Degeneration of the Sixties

A Look at Spain

by | Jan 14, 2009

As the soviet-led invasion by the warsaw Pact armies crushed the so called Prague spring reform in former Czechoslovakia, Prague residents carrying a Czechoslovak flag and throwing burning torches attempt to stop a soviet tank, August 21, 1968.

As the soviet-led invasion by the warsaw Pact armies crushed the so called Prague spring reform in former Czechoslovakia, Prague residents carrying a Czechoslovak flag and throwing burning torches attempt to stop a soviet tank, August 21, 1968. Photo by Libor Hajsky/AFP/Getty images

I heard the expression “the sixties” for the first time in secondary school when my language teacher wrote the number 68 on the blackboard to illustrate his lesson on the difference between the verbs denote and connote. The first meant just that: to mean objectively; connote, on the other hand, involved not only the specific meaning of a word, but another meaning of the appellative or expressive type. Thus, my teacher explained, for us, youngsters who were babes in arms when Franco died, that number on the board probably denoted a number like any other, just another figure. But for the people of his generation, who had lived through the six-ties (he said in Spanish with passionate emphasis while triple-underlining the digits on the blackboard), that number carried an added meaning; it connoted, among other things, a whole era during which he, along with other “fellow travelers,” believed—and at this point the teacher’s voice broke—that another world was possible.

Today I think the lesson would have gone better for him if he had written 69 on the blackboard, for among those adolescents, whose hormones were already agitated and who were still political virgins, that number surely “connoted” much more than the preceding figure. I only half understood the lesson and the example. Although I had understood the linguistic difference, I could not fathom the meaning of that lump that formed in the teacher’s throat just when he waxed most enthusiastic while recalling the dreams of his youth.

The reflections below will attempt, insofar as possible, to dissolve that lump: to clarify the strange mixture of enthusiasm and agitation that usually accompanies the memory of “the sixties”, and which always seems to arise when some linguistic or biological obstacle presents itself.

While schoolteachers in the Spain of yesteryear taught their students to study literary history by generations (the generations of ’98, ’27, ’36), today’s teachers, clearly influenced by their Anglo-Saxon colleagues, tend to explain history by decades. This method has helped to palliate some deficiencies of the generation method, such as the tendency criticized by historian José Carlos Mainer to seek “intra-generational homogeneities” (Proceedings of the AIH, 1971). However, as Mainer also notes in De Posguerra (1992), “as if by magic, the decades ended up becoming eras”. And this is what has happened, in a more spectacular way, with the decade of the sixties, which has become the titular expression of a whole period characterized, according to thinker Gabriel Albiac, by “the defense of subversion, the non-negotiable determination to transform the world and the rejection of any complicity with those in power” (Mayo del 68, 1993).

The sixties, according to the testimonies given by my teacher, Albiac and Fernando Savater: “Yearning for the Mystic Body, in which we will all be one”, as Savater satirized those years in “La Utopía” (1982)—seem to be informed by the notion of generation, at least if we abide by the definition given by José Ortega y Gasset: “Each generation represents a certain vital altitude, from which existence is felt in a particular way” (“La Idea de las Generaciones”, 1922). Further, given the heterogeneity between what young people of the sixties proposed and what they had inherited from the preceding generations, that period coins the term generation with special political interest.

The sixties were, above all, a generational question, and also constitute a model of what Ortega called “eliminatory eras.” As opposed to the “cumulative eras,” characterized by a homogeneity between the received and the current, the era of the sixties would be, in this philosopher’s words, a “combat generation…that does not try to conserve and accumulate, but rather to reject and replace; the old are swept aside by the young.” As happens in all generations, this one also instituted its titular date: the year 1968, because it was the year that saw the traumatic or agglutinating events that most strongly determined its lines of activity: Paris, Tlatelolco, and Prague, in addition to the prolonged war in Vietnam.

However, in what was still Franco’s Spain, this generational phenomenon of the sixties was not exactly aligned chronologically with those years. During that period, the West could well be in full transition toward a new “post-industrial”, “post-structuralist”, and even “post-modern” era while, south of the Pyrenees, as critic Ramón Buckley points out in contrast, “we had not yet made our transition, that is, a transition toward democracy ” (La Doble Transición, 1996).

The Spanish society of the sixties, according to Raymond Carr’s analysis in Modern Spain (1980), showed signs of “superficial modernization.” There was a spectacular economic development, especially in the tourism and industrial sectors, with the resulting migratory movement from the countryside to the cities. Autarky, Franco’s doctrine of economic self-sufficiency, was left behind, replaced by an incipient consumer society (Carr and Fusi in Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy, 1979).

