Debord and Marquez at Fifty

Just as mainstream politics plumbs the depths, this year’s Golden Jubilee of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude helps radical politics soar. With spellbinding brilliance both books continue to fascinate and grip readers. Each transforms the world we thought we knew upside down as well as inside out; and each, in turn, puts that world back together again, right side up.

Few think of Debord, the prophet of spectacular capitalism, as a magical realist, just as fewer still would see Garcia Marquez, the prophet of magical realism, as a theorist of the spectacle. Yet it’s possible to conceive both men in this guise and posit their respective masterpieces as works of art that push reality beyond realism. Right-wing politicians and tabloid media do this all the time nowadays; maybe it’s time the Left carries out its own pushing beyond realism, makes its own make-believe real.

The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude open up different doors of perception, so maybe it’s no coincidence that they should appear the same year Jimi Hendrix wondered “Are You Experienced?” and The Doors bawled “we want the world and we want it now!”; when the psychedelic “Summer of Love” raved and the Pentagon levitated in a giant carnival protesting the Vietnam War.

In a way, each is a darkly pessimistic text that pinpoints the shortcomings of the 1960s generation as much as embodies its utopian desires; and here, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Marquez’s hero, a sixties-style anarchist, an altermondialiste avant la lettre, sets the brooding tone: organizing thirty-two uprisings in the name of a radical liberal cause, he lost every one of them.

On the other hand, with almost-supernatural lucidity, The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude transmit a strange optimism, a backdoor sense of hope, and offer another take on what our lives might be. Each book shows us how reality can be represented differently, how more acute and astute forms of subjectivity can create a more advanced sense of realism and a different type of objectivity.

***
Legend has it that Garcia Marquez was driving to Acapulco for a family vacation when his Latin American Don Quixote came to him in a flash. Turning his car around, he returned to Mexico City, and for the next eighteen months tapped away on his Olivetti electric typewriter a story that had been in his head for eighteen years. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesized the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.”

On sale fifty years ago this month, in Buenos Aires, a few weeks before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, One Hundred Years of Solitude opened with Marquez’s re-imagined childhood memory: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

But the bizarre saga of the Buendias in the town of Macondo, hacked out of the middle of damp Colombian jungle, not far from a barnacle-encrusted Spanish galleon, takes on a reality way beyond a quaint family romance. It’s a paradise found and lost, a saga of a magnificent and miserable humanity, a mad dream of damaged characters whose only goal in life is to live out a wonderful human adventure. Marquez said that the Caribbean world of magic and drama, mythological societies and fabulous plants, pre-Colombian cults and slavery, crumbling colonial empires, provided a taste for fantasy, an oral memory conveyed through the loosely grounded realism of his grandmother and grandfather.

An adolescent penchant for bad Latin American poetry and Marxist texts lent secretly to him by a history teacher, and then a revelatory reading of A Thousand and One Nights and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, convinced young Gabriel he wanted to be a writer. “In A Thousand and One Nights I read there was a guy who opened up a bottle and out flew a genie in a puff of smoke, and I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ It was more fascinating than anything else that had happened in my life up to that point.”

All that, too, convinced Marquez that writing should be a poetic transformation of reality. The source of creation is always reality, always embedded in reality, yet a reality in which imagination is an instrument in its production and re-creation. The discovery was “like tearing off a chastity belt,” he said; “you can throw away the fig leaf of rationalism,” provided “you don’t then descend into total chaos and irrationality.”

“Things have a life of their own,” Melquiades, the gypsy magician reminded José Arcadio Buendia. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” José Arcadio hardly needs reminding: Macondo’s patriarch’s “unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic.” He taught his two wayward sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, the wild man who’d eventually run off with the gypsies, and the withdrawn child who’d become one of the nation’s most fabled radicals, to read and write; “and he spoke to them about the magical wonders of the world, not only where his learning had extended, but forcing the limits of his imagination to extremes.”

