wanted: more books like these

One really wants the two books under consideration here -- Jean-Michel Mension's The Tribe and Ralph Rumney's The Consul -- to be part of a series, in part because that's exactly what they appear to be.

Both books were published by City Lights Books (in 2001 and 2002, respectively). Both books were designed by Stefan Gutermuth/doubleu-gee. Each book is filled with illustrations designed to provide a context: translations, reminiscences by friends and acquaintances, captioned photographs, and black-and-white reproductions of art works, posters and manuscripts. These illustrations sometimes appear as full-page reproductions but most often as marginalia in the style of the Situationist International's journal, l'internationale Situationniste.

Both books are "oral histories," long autobiographical interviews with men who were either members of the Situationist International (SI) or close associates of Guy Debord, who was the SI's central figure. (Jean-Michel Mension was a member of the Lettrist International, a pre-SI group that also included Debord, while Ralph Rumney helped found the SI in 1957 with Debord, Michele Bernstein, Asger Jorn, and 4 other radical artists.) In both books, the interviewer is Gérard Berréby, who has published several books on the SI. And, finally, both books are subtitled "Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and Its Time." The Tribe, which was translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (a former member of the SI), is called "Volume I" and The Consul, which was translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (who has translated Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle), is called "Volume II."

Unfortunately, one hears from City Lights that no more titles are planned for this series. This is really a shame, because there is a pressing need to record and publish interviews with those Situationists who are still alive, especially Constant Nieuwenhuys, who is in his 80s, and Michele Bernstein and Raoul Vaneigem, both of whom are in their 60s. There is also a pressing need to publish whatever interviews were conducted with Asger Jorn (who died in 1974). And though Gil J Wolman (1994), Francois Dufrene (1980), Eliane Brau (?) and Isidore Isou (?) were Lettrists but not Situationists, there is also a pressing need to conduct new interviews with them or publish whatever old ones are in existence.

Without such a series of candid interviews, historians of the SI will have no choice but (continue to) base their accounts of the group's history on what Guy Debord said and little else. Of course, Debord had every right to monopolize the discussion of the SI's development. After all, he was the only founding member to remain in the group all through its existence, all the way until its end in 1971. But his writings on the subject -- "Theses on the SI and Its Time," written in 1972 with Gianfranco Sanguinetti, and parts of his autobiography, Panegyrique (1989) -- are full of self-congratulation, intentional obscurity and polemic against his enemies. Though such things make Debord's writings interesting to read, they also make them unreliable as "objective" historical records.

Originally published in 1998 by Editions Allia, The Tribe is by far the better of the two books. The illustrations are excellent, especially the pictures of the youth scene at the Parisian bar Moineau's circa 1952 taken by the Dutch photographer Ed Van Der Elsken. There are also several items that have never been published in English before, including a newspaper article from 1953 about "Wayward Youth" (Jean-Michel Mension and his friend Auguste Hommel, arrested for theft), translations of passages from books by Maurice Rajsfus and Eliane Brau, and several posters designed by Debord.

One might expect that, compared to the superb illustrations, the interview(s) with Jean-Michel Mension might be a major disappointment. During the early 1950s, Mension didn't produce any paintings or posters. Though he wrote an article or two for Internationale Lettriste -- one of them, the provocative "General Strike," is both reproduced and translated into English in The Tribe -- Mension wasn't much of a writer either. Indeed, in Lettrist circles, he was best known for writing slogans on his pants, which was why he was described as "merely decorative" when Debord and the other Lettrists voted to exclude him from the group in 1954.

One might also expect to be disappointed by The Tribe because, after his expulsion, Mension joined the French Communist Party, become a Trotskyist militant, and helped found a university group called Revolutionary Communist Youth, which was dismissed in 1966 as a bunch of "petit cons" (little cunts) by the pro-Situationist comic strip, "The Return of the Durutti Column." In other words, Mension moved in a direction that was the exact opposite of the direction(s) pursued by such other associates of Debord as Cornelius Castoriadis and Henri Lefebvre, both of whom left the Communist Party in disgust in the 1950s. (One imagines that when he was informed of Mension's political regression, Guy Debord said that it simply and amply confirmed the prescience and appropriateness of his exclusion from the Lettrist International.)

But The Tribe isn't a disappointment, not at all. Mension isn't bitter about his expulsion from the Lettrists or the way his group was insulted by the Situationists; and though he admits that he didn't read Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle until the late 1980s, Mension isn't made uncomfortable or defensive by Berréby's presence or even by some of his questions. No matter what the subject, Mension answers Berréby's questions fully, honestly and clearly. Despite his claim that "I have always been a drunk," Mension is still able to think sober thoughts.

Not surprisingly, Mension has a lot of interesting things to say about Guy Debord. This remark was especially impressive, given the fact that Mension never learned the real reason for his exclusion from the Lettrists: "There was another side to Guy, too, a certain courage: he was always prepared to break off relations even though he didn't always know what he would find next. He took the risk of finding himself alone." And yet, Debord never did find himself alone. He always had a "tribe" with and around him. "I was very surprised in May 1968," Mension recalls, "[because] I couldn't imagine Guy surrounded by three thousand people; that wasn't his style at all."

