greats of the earth.

It is not true that the steel companies and the two big banks of Pittsburgh are so much richer than anything in San Francisco that there is no comparison. There are 200 corporations in the Bay Area which, if any one of them spent proportionately as much on the Actor’s Workshop as Paul Masson Wines does on Music at the Vineyards, all problems would be solved.

Instead they spend nothing, and here and there on their boards of directors is an eccentric soul who comes up with an anonymous donation of $100.

Furthermore, the big businesses of Pittsburgh are at least two generations older than those of San Francisco and the old families are now in fact trust funds with dozens of recipients.

The difference is that the old families of Pittsburgh have many members, old and young, who actually enjoy Ionesco or Stockhausen or Diebenkorn. Few members of our Forty Families have ever heard of them, and the Two Hundred Families our Forty Families don’t receive socially have never heard of nothing if it wasn’t on Jack Paar.

Who spends money on culture in San Francisco, lavishly in proportion to income? The kids who spend $2 admission three nights in a row for the folk-rock dances, the people who pay the gate and three or four drinks at the Both/And to hear better musicians than play at the Opera House. The people who pay 50 cents and a couple cups of coffee to hear poetry readings at the I and Thou and the Blue Unicorn, the people who buy drinks and watch the Black Arts perform in the Fillmore clubs, the patrons of the Jazz Workshop, the Committee, the hungry i, the Bocce Ball.

I am in favor of battening down the hatches. Give up the Marine’s Memorial Theater. Reduce the stock company to a highly disciplined small corps of actors. Go back to a purely functionalist theater and reduce production costs to the barest minimum.

Keep the Encore open at least four nights a week. Avoid competing with the commercial theater and concentrate on new plays unseen in America and on local playwrights. Demand an adequate cut from the hotel tax, but otherwise make the thing pay its way.

Persuade Ken Kitch and Marc Estrin to stay and run the show for another year. If it doesn’t go, let it go. We will have proven that there are not enough civilized people in San Francisco to fill 500 seats a week.

Are there? I greatly doubt it. Besides, 50 percent of the civilized people I know are poor, and anyway they’d rather spend what money they have at the Fillmore Auditorium, the I and Thou, or the Both/And.

[July 14, 1966]



Marxism and the Persistence of Alienation

Last week, giving the Bolshoi Ballet a going over I mentioned that its tastelessness raised questions of very deep social import, the questions being raised by radical Marxist criticism on both sides of the Iron Curtain today.

It would have looked silly to introduce such heavy considerations into the review of the Bolshoi. I decided however to devote a column to them, because these are the questions with which, fundamentally, I have been dealing in several recent columns on San Francisco’s culture, on the problems of the quality of life in modern society.

The question worrying the present generation of young Marxists, and the more astute of the surviving older generation as well, is phrased by them: “Does state ownership of the means of production and distribution do away with what Marx called ‘alienation’? Does it have any necessary connection at all?” What do they mean by this? Is it just Bolshevik jargon, ideology, designed to obliterate real ideas? Indeed it is not. It is the sixty-four thousand ruble question and threatens to hang all the law and the prophets of Marxism.

As a young man Marx shared with most other intellectuals of the period, most intelligent and sensitive people of all political persuasions, the realization that something was going very wrong with life. The Liberty, Equality, Fraternity of the French Revolution had turned into a sterile system of contract relationships which governed all society. Men were bound together by abstractions.

The products of their industry were more powerful than themselves and conspired behind their backs to defeat the human ends of production. The worker produced an empty product, a commodity in which he had no personal interest. The capitalist struggled with his peers for profit and reinvestment as ends in themselves, regardless of the social effects of his activity, and with no personal satisfaction except the satisfaction of greed.

The resulting dehumanization Marx, following Hegel, called “alienation.” Man was divorced from his humanness. In his early philosophical manuscripts Marx’s criticism of society is essentially moral and his remedy is abstract.

He believed that the ending of the “exploitation of man by man,” an abstraction, would result in the liberation of Man (an abstraction) into perfect Freedom (an abstraction) and the universalization and democratization of human creative potentiality, a whole congeries of abstractions.

When he and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto on the eve of the 1848 wave of revolutions in Europe he had come to identify “alienation” with the destructive effects of the “cash nexus,” wages, prices, profits, sterile money relationships which obliterated all humane connections between man and man. He had spent three years studying economics, and he believed that he had discovered contradictions within the capitalist system which would infallibly destroy it, and that within a very short time. Then the most alienated of all classes, the proletarians who have nothing to lose but their chains, would take over and banish alienation forever by socializing the processes of production and distribution.

