San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



June 1967

Leaving Afghanistan
India’s Political Demoralization
More on Indian Politics
Exemplary Theater in India
Buddhism and Hinduism in India
Population Control
Thai Buddism
Still More on Indian Politics
More on Thailand

Who dunnit to Rexroth at the Examiner?




Leaving Afghanistan

EN ROUTE FROM AFGHANISTAN TO INDIA. — I have never before taken advantage of being an American. The only embassy I’ve ever been in is Paris, many years ago to be vaccinated by a beautiful French nurse whom I dated and who turned out to be a friend of Louis Aragon.

The German president arrived in Kabul just behind us, with a considerable entourage and the Hotel Kabul bumped our reservations, as did Indian Airways on our flight out. So there we were, with no place to go, all hotels were full and an extra three days to wait.

We called the consulate and within minutes we were installed in the apartment of a lad from California who’d gone off exploring in the desert. After nine months we had a home and even a cook.

The consul and the wife of another explorer, who put up with my daughter Mary, were just about the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. They even got up and took us to the airport at six in the morning.

Another host was Mr. Azzizi, station master for Iran Air — out of whose responsibility we had passed when we landed. He took us about the city and to lunch at a fine restaurant beside a reservoir in the hills, got his men to chauffeur us about, gave us expert advice and took care of all our papers and reservations out to New Delhi. I think he was pretty angry at the Afghan tourist agencies, who had double-crossed him unscrupulously.

However, untroubled by German presidents, the two European-style hotels and Ariana Afghan Airlines are courteous enough. It’s just the East — tell the sahibs what they want to hear — even that they have reservations when they have not.

I’m writing this flying down to New Delhi along the edge of the Hindu Kush, down the Indus a ways and then across the Punjab. The service is exemplary and the breakfast — fruit juice, omelet, rolls, jelly, coffee, cheese, cigarettes — all a little above standard.

Gracious, migracious, India sure looks big and hot down there. We’re going to miss the frosty mornings of Kabul.

Afghanistan is a place I want to come back to. It is not Pakistan, which is on or close to Walt Rostow’s take-off point into full-scale development, but it is at its own take-off point.

It now has the basic infrastructure, except railroads, sewers and pure water supplies. It has an exportable agricultural surplus — the problem is marketing and standards. Afghan white raisins are the world’s finest, but they are usually not cleaned, and so not acceptable in the West. This is being remedied, but it is a good example.

North of Kabul lies one of the largest high-grade iron ore deposits in the world — possibly as fine as the ones in Venezuela and Western Australia, but how to get it out? And who needs it now? No matter — it will be needed someday.

If you don’t mind creating your own public health envelope around yourself and don’t quarrel with wild tribesmen when you’re out hunting, Afghanistan is going to be a great country to grow up with. The AID, Peace Corps and Embassy staffs all love the country and the people.

[June 1, 1967]




NEW DELHI. — The best thing about India are the birds that fly in and out of the houses and even the government offices and factories and shops. They are an abiding symbol of bhakti — reverence — that in spite of everything pervades Indian life.

Reverence for life may vanish in a moment and be transformed into murderous mob violence for the most trivial reasons, but usually it is there. This by no means equals respect, let alone reverence for the integrity of the individual.

Life is cheap in a country that has many millions more individuals than it knows what to do with. Still, it is pleasant to be awakened by a hoopoe sitting on the foot of the bed.

New Delhi is not India, but an international city, built for a capital, like Washington or Brasilia or Canberra. Still, it’s Indian enough for many foreigners and Old Delhi still preserves much of the character of the old capital of the Mughal Raj.

The great Red Fort and Jama Mosque and the Chaudi Chowk (the main street) are all that remains of the consciously planned city of the Mughal emperors. Once Old Delhi was as beautiful a city as Isfahan, with parks, fountains, pools and canals, now all overwhelmed by slums.

New Delhi, on the other hand, is still not completed. The British employed two of their most imaginative architects of the early 20th century, Sir Edwin Luytens and Sir Hubert Baker, to plan and build a capital somewhat like Washington, though potentially on a grander scale.

Luytens laid out a ground plan of wheels and spokes and hubs — no longer considered the best civic geometry — and on it erected the basic administration buildings in a most extraordinary style. It is a combination of Palladian, English Classic Revival, Mughal, and, perhaps due to the red and yellow sandstone he used, a somewhat Romanesque sense of mass. This is particularly noticeable in the two cathedrals, Anglican and Roman, which are by his assistant.