***
Pushing things to extremes was Guy Debord’s forte. And reality was never forced to such limits as in his The Society of the Spectacle. With its 221 short, intriguing theses, aphoristic in style and peppered with irony, The Society of the Spectacle remains our greatest political prose poem, quirkily Marxian, uniting a left-wing Hegel with a materialist Feuerbach, a bellicose Machiavelli with a utopian Karl Korsch, a military Clausewitz with a romantic Georg Lukács. Hitting Parisian bookstores in November 1967, the book would get daubed on walls across France six months later: “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY.”

The Society of the Spectacle gives us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a world in which unity spells division and truth falsity. It’s a topsy-turvy world that sounds a lot like our own. Everything and everybody partakes in a perverse paradox. “Every notion,” Debord says, “has no other basis than its passage into the opposite.” “Within a world really on its head,” he says, “THE TRUE IS A MOMENT OF THE FALSE.”

Debord uses time-served Marxist tools to describe and analyze a new phase of capitalist reality, one that seems to have decoupled itself from its material thing-base, and rematerialized as an image, as a spectacle. Debord’s book is experimental, is itself a piece of détournement, of hijacking and rerouting; so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that in mobilizing Marx Debord should at the same time détourn Marx. He’s adamant that the spectacle lies “at the heart of the unrealism of real society.”

This is a difficult concept for Marxists to get their heads’ around. For what it suggests is that the separation between appearance and essence (Marx’s trusty definition of science) has, like a piece of elastic, been stretched to such a degree that these two opposing ends of reality have snapped and reformed as one. An epistemological duality has recoiled into an ontological unity: essence really is appearance, and appearance an essence. Society’s image of itself is its real reality; society’s form is society’s content, its content is its form.

Debord’s insights in The Society of the Spectacle are wide-awake documentation, brutally realistic descriptions and inversions of what is and projections of what might be. Sometimes he conjures up the realm of dream, releasing unconscious yearnings, sublimating deep political desires. At times, the tone reincarnates his poet hero Compte de Lautréamont, whose Maldoror and Poesies expressed similar incandescent chants and opaque similes. Elsewhere, Debord scripts Greek tragic drama, the “epic poem” of the spectacle, “which cannot be concluded by the fall of any Troy.” The spectacle “doesn’t sing the praises of men and their weapons, but of commodities and their passions”; and “every commodity, pursuing its passion, unconsciously realizes something higher: the becoming-world of the commodity, which is also the becoming-commodity of the world.”

***
One of the bizarrest of all bizarre episodes that cram One Hundred Years of Solitude is Macondo’s insomnia plague. At first, no one was concerned about not sleeping because in Macondo there was always so much work to do and so little time to do it. But after a while a fearsome illness took hold; a sick person was in a permanent state of vigil. Soon “the recollection of their childhood began to be erased from their memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of their own being, until the person sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” The expert insomniac eventually forgets about dreams, and about dreaming. And even though nobody sleeps a minute, the following day people feel so rested that they forget about the bad night they’d had.

What’s fascinating about Marquez’s notion of the insomnia plague is how it captures an equally bizarre reality we ourselves are living out, a reality Debord labeled “the society of the spectacle,” where “the sun never sets on the Empire of modern passivity.” Debord says the society of the spectacle is founded on “the production of isolation,” a condition that reinforces the idea of a “lonely crowd,” of people bound by a common economic and political system yet forged together in a “unity of separation.” The spectacle is the “nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” But it can’t sleep, because of the insomnia plague, because the spectacle “is the guardian of sleep.”

Marquez’s portrayal of the insomnia plague pinpoints how the reality of real truth and the reality of illusion are one and the same. There’s no real way to tell either apart. We never know whether life is a dream or a figment of people’s febrile imagination, the reality of an insomniac turned amnesiac. Fact and fiction mutually conspire, negate each other; the lived becomes a representation, a representation the lived. The blurring of one with the other, the authentic with the inauthentic, fact with fiction, the real with the meditated image, also speaks bundles about Debord’s society of the spectacle, about how it possesses us body and mind, and how it now begets a different political agenda.

