When protest, occupation, and civil unrest crippled a capital city and, to some extent, crippled a nation, Mavis Gallant began to chronicle the moment so that she might work out something of a “theory of siege psychosis.” She watched as confusing if not conflicting demands were made of a government many thought had lost its way. She questioned the executive’s response to a multi-faceted crisis while showing qualified sympathy for a beleaguered leader. She contemplated the changing meaning of a nation’s flag, as demonstrators co‑opted it for their own purposes. And she tried to understand those who defiled the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, those who had forgotten the sacrifices made for such freedoms of expression. “They remind me of children who keep insisting they are not sleepy,” she said of some who had taken control of the streets, “when in reality they are virtually asleep on the carpet.”
Rumours, believed in certain quarters and dismissed in others, filled the air, as did the blaring of horns into the night. Were Americans financing the unrest? Maybe the Russians? To what extent were agents provocateurs responsible for the disruptions that forced restaurateurs to close their doors for days on end and kept patrons away from the city’s hairdressers and flower shops and greengrocers? “We seem to be in a tunnel wondering what is at the other end,” she wrote, quoting a friend. And, yes, the tunnel vision quickly took hold.
As the city was forced to cope with its new albeit temporary reality, delegates gathered to negotiate a peace in Vietnam. But those suddenly preoccupied with “the events” outside their front doors could no longer give “two pins” for what was brewing elsewhere. Gallant had “the feeling that people are releasing emotions, and not saying what they think.” Indeed, many were afraid to speak up or didn’t know how.
Historians agree that May ’68 — which ground an economy and a government to a halt, which kept students of all ages from school, which saw the police clearing blockades and arresting organizers, which bruised a divisive man’s image but ultimately led to his renewed success at the ballot box, and which otherwise vexed millions upon millions — continues to shape France. But even as Gallant was “convinced I have seen something remarkable,” neither she nor the soixante-huitards could have possibly known the full meaning of those seven fateful weeks. And when, three months later, she published some 40,000 words that spanned two issues of The New Yorker, about what she saw and what she heard in the many arrondissements she visited that spring, she still did not hazard predictions.
Rather than spill her ink on real-time analysis, trying, perhaps, to fit what was unfolding into some sort of existing narrative framework or fixed world view, Gallant intently watched, listened, and recorded. That is not to say that she was merely an objective observer — far from it. The Canadian in Paris had her opinions and biases, as when she confessed to her own “feeling of helpless anger,” when she described the police’s presence at the Sorbonne as “the last stand of the illiterate,” or when she noted the “touching narcissism of the young” (a line Frances McDormand quotes verbatim in Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch).
But breathlessly dissecting the events on the fly would have distracted her from documenting them in their full complexity; she wanted to capture a nation’s mood, in all its capriciousness, but not to explain it, at least not yet. As she focused on the what, Gallant left the how and the why and the so what for future days.
As we continue to live through those future days of hers in these uncertain times of ours, there is great temptation to prognosticate, to fill column inches and 280-character compositions with a false knowingness — about segments of the population and their modes of transportation, about the Pandora’s box that may or may not be the Emergencies Act, about Vladimir Putin’s czarist ambitions or the possible chinks in his armour — that Gallant would have found absurd. “The future is imaginary,” she wrote, “but everyone is living in it as if it had happened. It is a collective hallucination.” And maybe it’s a collective hallucination that comes at the cost of truly enumerating and confronting the bewildering subtleties that lead to such transformational junctures.
In the aftermath of May ’68, Gallant and her interlocutors did agree on one thing: Rien ne sera comme avant. Nothing will be like before. It’s a sentiment that many of us — from across the country and the political spectrum — surely share today. “Our children and our children’s children will judge this. Ils se poseront des questions.” Let’s hope we have the right answers.