Searching for Guy Debordby Andy Merrifield
Bellevue-la-Montagne is a sleepy, almost deserted village perched high on a 1000-meter hillock in the northern reaches of France’s Haute-Loire. At Bellevue, looking southeast, you do get a fine view of mountains, of the Massif Central, whose flat-topped volcanoes dominate this part of the rugged Auvergne. Volcanoes are everywhere and stretch as far as the eye can see. They go way beyond Le Puy-en-Velay, the département’s major town, with its gigantic 80-meter bulge of lava and crowning Romanesque Chapel, some thirty kilometers downwind. On a good travel day in modern times—on a day, that is, without the notorious summer road bouchon—Bellevue is a steady six-hour ride from Paris. But these days travelers would likely sweep through Bellevue, on the D906, rather than linger there for any stretch of time.
Two decades ago, Bellevue was a busier spot with a typical array of cafés and bars, small stores and restaurants nestled around the Town Hall, in the shadow of the village church. Only the butcher and baker remain now, along with a couple of auberges, who barely get by. Scattered around Bellevue on every side are several tiny hamlets, a lot made up of just two or three houses replete with a few clucking hens and barking dogs. About a kilometer beyond Bellevue, the track suddenly dips and the vista ahead allows you to glimpse an earlier age, a pre-modern France, more Villon than Flaubert, with battalions and battalions of trees and seemingly endless meadows, a patchwork quilt of every shade of green under the sun. In the immediate foreground are a cluster of five modest cottages, the hamlet of Champot Haut; one property, to the far left, is surrounded by a high wall, made up of light-tanned boulders, which renders the house within only partly visible, giving it an air of mystery.
The former occupant of the house was himself somewhat mysterious. He’d lived inside these walls with his wife, Alice Becker-Ho, on and off for 20-odd years. He’d spent most of his summers and occasional winters there. But in 1994, late in the afternoon on a drizzly November 30th, he’d ended it all. The rumor then, since substantiated, was that he’d meticulously used a single bullet to shoot himself through the heart. He was dying anyway, of an alcohol-related illness, the incurable peripheral neuritis, which gradually burned away the body’s nerve endings and brought on excruciating pain, pain apparently too much to endure. The regional newspaper, la Tribune-Le Progrès, devoted a brief column to the incident on December 2nd: “Writer and filmmaker Guy Debord, father of Situationism and master of subversion, killed himself on Wednesday evening, at the age of 62, in his domicile of Champot, in the Bellevue-la-Montagne commune.” The next day’s le Monde (December 3rd), however, made much more of a fuss. It was front-page headlines in tonier Parisian intellectual circles: Guy Debord, “aesthete of subversion” and “theoretician of ‘the society of the spectacle,’” was dead.
Who was this man whose name still adorns the mailbox outside that house, next to that high wall? Who was this person journalists and critics variously labeled “mastermind, nihilist, pseudo-philosopher, pope, loner, mentor, hypnotist, self-obsessed fanatic, devil, éminence grise, damned soul, professor of radicalism, guru, mad sadist, cynic, cheap Mephisto, bewitcher, fearsome destabilizer.” Moreover, how could someone who’d become infamous for a 1967 cult book, Society of the Spectacle, for his part in the May 1968 insurrections, for drunken binges and late night wanderings in Paris during the 1950s and ’60s, for city street smarts and Marxist pretensions—how could he somehow flee the city, flee modern life itself, and live in isolation in this rural fortress?
If you ascend the little hillock at Champot you can glimpse Debord’s old house front over the exterior wall. The two-story cottage may have once been a farm because on the right hand side there’s a large barn door with an elevated ramp leading up to it. There’s a chimney and five pale blue shutters covering the windows. You can almost imagine Debord exiting the front door, carrying a tray of wine and coffee and a good book, sitting down puffing on his pipe, drinking slowly and steadily throughout the day, as he was wont to do. His presence is somehow near, so near. He killed himself because he was sick, not because he was defeated; he never capitulated to the ruling powers, to the purveyors of the spectacular society. His defiance was like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’s: he carried to an extreme what others have not dared to carry halfway. “I have tasted pleasures,” Debord once said, “little known to people who have obeyed the unfortunate laws of this epoch.”
