from Guy Debord

To Jaime Semprun
1 July 1986
Dear Jaime:

Your preface[1] is excellent. I find less droll the reception of Floriana [Lebovici], as if she truly proposed to contradict by repetition my famous letter of December '76[2] (I have nevertheless not pushed scruples as far as not reading the text).

I observe three trifles:

Would it not be better to say, "another catastrophe, American, I. . ." (that is to say, to suppress a comma)?

Would it not be better to say, "Thus I only fear that its merits were not proven. . ."? This follows the manner that you chose for the same question in the text (cf. my preceding letter[3]).

Is it not better to date the preface "September 1986" rather than June, if the book is going to appear in September?

When the Encyclopedia [of Nuisances] returns to the inexhaustible [subject of] Chernobyl, you can utilize the following charming quotation from [Jonathan] Swift: "A man would have but few spectators if he offered to show for threepence how he could thrust a red-hot iron into a barrel of gunpowder, and it should not take fire."[4]

One sees the progress of irrationality in science over the course of less than three centuries, because there are now many spectators and they are quite satisfied with the resounding promises of the E.D.F.[5] If Swift's time had not been so barbaric, each person would have spontaneously adhered to the reasoning of the Flow-Regulator,[6] which [in the following manner] would have quickly dissipated this superstitious psychosis, which is the enemy of all novelty.

A -- It is not scientific to speak of what one is ignorant of, and moreover no one -- having found themselves at least thirty meters from an exploding barrel of gunpowder -- has ever said anything on the subject.

B -- By playing on the word "gunpowder," one evokes the old terror of battle, whereas in this case the cannon is completely absent.

C -- For any individual who stays within a radius of 1,200 or more meters, the sound effects of the explosion are simply comparable to the crackling of fireworks of average power.

D -- AIDS kills many more people and does not prevent anyone from smoking or drinking to excess.

E -- The modern spectator handles neither iron nor gunpowder, but plastic and the ballot box. It is civil to leave to very competent scholars, who thus receive a salary, to judge what will happen in all of the domains that one must ignore so completely.

F -- It is necessary to learn to live with the gunpowder.

G -- The human error of manipulation cannot prove anything against the superhuman beauty of the principle.

H -- Despite the cabal of the envious, it is quite necessary to know that a sum of threepence is a very competitive price.

The quotation does not come from the rather incomplete "Pleiades," but from the paradoxically excellent 1959 paperback edition of Swift called Directions to Servants, etc. It is part of Swift's contribution to a kind of game with [Alexander] Pope.

We listen to [John] Coltrane[7] almost every morning. But the charm of this music does not make me regret having proclaimed the firm determination to never realize Of Spain.[8] This Stendhalian title would have constituted my true masterpiece, fully accomplishing my most profound tendency, which was less obviously present in all my artistic rough sketches (a rather negative tendency, I must say). And the subject accords itself well with the necessary form of my art! As one practically says in The Poet Assassinated,[9] when the bird of Benin made a hollow in the statue of the poet before it fell to the ground: I would have made an empty statue to Spain, a profound statue of nothing. What would be a more beautiful homage?

We hope to see you here in August. Best wishes,

P.S. Naturally, one says Chan-Po (id est "Splintering Mountain" [Eclatante Montagne]), as one says T'ai-Po (Li), which -- given the quality of his work -- means "Great Peal" [Grand Eclat]. "So much astonishing lack of culture," says the letter with respect to an individual who -- to the question "Who resolved what?" -- does not know to respond that it was Judge Ti who resolved the mystery of the bell.

One also says Chan-Po Ho, from the name of the very noble family (one of the Hundred Old Names) that claimed to have resided there, without notable interruption, for five thousand fives, but some people advance the more picturesque explication that this would euphonically render the barbarous sound of Upper Champot.[10]

Note in the style of J.-P. Brisset[11] on the resources of Chinese poetry

I have previously revealed the etymology of Chan-Po Ho. This toponymy can be understood as meaning: the splintering mountain of the "How?" that can be taken as massive praise for cumulative, scientific thought, and for the technique that has brought us so deftly, and without any slackening, from the Cro-Magnon to Chernobyl. But one can also recognize in it a fine derision of the vanity of all enterprise (cf. the expression "to make a mountain" [of a molehill] or the allusion to the poem that evokes the fruit of the childbirth of a mountain). One knows the importance of the theme of the mountain in Taoist thought and in the everyday life that it inspires. On the other hand, "the splinter" is a term charged with ambivalence, between the admirable and the catastrophic: "And as she has the splinter of the glass / She has fragility."

Finally, Ho is the Cantonese pronunciation of the concept that one says in Pekin He. Thus Po He can be, as Marx is Ma Que Sse, a transcription of the name Edgar Poe and the (volcanic) mountain his well-merited monument: "Calm block fallen here-below from an obscure disaster."[12]

In this case, we note the pertinence of Mallarmean, analogical knowledge: it is "this granite" that forever must show its landmark to the black flocks [vols] of blasphemy scattered in the future. And exactly where is this granite, if not in Brittany or hereabouts?

