Still Crazy After All These Years

paul auster goes crazy over columbia ’68 and iraq ’08.

Forty years ago this month, in the fateful year of 1968, Columbia University students went on strike, eventually taking over buildings on the university’s campus (full disclosure: I am starting a book on the history of this event).

What followed was a kind of microcosm of the late 1960s: student protest in general; racial divisions between black nationalist student protesters and white student protesters; growing women’s and sexual liberation movements (at Columbia and Barnard revolving around the March 1968 case of Linda LeClair, who was controversially cohabitating with her boyfriend); the continued revelations of the university’s research involvements with weapons such as Agent Orange, used in the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam; a mass-mediated frenzy of hype; an angry backlash by working-class cops; a confusing mix of local and global issues colliding with each other; the hippie counterculture even made an appearance, not just in clothing and hair styles, but when students smuggled a relatively new rock band, the Grateful Dead, onto campus in a bread truck to perform in solidarity with the protesters.

Image: Seth Kushner

Paul Auster

Last week in the New York Times, Paul Auster published what he called a memory-piece about his involvement in the Columbia events of spring 1968. Moving between first and third person, he wrote of how students who felt angry about Vietnam and other issues but were largely apolitical in their direct activism were suddenly swept up the swirl of historical events around them. This was an experience of deep interiority and exteriority all at once: a kind of trance state in which a participant dove in and pulled back in the same gesture of political action. As Auster put it:

The crowd thought that was an excellent idea, and so off it went, a throng of crazy, shouting students charging off the Columbia campus toward Morningside Park. Much to my astonishment, I was with them. What had happened to the gentle boy who planned to spend the rest of his life sitting alone in a room writing books? He was helping to tear down the fence. He tugged and pulled and pushed along with several dozen others and, truth be told, found much satisfaction in this crazy, destructive act.

Auster ended his essay with another strange mix of assertion and removal, of declaring “I am” and whispering “Who is he?”

I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.

Writing like the Edgar Allen Poe of Park Slope that he is, Auster turns Columbia ’68 into a kind of ghost story. He as narrator enters into a determined position and pulls himself back at the same time. He tells a detective’s tale of mystery: the student uprising as the fourth installment of the New York Trilogy.

Image: SDS

SDS Pamphlet, April 1968

This is not about Iraq but it is about Iraq, Auster manages to suggest. I am not the same person I was then but I am the same person I was then. Auster fixes himself and comes unhinged in the same sentence.

But maybe, he hints, when surrounded by fire and blood, coming unhinged is in fact the only fix there is.

Images: SDS, Courtesy NYU Archives; Seth Kushner

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