***
Marx wanted to expose bourgeois sleights of hand and reveal for people the hidden world of capitalist alienation. He wanted to demonstrate the “root” cause of their subjugation and domination. But now there seems nothing to unmask. What we have instead are the shenanigans of a ruling class that wallows in the fabrication of its own truth, its own lies. The alienation experienced across the globe is rarely based on ignorance. It’s usually founded on hopelessness and disempowerment, on our insomnia plague, which condemns people to live much the same way residents of Macondo were condemned to live: in an eternal present, forgetful of the historical past, no longer dreaming of any discernible future. And in this forgetfulness, reality slips away, leaving people vulnerable to anyone who promises to read the cards, who popularises mystification.

But not everyone is smitten. Throughout our spectacular age we’ve always had people hell bent on staving off the insomnia plague. We’ve had our own Colonel Aureliano Buendias inspired by strange gypsies who’ve tried to uphold the power of dreams, dreams of a future, of Macondos arising out of wild swampland. In this sense, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the introverted soul spurred into militant direct action, might be something of a twenty-first-century radical role model, inspiring us to fight against our slipping away of reality.

The Colonel creates another reality out of his own subversive will. He doesn’t reveal or discover anything through theory: he creates, pioneers a new trail for a reinvigorated, less defensive kind of political practice. Even as the insomnia plague raged, young Aureliano conceived a formula to resist, to help protect against memory loss. He invented a system of marking things with their respective names, using little pieces of paper pasted on every object. In adolescence, Aureliano was bookishly smart and often withdrawn, absorbing himself in his workshop, making little gold fishes, losing himself in poetry. But his humanitarian feelings always had him sympathize with the left-leaning Liberal Party.

Later, when he sees his conservative father-in-law doctor the ballot boxes after the town’s election, the grown up Aureliano knew then he’d witnessed first-hand the sham of party political democracy. One Sunday morning, drinking his habitual mug of black coffee, just as the Liberal opposition to Conservative rule was escalating, and just as Macondo was steadily becoming a Tory garrison town, Aureliano tells his friend Gerineldo Marquez in a voice the latter had never heard before, “Get the boys ready. We’re going to war.” “With what weapons?” Gerineldo wonders. “With theirs,” Aureliano rejoins.

From that moment on, dressed in black high boots with spurs, an ordinary denim uniform without insignia, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces, the anarchist warrior and man most feared by the government, is born. He’d reinvented his own radical self through engaging with the world, doing the right thing—even when losing. “On his waist he wore a holster with the flap open and his hand, which was always on the butt of the pistol, revealed the same watchful and resolute tension as his look.” When Ursula, Aureliano’s mother, Macondo’s great matriarch, sees him then, she says: “Good Lord, now he looks like a man capable of anything.”

***
One is struck by the strange affinity between Colonel Aureliano and the Situationist Guy Debord, the thirty-six-year-old author of The Society of the Spectacle. After all, both have a penchant for militant action and muckraking; are elusive and charismatic presences; have melancholic dispositions, demonstrating occasional ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike; and both fervently believe that politics is another form of war, an art-form of resistance, a game of strategy, of attack and defense that should be studied as well as practiced. The Colonel fought with the Duke of Marlborough, the early eighteenth-century English General, in his pocket; Debord, like Lenin and Mao, looked to the German tactician of war, Carl von Clausewitz.

Debord and the Colonel carry the homeopathic pill of subversion in their pockets. Their penchant for battle arises out of a marked distrust of professional career politicians. “We’re wasting time,” the Colonel says, “while the bastards in the party are begging for seats in congress.” The Colonel hates those soft politicians and lawyers leaving the presidential office each morning, taking refuge in their dreary cafés to speculate over what the president meant when he said yes, or what he meant when he said no. Debord similarly believes that active engagement is the only viable alternative to representative democracy, to the alienation of the spectator.