This last word [icicaille], a subtle homage to the argot of [Francois] Villon (which suffices to make us see the volcanoes under "the snows of yesteryear"), is one of the traits by which a commentator on Chinese poetry shows that he is not anybody, thrilling the reader and attracting his glance towards other summits (often plagiarized in Japanese iconography).[13]

[1] Translator's note: to The Nuclearization of the World, originally published in 1980 by Editions de l'assomoir, and reprinted in 1986 by Editions Gerard Lebovici.

[2] See letter dated 26 December 1976.

[3] Translator's note: letter dated 23 June 1986.

[4] Translator's note: rather than translate Debord's Swift back into English, we have quoted directly from the original: "Thoughts on Various Subjects" (1727).

[5] Translator's note: Electricite de France, the state-run power authority.

[6] Inspired by "reasoning of the cauldron" (there is a part in piping conduits that regulates the flow of energy under pressure). [Translator's note: the phrase "reasoning of the cauldron" comes from Sigmund Freud's analysis of a particular dream in The Interpretation of Dreams. Such "reasoning" goes as follows: "The defendant asserted first that he had given [the cauldron] back undamaged; secondly, that the kettle had a hole in it when he borrowed it; and thirdly that he had never borrowed a kettle from his neighbor at all."]

[7] Ole, offered by Jaime Semprun.

[8] Translator's note: in 1982, Debord planned to make such a film, but decided against it when his film producer and friend, Gerard Lebovici, was murdered on 5 March 1984. See letter dated 25 April 1984.

[9] By Apollinaire.

[10] Translator's note: the French here, Champot-haut, is pronounced "Sham-poe Hoe," which is very close to Chan-Po Ho.

[11] Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919), author of Grammatical Logic (1883) and The Science of God, or the Creation of Man (1900), which announced his intention to create a Dictionary of All the Languages (cf. The Anthology of Black Humor by Andre Breton. [Translator's note: in his Anthology, Breton has this to say about Brisset:

If the work of Brisset, remarkable among all, is worth being considered in its relations with humor, the will that presides over it cannot in any manner pass for humorous. Indeed, the author does not depart from the most serious, the most grave attitude on any occasion. It is at the end of a process of identification with him, the end of the order of he who demands the examination of philosophical or scientific systems, that the reader is led on his own account to find a refuge in humor. He arrives there from the necessity of sparing himself from an affective agitation that is too considerable, which would result from the validation of a jarring discovery of the very foundations of thought, annihilating all species of previous conscious gain, putting back into question the most elementary principles of social life. Such a discovery is a priori held to be impossible and the insane asylums are constructed to let nothing filter out, in the exorbidant case that such a discovery is made. The reflex of general preservation, in what concerns Brisset, seems to have been perceptibly less vivid, since, in 1912, he allowed a coterie of writers to dress him up in the ironic title "Prince of Thinkers." This derisory dignity would only be a disservice for those who manage to pass by closing the game when confronted with the greatest singularities that the human spirit offers. The emotional discharge of Brisset's expression in a humor of reception (in opposition to the humor of emission practiced by the majority of the author who interest us) very specially puts into view certain constituent elements of this humor. The author presents himself as being in possession of a secret of such import that all that has been conceived before this revelation can be held to be null and void. We assist here, not in a return of the individual but, in his person, in a return of the whole species to childhood. (Something equivalent takes place in the case of [Henri] Rousseau.) The flagrant disaccord that is manifested between the nature of the ideas commonly received and the affirmation by the writer or the painter of this extreme primitivism is the generator of a humor of great style, in which the person responsible does not participate (...)

Envisioned in the perspective of humor, the work of Jean-Pierre Brisset draws its importance from his unique situation, commanding the line that ties Alfred Jarry's pataphysics, or "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically accord with the lineaments of the properties of the objects described in their virtuality," to the critical-paranoic activity of Salvadore Dali, or "the spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the critical-interpretive association of delirious phenomena." It is striking that the work of Raymond Rousell and the literary works of Marcel Duchamp were knowingly or unknowingly produced in close connection with those of Brisset, the influence [empire] of which can be extended as far as the most recent essays of the poetic dislocation of language ("The revolution of the word") by Leon-Paul Fargue, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, Henri Michaux, James Joyve and the young American school in Paris.]

[12] Translator's note: this is a line from Stephane Mallarme's poem "The Tomb of Edgar Poe" (1877).

[13] Countersigned by Alice [Becker-Ho]: "C'est que ce! Ho."

(Published in Guy Debord Correspondance, Vol 6: Janvier 1979-Decembre 1987 by Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2006. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! June 2007. Footnotes by Alice Debord, except where noted.)

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