Friday, 24 February 2017

The Death Of Guy Debord (from fiction in progress)

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…

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The English (from a fiction in progress)

The English never get beyond their teenage glee at being able to drink. They go out in order to “get pissed”, and they “get pissed” in order to release pockets of emotion which, made ugly or maudlin by suppression, stink of mothballs or sour milk, and evaporate with first light.  The English hate anything which doesn’t return them to the prosaic and the everyday. Grand passions and intellectuals are automatically suspect. They live under the sign of Necessity: "What can you do?" they burble, "It's a funny old world". They permit themselves the sole freedom of mockery.  To a script written and edited by others, they make ironic additions in the margins. By deprecating their own existence and “not taking themselves too seriously,” they silently abstain from living. They relinquish control of their fate, placing it in the hands of a They about which they can cynically complain – "They are now saying butter is good for you, They’re saying it’s going to be the hottest summer for 400 years, They're introducing a new tax".. and so on.  The English vote without thinking it will make a difference, for only They are voting. Each English person thinks of their own vote as superfluous. Politically, the English are among the most passive in Europe if not the world; or, if they are roused to passion, it's to rail against foreign bodies that threaten the stolid familiarity of what exists. The English, with few exceptions, are a nation of sleepwalkers. 

The English may have a “good sense of humour” and a historic litany of  many comedians, satirists, ironists of the best mettle. Fine. But the forfeit they pay is intellectual castration. The critical impulse, the philosophical force of the Negative, which might once have fomented revolution or toppled the King, is instead turned on themselves, shrivelled  to mere carping and grumbling.  The regime’s faults are inevitable; such is the way of the world. Whereas the Gallic shrug says "who can tell?", the English shrug says "What can you do?" The former shrugs off the world to win a yard of freedom, the latter is an act of surrender. The laughter of the English is their measly consolation for a world beyond change. It is not the laughter of Joy, of surplus vitality, like a baby's laughter when it discovers a new trick, but the laughter of deficit, life’s perpetual deficit and defeat, life’s perpetual falling short.