Louis-Ferdinand Céline

by Louis-Ferdinand Destouches

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Kingsley Widmer (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "The Way Down to Wisdom of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in Minnesota Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1968, pp. 85-91.

[In the following essay, Widmer offers analysis of Céline's misanthropy and pessimism in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. According to Widmer, "Those who see nothing but humor and rancor in Céline miss the existential wisdom."]

Céline's writings have a special relevance to contemporary American literature. While that should not be, given the usual adumbrations of our culture as arising from optimistic innocence and pragmatism and affluence, we may now be more willing to revise the bright theories than deny the dark facts of the American psyche. From the start of his literary career, with Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Céline appealed to the yearning for extremity so basic to American writers. Henry Miller, for example, was revising Tropic of Cancer in Paris when he enthusiastically read Céline's foray into new depths of the autobiographical novel of despair and outrage. The effects on Miller's best work, even including passages of verbal imitation, are evident. With the translation of Journey, and the following Death on the Installment Plan (1936), Céline became a more generally available standard for the American need of enraged disgust. To our revoltés of the 1950s he became a master. This continues, with that sachem of hyperbolic invective, Allen Ginsberg, recently proclaiming (in an interview in Paris Review) the greatness of Céline. And sentimentally sour Jack Kerouac recently acknowledged (in Desolation Angels) that he is, in part, imitating Céline. William Burroughs, an explicit admirer of Céline, attempted in Naked Lunch to outdo his master in the rhetoric of self-hatred, as did Sartre in Nausea. This emphatic, if peculiar, accolade has been repeated by several current American novelists of the urban inferno. More generally, not only is Céline undergoing an American revival, including new translations and academic studies, but his pertinence to our literary pursuit of apocalyptic grotesquery becomes pervasive.

Yet most of the American discussions of Céline seem tangential to the coherence of his best work. At least initially, we respond to the energy of his anger but not to the rigor of his pessimism. Partly this may be because of the difficulty of taking a disinterested view. Not only was it an avowed purpose of Céline's style to achieve a "gut" reaction, which it does, but the man, in and out of his writings, seems obstreperously unpleasant. Céline's anti-Semitism understandably cripples Milton Hindus' angry-awed pioneering study, The Crippled Giant. Irving Howe, dedicated to viewing literature in terms of ameliorist political moralisms, can only find unpleasant extremity in works that "lead to nothing" and illustrate no "yearning for good" (A World More Attractive). David Hayman does somewhat better in a cursory discussion (his Columbia essay, Louis-Ferdinand Céline) which emphasizes the author as a "comic genius" who is a master of "farce" and "verbal slapstick." Certainly there is much frenzied humor in Céline's work, though most dominant in the least integral scenes (and in the most fragmentary books, such as Guignol's Band). But to see the violence of feeling as primarily farce and the negations as mostly humorous can serve as a defense, by way of nasty laughter, from the savage perceptions and sense of the art.

Because of its peculiar wisdom as well as its novelistic achievement, Journey to the End of the Night , I believe, provides the author's most significant work. (It is not, I suppose, accidental that the first novels of rebellious writers are...

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usually their best work, as also with Henry Miller, J. P. Sartre, J. P. Donleavy, Ken Kesey, and many others.) That so many (including Hindus, Howe and Hayman) prefer his second novel,Death on the Installment Plan, may partly be explainable by that work's destructive "purity." This violent assault on petit bourgeoise life, by way of narrating the monstrous miseries of a shopkeeper's son in schools and various apprenticeships in and around pre-World War I Paris, remains unilateral. Any exaggeration in this comedy of nausea simply comes from a rhetorical extension of the undeniable realities of lower-middle class life. Céline's real "excess" here is the refusal to carry his autobiographical anti-hero out of that mean and resentful way of life. His Ferdinand, unlike the heroes of almost all novels of maturation, never "rises," and we are shocked to realize that the one grace of lower-middle class life is to leave it.

Death on the Installment Plan insists that its reality is hopeless and our shock of recognition comes in realizing that Stendahl and Dickens and Lawrence and other documentors of growing-up from mean origins also said this but allowed their heroes to escape. Not Céline, and therefore he can announce early in the book that "it was having been born that was such a mistake"; and by the book's end and his adolescent's despairing maturity, he can coolly conclude that "Growing up's a damn dirty break." In between come perhaps the most emphatically elaborated scenes of anxious grubbing and perpetual puking in literature which stays this side of nightmare. All pleasurable moments are illicit and merely preludes to scabrous despair. Sensitivity and intelligence speed up death's collections. The zest of the invective and the piling on of sordid details provide an antiphonal mode for the explicit moral: "Nothing mattered." Nothing, that is, but recognizing fully the stinking and cheating malice of a mean life-style from which there can be no escape.

Even Céline's sentimentality about the despoiled feminine, from the crippled and self-sacrificing mother through a series of good-hearted whores and other degraded-angel surrogates, serves only to re-enforce the negation and the characteristic grotesqueness of the feelings. For "life isn't a question of heart." But grotesquery cannot distract from the main theme that this social order makes life a petty accumulation of deathly payments. His most expansively brilliant grotesque, Courtial—a mad inventor, showman-rogue, philosopher-fraud—comes to the messiest accounting of all in a world of vicious bookkeeping. This lumpen Homais ends bankrupt, pursued, starving, head blown off, brains literally stuck in the filth. No ironic detachment here, even with the confidence man that traditionally calls it forth (as in Melville and Mann), for Céline rigorously denies the pleasant solace that one ever separates himself from his origins. In effect, Céline says, I hate myself—and with good reason.

Only rarely in Death on the Installment Plan does the exacerbated drubbing of a funkishly miserable lot reach an aphoristic brilliance, as in Céline's most quoted bon mot: "I piss on it all from a considerable height…." Cathartic rage seeks such wisdom but cannot grant it, for memory and self remain all too true. The viewpoint is adolescence recollected with a total refusal of tranquility. Death remains an exhausting rubbing of a one-sore reality, a kind of ne plus ultra of the "social novel," the final downward push into an hallucinatory realism of the Balzac-Flaubert-Zola tradition of savage detailing of lower-middle class life. It is monumental, no doubt, but may also mark the final logic of such literary efforts. Later attempts to go beyond Death in disgust and nausea and self-hatred—including some of Céline's own later works—not only must break with the specific social reality but inevitably become fragmented and fantastic. The monomaniacal purity of that frenzied recall of an anxiously miserable childhood and society creates a mortuary document without range or reversal.

