Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time

I was interviewed by Linn Levy for her fine piece on Guy Debord, Situationism, and punk:

Linn Levy, “Debord j’adore,” Edelweiss December 2014: 52-53
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. . . Et le punk? «Faut-il dire que le punk était situationniste?», s’interroge Andrew Gallix, écrivain, professeur à la Sorbonne, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans et fondateur du premier blog littéraire «3:AM Magazine». «Non. Les idées de Debord ont été l’une des très nombreuses influences de ce mouvement éminemment postmoderne, au même titre que Dada, par exemple, ou le surréalisme. Il faut voir le punk comme un collage, ou comme une installation artistique : une conjonction d’influences diverses qui ont coexisté pendant “une assez courte unité de temps” (pour citer Debord) avant d’éclater en une myriade de mouvements. Entre 1976 et 1979, dans ce pays socialement à la dérive, l’esprit du situationnisme a été en quelque sorte mis en acte par le punk; il est réellement descendu dans la rue. Debord entendait mettre la révolution au service de la poésie, c’est-à-dire transformer la vie en art, et c’est précisément ce que le punk a réalisé. Il est évident que pour Malcolm McLaren, même s’il était avant tout un homme d’affaires, les Pistols étaient une situation au sens debordien.»

Colossal Youth

This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):

Colossal Youth

Arthur Cravan — artist, poet, boxer

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world’s shortest-haired poet, as he often described himself, put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man. Next to him, the YBAs in their shark-pickling heyday were about as controversial as a mug of Horlicks. David Lalé put it in a nutshell: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form” (Last Stop Salina Cruz).

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. His first brush with authority occurred early on when he was expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher. Having relocated to bohemian Paris — where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Kees van Dongen — Cravan planned to fake his own death so that he could publish his first book “posthumously,” in a blaze of publicity. For some reason this stunt was shelved, but he pulled off the more remarkable feat of becoming France’s Heavyweight Champion in 1910 without throwing a single punch. One of his opponents got the jitters and called it quits before the match had even started. A couple of others were directed to the wrong venue thus failing to show up. The last one sprained his ankle as he jumped a trifle too eagerly into the ring.

A big bruiser of a man, Cravan certainly looked the part — Mina Loy, his future wife, would write a book about him entitled Colossus — but his boxing was on a par with his poetry: spirited, at best. Comically enough, he was caught up by his reputation in Barcelona where he was unable to wriggle out of a rumble with former World Champion Jack Jones, an episode which left him reeling, punch-drunk. The fact that he was drink-drunk to start with probably did not help.

None of this prevented Arthur Cravan from flogging his “poet and boxer” image for all it was worth. Although he was a fraud, he inspired a long line of literary pugilists, and even came to be seen by some as the ultimate adventurer-scribe: literature made flesh. Paradoxically, for one whose existence exerts such fascination, he was a self-publicist who had no self to publicise. “I am all things, all men and animals!” he wrote in one of his better-known poems (“Hie!”), before wondering if he would ever manage to “leave behind” his “fatal plurality”. Reflecting on his hyper-protean nature — his dizzying array of disguises, pseudonyms and personae — Mina Loy claimed that Cravan “worked to maintain his reality by presenting an unreality to the world — to occupy itself with — while he made his spiritual getaway”. His whole life, at least from the time he first set foot in Paris, was indeed one long, convoluted disappearing act.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. It was partly a vanity outlet for his poems and essays, but primarily a means of courting controversy. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. In the first issue, he ran a fake interview with Oscar Wilde — his late uncle — claiming that he was still alive. Cravan’s Bill Grundy moment occurred when he devoted an entire issue to gratuitous insults aimed at almost all the painters taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. He opined, for instance, that only a good seeing-to would enable Marie Laurencin to fully grasp the true meaning of Art. As a result, her lover — the poet Guillaume Apollinaire — challenged Cravan to a duel which he narrowly avoided by apologising half-heartedly. He was also taken to court and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters while selling copies of his journal from a wheelbarrow outside the exhibition room.

Maintenant proved that writing, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as did the infamous series of conferences he gave in Paris. During these happenings, he would take swigs from a bottle of absinthe (in lieu of the habitual bottle of water), shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. On one occasion, he wore nothing but a butcher’s apron and concluded proceedings by mooning the audience instead of bowing in the traditional fashion. On another, he sold rotten fruit and vegetables at the entrance so that people could pelt him during the performance should they feel so inclined (which they did). His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised — a riot that forestalled his drunken inauguration of the 1917 Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whose legendary urinal was part of the show) had plied him with gallons of booze beforehand in the hope that his antics would put Dada on the map in the United States. Cravan rose to the occasion: he stumbled on stage looking the worse for wear and started to strip — knocking over a painting in the process — only to be pounced upon and carted away by security. Job done.

Arthur Cravan took Romantic hysteria to its logical conclusion: he was by turns histrionic, attention-seeking, uncontrollable, excessive, hilarious and, most importantly, the author of himself (hustera is Greek for womb). He was also a con artist with a cause. “The world has always exploited the Artist,” he once declared, “it is time for the Artist to exploit the world!” It was his fake-painting trafficking, rather than the First World War, that initially forced him to go on the run. He roamed the Continent, using several fake IDs, looking for “that something the poet always seems to have mislaid,” as Mina Loy elegantly put it. In Barcelona he became something of a living legend among Dadaists. When the war seemed about to catch up with him again, he relocated to New York (travelling aboard the same ship as Trotsky) and fled once more as soon as the Americans entered the conflict. Cravan stole the passport of an artist friend (who had conveniently conked out following a night on the razz) before crossing the Mexican border dressed — paradoxically enough — as a soldier. He was last seen in 1918, sailing away on a drunken boat of his own making (probably bound for neutral Argentina), leaving behind his “fatal plurality” for ever. “Whatever is said and done or even thought,” he had declared, “we are prisoners of this senseless world”. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong.

