“Panegyric means more than eulogy. Eulogy no doubt includes praise of the person, but it does not exclude a certain criticism, a certain blame. Panegyric involves neither blame nor criticism.”
LITTRÉ, Dictionnaire de la langue française.
“Why ask my lineage? The generations of men are like those of leaves. The wind casts the leaves to the ground, but the fertile forest brings forth others, and spring comes round again. So it is that the human race is born and passes away.”
Iliad, Canto VI.
“As for his plan, we profess to be able to demonstrate that there is no such thing, that he writes almost at random, mixing up facts, reporting them incoherently and out of order; confounding, when he treats of one era, that which pertains to another; disdaining to justify either his accusations or his eulogies; adopting without examination and the critical spirit so necessary to a historian the false judgements of prejudice, rivalry or enmity, and the exaggerations of ill humour or malevolence; attributing to some people actions and to others speeches that are incompatible with their characters; never citing any witness but himself or any other authority but his own assertions.”
Examen critique de l’ouvrage de M. le comte Philippe de Ségur.
ALL MY LIFE I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have joined in these troubles. Such circumstances would no doubt suffice to prevent the most transparent of my acts or thoughts from ever being universally approved. But, I do believe, several of them could have been misunderstood.
Clausewitz, at the beginning of his history of the campaign of 1815, gives this summary of his method: “In every strategical critique, the essential thing is to put oneself exactly in the position of the actors; it is true that this is often very difficult.” The difficult thing is to know “all the circumstances in which the actors find themselves” at a given moment, in order to be in position to judge soundly the series of their choices in the conduct of their war: how they accomplished what they did and what they might have been able to do differently. So, above all, it is necessary to know what they wanted and, of course, what they believed; without forgetting what they were ignorant of. And what they were ignorant of was not only the result still to come of their own operations colliding with the operations that were opposed to them, but also much of what was even then making its weight felt against them, in the disposition or strength of the enemy camp — which, however, remained hidden from them. And basically they did not know the exact value they should place on their own forces, until these forces could make their value known precisely at the moment of their employment — whose issue, moreover, sometimes changes that value just as much as it tests it.
A person who has led an action, the great consequences of which were felt at a distance, has often been nearly alone in his knowledge of some rather important aspects, which diverse reasons have encouraged him to keep hidden, while other aspects have since been forgotten, simply because those times have passed or the people who knew them are dead. And the testimony even of the living is not always accessible. If one person does not really know how to write, another is constrained by more current interests or ambitions, a third could be afraid, and the last risks burdening himself with the worry of protecting his own reputation. As will be seen, I am not hindered by any of these obstacles. Speaking then as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion, I am going to say what I have done. Assuredly, a great many — if not all — unjust rebukes will find themselves at that moment swept away like dust. And I am convinced that the broad lines of the history of my times will stand out more clearly.
I will be compelled to go into some details. That could take me rather a long way; I do not deny the magnitude of the task. I will take whatever time is necessary. Even so, I will not say, as Sterne did when beginning to writeTristram Shandy, that I will “go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year . . . if I am suffered to go on quietly, and can make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller.” For I surely do not want to commit myself to publishing two volumes a year or even promise any less precipitous rhythm.
My method will be very simple. I will tell of what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.
“Deceitful time hides its traces from us, but it goes by, quickly,” says the poet Li Po, who adds: “Perhaps you still retain the cheerfulness of youth — but your hair is already white; and what is the use of complaining?” I don’t intend to complain about anything, and certainly not about the way I have been able to live.
Much less do I wish to hide its traces, when I know them to be exemplary. It has always been rare for someone to set out to say exactly what the life he has known really was, because of the subject’s many difficulties. And this will be perhaps even more invaluable at present, in an era when so many things have changed at the astounding speed of catastrophes; in an era about which one can say that almost every point of reference and measure has suddenly been swept away, along with the very ground on which the old society was built.
In any case, it is easy for me to be sincere. I find nothing that can cause me the least embarrassment on any subject. I have never believed in the received values of my contemporaries, and today no one takes cognizance of any of them any more. Lacenaire, perhaps still too scrupulous, exaggerated, it seems to me, the responsibility he had directly incurred in the violent deaths of a very small number of people: “Even with the blood that covers me, I think I’m worth more than most of the men I’ve met,” he wrote to Jacques Arago. (“But you were there with us, Monsieur Arago, on the barricades in 1832. Remember the Cloître Saint-Merry. . . . You don’t know what poverty is, Monsieur Arago.You’ve never been hungry,” the workers on the June 1848 barricades soon answered not him but his brother, who had come like a Roman to harangue them on the injustice of rebelling against the laws of the Republic.)
There is nothing more natural than to consider everything as starting from oneself, chosen as the centre of the world; one finds oneself thus capable of condemning the world without even wanting to hear its deceitful chatter. One has only to mark off the precise limits that necessarily restrain this authority: its proper place in the course of time and in society; what one has done and what one has known, one’s dominant passions. “Who then can write the truth, if not those who have felt it?” The author of the most beautiful Memoirs of the seventeenth century, who has not escaped the inept reproach of having spoken of his conduct without maintaining the appearance of the coldest objectivity, made an apt observation concerning truth: in the quotation above, he supported the opinion of the Président de Thou, according to whom “the only true histories are those that have been written by men who have been sincere enough to speak truly about themselves.”
One might be surprised that I implicitly seem to compare myself, here and there, on a point of detail, with some great mind of the past or simply with personalities who have been noted historically. One would be wrong. I do not claim to resemble any other person, and I believe that the present era is hardly comparable to the past. But many figures from the past, in all their extreme diversity, are still quite commonly known. They represent, in brief, a readily accessible index of human behaviour or propensities. Those who do not know who they were can easily find out; and the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer.
I will have to make rather extensive use of quotations — never, I believe, to lend authority to a particular argument, but only to show fully of what stuff this adventure and myself are made. Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs. Allusions, without quotation marks, to other texts that one knows to be very famous, as in classical Chinese poetry, Shakespeare, and Lautréamont, should be reserved for times richer in minds capable of recognizing the original phrase and the distance its new application has introduced. Today, when irony itself is not always understood, there is the risk of the phrase being confidently attributed to oneself — and, moreover, being hastily and incorrectly reproduced. The antique ponderousness of exact quotations will be compensated for, I hope, by the quality of the selection. They will appear when appropriate in this text; no computer could have provided me with this pertinent variety.