Originally published in 1999 by Editions Allia, The Consul is weak where The Tribe is strong. Though Ralph Rumney was a painter, very few of his pictures are reproduced in the book. The paintings that are reproduced are reproduced in black-and-white, and so look like crap. Too many of the texts and images reproduced as marginalia have little or nothing at all to do with Rumney and thus seem included because nothing better could be found. To make matters worse, a good deal of this superfluous marginalia is either illegible or not translated into English.

Most unfortunately, the interview(s) with Rumney are just as bad as the book's illustrations. Like Mension, Rumney did a number of interesting things in the 1950s: he created and exhibited a number of paintings; he helped organize a screening of Debord's film Hurlements en favor de Sade at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London; and he founded and edited an art journal called Other Voices. He participated in the July 1957 conference at which the Situationist International was founded and took the photographs of the gathering that later went on to become famous. According to him, he was the one who proposed that the journal Internationale Situationniste come wrapped in metallic covers and that it include anthropometric photographs or "mug shots" of the group's members.

But unlike Mension, who continued to lead an interesting, politically engaged life after his expulsion, Ralph Rumney did very little of interest after he was expelled from the SI in 1958. "After my expulsion from the SI," Rumney says, "my life became quite ordinary, or normal, I should say. I was too busy finding the money to enable my family to survive." If it weren't for the facts that his first wife, Pegeen Guggenheim, was the daughter of the wealthy art-maven Peggy Guggenheim, that Pegeen killed herself in 1967, that Peggy blamed him for her daughter's death, and that his second wife was Michele Bernstein, Ralph Rumney and what he did after 1957 wouldn't be of much interest to anyone except gossips and scandal-mongers.

Though Rumney says that he was expelled from the SI "politely, even amiably," he admits that it "hit me very hard." He goes on to say, "It was very demoralizing. I really believed in the SI, and I still do. You don't have to become a turncoat because you've been excommunicated." But Rumney was treated like a turncoat, especially after 1962, when the SI "excommunicated" all of the artists and all of the group's founders, except for Debord, his wife Michele Bernstein, and Asger Jorn. "Art once played a real role in society, and I thought it might be possible to reproduce that situation," Rumney says, obviously still bitter. "In 1962, Debord didn't believe that at all. He was wrong, I think."

Not surprisingly, the ex-situationist is very uncomfortable with Berréby. At least a half-dozen times, Rumney completely ignores or doesn't acknowledge the question Berréby has posed to him. It's quite possible that these very noticeable problems are the result of the fact that Rumney was born an Englishman and that Berréby is interviewing him in French, not English. "Ralph spoke French just as well as English," says Malcolm Imrie, the book's translator, in his epilogue. "Still, it always seemed a bizarre enterprise to be translating the edited transcripts of French interviews with him [Rumney] into his native language. He could have rewritten it in English himself, I suppose, but even if he hadn't been ill, he had better things to do with his time."

Perhaps Rumney's illness(es) -- he had emphysema, suffered from years of alcohol abuse, and eventually died of cancer at the age of 68 -- caused these interviews to be so awkward. "Where was I?" he asks at one point, which happens to be the end of a rambling and pointless story. "And the pioneers are as lost as Hansel and Gretel in the forest," he says at another point and, though his reference is to the situationists of 1962, the remark is better applied to Rumney himself. He's the one who's lost.

Unfortunately, Berréby doesn't do much to help Rumney find his way back. In the course of their not-very-enlightening discussion of Asger Jorn, Berréby says, "There was an exhibition later at the Eugene Boucher Gallery with a text by Jorn entitled 'Peintures Detournees' and an introduction by Jacques Prevert." Perhaps because this is a statement of fact, and not a question, Rumney can only say in response to it, "Exactly." In an instance of really atrocious interviewing, the very next thing Berréby says is, "To change the subject slightly, it seems that you beat Duchamp at chess?" But of course Berréby has in fact changed the subject completely.

Berréby is clearly bored with Rumney and his ideas. "So let's talk about artism," Berréby says wearily at one point, as if he'd rather not and is only doing so because he knows it is expected of him. Same thing for what Berréby describes as "your argument" that "the American secret services played a role in French art, even in European art in general." Though Rumney immediately warms to the subject -- his response is, "You're trespassing on a project I've been researching for the past two years! Frances Stoner Saunder's book Who Paid the Piper? published not long ago in London, reveals what Gremoin and others could only suspect" -- Berréby doesn't ask a follow-up question about Saunder's book, what Gremoin suspected or even what Ralph Rumney thinks about these things. Instead, he moves on to another subject.

One final thought: both Mension and Rumney have high praise for Francois Dufrene, an obscure Lettrist poet, filmmaker and writer. To Mension, Dufrene was one of the "two real Lettrists" (the other was Gil J Wolman). To Rumney, Dufrene was -- like Wolman -- "too brilliant" and so had to be expelled because Debord couldn't tolerate any competition. "Was Dufrene hurt?" Berréby asks Rumney. "Terribly," Rumney replies. "Guy told me of the incident with pride. Francois was mortally wounded. I learned this when I started meeting him [...] I quickly understood two things: the first was that he had been grievously hurt by this split, and the second was that he didn't deserve it. He considered Guy Debord to be his best friend. I think being unable to understand why it happened that was the worst part." And so, if there are going to be more volumes in this series of situationist books, let one of them be devoted to Francois Dufrene. He deserves it.



To Contact Us:
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998