The rest of Marx’s life was devoted to finding ever more certain guarantees of the doom of the economic system and to ensuring the control of himself and his followers over the most radical section of the revolutionary movement.

By the time he had come to the third volume of Capital — which he never finished — he believed he had found a built-in, entirely automatic flaw in the necessary production relationship of wage labor, profit and reinvestment which would bring the whole system down. As capital investment increased and investment in labor declined in proportion, the rate of profit fell to the vanishing point, and the system became unworkable — whatever the degree of impoverishment of the working class, whatever the market, or distribution, relationships.

There are two flaws in this dramatic vision. The first, historical. Things simply did not work out that way. The second, an initial unprovable assumption.

There is no necessary reason why socialism would make the slightest difference, why social ownership would solve the contradictions of production, or why human self-alienation should vanish just because men were workers in State industries or heads of State Trusts.

Next year the Russian Revolution will be 50 years old and the Peoples’ Democracies will, most of them, be 21, and the Chinese Revolution will be the same age — or 40 years old if you count from the first bid for power.

Even “African Socialism” has now matured enough to be a recognizable social form. Some of these systems have worked well enough, after the initial great social costs had been paid, others are still foundering.

But the astonishing thing is that the human problem that first came to the attention of thoughtful men 150 years ago is still the same problem and it is still not solved on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Men still feel themselves dehumanized by the society in which they live, in Moscow or New York. The creative potential of each man is far from being realized.

Human relations are still abstract and destructive and masked by hypocrisy and rhetoric. Most labor is unsatisfying to the laborer. Leisure has increased enormously but leisure activities are, most of them, as alienating as labor. The quality of life does not satisfy the instinctive demand. Something is still going wrong.

Nineteenth-century thinkers believed that most, perhaps all, problems, in mathematics, physics, astronomy, or in human affairs, were soluble. Is it true that none of them are, in any final sense, and human problems least of all? Is alienation as characteristic of man as trunks are of elephants? Can we improve the quality of life only within very narrow limits?

[July 17, 1966]

NOTE: Rexroth discusses Marx in more detail in Classics Revisited.



A “Liberty and Laughter” Symposium

Come the 4th, 5th, 6th of August, the University of San Francisco is going to have another one of those symposiums, “Liberty and Laughter,” like the one last year on St. Thomas More, Luther and Erasmus called “Freedom and Authority.” This time it will be Rabelais, Cervantes, Ben Jonson.

What Father William Monihan, who puts these affairs on, is trying to do is to reinstate, as an important part of San Francisco’s community life, the Renaissance custom of civilized conversation and entertainment — the very essence of humanism and a humane way of life.

Once again there will be lectures by leading scholars, for Rabelais, Henri Peyre of Yale, for Cervantes, Harry Berger of Santa Cruz, for Jonson, Alvin B. Kernan of Yale. The discussants in the jury box will be Abbé Marc’hadour, who’s coming over from France again this year, John C. Lapp of Stanford, Chancellor J. B. deC. Saunders of UC Med School, Dorothy Bednarowska of Oxford, Walter Starkie of UCLA, R.S. Sylvester of Yale, possibly Dale Wasserman, author of the hit play The Man from La Mancha, Edward V. Stackpole S.J. of USF, James P. McCauley S.J. of USF, Robert J. Brophy S.J. of USF, and Kenneth Rexroth.

The chairman will be John E. Burchard, dean emeritus of the School of Humanities at MIT. John had a lot to do with keeping the action going last year at a lively give-and-take of civilized people. He not only invented, at MIT, the now-popular notion that engineers could do with a dose of culture, but here and at the Aspen Seminars I’ve seen him conclusively demonstrate the equation of culture with geniality.

There will be music of the time and countries of Rabelais, Cervantes and Jonson, arranged by Margaret Fabrizio, who is not just an authority on Renaissance keyboard music, but who plays it with true authority, with a sense of its rhythmic meaning, its “swing.” Her concerts of Bach’s Art of the Fugue last year made, as they say, musical history. They also, as they say, wowed the audience.

Dramatic interludes, and a masque by Jonson, will be organized and directed by John Collins, head of the USF drama department, a man with a fine feeling for the theater of those times.

There will be good food and fine wine, first night at the Skyroom in the USF Library, second night at the top floor of the Hartford Building, third night at Music in the Vineyards above Saratoga, with entertainment each night.