The remarkable thing is the result — not at all eclectic, but unified and unique — a genuine style that truly expresses the complex community of modern Delhi and looks as though it has evolved through centuries naturally and spontaneously on the spot — as maybe it really has.

Before the plan was half completed the British Raj was gone and a new, free India took its place, but Luytens’s New Delhi remains, an authentic expression of new India, even though designed by Englishmen.

It is an Indian capital in more ways than one. It gives expression to the inherent and potential graciousness of Indian life. Few cities are more elegant; but it also expresses the present virulent contradictions of Indian society, because all this elegance is based on, surrounded by, and interpenetrated by poverty.

Beggars and refugees sleep in the streets in front of the bungalows in their spacious gardens. Homeless people camp in vacant lots next to the great banks, and every morning and evening streams of government employees come and go on their bicycles, from the imposing civil palaces of Baker and Luytens, all neatly dressed in Indian or European fashion, dispatch cases at their handlebars, none of them earning more than $100 a month and most of them less than half that.

Past them go the big shots in their compact cars and the top brass in their Mercedeses — but even here the salary range never approaches that of a San Francisco member of the Longshoremen’s Union.

India is the place where the contradictory chickens of the technological civilization and the semi-feudal colonial culture have come home to roost.

India has the widest and most dangerous gap between the two cultures of any nation. Its nuclear plants can now assemble a bomb in a matter of weeks or possibly days.

It manufactures one automobile and assembles several others: it has a flimsy Madison Avenue jet set of high-salaried whiz kids of the “new professions” — the people who make a living making a nuisance of themselves — and it has a wage-scale ladder of incredibly ill-spaced rungs.

Skilled workers up to railroad engineers earn from 300 to 400 rupees a month, a post office clerk 90 to 100, a college lecturer 300 to 400, a grammar school teacher as little as 80, an unskilled male laborer 90 to 100, a woman 60, a successful private doctor 2000 and up, a government-salaried physiciam 800, a member of parliament 500, plus 20 per diem plus a home, a first-class railroad pass and many other perquisites, as well as “social security.”

Farm income varies widely but the small peasant’s income runs from negative to 80. In certain districts like Punjab, well-to-do farmers may make 6000 gross on three crops.

High above this floats the rest of the ladder tied to a hot air balloon, with salaries about those of Italy’s new professionals and technologists and promotion and super-service men. But not journalists, who make approximately one-tenth of their American colleagues.

It is hard to measure rupee purchasing power. India’s is a seriously inflated, blocked currency — the legal rate is 7.5 to the dollar, the buying rate on the international market fluctuates from 12 to 15, the internal black market rate is 11 as I am writing this.

The economy, however, is blocked also in the sense that the personal expenditures of the average Indian are protected from the international price structure. However — almost all income in the lower half of the society goes for food, clothing and shelter and little indeed for luxuries and “heavy consumer goods.”

That wonderful party thrown for you by your Indian friends may cut into the family’s food and clothing budget for months.

[June 4, 1967]



India’s Political Demoralization

NEW DELHI. — A Marxist society — the capitalism described in Marx’s Capital — can grow, plagued by booms and crises, in a social system with no bottom to the labor market, chronic unemployment and a “wage fund” just large enough to enable the working class to perpetuate itself.

A modern technological, computerized and transistorized economy of steady growth cannot — no matter how much cream may be poured on top. Sooner or later everything will drain away through the hole in the bottom of the cup.

The Indian economy is now at the breaking point. The next five years will result in breakthrough or breakdown.

India is probably not on the brink of revolution, in the sense of an overturn and start in a new direction, but it is well over the brink of political demoralization and may well enter one of irreconcilable disorder.

There simply are not the cadres to take on the tasks of any kind of wholesale reconstruction, Bolshevik or capitalist. The Congress Party today barely controls the National Parliament and its Right and Left factions may desert it for alliances with the Right, Left and Reactionary religious blocs at any moment — some already have.

Indira Gandhi is a compromise candidate who reflects not consensus but conflict in the Congress high command. That high command itself is divided not by principle, but by power struggles of the most vulgar Tammany Hall variety.

