Kenneth Rexroth

Three More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1961

Ionesco’s Rhinoceros

Remember I said once that Ionesco was similar to, but not as good as, Buster Keaton? His Rhinoceros has been packing them in on Broadway and everybody is saying, “Look at us, ain’t we civilized?” This is silly and provincial. There is nothing highbrow, let alone avant-garde, about Rhinoceros.

It is, in fact, a vulgar play. It reduces one of the great problems of our time, the mass acceptance of evil, to a mildly funny platitude. Except in the disputes of metaphysics there is no such thing as abstract Evil. There are only specific evils.

Everybody from Eichmann to Schweitzer, like Cal Coolidge’s minister, is “opposed to sin.” The question of course is what content we give those empty terms.

Conformity is not an evil as such. It is one of the many techniques for coping with certain problems of life. On the Bay Bridge we are all conformists. Sick communities do not turn into funny rhinoceroses, they turn into Nazis or witch hunters or die of boredom and strange lusts.

The rhinoceros must be characterized to be meaningful. Otherwise you’ve got just another night of cheap entertainment.

During the Second War painting in America, beginning in Seattle, San Francisco, and to a much lesser degree in New York, underwent a great change. The box-like space inherited from Raphael or Poussin, and characteristic of all modern French painting, was abandoned for the open space of Far Eastern art and the great baroque ceilings of Tintoretto and Tiepolo, and the intact colored object was replaced by dynamic brush work.

This is all the revolution of Abstract Impressionism amounts to. Contemporary painting is subject to the same canons of judgment as any similar painting in the past.

I make these remarks because I have little doubt but that many young French painters, seeing Mark Tobey or Rothko, believe it is all a stunt, and that as citizens of the capital of Fashion, Perfume, Art and Vice, they can pull off better stunts than any hick from Seattle, Wash.

At the moment there is on view in New York a show that has, to the best of my knowledge, not received a single unfavorable review from a respected critic, though some have been mildly ironic. A young Frenchman, Yves Klein, is exhibiting a room full of rectangles painted blue all over.

That’s right, just blue, one smooth coat of Royal Blue. There’s nothing odd or subtle about the shapes. They are standard French canvas sizes. The blue is blue. The propaganda from a leading European gallery director, the statements to the press issued by M. Klein, the whole PR blowup, are hilarious examples of unblushing effrontery. In my very young days I was once a burlesque candy butcher, so I derive considerable aesthetic pleasure, as an old pro, from observing so outrageous a pitch.

The paintings cost a pretty penny and rate with the choicest of the chic. I am sure that any large paint company would be delighted to provide exact duplicates free to any chic matron in return for a casual mention at cocktails or bridge of the brand name. Really, I ask you, whither are we drifting?

Back in town. Dinner at the Boule Noire, where my friend Nausica has taken over as head of the kitchen. (There’s no such word as chefess.) Had chicken Napoleon and it was really something. Sonny Wayne, one of the owners and once drummer at The Cellar, says they are going to have dancing, a good trio, a good pianist and intimate singer for intermission, and eventually a whole bill of French acts.

What a pity no booking agent can get an entire show lifted from Paris and off on the Road. I think Brassens, the bitterest and wittiest singer of our day, the clowns, Les Frères Jacques, Germaine Montero singing the songs of Aristide Bruant about ’90s tarts and murderers, a couple of dancers, and one of those typical combination monologuists and magicians, a bill like this would make a whole lot of money for perhaps ten clubs in the USA. Maybe the Boule Noire can start something in that direction.

Then across the street to one of the great actors of all time — Raimu in the trilogy, Marius, Fanny, César. Raimu is possibly the only really great man ever to become a movie actor. Watching him is pure joy. The trilogy is the epic of Marseille and Provence.

The year we lived in Aix there was never a week one of the pictures wasn’t showing somewhere within 100 miles. But, alas, they simply don’t have the substance to stand six hours of a straight runoff of all three. They’ll not be shown again till 1985. The producers of the musical Fanny have bought all rights and intend to hold then off the market for 25 years. So this is your last chance.

[April 30, 1961]

American Provinciality

Last week I entertained a visitor from India, Mrs. Amrita Malik. She is a fellow journalist, critic and creative writer. With a number of other women writers from Asia and Africa she is on a State Department-sponsored tour of the USA and has just completed a similar trip across Canada.

We went to the Cho-Cho for dinner and to King Lear. She was delighted with both. She thought the costumes in Lear terrific, but had one criticism — she found the play too high pitched and high strung throughout, so that climaxes were lost is one general crescendo. I suppose she was right, although certainly Lear does not lend itself very well to modulation. Anyway — she was duly impressed by the high level of accomplishment.

I am not sure Shakespeare and Japanese food are what the State Department thinks of as The American Way of Life, although the combination is certainly part of the San Francisco Way of Life.

We have a good many friends in common in the literary world in London and India. As intellectuals do, when out of the public eye we did not talk of books and authors or politics or ideas — by and large we gossiped. So it was not until just before she left that I discovered something highly significant.

All across Canada she had been interviewed by the press, and on radio and television, and had talked for colleges and other groups. She was not asked very often what she thought of the Canadian Way of Life. She was asked about India. The Canadians were eager to learn as much as they could about Indian art, literature, drama, dance, about the political forces emerging as the Congress Party regroups itself, about the difficult and imaginative economic program.

