Avant-Garde Women: Michele Bernstein, Queen of the Situationists

In which I continue writing about the Situationists by telling the stories of the women involved.

(Video above is from a 1960 French TV interview about Bernstein’s subversive novel “All the King’s Horses,” below. Yes this is in French, which I cannot follow. The auto-translation isn’t much better. It’s sort of a friendly verbal chess match. At around 2:30 the interviewer asks her something about having respect for her her literary forebears. She replies: “We each import our own small stone to the cathedral.” Asked what novel she can compare hers to, she replies, “I don’t know; if it is simply a novel we can compare it to all that exist.”)

Introduction

Michele Bernstein was born in Paris in 1932, and is 89 as of this writing. To examine her life is, in part, to take a revealing peek inside the Situationists, the hard-drinking avant-garde artist-revolutionaries of postwar Europe. This was a small Paris scene with a rotating international cast of radical, Marxist theorists who wanted to turn life into art. They had some successes and a lasting influence. For twenty years (1953-1973), Bernstein was a central figure in two related groups: the “Letterist International,” and its subsequent flowering into the legendary “Situationist International” (SI). Both groups issued journals, and performed actions such as disrupting academic conferences and art openings, screening unwatchable films and so on – the art of the scandal. Both groups were led by Guy Debord, their mad king and Bernstein’s husband. Until she finally ran afoul of Debord’s neurotic, cult-leader-like compulsion to cut people out of his life forever, she was queen of the Situationists.

In the absence of a definitive Bernstein reference text, I’ve synthesized Bernstein references from several sources to make as complete a picture as I can. It is necessarily a picture of Guy Debord too, and his penchant for kicking his friends out of his groups. The practice had a huge effect on Bernstein’s life and others in their circle.

Bernstein’s story has been a little difficult to piece together for someone so central to this important group, studied today for their contributions to art, philosophy, and the politics of resistance. Because Bernstein largely “went quiet” after leaving the group, little documentation of her life exists per se. Most of the time she is mentioned in passing, occluded by Debord’s star status. He is the one with multiple biographers and autobiographies.

Bernstein’s autobiographical works are two thin, lightly-fictionalized novels of her life with Debord: All the King’s Horses (1960), and The Night (1961). I have not found an English translation of The Night (they exist) but I have read about it and I have read translated excerpts. Both novels are basically true accounts of her and Debord’s open relationship, and their libertine love games at the edge of the avant-garde. At the time of their publication, she presented the books as literary jokes, parodies of the modern styles the Situationists loathed. After having been dismissed for some time as mere attempts to generate cash for the cause, her novels have been reassessed in recent years as literary gems. Not only are they effective parodies with literary merit, but they are set dead-center in this milieu of revolutionary theoreticians of everyday life. The reader gets a glimpse of how that operated from the inside, and what Bernstein’s life with Debord was really like. Debord’s penchant for excluding people is a key part of Bernstein’s story. It’s a practice she encouraged, and finally fell prey to. Although it was a “you can’t fire me, I quit” situation; both she and Ralph Rumney attest to that below.

I have not read certain potentially helpful Debord texts for information about Bernstein, in part because I find Debord’s writing insufferable. His prose is sublime on one level as poetry, and visionary as philosophy. But it’s also full of bald assertions, and after some of the finer points of his Hegelo-Marxist praxis dialectic, I start tuning out. Bernstein once quipped that she left the Situationists because she was tired of “the constant inversion of the genitive” — a diss on the ponderous house writing style as modeled by Debord.

Bernstein’s Contributions

Bernstein wrote and co-wrote significant Letterist and Situationist documents which were published in the groups’ journals, and in the popular press like her Times literary supplement in 1964. There she wrote:

“As a start (the Situationists) aimed to go beyond artistic specialization — art as a separate activity — and delve beneath that whole movement of the breaking-up of language and dissolution of forms that had constituted modern art at its most authentic. It was decided that the first field of… future creativeness would embrace experiments in behavior, the construction of complete settings, moments of life freely created.”

