Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) 1894–1961
A French physician, essayist, and novelist, Céline was notorious for the extreme pessimism of his misanthropic view of human nature. His masterful use of argot, popular expressions, obscenities, and fractured syntax illuminated his perception of the madness and chaos that was modern Europe. Madness became Céline's pervasive metaphor for the nature of human existence, and his forceful use of language and disregard for traditional literary style and structure helped place him at the forefront of the literature of anarchistic revolt. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 7, 9.)
[Eleven] years after his death, [Céline's] reputation stands high in France and perhaps even higher in the English-speaking countries. (p. 58)
Céline, according to [Nigel] Dennis, was not only that rara avis, a seminal writer, but a seminal writer whose example inspired other talented writers at the same time as his own successful creations have not been surpassed by any of those who have followed in his footsteps as a writer of fiction. When we consider that the latter group, according to some critics, may include men like Sartre …, Burroughs and Mailer, not to speak of lesser writers like Joseph Heller …, we are obviously confronted with an aesthetic phenomenon of a superior order of magnitude….
Even the cautious academic world, despite the explosiveness of his antiacademic temperament, is beginning to take note of his stature. A very interesting article [by] … Colin Nettelbeck is entitled "Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline" [see CLC, Vol. 3]….
Professor Nettelbeck's article is notable as the most exhaustive account of the whole of Céline's fictional oeuvre…. (p. 59)
Neither Professor Nettelbeck nor Mr. Dennis suggests any defense of Céline's antisemitism. Quite the contrary. But they suggest that this element in his writing be put into proper perspective with regard to his work as a whole. (p. 60)
My own attention has been attracted, in the last works of Céline, to certain details which have not been commented on by others but which seem to me as interesting as those they have singled out for notice. Towards the end of North, he conceded that his own great sufferings in the Second World War (as a refugee fleeing France because, as he admits, he feared the vengeance of the Resistance upon himself as a notorious fellow-traveller of the Nazis, a "collabo") were not so great as the sufferings of those who experienced Buchenwald. (This realization apparently existed side by side with his … envy of the publicity accorded to Anne Frank and her family.) Also, in a vein reminiscent of one revealed in his conversations as recorded in The Crippled Giant, he calls down a plague on all sides of the conflict indiscriminately, curses Nazis and resisters, and consigns them to destruction in "the same cauldron." (pp. 61-2)
The optimistic forecast of regeneration which Professor Nettelbeck thinks he discerns at the end of Rigodon seems to me little better than a nightmare vision of France and the free West succumbing at last to "the yellow peril" in biological, diplomatic and military terms. He dreams of their being overrun by Mongol hordes who will loot and vandalize all their heaped up goods and luxuries until, sated with blood and conquest, the conquerors themselves pass out into a state of drunken stupor in the wine-cellars of Champagne. The last word...
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Alcohol is singled out by Céline as the weapon chosen by the Jews in order to impose their will on the French—and, of course, to attack the drinking of wine is to undermine one of the foundations of the French nation. Literature and alcohol do not mix. Céline decries the "standardization" of literature in his wine-drenched homeland. Literature has lost, according to Céline, its "authentique émotion, spontanée, rhythmée" …, and thus Céline's own oral style … has been rejected for more "literary" styles, derived from such half-Jewish writers as Montaigne and Proust.
Although Céline portrays himself as one of the victims of this imaginary [Jewish] conspiracy, he has not, as a confirmed teetotaler, succumbed to the temptations of alcohol. And throughout his novels, Céline through his various narrative personnae remains the nondrinker. But although he refuses the intoxication of alcohol, he participates in another form of intoxication, one that is lucid and consonant with the style he has chosen. This form of intoxication is délire (delirium). Céline's use of the substantive délire and the verb délirer is pervasive in his works. Cognitively it signifies the expression of ideas contrary to reality, a state of excitement or agitation. To these two meanings—both indicating essentially a mode of verbal expression—Céline adds a third, archaic meaning—poetic frenzy or inspiration. Contextually, as we shall see, délire will have certain spatial connotations and will be opposed to both drunkenness and insanity.
I would like to examine three modes of delirium in Céline's second novel …, Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan], a novel that Michel Beaujour has called a "constellation of deliriums." My choice of this particular novel has been dictated as well by the nature of its narrator and its particular configuration of narrative voices. Ferdinand is the first of Céline's homonymic protagonists and, analogous to the author, he is both doctor and writer—claiming authorship of Céline's first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit. Mort à crédit employs the "ulterior narrative" pattern that will become typical of Céline's novels. The first part of the novel (the narrative instance) takes the form of a prologue in which Ferdinand situates himself in the present—here as a doctor in the "zone" (the seemy industrial suburb surrounding Paris). The second part of the novel (the story) chronicles Ferdinand's childhood and early adolescence: his growing up in the enclosed, stifling Passage des Bérésinas in a struggling petit bourgeois family, his schooling, his attempts to find and hold a job, and finally his acknowledgement of failure, culminating in his intention to join the army. (pp. 191-93)
For Ferdinand, "la vie" is represented by his patients' poverty and despair. Their fragile protection against life lies in the fleeting pleasure of alcohol or sex. There are more than 14,000 alcoholics and more than 6,000 cases of gonnorhea in the doctor's district. The doctors at the clinic are only slightly less impoverished than their patients. Even Ferdinand's colleague Gustin drinks to escape, though he is intimate with the ravages of alcohol and is himself dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
Ferdinand is differentiated from his medical double by his inability to drink and by the fact that he is a writer. The two are linked to the noises he suffers in his head, his internal, cacaphonous "Opéra du déluge" … which prevents him from drinking and keeps him awake at night…. Ferdinand dates the beginning of his torment back to World War I, thus identifying it with Céline's celebrated head wound…. This head wound will appear in a variety of guises in Céline's novels. But here in Mort à crédit it appears for the first time in a mythical role in the creative process and as a rhetorical device designating that process. The head wound gives rise not to sleepless nights but to a moment of délire, characterized by spatial and temporal disorientation and by hallucinations, which leads to a rupture with the doctor's constituted reality, the social frame of the novel. This break with one mode of existence, with one spatio-temporal frame, combined with Ferdinand's identification as a writer leaves no doubt that this moment of délire functions as a "narrative metalepsis." (pp. 193-94)
Ferdinand's delirium begins in the Bois de Boulogne, where he has taken a young woman, La Mireille, in order to persuade her to cease spreading malicious rumours about him. After a series of hallucinatory visions, he is brought back to his room,...
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Survival as a guilt to be exorcised and which must create its own, nonidealistic style; survival as the only possible fixed value in an inhospitable world: into this category [A.] Alvarez attempts to place those writers who have minimised their moral and literary pretensions [in his essay "The Literature of the Holocaust"].
It is a category which appears, initially, to aid comprehension of certain aspects of the work of Céline. At an early point in the narrator's reminiscences of his childhood, in Mort à crédit, he recounts the visit of the family to the Exposition Universelle of 1900. The exhibition-site is swarming with a vast, frightening crowd. At every turn, at every stand, the...
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