A Boy's Eye View of May '68.
I had just celebrated my thirteenth birthday when the first demonstrations broke out in May. I was therefore too young to handle or even to comprehend the implications of the things that were being said. But I was sensitive enough to feel the extraordinary effect of the momentum unleashed by the events, and to be surprised by the paralysis that overtook administrative offices, factory shop floors, and the streets, as the strike spread and gas shortages continued to worsen. Condemned to immobility, entire sections of the city wound up plunged into an eerie silence--strangely enough, Jean Genet had described a comparable phenomenon during the German occupation--while other neighborhoods drew down upon them cries of joy or of hatred, an immense desire to speak out was overtaking a people who, for too many years, had endured the muzzling of an information system by an authority that controlled television, the main radio stations, and a section of the press.
The piles of garbage and trash cans that the sanitation workers were no longer collecting, but which were the delight of rats and street people, the barges that were lined up side-by-side on the Seine, to the point that they blocked all river navigation, the factories where the workers had raised red flags, and the cemeteries where coffins were accumulating for lack of workers to lay the dead away, all gave the City of Light the allure of a ghost town rattled periodically by singing and dancing around the occasional burning car--as though it were some Pompeii where here and there a few groups of Fire Worshippers had managed to survive.
The general strike had abolished all social conventions. The silent and alienated way of life known as "metro, boulot, dodo" (commute, work, sleep) had given way to forms of collective expression that were slaking the long bottled up thirst for adventure. Meetings, demonstrations and riots upended ordinary city life--while a cocktail made from the unforgettable odor of linden tree pollen and the delicious chemical stink of tear gas would set off my terrible fits of hay fever. Every day at sundown, as the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant had written in her 1986 Paris Notebooks, men would go out hunting for partners of both sexes and sometimes of all ages. There were no rules, as though the Saturnalia Feasts of Antiquity had returned to Paris.
A large banner hanging above the entrance to a nearby bus station ordered, "Turn your desires into realities!" In the end, I came to agree. I wanted to see for myself what the newspapers were so mutely, blandly, and dully describing (our parents had banned television). I dreamed of hearing the songs and the slogans that were being belted out during the demonstrations and rebroadcast by the only radio station that had escaped the control of the authorities, Radio Luxembourg. The town was silent, otherwise, and its quasi-paralysis awoke a kind of demon inside me.
I began by walking along the Seine, and soaking up the sun. When I reached the Quai de Javel, I came to a complete stop in front of the windows of an immense automobile factory with rooftops shaped like the jagged teeth of a handsaw. When I looked up, I saw red flags fluttering between the seven letters of the Citroen brand, and then I noticed a dummy hanging from a hook. The word "Director" was scrawled across its straw man belly. Fed up with making cars that they did not have the means to buy, these workers who were shooting the breeze outside their assembly plant, cigarettes dangling from their lips, were dreaming of stringing up their boss!
I was suddenly fearful that these men in blue overalls would notice me, laugh at my age, at my clothes, at my shock. The horrible shyness that kept me from entering certain shops took hold of me once again; a thick glass wall separated me from these workers that I wanted to hear speak, but that I did not think I had the right to listen to. I only overcame my fear long enough to run away, carrying with me my middle-class kid's guilt. I was the son of a father who was the business manager of an ironworks employing over three hundred workers in the North of France.
The next day, I once again left the family apartment, and posted myself at the Porte de Saint Cloud next to the first stoplight I saw, and extended my thumb. Very few cars were still on the road, but after half an hour, a Citroen 2CV picked me up and took me across the Place de la Concorde to the Latin Quarter, after passing La Maison de la Radio surrounded by hordes of journalists, and then driving along the Seine near the Louvre and not far from the Academie francaise. Finally I was discovering Paris, its monuments, its palaces where kings had resided, and Paris, through an extraordinary coincidence, was in the middle of a Revolution.
Founded by the confessor of King Saint Louis in the Middle Ages, the Sorbonne was at the epicenter of the opposition movement. It had been occupied for ten days and was overflowing with students and workers, some of whom had been involved in the 1936 strikes organized by the Popular Front. They were arguing, sometimes violently, over the question of whether they could legitimately kill a policeman, as the CRS riot police had attempted to forcibly "liberate" the university a few hours earlier. I listened, my mouth agape. I was horrified that they could envision the death of someone so coldly--even if he was in uniform--and fascinated at the same time by the way that some people were already appropriating power for themselves. And then a diminutive body pressed up against me, and a hand began to caress my thighs.