Last year we said “Renaissance food,” but I think this should be interpreted liberally. Rabelais seems to have been too hearty an eater for these days. There won’t be boar’s head or whole oxen cooked with a sack of honey, or swans dressed in their gilded feathers. Just good food.

The participants will be limited to 100 persons, because that is what is wanted, participants, not just a passive audience. The fee will be $100 per person, and will include lunches and dinners.

For information write to William J. Monihan S.J., Director of Libraries, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, Calif., 94117, or phone (415) 752-1000.

I know of no better way to have a happy and enlightening social good time in San Francisco. Father Bill’s little show is one of the perfect contributions to our community life. If only a few more people who have the power to do so would do a few more things like this we could say that San Francisco was really waking from its cultural hibernation.

[July 19, 1966]



New Racial Frictions

Once I wrote a little poem which said, “N is for nothing. There is much more of it than something.” This is the reason for the popularity of the slogan “Black Power.” A lot more nothing’s happening than something’s happening.

It is like the economy of India. It looks beautiful as it emerges from the planners and technocrats, of which India has maybe the smartest in the world. But when India’s Five-Year Plans are fed into the meat grinder of history, the negative outweighs the positive and the country still slips slowly backward.

White terror is still defiant in the South. Think of all the murders, most of them of children and people who had little or nothing to do with the civil rights struggle, which are not just still unpunished, but in which no arrests have ever been made.

De facto segregation in the North far outpaces the feeble gestures of integration in the South. Unions which could employ large numbers of Negroes still only admit a few token colored members and pass off their fake compliance with the law with the utmost cynicism.

The Negro ghettos grow and deteriorate steadily. Integrated neighborhoods like the Haight-Ashbury are subjected to every kind of pressure from the Establishment. Cities like Philadelphia, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, Washington, become monstrous, insoluble problems.

There are other things nobody would even mention until recently. In the very areas where a measure of social integration has been achieved, in the relations between merchants and customers in the ghettos, between neighbors in the mixed neighborhoods, and in the very ranks of the civil rights movement itself, new hostilities are developing.

Due to the fact that the average local small merchant with whom the slum Negroes deal is Jewish or Chinese, and operates a family business which often hires no outsiders whatever, anti-Semitism and antagonism towards the Chinese is increasing amongst Negroes.

There is another reason for this, too. Such stores extend credit and of course buy and sell on a far smaller scale than the great chain stores, and therefore are more expensive. The customer thoughtlessly blames the merchant, and identifies him with his race.

Then, too, such merchants are usually conventional middle-class people and seldom mix with the Negro community socially, much less take part in the civil rights movement.

In the civil rights movement itself strong antagonisms have developed between blacks and whites. Last month Jet magazine faced this problem frankly. It is sexual in origin. Negro women especially resent the competition of the beautiful “white queens” who come from the colleges to save the Negro and end up marrying him.

I have never seen a really adequate explanation of why this doesn’t work in reverse.

The male-female relationships in the closed-in Negro subculture are changing rapidly under the new conditions. They are more unhappy with the matriarchy, the mother-centered family familiar to the sociologists, than we are with our famous American Momism. This results in a high-tension area all along the front of social mixture of the races.

Another factor. The more the Negro is permitted to observe or even take part in our white middle-class culture, the more individual Negroes decide that maybe they’ve got something. Maybe they don’t want to be white after all. Into the garbage can go the skin bleaches, the whitening pills and the hair conk. Museum reproductions of African art appear on the walls of ghetto flats. Even African fabric designs become popular. What’s wrong with this? Nobody objects to it in any other group.

[July 21, 1966]



The International Cultural Revolution

San Francisco may be in a permanent tizzy about its culture crisis, but we needn’t feel lonesome. They’ve got one in Peking, too. In Russia, Komsomolska Pravda, the organ of Official Youth, pleads for more “youth recreation cafés” in one issue and raves about the hooliganism, blue jeans, sandals and miniskirts that prevail in the ones that already exist, for three issues thereafter.

A couple weeks ago they had a fit about the adolescent custom of wearing Maltese or German Iron crosses which has managed to cross the barbed wire no-man’s-land of the borders of the Workers’ Fatherland in a matter of just a few months.

Leading Polish, Hungarian, Yugoslav writers visit me and plaintively ask me for a good sound theoretical explanation of what to them is the incomprehensible behavior of their sons.

The San Francisco establishment fails the Actor’s Workshop for the same reason. They find it incomprehensible. They suspect it of being subversive, maybe even anti-free enterprise, just as their like numbers in the People’s Democracies suspect the same plays, produced in the same fashion, of being subversive, that is, anti-Communist.

