- An Aesthetic of the “Grand Style”:Guy Debord
A Distancing from the World
It is difficult today to determine what might correspond to that model of aesthetic excellence that Nietzsche defined with the expression "the grand style." Certainly, in the various arts, works keep being produced that correspond to the features of contained power, classical rigor and unbounded certainty; unfortunately they come to the attention of experts and the public with greater difficulty and more slowly than in the past, both because of literary, artistic and cultural overproduction, and widespread cynicism, superficiality, and insensibility. "The grand style," in fact, implies immediate concern, respect, memory—in a word, veneration. These aspects do not blend well with the general tone of contemporary daily experience, but precisely because of their rarity they may render "the grand style" the object of more diligent research and more zeal than ever.
It is much more difficult, however, not just to find, but even to imagine "the grand style" as the quality of an action, a behavior or even an entire existence: in other words, as Nietzsche says, to consider it no longer simply art, but "reality, truth, life." Besides, Nietzsche himself taught diffidence about actions and behaviors that attribute to themselves all sorts of positive qualities, and he showed how, in most cases, they are secretly animated by opposite drives. In this specific instance, the philistinism of the rich and idle mob that glorifies Wagner's opera exemplifies exactly the opposite of "the grand style"; indeed cultural snobbism —as the word itself suggests: "sine nobilitate"—constitutes a manifestation of vulgarity and coarseness, of boasting ostentation that is at the antipodes of "grand style's" simplicity and purity. As for a whole life, globally considered, it seems that only a few short existences may aspire to all that, almost as if longevity required a long exercise of practical shrewdness, if not complicity with infinite shames. To recognize this is already a great achievement!
For this reason, it is for me a source of great happiness to have met the man who in the second half of the twentieth century has been the [End Page 89] personification of "the grand style," Guy Debord, "doctor of nothing," as he defines himself (Panegyric 13), but master of the ambitious, friend of rebels and the poor, secretly admired by the mighty, stirring great emotions, but cold and detached from himself and from the world. This is in fact the first condition of style: detachment, distance, suspension from disorganized affections, from immediate emotions, from unrestrained passions; hence there is a relationship between style and classicism that Nietzsche repeatedly underlined. Style, however, should not be considered a synonym for frigidity, insensibility, or worse, pedantic and stereotyped academicism. In order to master passions, they have to be there! Besides, style and passion have in common their imperious and constraining character; both require obedience and discipline.
In Debord's case, detachment manifests itself first of all as completely extraneous to the worlds of academia, publishing, journalism, politics and media. Debord nourishes a deep disgust for the whole cultural establishment. He hates worldliness and snobbish frivolity that flirts with revolutionary extremism — the so-called "radical chic." Finally, his disdain is not softened by inherited wealth: he affirms that he was "born virtually ruined" (Panegyric 12). In an age in which ambitious people are ready to do everything to obtain political power and money, Debord's strategy exploits one factor: the admiration he inspires in those who see that political power and money are secondary to excellence and its recognition. This strategy aims at a kind of superiority similar to that of some of the ancient philosophers, like Diogenes, for whom coherence between principles and behavior was essential. However, this superiority is not so much embedded in an ethical background as an esthetic one: the tradition to which Debord belongs is one of poetic and artistic revolt. That tradition, which encountered an extraordinary development in the twentieth century avant-garde, dates back to the Middle Ages: the great fifteenth-century French poet François Villon was the model for an encounter between culture and alternative (in his case, even...