I turned to stone. This was the first time that I had been the object of any direct erotic pressure, and the man who was after me was not much taller than I, even though he could have been my father's age.
I had recovered enough of my composure to walk out into the courtyard of the Sorbonne, as I deciphered the slogans that were now covering the walls and even the historic frescoes signed by great nineteenth century painters: "Interdit d'interdire" (It is forbidden to forbid); "Cours camarade, le vieux monde est derriere toi" (Run Comrade, the Old World is right behind you); "Sous les paves, la plage" (Beneath the cobblestones, the beach). These deliberate defacements shocked me, just as I had been shocked by the title of the book that my elder brothers had read so avidly a few months earlier: Asphyxiating Culture, by Jean Dubuffet, the painter and founder of the Art brut (Outsider Art) movement. I startled as I read a slogan asserting that Humanity would never be happy until the day when the very last bureaucrat would be hung using the guts of the very last capitalist. I was obviously in favor of change and for freedom of expression, but destruction and death seemed too high a price to pay.
And yet, I enjoyed these pithy sayings. They reminded me of the slogans that the Dada poets and the Surrealists would shout out when they were crashing a performance that they judged too staid or an assembly that they wanted to disrupt. They were much more compelling than the slogans of obscure leftist groups that commanded us to sacrifice and "Serve the people!" and they were more inspiring than what one old left wing politician named Francois Mitterrand had proclaimed to the deputies of the National Assembly fifteen years before he was elected President of the Republic: "Nous devons etre des revoltes, comme les jeunes" (We must be rebellious, like the youth).
I ended up climbing to the upper floors of the Sorbonne in hopes of meeting members of that small group of mercenaries that the press had nicknamed the Katangais, as some of them had served in Africa and were lending a "military" hand to the most fanatical students. They were a breed of war dog obligingly photographed by news magazines, wearing helmets and protected by bandanas, their jaws clenching lemon slices in order to deter the tear gas effects. I had gone looking for them, searching every classroom in vain.
Meanwhile, the little man had not given up. He had followed me all the way into the childcare center in hopes of again pressing up against me, and neither the children nor the students armed with rattles who were charged with watching them seemed to bother him. Tired of feeling him at my back, I walked out across the courtyard of the university, attentive this time to the portraits of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao that identified the different information stands manned by each group, and on up the Boulevard Saint-Michel before turning on to that little street known as Monsieur-le-Prince that runs in front of the Lycee Saint Louis.
"Never work!" I read on the walls. It was the first slogan that I embraced without reservation, despite its highly utopian character, or rather because of it. It was what had made me vote in favor of the strike at my high school. We wanted to finally take time to live, to see, to feel, and not just to study.
A huge crowd was camped on the Place de l'Odeon and I caught sight of the theater and its columns where the plays of Beaumarchais had been performed just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and then, much later, the plays of Jean Genet. Hundreds of students and people who had come in from the Paris outskirts were recovering from a night of clashes with the CRS by napping in the balconies or in the orchestra pit, wrapped in historic costumes pillaged from the storerooms. These were costumes normally worn by actors in plays by Corneille, Marivaux, or Victor Hugo. Meanwhile, the hallways and backstage areas were crowded with improvised leaders exchanging contradictory rumors concerning the imminent return of the police.
"My" little pederast was still on my heels, but the crowd was protecting me from him, although it didn't know it. So I stayed there as the daily General Assembly in charge of handling the problems posed by the occupation of the square was getting under way, fascinated as I watched women in Marie-Antoinette pannier gowns discussing the situation with men in thigh-high boots and armed with muskets and halberds. I had left the era of miniskirts and turtleneck sweaters behind and entered a fantastical syncretic past which fused seventeenth-century Musketeers, eighteenth-century Libertines, and the nineteenth century of Napoleon III. I was finally discovering History, that dimension of existence from which I thought I had been excluded forever. All of the animation that was missing from the block of buildings where I lived seemed concentrated in this hot, overcrowded, and unreal place electrified by cigarette smoke, dim lighting, and rattling "weaponry." Theater, Literature, and History seemed to have been blended so as to spawn a new discipline, one that was much more exciting than all of those that I had been taught in high school. I felt as though I were walking into the very same dream state that would materialize as I read stretched out under my covers night after night in my warm bed.