Those who wish to write quickly a piece about nothing that no one will read through even once, whether in a newspaper or a book, extol with much conviction the style of the spoken language, because they find it much more modern, direct, facile. They themselves do not know how to speak. Neither do their readers, the language actually spoken under modern conditions of life being socially reduced to its indirect representation through the suffrage of the media, and including around six or eight turns of phrase repeated at every moment and fewer than two hundred words, most of them neologisms, with the whole thing submitted to replacement by one third every six months. All this favours a certain rapid solidarity. On the contrary, I for my part am going to write without affectation or fatigue, as if it were the most natural and easiest thing in the world, the language that I have learned and, in most circumstances, spoken. It’s not up to me to change it. The Gypsies rightly contend that one is never compelled to speak the truth except in one’s own language; in the enemy’s language, the lie must reign. Another advantage: by referring to the vast corpus of classical texts that have appeared in French throughout the five centuries before my birth, but especially in the last two, it will always be easy to translate me adequately into any future idiom, even when French has become a dead language.
Who, in our century, could not be aware that he who finds it in his interest instantly to affirm whatever he is told will care nothing for how he tells it. The immense growth in the means of modern domination has so marked the style of its pronouncements that if the understanding of the progress of the sombre reasoning of power was for a long time a privilege of people of real intelligence, it has now inevitably become familiar to even the most dull-witted. It is in this sense that the truth of this report on my times will be rather well proved by its style. The tone of this text will in itself be sufficient guarantee, for everyone will understand that it is only by dint of having lived in such a way that one can have the expertise for this kind of account.
It is known for certain that the Peloponnesian War took place. But it is only through Thucydides that we know of its implacable development and its lessons. No cross-checking is possible; but neither was it necessary, because the veracity of the facts, like the coherence of the thought, was so well imposed on his contemporaries and near posterity that any other witness felt discouraged when faced with the difficulty of introducing a different interpretation of the events, or even quibbling over a detail.
And I believe one will likewise have to rest content with that in the history I am now going to present. For no one, for a long time to come, will have the audacity to undertake to demonstrate, on any aspect, the contrary of what I will say, whether it is a matter of finding the slightest inexact element in the facts or of maintaining another point of view on the subject.
Conventional as this procedure might be judged, I think that here it is not useless first of all to sketch out clearly the beginning: the date and the general conditions under which began a story that I will not fail to abandon subsequently to all the confusion demanded by its theme. It may reasonably be thought that many things appear in youth, which stay with you for a long time. I was born in 1931, in Paris. My family’s fortune was at that time shattered by the consequences of the world economic crisis that had first appeared in America a little earlier; and the remnants did not seem capable of lasting much beyond my majority, which is what in fact happened. So, then, I was born virtually ruined. I was not, properly speaking, ignorant of the fact that I should not expect an inheritance, and in the end I did not receive one. I simply did not grant the slightest importance to those rather abstract questions about the future. Thus, throughout the course of my adolescence, if I went slowly but inevitably towards a life of adventure, with my eyes open, it can none the less be said that I had my eyes open then on this question, as well as on most others. I could not even think of studying for one of the learned professions that lead to holding down a job, for all of them seemed completely alien to my tastes or contrary to my opinions. The people I respected more than anyone alive were Arthur Cravan and Lautréamont, and I knew perfectly well that all their friends, if I had consented to pursue university studies, would have scorned me as much as if I had resigned myself to exercising an artistic activity; and if I could not have those friends, I certainly would not stoop to consoling myself with others. A doctor of nothing, I have firmly kept myself apart from all semblance of participation in the circles that then passed for intellectual or artistic. I admit that my merit in this respect was well tempered by my great laziness, as well as by my very meagre capacities for confronting the work of such careers.
Never to have given more than very slight attention to questions of money, and absolutely no place to the ambition of holding some brilliant function in society, is a trait so rare among my contemporaries that it will no doubt sometimes be considered unbelievable, even in my case. It is, however, true, and it has been so constantly and perpetually verifiable that the public will just have to get used to it. I imagine that the cause resided in my devil-may-care upbringing encountering favourable terrain. I never saw bourgeois at work, with the baseness that their special kind of work inevitably entails; and there perhaps is the reason why in this indifference I could learn something good about life, but, all told, solely through absence and lack. The moment of decadence of any form of social superiority is surely rather more amenable than its vulgar beginnings. I remain attached to this preference, which I felt very early on, and I can say that poverty has principally given me a great deal of leisure, not having ruined properties to manage and not dreaming of restoring them through participation in the government of the state. It is true that I have tasted pleasures little known to people who have obeyed the unfortunate laws of this era. It is also true that I have strictly observed several duties of which they have not the slightest idea. “For you see nothing but the external appearance of our life,” the Rule of the Temple stated bluntly in its time, “but you do not know the severe commandments within.” I should also note, to cite all the favourable influences met there, the obvious fact that I had occasion then to read several good books, from which it is always possible to find by oneself all the others, or even to write those that are still lacking. This quite complete statement will stop here.
Before the age of twenty, I saw the peaceful part of my youth come to an end; and I now had nothing left except the obligation to pursue all my tastes without restraint, though in difficult conditions. I headed first towards that very attractive milieu where an extreme nihilism no longer wanted to know about nor, above all, continue what had previously been considered the use of life or the arts. This milieu had no trouble recognizing me as one of its own. There my last possibilities of one day returning to the normal round of existence disappeared. I thought so then, and what came after proved it.
It must be that I am less inclined than others to calculate, since the choice made so quickly, which committed me to so much, was spontaneous, the product of a thoughtlessness on which I have never gone back; and which later, having had the leisure in which to judge the consequences, I have never regretted. It could easily be said that in terms of wealth or reputation I have never had anything to lose; but, finally, neither have I had anything to gain.
This milieu of demolition experts, more clearly than its precursors of the two or three preceding generations, was then entirely mixed up with the dangerous classes. Living with them, one for the most part lived their life. Lingering traces obviously remain. Over the years, more than half the people I knew well had sojourned one or several times in the prisons of various countries; many, no doubt, for political reasons, but all the same a greater number for common-law offences or crimes. So I met mainly rebels and the poor. I saw around me a great many individuals who died young, and not always by suicide, frequent as that was. On the matter of violent death, I will note, without being able to put forward a fully rational explanation of the phenomenon, that the number of my friends who have been killed by bullets constitutes an uncommonly high percentage — leaving aside military operations, of course.