What we are witnessing is the complete bankruptcy of Nehruism. Congress has never been a unified organization. Gandhi held it together by sheer power of personality. He did not believe in war, but Congress had Bose. He did not believe in spoils politics, but Congress had Patel. He did not believe in Bolshevism, but Congress had Menon. He did not believe in the Western diplomatic smiling, compromising public personality of the Kennedy-Reagan-Lindsay-Brooke type, but Congress had Nehru — who was an accomplished statesman as well, another type Gandhi did not believe in.

If Gandhi held Congress together by saintliness, Nehru held it by statesmanship and intelligence. Heads of state are almost always below par intellectually; Nehru was dangerously gifted with brains. He created a ruling party which managed to be most things to most men, a strange mixture of capitalism and socialism, neutralism and pro-Russian and pro-American isms, friendship with England and fanatical anti-Britishness, secularism and a conspicuous show of outward respect for all the religions of India.

Nehru spoke of himself as a Kashmir follower of the god Shiva. In fact, he was completely laique. If he followed anybody, it was Harold Laski. He was a pacifist but he armed India and carried on a cold war with Pakistan over Kashmir. He spoke in favor of Gandhi’s cottage industry movement, but he encouraged the family industrial empire — like the Tatas, perhaps as powerful and rich as the Krupps.

What Nehru could not control was the proliferation of violent mediocrity and demagogic superstition which are the besetting evils of almost all former colonial states.

In India these are not the result of lack of civilization but of thousands of years of an excess of it. It is an incredibly overpopulated new nation starting off from a base of advanced decadence with all the overgrown antagonisms left unsolved during 3000 years — a new-born infant composed of dozens of mutually antagonistic cancers of the sort found only in the senile.

All this is overlain by an early modern, highly centralized industrial capitalism, not unlike pre-World War II Japan, and a proportionately infinitesimal elite with the cultural tradition of the British Liberal and Labor intellectual aristocracy.

[June 6, 1967]



More on Indian Politics

NEW DELHI. — Not one of the many centrifugal forces held in control by Gandhi and Nehru that was not violentely contradicted by most of the others. With the death of Nehru the whole system fell apart — or is it slowly exploding?

The Congress Party “consensus” was never a chemical compound, but an unstable, mechanical mixture which any disturbance or crisis might detonate. The only way to hold such disparate elements together is talk — let them exhaust themselves with words. If the mixture fizzes enough, it won’t blow up.

This in Indian democracy and a maddening thing it is. Seventy-five percent of the wordage, exclusive of sports and entertainment, in the best Indian newspapers is given to reporting of talk — political speeches in the Lok Sabha — the federal parliament — and when that runs out, in the state assemblies. What would be hard news in other countries is reported as talk in India. That is — not on-the-spot coverage of starvation in Bihar or anti-Sikh riots in Calcutta, but what the Bihar assembly or the Calcutta government said about it.

This even affects foreign news — not what Johnson or de Gaulle do, but what they say. Since the speeches of any politician have little to do with reality and less to do with concrete action, the “well-informed Indian middle class” informed only by his press and radio lives in a world of pure hallucination.

The politicians wangle over whether three Bihar corpses died of starvation or malnutrition — but the facts are far away in the villages, out of sight of the urban middle classes, until suddenly refugees flood the streets. The Left says Congress sold out Svetlana to the CIA; the Right says they knuckled under to the Russians. The papers solemnly report the minstrel-show debates and accusations, while Italian and American and German journalists dig up the facts — which seem to have little to do with politics and nothing to do with the Cold War.

This is Indian democracy — it was set up as a vast system of checks and balances to prevent anything but talk from happening.

Now it is too late for talk, but nobody — that is, nobody in proportion to 400,000,000 desperate people — knows how to do anything else. India is drifting in a maelstrom of social impotence.

Oh yes, there are people who act, who talk little and know what they are doing, probably enough people to make all the difference in a population of four million.

In each party there are doers well aware of the terrible emergency — J.P. Narayan, Minoo Masani. Leaders of the non-Bolshevik Left and the British-style conservatives are linked together in the abuse of the establishment press simply because they want to do something.

There are activists in Congress, in the orthodox Communists, the Maoists, and the Trotskyites, but each of these men is the center of a cluster of leeches who feed on him with their endlessly garrulous mouths.

The Communist press, where you would expect stirring calls to action, however false, is as sterile and oral as all the rest.

