Kenneth Rexroth

Four Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1967

Finland Sparkles

HELSINKI. — Here we are in Finland, a country I’ve always wanted to visit and had begun to wonder if I’d ever see. Of all the people who have gone to make America, the Finns are amongst my very favorites, and their country turns out to live up already to my expectations.

We went off on a Finnair Caravelle in the sunset and a strong north wind blowing. Soon we were above the low ceiling and under the winter stars. I should imagine in the long summer daylight the flight over Denmark, Sweden and the Baltic would be quite a spectacular sight, but we saw only the spectacular stars.

The Finnish character began to manifest itself before we ever started. The waiting passengers were more relaxed and friendly than similar German groups alongside them, waiting for the next gate. When the stewardesses showed up they were pretty girls, full of bounce, who acted like they were off on their first airplane ride to visit grandma.

The direct flight to Helskinki takes less than two hours — the flight from Berlin to Hamburg about 45 minutes. After the overcrowded shuttle planes operated by the three Allied airlines in Berlin with their “we couldn’t care less, you’re our captive customers and have to deal with our attitude,” the atmosphere of convivial service on Finnair was another startling contrast.

There were fresh newspapers in at least six languages. There was an excellent dinner, chicken with mandarin sauce, rice with pimentos, green beans, cake, a banana, and a choice of wines. I had a good and authentic Beaujolais — 15 cents in tourist class, free up front, and one of those wonderful Finnish liqueurs made of Arctic wild berries.

On only a couple of the airlines in all the world have I ever encountered such attentive girls. It was as though they were special emissaries of the Department of Tourism, out to make you very welcome to Finland before you ever got there — experts in advance hospitality.

We landed in a fine snowstorm, pine trees and snowy roads under street lamps and Christmas lights, and then we were out in Helsinki and through a perfunctory but brisk customs — 25 degrees Fahrenheit and just enough dry snow falling to make us feel like we had arrived with Santa Claus. There was our friend Jubani Jaskari [spelling unclear] to greet us and we drove through the pine-wooded suburbs into the glittering and spacious city.

Don’t laugh, but Helsinki is like San Francisco. It is a relatively small city which is the capital of an exceptionally highly civilized area, so with only about 500,000 people it has all the cultural amenities of a major capital — museums, opera, ballet, theaters, symphony, chamber music, all far beyond that to be found in, say, Lyons or Sheffield or Cincinnati. I doubt if there are many places where Ubu Roi, Waiting for Godot, and the Farquhar-Brecht Trumpets and Drums are all playing on the same weekend.

It certainly sparkled for us the first night — that is the first impression — everything, the great shop windows full of goodies, the coffee shops with hip young people who were so much less dragged out than those in Berlin or London, and not interested in being conspicuously evil, and the people themselves sparkling, as though life was always Christmas Eve.

The Finns themselves tell you that everybody is sullen in the long winter darkness and that they are a naturally taciturn and formal people. Maybe a revolution has taken place since the Second War amongst the taciturn races, because the Dutch, who are certainly the most ebullient and talkative people north of Naples, still describe themselves in terms of the Dutch stereotypes of two generations ago. I had a lot to do with the various Finnish Workers’ Clubs in the labor movement between the wars and I never thought of them as frisky, but frisky they are now.

We put up at the Hospiz. This is an excellent hotel, run by the NNKY, the Finnish YMCA. Don’t confuse it with the hotels run by the Y or the Salvation Army in America, England, Germany or France. It is not cheap by European standards, it has rooms with baths and showers, equipped with modern Finnish furniture, about like a good American motel, and yes, it has a sauna.

Hospiz NNKY is thoroughly Finnish. The only sign of religious sponsorship is a notice that alcoholic overindulgence and conduct offensive to Christian moral customs are forbidden. And a wall motto in each corridor, “Jesus Christ is here.” That’s fine with me, so much better than being blinded in the lobby by flashlight [two indecipherable words] at Brigitte Bardot. It is all as clean as the falling snow and you could not just eat off the floors but actually perform surgery on them.

[January 1, 1967]

Paris Is Provincial

PARIS. — When writers and artists and musicians from Warsaw, Belgrade, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Prague visit Paris nowadays they all have the same comment — “How provincial it all seems!”

Those cities, for differing reasons, are more or less isolated politically, but their intellectuals are grappling with truly contemporary problems, and seeking truly contemporary answers.

Talking with Simon Vinkenoog in Amsterdam, or Olaf Lagerkrantz in Stockholm, or Oili Makki in Helsinki, or Hugo Claus in Audenarde, I never for one second felt any strangeness, any sense of foreignness — we were all citizens of one country, newspaper editor, weaver, dramatist, we all spoke one international language, a kind of Esperanto of the spirit.

