Misremembering May 1968, an Unlikely Friendship, and Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address at 40


When the French remember May 1968, they think of beautiful students throwing stones at police in Paris. But it was more complex than that, says Chris Reynolds: “It is much sexier to focus on good-looking, young students in the Latin Quarter than it is a group of middle-aged factory workers in Brittany, on strike because they feel their region isn’t getting the same investment from central government…This hasn’t just shaped the way in which the French view 1968; it has also shaped the transnational perspective. So if you mention 1968 to someone, the first thing they will think of will be Paris, and Paris doesn’t even tell the story of 1968 in France.”

B. D. McClay writes about the unlikely friendship of George Bernard Shaw and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a cloistered Benedictine at Stanbrook Abbey: “Though hardly a household name, Laurentia maintained an active correspondence with many of her secular contemporaries in the world of letters. Her research played an important role in the restoration of Gregorian chant, and she even received a commendation from Pius X for it in 1904. (It was this work that led her to become friends with Sydney Cockerell, and subsequently with Shaw.) She was, as Shaw said, ‘the enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind.’ It’s her friendships, however—not her scholarship—that have received the most sustained attention since her death. This isn’t too surprising; we are, after all, interested in the ability to maintain friendships across sharp differences and other obstacles (such as cloister grilles). Many of us disagree with people very dear to us on issues of the greatest importance; that Cockerell and Shaw, two atheists, could plausibly be described as ‘the best of friends’ with a cloistered nun gives us hope.”

Are we worse at dealing with death today than people in previous ages? Yes and no, says Julie-Marie Strange. “In 1955 the commentator Geoffrey Gorer declared that death had become more pornographic than sex. It was, he said, the new taboo and mourning had become ‘indecent’. Since then, matters have arguably got worse. The decline in institutional Christianity left a spiritual and existential vacuum, while the rise in individual materialism has fragmented family networks and communities. Shared rites of passage that publicly validated grief have receded, and the space of death has moved increasingly from the home to the hospital.” At the same time, death has always been a quandary.

The punishing world of high fashion: “Various factors contributed to [Alexander] McQueen’s suicide, aged 40. Money bought him drugs, which temporarily masked his unhappiness. He forked out for liposuction, draining away much of his sense of identity along with the flab. The death of his mother could not be discounted (he died on the eve of her funeral) but it was overwork that seemed to seal his fate.”

What extreme athletes can—and can’t—tell us about human endurance: “Scott Jurek’s victories in punishing 100-mile races since the late 1990s—plus a starring role in the writer Christopher McDougall’s best seller, Born to Run—have made him a distance-running celebrity. But tackling the Appalachian Trail forced him to dig deeper than he ever had before. Five weeks in, he was down more than a dozen pounds, and his ribs were visible. His eyes bulged, feral and unfocused. His body reeked of apple-cider vinegar as his sweat excreted excess ammonia. And his mind was beginning to crack. Late one night, he was mystified by the lights of a house he spotted on top of a mountain. A running partner had to explain that what he saw was the moon.”

Remembering Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address: “Not to put a finer point on it, Harvard Magazine recalled in 2011 that ‘The Exhausted West,’ delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon. In doing so he further underscored that the true divide between what seemed to be two world superpowers was much deeper and more complex than simply capitalism-versus- communism—a context sorely missing in the American Cold War reality, whether it be politics, news, film, or higher education.”

Essay of the Day:

Can I strongly recommend you read Ian Marcus Corbin’s essay on the politicization of everything—I guess that’s one way to put it—in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard? That’s a rhetorical question, folks:

“I currently split my professional life between academia and the Boston art world, the most liberal corners of the most liberal state of the union. I can’t speak strongly enough about the beauty and kindness of the black, Jewish, Hispanic, gay, transgender, feminist, socialist people whom I count as colleagues and friends here. They are deep, sensitive, searching souls. As a straight, white, able-bodied male, though—one who has even occasionally voted for Republicans—I am, on paper, a perfect storm of privilege and prejudice.

“Perhaps shockingly, my colleagues and I have managed to treat each other with respect and at times even deep friendship and care. That’s good—it’s wonderful, actually—but I also have the misfortune to be a regular reader of opinion journalism and social media posts. The people I speak to in my art gallery and classroom are likely, on any given day, to publish scorching social media screeds directed at people like myself. They post pictures in which they gleefully sip from mugs marked ‘White Male Tears’ and they make sweeping, ecstatically ‘liked’ and commented-upon pronouncements about the insidious, ubiquitous racism of people with my skin tone and about the domination, oppression, and evil that #YesAllMen daily impose upon them.

“Now there are many, many injustices that plague our common life. Some are indexed to race, sex, and other identity categories; some have long, horrific histories; in some cases, the lingering fallout is in its own way horrific. Because of the way I look and dress and speak, I surely get preferential treatment from some store clerks, bank-loan officers, job interviewers, police officers.

“It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.

“Living as I do among activists who talk the talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘mansplaining’ and so on, I know to take it all with a grain of salt. We’re not truly at war with one another; for the most part, we’re just playing games, enjoying the sensation of wielding high-caliber verbal weapons. But imagine being a differently situated white male—say a high-school-educated pipe-fitter from Idaho. Mightn’t you feel despised, attacked, unfairly blamed? Mightn’t you want to reply that life is very hard and that while you may have messed up in some ways you’re really doing your level best? Would you have any way of knowing that these online activists are actually decent people who would, if they sat and drank a glass of whiskey with you, realize that you too are a decent, trying-as-hard-as-you-can human being?”

Now read the rest.

Photo: Tulips

Poem: Richie Hofmann, “Feast Days”

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