Of Carvell and myself, I can say that it is (or was) one of those friendships whose star, long after the friendship has ended (as may already have happened in the case of Carvell and I) continues to glimmer and sometimes to shine.
We'd sit in the Senior Common Room, long after everyone else had gone, playing chess and talking, until the morning sun told us it was time to sleep. I sometimes wish that a secret agent had recorded those conversations, and delivered them to me years later so that, like Beckett's Krapp, I could play them back and smile, and marvel at who I was once was, at who we once were.
Carvell was working on the militant and philosopher Guy Debord. I now see that Carvell "identified" with Debord, which is to say he made him into a kind of Idol or Double, an avatar whose fortunes were linked to his, whose successes and failures he somehow shared. For Carvell, Debord was the name of a path and a destination, but also a map - of how to live in an "alienated world", as Carvell called it, wherein "everyday life is opaque and unbreathable" (as he said to me once on Broad street, overtired and smelling faintly of urine). Debord, Carvell told me, was a man who never worked and somehow lived by writing and by other activities forever covert, all of which was, for a time, true of Carvell. And yet, Debord, Carvell's idol, was also a proud alcoholic, forever chasing the "last drink", the lip of darkness, who only managed to squeeze out a single book of note, albeit one which, according to Carvell, names, with exactitude and justice, the historical epoch in which we live as no other book has: an epoch of spectatorship, a life lived in the shadow of signs and signifiers but never quite touching the thing itself, a population mesmerised and held captive by images.
Conquered by drink, the later Debord resembled nothing so much as the later Behan, or the middle period Hawking, a crestfallen sac emptied of its former eloquence, baffled by existence and sunk in wordless nostalgia. This image, of ruin and self-sabotage, I suspected, was the secret attraction of Debord for Carvell. For I always thought that Carvell would end up similarly capsized. But, utterly to my surprise and disappointment, he married - he who seemed most capable of resistance, most resolute in his convictions. And yet, I am sure that he would still be ‘single’ (except no one ever is) today were it not for what happened in 1994, one afternoon in November.
Carvell called me from a phone booth somewhere in London, for he made frequent visits there - using a stolen bus pass - to see films at the ICA. I was in the common room drinking a cup of coffee from the big vat they placed near the door after lunch. Disgusting stuff, actually and I’m not sure why I drank it. A call came through and the Russian Agronomist picked up, summoning me over. I had no idea who it might be, and was very surprised to hear Carvell’s voice. "Have you heard the news!" he asked, in a tone that suggested the destruction by fire of the Bodlean library or possibly the outbreak of war. "Debord has killed himself." In his remote house in Champot, in a blizzard, utterly estranged from all the world, he’d taken his own life. Carvell was stunned, intercepted by darkness. His double had died, and just as some children, when a parent commits suicide, interpret this as a message addressed to them, of the kind “Sorry, you weren’t enough,” or “I chose death over you,” so did Carvell seem to take this very personally, stumbling through the winter streets let down and unloved.
It is fair to say that the death of Debord was an event not just in the remote village of Champot where the suicide took place, but also in the remotest provinces of Carvell’s body and mind, wherein some crystal of light and faith was shattered and a portion of soul escaped through the broken panes of his eyes. Carvell thereafter was not the same man as the Carvell before, such that the name "Carvell" is now the sole filament connecting, and lending fake continuity to, the two very different incarnations
It was a remarkable coincidence that less than a year later my own beloved philosopher, Gilles Deleuze would similarly end his own life, although for very different reasons I think. But at that point I had scarcely heard of Deleuze and, not being similarly invested, as Carvell was in Debord, I was insured against the same psychological damage which had been inflicted on my friend. I was not protected, however, against what attacked me from another source entirely…