I would have stayed to listen for many hours more still, but the persistence of the little gnome and the fumes from the tear gas had provoked a new hay fever attack that forced me back out into the open air. I again crossed the jam-packed Place de l'Odeon before trying to find a vehicle that could take me back to our building near the Porte de Saint-Cloud, where my parents were already worrying about me.
There were many more demonstrations, confrontations, and sit-ins before the call for elections in June that were handily won by the Gaullist party. The defeat of the insurgents who declared "Elections = Betrayal" clearly indicated an ebb. The worker's unions had decreed an end to the strikes, and the police went after all of the educational institutions that were still occupied. Many wanted to believe that the movement would revive with even more strength as soon as school started up again in September. They could no longer envision living in the same morose and submissive climate as before.
That incredible springtime had a long-term effect on my life. I came to understand that the country where I lived was divided into strict social classes: a boy born into a working class family had every "chance" of also becoming a laborer, just as I myself had every "chance" of obtaining diplomas that would grant me access to the best jobs. Outraged at such injustice, I became a precocious activist and joined a Trotskyite organization known matter-of-factly as Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle) that was firmly established in the factories of the French provinces. But this organization was so austere and so punitive that I felt ill at ease with the workers from the outskirts of city that I was told to sell our newspaper to. Many of them were my father's, or even my grandfather's age. So I joined the Gauche proletarienne (The Proletarian Left) a semi-clandestine Maoist group led with the iron fist (but clad in a velvet glove!) of a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, a man who would become Jean-Paul Sartre's last assistant and whose implacable dialectical intelligence attracted a number of intellectuals.
In 1845, Karl Marx had written in his Theses on Feuerbach that "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; what is important is to change it." I was so wrapped up in this gigantic metamorphosis, that it wasn't long before I dropped my studies, much to my father's fury, in order to become a militant printer in a shop located in the twentieth arrondissement, one of the bastions of the Paris working class at the time. I left my parents' home and began to sleep wherever I could find a bed, in the growing number of open communities or in the attic rooms that people loaned me. I dropped my very French last name and became Arnulf, Teutonic Knight or Tarot card warrior. My reading material was composed of militant Proletarian Left brochures and the "Unrest" headlines in the big newspapers. Steeped in the smell of weed and gasoline (necessary for powering our motorcycles as well as our Molotov Cocktails) I was lulled by revolutionary songs from every land (La Jeune garde, Bella Ciao, L'Internationale) along with the psychedelic rock of Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground. I sampled every drug that was available on the counter-culture market and tried every new form of sexual encounter that we were each supposed to invent in twosomes and beyond so as to more effectively overthrow those outdated institutions, the couple and the family.
Financed by generous national unemployment benefits, this aimlessness lasted for four years, until I joined Felix Guattari and his partner's close circle of friends. With Gilles Deleuze he had co-authored Anti-Oedipus, a philosophical essay that best expressed post-1968 modes of thought. Needled by the endless discussions that went on among his circle of psychoanalysts and artists, I started reading again. Since Guattari had often mentioned the trajectory of a Viennese judge whom Freud had tried unsuccessfully to save from paranoid schizophrenia, I opened his copy of the Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber, a judge who regularly had to use the toilet between trials in order to expel "the fleetingly improvised little men" who, he thought, were constantly trying to violate him. After five hours of fruitless effort, I closed the book, in tears at being no longer capable of focusing on its thousands of printed sentences. Years of consuming hashish and militant slogans had numbed my brain. I wept.
I decided to start studying again. I enrolled in the literature department of the University of Vincennes, inaugurated by the authorities one year after May '68, in order to relieve tension in the universities. Naturally, someone with a Baccalaureat diploma such as myself could attend, but workers with no diplomas could also take classes and aspire to obtaining a Licence degree, and although they were not in the majority, their presence contributed to creating this university's singular atmosphere which was far removed from the academic climate into which the Sorbonne had relapsed.
