Feb/Mar 2008

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

Guy debord believed his war board game would be his legacy

Nathan Heller


The French iconoclast Guy Debord tends to be known in America—if he is known at all—for two things, both of which peaked in the student movements of 1968, when he was thirty-six. Debord was a founder of the Situationist International, an underground organization whose roots lay in Dada and cultural Marxism and whose whimsical slogans, creative defiance, and cryptic prose attracted dreamers on both sides of the pond. He was also a curmudgeon. His 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle (the other thing he’s known for), was the high point in a lifetime of faultfinding, paranoia, and alienation. In 221 short theses, it attacked a cultural “spectacle” in which consumer items and pat images had replaced social relationships. These ideas seem old hat in an age inured to Viagra ads and the many phases of Madonna. In 1960s France, though, they proved galvanizing. Debord’s malaise was the kind some people feel when they see Times Square for the first time. His genius was to back up that malaise with theory.

Still, he thought his legacy would rest on something else. “I succeeded, a long time ago, in presenting the basics of [war] on a rather simple board game,” he wrote in 1989. “The surprises of this kriegspiel seem inexhaustible; and I fear that this may well be the only one of my works that anyone will dare acknowledge as having some value.” Debord invented the Game of War, as he called it, in his early twenties—he had no military background—and patented it ten years later. The version that finally reached market in 1987, after more than two decades, included blow-by-blow commentary on a match between Debord and his wife, Alice Becker-Ho. The story behind this curious publication is partly that of Gérard Lebovici, with whom Debord shared a productive and unlikely partnership for nearly fifteen years. Productive, because Lebovici backed Debord’s experimental films, published his writing, and threw extra cash his way when necessary. (Debord had no profession.) Unlikely, because Lebovici seemed to be everything Debord loathed. He was a high-powered media mogul—one of France’s first. At his peak, he managed a stable of actors that included Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, and Yves Montand; fleshed out movies by Alain Resnais and François Truffaut; and published the likes of William S. Burroughs and George Orwell. Lebovici, alas, never saw the Game of War come to fruition. He was found dead in his car in 1984, four rifle bullets in the back of his head. The crime was never solved.

A tabletop Game of War board and engraved, silver-plated copper pieces, commissioned in 1977.

Atlas Press has just rereleased A Game of War in a new English rendering by Donald Nicholson-Smith, a translator Debord appears to have trusted. The edition comes in a sleek box and includes, for long winter nights, a playing board and little punch-out pieces. It’s difficult to summarize. The board contains two facing territories of 250 squares each. Two of these per side are “arsenal” squares. (Active pieces, we learn, must be in “communication”—i.e., aligned, either directly or through intermediary pieces—with an arsenal.) Territories also include three “fort” squares (which raise a piece’s “defensive factor”—more on that in a second), nine “mountain” squares (impenetrable to all things), and one “mountain-pass” square (for penetrating the impenetrable mountains). Each side has seventeen pieces—an array of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and communications. Players take turns, as in chess. Unlike in chess, they move up to five pieces per turn. Each piece carries a numerical “offensive factor” in addition to its defensive factor; when an attack is under way, offensive factors are summed and weighed against the defense, à la Risk. The game ends when a player’s fighting pieces or arsenals are gone. In the match Debord played with his wife, this took fifty-five moves. Ludologists and the extremely anal-retentive will be relieved to find that errors in the 1987 diagrams have been corrected. The rest of us will be glad just to get the rules down.

In crafting this game, Debord was synthesizing more than inventing. The thinker who inspired him was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who spent most of his life fighting the French—first the Revolutionary Army, then Napoleon. His goal was to understand how these unorthodox campaigns succeeded, and his summa, On War, unfinished at his death in 1831, is a military classic. It’s also a book seriously prone to misreading. Debord, who often described living as a private war (and who dealt his own share of Delphic prose), saw Clausewitz’s precepts as life lessons; his game was originally to be subtitled “Strategy and Tactics of Military Conflict (According to Clausewitz).” But that title would have been as wrong as it is ugly. Debord’s game may take its lead from On War’s principles and anachronisms—his generation feared the Bomb, not the cavalry, after all—but it misses Clausewitz’s point. “War, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances,” wrote the general. His key innovation was to depict participants in combat as unreliable, diverse, and prey to loyalties and grudges: to humanize battlefield strategy. Debord’s ambitions traveled in the opposite direction: to shrink the human world down to a game board.