That’s avant-garde AF. The Marxist influence is that the Situationists considered art to be an alienating product, and therefore the only true action was to smash capitalism — which would free life to become art. In service to the revolution, they shunned employment, and neither the Letterists nor the Situationists made art at all. Instead, they played. Haunting the cafes, they invented non-linear pursuits like “drifting” and psychogeography. It was the Situationist Asger Jorn who went on to invent three-sided football. This was living. Living was also the key to their scandals, which Bernstein took an active role in. The scandals were happenings – art as events and moments – art as the Situation.

Bernstein played a crucial role getting the group’s 1967 “bible” published, Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” a work of social theory that foretold the insidious power of the meme. Debord was literally too proud to approach publishers to ask for publication. But Bernstein had developed contacts from being a writer. She made the deal happen by leveraging the strength of her two novels, promising the publisher she would write a third novel to cover any losses incurred by Debord’s book. It was a novel she never had to write.

Bernstein made many other contributions of her time, labor, money, and influence. Of all the founding Situationists, she and Asger Jorn lasted the longest without being expelled from the group by Debord. Bernstein and Jorn survived Situationism despite defying some of its most important rules, like: Don’t work, don’t make or sell art, do enforce social exclusions, and so forth.

In Bernstein’s case, Debord was her husband and so she enjoyed protected status to an extent. And, he needed her writing income to support his revolution. Debord needed Jorn’s money too. Normally, leaving the group for any reason resulted in strict social exclusion. Situationists were forbidden to acknowledge those who had been kicked out or who had quit, unless it was to blast them in print. But in the case of Jorn, and later, Bernstein, Debord offered them the chance to continue in clandestine roles after they quit. Both accepted the deal and continued helping out with labor and money where they could. In Bernstein’s case, the truce lasted until she married someone else.

Bernstein in 1956

Bernstein, Lifelong Writer

In addition to her Letterist and Situationist writing, for which she earned nothing, Bernstein figured out how to make money from writing and did it her whole life. Ironically, her association with the Situationists has perhaps exposed her to some shit about this. It seems to me she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. Consider that a primary Situationist slogan was “Never Work.” And Debord once wrote, “Only those who don’t work, live.” He proudly refused to work and most people he socialized with also lived that way. The former Letterist Jean-Michel Mension wrote, on working: “We weren’t supposed to work. You were an idiot if you got a job; it was simply not done in those days – you lost respect.” (The Tribe, p. 79) Former Situationist Ralph Rumney on working:

“I didn’t work. I and the rest of the tribe were extremely disreputable, scruffy, scurrilous, and penniless. When we left Moineau’s [their bistro headquarters] we seldom knew where we were going to sleep… We occasionally managed to con tourists, offering them guided tours… More or less vagrants, we would beg in the street from time to time to pay for drinks.” (The Consul, p. 63)

But in the Letterist/Situationist days, Bernstein wrote horoscopes on the side for a racing paper. It’s a topic for discussion of whether or not to count that as “work.” The Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre (a sympathetic professor) knew and worked with Debord and Bernstein, until Debord predictably cut him out. But regarding Bernstein writing for money, Lefebrve was asked in this interview  if her writing didn’t clash with Situationist rules against working, and he replied, “This wasn’t work… it was fun to do it.” For her part, Bernstein has always maintained she made up the horoscopes she wrote, so it may have been fun, but Lefebvre should be ashamed of himself. Her writing gigs may have been fun hustles, but it was labor in exchange for cash. Bernstein said in her 2013 interview with Gavin Everall at frieze.com, about writing for money in those days, “It was the years of what I call my lumpen secretariat. We were rather broke.” It was all about that cabbage. Here’s another way we know it was work: Debord wasn’t doing it. There was one income stream keeping that household afloat and it was hers. She even had to get his own book published for him.