Not so with Journey to the End of the Night, the far less fixed and one-dimensional precursor to Death on the Installment Plan. The sick and desperate young protagonist of Death is preparing to enlist in the army, and that is the starting point of Journey. (The life-sequence of the two autobiographical novels is in reverse order.) He comically runs down the street to join up, and that starts him "on the road to nothing at all." The enlistment of the narrator, Bardamu, is casually tossed off as a total irrationality. The very lack of development of the crucial choice becomes one of the keys to the purpose of Journey; it is incomprehensible for the cynical anti-patriot introduced in the opening pages to enlist in the cavalry but, then "the war, in fact, was everything one didn't understand." And since modern society is simply war by other means, any journey through it is irrational violation of meaning and self.

The war scenes, such as that of the Colonel getting his stomach ripped open or those of the malicious absurdity of the officers (one's own army is the real enemy), are also casually deployed. None of it makes human sense, as with the off-hand summary of the death of a friend: they were in the wrong place and attacked by their own side, which was also in the wrong place and mistook them for someone else. Only by repeatedly undercutting traditional drama and meaning can we recognize our reality. "A lot of things, a lot of very cruel things, have got to happen to a fool before his mind can change its thoughts."

Journey rather raggedly covers about fifteen years in the thought changing of Bardamu-Céline as soldier, convalescent, colonial trader, drifter, American immigrant, doctor to the poor, marginal rogue and director of a mental sanitarium. While for Céline, as for so many others, a world war provides the path for disillusionment, he also searches for something much larger, for the "Truth" at the end of all this darkness. "Wisdom! That's what's essential…." For this it is necessary to voyage into misery, the night side of life, the black places of the heart just because this "frightens all these bloody people" and they flee the truth. In both understanding and fact, "You don't climb upwards in life; you go down."

The end of the journey is the knowledge of his own failure. He arrives at no adequate compassion, "no great conception of humanity," to counter the reality of "a truly appalling, awful world." He reflects at the end that he knows his failure because his feelings won't do when confronted with death; he "hadn't acquired one single good solid idea," a "beautiful idea … to die with," an idea that could bring "joy and insouciance and courage." Ideas are not games to Céline, as to most moderns, but ultimately serious. And so was his journey into the darkness—a will to truth. The effort, then, however perversely, is to "wisdom literature."

In spite of the alternately raging and side-of-the-mouth tones of the narrative, Céline employs some artful ways in Journey. Underplayed but recurrent allegorical scenes heighten the narrative, such as the tawdry carnival in filthy weather (the state of human solaces) and the insane asylums (the normative madness of the world). Parallel family scenes in different places bitterly point up domesticity as commercial conspiracy and sexual torture. Surreal close-ups of sore mouths and fragments of inane conversation recur to remind us that Bardamu's truth is not to be found in the absurdities of human talk, nor in, as he says, "knowing too much," which confuses intellectuals. "Truth is a pain which will not stop."

One of the ways to hold to the pain of truth is to disrupt the usual logic of the world. The central experiences of the protagonist, from a traditional narrative view, would be his serious wounding during an heroic action in the war, his getting a job as a commercial trader in the African colonies, his becoming a doctor in Paris, and so on. Yet none of these are described at all in the book. Céline literally jumps over the center of an action or sequence, closely analogous to the "jump cutting" in contemporary cinema, to insist on the gratuitous fate that leads to the trap of worldly choice and to lay out the corpse in the heart after the trap has been implacably sprung. Since the usual narratives, and the usual analyses of character as an historical accumulation of actions, assume the coherent significance of reality, they cannot serve to tell the truth in a drastically irrational world.

Bardamu reflects at the end that what one actually remembers of his life is a series of regrets. Even memory, then, depends on pain. More extremely put: it takes a "protracted death agony, in which your brain is lucid … [to make it] impossible to comprehend anything but the absolute truths." Lucid pain: this is the nihilistic version of the traditional tragic argument that suffering brings wisdom.

With the detachment achieved from burnt-out rage, Céline often treats the truth- from-pain as grotesque comedy. The above pronouncement incongruously leads to several burlesque love affairs. Spending a convalescent leave in Paris, in which he must grossly feign patriotism to cover-up his feigned insanity to save himself from the grossly insane war world, he carries on with a pretty and fatuous American Red Cross Girl. Here Bardamu necessarily discovers the practical wisdom of reverse morality—the advantages of lying, leeching and lechery—and its general principle: "Morals, in fact, were a dirty business." As to his "pilgrimage," the stupid American's fine body provides the geography of his future; it was from the American's "backside that a message from a new world came to me." His American literary imitators have returned the compliment.

Céline's misanthropic gestures seem to mislead some readers. Certainly they provide crucial responses, wafted forth on the odors—he had a nose as fastidious as Shakespeare's—of bad breath, urine, feces, rot, dirt and disease. That is nature. So are his insect images: most men "are poisoned by themselves, like scorpions." And the metamorphoses of human ideals merely twist nature so that butterflies become maggots. For Céline, the misanthropic gestures are an answer to moral rhetoric and sentimentality: "Since we are nothing but packages of warm and rotten tripes, we shall always have difficulty with sentiment."

Certainly there are positive moments, the brief lapses when "one has disgusted Fate." In such energetic disillusionment, a meaningless universe threatens to become a malignant one, though Céline's anger at a false world keeps him from demoniacally respiritualizing the universe, as against some of the surrealists and Norman Mailer. The misanthropy must be understood as counterattack. His aesthetic derives from "retribution to fit the selfishness of the world."

