More May, 40 years ago & today

May ’68 is still with me. This morning an odd triple constellation presented itself.

1) Still re-reading the 1978 book by Régis Debray (who has an interesting site here) on his sense of May 68 (the photo above shows him at his 1967 trial in Camiri Bolivia, where he was jailed from 1967 to 1971). I have been mulling over one of the near-formulaic sentences by which he sums up his thinking about that moment in which, par la force des choses, he was not a participant:

“…apart from a few retro-maniac addicts of old-fashioned revolutions (and the J.C.R. had excellent ideas on this), the aim of the Movement of May was not to do, but was for the students to be (better) and for the majority of workers to have (more). The meeting of these three verbs provoked the explosion. But they didn’t conjugate with each other — thus the dying of the flame after the initial spark and the breakdown of the movement… May was unable to invent a new language in good time, or to articulate its sentences with the old one. The vocabulary was there, but no syntax.”

Just as Jack Spicer, who died three years before ’68, had famously said on his deathbed “My vocabulary did this to me,” one could propose that the auto-obit for May ’68 could be: “My syntax (or lack thereof) did this to me.” This certainly confirms a strong sense of dis-articulation I experienced that year as I was shuttling between New York (both the city and Bard College) and Europe (Paris, but also Luxembourg). My sense at the time differs somewhat from Debray’s: I felt that the European Movement of ’68 was way too stuck in the rut of an old, nineteenth century Marxist vocabulary and syntax, so that not only the arrière-guard Debray mentions, but the student movement & the public intellectuals too (with the possible exception of the recently auto-dissolved Situationists) were trying to re-create a late 19th or early 20th century fantasy revolution — the steps of the Sorbonne, however, were not the staircase to the winter palace. At the same time it seemed to me that the American student movement of 68 would have benefited from conjugating their ontological revisions (the sense that to change the world “all” you had to do was change the nature of human being — be that by instant dropping out and turning on, or by life-long quietistic meditation) with the more structured thinking of the Europeans. So that flying into JFK, my suitcase was full of books, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid on top, while going back to the “olde country,” my shoes concealed doses of Owsley’s enlightening blotting paper. I was wrong, in the end: the ink on the old books had dried out long ago, while the blotting paper had began to soak up many stultifying and adulterated substances.

2) As I was thinking these thoughts, an email arrived from the Moroccan poet Mohamed Bennis (last mentioned on Nomadics in relation to his translation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés into Arabic), informing me that he had just published an essay on the events of May ’68, available in an English translation at the site of the Goethe Institute, here. Below I am reprinting the opening paragraphs:

Mohammad Bennis; Copyright: Stefan Weidner Time and again the spirit of May 68 is present in my texts and in my imagination, and it is always to be found in the events of our time – albeit in a different form. The word freedom arouses May 68 within myself. Freedom is a word that May 68 gave me as a sign along the way I chose for myself.

Days that are still present for me. The defeat suffered by Arabs in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 was my first political and personal shock as I was about to launch out into adolescence. That defeat known as ‘Naksa’ in Arab political and cultural discourse. The media also informed me daily about the Vietnam War and the vast damage done by American forces to a nation that wanted to be free. Occasional news items depicted the Vietnamese people’s resistance to American colonisation.

3) Looking back, for me probably the most important book coming out of, or rather coming out in 1968 — though I didn’t find it until 1969 — was Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred. Rather than being stuck in the dialectics of marxist-hegelian history pitting 19th century revolutionary thinking against 20th century (by now late) capitalist ideology, this book proposed the possibility of a new history by combining the oldest and the newest investigations of the Human Universe and the oldest and the newest rituals and performances which make these worlds not only possible but immanent in our lives — i.e. how to be and how to do.

As I’ve already mentioned on this blog, the publication of the French translation of Technicians happened this year — in time for the celebrations of May ’68. For those who have French, there is an interesting discussion of Les techniciens du sacré with Yves Mano, the translator and adapter of the French volume, to be heard on France Culture, here.

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  1. Jeff Wild says:

    I must have bought Technicians of the Sacred twenty years ago and always loved scanning through its enormous breadth and depth along with its particular poems and rituals.

    While I loved the scope, I also had a hard time following much of it. I eventually gave it to a good friend and poet and hope he is still enjoying it.

    That anthology though, I believe, brought me to your and Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium, which I will never give away, and in fact bought for a friend about a year ago.

    Thank you to you and Jerome.

    With blessings for life, peace and all good things,

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