Both men affirm practico-sensual activity, a radicalism much more extra-political, much more intensely militant and transformative within everyday life. Their resistance is non-negotiable, moodily romantic and innately poetic. Perhaps the line in One Hundred Years of Solitude that so magnificently captures the spirit of each man’s radicalism is when Marquez describes the Colonel as “sneaking about through narrow trails of permanent subversion.” It’s a memorable phrase we should now chalk up on a wall somewhere.

Indeed, we’ve little choice today, if we want to stay radical, but to sneak about through narrow trails of permanent subversion. “Sneaking about” implies going about one’s politics furtively, clandestinely, in a manner that’s passionately discreet, mindful of traps, of the innumerable ways current society can catch us out, can ambush us, seduce us, buy us off. Above all, one must permanently sneak about, in private and public, if one is to remain faithful to oneself, if one is to pursue, without cease, with other true selves, some kind of secret war of position.

And those trails staked out, those passageways through which one constructs one’s radical life-project—they’ll always likely be narrow, tiny fissures, slim cracks in the fragile tissuing of the spectacle, entry points, brief moments of chance, of possibility, fleeting opportunities for collective action.

Debord says that contesting a false reality lived as true life requires converting negative practice into an affirmative living ideal. It means, maybe more than anything else, opposing “spectacular time” with “lived time.” The former is spatial, flat and empty; the latter, historical, deep and rich. Lived time invents a renewed sensual connection to oneself and to the world, a vital link to an unmediated life-form, one that remembers, one where the self is no longer “besieged by the presence-absence of the world.”

If the spectacle is both real and fake one must create out of a practical force another sort of real life, a fantasy life in which one is true to oneself in a world of true others. The old Catalan bookseller near the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude is instructive here because his customary good cheer was sustained, Marquez says, by “his marvelous sense of unreality.” Yet once this wise old man started to get too serious, too analytical and nostalgic for a paradise lost, his marvelous state began to crumble, began to turn cynical and bitter, poisoning his joy of life.

***
Remedios the Beauty, Macondo’s most dazzlingly attractive creature, arguably embodies the qualities of what this marvelous society might entail, a culture stripped of repressive conventions and morals, liberated from mediating images and banalities, directly accessing the real. Marquez says that Remedios the Beauty “symbolizes subversion,” that her startling “simplifying instinct” frustrates authority. She wanders about the Buendia’s house stark naked, in total liberty, and with her exceptional purity was able “to see the reality of things beyond any formalism.”

Even the Colonel “kept on believing and repeating that Remedios the Beauty was in reality the most lucid being that he had ever known.” She exists in a world of simple unmediated realities and was immune from the insomnia plague when it struck. Therein, perhaps, at its most primal level, resides the real solution for reclaiming the lived from the represented: the simplifying instinct, the revival of rich human feelings that have been sacrificed to sustain the spectacular illusion of living in comfort, of living affluently.

This is also what Macondo’s two last remaining Buendias—Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano, the Colonel’s great-grandson—created in the stunningly moving finale of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Don’t let it get away,” they’re reminded. “Life is shorter than you think.” They don’t let it slip away. A hurricane sweeps through them, and, as a couple, they discover the sensuality of Being, and the power of the right to love. Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano “remained floating in an empty universe,” Marquez says, “where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.” Love is the only “dominant obsession,” Marquez says, “that prevails against death.” It’s a primal force that isn’t an accessory to political life but something central to the very meaning of politics itself. (Even an aged Guy Debord, who spoke “as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion,” endorsed the power of love. “My method is very simple,” he reminds us. “I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident.” In his “pleasing and impressive solitude,” he says, as death encroached, “to tell the truth, I was not alone: I was with Alice.”)

Maybe in the dust and rubble of our crisis-ridden culture, the 50th anniversary of Debord and Marquez’s masterworks isn’t so much a wake-up call to get “real” as a invitation to dream big, to open our canvas out onto an epic, romantic stage, to fight for the right to love, for another summer of love. For what we have here are two tragic yet instructive love stories. Both books ask us to imagine how love can negate the politics of hate, how beautiful human intimacy might be the antidote to spectacular detachment as well as the nemesis of ugly global power. If nothing else, both books force us now to rethink what realism really means.

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