Céline's sentimentality raises similar difficulties. The rough sergeant Bardamu finds in an African outpost rotting his life away to keep his crippled niece in a "nice" school, the generously loving whore in Detroit, and the other kindly waifs and outcasts, get exalted as they who "hobnobbed with the angels" and offer "tenderness enough to make a world anew." No doubt the good heart under the despised surface too easily transforms, for the moment, "a world that has no meaning." Just as often, of course, Céline's protagonist discovers false feeling, as when he notes that everyone has a good heart—"sods, with so much love inside … they die of love—still inside." For Céline's "angels" go beyond sentiment to bring forms of great though unrecognized ideas. Sophie, for example, the last of the angelically accepting women in Journey, prophesies in her open sexuality "the era of living delights of the great incontrovertible physiological harmonies yet to come." We see in such passages the positive basis of the nihilism, the antinomian vision, the radical prophecy of the heterodox artist. The good-hearted whores of rough male fantasy provide a local and defiant guise for transcendent demands.

To Céline's peculiar uses of misanthropy and sentimentality we must add his immorality as a trap for the literal reader. Journey certainly is an education in how to be a moral sod. Bardamu, for instance, learns how to jettison self-esteem: "While this humiliating trial [of groveling before vicious colonial officials] lasted, I felt my self-respect … slipping still further from me … it's a very pleasant sensation. After this incident I've always felt infinitely light and free; morally, I mean, of course. Perhaps fear is what you need most in life to get you out of a hole. Personally, since that day I've never wanted any other weapon, or any other virtues." Journey amply demonstrates cynical self-disgust as the most useful morality. But as long as he keeps journeying, Céline's hero never finds himself to be an adequate sod, despite the knowledge that this is what the world demands.

To be a fraud as well as to discover that most of the world is fraudulent are not quite the same thing, though, as Céline comments, to be an honest fraud rather than a righteous one is a considerable decency. Bardamu learns that he "must choose: either dying or lying." He chooses lying; yet, in terms of Journey's dramatic unfolding, that was clearly the wrong choice. Robinson, the rather shadowily developed but crucial alter-ego of the narrator, enforces the awareness of Bardamu's failure. When Bardamu is not yet conscious that he should desert the army, Robinson appears for the first time and announces he is going to surrender to the "enemy." With the same clarity, Robinson appears, a moral step ahead of Bardamu, scrounging in Paris, fleeing the commercial outpost in Africa, lamenting a stupid job and miserable loneliness in America, despairing of money and health in suburban Rancy, conniving at crime in Toulouse and (half-patient, half-keeper) in the mental sanitarium. Robinson, "that most unlucky man," is the narrator's "bad dream" and black-luck totem. He comes to represent to Bardamu the man who goes "all the way," completely opting out of a bad world and its rationalizations, the brave one who never shirks the journey into the night.

For Robinson did have what the narrator finally lacked: a "single good solid idea" to die with. That idea is simply negation, the certitude of "no." A lumpenish Bartleby, he endlessly prefers not to do what is demanded of him. The rather flat development of Robinson might be explained by the author's insistence that the character is drastically ordinary except for his saving idea. Crude, unreflective, Robinson lives his idea instead of arguing it—for "to philosophize is only another way of being afraid."

As archetypal victim and scapegoat, Robinson is seen externally; as Bardamu reluctantly recognizes, where he has it bad, Robinson has it worse. But not until the end does the narrator acknowledge the exceptional idea of Robinson, the man he should have been. For Bardamu has sold out. Hired as a medical hack in a private hospital for the insane, he curries favor with the director, such as agreeing with him that those who believe "in justice … are the most deranged." He also gives the Director lessons in English. Ironically, the exploiter acquires from the study of English literature and history an idea of individual freedom. So the Director gives up his nasty career and starts journeying, literally, down the insouciant dark road! Bardamu, however, sinks into anxious comfort and successful complacency as the new director of the insane. Robinson found a parallel choice with a little business and a girl who loves him in Toulouse. But Robinson refuses, and flees. Tracked down to the asylum by the girl, he continues to refuse, even when her love turns into a series of threats. As Robinson explains, what she calls "love" is but a "sauce covering the rot," and Robinson will not accept the rotten world. She finally shoots him for refusing her "love." Robinson painfully but bravely dies. With this, Bardamu recognizes his own failure to follow his journey to the end of the night, his own lack of an existential idea unto death, his inadequate refusal of the rotten world and its lying sauces of love.

Once the courage of refusal is recognized as the central wisdom of Journey to the End of the Night, the novel's irregular episodes become more than misanthropic and grotesque gestures. For example, some readers show puzzlement over Céline's treatment of the poor in various episodes of Journey, which seems rather "anti-liberal" in its cynicism. But those scenes continue the basic argument of the book. The "lower classes," the narrator notes, do not need moral charity. "When you've no money to offer the poor, you might as well shut up" for otherwise "you are almost invariably tricking them." (Many in our "Great Society" still don't get the point.) The only "job" for the exploited and defeated, indeed their only real hope for human dignity, "is to overcome that feeling of obedience" which the established in society demand. If the exploited have truly denied complicity in and acceptance of the vicious and fraudulent social authority, "then they can boast of not having lived in vain." The basic idea: the nobility of refusal.

Essentially similar points arise from Céline's satiric burlesques. Immune to little ideas, such as those of conventional religion and science, he elaborates this in the mocking scenes of a conniving, smelly, sore-mouthed priest and in the scenes of a nymphet-lusting scientist who specializes in hemorrhoids because those who give the rewards are likely to have them. Granted, the burlesques of America, as of the "debauchery" of our toilets and the promising but undeveloped satire of a Detroit mass-production factory, seem too easy and thin. (The scenes of the "Gay Calvin" Hotel of luxuriously desperate loneliness make their point more effectively.) With proper savagery, Céline builds identifications of patriotism and insanity, imperialism and accountancy, wealth and narcissism, morality and hatred. Only refusal is relevant.

