Paris in the ’50s


There is more and more to say about Guy Debord; one can scarcely walk through the bohemian district of the bookstore without toppling a stack of biographies and gossip. Perhaps it’s an apology for not noticing in a timely fashion how incisive was his description of daily life, political domination, and their entwined fate. Perhaps it’s simply an attempt to skim some cash off the widening Situationist cult. Either way, it’s good that Debord occasionally gets to speak for himself.

Semi-memoir Panegyric opens, “All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have taken part in these troubles.”

This is Debord in a shot glass: serenely high stakes, resignedly delighting in what he would elsewhere call “the work of the negative,” buoyed by an incomparable command of classical rhetoric. It’s Proust’s “For a long time, I went to bed early,” with time, that wayward and sensual substance, returned to history, the nightmare from which Debord wished to awaken as urgently as any habitué of the 20th century.

“Such circumstances would doubtless suffice to prevent the most transparent of my acts or thoughts from ever being universally approved. But,” he continues, “I do believe, several of them may have been misunderstood.” That’s Debord too, defensive ruffian who can’t stop smoothing his imago. Just as well. Otherwise it’ll be burnished for him until his howlings are just another gold record in the Rebel Yell hit parade. And so, rather than go down as someone who happened to find himself in the Sorbonne’s 1968 occupation a year after publishing Society of the Spectacle to minimal acclaim, Debord would rather devote a chapter of his final book to booze. “I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” The latter claim, at least, seems true; I am happy to report Debord has made more of it than, say, Charles Bukowski. “Very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkenness, once that stage is past: a terrible and magnificent peace, the true taste of the passage of time.” Said flavor flits through this newly fancified reissue and that’s plenty, amid the blurry photographs and hokum about a burnt archive that comprises the “new” material (the old material can be found freely at , It’s no surprise that the great thinker of symbol management knew his way around a sentence; in the best of worlds, the pleasure of reading would be a kind of awakening.

John Ashbery may find himself in the same review with Guy Debord as an umbrella finds itself on a dissecting table with a sewing machine; at best, we can place them both in Paris in 1955, one lurching down Rue Lacenaire, the other lunching with Giacometti. There is less and less to say about Ashbery, as with the pyramids. There he stands: astonishing, irrefutable, and inexhaustible. Nonetheless it seems certain more will be said, even while he remains alive and implausibly productive. His advantage over the pyramids is that he occasionally makes one look elsewhere. This volume forms a triptych with Other Traditions and Reported Sightings in gathering his prose; one reads as much for the easy delight of Ashbery’s mind-motion as the education in 20th-century aesthetic traditions, with a slant toward the French and avant-garde; Pound’s ABCs of Reading but disemboweled, i.e., without the asshole.

Ashbery’s prose shares the peculiar friendliness of his poetry, yet remains at once less personal and more direct. He sojourned as a Raymond Roussel scholar, and the related pieces are among the loveliest, as are his defenses of Bishop, Berrigan, and Jacques Rivette. It’s not clear if they need defending now; then one arrives at all-but- unknown John Wheelwright, “a sophisticated, aristocratic Marxist writing way-out poetry in Boston in the thirties,” whose early death Ashbery ranks as “the biggest secret loss to American poetry” until that of his friend Frank O’Hara—about whom he is unfailingly eloquent, even when ribbing O’Hara’s “Parisian artiness.” It’s anxiety of influence as real sweetness.

If he’s occasionally off the mark in opinion, it’s less often and better put than the rest of us; I’d rather read Ashbery’s undervaluing of Witold Gombrowicz than some contemporary’s rave. “One waits to see more of Gombrowicz,” he wrote, “if he is not on the present evidence a very satisfying novelist, he is at least not an easy one.” This was something one could say in the
Times Sunday Book Review, in 1967.

On occasion, Ashbery broaches his own poetics; for many this will be the sparkle. There’s a hilarious gem in his banter-as-interview with Kenneth Koch, wherein he proffers his poems as “just a bunch of impressions.” If there were hidden meanings, after all, “someone might find them out and then the poem would no longer be mysterious.” On such simplicities is literary history diverted. In a talk on the New York School (a brand name for which he has little patience) he makes some rather odd claims in a plain manner: “New York is really an anti-place, an abstract climate.” This is a fine account not of the city but of Ashbery’s own unmistakable, unlocatable metropolism. That’s in March 1968; the centrifuge of modernity is becoming a tilt-a-whirl. “Our program is the absence of any program,” he notes, the kind of simple slogan made for painting on the walls of the university.