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A Mystic and Tormented Believer By: Stephen Schwartz
San Francisco Faith | Monday, May 30, 2005

On March 31, while the thoughts and prayers of millions were turned to the expiring Holy Father, John Paul II, as well as to the fate of Terri Schiavo, a solemn requiem Mass was celebrated at the National Shrine of Saint Francis in the North Beach district of San Francisco.

Some 150 mourners had congregated for the funeral of a conservative and traditionalist Catholic poet, Philip Lamantia, who at 77 had died of heart failure in his nearby apartment on March 7.

Lamantia had always been a mystic and had become a tormented believer. But the leftist literary bureaucracy that enveloped him in San Francisco made his final years a nightmare, because he publicly declared his religious devotion and his condemnation of the decadence and corruption that has devastated his city.

In the November 1998 issue of the San Francisco Faith, I wrote a profile of Lamantia, based on an interview (“The Road Less Traveled: San Francisco Beat Poet Turns Traditional Catholic.”) A resulting firestorm of intimidation resulted in a temporary repudiation of the article by Lamantia and a physical assault on myself. Much aggrieved complaint poured forth from the local atheist establishment, embodied in Lamantia’s publisher, City Lights Books.

Yet Lamantia died affirming his belief. Some of his last poems praised the Holy Father; the poet also described his environment as a hellish, “unheavenly city.” A non-traditional Catholic poet and blogger who signs his name only as Erik, recalled [at www.pinkmochi.com/eriksrant/], “the last time we saw Philip was [at] the beginning of 2002. The nature of his depression was such that being around friends was the hardest thing he could do. ‘Mass is nearly unbearable,’ he said, almost in tears, ‘because who could possibly be a better friend than Jesus? Pray for me.’ “ But for the few who know the real story of Lamantia, it is likelier that the presence of “friends” from his earlier life was a cause of his depression, rather than the latter bringing about his difficulties in dealing with them.

As I described Philip Lamantia in the 1998 Faith article, “raised in the Italian culture of San Francisco, where he was exposed to, but not taught, traditional Catholicism, Lamantia burst into American literature with a unique series of surreal, transcendental poems. ‘Discovered’ by the anti-Communist author Kenneth Rexroth, Lamantia saw his work printed to extraordinary acclaim in New York in 1943, when he was only 15.

“The circle of poets around Rexroth — including Lamantia, Robert Duncan, and William Everson — differed from its immediate predecessors in San Francisco mainly, at the beginning, because of their break with radical leftism. However, as Rexroth himself commented, ‘one of the characteristics of all these new people was, to put it bluntly, mysticism’....

“Under the influence of Rexroth, Lamantia ... began reading sacred texts, but he was a turbulent youth, and had to work through drugs, anarchism, and other deviations. In the late 1940s, he ... encountered the group of aspiring writers associated with Allen Ginsberg. Lamantia’s influence led Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the other ‘Beat’ writers to come to San Francisco, where they met Rexroth. In 1956, a historic poetry reading at the Six Gallery in the Marina District of San Francisco led to the emergence of the ‘Beats’ on the national scene. The reading, with Rexroth as master of ceremonies, included Lamantia, the Buddhist poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, and the young painter and poet Michael McClure, as well as Ginsberg, who used the occasion to read publicly his poem ‘Howl’ for the first time.

“Californian — and American — literary history was changed forever. However, in those years none of the ‘Beats’ promoted leftism; rather, their ‘rebellion’ remained oriented toward mysticism. Within the group Lamantia had gone the furthest toward seeking God’s grace. While travelling in the Indian districts of northern Mexico [in the mid-50s], he had undergone a profound Christian vision and came, like Everson, under the influence of the Dominicans.... Lamantia’s verse during this period of Christian grandeur is filled with the mystery of faith:

There is this distance between me and what I see everywhere immanence of the presence of God..../ I long for the luminous darkness of God.

“But as the years went on, Lamantia fell away from the Christian communion.”