Only one political group — the strict followers of Gandhi — is committed to direct action and a minimum of talk, meetings and manifestos. They work setting up village cooperatives, organizing people to dig wells in Bihar, plus dozens of other direct-action projects, notably cooperative farms set up on the voluntary land distribution system led by Vinoba Bhave.

Recently the leaders had an all-India meeting in a village near Delhi. Bhave excused himself. He said anything they decided would be all right with him but he was too busy getting land and water to come.

[June 8, 1967]



Exemplary Theater in India

NEW DELHI. — Artists and writers are notoriously prone to waste their substance in talk. Perhaps in India they turn to action in protest against the prevailing ethos — as middle-class American students turn to marijuana.

I met a surprising number of doers, with a profound sense of social responsibility — in drama, poetry, music, television, radio, painting.

A leading Tamil poet translates those books he thinks of most value to India from five European languages into two Indian ones, writes a newspaper column, and still manages to write important poetry.

The man in charge of the New Delhi TV station is dedicated to using the box that is idiotizing America to educating and unifying India. So with the radio director.

But best of all was Dr. Alkazi, director of the Theater and Dance Academy. Alkazi has not only worked a miracle is establishing a drama school and a high-quality, efficient academic and repertory theater, he has proven that, given leadership that inspires discipline and demands direct action, the Indian potential is tremendous.

If you can get these results from the Indian middle-class intelligentsia in the most talkative and quarrelsome of all professions, you can get it in political action too — if you just have enough leaders like Alkazi.

What Alkazi has done with the Indian Academy of Drama is to organize a theater and school which is the equal of the drama department of San Francisco State or UCLA, without their lavish plants, and with embellishments derived from lessons he has learned from visits to the German and Polish theaters, and with a strong foundation in the Indian traditional and folk theater.

This sounds modest — but, given Indian conditions, his success is incredible. His students learn all theatrical skills from stage carpentry and wiring to classical and folk and tribal music, dance and theater — including the very vulgar topical burlesque theater of Bombay.

His repertory of last year’s major shows included Ibsen, Strindberg, Sophocles, Ionesco and two Indian plays — one, on Shah Tuqlagh, deserving a world reputation. His laboratory plays included Japanese Noh, the most recent “theater of cruelty,” and plays in several Indian languages, some by his students.

His Hedda Gabbler was terrific — with a hair-raisingly beautiful and perverse Hedda — perhaps the best I’ve seen.

Along with the productions, the students translate the plays and the relevant criticism into their own languages and so build up a production library. They learn a wide variety of styles, from Stanislavsky’s naturalism to the highly stylized techniques of Far Eastern theater to the new theatricalism of the Polish avant-garde.

Now it is true other academics do the same — but in Krakow or Stockholm, not in India. Alkazi’s curriculum is wider and deeper than any in West Germany.

Further, being in New Delhi lends perspective — he and his students are not ridden by fashions. Brecht, Grotowski and Meyerhold are all part of a foreign culture which includes Antoine and Stanislavsky, too.

All this encounters resistance — all along the way. The large library of drama in all Indian languages, ancient and modern, is unequaled anywhere and until it was built up, no one person knew it all existed.

In 10 years the work of Alkazi will have diffused out from New Delhi to the most remote parts of the country — student actors, traveling shows, teachers, TV will have penetrated to the recesses of now antagonistic racial, caste, religious and language groups and helped to draw India together, strengthening both the cohesion and diversity of a country where now there is too little knowledge of anyone beyond one’s own social group — with the results you read in the papers: fear, hate and violence.

The old caste and communal society, based ultimately on the extended family as the only really functioning social unit, is breaking down. It cannot be assimilated to a technological civilization — “post-modern and neo-capitalist” — but it is breaking down anyway from internal decay.

The role of a national Indian theater is to provide one new force for cultural integrity, for a new pattern of social life without which India would be doomed to chaos.

[June 11, 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.

[June 13, 1967] 



Population Control

NEW DELHI. — Seventy-five to 80 percent of the non-sports space in the best Indian newspapers, Left, Right and Congress Party, is taken up with the senseless babbling of politicians. Today the local and state administration and assemblies are dominated by the religious reactionaries or the Marxists. Indian politics is becoming polarized, like French or Italian.

You would think the leaders of the two extremes would have concrete proposals for radical action to cope with India’s ever-deepening crisis. They do not — they have “programs” over which they bicker endlessly amongst themselves.

