Introduction to ” A Grin Without A Cat”

This is an excerpt from Chris Marker introduction to the DVD release in France of A Grin Without a Cat, his 1977 epic film-essay on the worldwide political wars of the 60′s and 70′s: Vietnam, Bolivia, May ’68, Prague, Chile, and the fate of the New Left.I don’t know if there was a May spirit. There was a spirit in May. Philosopher Maurice Clavel saw in it the Spirit itself, the revolt of spiritual forces against a materialist world. It was an angle, but the nice side of that era is that you can say practically anything about it and be sure to strike home from a certain angle and lamely goof from another. It is too easy to sort out all its extravagances and ridicules, everybody did it, and the worst reproach we can make to the soixante-huitard folklore is to have provided those it was supposed to fight with an everlasting stock of caricatures. They ended up covering other images of those unreasonable days, what they carried of true generosity, of genuine inventiveness. Symetrically it is interesting to decipher in them, as in a laboratory, the pattern of the century’s great contradictions. At the lowest cost (almost no bloodshed), it presents a kind of outline of all the revolutionary processes. What started with a nice but somewhat silly “It is forbidden to forbid” vertiginously turns to “Everything is forbidden except us.” The main enemy is no longer an almost abstract Power which is fought with rites (slogans, speeches, meetings – we live with the fantasy to storm the Winter Palace, nobody will ever think of marching on the Elysée !) but the other party, the other sect, the other groupuscule. In these limboes of History, any simulation will do. One of the most preposterous : the occupation of the headquarters of the Literary Society by one Writers Union (the sheer name gives a cold sweat to whoever has known the Soviet Union), so named out of antiphrasis since its three constituents keep tearing one another apart in the name of revolutionary purity. For here we are, we’re making the Revolution. A confession : when I heard my friends revel in this word I heard a metaphor, a sort of sexy way to christen the true transformations of thought or mores that unfolded before us, which where not negligible, and would leave traces. And as I just said, nobody outlined a true strategy to seize the power. Today, when I read their memories, I realise they were actually thinking about it, talking about it, dreaming about it and I still wonder with perplexity what precise images they could paste on that dream. Because, as Chairman Mao—who didn’t talk only nonsense—had told us : “Revolution is not a dinner party.” Che, whose photo was (already) loved by all, and whose books were read by nobody, was even more technical. “Hatred as a factor of struggle, the relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine.” Sometimes I used to ask to one or another if what they really wished was for their children to become effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. The answers were dilatory. In fact, in a country ruled by a strong power, although momentarily paralyzed, this revolution had another name : Civil War. “The only just war”, as some lunatic dared to say. Others would take the plunge : Serge July, Alain Geismar “Toward the civil war,” 1969. “Although we don’t intend to play prophets” (just as well), “the horizon for France in ’70 or ’72 is the Revolution.” The horror of the two great civil wars of the 20th century, Russian and Spanish, should have incited them to choose the words with less… (let’s keep moderate) lightness. But the myth was the strongest and it would remain so for a long time. I remember my last conversation with Althusser*. He was back from Portugal in full “Carnation Revolution,” and this time, that was it ! After many failed outbursts, including our month of May, Portugal was about to carry out the first socialist revolution since 1917, consolidate it and from there spread it to the whole of Europe. I listened to him as in zero-gravity. Facing me was not a likeable young leftist nut, but one of the greatest French intellectuals of his time. For him, as for others, Revolution was in the air, and had to be, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. He would always see that grin. And he wouldn’t (nor would anyone) ever see the Cat.

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*Louis Althusser, philosopher, marxist, guru of the New Left.