The Events, The Time Out Book of Paris Short Stories, Penguin 1999

In the second week of the Events, I went to see my professor in hospital, the mad philosopher. He was sitting up in bed, reading a newspaper, and wearing an undignified white gown that didn't cover his body properly, but that rather suited him because it made him look like an angel. His uncombed white hair formed a dandruffy nimbus around his lunatic head. The drugs had made his skin look sallow and translucent to complete his ethereal appearance.

His gaze fixed on to me as soon as I entered the ward. The hospital, on the outskirts of Paris, was a monument to the stony charity of France's last empire and had long corridors and immense open wards where patients were tended in a regime of military rigidity.

'You know what they're doing now, don't you?' he said, without greeting (he maintained the Socratic rigour of the teacher-student relationship even when he was in hospital, which was understandable since he spent so much time there), as soon as I was close enough to him that he could speak to me without raising his voice.

I had no idea what he meant, of course, so I prompted him to tell me once I had sat down at his bedside.

'The French authorities have introduced a secret weapon for use against the students. It is to be deployed in street battles. The weapon consists of an electronic oscillator, mounted inside a van, which generates a sine wave at an ultra-low frequency, but with terrific magnitude. The wave is below the threshold of human audibility, but it causes intense nausea in anyone within one hundred metres of the source, temporarily but totally disabling them. A subsonic tear gas.'

A little rocket of amusement went off in my head. I had to concentrate hard to prevent myself from smiling at this wonderfully absurd idea. I prized the professor's flights of imagination during his periodic mental crises -- the exquisite fruit of mania.

'I see you have been reading the newspaper,' I said. '1 came to tell you what has been happening, because I thought you wouldn't have had any news in here.'

This irritated him. 'I have been reading the newspapers daily. I know what you delinquents are up to,’ he said with a faint smile, pronouncing with ironic emphasis the word that the Figaro's editorial writer had used to describe us a few days earlier. Then he noticed the scuffed bruise on my cheekbone. 'Were you hit with a police truncheon?' he asked.
 
'No, not exactly,' I said, and told him what had happened.

The night before, I had found myself caught up in a march, mostly of students from the University of Nanterre, who were on their way to the Sorbonne, which had been occupied by the police three days earlier. It was not my original intention to take part in a battle with the police. A girl from the Sorbonne whom I had chatted with after a seminar on Mao Tse Tung thought told me that she was going. She was really cute, even if I found her politics a bit naive, and I wanted to see her again. We may have been in the vanguard of liberation, but it was still hard to meet girls.

So we met outside the Sorbonne just as the crowd was entering the Latin Quarter, and we joined it, and took up the chant, 'No to repression! Free our comrades!' -- referring to the hundreds of students who were arrested when the police invaded the university. As the procession turned into the rue St Jacques, we found ourselves almost in the front rank, facing a double line of riot police who were blocking the street.

We were forced to stop in front of them. But the majority of the crowd, who were behind us, hadn't yet turned into the rue St. Jacques and couldn't see the line of cops barring our way, so they continued to pour into the street behind us, pushing us right up against the police line, and while all this was going on we kept chanting the slogan, 'Free the Sorbonne! Free the Sorbonne!’  and pointing our fingers at the police to taunt them, because it was they who had invaded the university.

I don't know what happened next, except that the police very suddenly started hitting anyone in sight with their truncheons. One of them chose me for a target, and came towards me with his weapon held high. I ran on to the pavement to escape him, but I tripped on something and crashed head-first into the metal tables and chairs outside a cafe. I sat there for a moment with my eyes closed and my arms over my head as the battle raged around me. When I looked up, the girl was nowhere to be seen, but the battle was still going on, so I pulled myself up and rejoined the students. It was an amazing feeling, there in the street. The sensations of fear and excitement combined in my guts and I felt a momentary flash of a kind of ecstasy. We were fighting the police and winning! I saw some people pulling up cobble-stones with their hands and hurling them at the police. I joined them, and flung a cobble-stone in a high arc into the swarm of blue uniforms. I don't know if it hit one of them.

I looked towards the professor like a proud son seeking approval for a good deed. I was setting this description before him, and indeed the whole student movement, everything that had happened since the Events began, as a great gift in tribute to the teacher who had instructed us in his seminars at the Ecole about the inevitable revolution and the renewed science of Marxism. We were now carrying out that revolution. The state was quaking at the knees before us and would soon fall. This kindly and gentle man was the father of our movement, despite his occasional bouts of infirmity, and I was the first and only one of his students to come to him to acknowledge his role. I thought it would boost his morale, and hasten the healing of his shattered faculties. Instead, it seemed to have the opposite effect.

'The situation is not revolutionary; he said, in a weary voice, a little slurred. He looked feeble and sad.

'What?'