This is not true of German intellectuals. They are completely identified with the German Establishment. They may be alienated, but it is with a German and an Established alienation.

The French are different. France is not a nation, it is a decayed civilization. The foundations of that civilization were laid in the 16th and 17th centuries and given their final form in the mid-19th.

What we think of as typically French, in any field — art, dress, literature, cuisine — was shaped during the reigns of two rulers who nobody in France admits to liking — Louis XV and Napoleon II. The molds have been cast, any copies taken will have the same shape.

To have essential change, you would have to break the molds. Theoretically, that was what the Dadaists and the Surrealists were going to do, break the molds. Instead, they were absorbed and then it became apparent that what had seemed the most destructive revolt was simply the decadence of the old forms.

Today, Robbe-Grillet is not even a decadent Stendhal; he is a rundown Dumas. Contemporary French poetry is much like the indistinguishable books of verse written by the petty mandarins of American academia that flow across my desk, all exactly alike, year after year.

France is in a period of social and political consolidation in which everything is homogeneous and homogenized. It is a time much like that of the first Napoleon, which is one of the most barren, creatively, in all French history.

The first night in Paris we had dinner with an old friend, a lifelong apparatchik, a real specialist and trouble shooter for the left, a very good poet and critic, a journalist who has traveled all over the world. One would certainly expect a man like this to be thoroughly internationalized. Yet he made a remark I shall never forget, which pretty well sums up what has happened to French intellectuals.

With a proud smile he said, “Do you realize that for a week last autumn we had more gold, more dollars and more Eurodollars than you did in Fort Knox?”

“We?” “You?” Buster, I didn’t have a dime in Fort Knox, and I don’t know what a Eurodollar looks like. Constant concern with such considerations is spiritually obliterative.

Perhaps that is why the one institution which still preserves something of its international character, and which still operates in the vanguard of modern thought, is the advance guard of the Catholic Church.

Both Marxism and Existentialism are withering on the vine in their official forms, yet the ideas first raised by those creeds are today being discussed and revalued in the most creative fashion by Catholic thinkers, most especially the Jesuits and Dominicans.

The most radical economic organizations are the Young Catholic Workers and the Young Catholic Farmers.

We went to Mass at Saint-Séverin, on the edge of the student quarter and the slums of Montebello. Liturgically this is one of the most radical churches in the world. Ten years ago they were already saying most of the Mass in French, facing the congregation, and with several priests concelebrating.

[February 19, 1967]


BARCELONA. — The warmest winter on record — the Pyrenees loomed up ahead of the plane as snowy and massive as the Sierra Nevada of California, but underneath Andorra lay, already green with spring.

One thing about Spain — it sure looks Spanish, even from 800 meters — yellow earth and pink rocks and gray-green forests and bright green fields. It’s a country where you know where you are.

We went to a clean, efficient little hotel — the Rialto, on Calle Fernando of the Ramblas in Barcelona, a welcome relief after our Paris pension. Two hundred and fifty pesetas (about $4, winter rate) for a double and a single, both with showers and w.c. Spain is not as cheap as it was, but it is still cheap.

And then to dinner in one of the great restaurants, the Agut d’Avignon on the Calle Avino. Again — a spectacular dinner for three for $10.

Barcelona has changed so much in the eight years since I’ve seen it that it’s hard to believe. It has been swept up in the “economic miracle” of the new Europe.

There are only a few shoeshine “boys” left and they’re old men and only a handful of tarts around the sailors’ cafés on the Calle Esendilles, and they are aging beauties. The disappearance of young women and boys who enter those two professions out of necessity is one of the first and most conspicuous signs of the new economy. But certainly they are minor signs — or are they? After all they mean that boys and girls no longer need to degrade themselves.

Barcelona in fact looks more prosperous than San Francisco. There are new buildings everywhere, prosperous shops full of every conceivable merchandise including heavy consumer goods on sale at special time-payment rates — there are even discount houses in a city where all prices seem discounts, although they’re nearly double what they were a few years ago. So is the population, now about three million.

Barcelona not only looks like California, it is like California — bursting at the seams with the new economy and with one million immigrants from the south.

Like Los Angeles, it has always been a hazy city under a cap of warm air trapped between hills. Now there are cars everywhere like an infestation of horrible tin vermin. You’d not be at all surprised to see streams of them crawling over the towers of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. (Give them time, they soon will be.) We happen to have encountered exceptionally clear weather. It is quite possible to see the surrounding hills through the smog, but they tell us it’s the first time in months.