She would go on to write for newspapers and magazines, generally at places that offered lots of freedom. Long after the Situationist years and after Debord, she became a literary critic for the French left-wing paper Liberation. As the story goes from her Everall interview:

“I always thought that being a literary critic is a bit ridiculous – probably many writers think so too. But I was approached through a friend, who held a 50th birthday party for me, with another journalist who I liked. They asked: ‘Michèle do you really think it is despicable to be a journalist.’ I said ‘Yes,’ and suddenly I realize that both of them are journalists at Libération. So, I say, ‘Of course, not if it is for Libération.’ And then… I was on the staff… There was a tradition at Libération of total freedom and irreverence. I worked there for 14 years, until 1996 when I was 64, the longest job I ever had, and I liked it…. They never knew [I had been a Situationist], and I never spoke of my Situationist past. But it exuded…. In ’84, [Debord’s film collaborator/publisher Gerard Lebovici] was murdered. And [Serge July, the Liberation editor] says that somebody who knows a bit about this must write about Debord and Lebovici. My friend, always the big mouth, says, ‘That would be Michèle.’ And July says ‘why?’ She told me later that his chin hit the floor.”

She also worked for ad agencies. From the Everall interview: “I was an adwoman, rather a good one, head of a small creative group … It was a pleasant job: you only had to find ideas and write them.” In this case, Everall basically asked her to justify how this squared with her anti-capitalist belief system. (Bernstein’s work career has been judged many times by different people: at first it wasn’t cool that she was a working Situationist at all, even though Guy Debord himself was getting a roof over his head out of the deal. Then Lefebvre said Bernstein wasn’t really working. And then later, Everall implied it was okay she was working, but it was the wrong kind of work.) For the record, Bernstein disputes any notion that she violated her Situationist ideals. She’s even still a Marxist. The question though was put to her this way: “Did you find [your ad agency] job hard, moving from a group who’d articulated a critique of capital, who’d developed the idea of the spectacle from ideas of commodification and reification, and who considered advertising one of the many manifestations of the spectacle?” Can you imagine asking anyone that question? Bernstein’s answer:

“No. Why would I? The problem with capitalism is not so much in advertising than in production and distribution. Advertising only makes things more obvious. At that time, creative people were, mainly, a lot of joyful leftists without specialization. And I was so bad with hierarchy that it pays for my advertising sins…. I have never been to a cocktail party, or put in my mouth one petit four from a publisher.”

And as she told Greil Marcus: “To us, you understand, it was all spectacle. Advertising was not worse than anything else. We took our money where we could find it.” (Lipstick Traces, pp. 377-378)

The Letterists and the Unwatchable Film

Bernstein met Debord in 1952 when they were 21. She is a few months older. Bernstein got to know him while he was busy remaking the relatively unknown Letterists in his own image, into a cel of activists and provocateurs, hard thinkers and drinkers. (Eliane Papais/Brau was also in that group as I profiled here; she was Debord’s ex-girlfriend and would go on to write a book about the Situationists in 1968. Also, among others, Jean-Michel Mension was a founding member and Eliane’s husband; he wrote The Tribe about his experience. And Ralph Rumney bridged the two groups which he addressed in The Consul.)

Regarding Debord joining the Letterists, according to Mension, Debord had never engaged in “actual Letterism,” i.e., the sound poetry of reducing words to letters, one of their main anti-artistic endeavors.

But Debord joined the Letterists anyway and hijacked it. He accomplished this by breaking off a splinter group away from the founders (Isou, Lemaitre, and Pomerand), then acting like it wasn’t a splinter group at all but the real group — then announcing the founders had been excluded from it. Mension: “(Isou, Lemaitre, and Pomerand) weren’t excluded at all. Guy says they were excluded, but in reality it was a schism, a split…. (Isou) resented Debord for pinching his position as leader.” (The Tribe, p. 81) Then Debord went on expelling people from his splinter group like Mension, Eliane, etc.

But before Debord “pinched the position of leader,” he laid the groundwork for it in 1952 by screening his unwatchable film at cinema clubs. This caused a fine scandal. The film was Howlings in Favor of De Sade, and it was unwatchable because it was “a full-length film with no images” — just black or white screens for long stretches with some voiceover audio making obscure statements. The final twenty-four minutes of the film is a blank black screen in silence. Audiences revolted, losing tempers, denouncing the Letterists. Meanwhile the Letterists lay in wait throughout the theater and in the balcony, ready to throw stuff at them. The near-riot only made people want to see the outrageous anti-film even more. The affair was a masterpiece of the Situation. The “art” was the uproar in the theater as people confronted how they wanted to spend the duration of the provocative experience. They were living. It was a big “fuck you” to the art establishment and it was almost too much for the founding Letterists like Isou to take. Defections and disavowals occurred in its wake. The growing rift left the Letterists ripe for Debord’s splinter-group-switcheroo a few months later.

