Kenneth Rexroth

Three Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1964

Government by Celebrity

From the day he announced his availability until he went out of office, the Democrats never tired of pointing out that President Eisenhower appealed to the electorate not on his qualifications for the job, but because he was a folk hero, the Father Figure Who Won the War.

The revelation that Richard Nixon had embarked on his career by answering an ad for a personable young man willing to run for office stirred up a storm, allayed only by the combined efforts of the nation’s television masterminds.

President Kennedy was criticized for the glamour with which his public relations people enveloped him and his family. “Government by celebrity” was what one of his own most articulate liberal supporters called it.

As things worked out, these three men proved to be representatives of the people: not the same people, but real people with real convictions. Nonetheless, public relations techniques have invaded politics to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. Today the candidate must present an image, not a program. In fact, the more specific the program, the more dangerous it is — promotionwise, as they wisely put it.

Of course this has always been true. Julius Caesar took good care to project an image, and urchins still study that projection in schools. But there is a point beyond which a political party is not supposed to go in choosing a candidate. It is acceptable to put retired generals and movie queens on boards of directors of corporations, but if a political party were to run Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn, most seriously minded citizens would consider it vaguely unethical.

We sense instinctively that the celebrity in office is there for no good reason, but bought on impulse like a brightly packaged box of corn flakes. He may be unobjectionable himself, but the electorate has acted in a fashion that exposes it to worse than demagogy. A people that chooses its leaders in this way is in process of turning into a mob. If the office has any power, the time will surely come when fancy wrapping will conceal the worst tyranny. Of course it is always possible that the office has been emptied of meaning.

Neither of these alternative is pleasant to contemplate, yet they are questions that spring to mind on reading of astronaut John H. Glenn Jr.’s announcement that he is a candidate for the United States Senate.

There is no evidence that this young man has any qualifications whatsoever for public office. He has never shown any interest in politics before; he seems to be devoid of opinions, much less program; he is purely and simply a celebrity. If he needs opinions to win, they will be processed and fed to him by his PR staff and by the anonymous men who picked him to run.

True, it is all far away in Ohio, and no immediate concern of ours. But it is an ominous symptom of a spreading frivolity in our political lives. And never forget, we’ve got more celebrities in California than we know what to do with. If we ever start running them for office out here, it will mean the breakdown of all social order — the very prospect beggars description.
[February 19, 1964]

Tom Jones and The Ginger Man

If you want to learn easily and objectively, while being entertained, what has happened to the human race in 200 years, go and see the movie Tom Jones at the United Artists, and next evening, the live play, The Ginger Man at the Encore.

By and large, pictures that move don’t move me, but Tom Jones is close to the best that the industry can do. It is a landmark in the history of cinema, as they say in the highbrow reviews, which means that it does not insult the intelligence of an adult.

Fielding’s novel Tom Jones has been called one of the three greatest tales in the history of literature. It set the basic type for the plot of the novel of self realization. Tom discovers himself. He finds out, in the course of a series of remarkable adventures, who he is. It is not just that he learns his true parentage and realizes his potentialities; he discovers what he really is, himself for himself alone — his ego center, as our 20th-century headshrinkers put it.

This is the plot of James Joyce’s Ulysses and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; it is also the plot of the best novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of dozens of other famous works before and since.

In addition, Tom Jones is the greatest of the English picaresque novels, the classic type of the kaleidoscopic adventures of a lovable rascal. Once in a while the picture gets a little flashy, but by and large it is honest and clear. Clear is the word for Fielding, his characters have an uncanny clarity, as though we were watching real people from behind an invisible sheet of glass.

The Ginger Man is also an adaptation of a novel. It has enjoyed a limited reputation amongst the most judicious critics ever since it appeared, as the best of the novels of the English Angry Young Men.

Possibly this is because the author, J.P. Donleavy, is neither English nor angry. He is an Irish American and as full of fun as an old-time professional bar fly from Paddy McGinty’s Beer Parlor. His association with the AYM is due to the fact that he was abroad and part of their circle when the novel was published. Comic he may be, but it is with a gallows humor.

If Tom Jones is the type English picaresque novel, The Ginger Man is the anti-type. Its thesis might be described as a demonstration of the utter impossibility of being Tom Jones in a contemporary city. Its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, is a rascal, true enough, but he is an empty rascal, and he gets progressively emptier, until he becomes just a sort of hole in the story.

Tom Jones is an entrepreneur, Sebastian Dangerfield is a delinquent. Fielding wrote a mocking story of 18th-century man on the way up, the type of the emerging capitalist class, as the Marxists would call him. Before he got far with his tale, he was overcome with admiration for his own invented hero. Donleavy wrote of the adventures of the same kind of youth, in a time when history has made him redundant, and so Sebastian Dangerfield is just a sociopath. It is not that he goes down hill morally, it is that he gets in the literal sense of the catch phrase — “absolutely nowhere.” Imagine, if you can, a funny Journey to the End of the Night.