At this time of year it is possible to avoid the worst of the tourism with which Spain is afflicted — the bargain-basement tourism which has meant 20 years of steady input of money and so has sparked an economic surge forward which is really only just now beginning.

This month tourists are at a low ebb, and the restaurants and museums are given over to the inhabitants. Those inhabitants certainly know how to live.

I don’t care much for Spanish culture proper, but the Catalans are amongst my favorite people. What they really are is the old Provençal civilization, overwhelmed in the south of France but still living on with the spirit of the Troubadours in Catalonia. The language, of course, is really a variety of Provençal.

Barcelona is like Helsinki — there is an electric charge of vital excitement in the air. Over a million people from the rest of Spain have emigrated to Catalonia in the last few years — but they seem to be assimilated and liberated, sometimes with startling effects, like San Francisco affected the young Allen Ginsberg.

Prosperity, consumer economy, new technology, Catalonian rambunctiousness, all combine to produce a profound social ferment, a yeasty digestion and transformation which penetrates to every aspect of the society with explosive results.

We arrived just as the university blew up in Berkeley fashion — but it’s all part of a general process — modern painting and music, Catalan poetry, social protest, smog and electric refrigerators.

[March 5, 1967]

The Temptation to Remain in Italy

MILAN (Italy). — Why go anywhere else when there’s Italy? The first time in adult life I left Italy, over the Simplon, and looked back and saw the land where the pomegranate blooms and the nightingales sing, lying all gold in the afternoon, tears filled my eyes at the thought I might never see it again. But I did several times.

Now coming back once again, with gray hair, my temptation is to stay. Italy will still be beautiful — but someday I won’t be coming back. Why do I leave? What have I got elsewhere that isn’t better here?

Italy generates in me a steady state of exaltation, an abiding joy. Saints are supposed to feel that way. Certainly it is better than any drug. I can’t imagine any more paradisiacal entrance to a land full of paradises than the Bellegio peninsula on Lake Como.

White Alps, blue water, yellow and pink villas, and the hillside covered with Christmas roses under the cypresses and umbrella pines and violets and anemones and masque flowers beginning to come out, and all topped by a great ruined castle where the Lombards stood in vain against the Franks.

Then through the high foothills to Milan and a day of steady sightseeing, the great Brera Museum, St. Ambrogio, Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Cathedral and the four other churches.

Some of my favorite paintings are in the Brera — the Tintoretto Discovery of the Body of St. Mark, which with its companion piece in the Venice Academia, revolutionized my own concept of painting some 35 years ago.

The Piero della Francesca Virgin and Saints with an egg suspended over her head, a strange, entranced picture of a vision of creatures different from ordinary men, rapt away in another order of being, and the Luini frescoes, especially the reconstructed chapel.

So much modern taste has been formed by study of the Florentine painters. Their sculptured and colored figures set in boxes of deep space and distorted with an all-pervading mannerism have been congenial to the rigid classicism of the period from Cézanne to Surrealism.

Lombard painting has much to recommend it: an easy grace and sensuousness that goes back to the primitives, the contemporaries of Cimabue and Giotto.

And why is the Cenacolo of Leonardo the most successful of all the great set pieces of the Florentine High Renaissance? It is tattered and shattered and half obliterated, yet it still carries something that Michelangelo and Raphael lack.

The Last Judgment has nothing to do with Christianity — it is some special vision of Michelangelo’s uniquely tortured soul — and besides, it looks self-conscious and contrived.

Raphael’s School of Athens is certainly one of the purest and noblest utterances of man — but it verges on chemical purity and an inhuman nobility.

The Last Supper is a consummate dramatic statement by a man who had come late in life to that depth of understanding and universal sympathy which we think of as being peculiar to Sophocles and Shakespeare. We do not, certainly, think of Leonardo, over most of his life, as being Christian at all. I doubt if he believed in a single sentence of the Nicene Creed — except “And was made man.”

That, of course, is what makes the painting so great — his penetration into the simple and devastating tragedy of one man amongst 12 other men, a penetration so acute that it restates the tragedy in terms in which human nature is transcended. And it is all so simply and unpretentiously done.

Here for once Leonardo knew that the greatest art is the concealment of art. Mathematicians have analyzed the positions of the little loaves of bread and the gestures of the hands and every other detail — the picture is more complex, more “abstract” than all the products of analytical cubism, but reproductions of it hang on thousands of walls with candles before them.


Post a Comment

<< Home