Our only public actions, which remained rare and brief in the first years, were meant to be completely unacceptable: at first, especially by their form; later, as they acquired depth, especially by their content. They were not accepted. “Destruction was my Béatrice,” wrote Mallarmé, who himself was the guide for a few others in rather perilous explorations. For it is quite certain that whoever devotes himself to making such historical demonstrations, and thus refuses all existing work, will have to know how to live off the land. I will discuss the question in more detail later on. Confining myself here to presenting the subject as its most general, I will say that I have always been content to give the vague impression that I had great intellectual, even artistic qualities of which I preferred to deprive my era, which did not seem to merit their use. There have always been people to regret my absence and, paradoxically, to help me maintain it. If this has turned out well it is only because I never went looking for anyone, anywhere. My entourage has been composed only of those who came of their own accord and knew how to make themselves accepted. I wonder if even one other person has dared to behave like me, in this era. It must also be acknowledged that the degradation of all existing conditions appeared at precisely the same moment, as if to justify my singular folly.
I must likewise admit — for nothing can remain purely unalterable in the course of time — that after some twenty years, or a little more, an advanced fraction of a specialized public has seemed to begin no longer to completely reject the idea that I could well have several real talents, which are especially remarkable in comparison with the great poverty of the stray thoughts and useless repetitions that these people have for a long time believed they had to admire; and even though the only discernible use of my gifts ought to be regarded as entirely nefarious. And then of course it was I who refused to agree, in any way, to recognise the existence of these people who were beginning, so to speak, to recognize something of mine. It is true that they were not ready to accept everything, and I have always said frankly that it would be all or nothing, thus placing myself definitively out of reach of their possible concessions. As for society, my tastes and ideas have not changed, remaining as strictly opposed to what it was as to all that it claimed to want to be.
The leopard dies with his spots, and I have never intended, or believed myself capable of, improving myself. I have really never aspired to any sort of virtue, except perhaps that of having thought that only some crimes of a new type, which could certainly not have been cited in the past, might not be unworthy of me; and that of not having changed, after such a bad start. At a critical moment in the troubles of the Fronde, Gondi, who had given such sterling proofs of his capacities in the handling of human affairs — notably in his favourite role of disturber of the public peace — improvised happily before the Parlement de Paris a beautiful quotation attributed to an ancient author, whose name everyone vainly searched for, but which could be best applied to his own panegyric: “In difficillimis Reipublicae temporibus, urbem non deserui; in prosperis nihil de publico delibavi; in desperatis, nihil timui.” He himself translated it as “In bad times, I did not abandon the city; in good times, I had no private interests; in desperate times, I feared nothing.”
“Such were the events of that winter, and thus ended the second year of the war of which Thucydides has written the history.”
THUCYDIDES, The Peloponnesian War.
IN THE ZONE of perdition where my youth went as if to complete its education, one would have said that the portents of an imminent collapse of the whole edifice of civilization had made an appointment. Permanently ensconced ther were people who could be defined only negatively, for the good reason that they had no job, followed no course of study, and practised no art. Many of them had participated in the recent wars, in several of the armies that had fought over the continent: the German, the French, the Russian, the American, the two Spanish armies, and several others. The remainder, who were five or six years younger, had come there directly, because the idea of the family had begun to dissolve, like all others. No received doctrine moderated anyone’s conduct, much less offered his existence any illusory goal. Diverse practices of the moment were always ready to present, against all evidence, their cool defence. Nihilism is quick to moralize, as soon as it is touched by the idea of justifying itself: one man robbed banks and gloried in not robbing the poor, while another had never killed anyone when he was not angry. Despite all the eloquence at their disposal, they were the most unpredictable people from one hour to the next, and they were occasionally rather dangerous. It is the fact of having passed through such a milieu that permitted me to say later, with the same pride as the demagogue in Aristophanes’ Knights: “I too grew up in the streets!”
After all, it was modern poetry, for the last hundred years, that had led us there. We were a handful who thought that it was necessary to carry out its programme in reality, and in any case to do nothing else. It is sometimes surprising — to tell the truth, only since an extremely recent date — to discover the atmosphere of hate and malediction that has constantly surrounded me and, as much as possible, kept me hidden. Some think that it is because of the grave responsibility that has often been attributed to me for the origins, or even for the command, of the May 1968 revolt. I think rather that it is what I did in 1952 that has been disliked for so long. An angry queen of France once called to order the most seditious of her subjects: “There is rebellion in imagining that one could rebel.”
That is just what happened. Another, earlier contemner of the world, who said that he had been a king in Jerusalem, had touched on the heart of the problem, almost with these very words: The spirit whirls in all directions, and on its circuits the spirit returns. All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return from whence they came, only to flow again.
There have always been artists or poets capable of living in violence. The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a bill. It is generally thought that Shakespeare was thinking of the death of his rival when he made, without too much fear of being reproached for heavyhandedness, this joke in As You Like It: “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” The phenomenon that is absolutely new this time, and has naturally left few traces, is that the sole principle admitted by all was that there could precisely no longer be either poetry or art, and that something better had to be found.
We had several points of resemblance with those other devotees of the dangerous life who had spent their time, exactly five hundred years before us, in the same city and on the same side of the river. Obviously, I cannot be compared to anyone who has mastered his art like François Villon. And I was not as irremediably engaged as he in organized crime; after all, I had not studied so hard at university. But there had been that “noble man” among my friends who was the complete equal of Régnier de Montigny, as well as many other rebels destined for bad ends; and there were the pleasures and splendour of those lost young hoodlum girls who kept us such good company in our dives and could not have been that different from the girls others had known under the names of Marion l’Idole or Catherine, Biétrix and Bellet. I will speak of what we were then in the argot of Villon’s accomplices, which is certainly no longer an impenetrable secret language. On the contrary, it is generally accessible to the well informed. But thus will I put the inevitable criminological dimension into a reassuring philological distance:
J’y ai connu quelques sucs que rebignait le marieux, froarts et envoyeurs ; très sûres louches comme assoses, n’étant à juc pour aruer à ruel ; souvent greffis par les anges de la marine, mais longs pouvant babigner jusqu’à les blanchir.C’est là que j’ai appris comment être beau soyant, à ce point qu’encore icicaille, sur de telles questions, je préfère rester ferme en la mauhe. Nos hurteries et nos gaudies sur la dure se sont embrouées. Pourtant, mes contres sans caire qui entervaient si bien ce monde gailleur, je me souviens vivement d’eux : quand nous étions à la mathe, sur la tarde à Parouart.