The more obstreperous exponents of disaffiliated art, like the Mime Troupe, the Black Arts Repertory, the psychedelic hard rock boys and girls, fill the nice people with terror. Over there on the other side of the electrified barbed wire fence such types exist only in a private underground culture, but they do exist.

Both establishments are perfectly right in their judgment. There is a cultural revolution, and it is subversive.

On the more superficial level, there is a drastic, wholesale change of the forms of expression. The revolution in the arts that took place during the past hundred years was an elitist movement. Each new change was at first accepted only by a small circle of artists themselves, then spread to the few patrons with whom they were personally associated, and then to the small international community of “advanced” intellectuals, and then, very slowly indeed, to the better educated sections of the general public.

The revolution in the sensibility which we call modernism still has a long way to go. I would doubt very much if 30 percent of the patrons, the more cultivated members of the Power Structure, the highly civilized Forty Families of San Francisco, like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Picasso, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, attend concerts where their music is played, or buy their books or even reproductions of their paintings. Yet this is a generation which came to maturity around the First War or earlier — 50 to 60 years ago.

What is happening today is a different thing altogether. It is a mass movement, confined largely to people under 35, recruited from all levels of education and economic class. It is self-sustaining where it is not persecuted out of existence, and its creative expression is diffused — democratized. It is not a change in style of painting like cubism, or composing, like 12-tone music, or writing, like Joyce’s stream of consciousness or Eliot’s dissociation and recombination of the elements of a poem. It is a fundamental change in life attitude.

All you have to do is look at them — these people live differently. Art is a kind of life. True, the quality of junk sculpture, coffee shop poetry readings, found music seems to the previous generation to represent a drastic deterioration in quality, and there is certainly a sameness about it all.

But that is just the point. If you are going to democratize art, you have got to reduce it technically to a level where anybody can do it. The point about the street poets’ movement in San Francisco (now spreading to the high schools) is not that it is modernistic — that is, technically unconventional — but that it is recited in innumerable pads and coffee shops, peddled on the streets, and mimeographed sheets of poems by poets who live around the corner are given away free in the corner grocery. “Take a free poem. It’s better than bingo.”

To return to last Sunday’s column. This is a mass demand, devoid of ideology or political program in the old sense, to do something about that alienation Marx’s revolution was supposed to do away with. What Marx did not realize, writing in 1844, was that the divorce of man from his work and of man from man had become the outstanding issue of the European intellectuals after the Napoleonic Wars because they were not oppressed, but comparatively free and able to afford fundamental moral judgments of the society about them.

The great moral issues that concern youth today — civil rights, war and peace, sexual honesty — have assumed such vast dimensions of mass action simply because today people can afford to concern themselves with the things that are wrong with our sick society, and most important, they can afford to act, to do something drastic.

In an economy of abundance everybody can afford his conscience — suppose you do get thrown out of college — so what? You won’t starve. The serf hoeing his field, the artist painting at the whim of a despot could so little afford a conscience that sometimes he didn’t even know he had one.

We can all be Voltaires today, or even Dantons, and cry, “Dare! Dare! And dare again!” and nobody will cut off our heads or even make us go hungry.

All over the world younger people, and some older ones, are saying, “I am going to simply start living a life in which man is no longer wolf to man. Mister, or Comrade, your economic system can afford it, and you’d better fix it so it can without a lot of fuss. I don’t like fuss. I just like to do nice things.”

This is essentially a religious movement, a demand that we, as humans, live up to our spiritual possibilities. Which is why, I suppose, that the people who seem to understand it best are a few Jesuit theologians.

[July 24, 1966]



Ballet 66

Have you been attending the San Francisco Ballet’s “Ballet 66” season at their own little theater at 378 18th Ave., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30, Sunday matinees at 3?

If you haven’t, you’ve been missing something. Over the last few years the company and its attendant school have been slowly reorganizing. Today it is a far more efficient and effective outfit than it was only a little while ago. Very few companies in the world get more class work, rehearsal time, show time. It certainly shows. No other company whatever gives to its young members the opportunity to try out their own ideas that we do in these summer seasons.

This means that we are developing a whole cadre of lively choreographers who are with it, really connected with what’s happening.

One of the great troubles with ballet is the strangely isolated world in which its people live. Mostly this is due to the fact that they have to work so hard they don’t have time to gad about and dig what’s happening. So when they do try to connect, they seem naïve and out of date — like Balanchine’s adventures into psychoanalysis 10 years or so ago.