But doing so required a lucky break from that very world. Debord’s game had been on a back burner for years by the time the beneficent likes of Lebovici appeared to follow through. In 1977, the pair founded the Society of Strategic and Historical Games—a company that was supposed to do for the Kriegspiel approximately what the Christian Broadcasting Network does for Pat Robertson—and published Debord’s rules. At that point, their collaboration had been going strong for six years and had become, in the eyes of many, creepy. Not only had Lebovici’s left-wing publishing house, Éditions Champ Libre, taken to publishing Debord’s favorites (Clausewitz included) but Lebovici seemed increasingly reluctant to publish anything else. When Champ Libre’s editors got uneasy and rose against the mogul, he fired them all and took on Debord as an unofficial consultant. From there, the creepiness shot heavenward. In 1983, Lebovici unveiled a Latin Quarter cinema that screened four Debord films and nothing else.

Guy Debord at age nineteen, 1951.

Newspapers of the time treated the unlikely pair with hostile fascination, casting Lebovici as a slimy businessman with seamy secrets—some thought him a KGB agent or a mafioso—and Debord as his black-tongued, radical “guru.” Debord seems to have spent a great deal of middle age fretting about this public image. His other pastimes during this period included anticipating lawsuits for piracy and plagiarism (he didn’t like to gather permissions) and drinking (“Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more”). His writing of the ’70s and ’80s frequently sounds like someone trying to talk his way out of a room-service bill: He grandstands, he plays the victim, he produces absurd principles, he kvetches over details, he makes personal attacks. He is extraordinarily inconsistent. In a March 1973 letter to Lebovici, he professes not to understand lawyerly language; that November, he passed along his draft of a legal defense. When the film version of The Society of the Spectacle disappeared from Le Monde’s movie listings after a month, Debord blamed “some Stalinist or gauchiste copy editor.” Later, he railed against a proofreader who “coldly suppressed my commas”—i.e., copyedited his manuscript—and blustered about leaving Champ Libre altogether.

Why did Lebovici put up with this stuff? The two men had grown symbiotic, for one thing. Debord got cash and connections, and the mogul got an intellectual compass; each lent the other a guise of seriousness. Yet the relationship must have been personal, too. Lebovici seemed to understand his colleague’s cultural nostalgia—The world isn’t what it used to be! is a recurring Debord theme—and his way of thinking. Debord’s overconfidence, paranoia, and reneging came partly from his eagerness to see patterns everywhere: When an anomaly arose, his whole MO would undergo recalibration. The rigid rules and move-by-move study of a war game played into this tendency. Debord could never pass up a chance to explain his own moves, or parse his opponent’s, in a clear-cut system.

It is difficult to know, though, what Debord would have made of Lebovici had it not been for the generous checks. People often spoke of the mogul as Janus-faced, a man of double lives, but he seems more like a massive sponge. Lebovici was born in France to Romanian-Jewish immigrants. In 1942, when he was ten, German soldiers rang at his family’s Paris residence, and his mother hid him and his sister before answering the door. He never saw her again. When his father died a few years later, Lebovici dropped out of the most prestigious acting class in Paris (“I want to be the best or nothing,” he told his teacher) and returned to the family business of importing boar-hair brushes. In 1959, a friend suggested that he become a theatrical manager. He cofounded his first agency the following year and, in 1963, bought out a company managing Belmondo and other A-list names. It was his first coup, and it gave him the authority and resources to form his megafirm, Artmédia.

Lebovici’s launch coincided with a sea change in French cinema. The late ’50s gave rise to a realer, grittier, more ambitious screen style that the magazine L’Express eventually dubbed the New Wave. But it also changed the way filmmakers thought about their work. Lebovici and Debord’s gen-eration fell under the thrall of Hollywood directors like Hitchcock, Huston, and Welles, whose movies flooded into France for the first time after the war. It was revelatory stuff: Here were guys who had managed to give big-budget, collaborative products the style—the unmistakable mark—of a single artist. The New Wave cinéastes came disproportionately from the writing professions, and they spent a lot of time hanging around the Editors’ Quarter of the Left Bank; their hope was partly to join the bureaucracy of moviemaking with a kind of literary independence. Lebovici’s strategy as an agent arose from this ethic. He worked to represent actors, directors, and screenwriters as individual artists rather than as pawns in a producer’s game. Later, he would bring together cinema and publishing as two arms of a single enterprise. He didn’t invent the pan-media alliance in France. He just made it his business model.

