Guy Debord, or the Decline of the Day

Several years ago, I had the occasion to write a biography of Guy Debord.[1] The task was arduous. I had to seek out his friends, his family, his companions and his companies, and to convince them to finally bear witness after palavering.

When I met Alice Debord[2] for the first time, at her home in 1998, she made a striking remark. It appeared to her very imprudent to undertake a biographical enterprise, while Guy Debord's correspondence had not yet begun to be published.

I was unaware. I had, moreover, gained access to many letters, which had been confided to me. This group is available, for free consultation, at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, in the framework of a good-will fund that I created later on.

In any case, I pursued my road.

Alice Debord's remark nevertheless troubled me. At regular intervals since 1999, Fayard has published thick volumes that unveil the misunderstood sides of Guy Debord's personality.[3]

It is necessary to evoke the quantity. From the evidence, the correspondence carries a weight much heavier than the rest of the works, to the extent that it is more abundant. How is one to treat this mass of letters, which seems to counterbalance an economic oeuvre, thin and pursuing the essential?

One observes above all that the correspondence is in the process of being published. In other words, we are seated in this hall, to come upon the oeuvre of Guy Debord, even though we do not know it completely, to the extent that it is still not fully revealed.

Debord is furiously in fashion. But many commentators have a narrow vision. Either one has not read him and invokes him as a convenient totem, or one has read him, but incorrectly. In all cases, one assists in a reduction, which is almost culinary.

I am reminded of a cultural animator from Caen, who intended to organize a literary banquet to weigh the impact of Guy Debord on the anti-globalization movement. I remarked to her that his impact was null, and that I did not see how such a diner could be justified.

It is common today to make Guy Debord a precursor to the Social Forums, whereas Raoul Vaneigem himself explains the judicious manner in which the anti-globalization movement calls its wishes a "neo-capitalism," regulated by ethics and fair trade.[4] Here one is quite far from situationist radicality.

Guy Debord certainly always affirmed his opposition to this world, and the [anti-globalization] movement sets itself under a horizon far from communism, [and] the abolition of the salariat. But when the young anti-CPE demonstrators[5] claimed kinship with situationist theory so as to justify their engagement in favor of durable employment, they annexed Guy Debord, privileging a single aspect to the detriment of the others.

Debord's oeuvre is complex; it exists on several levels. One must estimate it from poetic, literary, and philosophical points of view as well as from the political. . . . Limiting oneself to only reading The Society of the Spectacle and making Debord a sociologist of modernity is currently the dominant tendency.

Thus, the publication of the correspondence will play an essential role.

As a counter-current to the doxa, the correspondence accredits the image of a creator beyond the norms, whose oeuvre cannot be reduced to political exegesis alone.

Right away, a flat note is heard. Can the correspondence published by Fayard be complete? One knows that letters addressed to Michele Bernstein, Jacqueline de Jong and Michele Mochot-Brehat are missing.[6]

Michele Bernstein refused to publicly communicate her important correspondence with Debord.

As for Jacqueline de Jong, she is the holder of letters that no one has asked for. Same for Michele Mochot-Brehat.

Also missing are the very many postcards addressed by Debord to his friends. These pieces are generally composed of unpublished collages.

One can furthermore question the editorial choices of Alice Debord. She has set aside the letters from the Daniel Guerin collection, available at the Library of Contemporary International Documentation. These letters comment upon the Strasbourg scandal of 1966 and 1967. This omission appears all the more strange as these letters can be freely consulted. To read them, it is enough to take the RER.[7]

I have furthermore transmitted to Alice Debord a letter to Pablo Picasso, of which Jerome Duwa indicated the existence to me. She has acknowledged receipt of it, but did not judge it good to include this document in the collection Le Marquis de Sade a des yeux de filles, [8] even though this letter was written exactly in the period covered by this book and was co-signed by Guy Debord and Herve Falcon.

This poses the question of the sorting. Will the correspondence be complete or selected? The subsequent volumes will allow one to answer this question.[9]

What to do with this pile of letters, and how can they modify our view of Guy Debord?

One must question this massive and imperious presence. Where should we situate it in the oeuvre?

Must one separate Debord from his oeuvre, judging that the correspondence depends upon a biographical unveiling, that it is a question of documents, and that the books, the texts by Guy Debord must be read independently, without keeping this heap in mind? The mass of letters, telegrams and postcards refuses any literary dimension. It would be necessary to judge it in the same way that one regards Picasso's correspondence. It delivers information, but doesn't belong to the oeuvre. It belongs to the archives.

This position does not seem supportable. On the contrary, it seems that this [pile] is the very life of Debord, which constitutes the oeuvre.

We open the books. The author does not cease to appear in them as an author. He writes in the first person. Philippe Sollers sees in his method an "opening of the subject": "Each page, each proposition suggests narratives that one is lead to imagine. All this refers (...) to the opening of the subject, this existential opening, absolutely refractory and rebellious against all 'totalization' [ensemblisation]. This is the revolutionary point of view. Your life is it or is not it. The art of living, in the highest sense of the word. A war, in given conditions. . . ." The opening of the subject is one of the most fascinating traits of Debord's oeuvre. He himself appears, making his own route explicit, yielding himself up, unveiling himself and sometimes hiding himself.

His philosophical, political and poetical meditations consist in a demonstration of the individual. The life of Debord, his real life, his route, his intimate revolts, his rejection of the century and his final suicide place themselves at the heart of his oeuvre.