The real action in India is invisible, the work of a kind of unpersecuted underground. The leaders of direct action, on-the-spot reform, “organization at the point of production” as we used to say in America, appear in the public prints only when they become the subjects of political debate.

This means that the vast, ever-growing, over-educated, under-employed Indian middle-class youth do not even know that opportunities exist for them to take part in the reconstruction of their country.

Few would volunteer, but “few” in India means “thousands.” Take the most pressing problems:

Land distribution followed by the organization of peasant cooperatives could use many thousand volunteer part-time workers who would, after training, give a month a year to field work. Such a movement exists but it is known to few Indian youths.

Grammar school teachers in the villages get less than laborers in Delhi, yet above all India needs to overcome its 80-percent illiteracy. There is no movement to recruit volunteers, let alone the “one teach five” method of battling illiteracy which has been successful in other countries.

Banking is a favorite Indian indoor sport. Parliament Street in New Delhi is lined with great big beautiful banks, yet even in prosperous areas like the Punjab peasant credit unions do not exist and it is hard to borrow money for the slightest capital improvement. Yet unless investment funds can accumulate at the bottom of the economy and flow upwards, India will always be top heavy, like an iceberg about to tip over.

Population control is going to have to be sold to the Indian masses, immediately, by the millions, or the country is doomed to go on sliding slowly backwards under five-year plans of maximum economic development.

The present minister promises to take drastic action but so far the political crisis has held back even planning. The last minister was actively uninterested.

Statistics on population control measures look impressive, until you realize that this is India and the thousands are utterly meaningless and should be millions. Population control clinics, lectures, distribution of intra-uterine spirals and so forth could be handled by volunteer workers to a large degree. They are not, although the orthodox Gandhian movement — the only present source of organized recruitment — has largely abandoned its opposition to population control and family planning.

All over India there are pretty outdoor advertising posters with Madison Avenue style copy and pictures of a happy, well-dressed upper-middle-class family — Daddy, Mummy, Bub and Sis — advocating family planning with ambiguous, mealy-mouthed slogans, hard for anybody to understand in a nation 80 percent illiterate.

Here lies another crucial difficulty. The caste system still survives under changing forms. Few Indians have any idea of how the other 99-44/100 percent of the population lives.

[June 15, 1967]



Thai Buddhism

BANGKOK (Thailand). — Great rivers wandering between mountains covered with jungle, snowpeaks on the northern horizon, then the Bay of Bengal, and then the fields and rice paddies of Thailand, then down in the crowded airport full of Air Force Yanks going up country to join the bomber fleet due in the next day, and out along the highway to Bangkok. Everything looks clean and efficient after India, and the people well fed and happy.

The canals along the road are covered with rose and white lotuses and water chestnut blossoms. Every now and again there will be a little band of buffalos up to their eyes and nostrils in the water, like hippopotamuses, and naked boys ducking for water chestnuts.

It is hot, tropical heat that fixes you as though you were buried in hot, wet sand. Bangkok is as crowded with cars and people, as busy and prosperous as any place you could choose. True, the prosperity is on a different scale than the Rhineland or New York — but there is less real, hopeless poverty than you could find in San Francisco.

The only beggars are rare, tiny people, very dark, who are a kind of Chinese gypsy. After Calcutta or Bombay, Bangkok looks like Utopia. It also looks like Los Angeles or San Diego and is even more spread out.

We have entered the penumbra of the Almighty Dollar and make our first contact with a new kind of tourism. The city is full of big, slick, Waikiki-type hotels which seem to us astronomically expensive. They are in fact just slightly more than standard American ones.

And there are dozens of similar restaurants — Thai, Chinese, American, French, Italian, even German, all incredibly lavish to us, after India and Afghanistan. Down the street from our hotel was a new grand luxe Chinese and Thai restaurant serving food indistinguishable from the “native” places alongside it — at 10 and 20 times the price. Funny thing — the customers were mostly Thais and Chinese, even though it was in the heart of the embassy quarter.

We stayed at the YMCA Hotel, one of the new chain of such places that are springing up around the Orient. It was not cheap, but it was clean and air-conditioned, with European, Thai and Chinese food. I simply cannot bear international grand hotels, and these YMCA places, like the religious hotels in Scandinavia, provide a noncommercial family atmosphere for both Westerners and Orientals.