Society of the Spectacle is a wonderful little book, big on heavy ideas, yet lightweight to transport, fitting snugly into anybody’s pocket. You can carry it with you wherever you go, like money, or maybe like keys, keys that open a very special lock. Reading it makes you understand the world more deeply, allows you to comprehend its madness. The book is a verbal tonic, a source of inspiration, a kindred voice in the wilderness. Many of its passages can be recited like you’d recite your favorite poet. Indeed, you should recite Society of the Spectacle as poetry, because that’s what it is, a brilliant prose poem. But Debord saw it as something more than beautiful script on a page. He saw it, too, as an act of demystification, maybe even as de-sanctification, as an exposé of the modern form of the commodity, as an indictment of the hypocrisy of our lives.
When the book first hit the stores in late 1967, post-war consumerism was heating up. Capitalism was both concentrating and centralizing, congealing into fewer and fewer larger hands intent on spreading their grubby fingers everywhere: into cities and suburbs, into developing countries, into nature, even into people’s heads. Capitalism was tapping the parts nobody—Marx included—could have ever imagined: 100-odd years on from The Communist Manifesto, the system was more rampant and expansive than ever before, in spite of its inherent crises. New market strategies, new media, new acts of seduction, were colonizing leisure and consumption as well as production, appropriating and re-appropriating space, capturing everybody’s attention, pervading consciousness and consciences.
Debord gives us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a world in which unity spelt division, essence spelt appearance, truth spelt falsity. It was, he said, a topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. As the young Marx wryly pointed out in 1844, “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful women. Therefore I am not ugly…I, in my character as an individual am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor…money is the real mind of all things and how can its possessor be stupid?” Debord wanted to détourn the reality of this non-reality, to subvert this world where ugliness signified beauty; dishonesty, honesty; stupidity, intelligence. He wanted to subject it to his own dialectical inversion, to his own spirit of negation. In the process, he wrote a unique work of political art, utterly without precedent or peer. It was radical critique and militant call-to-arms. Its theoretical exegesis sought to reveal the fetishism, to name the alienation; its immanent battle cry wanted to stir the working class to organize and mobilize to confront spectacular “contemplation.”
Those icons of a hyper-modern capitalism, semiotics everyone today knows instinctively—be it MTV or CNN, Microsoft or News International, McDonald’s big “M" or Nike’s phantasmagoric swoosh—cast a soporific haze over life. People needed to shake up and wake up. For on show is an old enemy, the commodity, wrapped up in new clothing, and wearing a new mask. 30-plus years on, this system has delivered dizzying prosperity for some and unforgivable misery for many more. Its stock market has helped those already rich to get even richer, making them billionaires almost overnight. At the same time, it has destroyed whole livelihoods, devastated national economies, wiped out many ordinary people’s pensions and life savings, made people poorer because too much gets produced. Its promise of happiness and prosperity has meant many receive a plethora of nothing, eating ever-bigger portions of food that no longer tastes. Meanwhile, corporations never pick up the phone when you want them; you can never find a living person to complain to about the bad service or the hiked bill. And try getting big business and the well heeled to cough up their fair share of the tax burden. In short, today, the stakes of this spectacular society have been ratcheted up, opening out to the furthest global reaches whilst they’ve plunged into the deepest everyday depths. Nothing, in effect, resides outside this singular body, nothing lies outside the whale anymore. Debord anticipated its arrival.
Society of the Spectacle sealed a magical era for Guy Debord, begun in adolescence in Cannes in the early 1950s with the Lettrist movement, concluding in middle-age in 1972, in Paris, after the Situationists disbanded. But, like Edith Piaff, he regretted nothing. The dissolution of the Situationists, he said, marked their resounding success. It was how it’d been for the 1871 Paris Communards, who really lived it, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in May 1968, and now it was over. Nothing could sour it. He’d never live permanently again in Paris. Where could he shelter as the “repugnant Seventies” kicked in? He told us in In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, his masterpiece 1978 cinematic threnody, that he’d have to leave Paris. It had fallen to the enemy. He was a marked man now, an agitator, a villain, a fugitive; the French secret police began its dossier on him; they’d track him closely as he’d flee to Italy, to Spain, and, of course, to Champot.