As a result of this economic liberation, there were considerable “cultural and political reforms” (Stanley Payne in The Franco Regime, 1987). Based, however, on “a populist production of entertainment, popular songs, bullfights, soccer andespañoladas (films that presented a clichéd image of Spain),” these reforms represented less a revolt (in the manner of the rest of the West) than a “spectacular process of state disideologization”, according to cultural critic Teresa Vilarós (“Cine y Literatura,” 2002).

And there were also changes in literature. “Sometime during the 1960s”, wrote literary critic Brad Epps, “the mirror breaks for Spanish narrative” (“Questioning the Text”, 2003). Works by Luis Martín Santos, Juan Goytisolo, Miguel Delibes, Camilo José Cela and Juan Benet, “wreak havoc on the reality, idea, and ideal of realism”, Epps maintains, “[and] language turned into its own object becomes opaque, polyvalent, and at times even purposeless.” Even so, these writers (except, perhaps, Benet and Goytisolo) were prone to a deep “españolismo” (Spanishness), i.e., an exclusive preoccupation with the problems of Spain. And if we are to judge by cultural critic Jo Labanyi, this “Spanishness” makes them accomplices of the Franco dictatorship, inasmuch as the regime “tried to unify the nation by projecting difference outside its borders in the form of otherness: la anti-España, necessarily equated with foreign influence” (Spanish Cultural Studies, 1995).

Far from registering, then, a radical change with respect to the past, the Spanish sixties brought a series of “changes” that, in thinker Eduardo Subirats’ view, still involved multiple “ambiguities” (Después de la Lluvia, 1993). Between repression and resistance, liberation and caution, fascination with the foreign and the burden of “Spanishness,” in the sixties Spain began a transformation that would not entirely jell until well into the seventies, with the country’s transition to democracy, that is, with the period when the confrontation between the old order of things and the new materialized.

So the transition arose, delayed with respect to the rest of the West, as the agglutinating episode in Spain of the generational phenomenon that had begun abroad more than a decade earlier. This is why, in literary and cultural history, the so-called “generation of ‘68” really refers to authors who began to be published in the seventies (as happened in literature with Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Ana María Moix, Juan José Millás, etc., or in the works of singer-songwriters such as Luis Eduardo Aute or Lluis Llach) and which, depending on the context and the anthologists, takes such diverse names as the “lost generation” (Albiac), “failed generation” (Subirats), “novísimos generation” (Castellet) or “generation of ’75,” among others.

The great paradox of these generations is that, although they began as “combat generations” typical of the “eliminatory eras” described by Ortega y Gasset, most of them have ended up converted into “cumulative generations,” typical of eras of old age. Such a degeneration of some, although certainly not all, of those young internationalists is not a natural problem of senility, or at least not only senility. It is above all a problem that concerns criticism—that is, the way in which we interpret their legacy. I will try to explain myself.

The true “subversion” within the generation of the sixties, which in Spain takes place chronologically in the seventies, is less related with the restoration of the concept of utopia, than with the failure of utopia. In Paris, the movement of May was betrayed, according to Albiac, by the very leftist political parties that instigated it. As Savater saw them, “the clamors of May held secret complicities with the tanks of August”—that is, with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And in Spain the utopian radical change was also problematic, to say the least. Contributing to this problematic nature was the way in which the transition was carried out—“Holy Transition” for some, “Negotiated Betrayal” for others—and, above all, the “tragic delay” with which utopia reached Spain: “precisely when History promised to reach its peak of fulfillment—in democracy, perhaps socialism,” Buckley wrote, “it turned out that History ‘did not exist’, that it was ‘an illusion’, and therefore that the fascism we had suffered was as illusory as the democracy or socialism that were supposed to arrive.”

When all was said and done regarding the utopian question, what remained was a clear sense of loss (“If 1968 left us any legacy, it is…the loss of margins and references,” Albiac confessed) and of mistrust (“Mistrust toward the orders created, the theological ideals,” Savater wrote). And it is precisely this negativity that constitutes the “vital altitude” (which Ortega defined) of this combat generation, its real subversion, in the final analysis: the denunciation—Albiac would sum up in clear reference to the Foucaultian revolutionary analysis of power/knowledge—of “a new model of power and domination, [a] generalized spread of submission…that permeates bodies and minds.”