[There I met a few heads the executioner was waiting for: thieves and murderers. They were accomplices one could be proud of, for they never hesitated when it came to resorting to force. They were often picked up by the police, but they were good at feigning innocence and misleading them. That’s where I learned how to deceive interrogators, so that for a long time after, and here too, I’d rather remain silent about such business. Our acts of violence and our earthly delights are past. Yet I vividly recall my penniless comrades who understood so well this delusory world: when we met in our hangouts, in Paris at night.]
I pride myself on having neither forgotten nor learnt anything in this regard. There were cold streets and snow, and the river in flood: “In the middle of the bed/the river is deep.” There were the girls who had skipped school, with their proud eyes and sweet lips; the frequent police searches; the roar of the cataract of time. “Never again will we drink so young.”
It could be said that I have always loved foreign women. From Hungary and Spain, from China and Germany, from Russia and Italy came those who filled my youth with joy. And later, when I already had grey hair, I lost the little reason that through the course of time I had, with great difficulty, succeeded in acquiring, for a girl from Córdoba. Omar Kháyyám, having given the matter some thought, had to admit: “Indeed the Idols I have loved so long/Have done my credit in this World much wrong:/Have drowned my Glory in a shallow Cup,/And sold my Reputation for a song.” Who better than I could feel the justice of this observation? But also, who more than I has scorned all the valuations of my era and the reputations it awarded? The result was already contained in the beginning of this journey.
That took place between the autumn of 1952 and the spring of 1953, in Paris, south of the Seine and north of the rue de Vaugirard, east of the carrefour de la Croix-Rouge, and west of the rue Dauphine. Archilochus wrote “Come, go then with a cup . . . draw drink from the hollow tuns, draining the red wine to the lees; for we no more than other men can stay sober on this watch.”
Between the rue du Four and the rue de Buci, where our youth so completely went astray as a few glasses were drunk, one could feel certain that we would never do any better.
“I have observed that most of those who have left memoirs have clearly shown us their bad actions or their penchants only when, by chance, they have taken them for feats or good instincts, which occasionally has happened.”
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Souvenirs.
AFTER THE CIRCUMSTANCES that I have just recalled, it is no doubt the quickly acquired habit of drinking that has marked my entire life. Wines, spirits and beers: the moments when some of them became essential and the moments when they returned have traced out the main course and meanders of days, weeks and years. Two or three other passions, which I will talk about, have almost continually taken up a lot of space in this life. But drinking has been the most constant and the most present. Among the small number of things that I have liked and known how to do well, what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink. Even though I have read a lot, 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. I can count myself among those of whom Baltasar Gracián, thinking about an elite distinguishable only among the Germans — but here very unfair, to the detriment of the French, as I think I have shown — could say: “There are those who have got drunk only once, but it has lasted them a lifetime.”
Furthermore, I am a little surprised — I who have had to read so often the most extravagant calumnies or unjust criticisms of myself — to see that a total of thirty years or more have passed without some malcontent ever instancing my drunkenness as an argument, at least implicitly, against my scandalous ideas — with the one, belated exception of a piece by some drug addicts in England who revealed around 1980 that I was destroyed by alcohol and had thus ceased to be harmful. I never dreamed for an instant of hiding this perhaps questionable side of my personality, and it was there beyond doubt for all those who met me more than once or twice. I can even note that it has sufficed me on each occasion a rather few days in order to be highly regarded, in Venice as in Cadiz, and in Hamburg as in Lisbon, by the people I have met only by frequenting certain cafés.
First, like everyone, I appreciated the effect of slight drunkenness; then very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkenness, when one has passed that stage: a magnificent and terrible peace, the true taste of the passage of time. Although in the first decades I may have allowed only slight indications to appear once or twice a week, it is a fact that I have been continuously drunk for periods of several months; and the rest of the time, I still drank a lot.
An air of disorder in the great variety of emptied bottles nevertheless remains susceptible to an a posteriori classification. First, I can distinguish between the drinks I consumed in their countries of origin and those I consumed in Paris; but almost everything there was to drink was to be had in Paris in the middle of the century. Everywhere, the premises can be subdivided simply between what I drank at home, or at friends’, or in cafés, cellars, bars, restaurants, or in the streets, notably on café terraces.
The hours and their shifting conditions almost always retain a determining role in the necessary renewal of the moments of a spree, and each brings its sensible preference to bear on the available possibilities. There is what is drunk in the mornings, and for a long while that was beer. In Cannery Row a character who one could tell was a connoisseur professes that “there’s nothing like that first taste of beer.” But I have often needed, at the moment of waking, Russian vodka. There is what is drunk with meals, and in the afternoons that stretch between them. There is wine some nights, along with spirits, and after that beer is pleasant again — for then beer makes one thirsty. There is what is drunk at the end of the night, at the moment when the day begins anew. It is understood that all this has left me very little time for writing, and that is exactly as it should be: writing should remain a rare thing, since one must have drunk for a long time before finding excellence.
I have wandered extensively in several great European cities, and I appreciated everything that deserved it. The catalogue on this subject could be vast. There were the beers of England, where mild and bitter were mixed in pints; the big schooners of Munich; and the Irish; and the most classical, the Czech beer of Pilsen; and the admirable baroquism of the Gueuze around Brussels, when it had its distinct flavour in each artisanal brasserie and did not travel well. There were the fruit liqueurs of Alsace; the rum of Jamaica; the punches, the aquavit of Aalborg, and the grappa of Turin, cognac, cocktails; the incomparable mezcal of Mexico. There were all the wines of France, the loveliest coming from Burgundy; there were the wines of Italy, and especially the Barolos of Langhe, the Chiantis of Tuscany; there were the wines of Spain, the Riojas of Old Castille or the Jumilla of Murcia.
I would have had very few illnesses if alcohol had not in the end brought me some; from insomnia to vertigo, by way of gout. “Beautiful as the trembling of the hands in alcoholism,” said Lautréamont. There are mornings that are stirring but difficult.
“It is better to hide one’s folly, but that is difficult in debauchery or drunkenness,” thought Heraclitus. And yet Machiavelli wrote to Francesco Vettori: “Anybody reading our letters . . . would think that sometimes we are serious people entirely devoted to great things, that our hearts cannot conceive any thought that is not honourable and grand. But then, as they turned the page, we would seem light, inconstant, lustful, entirely devoted to vanities. And even if someone judges this way of life shameful, I find it praiseworthy, for we imitate nature, which is changeable.” Vauvenargues formulated a rule too often forgotten: “In order to decide that an author contradicts himself, it must be impossible to conciliate him.”
