I can't remember a time when I felt so left out as I did when John Lennon was killed and a kind of generational outpouring of greif engulfed us all. I was astonished. Speaking first as a card-carrying member of the musical boobosie, one whose main connection with '60s music was to threaten to call the police if the people next door didn't turn it down, it was a revelation -- and a poignant one -- to me to read all those accounts of how this music had sung to, awakened, even transformed young lives in America. The bond of these people has persisted into their early middle age, and I respect it -- am even somewhat awed by it -- although its secret will never be accessible to me. In fact, I have felt this awkward detachment at certain other national wakes, those of our assassinated leaders. The horror and sadness and fury were there for me, but not the sense of loss of one who represented all hope, as was the case for some. So one retreats, defers, lets the mourners have their day.
Are there others like me who were "there" during the '60s only as observers, people for whom it never really happened and who had given much puzzled thought since to both the meaning and the legacy of that decade? What are we, the folks in the very last car at the funeral, to make of it all? The response to Lennon's death at least resolves any doubts I had about the depth or permanence of the transforming experience for millions of Americans. The decade, it's political culture and its personal commitments endure as a kind of Agincourt for many -- they may be up to their three-piece suits in mortgage payments now, but they take their identify in some proud and satisfying way from who they were and what they did then.
I was going to liken their shared sense of identity to that of communicants in some secret society. But the word "secret" stops me cold. To the '50s-liberal eye, anyway, there is surely nothing "secret" about the world of the '60s people. There is hardly even anything private. And this, I think, is a source of the vast psychic distance between us. Thirties people (to indulge another loose but useful generalization) were famous for committing their personal energies to the solution of public problems. Their '60s-activist counterparts seemed to me quite differenct: they tended to obliterate the distinction between the personal and the public, to politicize their own most private experiences and feelings, to see their own emotional condition as a social issue in itself.
This naturally shocked the stuffy and the hidebound and other regressive, hypocritical elements for whom, I fear, I speak. To some it lookeld like little more than emotional exhibitionism. To me it looked more like a peculiar and paradoxical kind of self-absorption. The paradox lay in the fact that these were purported to be people who, blessidly after the political indifference of the '50s students, were ready to engage -- to hurl their youth and idealism into the battle for public justice. And yet there was an aspect of self-absorption to it that was almost comic (it is a measure of the power that time still has to intimidate that one is nervous about using the word "comic," modifies it with the cowardly "almost" and hopes for the best).
Human, cultural, familiar and between-the-sexes foibles that have been the object of amused and/or exasperated attention at least since Euripides were "uncovered," denounced, repudiated and declared irrefutable evidence of derrelicions peculiar to our society that must to be put to rights at once. Everything that wasn't nailed down became an "issue" -- no private anxiety or relationship was immune from that. And whatever solace was taken from what come to be seen as the '60s "life style" did not really remain a matter of private or personal choice for long either.
There was another paradox in this: rejection of the system became the new system; it was mandatory to participate in this retreat to prove your moral worth; everybody had to play -- we were all supposed to get "greened." The epilogue has been the continuing and -- yes -- comic manner in which some of these minions now impart to the rest of us the breathless news that things we were abominated for treasuring really aren't so bad after all. Marriage, family. stability, routine, work and (dare I say it?) money have all been taken of the hit list.
I mentioned the '30s people a moment ago. There are likenesses, not just differences, and the controlling one, it seems to me, is that, like their political progenitors from that earlier time, the political kids of the '60s -- the demonstrators and resisters and rejecters and singers and bleeders -- had worthy causes, made things that should have happened happen. For someone like me, what was wrong about the war in Indochina and what was morally abhorrent about the way white people treated black were still not to the radical, chanting, sudden, all-or-nothing response.
My kind are panicked by such self-certainty. We see it as one more of history's moral crusades that breeds its own unconscious cruelties and injustices -- and because we are always trying to make the whole thing, on all sides, come out right, we are, relative to these people, paralyzed. From this my own mixed feelings emerged. I am at once affronted by and envious of such conviction. And, believing in both its use and necessity under circumstances where other pressures fail, I both deplore and approve its being brought to bear -- usually on different days of the week.
Almost a quarter of a century ago in New York, I remember hearing aging '30s leftist I knew rationalizing the Russions butchery in Budapest. It enraged me. But my reflection led me to conclude that maybe it was too much to expect that people who had built their personal and social lives entirely around a political idea -- their friends, their marriages, their styles of doing everything from cooking their dinner to schooling their children to getting themselves up in all that damn-foll clanking Mexican silver jewelry -- could say, "Well, I guess the basic premise was wrong." That was their life. The decade of the '60s -- it's achievements, its follies, its sweep -- is the life of another generation. Don't ask them to repent for it.