As the dust settled after 1968, emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, trapped between a degenerative past and an impossible future. In 1967, the venerable year Society of the Spectacle revealed itself to the world, Jim Morrison screamed “WE WANT THE WORLD AND WE WANT IT NOW!”; in 1977, punk Johnny Rotten bawled a new Zeitgeist: “NO FUTURE, NO FUTURE FOR YOU AND ME!” What had happened in those 10 years? As the 1980s unfolded, Rotten’s “NO FUTURE” refrain suddenly sounded a lot like The End of History (1989) epiphany voiced by conservative critic Francis Fukuyama, whose disguised teleology was really an apologia for free-market capitalism. Not long after we heard yet another clarion call: “The New World Order”; and then, almost in the same breadth, came “TINA”—There is no alternative. (Soon these mantras would congeal into a headier thesis: “globalization.”) Suddenly, under our noises and before our very eyes, democracy was hijacked, usurped by free-market Stalinism. The “world market” Marx projected in The Communist Manifesto was about to run rampant; and nobody, apparently, had the right to denounce it.
And yet, Debord brilliantly spotted these comings in 1988, in Comments on Society of the Spectacle. This update on his earlier masterpiece was tinged with pathos and pessimism. But his scalpel hadn’t blunted nor had his prose lost its clinical luster and icy precision. “I am going to outline certain practical consequences,” he warned, with typical deadpan, “still little known, of the spectacle’s rapid expansion over the last twenty years. I have no intention of entering into polemics on any aspect of this question; these are now too easy, and too useless. Nor will I try to convince. The present comments are not concerned with moralizing. They do not propose what is desirable, or merely preferable. They simply record what is.” He expected his record to be welcomed by 50 or 60 people, “a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion.” But a good half of these readers, he said, will likely consist of people who prop up the spectacular system; the rest do the exact opposite. As you can’t be quite sure who’s listening, he has to be wary not to give too much away. So he’ll employ decoys, just as the dominant powers do, and speak in codes and through disguises, addressing fellow underground travelers, should any still be about.
It’s a tribute to Debord’s genius that Comments on the Society of the Spectacle was penned before the Berlin Wall was ripped down. It was also before “globalization”—as an ideal and economic orthodoxy—was on every politician’s lips, in every free-marketeer’s wet dream, and on every business school syllabus. The Wall, of course, was a de facto demarcation between two rival forms of spectacular rule. On the eastern flank was a regime akin to what he’d called the “concentrated spectacle,” with its ideology condensing around a dictatorial personality, whose mantle resulted from a “totalitarian counter-revolution.” On the western flank emerged the “diffuse spectacle,” or the Americanization of the world, driven by wage earners applying “freedom of choice” to purchase a dazzling array of consumer durables. The latter system used to frighten many “underdeveloped” countries; yet, more and more, it successfully seduced them to jump on the bandwagon, to grab its cachet, or else. With the Wall gone, the former Eastern Bloc could now be seduced, too. Henceforth two hitherto separated spectacular forms spectacularly came together into their “rational combination”: the integrated spectacle.
Once, when the spectacle was concentrated, “the greater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.” The integrated spectacle has now “spread itself to the point where it permeates all reality. It was easy to predict in theory what has been quickly and universally demonstrated by practical experience of economic reason’s relentless accomplishments: that the globalization of the false was also the falsification of the globe.” The integrated spectacle, Debord said, has sinister characteristics: incessant technological renewal; integration of the state and economy; generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; and an eternal present. Gismos proliferate at unprecedented speeds; commodities outdate themselves almost each week; nobody can step down the same supermarket aisle twice. The commodity is beyond criticism; useless junk nobody really needs assumes a vital life force that everybody apparently wants. The state and economy have congealed into an undistinguishable unity, managed by spin-doctors, spin-doctored by managers. Everyone is at the mercy of the expert or the specialist, and the most useful expert is he who can best lie. Now, for the first time ever, “no party or fraction of a party even tries to pretend that they wish to change anything significant.”