Moreover, some of my reasons for drinking are respectable. Like Li Po, I can indeed nobly claim: “For thirty years, I’ve hidden my fame in taverns.”
The majority of wines, almost all spirits, and every one of the beers whose memory I have evoked here have today completely lost their tastes — first on the world market and then locally — with the progress of industry as well as the disappearance or economic re-education of the social classes that had long remained independent of large industrial production, and so too of the various regulations that now prohibit virtually anything that is not industrially produced. The bottles, so that they can still be sold, have faithfully retained their labels; this attention to detail provides the assurance that one can photograph them as they used to be, not drink them.
Neither I nor the people who drank with me have at any moment felt embarrassed by our excesses. “At the banquet of life” — good guests there, at least — we took a seat without thinking even for an instant that what we were drinking with such prodigality would not subsequently be replenished for those who would come after us. In drinking memory, no one had ever imagined that he would see drink pass away before the drinker.
“ ’Tis true, Julius Caesar wrote his own Commentaries; but then that Hero’s Modesty in his Commentaries is equal to his Bravery: He seems to have undertaken that Work only, that he might have no Room for Flattery to impose upon future Ages in the Matter of his History.”
BALTASAR GRACIÁN, The Compleat Gentleman.
I HAVE KNOWN the world quite well, then, its history and geography, its scenery and those who populated it, their various practices and, particularly, “what sovereignty is, how many kinds there are, how one acquires it, how one keeps it, how one loses it.”
I have had no need to travel very far, but I have considered things with a certain seriousness, according them each time the full measure of the months or years that they seemed to merit. Most of the time I lived in Paris, exactly in the triangle defined by the intersections of the rue Saint-Jacques and the rue Royer-Collard, rue Saint-Martin and rue Greneta, and the rue du Bac and rue de Commailles. And I have in fact spent my days and nights in this restricted space and the narrow frontier-margin that is its immediate extension; most often on its eastern side and more rarely on its northwestern side.
I never, or hardly ever, would have left this area, which suited me perfectly, if a few historical necessities had not obliged me to depart several times. Always briefly in my youth, when I had to risk some forays abroad in order further to extend disruption; but later for much longer, when the city had been sacked and the kind of life that had been led there had been completely destroyed —which is what happened from 1970 onwards.
I believe that this city was ravaged a little before all the others because its ever-renewed revolutions had so worried and shocked the world, and because they had unfortunately always failed. So we have been punished with a destruction as complete as that which had been threatened earlier by the Manifesto of Brunswick or the speech of the Girondist Isnard: in order to bury so many fearsome memories and the great name of Paris. (The infamous Isnard, presiding over the Convention in May 1793, had already had the impudence to announce prematurely: “I say that if through these incessant insurrections the national representatives should happen to be attacked — I declare to you, in the name of all of France, Paris will be annihilated; you would soon have to search the banks of the Seine to determine whether this city ever existed.”)
Whoever sees the banks of the Seine sees our grief: nothing is found there now save the bustling columns of an anthill of motorized slaves. The historian Guicciardini, who experienced the end of the freedom of Florence, noted in his Ricordi: “All cities, all states, all kingdoms are mortal; everything, whether by nature or by accident, comes to an end and finishes sooner or later; so a citizen who sees the collapse of his country should not lament so much the misfortune of the country and the bad luck that it has encountered this time; rather, he should mourn his own misfortune; because what happened to the city had to happen anyway, but the true misfortune was to have been born at the moment when such a disaster had to take place.”
It could almost be believed, despite the innumerable earlier testimonies of history and the arts, that I was the only person to have loved Paris; because, first of all, I saw no one else react to this question in the repugnant “seventies.” But subsequently I learned that Louis Chevalier, its old historian, had published then, without too much being said about it, L’Assassinat de Paris. So we could count at least two righteous people in the city at the time. I did not want to see any more of the debasement of Paris. More generally, little importance should be granted to the opinion of those who condemn something without having done all that was required to destroy it and, failing that, to prove always so foreign to it that they still actually had the possibility of being so.
Chateaubriand pointed out — and rather precisely, all told: “Of the modern French authors of my time, I am also the only one whose life is true to his works.” In any case, I have certainly lived as I have said one should, and this was perhaps even more unusual among the people of my time, who have all seemed to believe that they had to live only according to the instructions of those who direct current economic production and the power of communication with which it is armed. I have resided in Italy and Spain, principally in Florence and Seville — in Babylon, as they said in the Golden Age — but also in other cities that were still living, and even in the countryside. Thus I enjoyed a few pleasant years. Much later, when the tide of destruction, pollution and falsification had conquered the whole surface of the planet, as well as plunging down nearly to its depths, I could return to the ruins that remained of Paris, for then nothing better remained anywhere else. One cannot go into exile in a unified world.
So what did I do during that time? I did not try too hard to avoid dangerous encounters; and it is even possible that I cold-bloodedly sought some of them out.
In Italy I was certainly not well thought of by everyone, but I had the good fortune to meet the “sfacciate donne fiorentine” when I lived in Florence, in the Oltrarno district. There was that little Florentine who was so graceful. In the evenings she would cross the river to come to San Frediano. I fell in love very unexpectedly, perhaps because of her beautiful, bitter smile. I told her, in brief: “Do not stay silent, for I come before you as a stranger and a traveller. Grant me some refreshment before I go away and am here no more.” At that time Italy was once again losing its way: it was necessary to regain sufficient distance from its prisons, where those who stayed too long at the revels of Florence ended up.
The young Musset drew attention to himself long ago for his thoughtless question: “Have you seen in Barcelona,/an Andalusian with sunburnt breasts?” Well, yes! I’ve had to say ever since 1980. I played my part — and perhaps my greatest part — in the follies of Spain. But it was in another country that that irremediable princess, with her wild beauty and her voice, appeared. “Mira como vengo yo” were the truthful words of the song she sang. That day, we didn’t continue to listen. I loved that Andalusian for a long time. How long? “A period in proportion to our vain and meagre span,” said Pascal.
I even stayed in an inaccessible house surrounded by woods, far from any village, in an extremely sterile, exhausted mountainous region, deep in a deserted Auvergne. I spent several winters there. Snow fell for days on end. The wind piled it up in drifts. Barriers kept it off the road. Despite the exterior walls, snow accumulated in the courtyard. Logs burned in the fireplace.
