An irrevocable brilliance: Guy Debord in the Landscape

c Luc Olivier

Debord’s house at Champot, (c) Luc Olivier

I have had no need to travel very far

In Guy Debord’s autobiography, Panegyric, he describes having spent the greater part of his life in Paris, specifically within the triangle defined by the intersections of rue Saint-Jacques and rue Royer-Collard; rue Saint-Martin and rue Greneta; and rue du Bac and rue de Commailles.

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Never or hardly ever, would I have left this area which suited me perfectly.

However, for the last 20 years of his life, Debord spent increasing amounts of time in an isolated house at Champot Haut, situated in Bellevue-la-Montagne, a commune (population c. 500) in the Haute-Loire département of the Auvergne. From 1975 onwards, Debord spent most summers and a few winters there with his second wife Alice Becker-Ho.

The idea of Debord as a Landscape writer is not one that would immediately spring to mind, yet over a few pages in Panegyric, Debord paints a lyrical elegy to the natural world and landscape of Champot.

.

Inaccessible • isolated • surrounded by woods

I have even stayed in an inaccessible house surrounded by woods,  far from any village, in an extremely barren, exhausted mountainous region, deep in a deserted Auvergne.   I spent several winters there.

snow • drifts • logs • fire

Snow would fall for days on end. The wind piled it up in drifts. Barriers kept it off the road. Despite the surrounding walls, snow accumulated in the courtyard. Logs were piled high on the fire.

at night • an opening to the Milky Way • stars so close

The house seemed to open directly onto the Milky Way. At night, the stars, so close, would shine brilliantly one moment, and the next be extinguished by the passing mist…

a land of storms • horizon flashes • under siege

It was a land of storms. They would approach silently 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 lighting would be unleashed, and we would be bombarded for a long while from every direction, as if in a fortress under siege.

a lightning strike • an illuminated landscape • an irrevocable brilliance

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 ever given me this impression of an irrevocable brilliance, except for the prose that Lautréamont employed in the programmatic exposition that he called Poésies…

high winds • shaken trees • relentless assault

High winds which at any moment could rise from one of three directions, shook the trees. The more dispersed trees on the heath to the north dipped and shook like ships surprised at anchor in an unprotected harbour. The compactly grouped trees that guarded the hillock in front of the house supported one another in their resistance, the first rank breaking the west wind’s relentless assault…

clouds traverse the sky • winds retreat • relaunch

Masses of 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.

all the birds • chill of air •  shades of green • tremulous light

On calm mornings, there were all the birds of the dawn and the perfect chill of air, and that dazzling shade of tender green that came over the trees, in the tremulous light of the sun rising before them…

the arrival of autumn • a sweetness in the air • ‘the first breath of spring’

The weeks went by imperceptibly. One day the morning air would announce the arrival of autumn. Another time, a great sweetness in the air, a sweetness you could taste, would declare itself, like a quick promise always kept, ‘the first breath of spring.’

in the square • extraordinary encounters • the owl of Minerva 

In the midwinter nights of 1988, in the Square des Missions Étrangères, an owl would obstinately repeat his calls, fooled perhaps by the unseasonal weather. And this extraordinary series of encounters with the bird of Minerva, its atmosphere 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 ever understood where my life could have been different or how it ought to be justified.

a pleasing and impressive solitude

It was a pleasing and impressive solitude. But to tell the truth, I was not alone: I was with Alice.

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The Debord/Becker-Ho postbox at Champot (c) Andy Merrifield

At Champot, on 30th November 1994, Guy Debord shot himself through the heart with a single bullet.

Now playing: Jean-Claude Eloy – Chants pour l’autre moitié du ciel / Songs for the other half of the sky.

References:

Guy Debord, Panegyric Volumes 1 & 2, translated by James Brook and John McHale (London: Verso, 2004).

Andy Merrifield, Guy Debord (London: Reaktion Books, 2005).

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11 Responses to An irrevocable brilliance: Guy Debord in the Landscape

  1. blackdrop says:

    I had no idea! Must pick up Panegyric..

  2. Ian Hill says:

    As ever, brilliant, intriguing and stimulating. I know very little about Debord and the work of the SI, but this offers a whole new perspective; it has burned in my mind since reading it a few days ago. Your middle section, with extracts from his writings, I see as a series of abstract, letterpressed fragments, like the way landscape is remembered long after the event. Thanks once again.

    Ian

    • Thanks Ian. I don’t think that many people would think of Debord even being in a rural location, far less him writing about it. Panegyric is actually a very short book and I can’t even recall him mentioning the SI explicity! Clearly his time(s) at Champot meant something to him. There is another quotation at the beginning of the book:

      “My method will be very simple. I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”

      And very good to see that The Printed Land has a new piece on it. Best wishes.

  3. aubrey says:

    “a wind that slithered through the grass”

    I think that when one sees all things as living, possessing qualities that are animate and full of movement, one is born to be a landscape writer.

  4. Fascinating article as I never knew about Debord’s life and writing of landscape. Evokes what little I know about the Auvergne region.

  5. Jeff says:

    Unexpectedly, the early lines here describe the farmhouse scene near the end of the film The Bourne Identity. I wonder if Debord was a Ludlum reader? 😉

  6. Jeff says:

    Actually, yes, it looks like the plot to the film differs somewhat from the novel. My suggestion that Debord read Ludlum was admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek! It’s more probably the way around that you suggest. Up to the word ‘relaunch’, the headings read like scene direction in the film’s script. I’m afraid the scene’s not on YouTube. Don’t know as I’d recommend watching the film for the sake of it. There is a suicide in it though, and Bourne traverses Paris a lot while figuring out who he is.

  7. Maureen Murphy says:

    So evocative but so sad. Did Debord suffer from depression?

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