Turn, Turn, Burn
The trailer for Guy Debord's In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni begins with a haloed figure with a long beard seated on his throne in one of the murals of the Italian Masters. The track is silent and across the image from left to right and top to bottom scrolls the following text: "When I was on the point of creating the world, I realized that someday they would make something there as revolting as Guy Debord's film entitled In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, so I preferred not to create the world." It is signed "GOD."
Though the sequence appears only in the trailer, it encapsulates several of Debord's concerns in the film. First, from a position of intellectual authority, it announces itself as an important event in Universal history; it is something that would come to the attention of those in the positions of highest authority. Next, it anticipates that those in the positions of highest authority will receive his work as a godless abomination. Finally, and more subtly, it locates the film and Debord as the mortal enemies of received ideas. God, in His Infinite Wisdom, could not forestall its making, even by resorting to the most extreme measures at His disposal. The implication is not so much that Debord is superior to God, but rather that since Debord and the film do, after all, exist, then God does not. An entire world of illusion is set into motion against itself and through the deft application of dialectics disappears.
The title of the work is a not-quite-Classical Latin palindrome, which Hollis Frampton, borrowing from Yeats, once translated as: “At night we go out in a gyre, and are consumed by fire.” In a less elegaic turn, we might say: “At night we go in a circle and are consumed by fire.” But “in girum imus” means not only “we go in a circle,” but more metaphorically, “we wander.” As a palindrome, it suggests a play of mirrors in its form; it is also said by some to contain a riddle of the “What am I?” genre, referring to the mayfly, suggesting that it goes, like a moth to the flame, and is burnt alive. All are apposite meanings for Debord: dérive, destruction, and holding a mirror to himself and his time.
Just after the center of the film, Debord himself translates this phrase into French: “Nous tournons en rond dans la nuit et sommes dévorés par le feu.” Here “tournons en rond” has the added sense of going in circles meaning “we get nowhere.” In English, Debord’s own translation would be approximated by “We go around in circles in the night and are devoured by fire.” He describes this palindrome as containing letter by letter a labyrinth one cannot leave, the form and content of perdition. To underscore the importance of this structural conceit, the title of the film appears as a text animation, designed by Debord to reveal itself onscreen from each end of the phrase simultaneously, moving towards the middle.
While its labyrinthine pessimism offers a formal point of reference for the work, Debord positions In girum... as he positions nearly all of his work: as a passionate, complex, and personal engagement with history. Though he may evoke the mirror and the labyrinth, Debord never indulges in the fatalism of Borges. Debord thrives not on the specter of apocalypse, but on the destruction of illusion. Of all Debord’s works in film, In girum... offers the most numerous personal reflections, though all of his works in film and video interweave personal, literary, and cinematic allusions into the flow of the time we spend with them. In girum... is likewise a reflection on mortality: on the passing away of the Europe he knew and loved and helped to shape, on personal extinction, and on the river of time. Indeed, a great deal of time is devoted to tracking through Venice in a boat as Debord offers his voiceover reflections against the visual reflections of the canals. After Society of the Spectacle and its companion Refutation of All Judgments…, it is Debord’s most important work in film or video. It is arguably his most formally accomplished: it attempts to confront closure, if only ultimately to refuse it.
The method of paradox and dialectics in the title sequence continues from the first image that follows it: a still of the audience of a movie theater and Debord’s declaration: “I will make no concessions to the public in this film, nor will I try to manage it.” He refers to the “icy mirror of the screen,” doubting the competence of his audience, yet rejecting the manipulations of advertising and its unanswered insults to public intelligence, which because they remain unanswered become the basis of self-justification by the public. He cites a recent publicity motto, “When one loves life, one goes to the movies,” as an index to just how debased each has become, that their interchangeability may be asserted. Thus the framework is established for the complex transactions between Debord and his audience, which will take place throughout the film.
Debord goes on to qualify the cinema as an “outmoded art” of which he would preserve nothing; he describes his own role in the history of cinema as offering a countershot of the only world that watches this outmoded art and a traveling shot along the fleeting ideas of his time. He declares that he would have been ashamed to have received praise from a world such as the one in which he lived. He is proud to have created the greatest outrage in the domain of the cinema, where his work stands so far above the whole “genre” of cinema, that others, up to then, have not seen fit even to plagiarize him. He quotes Swift to the effect that it gives him no slight satisfaction to present a work that is above all criticism. Again, the paradox of a work of cinema that seeks to fiercely maintain its independence from the institutions of cinema with which it must necessarily engage in order to find an audience.