The house seemed to open directly on to 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 would approach noiselessly at first, announced by the brief passage of a wind that slithered through the grass or by a series of sudden flashes on the horizon; then thunder and lightning were unleashed, and we were bombarded for a long while and from every direction, as if in a fortress under seige. Just once, at night, I saw lightning strike near me outside: you could not even see where it had struck; the whole landscape was equally illuminated for one startling instant. Nothing in art has seemed to give me this impression of an irrevocable brilliance, except for the prose that Lautréamont employed in the programmatic exposition that he called Poésies. But nothing else: neither Mallarmé’s blank page, nor Malevich’s white square on a white background, nor even Goya’s last pictures, where black takes over everything, like Saturn devouring his children.
Violent winds, which at any moment could rise from one of three directions, shook the trees. Those on the moors to the north, more dispersed, bent and shook like ships surprised at anchor in an unprotected harbour. The compactly grouped trees that guarded the hill in front of the house supported one another in their resistance, the first rank breaking the west wind’s relentless assault. Farther off, the line of the woods disposed in squares, over the whole half-circle of the hills, evoked the troops arranged in a chessboard pattern in certain eighteenth-century battle scenes. And those almost always vain charges sometimes made a breach, knocking down a rank. Piled-up clouds traversed the sky at a run. A sudden change of wind could also quickly send them into retreat, with other clouds launched in their pursuit.
On calm mornings, there were all the birds of the dawn and the perfect chill of the air, and that dazzling shade of tender green that came over the trees, in the tremulous light of the sun rising before them.
The weeks passed imperceptibly. One day the morning air announced the arrival of autumn. Another time, a great sweetness in the air, a sweetness you could taste, declared, like a quick promise always kept, “the spring breeze.”
In regard to someone who has been, as essentially and continuously as I, a man of streets and cities — one will thus appreciate the degree to which my preferences will not overly falsify my judgements — it should be pointed out that the charm and harmony of these few seasons of grandiose isolation did not escape me. It was a pleasing and impressive solitude. But in truth I was not alone: I was with Alice.
In the midwinter nights of 1988, in the square des Missions Étrangères, an owl would obstinately repeat his calls, fooled perhaps by the unseasonable weather. And this unusual run of encounters with the bird of Minerva, its air of surprise and indignation, did not in the least seem to constitute an allusion to the imprudent conduct or the various aberrations of my life. I have never understood in what way it could have been different, nor how it could have been justified.
“As a scholar and a man of learned education, and in that sense a gentleman, I may presume to class myself as an unworthy member of that indefinite body called gentlemen. Partly on the ground I have assigned, perhaps; partly because, from my having no visible calling or business . . . I am so classed by my neighbours. . . .”
THOMAS DE QUINCEY,
Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
A COMBINATION OF circumstances has marked almost everything I have done with a certain conspiratorial allure. In this very area, many new professions have been created at great cost with the sole end of showing what beauty society had recently been able to achieve, and how it reasoned soundly in all its discourses and all its plans. Whereas I, without any salary, provided the example of completely opposite schemes; this has inevitably been badly received. It has also led me to meet, in several countries, people who were rightly considered lost. The police watch them. The specialized thought which can be viewed as the police form of knowledge, expressed itself with reference to me in 1984 in the Journal du Dimanche of 18 March: “For many police officers, whether they belong to the crime squad, the DST, or the Renseignements généraux, the most serious trail leads to the entourage of Guy Debord. . . . The least that can be said is that, faithful to his legend, Guy Debord has hardly proved talkative.” Even earlier, in the Nouvel Observateur of 22 May 1972: “The author of The Society of the Spectacle has always appeared as the discreet but indisputable head . . . at the centre of the changing constellation of brilliant conspirators of the Situationist International, a kind of cold chess player, rigorously leading . . . the game whose every move he has foreseen. Surrounding himself with people of talent and goodwill, while keeping his authority veiled. Then breaking with them with the same nonchalant virtuosity, manoeuvring his acolytes like naive pawns, clearing the chessboard move after move, finally emerging as the sole master, and always dominating the game.”
My sort of mind leads me at first to be amazed at this, but it must be recognized that many of life’s experiences only verify and illustrate the most conventional ideas, which one may have already encountered in numerous books, but without believing them. Recalling what one has experienced oneself, it is not necessary to inquire into every detail of the observation never made, or its astonishing paradox. Thus I owe it to the truth to note, following others, that the English police seemed the most suspicious and the most polite, the French police the most dangerously trained in historical interpretation, the Italian police the most cynical, the Belgian police the most rustic, the German police the most arrogant, while it was the Spanish police who proved themselves the least rational and the most incapable.
For an author who has written with a certain degree of quality and so knows what it means to speak, it is generally a sad ordeal when he has to reread and consent to sign his own answers in a statement for the police judiciaire. First, the text as a whole is directed by the investigators’ questions, which are usually not mentioned and do not innocently arise, as they sometimes hope to appear to, from the simple logical necessities of a precise inquiry or from a clear understanding. The answers that one was able to formulate are in fact hardly better than their summary, dictated by the highest-ranking officer and obviously rewritten with a great deal of awkwardness and vagueness. If, naturally — but many innocents are unaware of it — it is imperative to have precisely corrected every detail by which the thought that one had expressed has been translated with a deplorable unfaithfulness, it is necessary to give up quickly on having everything transcribed in the suitable and satisfactory form that one used spontaneously, for then one would be led to double the number of those already tiresome hours, which would rid the greatest purist of the taste for being so to such a degree. So then, I here declare that my answers to the police should not be included later in my collected works, because of scruples about the form, and even though I signed the veracious content without embarrassment.
Having certainly, thanks to one of the rare positive features of my early education, a sense of discretion, I have sometimes known the necessity of showing a still more pronounced discretion. A number of useful habits have thus become like second nature to me; this I say while ceding nothing to malicious persons who might be capable of claiming that that could in no way be distinguished from my nature itself. No matter what the subject, I have trained myself to be even less interesting whenever I saw greater chances of being overheard. In some cases, I have also made appointments or given my views through letters personally addressed to friends and modestly signed with little-known names that have figured in the entourage of some famous poets: Colin Decayeux or Guido Cavalcanti, for example. But it is obvious that I have never lowered myself to publishing anything at all under a pseudonym, despite what some hack libellers have sometimes insinuated in the press, with an extraordinary aplomb, while prudently confining themselves to the most abstract generalities.
