Kenneth Rexroth

More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1967

Extincting Ourselves

LAKE COMO (Italy). — I am sitting in the high window of a villa overlooking the bend in Lake Como. It is just after sunrise and I am watching the cold air that has drained off the Alps all night give way to the rising warm air from Milan and the Lombard plain. It is a terrifying sight.

Down the lake where the sun cuts through the mountains is a slowly advancing wall of smog. There’s no question — it is not morning mist — it has the reddish color and the ragged upper edges of industrial haze. As the wind changes, it creeps slowly nearer. I feel as though we were being invaded by Martians who were blanketing the earth with poison gas, or by some horrible malignant intelligent virus from Betelgeuse. Maybe we are.

Milan day and night except during storms lies under a dense cloud of carcinogens that spreads out for miles and rises into the lower valleys of the Alps.

I have flown from San Francisco to Los Angeles and seen the smog bank stretching from the Mojave out to sea past Catalina and curling up the coast as far as Santa Barbara.

Maybe something is happening we don’t know about. Maybe the big molecules locked in the earth in organic fuels are intelligent and this is their way of achieving liberation and taking over.

The other day I sat in a little plaza by the sea in Barcelona. It was completely occupied by parked cars — right up to the walk around the fountain. Coming in that night from Sitges we passed the all-glass-walled SEAT plant. Ten stories of glass incubator, lit by pale, fluorescent lights and filled with thousands of sleeping cars.

Maybe organic life and man with it is just a brief episode in the evolution of a mechanistic world — a temporary device by which the mechanical relationships of matter were enabled to rise to a new qualitative level. Now they no longer need us and they are slowly eliminating us. By the time the computers are self-perpetuating and can prevent any and all problems we will be gone.

I have said for years that the only organization I belonged to was the Sierra Club. Implied in such a statement was the idea I reject all politics-as-usual, Left, Right and Center. Today the only politics that matters is the struggle to save the environment necessary to the perpetuation of the human species.

We are busy, even without the atom bomb, making ourselves extinct. The most revolutionary movement today is the ecological revolution.

It proposes to turn mankind around and set it off in a totally new direction, away from the oblivion it is now manufacturing for itself.

Maybe it will fail. Certainly so far machines have been more powerful than men. Even an obsolete machine like the internal combustion engine, a kind of mechanical duck-billed platypus, is able to take over the cities of men the way certain parasitic ants take over another ant hill.

But an automobile engine can’t compute. What’s going to happen when those creatures on the Dew Line get tired of the cold and move south to the White House and the Kremlin. Or have they already, and we don’t know?

[April 18, 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]

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]

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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