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Two Accounts of the Dérive

Guy Debord

Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)

Translated by Thomas Y. Levin

I. Encounters and Difficulties Following an Extended Dérive

On the evening of 25 December 1953, the Lettrists G.I. [Gilles Ivain/Ivan Chtcheglov], G.D. [Guy Debord], and G.L. [Gaëtan M. Langlais] enter an Algerian bar in the rue Xavier-Privas that they have long referred to as "Au Malais de Thomas" and in which they had spent the entire previous night. They fall into conversation with an approximately forty-year-old West Indian man, unusual in his elegance among the regulars of this dive, who is talking to K., the proprietor of the place, upon their arrival.

The man asks the Lettrists out of the blue whether they are not "in the army." Upon receiving a negative answer he then vainly insists on knowing "to what organization they belong." He introduces himself with the obviously false name of Camille J. What follows is strewn with coincidences (the addresses he cites, the concerns he names that are exactly those of his interlocutors that very week, his brithday that is the same as G.I.'s) and with phrases loaded with double meanings and that seem to be calculated allusions to the dérive. Most remarkable, however, is his increasing delirium, which revolves around an idea of urgent voyage: as he points out repeatedly "he is continuously traveling." J. goes on to say in all seriousness that upon arriving from Hamburg he had looked for the address of the bar where thay found themsleves at that moment — he had been there before for a moment and had liked it — but, unable to find it, had taken a jaunt to New York to ask his wife for the address. However, as the address was not to be found in New York either, it was by pure chance that he had just come upon the bar once again, having just arrived from Orly. (Not a single plane had landed at Orly for a number of days now due to a strike by the security personnel that had been further complicated by bad visibility conditions — G.D. knows this because he himself had arrived two nights earlier by train after having been delayed for two days at the Nice airport.) J. announces to G.L. with an air of sorrowful certainty that G.L.'s current activities must be above his ablities. (G.L. will in fact be excluded two months later.) J. suggests to the Lettrists that he meet them at the same place the next day and have them taste an excellent rum "from his plantation." He also spoke of introducing them to his wife but subsequently, and without any apparent contradiction, said that the next day "he would be a widower" as his wife was leaving by car early in the morning for Nice.

Following J.'s departure, K. (who knows nothing about the Lettrists' activities) is questioned but cannot say anything except that he recalls having seen him once have a drink, a few months ago.

The next day, J. comes to rendezvous with his wife, a quite beautiful West Indian woman about his age. He makes an exceptional punch with his rum. J. and his wife exert a mysterious attraction on all the Algerians in the bar, who are simultaneously enthusiastic and deferential. The din of all the guitars together with the shouts and dances produces an agitation of a very unusual intensity. J. restores calm instantaneously by making an unexpected toast "to our brothers who are dying on the field of battle" (even thought there was no conflict of any scope anywhere except in Indochina). The conversation reaches the level of delirium of the previous evening, except this time with the participation of J.'s wife. Remarking that a ring that J. was wearing the night before is now on the finger of his wife, G.L. says rather quietly to G.I., alluding to their commentary from the previous evening that had not failed to evoke zombies and the identifying signals of secret sects, "Voodoo has changed hands." J.'s wife hears this phrase and smiles with complicity.

After speaking again of encounters and places that provoke his interlocutors, J. announces to them that he does not know if he himself will meet them again one day, since they are "perhaps too strong for him." They assure him that the opposite is the case. Just as they are about to separate, G.I. offers to give J.'s wife the address of a rather attractive bar in Nice, since she is about to go there. J. in turn responds coldly that it is unfortunately too late: she has been gone since this morning. He takes his leave affirming that now it is certain that they will see each other again some day "even if this should be in another world" — to which phrase he adds a "you know what I mean?" that completely corrects any mystical aspect that his statement might have had.