Although I prefer wine with my meals and they permit no liquor, much less serve it, I can put up with limeade or Coca-Cola in exchange for freedom from drunken generals, wheeler-dealers and aged millionairess nonstop tourists — and all those people who other people think are movie stars and who sometimes are.

As a columnist I could travel grand luxe free if I cared to set up junkets, but as the feller said, if you pay your own way you meet a nicer class of people.

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.

[June 18, 1967]



Still More on Indian Politics

THAILAND. — Some time ago I did an analysis of the Italian Communist Party in these columns. I did this for a most specific purpose. The changes in the ICP are indicative of what will happen elsewhere in the world if and when politics becomes polarized between Left and Right with the Center withering away.

André Malraux, presumably speaking for de Gaulle, has said several times that he welcomes this polarization in France and hopes to see a kind of caricature of American politics, a “two-party system” — but of the two anti-democratic parties — with the rest made impotent.

This is unquestionably what is happening in India. The democratic center, the Congress Party, is collapsing due to corruption, folly, loghorrhea, and parasitism.

Although both Left and Right are now composed of coalitions of verbally antagonistic groups, who, one would think, would never agree on two programs for the two poles of politics — the actual possession of power in a state of the gravest emergency may work miracles. Power creates programs, in India just as in Germany, where an entirely unprincipled coalition suddenly became, under pressure of necessity, the most principled of all postwar German governments — motivated by the principles of the possession of real power to act decisively.

Will this happen to India? Maybe. Though in fact there is considerable evidence that the Great Powers who have been supporting India — the U.S.A., Britain, Russia, Germany — hope for no such thing. Indicators are that India has worn out her welcome.

Although the situation is as critical as can be, we are likely to see a curtailment of aid to India on all hands. This is the old “Buck up, straighten out, calm down, come off it” treatment. It may or may not work — but it will almost certainly destroy for good the power of the Congress Party and vastly increase the polarization of Indian politics into anti-democratic Left and Right.

The three or four parties who would dominate a Left coalition will not be able to function at all unless they can cooperate in a United Front democracy in action amongst themselves.

The Right is another matter. There are very few true conservatives, like the British Radical Tories, in India, only one, Minoo Masani, with great intelligence and capacity for leadership. The rest of the Right are reactionaries, virulent chauvinists, and defenders of all the evils and superstitions that are crippling India now. And they are even more talkative than the Congress politicians and at least as corrupt.

If a charismatic leader should appear who, like Hitler, could manage to be all reactionary things to all reactionary men, India might find itself with a huge Fascist movement overnight.

The trouble is that there is in fact little possible consensus on the Right — the reactionaries are separated by the most violent, irreducible antagonisms, of race, religion, language, caste, geography.

The prospects are that things in poor India will get much worse before they ever get better.

[June 20, 1967]



More on Thailand

BANGKOK. — Thailand is as unlike India as can be imagined. The cultivated parts are very densely populated, but the land is fertile and the people industrious and farmers skilled in their own way, so the country has more than enough to eat and an exportable agricultural surplus.

Distribution is better, both in a market and a class sense. There are plenty of wealthy Thais but few starving ones.

Bangkok is a modern city, full of well-stocked shops of all kinds and its streets crowded with cars — owned by Thais. Urban wages are high for the Orient, but they lag behind the inflation caused by the war boom and the sudden expansion of foreign investment.

Thais, like Japanese, learn the skills of modern technology very quickly and soon become at least as good as their teachers. Although to someone fresh from a cooler climate the country seems stunningly, stupefyingly hot, they are as busy and given to hard work and vigorous sports as the Finns.

Up country the old village life still goes on. Almost self-contained, 80 percent of the population is still engaged in agriculture and most of that on a traditional and buffalo-power basis. Yet the gap between the old culture and the new does not seem to produce the violent social conflicts that it does in many other underdeveloped countries.

Perhaps because Thailand is not underdeveloped in the same sense and the old culture is not failing but doing nicely by its own standards. No culture clash, no economic scissors, is cutting a schism across Thai society. The situation must be something like Japan in the early years of this century — speeded up by the tremendous input of foreign capital, and the abundance of foreign, most GI hard cash spent on the spot.

