Friday, 18 December 2015

Love In The Days Of Rage - Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Lawrence Ferlinghetti waxes lyrical over May '68 and apart from a lack of paragraphs what do we get? Well, to be honest it's hard to tell. It's a sumptuous read but behind the poetical writing and the literary allusions, what's at its core? I only ask because of the book's subject matter and because of who Ferlinghetti is. You would think it would have a meaning to it, if not a message? In fact, I demand a meaning and a message precisely because of its subject matter and who it's written by.

Ferlinghetti's no fool and he has form but neither are we and we got form too, eh, kids? This is 2015 moving into 2016 after all. You know, these are the days of miracle and wonder, of the bomb in the baby carriage wired to the radio. So with this in mind and with my rose-tinted glasses tucked firmly away I read Love In The Days Of Rage.

Set in Paris, 1968, it's a story of a 40 year-old American art teacher by the name of Annie; meeting, dating and falling in love with a 55 year-old Portuguese banker called Julian. It's Spring and France is in crisis state as students riot and workers strike. Revolution is just a shot away but what can a pair of lovers do apart from contemplate their navels and be swept along by the tide of events?
Being a teacher at a University, Annie is closer to the action than Julian simply because all her students are out in the streets and it would be rude not to join them. Of the two of them, however, it's Julian who talks the talk as he opens up about his past as an anti-fascist anarchist. But does he walk the walk?

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that he doesn't and is, in fact, cynical beyond belief. In his eyes he's top anarchist and all his old comrades who he now hates are 'lumpenproletariat, made only for slavery, for continued slavery. They wanted "liberty" for everyone, in the abstract, but they couldn't give full liberty to anyone to act on his own'.
So since those days of his youth he's abandoned his comrades and struck out on his own to worm his way into the heart of the system, in a bid to bring about its downfall from within. Only he, amongst all other revolutionaries is serious. Only his vision is right. Only his path the true one. Rather than working with others to overthrow the machine, he sees himself as the poison within it. And as for the student revolution going on outside his very window: 'They'll have their little 'summers of love'... their beautiful little fires of rebellion will burn so bright - and then - pouf - out like a smoking wick with the first winds of winter... swept away by nothing more than the ticking of the clock, all of them graduated into the real world...'.

Annie rightfully accuses him of being a hypocrite because for all his holier-than-thou ideas on how and how not to fulfil a revolution, the fact of the matter is that he's a banker earning a good living at the heart of the capitalist system.
Julian, however, has a plan. He has insider knowledge and knows that the Bank of France, in fear of Paris becoming an occupied city, is moving a very large part of its most valuable security bonds to a secret location out in the countryside. Julian intends blowing to smithereens the train on which the bonds are being transported, destroying the whole lot with one very powerful plastic bomb.
And that's it. That's his big idea. That's what makes him top anarchist. Blow up the Bank of France's securities and then run to the hills, spending the rest of his days hiding out with his girlfriend.

It's not a bad idea as such but to hold it above all other ideas is just plain wrong. Revolution is horses for courses and a student rioting in the street is just as valid and worthy as a worker striking, a pamphleteer handing out leaflets, a person feeding the homeless, a person raising their fist, a person raising their voice, a person inciting violence, a person calling for peace, a person offering hope, a person offering love, or indeed a person blowing up a train full of money.
As isolated actions they're all just drops in the ocean but when in conjunction with other actions it's an alternative. A revolution, even.
Any successful, effective revolution is a many-headed hydra. If one head is cut off, there's another in its place. A single-headed revolution can easily be defeated but not so a many-headed one. Does Lawrence Ferlinghetti not understand this? If so, then it's not the message his book conveys.

You can't tell if they're based on anyone in real life but Annie and Julian aren't very likeable characters. He's cynical and has an ego problem, she's a dope for putting up with his bollocks. And for someone who says their father once had an affair with Emma Goldman, she's actually quite boring. An armchair Lefty.
What saves the book is Ferlinghetti's descriptions of the unfolding events of May '68. In fact, he does a very good job of it. All the slogans are in there such as 'Under the paving stones, the beach', 'Be reasonable - demand the impossible', 'A cop sleeps in each of us. You have to kill him', and one of my favourites: 'Those who make a revolution by halves dig their own graves'.
There's also a couple of mentions of bibliophile George Whitman and his Shakespeare & Co bookstore which are rather sweet, particularly a description of Whitman rushing about thrusting glasses of tea or punch and cups of soup into strangers' hands as if they were survivors of a war. Which in a way of course, they were, following the bouts of street fighting right outside his shop.

As for meaning and message, however, Love In The Days Of Rage offers very little that is of any use to the modern day anarchist romancer; pandering instead to a flabby nostalgia for radical days now lost in the eiderdown of middle-aged, middle class, middle-of-the-road ennui.
John Serpico

No comments:

Post a Comment