The proper pilgrimage consists of a life of such refusal. His narrator in Journey wanders, picquantly and picaresquely, through the quasi-solaces of vice and nastiness. That is how things are. But even as he wonders in his grotesqueries, he also notes the peace and perception to be found outside. Only then does one truly know, "maddeningly realize how completely men are walled off from each other." With sad exhilaration, he discovers "it's during the little interval that you aren't known in a place that life's most bearable." Insight fuses with paranoia. But his Bardamu did not stay outside and so sank into petty comfort and yearnings which led to the denouement. Perhaps life, then, is only "lie, copulate and die." That remains the innocent truth for a Céline, until proved otherwise. But by the very energy of his bitter questioning and his refusal of the given world he remains a proponent of life until he comes to the end of the night.

It is that will to truth and the willingness to descend to death-in-life to find it which carries Journey to the End of the Night beyond Céline's roughness, his sometimes paranoic hatreds and cynical revulsions. Though sometimes a gross mode, novelistically and morally, it reaches through grotesquery to a fine old point—an idea for dying well. Those who see nothing but humor and rancor in Céline miss the existential wisdom. Certainly some of the doing is overdone, but an authentic art remains. Caught in the modern nihilist's dilemma of trying to make something—truth—out of nothing—an awful world—only the passion for refusal gives him strength and direction. He well knows that which must be denied (not least in the literary sense, as in his burlesques of Montaigne's and other traditional rhetorics of acceptance). Perhaps we can conclude with a prescriptive suggestion: those who would make use of Céline, including quite a number of contemporary American writers, must take with his social rages and literary violations his ancient questionings and his rigor of refusal. For the way down reveals its wisdom only when it does not pretend to be the way up.


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Louis-Ferdinand Céline 1894–1961

(Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) French novelist, pamphleteer, and dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Céline's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 15, and 47.

A highly influential prose stylist and controversial polemicist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline is widely regarded as one of the most important European novelists of the twentieth century. His first two novels, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night) and Mort à crédit (1936; Death on the Installment Plan), earned immediate critical admiration and established his reputation as a daring literary innovator and iconoclast. Distinguished for his acerbic misanthropy, black humor, and apocalyptic vision of modern civilization, Céline broke from conventional French literature with his "style télégraphique," a fragmented, elliptical prose style infused with convulsive obscenity, neologism, lower-class slang, and delirious diatribe. Though condemned as a vehement anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator—unfortunate biographical facts that have long maligned his literary reputation—the startling intensity and nihilism of his early novels exerted a pervasive and lasting influence on contemporary European and American literature.

Biographical Information

Born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in Courbevoie, France, Céline was an only child raised by his mother, a lace merchant, and father, an insurance businessman, in a lower middle-class Paris suburb called the Passage Choiseul; his pseudonym derives from the first name of his maternal grandmother. Céline was educated at local schools and, during his early adolescence, sent abroad to study in England and Germany, where it was hoped he would acquire marketable language skills for a business career. After working a series of odd jobs, in 1912 he enlisted in the French calvary and attained the rank of sergeant. During the First World War, Céline sustained serious arm and head wounds in the line of duty, for which was hospitalized and bestowed a medal of honor. He was he was reassigned to the French consulate in London in 1915. While in London, he met and unofficially married his first wife, Suzanne Nebout, a barmaid. Upon his discharge from the military in 1916, Céline abandoned London and his wife for West Africa, where he worked for a trading company in Cameroon. He returned to France the next year after contracting malaria and dysentery. Following employment with Henri de Graffigny, publisher of the inventor's magazine Eurêka, Céline worked for the Rockefeller Foundation as a traveling lecturer on tuberculosis in 1918. The next year he began his medical studies at the University of Rennes and married Edith Follet, daughter of the school's director. Céline completed his medical degree in 1924, along with his first published work, a doctoral dissertation entitled La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1924; The Life and Work of Semmelweis). In 1925 Céline left his wife and daughter, as well as a lucrative medical career under his father-in-law, to work as a doctor for the League of Nations, a position that took him to Africa, Canada, Cuba, and the United States. With his divorce made final in 1926, Céline began an affair with American dancer Elizabeth Craig, the first of several dancers with whom he was involved. In 1928 he resettled in Clichy, France, where for the next decade he worked as a physician for the poor, in private practice and at a local clinic, and began to write. With the 1932 publication of his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, Céline won instant acclaim and a nomination for the prestigious Goncourt Prize; he was awarded the lesser Théophraste Renaudot Prize due to jury politics. The next year he published his only drama, L'Eglise (1933), a satirical rendering of his medical experiences in Africa, America, and postwar France; the work, completed in 1927, represents a preliminary version of Journey to the End of the Night. After the 1936 publication of Death on the Installment Plan, Céline traveled to Russia to collect his royalties and reacted strongly against the hypocrisy and exploitation of the communist system, which he denounced in his first polemical tract Mea Culpa (1936; published with The Life and Work of Semmelweis). Céline published several additional political texts, including the venomous anti-semitic pamphlets Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937; Trifles for a Massacre), L'Ecole des cadavres (1938; School for Corpses), and Les Beaux Draps (1941; A Nice Mess), in which he alleged an international Jewish conspiracy to bring war, professed his own pacifism, and criticized French society. During the Second World War, Céline worked as a doctor on a French arms transport ship, published the first volume of Guignol's Band (1944), and contributed writings to collaborationist journals under the Nazi Occupation of France. Labeled a traitor and fearful of reprisal from the Resistance, Céline fled France in 1944 with Lucette (Lili) Almanzor, a former ballet dancer whom he married in 1943. Upon their arrival in Copenhagen, Céline was arrested by Danish officials at the insistence of the French government and incarcerated for fourteen months. After his release, due to poor health, he remained in Denmark for the next five years. In 1951 a French court found Céline guilty of treason, though a military tribunal granted him amnesty, whereupon he returned to France with Lili and settled in the Paris suburb of Meudon. During the remainder of his life, Céline practiced medicine among the poor and continued to write. He completed several additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois (1952) and its sequel Normance (1954), and the trilogy D'un château l'autre (1957; Castle to Castle), Nord (1960; North), and Rigodon (1969; Rigadoon). His affinity for dance is also reflected in compositions for ballet contained in Bagatelles pour un massacre and Ballets san musique, sans personne, sans rien (1959; Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything). Céline suffered a fatal stroke at his Meudon home in 1961, a day after completing Rigadoon. A sequel to Guignol's Band, Le Pont de Londres (1964; London Bridge), was discovered among his papers and posthumously published.