If, in addition to “vital altitude from which existence is felt in a particular way,” each generation also has according to Ortega a “historic mission”, then the mission of this generation of the sixties/seventies has been to leave the following generations disinherited; that is its legacy, and therein lie its merit and shame. They left them, according to Albiac, “without a future. Without meaning. And without subject.” What else? In Demasiadas Preguntas (1994), a novel by Félix de Azúa (another author who belongs to this generation) about the changing of the guard during the transition, the protagonist—an anti-Franco teacher—confesses much more: “to keep my conscience tidy I’ve left [my children] without anything: without God, without a fatherland, without a master, without a family, without hope and, above all, without a dime.” Moreover, if Albiac points out that “it is impossible to speak of ’68 in the first person,” the first person—or the impersonal form—are the only ways to talk nowadays. The fact is that, bent on leaving nothing to its heirs, that generation didn’t even leave the concept of generation. In fact, the main generation that at least within Spanish culture has been proclaimed since then has been called, significantly, “generation X.”

Such an eviction represents—I insist—an invaluable lesson on that period whose critical reach we may not yet be able to understand. The problem arises, however, when some critics (of the sixties and subsequent generations) transform that eviction into lamentation, into complaint, into “identification of the loss,” as Freud would say; in a word: into melancholy. And it is here that the “combat generations” can degenerate and become “cumulative,” because, instead of sweeping away the past—and in a traditionally Spanish gesture—they identify themselves with it. “The iconic transformation of the images of Spain,” laments Subirats, for example, “has not stopped to consider what in another time and another place could have been the sacred center of a real renovation of the reality known as Spain: its historical memory.”

“Pathetic Arguments” (2008), a controversial article by critic Ángel Loureiro, argues about certain treatments of the “historical memory”: “the teleological view of history has been replaced by a radically new sense of history that focuses more on the past than on the future.” And this is what seems to happen in the cases of Subirats, Albiac and others (and I do not doubt that they have their reasons), who have replaced the concept of “history as progress” with “history as grievance.” With the additional result that the charismatic altruism of the sixties is also replaced by self-absorption, and sometimes even by narcissism. If this is not the case, how is it possible that the era that was most unwilling to perpetuate tradition is today the one that inspires the most retrospectives, to which we return the most frequently, and is even the one that ties us most firmly to the past, to the point, as my secondary school teacher realized, that it gives us a lump in our throats? Something must be wrong with this way of interpreting that era and its legacy.

Perhaps that sublimation (in the sense of ‘elevation’ here) of the “disenchantment” that is so strongly in force in the cultural criticism of the transition has not realized that in humor—often in black humor—melancholy finds both its raison d’être and its cure. It is true, as Vilarós maintains, that “banality,” agglutinated in judgments such as Albiac’s “to know that nothing matters any more,” establishes “from the sixties the mode of biopolitical movement in the post-modern era” and the resulting “dehistorization,” “depolitization” and “denarrativization” of current Spanish society (“Banalidad y Biopolítica,” 2005). But it is no less true that, at least in literature (as Harvie Ferguson maintains, in connection with certain romantic literature), complicity between irony and melancholy “is a token of its detachment from the world of actual events, and it is by adopting an ironic pose that the modern Romantic spirit seeks to preserve the full potentiality of the human” (Melancholy and the Critique of Modernity, 1995).

Azúa’s Historia de un idiota contada por él mismo [The story of an idiot told by himself] (1986) is an exemplary novel about that potentiality of the human that can also be embraced by the black humor contained in melancholy. At the end of this “mock autobiography” of Azúa himself / the self-aware “idiot” (who narrates his suicidal, fruitless search for the “content of happiness”), the protagonist finally survives himself: “I considered myself”, the idiot concludes with a smile, “a FREE AND UNHAPPY MAN…deaf and blind, but with his sense of wonder intact, as it was at the beginning, before I received my first wallop. But I WAS NO LONGER MYSELF. I wasn’t COMPLETELY dead, but I’d managed to kill the dependence, the anguish that had been destroying me inside for years like an invisible cancer.”

Understanding this idiotic laughter, or melancholaughter, after suffering cruel disappointments first-hand is not an easy task. But I cannot believe that it is in the nature of the most idiotic people to wish to preserve the “potentiality of the human,” and not necessarily ‘too human’ here. This is the scholarly undertaking that occupies us; for this other form of sixties humorous degeneration, or of degenerating humorously, must be a part of its critical legacy. En fin…what would my language teacher think of all this?

Winter 2009Volume VIII, Number 2

Santiago Morales-Rivera (Harvard Ph.D.) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California at Irvine. Email:

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