And yet Sebastian is lovable, as so many characters on Death Row are. He rouses every motherly instinct, and all our philosophical pity for the senseless waste of existence. He is just another of the billions of codfish eggs that never hatched in the bosom of the sea. But more than that, drunken, crooked and slyly effeminate, he clings to the masculine clarity of vision that made the author if not the hero of Tom Jones great. He steadfastly refuses to call things what they are not. Far more than Henry Miller’s heroes, his honesty is shameless and stark, and so his lack of sham judges all the sham with which we garb our own actions.

Bawdy as it is, there is something very evangelical about The Ginger Man. It is a retelling of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The Emperor in this case is that figure St. Paul used to call “the ruler of this world,” where “this world” is that immense category that St. Paul used to link with the flesh and the devil.

I’ve been so busy talking about what these two tales mean that I have said nothing about The Ginger Man as a play. It was dramatized by Donleavy himself, and he missed none of the salient points of the novel. The play, in fact, more compact, has more impact. Tom Rosqui, Erica Rosqui and Robert Benson have a great good time. They are lucid, forceful and enthusiastic. Priscilla Pointer, who seldom gets a chance to do broad character roles, is hilarious and must be seen to be believed.
[March 8, 1964]

Charles Mingus

Sometimes I wonder. Maybe Spengler was right and the time for Art has passed. It certainly seems impossible for Americans to write “serious” music.

We were talking about the Greenwich Villagers who got thrown out of the Washington Square Open Air Art Show for advocating Mom Art and marching about amongst the Pop exhibits singing “Mom goes the weasel!” when my secretary suggested that we should start the Not Art Movement and exhibit in lonely magnificence on museum walls the canceled checks paid to artists for agreeing not to paint pictures. I think this is a wonderful idea — and attuned to the necessities of the Keynesian economy, too.

Not Art would be a most hygienic movement in modern music, that’s for sure. The world press is all upset about Roger Sessions’s Montezuma, a sort of latter-day Aida that laid a vast egg — a moa egg, as it were — at its premiere in Germany. You wonder how he could lose. The subject is shooting fish in a barrel: all you have to do is put Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico to music and you’ve got it.

But, alas, unless you are a college music teacher, Roger Sessions is guaranteed to bore you if he whistles three bars of “Yankee Doodle.”

So with the recent Spring Opera production of Susannah. I would go to hear Lee Venora sing the telephone directory. She is one of my favorite people. All the other principals in the show worked like dogs — to what? — to sell the audience a dog. Yet I looked on the crowd around me, and what did I see? They were enthusiastic. Next day all my colleagues thought it was wonderful. Were they kidding? Except for trivialities like Aria da Capo and Four Saints, I have never seen an American opera that I didn’t think it would have been better, for this man at least, if it had never been.

The same goes for practically all other “serious” American music. Maybe the Supreme Court, dedicated as it is these days to creative sociology, might be prevailed upon to enjoin Americans from writing music.

The unserious music is a different matter. Tuesday night we went to hear Charles Mingus open at the Jazz Workshop. Not only is Mingus one of the two or three most important jazz musicians in America, he is one of the three or four most important musicians and composers of any sort. In jazz only he and Thelonious Monk never tire me or bore me. After one set of Ornette Coleman, I’ve had enough, he’s wearing. Also, he is a young man and the iron has yet to bite as deeply into his heart as it has into Mingus and Monk.

The Modern Jazz Quartet neither bores nor tires, but John Lewis is not in deadly earnest either, as are Monk and Mingus. The MJQ is not, as has been said, salon music, but it is light chamber music. There’s nothing wrong with that — so was Vivaldi.

It is not just that Mingus is both musically profound and enormously facile, he, like Thelonious, thinks in wholes. Each piece begins to build the minute it starts. It grows organically, in form and meaning, like a child grows into a man. Not only that, but the meanings are clear and cogent. Sometimes you wonder about Thelonious Monk. What are the complex ideas he is talking about as a composer at the piano? Something he read in a book he found in Lost Atlantis? Mingus is much less an uncommon man; his insights and his pain are something everybody can share.

It is tragic music, with a tragedy that far transcends current American conflicts that have come to obsess so many jazz musicians. I never sit and listen to him, now that he is famous, without my mind going back to the Black Cat in the last years of the war, long before it was a gay joint, with young Mingus spinning beautiful self-supporting structures of sound out of his bull fiddle while some clown made a jazz-like racket on the piano and somebody else blurted and bleated on a pawnshop horn.

He used to carry that big fiddle around with him as though it were a piccolo, everywhere he went. I remember late one winter night, coming on Mingus leaning against a lamp post, dense fog whirling around him, bowing softly to himself a long wandering melody, infinitely sad, rather like the Gregorian chant once sung in time of plague, “Media Vita,” or like some desolate Russian church music. My girl and I stopped short with a start and stood listening to him for a long while, till at last he returned and looked at us and said, “Rexroth. Peggy.”

The other night it happened again. In the midst of a similar, but wiser, more mature, more complex passage he looked up again and grunted like Lionel Hampton and said, “Rexroth.”

I almost burst out crying.
[May 24, 1964]

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