Major Works

Céline's picaresque fiction recounts the author's childhood, wartime experiences, foreign travels, and medical career through the episodic misadventures of rogue protagonists whose first-person narratives are an amalgam of autobiography, invective, social satire, hyperbole, and hallucinatory paranoia. Journey to the End of the Night features Ferdinand Bardamu, a disillusioned French soldier who is seriously wounded during the First World War. After convalescing in various hospitals, reflecting on the horror and absurdity of war, and suffering a nervous breakdown, Bardamu embarks for Africa, where he witnesses the greed and exploitation of European colonialism as a trade representative deep in the jungle—an episode that resembles Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Disgusted with his position and the oppressive climate, he abandons his post to travel to America, where he experiences alienation and poverty in New York and Detroit. While in Detroit he takes a mindless factory job with Ford Motor Company and falls in love with a benevolent prostitute named Molly. Bardamu finally returns to France, signifying his resolve to confront rather than flee reality, where he completes his medical degree and works as a doctor among the working-class poor then at a private insane asylum. The novel is punctuated by recurring encounters with Bardamu's alter ego Léon Robinson, whom Bardamu meets during the war, in Africa, America, and again in France where, after becoming entangled in an assassination plot that results in his blindness, Robinson is shot to death by his estranged fiancée. Death on the Installment Plan is a bildungsroman based on Céline's traumatic childhood and adolescence prior to his military enlistment. Amid the poverty and squalor of suburban Paris, the protagonist, Ferdinand, endures the derision, lunacy, and physical abuse of his father, a feckless insurance clerk, and tenacious mother, a crippled lace peddler who operates a small shop below their apartment. After leaving public school, Ferdinand works several menial jobs and is dismissed in disgrace from each. Through the intervention of his kindly uncle, he is sent to a boarding school in England, where he has an affair with the headmaster's suicidal wife. Back in France, Ferdinand finds employment with Courtial des Pereires, a quack inventor and publisher of pseudo-science manuals. When Courtial's office is destroyed by defrauded subscribers, Ferdinand accompanies Courtial to the countryside to pursue an ill-conceived agricultural scheme that ends in police intervention and Courtial's suicide. Ferdinand is returned to his family and the novel ends with his decision to join the army. Ferdinand reappears in Guignol's Band, which centers upon Céline's experiences in London during the First World War. The word "guignol" is a double reference to a children's marionette show and a ridiculous person or buffoon. While in London, Ferdinand becomes involved in the underworld of prostitution and drugs through dealings with Cascade, a pimp who heads a large criminal operation. When Ferdinand is implicated in the death of a pawnbroker, he is pursued throughout the city by the police and Cascade's henchmen. At the French Consulate, where he seeks to rejoin the army, Ferdinand meets Hervé Sosthène de Rodiencourt, a mysterious occult explorer who is hired by an eccentric military officer to design a new gas mask for the British army. In the end, Sosthène's takes Ferdinand on as his assistant, London Bridge, the second part of Guignol's Band, picks up where the first leaves off. While working on the gas mask with Sosthène under the direction of Colonel J. F. C. O'Collighan, Ferdinand remains in hiding and falls in love with the colonel's young niece, Virginia. The project is eventually abandoned when the colonel disappears and Ferdinand plans to flee the country with Virginia and Sosthène, who experiments with magical powers. A reconciliation with Cascade causes Ferdinand to miss a ship bound for Argentina and, in a final scene, he crosses London Bridge on the way to new adventures. Céline's wartime trilogy—Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon—recounts his desperate flight from France via Germany to Denmark at the end of the Second World War. Abandoning the pretense of a fictional protagonist, Céline writes openly as himself in these works, though takes great liberties in the presentation of time, place, and nonfactual episodes as he dramatizes events between June 1944 and the spring of 1945. In Castle to Castle Céline describes the middle stage of his journey, during which he lived and worked as a doctor in the French colony of Sigmaringen while seeking entry into Germany. After a long prologue in which he rails against the false accusations and hardships imposed upon him, the novel centers upon activities in and around the resort town which attracted many refugees of the notorious Vichy government. North revolves around Céline's stay in Baden-Baden and war-ravaged Berlin, where he witnessed the disintegration and chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, and Rigadoon traces his travels through northern Germany and finally to short-lived freedom at his destination in Denmark. Céline's additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois and its sequel Normance, are transitional works that deal primarily with his imprisonment in Copenhagen and experiences prior to his arrival in Denmark. In Entretiens avec le professeur Y (1955; Conversations with Professor Y) Céline delineates his literary principles and techniques, which he compares to the work of Impressionist painters, through a mock interview with a hostile and inept questioner.

Critical Reception

Considered among the first rank of twentieth-century French novelists, Céline is highly regarded as a radical literary innovator whose manic prose, savage humor, and accusatory pessimism inspired a generation of writers and introduced new possibilities for the novel form. As David O'Connell reports, "In the last twenty years, Louis-Ferdinand Céline has emerged and, in the opinion of most major critics, joined Proust as one of the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century." Céline's wide-reaching influence is evident in the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and numerous major American authors, including Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Thomas Pynchon. According to O'Connell, "In the United States, the number of writers clearly influenced by Céline is greater than for any other European writer, living or dead." While Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan are widely viewed as his most important works, Céline has also attracted critical praise for his trilogy Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon. Both Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan were immediately embraced by representatives of the political left and right, however Céline's anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies caused his work to fall into silent disrepute for several decades. His reputation was partially reinstated during the 1960s as critics regained appreciation for his lyrical rage and demystification of hypocritical institutions and popular sentiments, particularly military valor, middle-class respectability, and industrial prosperity. Philip H. Solomon writes, "Céline wields his pen like a scalpel (he was, after all, a doctor by vocation). He dissects the human condition, exposing its malignancies, but he offers no treatments or cures." As Jane Carson notes, "Céline writes with a purpose: to show us that the world does not conform to the structure we conventionally give it, that we are in fact surrounded by anarchy."

