Translator's introduction to on-line edition of Guy Debord's letters, 1957-1994

Translator's introduction to on-line edition of Guy Debord's letters 1957 to 1994

Submitted by BNB on June 30, 2009

To Guy Debord in Hell
(please forward if necessary)

"Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than the majority of people who write, but I have drunk more than the majority of people who drink." -- Guy Debord, Panegyric (1989)

"Where's my mail? Who's fucking with my mail?" -- The Lone Ranger, in Lenny Bruce's posthumous film short, Thank You Mask Man (1968)

In the 20 years since Panegyric was published, it has come out that the renowned French acrobat Guy Debord wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime (1931-1994). On average, he seems to have written a letter every day for more than 40 years! Avoiding telephones -- not only because they could be bugged, but also because he found conversations on them to be intolerably impersonal -- Debord used letters (and postcards and telegrams) to organize all kinds of conferences, exhibitions, and interventions; to receive and critique submissions to Internationale Situationniste; to write and distribute draft versions of declarations to be signed by the Situationist International; to distribute clandestine texts in foreign countries; to review books written by friends and offer proofreader's corrections to existing books or manuscripts that had been submitted to Editions Champ Libre; and to offer sketches of letters, statements or articles that would later be completed by other writers. He also relied upon letters to make arrangements to meet friends or newcomers for a "casual" drink or dinner; to gossip about friends or enemies; to renew old friendships; and to tell certain people to fuck off. In other words, he used the postal system the way today's writers and publishers use email: on a daily basis, and to do virtually everything.

An extraordinarily meticulous man, Debord made a carbon copy of each of his letters, which were typically hand-written and had to be typed up by someone else. Debord typed very poorly and disliked using a machine to write. (When computers "arrived" in the 1980s, Debord hated them and certainly wouldn't use one to write anything.) These carbon copies were collected and organized into files, which were stored and transported en bloc when necessary. Debord was quite certain of the "historical" character of his life, but he also wanted to be able to recall what had been said, when, to whom, despite his drinking. In sum, Guy Debord -- heretofore known as a great writer of a modest number of books, essays and pamphlets, and a pioneering cinematographer (a "writer of films") -- wrote more letters than the majority of the people who write letters. Drink to it!

Virtually none of these letters were published in his lifetime; only a few of them were reproduced, circulated to and discussed by people other than the original addressees.[1] Today, fifteen years after Debord's death (a suicide), most of his letters have been collected and published in well-designed, chronologically ordered volumes. Undertaken in 1999 by Librairie Artheme Fayard, the series entitled Guy Debord Correspondance has included seven volumes so far and claims to have covered the years 1957 to 1994. It is said one more volume in this series is to yet to come. In addition to providing an index to the entire series, Volume 8 of Guy Debord Correspondance will apparently cover the years 1954 to 1957, which Fayard partially mined in 2004, when it published Marquis de Sade a des yeux de fille. A collection of facsimiles of some of the letters Debord wrote between 1949 and 1954, Marquis de Sade has apparently gone out of print. Perhaps it will be "reprinted" in Volume 8. If so, we will have Debord's letters from either 1949 or 1954 all the way to the end, 30 November 1994.

After five years of translating hundreds of the letters that Guy Debord wrote between 1957 and 1994, I have come to visualize a day in his life in the following manner: drinking, reading, eating, going for a stroll, drinking some more, writing and waiting for the mailman. No matter where he was -- in France or living in another country, in the city or in the countryside -- Guy Debord was waiting for the day's mail, that is to say, to read the responses to his responses to other people's remarks. The usefulness, the regularity and even the novelty of the postal system never seemed to wear off. In several of his letters, but mostly strikingly in those written in 1994, the last year of his life, we encounter something like this: "Write to me at this address, because the mail follows me wherever I go." The temptation is irresistible: Hey, Guy! Are you getting your mail down there?

Despite its grand appearance or our fondest hopes, Guy Debord Correspondance has not been "complete," and will not be "complete," even after the publication of the Volume 8, which, according to Ken Knabb, will "also include various letters that were discovered too late to be included in the above volumes." There have been serious and systematic omissions, right from the start. None of the untold numbers of letters addressed to Guy Debord, by untold numbers of people, have been included. Furthermore, and for one reason or another, none of Debord's letters to the situationist Jacqueline de Jong, his one-time girlfriend Michele Mochot-Brehat, and his ex-wives (the situationist Michele Bernstein and Alice Becker-Ho) have been included. A cynical, but still unsatisfied buyer might ask: Will there be a separate volume entitled "Guy Debord, Love Letters"?[2]

While it is true that either "Alice Debord" (Alice Becker-Ho) or someone at Fayard (Patrick Mosconi?) has consistently provided summaries of the major events of each year, as well as explanatory footnotes, both have been kept very brief, and seem to have been added "only when necessary." In any case, they rarely quote from or even summarize the letters that have sent to Debord and to which he is always already responding. As a result, quite unnecessarily, and to the incalculable detriment of both contemporary understanding and the research of future historians, some passages in a few fairly crucial letters are difficult, if not impossible to understand, and some letters can't be properly or fully contextualized. At the global level, a complex and rich network of back-and-forth dialogues (true correspondences) has been turned into a simple set of monologues (letters primarily addressed to posterity and only secondarily to particular people at particular moments in time).