As for what that opening night was like — the first full showing of the unwatchable film — there are some marvelous first-hand accounts. Maurice Rajsfus described it like this in Une Enfance laique et republicaine:

“With the uproar gradually gaining ground in the orchestra, the Letterists and their allies in the balcony bombarded the public below with stink bombs and sneezing powder. The better equipped hurled water-filled condoms. Once the munitions ran out, spitballs replaced the projectiles… No one had walked out… the evening was brought to a close amid an indescribable hullabaloo.”

Bernstein described it as follows, pointing out that she played a special role:

“I was there – up in the balcony with Guy, with the bags of flour. Below us were all the people we knew – and Isidore Isou, and Marc,O, who’d broken with Isou, and who we’d broken with. Before the film Serge Berna [of the ‘Notre-Dame scandal’ fame where Michel Mourre — a fake priest — announced ‘God is dead’ at High Easter Mass, and he and Berna barely escaped death by “a sword-wielding Swiss guard”] came on stage and delivered a wonderful speech on the cinema – pretending to be a professor. The flour was of course to drop on the people below. And in those days I had a voice – a voice that could break glass. I don’t know where it went – if it’s smoking or drinking. It wasn’t a scream: just a sound I could make. I was to ‘howl’ when people began to make noise, when they began to complain – I was to make a greater noise. And I did.” (Lipstick Traces, p. 337)

Debord’s Expulsion Compulsion

All this business of “breaking with people” was serious back in the days of these competing strands of Marxist revolutionaries. For a few years after World War II, as today, ideological purity had a certain cache. That is a starting point for grappling with Debord’s exclusions of people from his groups and his life. But it’s almost as if he enjoyed the cruelty of the game.

In some cases, Debord really hurt those who thought they were his friends, and who just wanted to help. In All the King’s Horses, Bernstein portrays the Debord-based character as deliberately cruel when breaking with people, often for nebulous reasons understood by no one. Bernstein portrays the trigger-happy exclusions as part of life with him, which she accepted because she loved him and believed in the mission. And she writes, in the words of the character based on herself, “I was immune.” Debord needed her.

The book Guy Debord: Revolutionary tentatively ties Debord’s expulsion mania to his childhood trauma of the World War II years. The aspect of his consistent cruelty suggests childhood trauma to me as well. The only people who ever treated me like that had trauma in their lives. Debord indeed suffered as a boy during World War II, losing his father early, and being sent away from his mother at age seven, and other hardships. He may in fact have been made so insecure by the war that to compensate, he would grow up to eliminate any perceived threat from his environment, in the form of anyone who made him interpersonally uncomfortable for any reason. That would also explain his need to exercise total control of his groups. Perhaps it is a facile analysis but it jibes with my experience: Debord needed everyone in his immediate circle to agree with him or he would feel personally threatened, and that caused him a crisis he resolved through excommunication of the offender.

Both Mension and Rumney knew Bernstein, and both men had been excluded by Debord — and Bernstein always supported Debord’s exclusions. In Bernstein’s interview with Everall, she says even if she disagreed with Debord in private, she thought he was important and so he would get her vote in public. One of Bernstein’s contributions to the Situationist journal was her essay justifying Debord’s expulsions, titled “No Useless Leniency.” Basically she argued that the revolution was more important than friendship. So she was all in.