Without any real forum for dissent, public opinion has been silenced. Masked behind game shows, reality T.V. and tabloid journalism, news of what’s genuinely important, of what’s really changing, is seldom seen or heard. “Generalized secrecy stands behind the spectacle, as the decisive complement of all it displays and, in the final analysis, as its most vital operation.” With consummate skill, the integrated spectacle thereby manufactures consent, “organizes ignorance of what is about to happen and, immediately afterwards, the forgetting of whatever has nonetheless been understood.” Ineptitude compels not laughter, but universal respect. The integrated spectacle covers its tracks, concealing the process of its recent conquests. “Its power already seems familiar,” he said, “as if it had always been there. All usurpers have shared this aim: to make us forget that they have only just arrived.”
Our self-proclaimed democracy also constructs its own inconceivable foe: terrorists. “Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results.” Spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, “but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable.” Every enemy of the spectacle is a terrorist enemy; all dissenters—grievances notwithstanding—are terrorists. Spectacular authorities need to infiltrate, compile dossiers, eliminate critique-authentic or not. Unexplained crimes are either suicides or terrorist attacks. Terrorists themselves soon feel the wrath of state terrorism: Mossad kills the Jihad in the Lebanon, the Contras and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the S.A.S. and the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland, the G.A.L. and E.T.A. in Spain, the C.I.A. and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In this context, Mafiosi flourish: Colombian drugs Mafia, Sicilian Mafia, Fundamentalist Mafia, and, of course, white house mafia. As such, the “Mafia is not an outsider in this world; it is perfectly at home. Indeed, in the integrated spectacle it stands as the model of all advanced commercial enterprises.”
Summer days are long in Champot and it’s near 10 o’clock before daylight really fades. I’ve come to the little Debordian hamlet to rent a house down the lane from his old maison. Alice, his widow, still hides out there each summer, between July and September, and I’m here to meet her, to scale that tall wall, and to learn. Everything in rustic Champot seems light-years away from 1950s Paris, from a gray and grubby Les Halles, from Debord’s “zone of perdition,” where, he’d said, “his youth went as if to achieve its education.” Debord’s 1950s’ urban twilight world is light years away from twenty-first-century Paris, too: poor Left Bank underground men have long given way to rich on-line executives, to hoards of tourists, to kitsch cafés, to anodyne boutiques and tony antique stores and art galleries.
Debord lamented the fall of Paris, its assassination by forces still at large. The “extreme nihilism” of his old Situationist entourage was a faded memory and to Champot he’d retreated, a prince in exile, a sailor home from the sea. The high wall around his house in Champot was, I knew, chosen intentionally. It was his refuge inside ramparts, his buttress against the spectacular capitalist system. The wall is what everybody mentions: Champot locals knew Debord as the man who lived behind the high wall, a mysterious Parisian, who partook in a shady, secret life they could little fathom. It had been a strange Rimbaudesque voyage. Only instead of eloping to Africa, never to write again, Debord escaped to an unlikely Haute-Loire, and wrote infrequently.
In Panégyrique, his slim autobiography, a masterpiece of sangfroid eighteenth-century belles-lettres, he’s measured and elegant. There, he reveals “what he had loved." It’s clear he had loved many books, many writers, and had read a lot. Amid the deep song silence of Champot, Debord ruminated over works by Lautréamont and Marx, Villon and Mac Orlan, Thucydides and Clausewitz, reading and re-reading them. Meanwhile, he loved to drink: “Even though I have read a lot,” he’d admitted, “I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” In Panégyrique, Debord also wrote tenderly about his sojourns in Champot. The “charm and harmony” of his seasons there hadn’t escaped him. It was a “grandiose isolation,” a “pleasing and impressive solitude.”
“I spent several winters there,” he continued. “Snow fell for days on end. The wind piled it up in drifts … despite the exterior walls, snow accumulated in the courtyard. Logs burned in the fireplace. The house seemed to open directly onto the Milky Way. At night, the nearby stars would shine brilliantly one moment, and the next be extinguished by the passing mist. And so too our conversations and our celebrations, our meetings and our tenacious passions. It was a land of storms. They approached noiselessly at first, announced by a brief passage of a wind that slithered through the grass or by a series of sudden flashes on the horizon; then thunder and lightening unleashed, and we were bombarded for a long time, and from every direction, as if in a fortress under siege.”