The professors were often remarkable, whether they taught literature, philosophy, or psychoanalysis. Upon leaving a seminar led by Helene Cixous, the founder of French feminism, I could choose between attending a class taught by Gilles Deleuze, or, in the room next door, one taught by Catherine Millot, a young psychoanalyst known to be the mistress of Jacques Lacan.
I soon discovered myself to be one of the most assiduous students and one of the most industrious as well--the humiliation of not being able to read Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness had left its mark. Propelled by my participation in the seminar that Roland Barthes was holding at the College de France, I passed the competitive Concours d'Etat (state examination) which authorized me to earn the salary of a real professor during those four years of study, at the end of which I was supposed to begin teaching as well, although I did not do so. I still had so little confidence in my capacities that I would have left the most important part of the examination midway through, if a young woman and fellow examinee hadn't grabbed my sleeve and forced me to complete the five-hour-long essay.
Once I had made up my mind to catch myself up, I began to read everything. From the essayists who had been the glory of new literary criticism of the 1960s, from Gerard Genette to Jean-Pierre Richard, to the authors that we had been told to read in high school, but whom we had decreed outdated, backward, or "reactionary" because they were too classical, too much in step with the Gaullist vision diffused by Andre Malraux, who had been Minister of Culture under General de Gaulle. And the illiterate that I thought I had become discovered himself capable of translating into words things that he had only vaguely felt. The feeling of deliverance was so immense that I never stopped making the effort.
I gradually distanced myself from those who persisted in the wholesale refusal of society. At the end of the 1970s, the pockets where they survived continued to shrink. One had to be ever stronger--or suicidal--to hold on: to refuse all compromise with the oppressive State and the alienating "system" also meant stopping one's own life from flourishing. The revolution is a marvelous continent when glimpsed at age fifteen, but it often tends to close its borders as soon as one sets foot upon it. A revolution that has missed its mark--and maybe it's even worse when the revolution has succeeded--protects itself and then turns inward; it holds a parade every year on the same day and repeats its catchwords until they are worn thin. I wanted something more.
As the 1970s came to a close, I was certainly not the only one who wanted to remake myself. Since the uprising of '68 had essentially been a collective one, it had devalued all strictly individual ambition. But after spending so many years refusing any kind of individual identity, the time had come to regroup. Work on this through psychoanalysis helped us to once again think in the first person singular, since it had never stopped asserting, as Lacan had in '68, that reality existed even when it remained as elusive as it was painful, and since the revolutionaries themselves were seeking a teacher.
But even more than Lacan, it was Roland Barthes who helped me personally. This mesmerizing and persuasive professor who had improved his voice with the help of an opera coach, had once again begun to say "I" in his books. And he was also trying to think independently again, distancing himself from the latest theories or from the structuralism of an earlier period. It was very encouraging to take his class, even if he was the first to state that recovering the path to "I" was also to discover the extent to which this "I" is fragile, capricious, and impossible to encapsulate, with its contradictory likes and dislikes. In sum, it was no longer considered contemptible to take one's place in the world as it was and to benefit from it.
In spite of this, I had not resumed a conventional lifestyle. I was living with a man and his former partner, and he was quite a bit older than I. In the effervescent heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in an atmosphere that was very similar to the one that I had experienced in May '68, our doors were always open, late into the night, to the writers, actors, and film directors who formed our circle.
This new way of life was still shocking to some, yet it was clearly inscribed within a social framework. It gave me the chance to write in the cinema journal that my partner edited, and following that, the strength to envisage entering the only "profession" that to me did not seem completely useless or absurd, to be a writer. It gave me a self-confidence that I had only intermittently had before. Left to my own devices, I would not really have known how to go about it.
I was aware that I had made out well in the end. And I was the first to congratulate myself on having been able to manage my reconversion with ease. This was far from being the case for everyone in my circle. Many had persisted in their rejection of society, to the point of exiling themselves to distant farming communes. Some had drifted into petty crime and some had even ended up in prison.
