vendredi 8 août 2014

Courtier & General.

Joseph Koudelka, Le regard d'Ulysse, 1994.

What had changed most definitively for Debord was not the possibility, or the need, for revolution but the fact that the idea of a collective enterprise had collapsed. Other forms of organizing and promulgating subversive activity had therefore to be found. It seemed, in the first instance, that the best way to channel this impulse was through Champ Libre itself, to which Lebovici seemingly offered a free hand to Debord as 'literary director'.

Although he assumed this role, Debord also preferred to keep himself at some distance both from the day-to-day running of the group and the authors themselves. Debord had long since believed in the importance of invisibility and invisible agitation as a key Situationist technique and principle (the terrifying events in Italy, in the wake of the Piazza Fontana bombing, had convincingly borne this theory out) and he saw his position as a way of furthering what Alexander Trocchi, now long disappeared from view, has called 'the invisible insurrection'.

Amongst the books which Debord was reading in Florence and in Paris were Baltasar Gracian and Baldassare Castiglione as well as, inevitably, Machiavelli. The importance of these books was that they offered social, philosophical and political theories which not only sought to provide a model of cultivated behaviour but also, no less importantly, an ideal of action and interaction which formed the basis of the model Renaissance society. Debord found here parallels with his own previous experimental notion of the Situationist International as a micro-society; in these texts he discovered a way of preserving the notion of micro-society which was defined less by its collective decision-making process but rather by forms of individual behaviour. Friendship, honour, and the practical uses of the classical ideals of reason and self-knowledge were now becoming central to Debord's thought, behaviour and ultimately his writings.

In Castiglione, Debord found justification for his emphasis on activity and writing which engaged directly with its time, but also looked beyond, to future readers who had not been born yet but who might find in his texts a constitution of philosophical ideas closely linked to the comple demands of real life. Castiglione's most important work was his book Il libro del Cortigiano ('The Book of the Courtier') written in 1528. This was translated into French in 1850 by Gabriel Chappuis and republished by Champ Libre in 1987 (it was also translated into English by Sir Thomad Holby, and apparently read by Shakespeare, as The Courtier). This book was not only a treatise on how to be a perfect courtier ('known for all men as someone who is excellent,' writes Castiglione) but also a historically accurate and detailed account of life at the court of Urbino, the representation of a perfect city-state. The perfect courtier, according to Castiglione, is one who is able to bring together military and literary skills and use them with equal facility. Most importantly for Debord, Castiglione is concerned with the individual and his action, rather than with society as a collective whole. In this sense Debord's reading of Castiglione marks a decisive shift in his thinking away from social analysis and towards an individualistic theory of behaviour. It was also important for Debord that Castiglione argues against the false idealism of the Christian doctrine, stating that all moral judgements are both subjective and reversible ('Truth it is, many things seeme at the first sight good, which are ill: and many ill, that notwithstanding are good'). Most crucially, the book celebrates a perfect age based on a political philosophy which gives equal importance to the full measured enjoyment of the material aspects of life as well as theory or speculative thought.

Baltasar Gracian, writing a hundred years or so after Castiglione, offers a vision of the world which is slightly darker that that of his predecessor, probably the result of his education at the hands of Castilian Jesuit priests and his early career as a writer of chronicles in Zaragoza and Madrid. For this reason he is often quoted as an influence on Schopenhauer. For Debord, Gracian's most important work was El oraculo manual y arte de prudencia, which was translated into French by Amelot de Houssaie in 1684 (and reissued by Champ Libre in 1972) as L'Homme de Cour, or The Courtier. In this book Gracian presents 300 maxims which aim to instruct in the proper ways of conduct those who live alongside princes and men of power. Gracian emphasises above all the specifically Spanish qualities of desengano and agudeza. The first of these is to be translated as 'disillusion', but to be understood as a refusal to be fooled by the world and its appearance. The second, agudeza, is a term most often used in relation to the conceptista poetry of Gongora and Gracian himself. The term conceptista is generally understoof in Spanish as meaning 'witty, allusive or involved' and conceptista poetry is distinguished by an extreme for of concision, lack of similes and an essentially medieval approach in which the poet established an occult relationship with the universe.

What mattered most for Debord in the writings of Castiglione and Gracian was that they defined rules of moral and political action in a society which had not yet lost the sense of itself as a unified entity and in which the individual could therefore still influence great events. So, although the turn to an individualistic philosophy seemed a retreat, and to this extent was symptomatic of the introspective mood of the post-68 Left in the 1970s, it was also however, at least on Debord's own terms, a way of seeking to clarify present and future strategy in 'the society of the spectacly' in which the individual had been reduced to a mere spectator.


The architecture of the Auvergne reflects both the uncompromising landscape, of extinct volcanoes, inacessible ravines and grassy upland hills, and its political instability. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Auvergne lost its reputation as a land of brigands, insurrectionists, and anti-monarchist agitation. Many houses were constructed as a defense against roaming bands and private armies as well as the elements. The weather changed constantly and almost instantaneously from calm to wild and savage storms. The house of Champot seemed at times under siege from the elements, a factor which made the house feel like a fortress. This provided the perfect metaphor for the way in which Debord, the retired revolutionary general, was now beginning to conceive of himself and his relation to the outside world.


During the long winter days and nights in Le Minour, when there were no guests or they were exhausted from conversation and entertaining, Guy and Alice spent many hours drinking and playing war games. Games of strategy had always fascinated Debord; it was an interest which long preceded his discovery of Johan Huizinga and could indeed be traced back to childhood when, to escape Manou, his mother or his siblings, he would retreat to the back of the house in Cannes and obsessively plan campaigns with his lead soldiers. In 1975, in a second-hand shop in Paris, Debord had come across and old ware game which he had renovated. A brass plate, made by René Viénet, was attached to the side of the game. It read: 'Kriegspiel Clausewitz Debord'.

The rules of the 'game of war' were entirely based on the theories of Clausewitz and on the basis of eighteenth-century warfare, that is to say wars which were fought across territories not yet fully defined by nationhood or empire. Each territory in the game was divided into arsenals, fortresses, a mountain pass and nine mountains, which were untraversable, blocking fire and communications. The aim was the complete destruction of the military potential of the adversary, to be achieved by destroying all combat units or taking all the enemy's arsenals.

In this the game was also faithful to Huizinga's notion, for so long a central part of Situationist strategy, that the essence of war is also the essence of art. As in art, it is the lightning strike of the bold gesture, unpredicted and unpredictable, which is most likely to destroy an enemy's positions and clear the field for new manoeuvres. The war game was also most poignant, as Debord was assuming a new status as a thinker rather than a revolutionary participant in his age, a poetic suspension of the passage of time as in the poetry of Mallarmé or the paintings of Malevitch. 'In the unfolding of this Kriegspiel,' Debord wrote, 'all time is equal: the solstice of war where the climate never varies and night never falls before the invitable conclusion of the conflict'.

Andrew Hussey, The Game of War, Jonathan Cape, 2001 (various excerpts).

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