What is freedom? We who came of age half a century ago found ourselves well placed by unearned good fortune to test its limits. Our parents, having suffered the privations of the Great Depression and the anxieties of World War II, had subsequently harnessed themselves to the task of rebuilding. From their discipline emerged a world of prosperous plenty sicklied o’er with the pale cast of gray-flannel conformity and lonely crowds. We wanted more. Throughout 1968, our inchoate desire bubbled over into the public sphere.
The nature of that desire—perhaps I should call it a yearning, because it was vaguer than desire, limitless and without object—was vividly evoked by a surprising witness to what happened in Paris that spring: Yves de Gaulle, the grandson of Charles de Gaulle, who was president of France at the time of the May ‘68 student uprising turned general strike, and whose grip on power was loosened by what the French to this day simply refer to as “the events.”
In a documentary recently aired in France, the younger de Gaulle recounts a dinner with his grandfather at the height of the uprising. The 77-year-old general asked what all those strangely agitated young people wanted.
“Vivre plus!” Yves, then 17, replied. (“To live more!”)
“And what can I, as head of state, do to satisfy that desire, which I fully understand?”
The general’s grandson had no answer. But he had experienced firsthand the exhilarating bedlam at the Odéon national theater, which had been “occupied” and declared a site of “permanent revolutionary creativity” by a committee of “students, artists, and workers.” Evidently, Yves came away with his blood stirred by the spectacle of so much public passion in a society he had never before seen so unbuttoned or unbridled.
He managed to convey something of this unprecedented exuberance to his grandfather, who might not have understood what those “bed-shitters” (chie-en-lit) wanted but nevertheless drew the conclusion that nothing less than a “change of society” (mutation de société) would suffice if order were to be restored. It was the classic conservative response to the perennially baffling desire of the young to “Live more!”—a stratagem memorably formulated by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard: “Everything must change so that everything may stay the same.” And so it did.
Somehow we bed-shitters had shaken things up, wrong-footing the guardians of the old and illuminating the new, if only by flickering match-light.