Cravan was always larger than life and, in many ways, he was just too bad to be true. He was a self-unmade man whose biggest conjuring trick was to spirit himself away by taking elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. “You must dream your life with great care,” wrote this outrageous six-footer who managed to cross frontiers as if he were the Invisible Man. In the years following his disappearance, he would be sighted all over the world in a variety of guises. Several people, for instance, were convinced that he was the shadowy Dorian Hope who passed himself off as André Gide’s personal secretary and sold forged Wilde manuscripts to English and Irish booksellers from his Paris base. There is even a theory according to which he was none other than B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He inspired Gide’s Lafcadio, the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will, and became a symbol of ultimate transgression for the likes of Guy Debord. Dead or alive, Arthur Cravan is still at large.

The Resurrection of Guy Debord

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This appeared in the Guardian Books blog on 18 March 2009:

The Resurrection of Guy Debord

The situationist arch-rebel has finally been recognised as a ‘national treasure’ in France – but would he have appreciated it?

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Guy-Ernest Debord would be spinning in his grave — had he not been cremated following his suicide in 1994. The arch-rebel who prided himself on fully deserving society’s “universal hatred” has now officially been recognised as a “national treasure” in his homeland.

The French government has duly stepped in to prevent Yale University from acquiring his personal archives, which contain almost everything he ever produced from the 1950s onwards: films, notes, drafts, unpublished works and corrected proofs, as well as his entire library, typewriter and spectacles. The crowning jewel is, of course, the manuscript of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord’s devastating pre-emptive strike on virtual reality. The small wooden table on which his magnum opus was composed is also thrown in.

It’s difficult to convey how bizarre it is to hear Christine Albanel — Sarkozy’s minister of culture — describing the revolutionary Debord as “one of the last great French intellectuals” of the second half of the 20th century. A love-in between a resurrected Andreas Baader and Angela Merkel would be only marginally more surprising. Then again, intellectuals have been something of a Gallic speciality ever since the Dreyfus Affair. They’re accorded the privileged status usually reserved for the likes of Bono on these shores. Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral, in 1980, attracted some 50,000 punters. I doubt whether Noam Chomsky or Tom Paulin will top that.

But however incongruous her position, Madame Albanel is spot-on: no one — not even his sworn ideological enemies — can deny Debord’s importance. Even though the young prankster soon turned into a curmudgeonly old soak, his influence is all-pervasive. In fact, it was precisely because he hated the modern world with a passion that he was able to analyse it so presciently. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he observes in the opening pages of The Society of the Spectacle — a statement that’s only grown in truth since he made it, back in 1967.

Howls for Sade, his first movie, certainly was not “mere representation”. It was the cinematographic equivalent of a meeting between Yves Klein’s monochromes and John Cage’s 4′ 33″: the screen remains blank throughout — all-white when there is some dialogue and all-black the rest of the time. During the last 20 minutes, the film plays itself out in total silence and obscurity.

Guy Debord co-founded not one, but two, radical movements: the Lettrist International (1952) and the more famous Situationist International (1957), which popularised concepts such as “dérive” and “détournement”. The situationists’ hour of glory was undoubtedly the student uprising of May 1968, which they partly shaped, but their influence has kept on growing ever since, from Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid‘s work with the Sex Pistols to the current crop of British psychogeographers (Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Stewart Home et al) via Factory Records and The Idler‘s anti-work ethic.

In 1959, Debord and the artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, which was bound in sandpaper so that it would attack any book placed next to it. For years, this lethal dust jacket served as a perfect symbol of Debord’s abrasiveness: he was the ultimate outsider whose ideas could never be assimilated by the mainstream. So what went wrong?

The official recognition of Debord’s work tends to dissociate the revolutionary from the writer whose classical prose style has been compared with that of great memorialists such as Saint-Simon. This negates the situationist belief that politics, literature and art must go hand in hand: “The point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry”. Revolution was supposed to lead to the “supercession of art” by enabling human beings to live poetry and become works of art. From this point of view, Debord belongs to the tradition of dadaists and surrealists such as Jacques Vaché, Arthur Cravan or Boris Poplavsky.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The French have long made this aphorism their own, as exemplified by the reception given to the likes of Rimbaud, Céline, Jean Genet or Dennis Cooper. It seems that the only crime an author can commit on the other side of the Channel is poor writing — although you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

All the Latest

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Check out “The Resurrection of Guy Debord” published today on the Guardian‘s website: “Guy-Ernest Debord would be spinning in his grave — had he not been cremated following his suicide in 1994. The arch-rebel who prided himself on fully deserving society’s ‘universal hatred’ has now officially been recognised as a ‘national treasure’ in his homeland.” For more, go here.

Many thanks to Alejandrino Delfos for translating my 3:AM Magazine interview with Simon Reynolds into Spanish.