Now I was in that land of storms myself. It’s early August and very hot. France is in the midst of a protracted heat wave, la canicule, with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees, searing everything in sight. I’d called Alice Debord a week ago to fix up a time and date. She’d been obliging yet disappointed that I hadn’t called earlier. There’d been people staying with her, she’d told me, a little put out, whom I should’ve met. They were ex-Situ folk who had access to archives that would have been very important for my work on her late husband. But now they’ve gone and I’ve missed them. Tant pis! That’d been Monday, and two days on I headed up the lane toward chez Debord, a little intimidated at the prospect of finally seeing her, Guy’s widow. At four o’clock, I banged on the big knocker on the outside door and waited timidly on the threshold of the fortress, waving my white flag. A tall, elegant, thin woman in her mid-50s greeted me politely yet brusquely, telling me that I was late and Madame Debord couldn’t see me anymore. She’d expected me at “quatorze heures.” I apologized, saying I thought we’d agreed upon “quatre heures.” Obviously, I’d misunderstood, likely “à cause de mon mauvais français.” “Je suis très désolé,” I said, dejectedly, fearing the worst, stunned and depressed at blowing it, cursing my own idiocy.
Suddenly, Madame Debord herself appeared at the door, requesting me to come in anyway, scolding my poor organization. Before I’d realized it, the portcullis had closed behind me and I was inside the ramparts, walking towards that house, accompanied by Alice, a short, 60-something woman, whose short jet-black hair contrasted starkly with her plain white T-shirt. I was ushered to the edge of the lawn, to a shaded table with a dark-green tablecloth, a little in front of the house. I was struck by the charming simplicity of everything, by its tranquility and poise. Alice disappeared inside the house whose shutters remained firmly shut; I knew I wasn’t going to access it today, nor probably ever. But to sit en plein air, to have made it inside the wall, was enough. Soon Alice returned with glasses of vin du pays, and, puffing nonchalantly on her cigarillo, began to probe me.
I briefed her about myself, that I was once a professor, but had recently resigned from that post, that I was now a freelance writer and wanderer, a lone wolf. I told her about my project on “Monsieur Debord,” which is called Land of Storms. “It’s here,” she said, instantaneously, raising her hand to the sky, acknowledging the Champot of Guy’s Panégyrique. Then I told her about the book’s format, about its structure and intent, about my search, my quest for Guy. I told her about the two metaphors I wanted to utilize: one about the wall, à la Clausewitz, as a defense against an exterior menace, like the anti-globalization movement defending regional culture; the other the notion of the Seine, of a river always flowing, constantly moving, like a vagabond traveler, discovering liberty through movement. Then I told her that within these two metaphors, I also wanted to bring to bear Pierre Mac Orlan’s idea, from his Petit Manuel du Parfait Aventurier, of the passive and active adventurer. Thus, within the walls of their defense, the passive adventurer re-imagines and recreates the world as a dream, in the domain of language and poetry, or as a lost twilight world of yesterday. Meanwhile, the active adventurer is a peripatetic voyager who really does travel from place to place, who seeks out novelty, and simultaneously tries to find and lose him/herself.
I tell Madame Debord that I picture Monsieur Debord’s resistance in this dual light. “Ah yes, Guy loved that Mac Orlan book,” she said, matter-of-factly. “He’d read it many times over, knew it well. He adored Pierre Mac Orlan.” It’s not hard to imagine Guy, I thought to myself, mid-conversation, sitting at this very same table here, savoring classic Mac Orlan lines like: “There exist a certain number of cities of adventure … the name of these cities brings an evocative precision to the spirit of passive adventurers.” As I scan the garden at chez Debord, watching lizards scamper up and down the house’s wall, Champot begins to feel like a passive adventurer’s Camelot, cut off from anything real or active, a heady nether-nether continent of the unconscious, warm and safe. I also realize that the wall seems even taller this side, even more robust and cut-off from reality, because somehow the garden is sunken below the level of the outside path.