Speaking of his expulsion from the Letterists, Mension expresses some grudging respect for Debord in the matter. Over many pages he sprinkles details about it and the social aftermath; I have condensed all his quotes below. I have included his line about when Debord and Eliane Papais/Brau broke up, because I think it shows the pattern of hair-trigger expulsions extended to Debord’s private life. At the end of this block quote, Mension takes a moment to note that Bernstein was the only one left standing after Guy cut a swath of exclusions through the Letterist ranks (“the Moineau team”). Bernstein joined the Letterists after Mension was excluded in ‘54. But she had been in the scene for months already. Before Mension’s exclusion, Bernstein and Debord had begun their years-long relationship. Mension:

“In a way, I was the existential principle and (Debord) was the theoretician…. From one angle, he was very amiable… There was another side to Guy, too, a certain courage: he was always prepared to break off relations even though he didn’t always know what he would find next. He took the risk of finding himself alone. And he was very strict about it: he never maintained a contact when he no longer cared to, except for minor utilitarian reasons…. Guy had a very, very pure vision of eternal love, perfect love, a vision impossible to live out in this lousy world, and… in fact, (Debord and Eliane) had split up over a word, a chance remark, that tended to contradict that view of things…. I have always regretted being excluded, because I felt that Guy was a person of exceptional intelligence…. I recall a time [afterwards] when we happened to be in the Monaco [a café] at the same time…everyone would buy a round… When it was my turn, I didn’t pay for Guy, and likewise when it was his round he didn’t pay for me… the other would pay for his own separately. It was a ritual: we would not say a word to each other. It never crossed my mind to address him, and the same was true for him. That kind of thing was just not done… it was forbidden (to relate to other members of the group), we didn’t have the right. Members weren’t allowed to keep on talking to… people who had been excluded, that was taboo…. Guy had excluded everyone he had known at Moineau’s who had been a participant…. He dismissed practically the entire Moineau team and set off again with a new team which did, however, include Bernstein, who was a Moineau person. (The Tribe, pp. 43-94)”

Rumney addresses Debord’s Situationist expulsions in The Consul, noting there was a “malicious” aspect. He also provides details about Jorn’s special status as the one person besides Bernstein who could do whatever he wanted. Rumney:

“Guy was magic, but malicious too, when he wanted to be. Always delightful and then, from one day to the next, bang, he would shut the door in your face…. (Jorn) is one of the few members of the Situationist International never to have been expelled. He knew enough to resign before that happened. He was the one artist who stayed the longest [most artists had been replaced by sociologists and pure revolutionaries], while continuing to do whatever he liked and see whomever he liked. You could say that if there was an internal discipline within the SI that prohibited any contact with expelled members, Jorn cheerfully ignored it. (The Consul, p.39)”

When asked about his reaction to his own expulsion from the Situationists, Rumney offers a full answer that addresses the interpersonal toll that Debord’s exclusions inflicted, referencing the exclusions of Gil Wolman and Francois Dufrene as well. At the end, like Mension above, he takes a moment to note that Bernstein was exempt from Debord’s cruelties. Rumney:

“(My expulsion) hit me very hard. It was very demoralizing. I really believed in the SI, and I still do. You don’t have to become a turncoat because you’ve been excommunicated. I would claim that at the Cosio conference I made a real contribution to the foundation of the SI…. The motives for expulsions published in Potlatch and Internationale Situationniste [the Letterist and Situationist journals] have no relation to the real reasons. There were two contradictory criteria for expulsion. On the one hand, incompetence and inefficiency, often tolerated until they became glaring – a matter of the SI’s proclaimed equality, which hid the fact that Guy knew he was more equal than the others – and on the other hand, a mind that was too brilliant: I need only mention Dufrene and Wolman. There were always these two different reasons. There’s an anecdote that is exemplary in this respect. One day, Francois Dufrene met Guy in the street. He offered his hand in greeting. Ignoring his hand, Guy proclaimed, ‘From today on, I will never speak to you again.’ He never said another word to him and never gave any explanation. (Dufrene was hurt) terribly. Guy told me of the incident with pride. Francois was mortally wounded, I learned this when I started meeting him in the Lara Vincy Gallery. I began to spend time with him and Gil Wolman. I quickly understood two things: the first was that he had been grievously hurt by this split, and the second was that he hadn’t deserved it. He considered Guy Debord to be his best friend. I think it was being unable to understand why it happened that was the worst part. As (to why Wolman was expelled), we didn’t know the real reason. Unlike Francois, who never got over the separation, Gil rose above it. At least, that’s the impression he gave. He was morbidly modest. (Francois and Gil and I) didn’t talk about it. In any case I cannot imagine Gil and Guy together in the SI. The SI could not be bicephalous. We met up again at the beginning of the sixties after our respective expulsions that had had more or less coincided. No longer being a member of the SI, I saw no reason not to see them. At the start of the seventies, Wolman and I lived on the same street. We saw each other a lot and exchanged ideas. Gil had a great sense of humor. He was brilliant. Michele Bernstein, who did not follow the principle of expulsion, was a good friend of his.” (The Consul, pp. 55-57)

