Jenny Diski on The Sixties

Found in the Bethesda Public Library (mostly a disappointment, I guess the Newton Free Library has set the bar too high for suburban library overachievement), was a little book by Jenny Diski on The Sixties. She’s always rewarding to read in the LRB (including even her recent dissent from the chorus of approval for Downton Abbey). Here’s the opening of her Sixties book:

“Now that it has gone the twentieth century has become an idea. The past is always an idea that people have about it after the event. Those whose job it is to tell the story of the past in their own present call it history. To generations born later, receiving recollections from their parents or grandparents, or reading the historians, the past is a story, a myth handily packaged into an era, bound by a particular event–a war, a financial crisis, a reign, a decade, a century–anything that conveniently breaks the ongoing tick of time into a manageable narrative. Those who were alive during the period in question, looking back, call it memory, memory being just another instance of the many ways in which we make stories. But although the past always belongs to the present and future, the later third of the twentieth century we know as the Sixties was one of those particular periods that was an idea to many even before it became the past. The Sixties were an idea in the minds, perhaps even more powerful than the experience, of those who were actually living through them.”

The idea of the Sixties shaped me (Diski has the period extending through the mid-70s, my adolescence) as surely as The Great Depression era shaped my parents. She makes the connection between the 60’s take on the way of the world and the its affinity with the Thatcher/Regan era that followed (at the time seen like a counter-revolution or at least a disinfecting). Her thesis that they were the same in key ways (the obsession with the individual and with recasting freedom and liberty, the distrust of government, and radical ideas about “society” as a sort of category error) has been written about before, but Diski anatomizes it all with a witty scalpel, leaving any partisan on the “left” or “right” pondering the large cost of unintended consequences that the era bequeathed us.

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