Bwog daily editor Mariela Quintana takes you inside yet another ’68 retrospective, this time a reading featuring Columbia writers who were there when the protests happened.
Of the four events I’ve attended that commemorate the 1968 protests, not one has started on time. From all the socializing and incessant chattering that precedes each lecture, it’s clear that these aging activists are desperate for a chance to catch up, reminisce and revive the waning spirit of ’68. To an outside observer, the commemoration too often loses sight of its historical and social mission and instead tends towards an intimate, if not insular, college reunion–the likes of which these anti-establishment hexagenarians wouldn’t deign to attend.
But last night’s reading, entitled “Voices of 1968,” offered this jaded Gen-Yer insight into what the protestors felt at the time of the event and what they feel now. The reading was most penetrating when authors exposed their struggles, their effort to pick themselves up out the wake of the protests, grow up and move on. As the poets and authors made clear, moving on proved difficult because it required accepting their moment in history had ended.
Although their subject matter had the potential to transcend the moment and touch a more contemporary audience, many of the works were too invested in the specifics of the experience. There was an obvious stigma against extrapolating the 1968 protests to universal themes and many authors and audience members even disdained paralleling it with the war in Iraq. Taking a surprisingly conservative approach to the interpretation of their movement, the reading all too often came off as an self-indulgent opportunity for the writers to get on a soap box and for their college buddies to hoot and holler in support.
In an honest and steady voice, Paul Spike (CC ’69) read from an essay that methodically, almost painfully so, detailed his ignorance as a white student hoping to relate to the oppression of black students. I could comprehend the meaning and significance of his words, but they were so specific to his experience that I was unable to access the emotion behind them. Nonetheless, the older members of the audience recognized his plea for forgiveness and answered it with a thunder of heartfelt applause.
Reading from her novel Pearl, Mary Gordon, BC ’71 and current English professor, succeeded where other authors fell short. Her writing conveyed her observations and experiences of the 1968 protests with a fine balance of honesty and self-deprecating humor. Like many others, Gordon touched on how her “experience [was] inflected by race, gender, class and religion,” but she quickly went on to express how she and her friends were highly sensitive to critical changes that were occurring in history and in their adolescences. Probing into a sense of confusion familiar to all students, Gordon spoke of how being in college means growing up “so easily and so quickly you become a person you would not have recognized.”
When he read, Paul Auster CC ’70 did not narrate his specific experience of the ’68 protests. Like Gordon, he voiced an affecting account of growing up in a time of turmoil and of grappling with who he was and who he wanted to be. Auster began with a brief commentary about his Op-Ed in the Times earlier this week. “Crazy,” he explained, is “short hand for numerous feelings–frustration, militant refusal of American policy. All that cannot be expressed in an eight hundred word op-ed–all that can be achieved is a small poem.” Returning to his undergraduate days, Auster went on to speak of a hoax essay competition headed by the Columbia Review asking its applicants to describe failure. “Why the compulsion to write about failure–the fear, the sarcasm, the mocking derision of failure?” Auster asked. Suggesting the dwindling legacy of the 1968 protests and the anxieties of Columbia’s current student body, Auster ended with an ominous quote from an influential poet of his youth: “I write for those on whom the black ox has trod.”