 

“Metagraphic portrait of Michèle Bernstein,”1963, collage, ink and oil on cardboard, 63 × 49 cm. By Ivan Chtcheglov, a Situationist who found his way into a mental hospital and never found his way back out again. A rough translation of the words in the portrait: “Cacti do not age.”

Portraits of Bernstein

Both Mension and Rumney related anecdotes and character sketches of Bernstein in their books. Mension speaks of her generosity, her sophistication, her outsider status — and how she and Debord were perfect for each other:

“When I first met her at Moineau’s in 1952 she used to be in almost every day, but she worked, she was a serious person. I think she was still taking courses and working at the same time. I got to know her about the same time Guy did, but she was not in the group… she joined the group formally (in July 1954). Guy and Michele were married very soon after, in August ’54…. I remember one afternoon (before their marriage) when we had been drinking together, the three of us. I told them they were made for each other and, in effect, that they ought to get married, and indeed I felt it would be a good idea. Guy was amazingly cultivated, and he had remarkable ideas for the time – and for later times, too, for that matter; and Bernstein for her part, though completely different, had an exceptional classic culture and vast knowledge. To me, and to others at the time, she was a walking dictionary. She came from a highly cultured background. (The neighborhood people perceived her as) a pain in the rear end. She was seen as an outsider because she had a job. She was working part-time, student jobs… she always had a couple francs on her… She was really nice. I remember one morning coming into Moineau’s with Joel Berle, about eleven, and she was there already… eat(ing) lunch… Right away she started ordering glasses of red for us. But she was a little different. She was appealing, and, furthermore, it was very pleasant occasionally to hear her talking of various writers and suchlike. But Michele had a slight air of sophistication that placed her outside our little family. There was a whiff of ‘fancy neighborhood’ about her. That said, we were very fond of her – she was intolerable, but, as I remember, we were very fond of her. (The Tribe, pp. 106-109)”

Rumney mentions meeting Bernstein and being friends with her and Debord. Rumney also analyses her and Debord’s relationship, adding his opinion that Bernstein influenced Debord and maintained an independence from him. I don’t have information on Bernstein’s mother, but Rumney gives a very strong impression of meeting Bernstein’s father, who seems to have been an influence on Bernstein’s sophistication and her intellectual prowess. Rumney:

“(I knew Bernstein at the same time as the other Letterists) at the start of the fifties. She was unlike the other girls we knew, for several reasons. She was already Debord’s girlfriend. She wasn’t the type of girl that the men at Moineau’s would pass around. I think there was a deep understanding between Guy and Michele; they seemed to see eye to eye about everything. I don’t know what else you need to be in a couple. Anyway, that was my impression. I thought they were wonderful. After they separated, she managed to keep her distance from him. Even though Guy helped her find her way, she was never under his thumb. Indeed, I think she influenced him. And then, you know, in a milieu where most people didn’t work and had no income, she had a job. I remember spending a night… where they lived. There wasn’t much space, but at least they had a place of their own. Their generosity was boundless, a kind of absolute potlatch. Sometimes they would take me out to eat. They got me to discover Paris or at least that limited part of it…. [Years later] I met Michele’s father…formidable, wonderful. If I had a quarter of his erudition, I’d consider myself rich. He was a walking encyclopedia… a bookseller with an international reputation. I know that even today when Michele needs to know something, she calls her father. Me, I call Michele.” (The Consul, pp. 62-108)

I also found this nice biographical mention from Lefebvre who spent some time with Bernstein and Debord. Note Lefebvre’s comment about falling out with Debord for mysterious reasons. Lefebvre’s anecdote about the “country walk” at the end is interesting from a Situationist point of view; on the one hand, he upset Bernstein by getting the Situationists turned around in the woods; on the other hand, the Situationists were fond of getting lost in cities (the “drift”), so what was the big deal? He seems to have beat them at their own game. This is a very human portrait:

“[My friendship with Guy] lasted from 1957 to 1961 or ’62… and then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…. I remember a whole night spent talking at Guy Debord’s place where he was living with Michele Bernstein in a kind of studio… in a dark room, no lights at all… a miserable place, but at the same time a place where there was a great deal of strength and radiance in the thinking and the research…. We drank tequila with a little mezcal added…. [One time] we worked together day and night [on writing a document]. We went to sleep at nine in the morning — that was how they lived, going to sleep in the morning and sleeping all day. We ate nothing. It was appalling… not eating, just drinking. We must have drunk a hundred bottles. In a few days. Five… and we were working while drinking…. These were ideas we tossed around on a little country walk I took them on – with a nice touch of perversity I took them down a path that led nowhere, that got lost in the woods, fields, and so on. Michele Bernstein had a complete nervous breakdown, she didn’t enjoy it at all.”

Debord, Bernstein, and Jorn, the Situationist nucleus. 1957.

The Situationists and their Discontents

After the Letterists had served their purpose, in 1957 Debord, Bernstein, and Jorn formed the Situationist International in Cosio Italy, with others such as Rumney and, later, Ivan Chtcheglov. Both Chtcheglov and Rumney became luminaries in the Situationist practice of psychogeography, namely the analysis of urban spaces’ effects on psychology – an inherently subjective affair they were trying to codify as poet-theoreticians. Rumney is famously not in the Situationist group photo at their formation in Cosio because he took the picture.

Debord expelled Rumney within nine months, saying he had been “swallowed by Venice” (I addressed this through the story of Pegeen and Peggy Guggenheim here.) Rumney had indeed moved to Venice, but intended to still contribute. He said of his expulsion:

“My life was extremely complicated at the time. (My wife) Pegeen was pregnant…. Michele and Guy considered that the birth of a child was a bit of foolishness that should not distract a true revolutionary from his path…. I was expelled politely, even amiably. (It was ironic) because I recall having said in Cosio that any lack of the fanaticism necessary for our advancement must be punished by expulsion.” (The Consul, pp. 51-54)

The party line was you had to renounce your outside relationships to be a Situationist, or at least you had to minimize those relationships. By letting life events overwhelm his commitment, Rumney became ineligible to remain. Interesting that he says Bernstein was partly responsible; it was clear to Rumney that the power couple was a united front in making the decision..

Jorn eventually resigned, but at Debord’s secret invitation he remained an undercover member and financier. Behind the scenes, Jorn flowed a stream of his paintings to Debord to sell for the cause.

Bernstein tells the story of her own resignation in the Everall interview:

“The arguments over [the Six-Day War in 1967] were long and everyone was in agreement apart from me. And my position was simply this: Israel was not at the origin of the military conflict, it was Egypt. It was not the opinion at that moment of all the others. The law was simple, if somebody has a different opinion to the rest of the Situationists, they either kowtow, or quit. Everyone had to be of one voice. As I did not want to change my view, and still don’t, I quit. But, afterwards, Guy said to me, you stay clandestine, like Jorn. Yes. That did not mean a lot, as I was, anyhow, still friends with Guy, giving some advice in private – some good, some disastrous, but always in the spirit of treating a conflict with humour rather than with violence. In ’68, that meant finding cigarettes in the nearby suburbs on my bicycle, as there were no more cigarettes in Paris, making and writing a big banner to hang outside the Sorbonne… helping a bit with money. So, I was on the outside but nevertheless close until ’73.”

Situationism: A Love Story

A dozen years after Debord expelled Rumney, and after Bernstein herself had officially resigned wink wink, Bernstein and Rumney crossed paths at a party of some ex-Situationists. As Bernstein tells it in the Everall interview:

“I went to a feast to meet old friends – Wolman, François Dufrêne and others. Suddenly someone tall, draped in black, that I was not expecting at all because I thought he was in England, arrives [Ralph Rumney]. I had not seen him since he was excluded, which was the same year that we founded the Situationist International. And I don’t know how it happened, but a friend told me that she’d not seen two people so happy to see each other. We were. He was a widower, having been married to Pegeen, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim, and I was now divorced…. At the end of ’73, Ralph and I married. Debord went into a rage, and this time excluded me for good…. From that time I have been in tenebrae. The dark place.”