My brothers had especially struggled to recover from this month of May '68. Seven years my elder, Pierre was one of those prodigies who are the pride of the French school system. He was among the thousands of students who prepare the competitive entrance examination to the French grandes ecoles. These are students who, for a period of three or four years at a time, sacrifice their entire lives in hopes of being admitted to these highly selective engineering schools from which the country recruits its elite members: the Ecole Polytechnique, the Ecole Centrale, the Ecole des Mines, and the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees.
Gifted with a phenomenal memory and capacity for study, Pierre could write essays in Latin as well as recite the list of all of the families that Napoleon had ennobled, along with the first fifty decimals of Pi (3,14116...). But his appetite was so great that after studying Greek, trigonometry, and the physics of fluids, he still had the energy to read Melville, Aragon, and Freud at night.
The spring of '68 had caught him completely by surprise. Wrenched from his studies by the general strike, he revolted against a movement that presumed to keep him from his studies and that intended to terminate the very existence of the schools that he had so hoped to enter. He even joined the "muscular" intervention groups recruited by the Gaullist party in order to break the picket lines that were barring factory and university entrances to non-strikers. Pierre ended up by getting completely carried away by the winds of '68, even though he was on the wrong side. His militant activism inside the ranks of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic recruited by the Gaullist regime resulted in his being admitted to only a second-tier school, the Ecole des Travaux Publics. This was the source of profound disappointment. He gradually detached himself from his studies, from society, from his friends, and finally, from his family.
At times, he would show up unexpectedly at our father's house. He would ring the bell of the apartment where we had grown up in order to verbally attack the man who had never stopped urging him to prepare for entrance to the grandes ecoles, despite the fact that, Pierre complained, he himself was interested only in literature. He hounded the man who had been a pre-war naval officer and who had raised him following the strict disciplinary rules for seamen. Like so many of those who had missed out on the events, either because they had not been present in Paris, or because the events had frightened them, Pierre turned out to be a belated product of 1968, a rabid soixante-huitard. He no longer wanted to have anything to do with society, nor with the father who had dreamed of seeing him take his place in the ranks of the greatest French industrial firms. May '68 had swept me up at such a young age that I had been able to remake my life without feeling that the burden of my "betrayal" was too much to bear. Pierre had rallied so late to his values that he never stopped trying to regain lost ground.
My elder brother began to act very strangely. He railed obsessively against our father, General de Gaulle, the Pope, and against all forms of established authority. Voices in his head informed him of secret plots lying hidden behind the world's great political events, and even of coded messages hidden in newspaper headlines. At the same time, he retained enough whimsy to walk around Paris disguised as a blind man--wearing dark glasses and carrying a telescoping white cane which he had snatched from a real blind man--so that he could enjoy being guided through the streets by old ladies and sometimes even by policemen. He sometimes took perverse pleasure in covering one-way signs with rolls and rolls of tape, in order to cause traffic jams and even accidents.
He flew into a rage one evening while dining at our father's house. My father had had the misfortune of showing an interest in the young woman who had accompanied my brother to dinner. He jumped our father and tried to strangle him. Like our mother's younger brother, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But Pierre refused treatment following the short period of his forced internment. Instead, he chose to become homeless and joined a group of vagrants who were squatting among empty red wine bottles in a dark Paris side street, surviving by selling salvaged cardboard. According to him, this was the best place for working on the great novel that he was writing, in which armed students were laying siege to the Paris embassy of Maoist China.
The novel itself soon became the object of all of his contradictory impulses. One day, he would see it as the thing that could give meaning to his life. The next day, he could not experience it as anything but his Cross to bear. Then he would throw the manuscript in the trash, or he would come to our father's apartment and burn it on the balcony, only to start it all over again from the beginning, without ever taking the step of sending it to a publisher, for fear that it would immediately be rejected.
Soon, this anti-literary career was no longer enough for Pierre. Out of hatred for himself as much as for the State, he destroyed all of his identity papers and closed his bank account. He bundled up his belongings and began to walk across France, stopping here to pick pears, and there to take part in the grape harvest. He slept out in the fields, or took refuge in bus shelters when he came to a city. The rest of the time he read or wrote, emulating the early Christian hermits, or Rimbaud before he ran off to Harar.