Only Jean-Pierre Baudet, Jean-Francois Martos, and Michel Bounan have publicly denounced the Guy Debord Correspondance series and Alice Debord's role in it, in particular.[3] Almost everyone else in "the situ scene" hasn't been outraged; at the very least, they have managed to stay ignorant or silent about the whole affair. Perhaps they feel that Alice can do anything she wants to do,[4] and/or that "we" are lucky to have the letters that we have been given. Most translators -- Ken Knabb, Donald Nicholson-Smith, Stuart Kendall, John McKale, Keith Sanborn, et al -- have continued to work with Alice, that is to say, to help her capitalize on her ex-husband's assets: not only his "correspondence," but his lesser known books, his films, his film scripts, and his cabinet game, Kriegspiel or The Game of War. But they should not be condemned too harshly: it is quite true that they do not get paid, or get paid very little, while Alice keeps the lion's share of the money for herself, even or especially if its ultimate source is the French Ministry of Culture in Los Angeles, New York or London. The sums involved here are probably substantial.

Harsh condemnation is best reserved for Semiotext(e), which recently published a perfectly good translation of Fayard's already defective version of Volume I (1957-1960), but did so without even mentioning the existence of the on-going battle over the integrity of the Guy Debord Correspondance series as a whole. Of course Semiotext(e) didn't need to "announce" what position it was taking up on this particular battlefield. Its position spoke for itself: The prestige of publishing Debord more than compensates for the inadequacy of the money we are paid. And so Semiotext(e) must feign ignorance or keep quiet about the prestige-killing things Alice/Fayard have done to make the project happen in the first place: the ruthless suppression Jean-Francois Martos' volume of his personal correspondence to and from Guy Debord, which allegedly compromised the "completeness" of then-nonexistent Guy Debord Correspondance series; the aforementioned omissions (the most important women in Guy Debord's life, no less!); and the satisfaction of a requirement that "X" replace a certain person's name wherever it appeared in Volume 6 (1979-1988). Semiotext(e) isn't simply helping Alice make even more money for herself; they are helping her to cover her tracks or, rather, to erase the tracks of others, without even knowing why she is erasing these particular tracks and not others.[5] See no evil, speak no evil.

* * *

I have been reading Guy Debord's works since 1983. I like them. I learn a lot from them and enjoy them. I damn well know that he wasn't perfect, that he had his faults (in addition to the drinking), and that he was capable of saying stupid things, just like anyone else, especially in his "private" correspondence. I never met him nor thought to send him a letter, even though I have long published a "situationist" fanzine in which Debord is often mentioned. I have never met or corresponded with Alice Becker-Ho; I do not have anything "personal" against her. But it has pleased me, especially since the man's death, to do my best to keep straight and/or complete the historical record about Guy Debord, to fill in the "missing" pieces, and to make sure the context is clearly understood.

Since the "original" volumes of the seven-volume-long series Guy Debord Correspondance are themselves selections, and not the complete correspondence, I have not felt compelled to translate every single letter in each volume. I just translated the interesting ones, the good ones. There were a lot of them; between 10 and 30 per year. In each case, I preserved the original footnotes. When desirable, I provided new footnotes, all of them clearly noted. More importantly, I did not drop out or soften the impact of any passages that might be seen or construed as unflattering to its author or that might be "useful" to Debord's many detractors (they tend to be the people who write biographies of him, for some reason). I always chose to include these letters, completely unabridged. This is my Guy Debord, yes; but it is Guy Debord, warts and all.

I have placed these "unofficial" translations on-line, at my own expense, and have made them available for free, without asserting any copyrights or rights reserved. When I have received emails pointing out mistakes, I have made the proper corrections immediately. Provided my translator's notes are included and attributed to "NOT BORED," I am always pleased whenever I discover that someone somewhere has copy-and-pasted one or several of my translations to the internet. I have never received a cease-and-desist letter from either Alice Debord or Fayard, nor do I expect to. MIT Press? There'd be no point. Everyone knows that you just can't trust what you read on-line; you can only trust what's been printed in a book. Why? Books got a copyright symbol, an ISBN and a barcode, and what's on-line don't.

Bill Not Bored
29 June 2009

[1] Examples would include the Situationist International's orientation debate, which was largely conducted by mail between 1970 and 1971 (and collected and published by pirates in 1974); Guy Debord's letters to Afonso Monteiro, concerning Portugal and dated March 1975 and 15 November 1975; and Debod's letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti, concerning Aldo Moro and dated 21 April 1978.

[2] No doubt such a book would be veritably Sadean. "Sade was also recuperated to create the basis of the restricted section of the Bibliotheque nationale de France. Then why not Debord, yielded up in a bloc for the purposes of research?" Frederique Roussel wrote in the 17 June 2009 issue of Liberation.

[3] For Jean-Pierre Baudet, see Signed X (2007); for Jean-Francois Martos, see On the Interdiction of My Correspondence with Guy Debord (1999); and for Michel Bounan, see Editorial Politics (2000).

[4] So far, that has included 1) selling her ex-husband's letters through Fayard, which is owned by La Gardiere, one of the biggest arms-dealers and media-monopolists in the world; 2) selling his films through Gaumont, which one of the biggest corporate distributors in France; and 3) attempting to sell his entire archives -- which have been estimated to be worth approximately $2,340,000 -- to either Yale University or the Bibliotheque nationale de France (see news articles dated 14 June 2009, 17 June 2009 and 17 June 2009).

[5] For example: Jean-Pierre Baudet fell out of Debord's favor in 1988; and Jean-Francois Martos fell out of Debord's favor shortly thereafter because he questioned what happened to Baudet. They were thrown out of Debord's social circle. But this can't be taken as good reason to remove either of these men from the historical record of Debord's life. These were people who had known each other for years; while still close friends, they collaborated on texts together, properly "Debordian" texts -- Baudet's book about Chernobyl and his translation of Clausewitz into French; Martos's pamphlet on Poland and his History of the Situationist International; and especially their collective work, as a trio, on the critique of the Encyclopedia of Nuisances -- that, today, simply cannot be cut from the corpus without making the body bleed, or at least rot some more.