On the evening of 31 December in the same bar on the rue Xavier-Privas, the Lettrists come upon K. and the regulars terrorized — despite their own violent tendencies — by a sort of gang comprised of ten Algerians who have come from Pigalle and are occupying the place. The rather mysterious story seems to involve both counterfeit money and the links it might have with the arrest of one of K.'s friends — for narcotics peddling — in the very same bar a few weeks earlier. Since it is obvious that the first concern of the visitors is to avoid involving the Europeans in a setting of accounts that will not awaken much police attention as long as it is between North Africans, and since K. asks them insistently not to leave the bar, G.D. and G.I. spend the night drinking at the counter (where the visitors have placed a girl they had brought along) speaking incessantly and very loudly in front of a silent audience in such a manner as to further aggravate the general unease. Just before midnight, for example, they ask who will have to die this year or the following year, or they refer to the saying of the condemned man scheduled to be executed at dawn on January first: "Now there's a year that's off to a good start," and make various other jests of this sort that cause almost all of the antagonists to turn pale. Even toward morning, with G.D. dead drunk, G.I. continues alone for a few hours with a similarly marked success. New Year's Day of 1954 takes place in the same conditions, the many maneuvers of intimidation and vailed threats unable to persuade the two Lettrists to leave before a brawl. The latter, in turn, are unable to reach any of their friends by telephone, whose very use requires considrable audaciousness. Finally, as night falls, K.'s friends reach a compromise with the strangers and everyone ungraciously goes their own way (K. subsequently avoids with trepidation any explanation of this event, and the Lettrists decide that to be discreet they will hardly refer to it).

The next day, toward the end of the afternoon, G.D. and G.I. suddenly realize that they are near the rue Vielle du Temple and decide to go and visit again a bar on that street where, six weeks earlier, G.I. had observed something surprising: when he had entered the bar during the course of a dérive together with P.S. [Patrick Straram] the barman expressed a certain emotion upon seeing him and had asked, "You are coming in for a drink?" Following the affirmative response he had continued: "There aren't any more. Come back tomorrow." G.I. in turn mechanically responded "OK" and had left, and P.S., although stunned by such an absurd reaction, had followed him.

G.I. and G.D.'s arrival in the bar renders instantly silent about ten Yiddish-speaking men seated at two or three tables and all wearing hats. While the Lettrists drink a few glasses of alcohol at the counter, their backs turned toward the door, a man also wearing a hat runs in and the waitress — who they have never seen before — nods to them that it is to him that they should address themselves. The man grabs a chair, places it at a distance of about one meter, sits down, and starts speaking to them in a very loud voice and for a rather long time in Yiddish, in a tone at times convincing and at times menacing yet without deliberate aggressivity and, above all, without seeming to imagine that they might not be understanding a thing. The Lettrists remain impassive and look with the greatest possible impertinence at everyone present, all of whom seem to be awaiting their response with some distress. Ultimately, they leave. Once outside, they both agree that they have never seen an atmosphere so frigid, compared to which the gangsters from the previous evening were mere lambs. Wandering [dérivant] still a bit further on they come to the pont Notre-Dame at which point they notice that they are being followed by two men from the bar, in the tradition of the gangster film. It is on this tradtition that they feel they must rely in order to give their pursuers the slip; they cross the bridge casually and then suddenly descend to the right onto the quay of the Ile de la Cité on which they run, passing under the Pont-Neuf, until they reach the square Vert-Galant. There, they scramble back up to the place Pont-Neuf by means of the stairs hidden behind the statue of Henri IV. In front of the statue, two other men in hats come running up — undoubtedly to cut them off at the riverbank of the quai des Orfèvres (which appears to be the only exit if one is unaware of the stairs) — and stop in their tracks upon seeing them come into view. The two Lettrists approach and then walk right by the men who, in their surprise, do not budge. The Lettrists continue down the sidewalk of the Pont-Neuf towards the Right Bank. Here they notice that the two men have once again begun to follow them and it seems that a car on the Pont-Neuf — with which these men seem to be exchanging signals — has apperently joined in pursuit. G.I. and G.D. then cross the quai du Louvre at the very moment when the traffic (which is very heavy at this location) has the right of way. Then, taking advantage of this lead, they hurriedly traverse the ground floor of the La Samaritaine department store, exiting onto the rue de Rivoli in order to rush down into the Louvre subway station, subsequently changing trains at Chatelet. The few passengers who are wearing hats seem suspicious. G.I. is convinced that a man from the West Indies who happens to be near him gave him a signal that he interprets to means that he is an emissary sent by J. to defend them against the surprising outbreak of antagonistic forces. Getting off at the Monge station, the Lettrists arrive at the Montagne-[Sainte-]Geneviève via the deserted Continent Contrescarpe where night falls amidst an atmosphere of increasing unease.

