There’s been a lot of interest this year in the fortieth anniversary of the pivotal year 1968—Tom Brokaw’s History Channel special, a PBS documentary on the 1960s, numerous articles in magazines. Going back to it all, I stumble on memories from that time, even though I wouldn’t say my participation was at the red hot center of things. This week marks the anniversary of the protests at Columbia, where I was a graduate student in French literature in the years 1965 to 1970. I wasn’t on hand for the demonstration because I had gone to Paris (with Ann Jones, to whom I was then married) on a Fulbright Fellowship, with the plan of doing research for my dissertation. My topic was Melville’s influence on Camus; probably the most interesting moment of that effort came when I came to see Camus’s widow in the apartment she’d shared with her late husband in the rue de Fleurus. She allowed me to look at his library, which did in fact include several Melville novels, in the Giono translation. Camus read a little English, but the only English-language novel of Melville’s he owned was Moby-Dick.
We got news of the protest at Columbia at second hand, through telephone conversations and the newspaper. Student bodies all over the country had been involved for a couple of years in demonstrations and draft-card burnings directed at the U.S. invasion of Vietnam; so the idea of political activism had become familiar, a regular feature of student life of that time. Earlier in the year we’d seen the Tet offensive and the My Lai massacre, both as bloody as it gets. Added to that was the recent shock of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, which seemed to spell the doom of non-violent resistance. At Columbia, the primary issues concerned university implication in the war effort and, besides that, a plan to annex part of Morningside Park to build a new gym. Students felt that colonizing one of the few parks accessible to Harlem residents for a gym to be used for a university made up of predominantly white students and faculty was unacceptable. Hence the strike, which quickly led to a peaceful occupation of the Administration building. Within days university president Grayson Kirk called in the police to halt the demonstration, which they did without being very nice about it: heads were cracked with nightsticks, and so forth. Because of that decision, Kirk was eventually asked to resign.
But student unrest began to spread globally. On May 6 there was a student protest in Paris that soon gathered momentum, especially when labor unions began to join forces with the students. The ensuing uprising came to be referred to as “les evénements de mai” (“events of May”), and here I was a first-hand witness of what happened. Several months earlier students had protested the firing of Henri Langlois, the popular director of the Cinemathèque française; when he was reinstated, students realized that they possessed political power. They went forward with that in May, very soon abandoning peaceful means and setting up barricades in the streets once the government had dispatched special anti-riot forces (known as the C.R.S.) to stop demonstrations. Demonstrators heaved paving stones and Molotov cocktails at these troops, set cars on fire, and daubed political slogans on walls in the Latin Quarter—things like “L’Imagination au Pouvoir” (“Power to the Imagination”) and “Plus je fais la révolution, plus je veux faire l’amour.” (“The more I work for the revolution, the more I want to make love.”) Tear-gas was used almost daily, and you could smell it a mile away. As Americans we had to be careful not to be swept up in the periodic police raids, which never discriminated between demonstrators and bystanders. All pedestrians in range were pushed into paddy wagons and taken to HQ for incarceration and questioning. Any foreign citizen caught in these raids was summarily deported within hours.
Even so, I would walk over to the Latin Quarter every couple of days or so to see what was going on. Public transportation was on strike, and there were frequent electricity shut-offs; if you had no car, you had to walk. At one point I got inside the Théâtre de l’Odéon (which had been taken over by the students) and watched the proceedings. People jumped up on stage and gave speeches until the crowd decided they’d said enough; they were told to step down and then another person took his or her place at the mic. The grand climax was an 800,000-person march down the Champs Élysées, composed of students, striking workers, and other sympathizers. DeGaulle had been castigating the demonstrators from the beginning, referring to the whole thing (using an archaic word) as “un chienlit” (literally, a “crap in the bed,” more generally, “a mess,” “chaos”) and blaming it on “foreign agitators” like Rudi Dutchke, one of the most visible activist university students. And then De Gaulle vanished one weekend; no one knew where he was. It turned out he’d gone to Germany to parley with the West German government, with the idea of soliciting German assistance in case of an armed uprising against his regime. To enlist the support of France’s historical enemy was regarded by most citizens as a shocking betrayal of France and the French. Much more successful politically was De Gaulle’s decision to stage a national referendum the following summer. Which the left accurately described (accurately, I’d say) as a plebiscite. The Gaullist government got the electoral endorsement it needed, and the “revolution” came to a halt.
To what degree the “events of May” led to reforms in the French university system and in French society at large, I leave to the historians. As for myself, I’m sure the impact of witnessing those events has never entirely dissipated. All the more considering other events that occurred during the remainder of 1968: the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the crushing of the Prague Spring initiative by Soviet forces, several demonstrations that solidified the nascent Women’s Movement, the brutal treatment of demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the murderous assault on student demonstrators at Plaza Tlatelolco in Mexico City (which impelled Octavio Paz to resign his diplomatic post), the five-month strike at San Francisco State (which resulted in the institution of the first Black Studies Department in America), the first beginnings of the Gay Liberation Movement… well, I could go on, it was an exciting year.
No one living through those events could fail to be shaped by them. And they have influenced what I’ve written in incalculable ways. The most direct account I’ve given occurs in a book-length poem I published two decades after the Sixties. Notes from a Child of Paradise is a three-thousand-line poem in three parts telling the story of my life from 1965 to 1969, meeting Ann Jones (a student at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement and later a Comp Lit scholar), our marriage and stay in Paris during 1967-1968, and then the aftermath. Published in 1984, it’s of course now out of print, which is too bad because, apart from some sections of Lowell’s Notebook and a few short poems by Richard Tillinghast, I know of no poems that deal with this pivotal moment in national and international history. I suppose the explanation is that American poetry since the 1960s has been overwhelmingly devoted to the lyric. There’s also the contemporary prejudice against political content, and it isn’t possible to tell the story of the Sixties without taking a position. I saw that the account would need to be political and presented it in that framework. What is clear to me is that the division (or fault-line) of American society that became apparent during the 1960s has remained what it was. There are two ideologies in the United States, and we know which one has been dominant since the Reagan era. The results are there for everyone to see: a vast military culture spending billions upon billions on munitions and standing armies instead of improving the lives of citizens, the unending Iraq war, immense differences in income, a shocking percentage of people without health insurance, the Katrina disaster, an extraordinarily large prison population, global warming, and destruction of the habitat. How is it possible not to see these things?