And yet money didn’t seem to be the object here. Lebovici reinvested almost everything he made into Artmédia and, throughout his life, declined most opportunities for self-indulgence. (Indulgence of his artists was another matter. By the mid-’70s, he was paying Debord advances of 210,000 francs, roughly equivalent to $230,000 today, for films that had little to no commercial potential. Debord requested a yearly adjustment of the payout against inflation.) Some of Lebovici’s early colleagues praised his “taste.” But what kind of taste was this, really? Lebovici was not an aesthete (he had weak formal education and disdained bourgeois pretense), but neither was he a populist (with a few exceptions, his publishing record is the intellectual equivalent of a bran diet with lots of big, weird seeds in it). His political zeal was a midlife acquisition. And although his purse jingled with the best of French cinema, the heavy hitters—Truffaut, Resnais, Deneuve, Belmondo—were all established talents by the time he scooped them up. Lebovici was a dealer, not a creator. His good taste was commercial good taste, filtered and perverted by his enthusiasm for anything that might turn the France of World War II on its head. Ironically, these two affinities let him ride his era in a way that Debord, despite frequent claims to historical insight, never could.

Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord playing the Game of War, 1977.

For postwar France was in a bad way then, and cleaner, faster, more industrial culture of the sort Lebovici represented was its analeptic. As the middle class seized portents of a new age—sleek washing-machine soaps, awesomely chrome-fendered stoves—critics and xenophobes fretted about “Coca-Colonisation,” or American commercialism. Many of the accusations and indictments Lebovici faced throughout his ascent—that he arranged inside deals, that these deals let him smother competition—were actually indictments of this new commercial reality. Not that he had especially clean hands. Lebovici’s financial web reached into the sex-shop business, his extracurricular activities encompassed booze-and-poker binges (with ne’er-do-wells, usually, but sometimes with Yves Montand), and his income sources may have included money laundering. Yet the flip side of this coin (or is it the same side?) is an American-style success story: an orphaned kid who, by his own drive, shrewdness, and wrangling, rises to lead a small empire, cavorts with marquee names, and make lots of dough in the process. Lebovici would have hated to be described as a bellwether. But he wasn’t far from the center of a culture freshly caught up in corporate growth and Bob le Flambeur. The same commercial tide Debord attacked brought Lebovici his success.

In the months following Lebovici’s murder, Debord bombarded his widow, Floriana, with letters—about the unfinished Game of War project; about Lebovici’s memoir, Tout sur le personnage, which Debord was preparing for publication; about the publishing house’s Clausewitz project. The letters lack finesse (in one attempt at consolation, he tells Floriana that her years with Lebovici put him in mind of Clausewitz and Marie von Brühl), but perhaps his soft side showed better in person. When Champ Libre, renamed Éditions Gérard Lebovici, started sinking financially, Debord sprang to the rescue. “The best solution I can see would obviously be to sell the Kriegspiel,” he wrote. “If it is, in business terms, an equivalent of ‘Monopoly,’ we won’t lack means to pay the Éditions’ debts unflinchingly.” The game came out that February, by which point Floriana had opened a Saint-Sulpice bookshop consecrated to her husband’s publishing. There’s no evidence that the Kriegspiel lived up to its presumed commercial promise, yet Éditions Gérard Lebovici stayed afloat. Meanwhile, Debord was being canonized. In 1990, when Floriana died, he cut off all contact with Lebovici’s sons, who had inherited the publishing house, and signed with Gallimard, the Random House of France. It was his last offensive move—and, some would say, his full entry into the enemy territory of sellouts and complacency. In 1994, he put a bullet through his heart.

Gallimard reissued A Game of War in 2006, and now Atlas has joined in, which brings us back to serious and pressing questions like, How does the game stack up against Monopoly? Not well. The Game of War is difficult to play. Its minutiae quotient is ungodly. Between the arithmetic and the boggling geometries, it may, in fact, be reminiscent of a certain dream you had the night before the SAT. The thrills are modest. All good board games, whether of the abstract type (chess, backgammon) or the little-cards-and-figurines type (Monopoly, the Game of Life), have easily digestible rules. Debord’s are long and hairy. He prized the game’s indeterminacy—every round is different; it isn’t over till it’s over—yet many will find this questionable inducement. Board-gaming aims to be casual and friendly, after all. Cocktails are frequently involved. So are Cheez-Its. The fight for Boardwalk–Park Place is a fun part of Monopoly, but there’s also pleasure in the inexorable plunge, when everyone else owns five hotels and you’re pawning your get-out-of-jail-free card. Debord ended his rules by touting, once again, the Kriegspiel’s verisimilitude: “With [some] reservations, we may say that this game accurately portrays all the factors at work in real war.” A chess match is nothing like battle, though, just as gory video games can’t capture the uncertainty and moral pressure of actual warfare. Things look different on the board than on the ground. Debord didn’t realize that, as far as we’re concerned, this is OK. People don’t like their games too real.

Nathan Heller is a writer based in New York.

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