What is the Situationist International, if not a group of theorists who claim to found situations? What is a situation, if not an instant of life really lived?[10] The revolution of everyday life finds itself at the center of the situationist project.[11]

The life of Guy Debord inscribes itself in his literary oeuvre. In this case, the correspondence enters the literary edifice, of which it even becomes the keystone.

The ensemble is plentiful, disordered, in the image of (the) life. Debord appears in it, sometimes as an angel, a scout, sometimes as a demon, a destroyer. He is a man, basically. What good is it to dwell on the beauty, the ugliness, the sparks, the gossip, the low blows, the love and the scorn?

In In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Guy Debord evokes the weight of life: "As for me, I have never regretted anything that I have done, and I confess that I am still completely incapable of imagining what I could have done [differently], being what I am." Towards the end of Guy Debord: The Revolution in the Service of Poetry, Vincent Kaufman concludes: "The life and oeuvre of Guy Debord are decidedly the same thing."

What remains of this life, and what balance sheet should we use, when the destiny of Guy Debord will appear in its complexity? Or, rather: what will become of Debord when the correspondence is completely published?

This litany of interrogation leads us to a question that is as insidious as architectonic: will the myth shatter against the wall of reality?

All this recalls a phrase by Aristotle in Book VII of the Metaphysics: "In the same way that the eyes of birds of the night blink at the brilliance of the light of the day, the glances of mortals are dazzled by what is the most obvious."

The very life of Guy Debord is a collision of poetry and the real.

Debord ceaselessly measured the abyss that separated him from a world obstinately bathed by the icy waters of egoist calculations. From the beginning, his texts are marked by disenchantment. To be convinced, one only need hear [among] the voices in Hurlements en faveur de Sade: "We live our incomplete adventures like lost children."

Disenchantment waters all of his oeuvre, to the point of conferring a unique flavor upon it. This disenchantment culminates in his last works. One thinks of Martin Heidegger, who defined history as an eternal decline. Jean Beaufort insists on this aspect: "Heidegger is not an optimist, he is not a pessimist, either (...). But finally the decline of the day is still a diminution of the day and its light."

In an unpublished letter addressed to Ricardo Paseyro on 12 March 1993, expressed a sentiment that he maintained his whole life as a sol invictus, an unconquered sun: "And I would certainly not say it is improbable that everything ends up in some kind of abominable 'brave new world.' But then, we are embarked [upon it]. Is it not our essence to be imprudent?"

Still ringing in our ears is this confidence to Giorgio Agamben: "I am not a philosopher, I am a strategist."

What remains of Guy Debord, the volumes that will appear -- he desired them.

In a private conversation with Ricardo Paseyro in his home at Champot in October 1994, Debord explained: "We have done the sorting out, burned a mass of useless papers and kept here for the disposition of my readers all that matters."

The divulging of the correspondence should not be perceived as a hiccup or as the untimely unveiling of a private life that one must relativize, but as the sign of a carefully elaborated plan.

This is the hour of the declining sun. What Guy Debord has offered us is the poisoned gift of life. Dreams, knocked off by the everyday.

The correspondence is nothing other than a phenomenology of disenchantment.

In an unpublished letter, addressed to Daniel Joubert and Andre Bertrand on 22 January 1967, Guy Debord concludes: "In general, all of the letter exchanged in the SI (...) are not secret, except for very precise instances in which they carry the message 'to be destroyed.' (...) And they were in fact destroyed."

The correspondence of Guy Debord was not destroyed.

Christophe Bourseiller[12]

[1] Life and Death of Guy Debord, 1931-1994 (Plon, 1999).

[2] Alice Becker-Ho. It appears that it was only after her husband's suicide in 1994 that Ms Becker-Ho began to refer to herself as "Alice Debord."

[3] At the time this text was written, five such volumes -- covering the period 1957 to 1978 -- had been published.

[4] It is a shame that the author does not specify where Vaneigem says this. As we have pointed out in our review of his perfectly awful book A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings: On the Sovereignty of Life as Surpassing the Rights of Man (2000), Vaneigem himself is a partisan of what he calls "neo-capitalism."

[5] To meet a putative "situationist" who has extolled the anti-CPE revolts in France in February-April 2006, click here.

[6] As Jean-Pierre Baudet has pointed out in Signed X, the problem is much more serious. All of the letters that were addressed to Debord -- and to which Debord was responding -- have not been included in any of the volumes. And so the collection should not have been called "correspondence," which (at least in French) means an exchange, but, more modestly, "letters."

[7] The Regional Express Network of trains.

[8] A facsimile collection of letters that Debord wrote between 1948 and 1956.

[9] Contrast Bourseiller's attitude (that of a passive spectator) with the actions taken by Jean-Pierre Baudet, who refused Fayard the right to reproduce any letter addressed to him by Debord.

[10] Of course, Guy Debord himself ridiculed notions such as this as "metaphysical" in his response to Robert Estivals entitled Concerning Several Errors of Interpretation.

[11] But what about the theory of the spectacle? Bourseiller says nothing about it. See our comments on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the SI.

[12] Author's note: This text was communicated on 23 September 2006 at the time of a colloquia about Guy Debord, organized by the University of Paris IV.

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! August 2007. Footnotes by the translator, except where noted.)

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