It is permitted, but not desirable, to wonder where such a predilection to contradict all authorities could positively lead. “We never pursue things so much as the pursuit of things”: certainty on this subject has been long established. “One loves the hunt more than the catch. . . .”
Our era of technicians makes abundant use of the nominalized adjective “professional”; it seems to believe that it has found there some kind of guarantee. Of course, if one contemplates not my emoluments but only my abilities, there can be no doubt that I have been a very good professional. But in what? Such will have been my mystery, in the eyes of a blameful world.
Messrs Blin, Chavanne and Drago, who in 1969 published a Traité du Droit de la Presse, concluded the chapter concerning the “Danger des apologies” with an authority and experience that felicitously lead me to believe that they should be accorded a great deal of confidence: “To vindicate a criminal act, to present it as glorious, meritorious, or lawful can have considerable persuasive power. Weakwilled individuals who read such apologies will not only feel absolved in advance if they commit those acts, but will even see in their commission the opportunity of becoming important people. The knowledge of criminal psychology shows the danger of apologies.”
“And when I think that these people march side by side, on a long and difficult journey, in order to arrive together at the same place, where they will run a thousand dangers to achieve a great and noble goal, these reflections give this picture a meaning that profoundly moves me.”
CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ, Letter of 18 September 1806.
I HAVE BEEN very interested in war, in the theoreticians of its strategy, but also in reminiscences of battles and in the countless other disruptions history mentions, surface eddies on the river of time. I am not unaware that war is the domain of danger and disappointment, perhaps even more so than the other sides of life. This consideration has not, however, diminished the attraction that I have felt for it.
And so I have studied the logic of war. Moreover, I succeded, a long time ago, in presenting the basics of its movements on a rather simple board game: the forces in contention and the contradictory necessities imposed on the operations of each of the two parties. I have played this game and, in the often difficult conduct of my life, I have utilized lessons from it — I have also set myself rules of the game for this life, and I have followed them. The surprises of this Kriegspiel seem inexhaustible; and I fear that this may well be the only one of my works that anyone will dare acknowledge as having some value. On the question of whether I have made good use of such lessons, I will leave it to others to decide.
It must be acknowledged that those of us who have been able to perform wonders with writing have often given the least proof of expertise in the command of war. The trials and tribulations met with on this terrain are now innumerable. During the retreat from Prague, Captain de Vauvenargues marched along with troops hurried in the one direction still open. “Hunger and disorder tramp in their fugitive tracks; night shrouds their steps and death follows them in silence. . . . Fires lit on the ice illuminate their last moments; the earth is their fearsome bed.” And Gondi was distressed to see the regiment that he had raised about-face quickly on the Pont d’Antony, and to hear this rout referred to as the “First Corinthians.” And Charles d’Orléans was in the vanguard in the unfortunate attack at Agincourt, which was riddled with arrows along its course and broken at its end, where one could see “all the gentle and chivalrous nobles of France, who were at least ten to one against the English, be thus defeated.” He was to remain captive in England for twenty-five years, little appreciationg on his return the manners of another generation (“The world is bored with me — and I with it”). And, unfortunately, Thucydides arrived with the squadron he commanded a few hours too late to prevent the fall of Amphipolis; he could only ward off one of the many consequences of the disaster by landing his infantry at Aeion, which saved the town. Lieutenant von Clausewitz himself, with the fine army marching on Jena, was far from expecting what would be found there.
But all the same, at the Battle of Neerwinden in Royal-Roussillon, Captain de Saint-Simon gallantly took part in the five charges by the cavalry, which had already been exposed, a fixed target, to the fire of enemy cannon whose balls swept away whole files, while the ranks of “the insolent nation” kept re-forming. And Stendhal, second lieutenant in the 6th Dragoons Regiment in Italy, captured an Austrian battery. As the Battle of Lepanto raged on the sea, Cervantes, at the head of twelve men, was unshakeable in holding the last redoubt of his galley when the Turks tried to board it. It is said that Archilochus was a professional soldier. And Dante, when the Florentine cavalry charged at Campaldino, killed his man there, and still liked to evoke it in the Purgatorio, Canto V: “And I say to him: What force of fatality/has taken you so far from Campaldino/that no one’s ever seen your burial place?”
History is inspiring. If the best authors, taking part in its struggles, have proved at times less excellent in this regard than in their writings, history, on the other hand, has never failed to find people who had the instinct for the happy turn of phrase to communicate its passions to us. “There is no more Vendée,” General Westermann wrote to the Convention in December 1793, after his victory in Savenay. “It died under our sabre along with its women and children. I have just buried it in the swamps and woods of Savenay. I have crushed the children under the hooves of our horses, massacred the women — they, at least, will not give birth to any more brigands. I have not even one prisoner to reproach myself for. I have exterminated everyone. . . . We take no prisoners, for we would have to give them the bread of liberty, and pity is not revolutionary.” A few months later, Westermann was to be executed with the Dantonists, blackened with the name of “The Indulgents.” Shortly before the insurrection of 10 August 1792, an officer of the Swiss Guards, the last remaining defenders of the person of the monarch, wrote a letter sincerely expressing the sentiments of his comrades: “All of us have said that if any harm came to the king, and there were not at least 600 red coats lying at the foot of the king’s stairway, we would be dishonoured.” A little more than 600 guards were finally killed when the same Westermann who had first tried to neutralize the soldiers, by advancing alone among them on the king’s stairway and speaking to them in German, understood that there was nothing left to do but launch the attack.
In the Vendée, which still fought on, a Song to Rally the Chouans in the Event of a Rout declared just as stubbornly: “We have only one life to live,/we owe it to honour./That’s the flag we must follow. . . .” During the Mexican Revolution, Francisco Villa’s partisans sang: “Of that famous Northern Division,/only a few of us are left now,/still crossing the mountains,/finding someone to fight wherever we go.” And the American volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade sang in 1937: “There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama/It’s a place that we all know too well,/For ’tis there that we wasted our manhood/And most of our old age as well.” A song of the Germans in the Foreign legion rendered a more detached melancholy: “Anne-Marie, where in the world are you going?/I’m going to town where the soldiers are.” Montaigne had his quotations; I have mine. A past marks soldiers, but no future. That is why their songs can touch us.