Paul A. Fortier (essay date Spring 1971)

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SOURCE: "Marxist Criticism of Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 268-72.

[In the following essay, Fortier examines Marxist themes, interpretation, and critical reaction to Journey to the End of the Night.]

Voyage au bout de la nuit, from its publication in 1932, created around itself an atmosphere of mystery and controversy. The author, who called himself Céline, was unknown. The grammar used in this text resembles that of factory workers, taxi drivers, and hoodlums—an idiom hardly considered to be a fit vehicle for art. The vocabulary is a curious mixture of neologisms, medical terms, and slang, frequently too coarse for mixed company. Yet the language of this novel bears the stamp of high artistic achievement; it moves swiftly and evokes powerful images with an economy of means rarely found in literature, let alone in the lower-class conversations which it imitates.

The setting of this strange and powerful novel shifts from wartime France—both at the front and in the hospitals behind the lines—to an equatorial African colony, then to an American automobile plant, and finally to various lower class milieux around Paris. Bardamu, the narrator, provides a unifying thread with his virulent criticism which spares nothing, least of all himself.

Immediately after the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit Léon Daudet a founder of Action Française began a campaign to have this novel awarded the Goncourt prize. Daudet's efforts were seconded by George Altmann's laudatory article in the Monde. The Goncourt Jury announced informally that its coveted prize would be awarded to Céline. But a last minute manoeuvre deprived the author of official recognition—a disappointment ironically noted by Jean Fréville in L'Humanité and by Georges Bernanos in Le Figaro, among others. Céline was not the loser in this affair. The different political orientations of the four newspapers mentioned indicate the wide range of outlook among critics who admired his work.

A novel written in an approximation of working class style, set in the disadvantaged sectors of society, and generally recognized as great art, would certainly appeal to Marxist critics, all the more so because it roundly condemns all aspects of the capitalist society which it depicts. It is not surprising, then, that Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet translated the novel into Russian. But after the short articles written when the novel appeared such as those by Paul Nizan and Jean Fréville, several years elapsed before the appearance of two more serious Marxist interpretations—both by Russian Marxists.

By 1935, the Atlantic Monthly published a study entitled "Novelist and Politician" by Leon Trotsky. Immediately identifying the "novelist" as Céline, Trotsky notes the artistic maturity of Voyage au bout de la nuit and predicts—quite accurately: "Céline has written a book which will survive, independently of whether he writes other books, and whether they attain to the level of his first." Trotsky notes that the novel is full of black pessimism, and—with obvious relish—he rapidly summarizes Céline's debunking of such sacred cows as military valor, the white man's burden, mechanized efficiency, scholarly altruism, petty bourgeois frugality, patriotism, love, motherhood.

Taking his transition from an allusion to Poincaré in Céline's novel, Trotsky shifts his attention to Poincaré's Memoirs, singling out examples of poor taste and hypocrisy. Trotsky suggests that these faults result from the politician's fervent belief in a bourgeois liberalism which has long since ceased to be a liberating force and has hardened into conventionality, or worse. Céline, we are told, rips away such sham to show bourgeois society in all its horror and depravity. Trotsky explains this in part by the novelist's truculent pessimism, but also by the nature of his art: "Céline's style is subordinated to his receptivity of the objective world. In his seemingly careless, ungrammatical, passionately condensed language there lives, beats, and vibrates the genuine wealth of French culture, the entire emotional and mental experience of a great nation, in its living context, and its keenest tints." According to Trotsky, the moving power of Voyage au bout de la nuit derives mainly from the fact that the novel is a faithful artistic re-expression of reality. But he points out that "hopelessness ever leads to docility." The novelist's pessimism, which also contributes to his success, is a threat to his originality: "By rejecting not only the present but also what must take its place, the artist gives his support to what is. To that extent Céline, willy-nilly, is the ally of Poincaré."

Trotsky's adroit use of dialectic leads to what seems to be the main point of his article: the difficulty for a non-Marxist to formulate a valid criticism of society. Trotsky uses Céline's novel, and Poincaré's Memoirs, merely to build up a highly sophisticated bit of propaganda.

The Russian language edition of Voyage au bout de la nuit appeared in 1936 with a critical preface by Ivan Anissimov. The second paragraph of this study suggests the critic's point of view: "Louis Céline a écrit une véritable encyclopédie du capitalisme agonisant." An encyclopedia, in spite of what Anissimov seems to think, does not usually contain the same amount of creative fiction as a novel.

Anissimov finds Céline's point of view somewhat ambivalent: "Céline n'est pas un adversaire conscient du capitalisme, mais seulement un grand artiste qui ne cache pas la vérité." The critic goes on to analyse the "truth" revealed by the author using a double-edged approach. A brief synopsis turns each section of the novel into an encyclopedia article on different aspects of capitalist society—war, African colonies, American industry, Parisian slums; each synopsis is followed by a critique of the author's presentation. After summarizing Céline's vision of wartime Paris, for example, Anissimov comments: "Il s'est figé dans I'horreur. L'idée de lutte ne lui vient même pas à l'esprit. L'indignation à laquelle il est en proie, est sans but. Il ne réfléchit pas au mécanisme social qui a engendré la monstruosité qui s'étale à ses yeux." These statements are entirely off the point. Céline was no immobilized by horror or overcome with aimless indignation; he undertook the difficult enterprise of writing a novel. We do not know what Céline thought about fighting capitalism, but obviously a novel is not a weapon to fight an entire social and economic system. The most it can do is satirize, which is precisely what Céline's novel does, as Anissimov himself pointed out. Finally, the novelist constructs a work coherent in artistic terms; he cannot shift his aim and comment convincingly on social structure. That is the job of the critic. Anissimov's study suffers from a basic misunderstanding of the difference between art and reality.