Rumney unpacks all this a bit more in The Consul. On the fateful meeting with Bernstein:

“There was a party at the home of Claude Clavel… and there was Michele Bernstein…. And we fell into each others’ arms, just like that, so happy to see each other again. We started telling each other jokes, couldn’t stop making each other laugh. I ended up… at Michele’s place, in fact. Bit by bit, I moved in with her. You see how small the world is.”

And Rumney’s version of Debord going into a rage has all the scandalous details:

“I expressed the wish [to Michele] to see Guy again if he would meet me. We went to his place…. I met Alice [Becker-Ho], his second wife. They were both charming and immediately opened a bottle of Antinori, a very fine Chianti…. And then Guy began to do something rather curious. He spoke to me about Michele like a lord and master, as if he still had some kind of proprietary right over her and I was a passing fling. Michele, who was sitting next to him, had clearly had enough of this, and got up to come sit by me. It was a bit of theater, to counter Guy’s behavior… And then we ate, and towards the end of the meal I began talking about the problems I was having with my papers and residence permit. It was perhaps not the best thing to say, but I asked Guy if he knew anyone who could help me obtain these papers, saying: ‘It could perhaps assist me if you could introduce me to anyone halfway decent that you’ve encountered at the Prefecture during your dealings with the legal system.’ He went off the rails. He shouted: ‘Get out!’ And he threw us out of the flat. It had given him a pretext to lose his temper. In his head, by asking him that, I was taking him for a cop and that he would not tolerate. It was the last time I saw him…. [Bernstein] credited me with having used my English sense of humor. ‘You were perfect.’”

Bernstein would later divorce Rumney. He admits in The Consul to being a violent enough drunk to throw a television at the wall. By all accounts, they managed to remain close friends. One story from their marriage captures a classic Bernstein moment. Rumney:

“One evening, during our time in Canturbury where I taught art, I was a bit worried because one of my students had barricaded himself inside a kind of shelter he’d made out of his canvasses. He refused to come out or to communicate. Despite my superiors’ wanting to call the police and the student psychiatric services… Michele had told me the solution was simple: I only had to give him Melville’s Bartleby to read and everything would sort itself out during the day. Which is exactly what happened.”

Rumney’s closing words reflect his affection, and provide a final nugget of insight into Bernstein’s and Debord’s relationship — the power couple at the heart of the roiling avant-garde of postwar Paris:

“I don’t think Michele ever knew how to become a Debordist. She kept her intellectual independence, which is not an easy thing, especially with someone like Guy. She had a classical education to begin with, which was insufficient for someone of her intelligence. I think Guy brought her some of the rest and made her understand how to learn other things. And she knew, maybe thanks to Guy, how to free herself intellectually, even from him. To me, she is the most Situationist of all.” (The Consul, pp. 110)

Postscript: Bernstein on Pessimism at Age 81

From the Everall interview:

Bernstein: I am rather pleased to be 81.

Everall: To have made it?

Bernstein: No, I mean I am extremely pleased not to have to see what the world is going to be.

Everall: That is a very pessimistic view.

Bernstein: I don’t mind being a pessimist.

Everall: Do you think that the Situationists were pessimists? Because that suggests, against all evidence, that you have lost your sense of fun.

Bernstein: No. Nothing is more fun than to be pessimistic. Who are the great fun figures in English? I would say Jonathan Swift. Laurence Sterne, of course. Do you think they were fun?

Everall: Yes, of course, but not entirely pessimistic.

Bernstein: No, they were pessimistic. They knew things were not perfect.

Everall: Yes, but also that they would find readers who agreed. Swift was not just a pessimist; he knew that he would find readers to share his ideas, and to laugh.

Bernstein: Do you think that finding readers is enough to make the world good?

[Everall changes the subject]

 

More:

Avant-Garde Women: Eliane Brau, the Invisible Icon

Avant-Garde Women: Peggy and Pegeen Guggenheim

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