LAND OF STORMS: Guy Debord in Champot

Driving forty-five minutes from my home, I can get to Bellevue-la-Montagne, a sleepy, semi-abandoned village, perched at 990 metres in France’s Haute-Loire. It was twenty-years ago when I first discovered Bellevue. I’d just stepped off a plane then, from New York, pre-9/11 and COVID, days when you could travel easily, fly relatively hassle-free; afterwards I’d motored halfway across France. I wanted to see the house where Guy Debord had killed himself. I was finishing up my book, Metromarxism, and suddenly found myself in a kingdom very far from any city, far from Paris, far from anywhere and everywhere.

Yet Bellevue wasn’t my ultimate destination: I sought a tinnier hamlet, a more hidden underworld: Champot. I had no idea where it was, whether it really existed. The day I drove into Bellevue everywhere was closed, boarded up, long-forgotten. All apart from the butcher’s store, one of few of the village’s remaining petits commerces. In I went to ask for directions. Madame Soulier, the butcher’s wife, happily obliged, drew me a little map, immediately shared gossip on the Debords, guessing it was he I came about, the man who used to come to her store, ate her husband’s meat, spoke little.

Madame Soulier soon became my secret accomplice. Each time I went back, desiring further information, her hair was different colour. Bright pink and purple were favourites. So, now, I’m back in Bellevue again, twenty-years later, an anniversary homage to Champot, on a gorgeous sunny Sunday. No worries today. I didn’t care everywhere was closed again, didn’t care about anything. I’ve no idea whether Madame Soulier is alive; but the butcher’s store is still in business, and the vividness of its shutters suggest that the said Madame is probably encore en vie.

In those days, Champot felt miles away from Bellevue; really, it’s rather nearby. On this lovely day, I decide to hoof it, take a stroll down the medieval pathway, beyond Bellevue’s chateau (now the village bibliothèque), passing via Champot Bas, onwards to Champot Haut, chez Debord. Even in the deep silence of a rural French Sunday, even in the emptiness of a wilderness shuttered up, Champot feels as magically radiant as it always did, as it first had in 2001; a strange, mystical force grips you here, gripped me back then, in my forties, changed my life, still grips, in my sixties. One feels most of all a presence and life-force, not a death-sentence. Behind the high stone wall, inside the house’s ramparts, Debord once stood on the grass at night, staring at the Milky Way; the house seemed to open directly onto it, he’d said in Panegyric. His widow, Alice, wrote in her poem “Voie Lactée” that Guy was fascinated by the Milky Way, drew upon it, she said, “as a source of peace and serenity.” For her, its immensity brought on only vertigo.

Debord wrote beautifully about his sojourns in this land of storms: “they’d approach noiselessly at first,” he said, “announced by a brief passage of a wind that slithered through the grass or by a series of sudden flashes on the horizon; then thunder and lightning were unleashed, and we were bombarded for a long while and from every direction, as if in a fortress under siege.” No storms today. Only fair weather, sunshine and calm, warmth, not even a barking dog can be heard. Debord’s printanier refrains best capture today’s mood: “a great sweetness in the air, a sweetness you can taste…and a dazzling shade of tender green that comes over the trees, in the tremulous light of the sun rising before them.”

Nothing can better that. No other words can improve upon it. I don’t want to add anything more myself, either, about a subject-matter I’ve already written much about. Instead, I’d like to share a photomontage of this homage, a glimpse of Champot’s tremulous light, of a tender green that is still as dazzling as ever, shimmering in the sunshine like a glorious emerald carpet. Twenty-years on, indeed. Perhaps I do retain the cheerfulness of youth, as Debord said, citing poet Li-Po. “But your hair is already white; and what’s the use of complaining?”

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About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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