Academic journal article The Romanic Review

1966: Morning in Baltimore

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

1966: Morning in Baltimore

Article excerpt

The year 2009 was a time of commemorations and celebrations of big, tragic, or globally transformative events: the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the sixtieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China ... and, most important, the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock music festival.

As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins noted, "the Woodstock-mania might strike young people as yet another example of baby-boomers' self-absorption, their inability to ever stop talking about the big things that they once did." Though what they actually did, or the epochal consequences thereof, was not all that clear, least of all to those directly involved in what a New York Times editorial called a "Nightmare in the Catskills." (1) Many who attended the concert admittedly had no memory that there was any music whatsoever, so busy were they scavenging for food, while others recalled that the music was really not all that good. "When I was actually at Woodstock," Collins noted, "it never occurred to me anybody was going to want to discuss it forty years down the road." (2)

Three years before Woodstock, a few hundred miles south, another epochmaking event took place, one that few imagined would still be discussed more than forty years later: the symposium entitled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," held at Johns Hopkins University on October 18-21, 1966.

What kind of parallel may be drawn between these two events, other than the fact that attendance at either one turned out to be groovy? As Stanley Fish lyrically put it, "Those who were able to catch the wave could say with Wordsworth, 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.'" (3) And, we might add, "But to be young was very heaven!"4 The full psychedelic quality of that Baltimorean dawn was never better articulated than in Jacques Lacan's address. Lacan told his audience that, earlier that day, leaning from the window of his hotel room, the scant light of the October morning, crossed by a flashing neon sign, made him aware that "the Dasein was there, in this rather intermittent or fading spectator." His conclusion made Baltimoreans proud but also puzzled: "The best image to sum up the unconscious is Baltimore in the early morning." (5)

The two events could be compared in several respects. Both, for instance, were portrayed as barbarian invasions. True, nobody went so far as to describe the distinguished French guests at Hopkins as "freakish-looking intruders [...] hippies [who] had little more sanity than the impulses that drive lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea." (6) The Hopkins visitors, nonetheless, turned out to be Trojan horses, the beachhead of an invasion of "mind-snatchers from the continent," (7) or, worse, an assault of effete French nihilists who very soon "crashed onto American shores" in order to bring "theory's guerrillas" and soon-to-be tenured radicals into the peaceful landscape of the American campus, still lying in the lull of New Criticism. (8) The infestation spread quickly and inexorably. "The English department at Yale used to resemble a sort of English country estate," wrote journalist Colin Campbell; now, "the estate is choked with new theoretical plants and weird new beasts of criticism, many of them French, as if a tropical French colony, a Paris with snakes, had sprung up from the turf. Some fear the jungle also shields a guerrilla camp from which armed nihilists have been launching raids on the academic countryside." (9) In 1986, the public image of theory was cool, intriguing and a little intimidating; the following year, the public was treated to the De Man affair, which made theory controversial, and ten years later, to the Sokal affair, which made it look ridiculous.

However, the hippies who were stranded at Woodstock, hungry and covered with mud, endured their ordeal peacefully. …

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