In denying his designation as a “theorist of revolution,” Debord explains that, “theories are made only in order to die in the war of time.” He quotes Jomini on the art of war, insisting that one may say of revolution as well that it is “not a positive, dogmatic science, but an art subject to several general principles, and even more than that an empassioned drama.” But it is a drama difficult to evoke with integrity, given Debord’s complex construction of his role in history. So in a fashion sometimes redolent of irony and sometimes of nostalgia, he represents the dramas undergone by his friends and himself with images derived from popular versions of historical adventurers: Robin Hood, Prince Valiant, the Knights of the Round Table, Zorro, the Devil himself, and notably and repeatedly the Light Brigade and Custer and his men at Little Big Horn. “They take up the standard of the good old cause and advance against the cannons of time,” never deviating from their line, even while forced into the center of destruction. Most frequently he compares himself to Larcenaire in Children of Paradise: “I am not cruel, I am logical. I declared war on society a long time ago.”
Debord lived most of his life in Paris, “a city which at the time was so beautiful that many preferred to live there poor than to live rich elsewhere.” He regrets its passing and recalls that in his youth on the Left Bank, “the negative held court.” Over a tracking shot of young people in a café from Cocteau’s Orphée that seems to have been the model for a shot in one of Debord’s own early films (Sur le passage…), he quotes the Old Man of the Mountain, who in his final hour, reveals to the most fanatical of his followers: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” The epistemological tension is maintained.
To evoke the intellectual production of his twenties, Debord quotes two of his own films Sur le passage…(On the passage of several persons through a rather brief period of time) and Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howls for Sade)—the latter of which consists only of opaque leader and silence and clear leader accompanied by spoken texts. He paraphrases Dante’s entrance into hell against the grain to evoke not the time of the film’s making—middle age, the time of life when Dante set out on his quest—but his twenties, as if his middle twenties were the middle of his life and the time of the film’s making implicitly the end of his life.
In a rhetorical parallel to Hurlements, Debord later inserts black leader and a text that calls attention to this deprivation of images to an audience who lives in deprivation, and follows this by clear leader, but this time with a contemporary text by Debord. He will indeed make a film, as his detractors have accused, using anything whatsoever, including his own work both in citation and in paraphrase.
One of the recurrent personal themes of Debord’s work is “friendship.” He evokes it in this film not by personal anecdote, but by citation: over stills of his friends from various periods of his life, he quotes Julius Caesar: “What is friendship? Equality of friends.” The women in his life are evoked with images of them associated with a discourse of place, notably the time he spent in exile in Florence.
After reviewing the accomplishments of himself and his friends, Debord remarks that he regrets nothing and admits himself incapable of imagining having acted otherwise, given who he is. Debord both magnanimously and grandiosely takes responsibility for having chosen the time and place of the revolutionary assaults he made with his friends and for their aftermath. Failing to attack at all would have meant disappearing having done nothing. He concludes with the reminder that theory is not the guarantor of practice, rather practice guarantees the validity of theory. And to risk destruction is the fate of any avant-garde—whether military, artistic, or revolutionary—if it is to follow its values to their ultimate conclusion.
In the final section of the film, Debord evokes the figure of a T’ang scholar-poet, who having spent the best years of his life in the world and judging himself to have failed, now intends to withdraw to the mountains for a life of quiet reflection. And Debord did, in fact, spend a great deal of time outside Paris in the years following the making of this film, in the Massif Centrale and elsewhere. But just as quickly as Debord evokes this possibility, he dismisses it for himself: "But no, I know quite distinctly that for me there can be no repose." He knows for one, that no one will say he has failed and just as happily that no one can say he has succeeded. "There is no success or failure for Guy Debord and his measureless pretensions. For me there is no return or reconciliation. Wisdom will never come." The film ends as the tracking shot of a canal that has served as a visual support for these reflections leads out into the lagoon; a title is superimposed: “To be taken up again from the beginning.” And as with any palindrome worthy of the name, the end is precisely and by design the beginning.
Keith Sanborn is a media artist, theorist, and translator based in New York. He teaches at Princeton University and Bard College, and has translated into English the work of Guy Debord, René Viénet, Gil Wolman, Georges Bataille, and Napoleon.More articles by Keith Sanborn