II. Gathering of Urban Ambiances by Means of the Dérive

On Tuesday, 6 March 1956 at 10 a.m., G.-E. Debord and Gil J. Wolman meet in the rue des Jardins-Paul and head north in order to explore the possibilities of traversing Paris at that latitude. Despite their intentions they quickly find themselves drifting toward the east and traverse the upper section of the 11th arrondissement, an area whose poor commercial standardization is a good example of repulsive petit-bourgeois landscape. The only pleasing encounter is the store at 160, rue Oberkampf: "Delicatessen-provisions A. Breton." Upon reaching the 20th arrondissement, Debord and Wolman enter a series of narrow alleys that ultimately lead to the intersection of rue de Ménilmontant and rue des Couronnes, by way of deserted lots and very abandoned-looking low buildings. On the north side of rue des Couronnes a staircase gives them access to a network of alleys similar to the previous ones, but marred by an annoyingly picturesque character. Their itinerary is subsequently inflected in a northwesterly direction.

Between the avenue Simon Bolivar and the avenue Mathurin Moreau they cross a prominence where a number of empty streets become entangled, a dismaying monotony of facades (the rue Rémy du Gourmont, rue Edgar Poe, etc.). Shortly thereafter, they suddenly come upon the far end of the canal [Saint-]Martin and unexpectedly find themselves facing the impressive rotunda by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, a virtual ruin left in an incredible state of abandonment, whose charm is singularly enhanced by the curve of the elevated subway line that passes by at close distance. One thinks here of Maréchal Toukhachevsky's fortuitous projection, previously cited in La révolution surréaliste, of how much more beautiful Versailles would be if a factory were to be constructed between the palace and the water basin.

Upon studying the terrain the Lettrists feel able to discern the existence of an important psychogeographic hub [plaque tournante] — its centre occupied by the Ledoux rotunda — that could be defined as a Jaurés-Stalingrad unity, opening out onto at least four significant psychogeographical bearings — the canal [Saint-]Martin, boulevard de la Chapelle, rue d'Aubervilliers, and the canal de l'Ourcq — and probably more. In conjunction with the concept of the hub, Wolman recalls the intersection in Cannes that he designated "the center of the world" in 1952. One should no doubt liken this to the clearly psychogeographic appeal of the illustrations found in books for very young schoolchildren; here, for didactic reasons, one finds collected in a single image a harbor, a mountain, an isthmus, a forest, a river, a dike, a cape, a bridge, a ship, and an archipelago. Claude Lorrain's images of harbors are not unrelated to this procedure.

Debord and Wolman continue to walk north along the beautiful and tragic rue d'Aubervilliers. They eat lunch on the way. Having taken the boulevard Macdonald up to the canal [Saint-]Denis they follow the right bank of this canal heading north, making stops — sometimes long, sometimes brief — at various bars patronized by the bargemen. They abandon the canal at a familiar lock directly north of the pont du Landy and arrive at 6:30 p.m. in a Spanish bar regularly referred to by the workers who frequent it as the "Tavern of the Revolters." This bar is located at the westernmost point of Aubervilliers, across from the site called "La Plaine" that is part of the town of [Saint-]Denis. Passing by the lock once again, they roam about for a while in Aubervilliers, an area that they have traversed dozens of times at night but which is unfamiliar to them in the daytime. As darkness descends they finally decide to put an end to a dérive that they deem to be of little interest as such.

Undertaking the critique of their operation, they establish that a dérive that starts out from the same point would do better to head in a north-by-northwesterly direction and that since from this point of view Paris remains to a large extent unknown, the number of systematic dérives of this sort should be increased. They also ascertain that the contradiction between chance and conscious choice involved in the dérive itself recurs at subsequent levels of equilibrium and that this development is unlimited. As a program for upcoming dérives Debord proposes the direct link between the center Jaurès-Stalingrad (or Center Ledoux) and the Seine as well as the exploration of its tributaries towards the west. Wolman proposes a dérive that would begin at the "Tavern of the Revolters" and would follow the canal north all the way to [Saint-]Denis and beyond.