Lamantia had experienced his Christian revelation among the Cora Indians, who fought in the Cristero rebellion against Mexican state secularism in the 1920s, inspired by the cry, Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!) Their leader, when Lamantia encountered them, was a man of whom the poet always spoke with great respect: Mónico Evangelista Narciso. But after leaving Mexico, the poet was badly tempted by paganism.

A victim of heroin addiction, he went to Europe and joined an authoritarian cult, headed by a shady “philosopher” named René Schwaller, who exalted the Pharaonic rule of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, this “movement” had historical associations with Nazism and an inner anti-Jewish content. In a memoir issued in 1987, titled Al-Kemi, a friend of Lamantia named André VandenBroeck, who married Lamantia’s former girlfriend, Goldian Nesbit, recalled with great honesty and frankness his struggle with the Judeophobic nature of the Schwaller phenomenon, which caused him to leave the cult. The book carried a prefatory comment by Saul Bellow, the Jewish Nobel laureate in literature.

Pope John Paul II condemned anti-Jewish ideologies as an offense to Christianity. But while he could purge himself of dependence on heroin, Lamantia was unable to fully recover from his descent into pagan doctrines. After he returned from Europe he eventually settled in his birthplace, San Francisco, in the bosom of literary radicalism, where he confessed the nature of his twisted path only to a few companions. He still wrote in 1976, in a vocabulary drenched with polytheism, “Of labyrinths there are none more formidable, it seems to me, than those which ensorcell while extending like those ‘waves of snakes’ whose variations multiply as one reads a mile of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.” When Lamantia published his definitive collected poems under the title Bed of Sphinxes in 1997, it included a gushing homage to Schwaller. He clearly had immense difficulty freeing himself from those nests of serpents. Another poet-blogger, a Catholic from the Philippines named Eileen Tabios, at www.chatelaine-poet.blogspot.com/, recalled after Lamantia’s passing, “he once chided me for not turning as much of my attention to Egypt as I’ve done to Greece.”

Still, in the late 1990s Lamantia again sought consolation in the Catholic faith, this time with greater firmness. In the interview on which my Faith article was based, he affirmed, “God’s grace is everything.” I then noted, “he is avid about this love, repeatedly declaring that he will die in the faith. Over [1997-98], the poet reread the entire Old Testament, and returned to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, thanks to the spiritual direction of the Conventual Franciscans in North Beach. Lamantia was a great admirer of Pope John Paul II, commenting, ‘Holy Father is superb’. He considers John Paul II ‘the greatest prose stylist among the Popes since Leo XIII,’ whom he praises for the balanced, Christian message of his famous encyclicals on social justice. He also prefered William Levada* to John Quinn as the archbishop of San Francisco. In general, Lamantia was a traditional, mystical Catholic who emphasized the power of the Lord and the liberation offered through the Gospels, rather than the liberal political excitements favored by many professed Catholics today. According to Lamantia, only ‘God’s grace’ is saving San Francisco from the paganism, sexual degeneracy and public embrace of deviant behavior that define it.”

This last sentence outraged his peers in the San Francisco “po-biz,” as the poetry subculture is known. Something he had written many years before had come to apply to them:

You cannot close/ You cannot open/ You break yr head/ You make bloody bread!

Nevertheless, Lamantia, at the same time, could not turn away from the wine and bread, the blood and body, of the Catholic sacraments. After the Faith article appeared, he wrote two deeply religious and anti-Satan poems published in 2001 in Communio, an international Catholic review based in Washington, D.C. One of them, “Seraphim City,” dated October 4, 2000, included his embittered reference to “the very unheavenly city named for Saint Francis,” which he described as follows:

Super-cool simulacra were standing around/ almost robotic./ I, wrapt by coat of invisible darkness/ glide to embrace a whole cafe row/ where postmodern unlovables ooze daylight nightmare/ ... those twenty-first century heads/ of living death

The other work is an homage to Holy Father, John Paul II:

It can not be said that you Pope John Paul II are the epitome of post-modernism since for two decades you have been one of its most responsible critics/ Now after so many changes so many revolutions so many end worlds/ poetry itself pronounced dead in these disunited states/ while you, head of the quantitatively greatest of world religions,/ travel this world as its supreme nonconformist/ announcing humanity’s ultimate terrestrial hope/ “the civilization of love”/ silently gathering a serene somehow possible/impossible miracle/ to overcome “the culture of death”

The author striving for Catholic values could not trust his old circle, and had formed a new one of younger poets. The blogger Erik commented, “ ‘you know,’ said Philip over one of countless cups of espresso, ‘I am pretty sure that Holy Father reads Communio.** I wonder what he thought of that poem.’” Erik recalled their first meeting: “I had seen this fellow at mass all the time. He had a friendly face with almost a Russian look. He helped take collection at daily mass, and always said ‘hello’ when I saw him in front of the church or in a local café. I had no idea who he was until I was working the door at a church event, checking off the people who had prepaid for the dinner. This fellow who I had seen many times announced his name, as if it were just another Sicilian name that he would probably have to spell, and I was stunned. Philip Lamantia. One of my favorite poets.”

Another writer, Brian Lucas, composed a blog memorial to Lamantia that includes a photograph of an “altar” with the poet’s photograph next to a prayer card of St. Francis (www.earinsound.blogspot.com). Lamantia wrote at least one more work after the poems in Communio, titled “Triple V: The day non-surrealism became surrealist,” printed in a Santa Cruz poetry magazine called untitled, also in 2001. By then, the San Francisco poetry bureaucracy had adopted a deep silence regarding his alienation from them. None of them had anything meaningful to say to obituary writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times or The New York Times, all of which published notices of his death, about his final spiritual inspiration. That was left to those of us who cared about it. Lamantia was a poet of God and the devil, who sank into despair when he found himself torn between them. Nobody can honor both the Creator of the universe and Pharaoh.

When his requiem Mass was held, however, hangers-on from the shabbier coffeehouses of North Beach filed into the National Shrine of Saint Francis. Some slithered into the communion line, receiving the host although they were not Catholic, but rather were strident atheists and enemies of religion, and thus desecrated it and the poet’s memory. One among them was the poseur who had physically assaulted me after publication of the Faith interview, when the leftist mob charged that I had “outed” Lamantia as a conservative and traditional Catholic, to compromise him.

After all, how could the stratum of po-biz functionaries in San Francisco face a man they had encouraged to waste his talent, and who exposed and embarrassed, if not humiliated, them, by his ultimate reverence and repudiation of doubt? In line with the anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic prejudices of the leftist intelligentsia, the City Lights commissars could excuse and even cover up his inveiglement with neo-Nazi irreligion but not his attempts to atone for his errors. They had embraced the “red-brown” alliance of Communism and fascism, condemned by John Paul II, above all in its anti-Judaism, while he had turned for guidance to the brown cassock of the Franciscan orders, of which he told me in 1998, “My link with the Franciscans is forever.” Unlike the neo-Marxist indoctrination machine, the Church never failed him.

The memorial folder distributed at his Mass included the Peace Prayer of St. Francis. The Mass included musical works of Olivier Messiaen and Gabriel Fauré, and a reading of Lamantia’s poem, “There is this distance,” which is quoted above, by the elderly Beat figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

San Francisco, named for St. Francis, has killed many talented people; ignored and exiled others, and left some to die in agony. Lamantia fell into the latter group. His final message of faith in God and the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church might have been left unheard until after his death, when it could no longer threaten the idolatrous, impious ways into which a city founded by Franciscan fathers some 230 years ago has fallen. Now it will be forgotten, and recollection of it suppressed. Lamantia’s isolation make him a worthy companion in death to the Holy Father, the triumphant warrior against Communism, whom Lamantia grew to love so deeply, and to Terri Schiavo, another martyr to the “culture of death.”

*P.S.  Archbishop Levada has succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, P.P., as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.


**P.P.S. Communio magazine was founded by, among others, Cardinal Ratzinger.

Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

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