When his hallucinations became unbearable, Pierre finally had himself committed to the asylum of Bourg-en-Bresse, the small provincial city where our father had grown up. Cooped up with hundreds of mentally ill people, alcoholics, and elderly people abandoned by their families, he lost his prodigious aptitude for reading and even for thinking: his only remaining ambition was to take the little test for public servants and to become a postal worker. Having turned into a vegetable, he attempted suicide by swallowing barbiturates at age 29, and was saved in extremis by doctors. He had barely recovered when he threw himself into the void, jumping from the top of the stairs at the hospital to which he had been transferred, and died after twenty-four hours of horrible suffering.
I had nothing left of him, except for a pullover with his name on it and a few books covered with notes. Ashamed of having engendered a crazy man, my father destroyed everything that Pierre had ever written, his personal diary in particular. I realized in a flash that one could die without leaving the slightest trace, and I remained marked by that thought for the rest of my life.
Philippe, my second older brother, four years my senior, had equally been touched by May '68. An avid reader from the earliest age, he had always been wild and unruly, although he was also an excellent student. He would only do what he wanted to do, eat what he wanted to eat; otherwise he would fall into fits of hysteria. He was a real wild Mustang who could never be tamed by remarks from his "reasonable" family, or French school disciplinarians. Our father finally sent Philippe into exile, to a boarding school in the Parisian suburbs--a military academy that caused him great unhappiness but which was also the venue of his first erotic pleasures.
May '68 had been a deliverance for that particular brother. He got involved with his high school's occupation committee and attended the large demonstration that turned into the Night of the Barricades. And yet he retained genuine admiration for General de Gaulle, who had saved the honor of the country from the Germans. He even dreamed of seeing him take leadership of the movement, as Mao had done with the proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1965. When de Gaulle stepped down after losing the 1969 referendum, Philippe fell in completely with the revolutionary camp.
He abandoned his medical studies and began to learn Chinese, and then Arabic--languages that were of no great use at the time, but which satisfied his incredible curiosity for other cultures, and allowed him to follow broadcasts in those languages from Radio Beijing or Radio Cairo. Having decided to escape from all forms of social constraint, for years at a time he refused all remunerated work, which to him was synonymous with prostitution. He also dreamed of becoming a writer, but was both too proud and too humble to actively and publicly become one, as he would never be able to be placed on the shelves of bookshops between Arthur Adamov and Antonin Artaud, two writers he greatly admired.
He did publish some pieces in anthologies, but he always refused to sign them with his name. His sole ambition was to remain anonymous; to disappear, in order to better denounce social masquerades. This incomprehensible obstinacy by my elder brothers served as a lesson to me. Calling upon the best aspects of what I had gotten from them--rigor, unselfishness, curiosity, traits which they had been powerless to use to their advantage, I began to feel the urge to write the books that they had not been able to write. It was a bit like what happens in Sicily when young grooms are unable to "honor" their wives on their wedding nights: they call on their younger brothers to help them out in extremis....
It was a working man's son who saved Philippe in the end. He was one of those young men who would have ended up as a delinquent had the Communist Party not provided him with a cultural education. He called on my brother to work with him in a film distribution company first, and later, to become head of the Cinematheque francaise. Philippe felt good at this prestigious institution. Admitting that he also could write, he ended up agreeing to publish a well-received essay on the filmmaker Robert Bresson. But he could never establish a stable relationship with the young men who attracted him and he became desperate in his loneliness. Was it an accident, or was it suicide? He was lost at sea off the coast of Corsica.
This is how the spring of '68 branded us with a red-hot iron. A cruel set of circumstances determined that this was also the year in which my father was informed that the illness that had forced our mother to become bedridden was leukemia, an incurable disease at the time. By the time of her death five years later, he found himself at the head of a family in ruins. Ten years my junior, my little brother suffered so much at finding himself alone with an inconsolable widower that he in turn revolted against his authority. This last remaining sibling strove so persistently to strip our father of the rest of his strength that he was able to change him into the most gentle and touching of men. The springtime of '68 not only witnessed the rout of this former naval officer, it was also the catalyst of a remarkable metamorphosis.
