Librairie Arthème Fayard
Guy Debord’s best lines were ghostwritten.
They are most known from the pamphlet The Return of the Durutti Column, which along with The Poverty of Student Life catalyzed an uprising at the University of Strasbourg that would shortly unfold into the student occupations and general strike collectively known as 1968. Distributed free in 1966, the pamphlet was manifesto, oratory, comic. Its text was largely provided by the Situationist International and its leader, Guy Debord, the postwar period’s most trenchant and implacable political philosopher (and surely the one whose thoughts have been the most caricatured).
One particular frame, a blank back and forth between Pancho and Cisco–“The Situationist Cowboys,” as they would be known–has had a long and varied afterlife, leaping from student revolt to photocopied talisman to album art and T-shirt image for Manchester’s Factory Records; of late it has shown up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, making some point or another.
“What do you work on?” asks the first cowboy, in a white hat. “Reification,” comes the answer. “I see,” says white hat. “It’s serious work, with big books and lots of papers on a big table.”
“Nope,” avers black hat, whom we understand to be speaking in the place of Debord. “I drift. Mostly I drift.” The phrase itself is a ghost. It captures the insouciance that in our era can no longer be attached to radical politics, to the ruthless critique of what exists. And exactly because such a combination, so urgently wished for, can no longer be imagined without this phrase, it is doomed to circulate without relief, like Dante’s Paolo and Francesca borne about endlessly on an awful wind that is the wind of history. Also, it’s a great pickup line.
That’s how it started near the beginning of All the King’s Horses, Michèle Bernstein’s 1960 roman à clef capturing the early hours of the Situationist International. In one version of Situationist myth, Debord talked Bernstein into writing a commercial novel, a knockoff of Françoise Sagan’s madly successful midcentury chick lit. That suggests the style. It’s a lark, a scam.
The slight plot can be as easily coordinated. It takes Dangerous Liaisons and the 1942 Marcel Carné film The Night Visitors–both of which involve a supernally merciless, sensual couple debauching innocents–and asks their bare bones to dance once more. Gilles, with the help of his lover Geneviève, seduces the dewy Carole, a Patricia Franchini manquée down to “the mussed bangs, the short blond hair, dressed like a model child in a white crewneck and a blue sweater.” It’s during the seduction that the famous exchange takes place between Gilles and Carole. Their affair, and Geneviève’s corresponding liaisons (including with Bertrand the poet and mildly modern Hélène), provide the spare narrative. There is the promised drifting around Paris, a vacation to the provinces and then the fall rentrée, rifted with discreet sex and a few tears; the whole thing is over in 88 pages, with dalliances discarded and Gilles and Geneviève affirming their bond.