'Your movement is an ideological revolt, not a political revolution,' he said. He paused, summoning up from a mind fogged with medication the terms he was seeking. 'It is only subjectively revolutionary. It is libertarian, or neo-Luxemburgist, but not revolutionary. You are living in a dream.'

'But that's precisely the point. We are liberating desire. Our slogan is, Be realistic: demand the impossible. We pull up the cobble-stones in the street and find the beach underneath.'

'It is utopianism. You know what Lenin said about utopianism, don't you?'

‘No.’

‘”Utopianism is an infantile disorder which can be cured if it is properly treated.”’

When I looked at him again, his eyes were closed, so I got up quietly and left.

That night at dinner I sat with two friends, Georges and Alain, fellow students at the Ecole. We were a bit mad ourselves those days, though we considered ourselves superior to the rowdies of the Sorbonne. As students of the celebrated professor, we were by right the ideological commissars of the movement: Georges had been carrying out this serious duty in the course of the past week by writing particularly obscure and erudite graffiti on the walls of the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter. He spent whole days composing them in his room and then would steal out from the hall of residence at night with a can of spray paint. The authorship of these masterpieces was unmistakable: Georges always used very straight, regular block capitals and was careful about grammar and punctuation. They also tended to be the longest graffiti around. This had two consequences: they lacked the epigrammatic brevity of the best examples, and they took longer to write, which increased Georges's risk of being caught. As each night approached, he worked himself up into a knot of anxiety as he faced the dangerous task that lay before him.

'I wrote a new one last night; he said gravely. 'It's on the wall beside the Etoile bakery. It says, The image of death: the sleeper's real self: Return, the repressed!'

 'What does it mean?'

'It's an adapted quotation from Lacan.'

'Bourgeois nonsense; Alain huffed.

I said, 'It's too cryptic! I can't understand that and I have no idea who would. Would you please go back tonight and add an explanatory footnote, and perhaps a bibliography?'

Georges winced. 'I'm afraid of the police.'

Then I told them about my visit to the professor in hospital, and how confused and disappointed I had been by what he had said.

'I don't understand why you take him so seriously; Alain said. 'He's just crazy, nothing more. Half the time he's doped up to his eyeballs and doesn't know what day of the week it is, or even what country it is. You say he's an important theorist, but he's hardly published anything. There is a rumour about him, you know, that he hasn't read the whole of Das Kapital, that he has never got past the first chapter, because he doesn't understand it, and he's terrified that people will find out. Besides, what good is he now -- to us -- here -- with the police shooting rubber bullets and tear gas every night, and breaking our skulls, while he lies in bed in hospital, supine and helpless?'

'That is just the point. To be crazy is the only logically possible response, the only course for a person who is rational.'

'Response to what?'

'You know: what we're all opposed to. To the fascist monolith of France and its armed police. To De Gaulle. To the war in Vietnam. To the church, to the family, to what he calls the "ideological apparatus of the state", including the Ecole itself. His withdrawal is both logical and correct. It is a potent and effective act of rejection of a state of affairs that is itself in the last stages of a fatal disease. Faced with an obscene situation, the self has no choice but to go on a psychic general strike, to enter an inner state of revolutionary turmoil.'

'That too is bourgeois nonsense,' Alain said.

Over the next few days, the situation in the street intensified and moved towards a climax. The government was still refusing to release the students who had been arrested in the siege of the Sorbonne, and the university was still closed, despite an announcement that it would re-open for lectures. A big confrontation with the authorities seemed inevitable. By that Friday the streets of the Latin Quarter had been turned into a revolutionary carnival, with open-air lectures and black and red banners hanging from the windows. I saw the surrealist poet Aragon, a member of the French Communist Party, and as such a symbol of the old order, booed off the platform he was sharing with the leader of our movement, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The showdown came that night. A march had been planned for that day, which was intended to go through the boulevards of the Right Bank, but the police had sealed off all the bridges across the Seine. So a spontaneous decision was made to occupy the Latin Quarter. I was with a large crowd that had gathered in the rue Gay Lussac. I could feel the tingling of fear and anticipation building up inside me. At one point, the word swept through the crowd that we should build barricades. A group of us discovered a building site, which we plundered for materials, and we piled the stuff up in the street until it was a metre high, and others were doing the same all around us, when at about 2am, the storm broke, and the police descended on us. This time they seemed to be using grenades, in addition to the usual tear gas and truncheons, because I heard a number of explosions mingling with the menacing double note of sirens. The blue revolving lights of their trucks streaked across the fronts of the surrounding buildings.

I felt a sudden, overwhelming nausea. My head spun on three axes; I buckled at the knees and fell to the pavement. The last thing I remember seeing before I passed out was a strange van with its side open and inside it a monstrous black cone.

A week later, Liberation reported that an estimated two hundred people were struck with the same unexplainable symptom, which was nothing like the symptoms of tear-gas inhalation. A new secret weapon had been introduced, the paper said, although some dismissed the reports as paranoiac delusion.