The events of '68 were therefore not just a source of freedom and joy, at least for us. They prevented our lives from taking the regular and comfortable path that they probably would have taken under different circumstances. But the events also set off intimate seismic upheavals. Like volcanoes reigniting in the dead of night, they spewed a lava that would not enrich the earth until it had ravished it first. The memory that I retain of these burning times is so contradictory that the "creative destruction" that is invoked in defining the permanent regime of renewal to which capitalism subjects humanity seems to me to be a rather apt formula for defining it.
Didn't Freud say that the wish to live out our wildest desires is always accompanied by an underlying longing for death? The Life and Death drives had formed an inseparable couple in May '68, and I had come to see myself as our family's sole survivor.
I have never rejected that volatile Spring. Quite to the contrary. But television and the press have regularly said too many good things about it without ever mentioning what had come with it. I cannot believe in such a tidy narrative. I know all too well the harm that '68 caused my own family for me to completely believe those mechanically positive commemorations.
I wanted to revive the wonder, the awe, and the drama experienced by a boy who had been thrown into a turmoil that was more enticing than anything reason had to offer, but that was also more dangerous, more dense, and more violent than life itself when all was said and done. Claude Arnaud
Claude Arnaud has published novels and biographies, a play, and other works whose genre is less easily defined, since 1985. His 1988 biography of the eighteenth-century French writer and revolutionary Nicolas Chamfort won several prizes, including the Prix de l'essai of the Academie Francaise, while his novel Le Cameleon (1994) was awarded the Prix Femina; the Prix Femina for nonfiction in 2006 went to Qui dit je en nous?: Une histoire subjective de l 'identite. His biographies of Chamfort and of Jean Cocteau (2003) have been translated into English. (1) His 2010 novel, Qu'as-tu fait de tes freres?, has been followed by two further autofictions, Breves saisons au paradis (2012) and Je ne voulais pas etre moi (2016).
"Mai 68 vu par un enfant" was delivered by Claude Arnaud in French via Skype at the multilingual and pluri-disciplinary 1968 in Global Perspectives conference at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, held in February 2018. The purpose of the conference was to reflect on the May 1968 movement and its global repercussions during that year of its fiftieth anniversary. (2) The translation above omits (with the author's co-operation) the opening and closing remarks of the lecture, which provide the perspective of a half-century on a political moment which is still a touchstone for France. I would like to restore here some of this context.
"A Boy's Eye View of May '68" in its fuller form begins, "The month of May 1968 came as such a bolt out of the apparently clear blue sky of Gaullist France that it inspired thousands of essays. Historians, Philosophers, Sociologists all immediately tried to shed light on the sudden awakening of a country that had seemed so well 'kept' that some journalists proclaimed that it was 'bored.'" Arnaud marvels that "a society that had benefitted from no unemployment and continuous economic growth over a period of three decades (that famous period known as Les Trente Glorieuses, The Glorious Thirty, those years of extraordinary growth and development between 1945 and 1975)," had "found the wherewithal to rise up against General de Gaulle, the man who had saved the country from shame by resisting the Germans during the last world war, and who had endowed the country with modern industry and renewed international influence."
Arnaud observes that many intellectuals and political figures who took part in the events of May '68 published a raft of "ideological" and "self-serving" testimonies "in attempts to analyze the collective repercussions of May '68, [but] they analyzed class relationships and conditions of production, rather than the private impulses that had pushed so many French people into the streets." However, Arnaud contends that it was "neither the political regime nor the social order, but rather the very structure of the family itself" that had been upended as the patriarchal order was called into question along with the social imperatives to marry and reproduce. As Arnaud explains,
The first pioneers of feminism and the first gay activists had had some difficulty being heard in the uproar of the month of May. But in the seasons that followed, they contributed to an evolution in the relationship between the sexes, to a redefinition of the relationship between individuals and their bodies and their desires.... The barricades had not only borne witness to students in revolt and workers on strike clashing with the police... they had also encouraged all sorts of intimate adventures among the demonstrators who were determined to vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entraves (live life to the fullest and experience pleasure without inhibitions).... The people occupying universities and high schools were... discovering themselves sexually, in confusion and embarrassment, at times, after living costrained lives for too long.