“Guy loved the wall,” Alice said. “It was the best thing he liked about the house. When we first summered in Champot in the early 1980s, Guy never thought he could live in the country. After all, he was a man of the streets and cities. But slowly he adjusted and grew to love the house, with its peace and its wall. He would look forward to coming. He would always be reading here. Oh yes, Guy read all the time.” Then Alice told me how they originally came to this house. She said it, and the adjoining house next door, were both owned by her brother. Last year, however, Monsieur Becker-Ho sold the other abode, since they had no use for it anymore. As an ensemble, the houses had once been “the Debord colony” as some locals termed it. But that was a different era, a time when Guy lived and when his comrades came and they fêted till dawn. I mentioned how I admired Monsieur Debord’s descriptions of the house “opening directly onto the Milky Way,” and how she herself had immortalized this in her poem “Voie Lactée.” Alice said Guy would go out at night, stand on the grass, and look up at the stars. “He loved looking up at the Milky Way; he’d watch it for hours. But for me it was just too vast. It made me feel vertiginous. The poem I wrote was a very personal thing.”
Alice excused herself momentarily, re-enters the house, returns with a copy of her latest book, Là s’en vont les Seigneuries, which she duly presents to me. I instantly recognized its title, a verse from Guy’s translation of Manrique. “There are rivers, our lives,” Alice’s last sentence reads, “that descend towards the sea of death. There go the lordships themselves.” Là s’en vont les Seigneuries is less a book than a long essay introducing a dozen richly evocative, sepia-toned photographs of a lost Spanish Atlantis, the village of Rello, in old Castile. These images offer various perspectives on an abandoned medieval fortress, whose walls are crumbling into dust, dissipating with the wear and tear of time. They conjure up a now-defunct Spain, one of El Cid and Don Quixote, of arid plains and sweeping vistas, of old knights and cavernous silences, of odors of lavender and thyme. Ruins seem to fascinate Alice as much as they fascinated Guy. They’d visited Rello only once, back in 1970. And Alice presents her most tender memoir to date on her late husband, a touching travelogue of that visit, in which they sleep together in a tiny earthy room, scoff cheap tortilla and tapas, and drink vintage Rioja with comrades, “toasting France, Spain and friendship.” “Never will we drink so young,” says Alice, appropriating Guy’s stanza from In Girum. “In the sky, at night, amongst the stars, you will find me again,” she signs off. “Hasta siempre, Amor.”
I’d asked Alice about her fascination with the medieval period and with wisecracking free spirits. The penchant got affirmed recently in Du Jargon Héritier en Bastardie, the final volume of her trilogy on slang and secret vocabularies of the “dangerous classes.” “Yes, Guy shared this interest with me,” Alice confirmed. “He was enthusiastic about this work of mine and always encouraged it.” Alice’s response got me thinking about what another maverick medievalist, Johan Huizinga, had once observed about the Middle Ages. He’d said the era was characterized by “the ideal of the sublime life.” Huizinga believed that the aspiration to a pure and beautiful life, as expressed in the Middle Ages, equally sparked the notion of chivalry. I knew this ideal of sublimity and chivalry, and the pursuit for a pure and beautiful life, dramatizes Alice’s personal and intellectual disposition. (It had always dramatized Guy’s.) A somber melancholy weighed on people’s souls in the Middle Ages. Zealous religious piety coexisted with unrestrained corporeal indulgence; fierce judicial judgments with popular sympathy and laughter; dreadful crimes with tender acts of saintliness. Everyday life, in a nutshell, was brutal and immediate, raw and flamboyant. Then, a sort of primal romanticism prevailed, something dear to Alice and Guy’s heart.
I mentioned to Alice that I was struck by how she’d concluded Du Jargon Héritier en Bastardie with a disquisition on “play,” engaging with Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Life itself, Alice replied, was really a kind of play, a game of chance, a roll of the dice, a conflict and a voyage, haphazard and open. The toughest and most honorable players make rules for themselves; and stick by them, always. Her late husband’s spirit surely isn’t very far away. Indeed, Alice reminds us, borrowing his Situationist catchphrase from In Girum: “it was, first of all, a game, a conflict, a voyage.”