Whatever it might be, Voyage au bout de la nuit is not a fully developed Marxist analysis of the capitalist system. Yet, because of this, Anissimov condemns the novel for being passive, philistine, cynical, hypocritical, sterile, nihilistic, and abstract. So that the reader may be fully warned, the critic expresses such condemnation sixty-four times in eight pages. At the beginning of his study, Anissimov pointed out that Céline was not a Marxist; the effort involved in going through his novel and condemning it, because this is true down to matters of detail, is pointless. Anissimov's study seems important mainly as an example of the difficulty for a Marxist to interpret foreign literature in Russia during the height of the Stalinist era.

Céline travelled to the Soviet Union in 1936 to spend the royalties on the Russian translation of his novel. A year later in a pamphlet, Mea Culpa, he proclaimed his disgust with Russia and with the communist system. In 1938 and 1939 he poured out violently anti-communist opinions in two virulent polemical works. Trotsky's cavalier treatment of Céline and Anissimov's outright condemnation were fortunate in the short run. The Marxist world was spared the embarrassment of singing Céline's praises, only to have him turn anti-communist.

Trotsky had predicted that Voyage au bout de la nuit would be an enduring work of literature, and time has borne him out. He and Anissimov agree that this novel—in which Céline, not unlike Balzac, creates a model of an entire society—accurately reflects conditions in the capitalist world. The text of the novel presents, for example, in the war situation a strange division of roles. The ordinary soldiers like Bardamu or Robinson bear the greatest hardships, without believing in the struggle. Officers encourage the soldiers, more or less subtly, to continue their pointless efforts. Above them are the shadowy beings who profit from the war: the press, the organizers of "benefits" for the soldiers, the faceless Argentinians. In Africa the natives are doubly oppressed by the disease-ridden climate and by the rapacious European soldiers and traders. The whites—from the lowliest clerk, like Bardamu, to the Director General of the trading company himself—inflict suffering on the natives, but are exposed to the rigors of the climate and are exploited by the stockholders of that company, who, safe in Paris, only profit. Bardamu's description of the factory in Detroit fits into the same pattern. There are workers like himself, the foreman, and the doctor who help keep the system going, and Ford, an impersonal entity that somehow controls everything and profits from it. Each one of these situations is characterized by excessive noise and by violence. These two themes highlight the parallel inherent in the tripartite structure of each of the three situations mentioned.

A tentative explanation of these parallels could be found in Marxist theory which has long pointed out that a developed industrial system requires colonies or spheres of influence for markets, raw materials, and investment of surplus capital. Rivalry over colonies or spheres of influence is, in the Marxist approach, seen as a prime cause of war, specifically of the First World War—which Céline describes. Similarly the stratification of war society, colonial society, and industrial society ties in with a statement by Lenin:

It is characteristic of capitalism in general that the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production, that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital, and that the rentier, who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital, is separated from the entrepreneur and from all who are directly concerned in the management of capital.

The foregoing may suffice to suggest that Céline's novel could be interpreted from a Marxist viewpoint.

Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit, was not, had never been, and was never to become a communist or a Marxist of any kind. But his novel presents a microcosm of early twentieth-century society. It should be possible for a Marxist critic—fully realizing the difference between Céline's ideas and his own—to put aside controversy and analyse this novel in terms of one of the great critical and ideological systems of our age. The model for such a treatment can already be found in George Lukacs' studies of Balzac. Lukacs points out quite clearly that the royalist utopian vision, on which Balzac based his novelistic world, had been singled out for special irony by Marx, then he goes on to illuminate both Balzac's art, and the society from which the author drew his material, by analysing the texts in Marxist terms. A similar study of Voyage au bout de la nuit could promote understanding of a novel which, almost forty years after its publication, remains both powerful and mysterious.

Principal Works

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La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis [The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (dissertation) 1924
Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night] (novel) 1932
L'Eglise, comédie en 5 actes (drama) 1933
Mea Culpa, suivi de La Vie et l'oeuvre de Semmelweis [Mea Culpa and The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (pamphlet and dissertation) 1936
Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan] (novel) 1936
Bagatelles pour un massacre (pamphlet and ballet) 1937
L'Ecole des cadavres (pamphlet) 1938
Les Beaux Draps (pamphlet) 1941
Guignol's Band (novel) 1944
Casse-pipe (prose sketches) 1949
Féerie pour une autre fois (novel) 1952
Normance: Féerie pour une autre fois II (novel) 1954
Entretiens avec le professeur Y [Conversations with Professor Y] (fictional interview) 1955
D'un château l'autre [Castle to Castle] (novel) 1957
Ballets san musique, sans personne, sans rien [Ballet Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything] (ballet) 1959
La Naissance d'une fée (pamphlet) 1959
Voyou Paul, pauvre Virginie (pamphlet) 1959
Nord [North] (novel) 1960
Le Pont de Londres: Guignol's Band II [London Bridge: Guignol's Band II] (novel) 1964
Rigodon [Rigadoon] (novel) 1969

Colin W. Nettelbeck (essay date January 1972)

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SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 80-9.

[In the following essay, Nettelbeck examines the evolution of ethical and aesthetic concerns in Céline's oeuvre. "Despite his reputation as a hate-filled iconoclast," writes Nettelbeck, "the central thrust of Céline's literary works … is, on the contrary, toward affirmation."]

During the last fifteen years of his life, Céline reflected a great deal about his art. In his correspondence (particularly the 1947 letters to Milton Hindus), in the several interviews which he gave after his return from exile in 1951, and in his satirical self-interview Entretiens avec le Professeur Y (1955), there are many signs of a highly conscious esthetic theory. Yet these statements are limited in that they take no account of the development of the author's code which, far from being static, follows the evolution of his actual writing. Furthermore, analysis of the opus as a whole reveals that esthetic considerations are closely allied to ethical problems, so that by confining most of his comments to the stylistic aspect of his work, he actually obscures some of his most positive and ambitious intentions. Despite his wide reputation as a hate-filled iconoclast, we shall see that the central thrust of Céline's literary works, with the single exception of Voyage au bout de la nuit, is, on the contrary, toward affirmation. This does not mean, of course, that the negative side of his vision is unimportant, but rather that, from the tension created between the perception of death as the most potent reality, and the almost simultaneous intuition of the beauty of life, Céline seeks resolution in the direction of life. It is in this context that his more theoretical remarks on his art find their proper place.

