Monday, June 25, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — June 24, 2007

Some Anniversaries

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me the entry into the process of growing old seems to mean being buffeted by gales of nostalgia, accompanied by regrets and second thoughts as windstorms are accompanied by rain. This year brings several notable anniversaries that have me thinking about the past even more than usual.

My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. And the above-mentioned regrets don’t include any misgivings about having taken that step. At the time of our marriage we were both new, or newly-revived, Christians, in the process of returning to the Protestant faith in which we had been raised (she Southern Baptist, I Methodist), and attending an Episcopal church. As far as I remember I hadn’t yet begun to toy with the idea that the Catholic Church would be our destination; we would have to confront first the rudderless drift of the Episcopal Church.

No, no regrets there, but terrible nostalgia, as I recall the enchantment of encountering C. S. Lewis for the first time. As Lewis himself says of George McDonald, there was a morning freshness about his work, an enchantment in finding an approach to Christianity that made us see the springs of life that had been there all along.

In the public realm, this summer brings the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love. I’ve been dreading the flurry of media comments and retrospectives, because I don’t expect they’ll get it right, and I’ll want to argue with them. I think I’m going to have to ignore most of them. I’ve thought of writing something about it myself, but I don’t think I will, at least not now; the scope of the task is too great.

I gather there has been a tendency in historical studies over the past couple of decades to deprecate the approach to history that emphasizes big things and big events—rulers and their wars—and to give more attention to the effort to dig out a sense of what life was really like in the past. This seems a good thing. But in pop history, by which I mean a fairly superficial look at a past which begins in roughly 1950 and can speak of the career of a pop star as an “era,” the two approaches meet in a way that combines the worst of both. Pop history selects an external event, such as the release of an influential movie or recording, and then attempts to read it as a record of the convictions of individuals. In so doing it isolates and exaggerates certain landmarks, such as the Summer of Love or Woodstock or Watergate, which become hopelessly imprecise and overloaded labels for the complex movements of a whole culture, credited with providing an insight that is mostly spurious.

The summer of 1967 did indeed witness an eruption into public awareness of what a relatively small number of hippies were doing. But the little group of bohemians at the very provincial state university which I attended had long followed and imitated what was going on in California and elsewhere, and the radical counter-culture had been developing for many years in something like its recognizable form. Even within that world, the rather distorted hippie concept of “love” that was bandied about was hardly the only game going: Sgt. Pepper was released that spring, yes, but The Velvet Underground and Nico and The Doors, two of the darkest recordings in the history of rock, preceded it by a few months. And if my experience is an accurate indicator, they were at least as popular among the real hipsters. There was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but there were also “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and Father, I want to kill you. And I’m not even touching on the grim political events of the time, such as the Six-Day War, which rather dwarf the significance of any pop album.

In the current media treatments of the Summer of Love (I find it hard to type the phrase without snickering), I know what to expect. Conservatives will denounce it as an outbreak of madness, and liberals will defend it as an essentially sweet if impractical gesture. Consider these opposing op-eds from the Los Angeles Times, one by Dawn Eden—in this context the conservative—and one by a liberal. Dawn has by far the better of the argument; she’s right about the significance of the fundamental errors of the hippies, and is in general far more substantial than her opponent, who doesn’t get much past superficial stuff about “speaking out,” accepting people who are different, etc. But neither piece does justice to the complexity of the times, much less to one’s experience of them. Of course that’s an unfair complaint to make about a thousand-word op-ed, but I want more. I want an account that will do justice to every aspect of the time, and communicate to the reader at least a little of what it felt like to live then.

All this makes me realize how much is forever inaccessible to history. Even those who live in a time can only capture portions and aspects of it. And once it passes out of living memory, no one will ever again truly know what it was like. We’re approaching that point with the Second World War, which was a powerful presence in the lives of my parents’ generation and therefore some kind of presence in mine, far less so in my children’s, and soon enough in no one’s.

I was very much part of the youth movement—whatever you want to call it—of the late 1960s, but whatever went on in San Francisco during the summer of 1967 had nothing to do with me. Instead of going west I went east, and had experiences that profoundly affected me but which are not for public exhibition. And I can best mark this anniversary by keeping my memories to myself.

Not everything is unsayable in words—only the living truth.
      —Eugene Ionesco

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