Mrs. Malik is a thoroughly competent and devoted spokesman for in some ways the most interesting country in the world today. The Canadians got all they could from her.

So far the Americans have shown no such interest. We have been too busy telling her. The assumption always seems to be that these people should be brought here, shown the seven expensive wonders of the American Way of Life and sent home converted. We did the same thing with Nehru a few years back.

I think we have the cart before the horse. Whether bankers, politicians, artists or writers, the elite, the leading class (rather than “ruling class”) of Asia and Africa are citizens of the world. They are as internationally minded and as highly cultivated as the Swedes or Dutch. There are very few of them and they face awesome responsibilities.

We don’t need to convert them to the virtues of the Free World. Far more, we need to listen to them. What they have to tell us, their problems and their hopes, are of crucial importance to the future of all of us.

It is we, not they, who are provincial and unaware of our worldwide responsibilities.

[June 14, 1961]

The Death of Hemingway

Before I read Joseph Alsop’s vignette of Hemingway I had planned to devote part of this column to what might be called noncommittal tribute to an unquestionably important writer. I’m sorry, but I just have to speak up. I find all this glorification of Hemingway for his manifest evils nauseating.

This picture of a bunch of aging journalists and international bohemians staggering into a peasant cockfight and making grand whoopee is — is what? — you name it. One thing it certainly isn’t, and that is the expression of an appetite for intense significant experience.

I don’t care much for people who enjoy killing things, but I am willing to put up with hunters as long as they don’t carry their habits into private and public life. (Trotsky wired Zinoviev re the Kronstadt sailors, in revolt for the fulfillment of the promises of the Revolution, “Shoot them like partridges.” Bertrand Russell commented, “A hunter should never be allowed to lead a revolution.”)

I abominate people who make of killing a spectator sport. I honestly believe that all Americans who go to bullfights in the Spanish countries should be locked up on their return to the States.

How can anyone say that Hemingway loved life? It was death that fascinated him, as he never tired of saying. Love is not the word — that implies extreme positive evaluation. Death fascinated him as snakes are supposed to fascinate sparrows, with an empty but irresistible lure.

Life comes at the characters of Hemingway’s fictions not as experience, but as sensation. He is master of the brilliant still life — nature like a stereopticon picture, far sharper than reality. Far sharper, but that is all — never more meaningful. Similarly his people are perfectly delineated cutouts, more defined than people, who shade off into all sorts of obscurities, ever are.

His speech, which once sounded so realistic, is the same way — reading Men Without Women, it seems to be in a kind of blank verse, the ceremonial language of a religion without deity, without faith, hope, or charity.

Compare his novel of the Spanish War with Malraux’s. I think much of Malraux’s moralizing and philosophizing is flashy and dishonest. But it is dishonest — when it is so. Honesty, motivation, evaluation, have nothing to do with Hemingway’s story. His Spanish War was not a tragedy — but an enormously complicated fiasco, like a bullfight, but about girls with no place to sleep and men with nothing to do but die.

Do not think I have sat down to write an attack on Hemingway. Quite the contrary. He was a very great writer. His attitudes to life have become a codified faith of the faithless. They make a substitute for religion amongst the technical and professional intelligentsia all over the world — a class far more alienated than ever was Marx’s working class. His empty, clipped, ominous speech is parodied by television detectives and French philosophers. Bullfights are now legal in the country of Montaigne.

Long ago, when his first books came out, somebody — was it Wyndham Lewis? — said that you knew Hemingway was terribly cultured and brainy, because his characters never used good English and never said an intelligent thing. This is what he stood for from the beginning, the conscious rejection of what we call the Humanist tradition. He was a bullfight aficionado because Shaw was a vegetarian and Rolland a pacifist.

For so many, the rationalistic, humanistic society that had evolved in the Western World for three hundred years came to trial in the First World War and was found wanting — utterly wanting. Lady Brett and her pals and the old man and his fish, the indictment never changes. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

People have said that in the face of an empty but still hostile world. Hemingway’s only value was courage. But courage involves fairly complex relationships with other real people. His response was not an act of evaluation, it was rather a reaction, a kind of lonely attitude of flat defiance.

In his own personal life it often assumed the character of childish truculence. Truculence, they say, is an expression of insecurity. Hemingway’s world was awfully vacant; there weren’t any comfortable nooks and shelters in it.

The significant thing is that it is also the world of vast numbers of people, and especially overcivilized people today. Irrationalism, hidden anguish, unrelieved insecurity, defiance — these, once individual, personal qualities or defects, are becoming the characteristics of our civilization.

It is a measure of Hemingway’s stature as an artist that he embodied them unmistakably. He, more than anyone else, first shaped a new archetype, a new myth, a different kind of Modern Man. This modern man is certainly a tragic figure, but the tragedy is not a literary one, it is society’s.

[July 9, 1961]

A comprehensive biography of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) can be found at The Poetry Foundation.

(Editor's Note: The complete columns — more than 760 of them — that Kenneth Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner can be found as a separate section on Ken Knabb's great website, The Bureau of Public Secrets. My thanks to Ken for permission to reprint this selection."
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