Pierre Mac Orlan, in Villes, recalled the attack on Bouchavesne, which was entrusted to yonug hoodlums serving in the French army, assigned by law to the African light-infantry battalions: “On the road to Bapaume, not far from Bouchavesne, where the Joyeux redeemed their sins in a few hours, climbing up a mound, the mound of the Berlingots Woods, one caught sight of Picardy and its torn dress.” On the opposing slopes of the sentence, with a skilful awkwardness, which this mound overhangs, one recognizes memory and its superimposed meanings.
Herodotus reports that at the pass of Thermopylae, where the troops led by Leonidas were annihilated at the end of their useful holding action, next to the inscriptions that evoke the hopeless combat of “Four thousand men from the Peloponnesus” and the Three Hundred who had it said in Sparta that they lie there, “obedient to its orders,” the seer Megistias is honoured with a special epitaph: “As a seer, he knew that death was near — but he refused to leave the Spartan leader.” One does not have to be a seer to know that there is no position so good that it cannot be outflanked by much superior forces; it can even be overwhelmed by a frontal attack. But in certain cases it is good to be indifferent to this sort of knowledge. The world of war presents at least the advantage of not leaving room for the silly chatter of optimism. It is common knowledge that in the end everyone is going to die. No matter how fine defence may be in everything else, as Pascal more or less put it, “the last act is bloody.”
What discovery could still be expected in this domain? The telegram sent by the King of Prussia to Queen Augusta, on the eve of the Battle of Saint-Privat, sums up most wars: “The troops performed prodigies of valour against an equally brave enemy.” Everyone knows the brief text of the order, briskly relayed by an officer, which sent the Light Brigade to its death on 25 October 1854, at Balaclava: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front — follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. . . .” It is true that the writing is a little imprecise; but no matter what anyone has said, it is no more obscure or erroneous than a multitude of plans and orders that have directed historic undertakings to their uncertain ends or inevitably dire outcomes. It is amusing to see what superior airs journalistic and academic thinkers put on when it comes to giving their opinions on what had been military operations. Since the result is known, they need at least one victory in the field to refrain from harsh mockery; and so they limit themselves to observations on the excessive price in blood and the relative limits of the success achieved, compared to others that, according to them, were possible that very day by going about it more intelligently. These thinkers have always listened with a great deal of respect to the worst visionaries of technology and all the chimeras of the economy, without even thinking of examining the results.
Masséna was fifty-seven years old when he said that command wears one out, as he spoke before his staff when he had been charged with conducting the conquest of Portugal: “You don’t live twice in our profession, no more so than on this earth.” Time does not wait. One does not defend Genoa twice; no one has twice roused Paris to revolt. Xerxes, as his great army was crossing the Hellespont, formulated in perhaps just one sentence the first axiom at the base of all strategic thought, when he explained his tears by saying: “I was thinking about the extreme brevity of men’s lives, for of the multitude before our eyes, not one man will still be alive in a hundred years.”
“But if these Memoirs ever see the light of day, I have no doubt that they will incite a prodigious revolt . . . and as in the times in which I wrote, especially most recently, everything tended towards decadence, confusion, chaos, which have only grown in the meantime, and since these Memoirs exude nothing but order, rule, truth, fixed principles, and expose everything that is to the contrary, which increasingly rules over the most ignorant and with the greatest possible authority, then the revulsion against this truthful mirror ought to be general.”
A DESCRIPTION OF The Rural Life of England, which Howitt published in 1840, exhibited a no doubt excessively generalized satisfaction in concluding that every man who has a feeling for the pleasures of existence should thank Heaven for having let him live in such a country at such a time. But, on the contrary, our era dares not render too emphatically, with regard to the life that is lived now, the general disgust and the beginnings of terror that are felt in so many areas. They are felt, but never expressed before bloody revolts. The reasons for this are simple. The pleasures of existence have recently been redefined in an authoritarian way — first in their priorities, and then in their entire substance. And these authorities who redefined them could just as well decide at any moment, without having to burden themselves with any other consideration, which modification could be most lucratively introduced into the techniques of their manufacture, completely liberated from the need to please. For the first time, the same people are the masters of everything that is done and of everything that is said about it. And so Madness “hath builded her house . . . on the highest places of the city.”
The only thing proposed to people who did not enjoy so indisputable and universal a competence was to submit, without adding the least critical remark, on this question of their sense of the pleasures of existence — as they had already elected representatives of their submission everywhere else. And they have shown, in letting themselves be relieved to these trivialities, which they have been told are unworthy of their attention, the same geniality of which they had already given proof by watching, from a greater distance, life’s remaining glories slip away. When “to be absolutely modern” has become a special law decreed by a tyrant, what the honest slave fears more than anything is that he might be suspected of being behind the times.
Men more knowledgeable than I have explained very well the origin of what has come to pass: “Exchange-value could have formed only as an agent of use-value, but its victory by force of its own arms has created the conditions for its autonomous rule. Mobilizing all human use and seizing the monopoly on satisfaction, it has ended up directing use. The process of exchange became identified with all possible use and has reduced it to its will. Exchange-value is the condottiere of use-value, which finishes by waging war for its own advantage.”
“Le monde n’est qu’abusion” [The world is only deception], Villon summarized in one octosyllable. (It is an octosyllable, even though nowadays a college graduate would probably know how to recognize only six syllables in this line.) The general decadence is a means in the service of the empire of servitude, and it is only as this means that it is permitted to be called progress.
It should be known that servitude henceforth truly wants to be loved for itself, and no longer because it would bring some extrinsic advantage. Previously, it could pass for a protection; but it no longer protects anything. Servitude does not try to justify itself now by claiming to have conserved, anywhere at all, a charm that would be anything other than the sole pleasure of knowing it.
I will speak later of how certain phases of another, not very well-known war unfolded: between the general tendency of social domination in this era and that which, despite everything, has been able to come and disrupt it, as one knows.
Although I am a remarkable example of what this era did not want, knowing what it has wanted does not seem enough to me to establish my excellence. Swift says, with a great deal of truthfulness, in the first chapter of his History of the Four Last Years of the Queen: “Neither shall I mingle Panegyrick or satire with an history intended to inform posterity, as well as to instruct those of the present age, who may be ignorant or misled; since facts, truly related, are the best applauses, or most lasting reproaches.” No one has known better than Shakespeare how life passes. He finds that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Calderón came to the same conclusion. I am at least assured, by the preceding, of having been successful in conveying the elements that will suffice to make abundantly clear, so that no sort of mystery or illusion might remain, all that I am.
Here the author ends his true history: forgive him his faults.
Guy Debord (July 1989)
Translated by James Brook. Verso, London, 1991