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Book Review: The Sixties by Jenny Diski

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Every time period has its trappings. And while it may be impacted by its recency, it's hard to imagine a historical period that carries more baggage than the 1960s. In her reflective quasi-memoir The Sixties, British author Jenny Diski sifts through some of the baggage but ultimately comes away dismayed and discouraged.

At the outset, Diski seeks to dispose of a far too prevalent misconception. "The Sixties, of course, were not the decade of the same name," she notes in her introduction. Rather, the era actually began in the mid-1960s with the ascendancy of popular culture. She believes it ended in the mid-1970s "when all the open-ended possibilities we saw began to narrow, as disillusion, right-wing politicians, and the rest of our lives started to loom unexpectedly large." As such, the period mirrors much of the coming of age of Baby Boomers. Yet even if their alienation and resistance to conformity was greater in degree, neither was the exclusive province of that generation.

Diski explores the time period through both some of the main vehicles of popular culture at the time — drugs, the sexual revolution, and fashion — as well as education and psychiatry. If there's a common theme among them, it's a sense of an unbounded freedom to explore. This arose in significant part because of the advantages afforded the generation. They did not struggle with bad economic times, the lack of a social safety net or fighting a world war. Granted, there was the Cold War and Vietnam but Diski and her contemporaries were raised in a time of comparative affluence. They had more opportunity to investigate and experiment than their parents, even if it came in the form of drugs, sex or how they approached education. Even sex, she notes, "was an important part of the project of undoing the constraints we perceived our elders to have been immobilised by."

Living in London during this time, Diski's perspective undoubtedly is distinct from her American contemporaries. While she took part in at least one demonstration, the Vietnam War and the draft did not have the same impact on British youth of that generation. Still, the difference is one of degree, not character. Most of what she considers and experienced, whether personal or political, was also part of the American experience. Yet The Sixties seems to recognize what can only perceived after the coming of age and once adulthood overtakes youthfulness.

The compromises that adults make cause much of the suffering in the world, or, at best, fail to deal with the suffering. Acceptance of one's lot — maintaining a silence about what can't be said, lowering your expectations for your own life and for others, and understanding that nothing about the way the world works will ever change — is the very marrow of maturity, and no wonder the newly fledged children look at it with horror and know that it won't happen to them — or turn their backs on it for fear it will.

But it did happen to the '60s generation. That "very marrow of maturity" displaced the core of many of the aspirations of the time, leaving a "disappointed remnant." And while there was talk of freedom and being free, "the majority of the activists in my generation were never as interested in individual liberty as we were in finding ways to implement our own ideas of how the world should be." This "single focus on our inner selves," she concludes, produced "[n]o new ideas, no great books or paintings or poetry," only "an album cover or two." The flaw, according to Diski, was confusing liberation and libertarianism.

How the "do your own thing" approach laid the groundwork for the yuppies, financial excess and conservative governments to come can be endlessly debated. Diski's rumination, though, suggests part of the reason the dogma of The Sixties ultimately turned out to be almost hallucinatory and certainly not reality.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.