Kenneth Rexroth

Three More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1963

The Kennedy Assassination

What struck down President Kennedy? Hate.

It does not matter how the hate is qualified. The left may suspect the right and the right the left. The assassin may have been solitary, he may have been the tool of others.

The man who killed Mayor Cermak and shot at Franklin Roosevelt said, “I belong to nothing, and I suffer.” In his deranged mind he felt himself totally outcast from the human race.

Behind the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, stretched tangled webs of plotting, silent complicity, and irresponsibility which historians have never been able to unravel. We may never know fully the details of the murder of President Kennedy.

We do know that that debonnaire man, fundamentally innocent and of good will, was caught in a snarl of hatreds and exterminated, senselessly, to no end, to the benefit of no cause however bad, like a fly caught in a gear box.

For two centuries men have been playing with hatred as a political instrumentality.

The most influential political philosophers of our time have taught that the manipulation of hatred will bring about a community of love. Men have laid hold of the awful power of hatred as they have the power of electricity or of the atom, and have proposed to use it for what they conceive to be the good of men.

But hatred is not neutral like the forces of nature, it is a moral force, a force of the human soul. It is the force of positive evil, and it always kills.

Think of the assassinated of our time — the Czar in a cellar, Trotsky in exile, Negro children at Sunday school, Oriental dictators dragged through the streets by their heels — the weaving mob of hate snarled for a second and a life was snuffed out — sometimes innocent, sometimes guilty.

Who are the weavers at the loom? All men who believe that this instrument and this power can bring anything but disaster and death.

President Kennedy has been called a martyr in thousands of pulpits. Martyrs die for a cause. If out of his death comes an awakening to the great evils loose in the world, and in which we are all involved, he will indeed have been a martyr.

Otherwise, God knows what hideous beast, its hour come ’round at last, slouched towards Dallas to be born.
[November 27, 1963]

The True Mourning

It would seem that every aspect of the assassination of the President and the ensuing events has been discussed literally ad nauseam, by everyone who could catch the public eye or for that matter who could be shoved in front of a camera or enticed into an interview.

During the worst period of uninterrupted milking of the public emotion, ’round the clock on TV and radio, I got two calls from women I know — both hysterical, one mildly drunk, both demoralized. Both said, “I’ve been sitting glued to the television set for three days. I don’t know what to do.”

Said I to both, “It seems to me the answer is simple. Turn the damn thing off and go for a walk.”

“I tried that,” said one, “but I stopped in front of a store and listened to the radio and burst into tears and ran home. What have you been doing to keep sane?”

“Working. I turn the radio on twice a day to pick up the most recent hard news.”

“But think of what you might miss!”

I did miss the televised murder, “the most sensational 30 seconds to ever go over the air waves.” I certainly am not in the least sorry I didn’t see it. I picked up my daughter at school on Friday and we stopped at St. Anne’s in the Sunset. People were already beginning to come to church. Many of them were obviously not Catholics and had never been in a Catholic church before, but they were all kneeling and praying.

Sunday we heard a powerful sermon on the unlimited liability of all Americans for the hate and disorder that has risen like a flooding river in our country and that has become the accepted way of life over much of the world. Later in the week we went to an evening Solemn Requiem Mass. No sermon, no collection, no announcements, nothing but the congregation dedicating “the soul of His servant John” to God in the ancient words of the liturgy, tested by almost two thousand years of grief.

I am telling you this not to show how holy we are in our family, but to answer those critics, one a local columnist, who have spoken slightingly of the ceremonial and ritual, the “pompes funèbres,” of those days of loss and grief.

“When the heart trembles,” said Confucius, “we quiet it with ceremony,” and he was an atheist by our standards. How lucky were all those people who could turn to the accepted, ancestral forms of consolation and mourning, whether Jewish or Christian, Buddhist or Muslim. The special society gave them ballast and sheet anchor in a time when the hearts of men were overturned.

Is this wrong? I think not. Because those who did not have such refuge were left out in the storm, caught in the highly efficient wind tunnels of “the media.” I can feel grief myself, I can comprehend the horror of a social disaster myself, I can express my mourning in solemnity with other men and women in a community of sorrow. I do not need the help of men and methods which ensure profitable public response to movies in which a half billion dollars have been invested, and guarantee the sale of toothpastes and laxatives.

The shoe is on the other foot. It is not the Cardinal at the altar, the widow and children kneeling alone by the coffin, the empty saddle, the heads of state marching in procession, the lamp burning at the grave as it does at the graves of the simplest Italian and French peasants — these were symbols of participation with which all men could identify themselves, freely, in so far as they had the capacity.

It was the manufactured grief, the manipulated horror, that was saddening. It wasn’t disgusting; it is wrong to view it with contempt; the occasion was saddening and horrible enough. But it was infinitely saddening to think that many men needed such massive transfusions of synthetic grief because they had lost the capacity for profound response within themselves. They could not respond — they could only react like experimental animals in a psychological laboratory.

Were they really all that many? Were they the majority? I doubt it. What was heartening was the obvious evidence that millions upon millions have persevered, each man in himself, the individual, personal wellsprings of a public grief and a public conscience. Millions were brought face to face with tragedy. It staggered them, but they faced it. They faced their own involvement in an explosion of hate, the senseless destruction of the innocent, the waste of all bright and noble things. This is true mourning, and millions rose to it.

Mourning confers a kind of grace on the mourners. Let us hope that grace persists, for we shall need it.
[December 1, 1963]

Thoughts About Death

For almost two weeks now, Americans have been thinking and talking about death. A single death, yes, in the first instance the death of a young and happy man at the pinnacle of power, but secondly a death that brought every individual face to face with the significance, absurdity, meaninglessness, but certainly inevitably the fact, of death in his own life and those about him.

Recently death has taken a number of old-timers, and some not so old, from The Hearst Newspapers, the most recent, Jimmy Hatlo, who started drawing for The Call when I first came to town, 35 years ago. Monday I was horrified to read that my colleague Irving Kupcinet’s daughter was found strangled in Hollywood. She was beautiful, intelligent, adored by her father, as I love my daughters.

I realize how powerless that love is to ward off the irrationality of fate.

Americans are supposed to be afraid of death and guiltily ashamed of it, as the Victorians were of procreation and elimination. We are accused at length in three popular books of hiding it under soothing syrup, bad perfume and dirty money. Once again I think the picture drawn by sensational publicity had been confused with the stark and commonplace reality which millions of people who are neither fools nor celebrities face with dignity. Surely last week we were all aware of an American family facing death with natural majesty.

Majesty in the face of a great mystery — this is the opposite of the self-pity that encourages commercial exploitation.

After all, death is the most normal thing in life. All sorts of things can happen in any given life — but one thing is sure to. This is why priests and physicians make better counselors for the distraught than do the optimistic types so common amongst lay therapists. They know that there is only one ultimate prognosis for all sickness of mind and body. So they have learned to deal with the passing turmoils of the mind with considerable equanimity and skepticism.

The most absolute of all critical points — the instant of transition from being to not being, or from time to timelessness — it is always there, waiting, like the boiling and freezing points wait for water — the only certainty.

Last week the careless, the sentimental, the frightened, have seen it comprehended with the profound dignity that is the awe-inspiring potential within the human heart.

It is this comprehension of unfathomable mystery that perhaps above all else makes us truly human.
[December 4, 1963]

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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