Also a seniority structure not unlike civil service — of course it is civil service in Europe — blocks the way and keeps the young and lively from getting past.

It is fashionable amongst the people who know nothing about ballet to denigrate the SF Ballet and to rave about the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi is the victim of an antiquated star system which all knowledgeable people in the theater have fought for years. I say flatly that the dancers performing in their little homemade theater are uniformly better than all but the stellar dancers in the road show company the Bolshoi is now touring.

We have no Plisetskayas or Maximovas, but we have a group of about 10 highly finished dancers who need not be ashamed to show alongside anybody. And every year we have new people coming up who are startling in their promise.

This year there’s Ingrid Fraley and Kerry Williams. One is 16, the other 17, and they are sure better than the Bolshoi second line.

A few years back the male dancers were almost all new and raw. Now they too are in splendid shape. It shows in the things the balletomanes who yell “Bravo!” don’t ever notice, very clean recovery, sharp masculine grace of gesture, fluent passage work. Lots of basketball players can slap their feet together as fast as the noblest danseur noble. In ballet, as in sausage, it’s the links that reveal the substance.

A lot of credit for the present shape of the company must go to Carlos Carvajal, the new ballet master, and to the teaching staff. Carlos has, if anything, intensified the esprit de corps for which the company has been so well known in the past.

His own choreography is imaginative, widely varied, and full of new vocabulary which adjusts so well to the classic language the layman doesn’t even notice.

Coming up is a ballet he has developed by weekly study of the Fillmore Auditorium and ilk. It should be quite a trip — Voyage Interdit.

[July 26, 1966]



Performances in the Parks

Some weeks back somebody wrote in to the paper pointing out that New York City has a park program of 1184 free events — 222 concerts, 171 dance performances, 33 opera performances, 194 dramatic presentations, 134 recorded music programs, etc. (The etc. includes all sorts of unofficial activities, like folk songs in Washington Square and spontaneous get-togethers of poets, dancers, musicians. And it does not include things not in the parks but out of doors, like the concerts in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery.) The writer went on to mention the “embattled Mime Troupe” and its struggle with Rec-Park.

We [i.e. the Examiner’s editor, William Randolph Hearst, Jr.] answered it by pointing out that San Francisco has free summer events in the parks, too, and that the Mime Troupe’s quarrel dates from last year’s performance of Il Candelaio without a permit.

God forbid that I should disagree with the voice of the boss, but I don’t consider this an adequate answer. In the first place, to get that out of the way, Rec-Park refused to face up to the issue of censorship and got Ronnie Davis on a technicality. This is cowardly and dishonest. Furthermore, the truculence and defiance of the final performance of Candelaio — which I saw — were not a very intelligent reaction to a quarrel that had been going on for weeks. Much of the humor of the Mime Troupe’s shows in the parks has been mildly bawdy, but no more so than plenty of stuff on the air, and never covertly obscene, as is a very large percentage of “stuff on the air.”

There is no comparison, either quantitatively or qualitatively, between our free events in the parks and those of New York, much less London. Ours are minimal. They are also square. And what does “square” mean? It means a refusal to recognize that a total revolution is taking place in popular culture comparable to that which took place in high culture from 1900 on.

Just as James Joyce or Picasso replaced Thackeray or Bougereau amongst the elite a generation ago, so today, amongst the non-elite, whole new ways of experience and expression are coming into ever-increasing acceptance.

Folk dancing on the green and picnics before semi-amateur performances of The Merry Widow are okay for those that like them. But there are all sorts of people, some of them not members of the revolting youth, who just don’t dig the Sunday School Outing atmosphere, and whose cultural interests are very different indeed.

Some of them and some of their tastes may be somewhat disorderly, but did it ever occur to the guardians of the public order that a big reason for this is the frustration of creative expression by ignorance, vulgarity, total lack of sympathy, and outright harassment?

Anyway, what is the job of a recreation commission? Isn’t it to foster the public health by providing the kind of recreation people actually want, as long as it is not destructive of the necessities of public order?

We aren’t going to get a healthy community by providing all the nice people a chance to listen to a nice fiddler play “Humeresque” or young lady dancers do the “Waltz of the Flowers.” We have got to give the thousands who aren’t so nice as all that readily available experiences which elevate and give significance to their own lives, in their own terms.

[July 28, 1966]



Petitioning for Peace

Recently I signed, with many other professional people hereabouts, a call for measures to end the war in Vietnam which was sponsored by SANE, the committee for a sane nuclear policy.