“The idea of a voyage was something crucial for Guy,” Alice told me. He’d seen it the way gypsies do: not so much experiential as ontological. It’s not that gypsies necessarily voyage from place to place as they are voyagers; the voyage is immanent in who they are, in what they do, irrespective of whether they travel or not. Guy had similarly understood life as an ontological voyage. Time moves on, ineluctably, and people are consumed by fire. In In Girum, he’d signified the voyage through water and fire, through flowing waters and fiery explosions, through steady streams and incendiary convulsions, through linear movement and punctuated passageways. Water is temporal, healing, and unrelenting, with no stepping in it twice; fire is combustible, about love and passion and the devil. Fire illuminates the night, ignites the spirit; yet water can dowse the flames, extinguish the charge. Together, they beget the current of life as well as the path toward death.
Debord was cremated in Saint-Étienne, the nearest big town to Champot. A few days later, Alice and several close friends traveled up to Paris where, from the banks of the Square du Vert-Galant, toasting Guy’s memory, she tossed his ashes into the Seine. All is gone, gone forever, like the unceasing streams of the Yang-Tse. A stone stairwell, reeking of piss and feces, on Paris’s oldest bridge, the Pont-Neuf, leads you down to the western tip of the Île de la Cité. At high water, it’s often cut off from the rest of the Île; other times, you can walk through a concrete trench to access a lawn, one of Paris’s most tranquil and beautiful spots, a hidden oasis afloat on the Seine. The day Alice bid Guy adieu, rumor has it a skull and crossbones was seen flying from some untraceable mast.
Back in Paris, I visualized his ashes blowing upwards in the breeze, then disappearing into the Seine. The current carried them rapidly downstream, toward some unknown tributary, out into a vast nameless ocean, destined to be washed up on a shoreline not far away. I thought then that my quest for Guy had come to a fitting end. I thought I could let it settle, give up the ghost. But looking out to sea, standing almost in the Seine, I realized that this quest had somehow just begun. Guy was floating downwind and downstream, and he was carrying me and others along with him, to places I couldn’t foresee, couldn’t access. His spirit was there in all of them, and I knew it, but I couldn’t actually see him. For a while, he’d enjoyed the pleasures of exile; but ultimately, he knew that there is no exile: Nobody can hide in a unified world.
Standing at the Square du Vert-Galant, on the banks of the Seine, in “old Europe,” watching the river flowing, it’s tough not to feel for him, tough not to speak out with him, tough to ignore what’s wrong with our “new” world. Never has hypocrisy and mediocrity risen to such prominence. When I began my quest for Guy, I stood in front of a large stone wall, nosing against his Champot fortress; now, at journey’s end, at the place from where he departed, I’m watching the flowing river and being driven by a relentless current. A wall is fixed and in your face, somewhere; a river is fluid and takes you elsewhere. Guy was peculiar mix of each, both fixity and fluidity, a rock as well as a nomad, a defensive barrier and a perpetual gush of movement and imagination. We can learn from him.
It’s fitting that he ended up in Paris, and in the Seine. Alice knew that Guy’s Paris, his old Parisian urbanism, had been done over. But even in death the city still stood for something irresistible, still, in spite of it all, stood for hope, retained glimmers of light amid the setting sun. It was never a completely done deal. Even the showcase Left Bank retained its Left mountebanks. Like all big cities, Paris had an endless capacity to absorb and adapt to all thrown at it, and to somehow live on. Alice knew that, and wanted Guy back. Paris was in him, in his bones, always would be. It once nourished his spirit and stimulated his brain; now it could re-energize his body, bring it to life again in some other big city, perhaps seven leagues from this land, or maybe only a few steps away.
The Seine gushed through Guy like a river of blood, like healing waters, like the ebb of death and the flow of renewed life. The fabled river of poetry and romance circulated through him much the same way that Dublin’s Liffey circulated through James Joyce: no matter where each man went their big hometown vein kept on pumping through them. For Guy, as for Joyce, the “Sein anews”: it was his sinew and the core of his Being, his “Sein.” At the same time, the Seine “anews,” is eternally reoccurring and constantly renewing, forever bridging the past and the future. To begin again at the beginning, Debord had said in In Girum. We go around and around. A way a lone a last a loved a long the river run, from swerve of shore to bend of bay?
ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.