I've been reluctant to write about Louis-Ferdinand Céline
as one of my favorite writers for all the obvious reasons. Céline has a well-deserved reputation as an anti-Semite for tracts that he published after the book that is in my opinion the best anti-war novel ever written, Journey to the End of the Night
. I make no excuses for Céline's anti-Semitic writing, nor do I have to point out that at the time his pamphlets appeared he was in the company of men like Ezra Pound
and Henry Ford
in his sentiments. Journey
stands on its own, and if I were to fail to mention Céline as one of my biggest influences I would be lying. I unabashedly love his novels... all of them.
Céline makes the case for anarchism in Journey to the End of the Night by revealing the hypocrisy of heroism. The black comedy about a World War I soldier named Bardamu begins with war and continues to show how the seed of war — self-absorbed delusion — is found in all forms of authority, whether practiced by individuals or institutions.
He writes: "Who could have suspected before getting really into the war, all the ingredients that go into making up the rotten, heroic, good for nothing soul of man. Here I was caught up in a mass flight into some kind of collective murder, into the fiery furnace."
I cannot think of another book that makes the case against the entire culture of war and warriors with such thorough disgust and contempt. Describing enlistees as "lining up for the privilege of being killed," Céline refuses to see the world under the guise of conflict and, a true anarchist, refuses to see people as having distinct alliances and nationalities.
"Our Colonel knew why they were shooting, maybe the Germans knew, but I, so help me, hadn't the vaguest idea. As far back as I could search my memory, I hadn't done a thing to the Germans....I'd even gone to their schools. We'd go out to the woods together after school to feel the girls up, or we'd fire popguns and pistols you could buy for four marks. And we drank sugary beer together. But from that to shooting at us right from the middle of the road without even a word of introduction was a long way a very long way."
Later Céline describes what the soldiers had been before the war: a clerk, an engraver, a paper boy. There's an incredible incongruity with the scenes they are taking part in. The absurdity of a paperboy filled with bloodlust. He describes them all, Germans and French alike, as "viscious lunatics who had suddenly become incapable of anything other than killing and spilling their guts without knowing why."
He writes: "Could I, I thought, be the last coward on earth? How terrifying! All alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen... shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes."
There is a sick comic relentlessness to his writing, a gleeful enraged dismantling, and it is a pleasure — a relief — to read after the centuries of circular logic, blind heroics, and masturbatory blood lust that fills the literary cannon. Céline mocks the glory of war and the aesthetics of heroism in this hilarious diatribe. The ellipses of course are his and serve not to create a sense of vagueness but a sense of harried impatience, as if we all know what he's talking about, and he's just rushing through to the punch lines.
We'd go home... we'd march across the Place Clichy in triumph... Just one or two survivors... Strapping good fellows marching behind the general, all the rest would be dead... They'd shower us with decorations and flowers, we'd march through the Arc de Triomphe. We'd go to a restaurant, they'd serve us free of charge, we'd never have to pay for anything again as long as we lived! We're Heroes! We'd say when they brought the bill... Defenders of the Patrie! That would do it... We'd pay in little French flags! The lady at the cash desk would refuse to take money from heroes, she's even give us some, with kisses thrown in, as we filed out. Life would be worth living.
"We'd pay in little French flags!" This makes me laugh out loud whenever I read it.
But it is this passage that describes exactly how the author sees humanity. A description of a burning village is the central metaphor for everything Céline hates about organized societies:
We noticed one night when we couldn't figure out where to go, there was always a village burning in the direction of the gunfire... We watched the flames as they swallowed up everything... churches and barns one after the other... Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of a burning village. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn't notice during the daytime, with ugly uninteresting country around it, you can't imagine how impressive it can be when it's on fire at night, you'd think it was Notre Dame! A village even a small one takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there's only a bud, and after that nothing... Unfortunately the villages didn't last... After a month's time there wasn't a village left in that neck of the woods. The forests were shelled too. They didn't last a week. Forests make nice enough fires but they don't last.
The killers are seen as first clueless, then drawn to the site of killing, then drawn in further by the beauty of the fire — in fact, death lights their way and they become transfixed by it. The tiny hamlet that is not interesting when people and animals are living their lives there becomes important, impressive, significant. Like the soldiers who are paper boys but given an arbitrary authority to murder and take it on with incredible zeal, each one becoming his own burning village, a thing that was dull and random but now has purpose, essence, as it is engulfed by the "fiery furnace."
To fools, the village takes on importance in its burning; it is a sacrifice, just as the soldiers throwing their lives away. It's equated with Notre Dame, Our Lady, the mother of god, and then ultimately the beauty of nature, the flower, the bud, the forest.
Céline was a doctor for the poor who served mainly as an obstetrician, dedicating much of his life to the health of impoverished women. He was a lover of animals and a patron of the ballet. He also composed music. And he is roundly described in nearly all criticism as the greatest misanthropist in literature. Something isn't quite right about this description. The world that worships the beauty and tradition of war epics, tales of "unpreventable" and heroic slaughter, but calls Céline a hater of humanity is upside down. It's not humanity he hates.
We have to remember what Céline, the Céline of works like Journey and Death on the Installment Plan, is really interested in — the utter insignificance of state-mandated violence in all its forms. The emptiness of the acts and the corrupt motivations of the actors. He shows us the fire bringing recognition, the battle bringing purpose or "heroism" to the soldier and civilian alike. And he strips it down to bone. These things make nice fires but they don't last.