I did so with some qualifications, which, as is usual in these things, there was no opportunity provided for me to express. All these manifestoes are partisan, perhaps necessarily so because they are designed to exert pressure on the United States government, which is very specifically the administration of Johnson the Second.

The signers are exercising their right of petition to the government, and criticizing its policies. Petitioning the enemy seems meaningless, petitioning the neutrals futile. Only criticism of the American government by its citizens for what they believe to be its wrongdoing seems effective.

I believe this policy is a mistake. In the case of nuclear testing it was only when the Russians began to feel the pressure of the international community of responsible people which seeped through and affected their own intellectuals and leaders that they came around to agreement.

I believe that the international community of scholars, science, the arts and letters, is far more important than the nation states and their political leaders.

We forget that Herb Gold, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Diebenkorn, the Bay Area’s array of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, will be remembered when Pat Brown or Hubert Humphrey or Mr. McNamara are known only to scholarly researchers in the dusty back shelves of history.

The most important thing for an artist or a scientist to do at this juncture in the long history of the suicidal follies of empires is to assert his international and timeless membership in the enduring community of mankind.

He cannot do this by even seeming to take sides in a military contest where both sides are behaving, from the point of view of that community, immorally and foolishly.

He is in the position of a priest who must minister impartially to the wounded on the battlefield, whatever their uniform.

Therefore, I think it is best for such a group of intellectual leaders to appeal to the political leaders of both sides in the simplest possible terms: “Stop this war now.” If they ask “How?” the answer should simply be, “That is your job. That is what your citizens pay you for.”

However, if signers of manifestoes must play international politics, and they all want to — it is what I have called the delusion of participation — then let them carefully balance their advice to both sides.

Let them say not only: “Stop the bombing. Announce a willingness to negotiate directly with the Viet Cong. Declare a truce to take effect at the first overture from Hanoi.”

But also: “Reconvene the Geneva Conference. Reactivate the International Control Commission of that conference. Halt the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops during the truce.”

So far these proposals have proven unacceptable to the Russians, much less to the Chinese. They feel, obviously, that the longer the war goes on, the more America will lose. “The war,” as an entity, cannot be won or lost, because it is no clearly defined entity; what can be and is being lost, and what may never be recovered, is American leadership and respect all over the world.

In 1946 the United States emerged unscathed from the most terrible war in history. All peoples looked to the Americans for moral leadership in the reconstruction of a new world order. That opportunity, the greatest in history, is now gone forever, utterly vanished away.

Common people everywhere are growing to fear America, and many of them to hate us. We too, like the Chinese, live in a garrison state. Even if we travel abroad, we never see or hear what is happening all about us. We are locked in the Berlin Wall of our own smug self-satisfaction.

This is fine with the Russians. They have only to wait until we are so utterly discredited that the people prefer defiance of our bombs to submission to our control or acceptance of our free-enterprise morality.

Meanwhile, Johnson the Second and his generals are fighting Russia’s war against China. Chinese troops are now concentrated in the southeast. They are no longer massed along the borders of Turkestan and Siberia and Mongolia.

I am opposed to all wars as such. I am opposed to this war because it violates all the conditions laid down by Catholic theologians for a just war.

I think it does this — on both sides — to a very special degree, although I also agree with most contemporary theologians that the very concept of a “just war” is no longer applicable.

I am opposed to the participation of my own country in this war because I am certain America is losing far more all around the world than she can ever gain in a corner of Asia, amongst a population who will never cease to hate us.

But I am also opposed to the cynical exploitation of the war for their own ends by the politicians of the Kremlin and the Forbidden City. And I am opposed to the timidity of the neutrals, who fear that if they press too hard in the United Nations they will lose their subsidies from both Russia and America.

And I am opposed to the cynical manipulation of purely local, national politics, by America’s allies and former allies. Harold Wilson, General de Gaulle, Chancellor Erhard, all are far more interested in consolidating their own power than in speaking for humanity.

As a writer, a member of an international community, my job is to so speak. I speak for Russians and Chinese, British and Americans, Africans and Indians, when I say simply, “Stop! Now!” Let “them” figure out how. They got us into this bloody cockpit, let them get us out.

Surely the longshoremen or harvest hands of California, the rice farmers of both Vietnams, the peasants and steel workers of Russia, the black-haired, cotton-clad millions of China — they didn’t start it, and they don’t want it to go on.

[July 31, 1966]


“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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