Of course this results in inflation — but not the ruinous, runaway inflation of Saigon — at least not yet. The Vietnam war is not going to last forever and it is unlikely to result in a Communist Southeast Asia. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea — I think we can expect economies like these to develop in Cambodia, Laos and both Vietnams, once peace has come. These are all heavy input economies, with agricultural sufficiency, not insoluble population growth as yet, rapid industrialization and urbanization and a slow modernization of the countryside.

Capitalist or Communist, it makes no difference — North Korea, helped by Russian and Chinese aid, has been booming for years and North Vietnam in the midst of war seems better off than not just India or Indonesia, but possibly China itself.

The problem of course is to control expansion and especially inflation in this temporary war boom and to prevent the disruption of agriculture.

Thailand is a favorite bailiwick of the leading White House economists and planners. Let’s hope they can keep the economy from going on the rocks as well as keep war out of its boundaries.

It is tragic to read of the damage, personally and economically, these years of war have wrought amongst the Laotians — the most peaceful and lovely people on earth. The Thais are pretty nice too and deserve to be shielded from the destructive forces that have come to them through no fault of their own.

[June 22, 1967]


This was the last Rexroth column that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. See the San Francisco Chronicle article below.



Who dunnit to Rexroth at the Examiner?

by John Morgan

“The journalists are just swine in this city.”

The remark of outrage comes from Kenneth Rexroth, poet, critic, professor, journalist and until recently, the most civilized and literate voice on the editorial page of the San Francisco Examiner.

A few weeks ago, Rexroth and the Examiner parted company with what the Chronicle’s Herb Caen judiciously termed “hard feelings.” This is what brings out the expletives in Rexroth: that neither Caen nor any of Rexroth’s other Chronicle friends checked out the rumor that he was pressured from his eight year old Examiner post by Police Chief Thomas Cahill.

“People told me about the rumor, then backed away,” he said. “The Chronicle was terrified.”

The story was, Rexroth said, that Cahill didn’t like a Rexroth piece in Playboy, on the dark side of police work, and had gone to The Examiner, allegro furioso. Rexroth was fired, a few days after returning from a round the world trip, at something billed as a luncheon with the Examiner publisher. The paper got the word “from Washington” that Hearst couldn’t renew his contract because it no longer was committing itself to long term contracts.

Rexroth was out, with a month or so of unpublished back columns. They will be run in compilation in the October San Francisco magazine, then Rexroth will buckle down to regular pieces for the magazine.

Shortly after the luncheon, Rexroth was called by a New Orleans talk show drumming up a program for a police convention in the delta. The announcer told Rexroth he would try to get some San Francisco police officials to appear with Rexroth. He called Rexroth back. “Man, they sure don’t like you. They won’t go on with you.”

Asked about the rumor, Ed Dooley, Examiner managing editor, told The Guardian: “That’s a lot of crap.” Rexroth, he said, was fired because he was only writing travel pieces. “I said to him, Ken, we want you back here to talk about the city.”

Cahill couldn’t be reached for comment. Said an officer in the chief’s office: “Well, for Pete’s sakes. The chief doesn’t have anything to say about the hiring or firing on the city’s papers.”

[San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1967]


Although I cannot guarantee that Rexroth’s view about his firing was accurate, the Examiner editor’s version is absurd. Rexroth’s twice-weekly columns were popular enough for several years that in May 1966 the Examiner had asked him to do three per week. Rexroth continued to regularly turn in high-quality columns at that rather demanding pace during his round-the-world trip (September 1966-June 1967). During that nine-month trip the Examiner does not seem to have had any problem with the content of his columns — and no wonder, since the travel columns were, if anything, even more interesting and informative than his usual local ones. Obviously he didn’t write about San Francisco while he was writing about his experiences in Amsterdam and Venice and Bangkok and Tokyo! But then he gets back to San Francisco in June 1967 (note that there is a time lag of a month or so — the Examiner had apparently not published his travel columns quite as fast as he had written them), obviously ready to get back to the San Francisco-oriented columns he’d been doing successfully for seven years, and only now, suddenly, the Examiner supposedly decides that he hasn’t been “talking about the city” enough and fires him. The Examiner editor was clearly lying, which I think lends credibility to Rexroth’s view of the real reason for his firing.

In any case, as noted in the Chronicle article, Rexroth went on to write a wide-ranging series of monthly articles for San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). He also wrote a series of more specifically political articles for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972). I plan to post all of these pieces, beginning with all the Guardian ones, and then all the San Francisco magazine ones. —KK


“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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