"A Boy's Eye View of May '68" is the story of how May '68 erupted in Paris and then "occupied" the life of one thirteen-year-old boy. We accompany Claude as he is gradually drawn away from his staid middle-class suburb on the periphery of Paris. His first daring encounter is with striking workers at the Citroen factory. His second is with striking workers, protesting students, and militant leftist mercenaries at the epicenter of the movement in Paris, at the Sorbonne, after it had moved there from the Universite de Nanterre. Claude's third, if unwanted, encounter is with a predatory older man who seems to have decided to jouir sans entraves (experience pleasure without inhibitions) and has come to the Sorbonne looking for partners. But even as Claude flees the predator, he is drawn further and further into the labyrinth of the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne, and the Odeon theater. Readers come to experience the unfolding of May '68 in the same surreal way that the narrator does, from the point of view of an adolescent confronted with the unforeseen events of Mai, 68.
"A Boy's Eye View of May '68," is in many ways both an introduction to and an extremely condensed version of Arnaud's 2010 Qu'as-tu fait de tes freres? (Where Are Your Brothers?). Like "A Boy's Eye View of May '68," Qu'as-tu fait de tes freres? chronicles the impact of the 1968 Paris uprisings on the lives of a middle-class thirteen-year-old boy (Claude) and his family. But it is also a rejection of nostalgic memories of those events. Indeed, Arnaud contends that this contemporary French revolution led to the deaths of his two brilliant older brothers and witnessed the death of his mother from leukemia. In this broken family, the sole but wounded survivors of the social and political upheavals generated by May '68 are Arnaud's father, a former naval officer and factory manager, his younger brother, and Claude himself.
Arnaud explains, in the portions of the lecture towards the end that were omitted here, that in writing Qu 'as tu fait de tes freres?, "my ultimate goal was to recreate, through my memories of LSD trips and the great militant seminars delivered by the Gauche proletarienne that I had attended, the forms of dissident thought that had allowed us to escape from the real world and create an 'anti-reality' that was coherent enough to hold us captive.... I wanted to show how an ardent era can affect the course of a life, liberate what is best in it, but also what is the most destructive."
Arnaud places Qu'as tu fait de tes freres? in the category of autofiction. He contends that this form is best suited to tell his story because its fusion of "reality and fiction was precisely what the 1970's had forged in us." For those of his generation, "reality... was nothing but a fabrication orchestrated by an obscurantist centralized 'system'.... It was in order to undermine the bases of this false reality that we had taken refuge in a veritable counter-culture, where we resided as artists who live inside their art--that is totally.... For an entire generation, the May '68 movement can really be seen as an extension of the surrealist movement."
Just as the surrealists tapped their dreams for material through the technique of automatic writing, Qu 'as-tu fait de tes freres? was generated upon awaking from a five-hour operation:
when I woke up... my dead brothers were very much on my mind as was our childhood. The hospital had been built during the same time period as the building where we had grown up. Thousands of memories came flooding back with stupefying freshness, in spite of my great fatigue. I was reliving the period in real time and I was once again immersed in its cries, its smells, its colors, its slogans. And by some miracle I could even find the energy to write these memories down as they reemerged in a most disorderly fashion. This miraculous eruption allowed me to write Qu'as tu fait de tes freres? without, I think, betraying too much what we lived through.
May '68 had taught Claude Arnaud "not to cling to forms of inherited identity." The ability inherited from May '68 "to envisage being someone else, elsewhere, otherwise" and to "live multiple lives" is realized in all of Claude Arnaud's subsequent literary creation. Read Claude Arnaud's novels, essays, autofictions and biographies, read his play, watch his films, for they bear witness to that.
Translated from French by Jeanne Garane
(1) Chamfort: A Biography, trans. Deke Dusinberre (University of Chicago Press, 1992); Jean Cocteau: A Life, trans. Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell (Yale University Press, 2016).
(2) Further reading on the Paris revolution should include Mavis Gallant, Paris Notebooks. Essays and Reviews (New York: Random House, 1988); Kristen Ross, May 1968 and its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Alain Touraine, Le Mouvement de Mai ou le communism utopique (Paris, Seuil, 1968), translated by Leonard F. X. Mayhew as The May Movement: Revolt and Reform: May 1968--the student rebellion and workers' strikes--the birth of a social movement (New York: Random House, 1971).
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|Publication:||Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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