Voyage au bout de la nuit differs essentially from the later works in both form and impact. It is the only novel in which Céline attempts to present a total synthesis of his vision, and the only one whose effect on the reader is unequivocally negative.

In the first section of this binary-structured novel, each of the major episodes is dominated by Bardamu's fear and hatred, and by multiple images of death and putrefaction. Any moments of tenderness quickly turn to disappointment or a sense of futility. It is only when he meets Molly that he finds a semblance of peace: "Pour première fois un être humain s'intéressait à moi, du dedans, si j'ose le dire, à mon égoïsme."

By forsaking the personal happiness offered by Molly in order to become a doctor, in the second half of the novel Bardamu takes on a social dimension that saves him from the fate of his double Robinson, whose undeviating egoism turns his rebellion into a revolt against life itself, leading to murder and self-obliteration. At the same time, Bardamu's "socialisation" does not imply liberation. On the contrary, it merely widens his despair. The protagonist sees the reason for this in his own lack of what he calls "l'amour de la vie des autres." In other words, despite the enlargement of his social awareness, he remains a prisoner of his ego, and the "qu'on n'en parle plus" that closes the novel suggests nothing more than a hopeless, mute survival. For the reader also, there is no possibility of catharsis, and the book is an intensely depressing experience. As Céline himself says of his opus, Voyage is "le send livre vraiment méchant."

At the same time, however, Voyage is a necessary foundation for Céline's self-definition as an artist. It is by expressing the extent of his negative vision that he prepares the way for affirmation. In the first half of the novel, Bardamu's characteristic response to experience is escapism. More specifically, he frequently becomes ill: "Moi, j'avais la vocation d'être malade, rien que malade." In the second half, however, the protagonist is first a doctor, then the director of a lunatic asylum. This change of role symbolizes the creation of an esthetic distance, which depends on an underlying faith in life. Not, certainly, in any individual human life, nor even perhaps in human life in general: the power of death is recognized in Bardamu's failure to save a single patient, and entertains no hope of curing the madness of the microcosmic society of the asylum. But life as a biological mystery—described by the narrator as "la vraie maîtresse des véritables hommes"—is perceived as beauty, and will henceforth become an increasingly positive pole in Céline's vision. At this stage, the perception remains relatively crude and ineffectual. Bardamu's glimpses of the beauty of life come mainly through his contact with women, particularly Molly and Sophie. He extols the vitality of Molly's legs—"magnifiquement déliées et musclées"—and of. Sophie's body: "Quelle musculature! Quelle excuse! Elastique! Nerveuse! Etonnante au possible!" At the same time, however, his egoism prevents him from really participating in this life. With Molly: "On s'embrassait. Mais je ne pas bien, comme j'aurais dû, à genoux en vérité." Sophie's body becomes "une divinité tripotée par mes mains honteuses." For real contact with life to be made, egoism has to be transcended to a greater degree than in Bardamu, for the ego contains the principle of death. Céline's subsequent artistic evolution hinges on this realization.

On the level of style and language, too, Voyage important. As Marc Hanrez points out, this novel is richer in linguistic and stylistic invention. Many of the following ones. Even though Céline, in retrospect, criticizes it as being too "well-written," his rejection of the traditional French distinction between the written and spoken language is clearly established, and the ground prepared for a new kind of language which, while retaining the flexibility and subtlety of literary expression, is deeply rooted in the vocabulary and syntax of popular speech. Céline's use of language is not a gratuitous rebellion; it is an attempt to prevent stereotyped reactions, to produce in the reader a raw emotional response. The novelist is explicit about this purpose in the Meudon speech 1933: "Nous travaillons à présent par la sensibilité et non plus par l'analyse, en somme 'du dedans.' Nos mots vont jusqu'aux instincts." In Voyage he uses his language as a weapon, but later this will not be the case.

In the next three novels Céline abandons the synthesizing form of Voyage, and adopts a more directly autobiographical approach. Bardamu disappears, replaced by a closer-to-real-life Ferdinand. Within this framework, Céline is able to pursue more systematically his exorcising of egoism, by reaching its sources in himself. And in doing so, he gets beyond the constructs of his own civilization to the submerged spring of man's myth-making poetic nature.

The title of Mort à crédit suggests a continuation of the death-dominated vision of Voyage, and to a large extent this is true. Both in the prologue and in the narrative proper, there are many images of death. At the same time, however, neither of the structural high points of the novel—Ferdinand's attempt to kill his father and the suicide of Courtial des Pereires—is entirely negative.

In view of the protagonist's uniformly soul-destroying apprenticeship in life, his attack on his father must be seen less as a mere psychological response to a miserable childhood than as an organic rebellion against all the forces that are crushing life out of him. On the personal level, it is an attempt to throw off the immediate source of repression and guilt, but it is also a revolt against the whole social superstructure. To this extent, it is an affirmation of life, at least on a visceral level, and it frees Ferdinand for the encounter with Courtial des Pereires.

As in the second half of Voyage, the Courtial episode of Mort à crédit marks the introduction of a new dimension, a move from the subjective adventure of the protagonist to a more universal plane. Courtial is an archetypal figure, incarnating Western man's thirst for knowledge of the cosmos. When Ferdinand begins to work for him, however, Courtial's destiny is already on the decline, as is witnessed by his farcical balloon ascents, his bankrupt journal, the fraudulent competitions that he launches to raise money, and the sexual orgies and flagellation which he uses to distract himself from the image of death. His final undertaking, the attempt to grow giant potatoes by using electric current as a stimulus, is a grotesque betrayal of nature and his own ideals: "Ça pouvait très bien se propager à toutes les racines de la France … Bouffer complètement la campagne!… Qu'il reste plus rien que des cailloux sur tout le territoire!… Que nos asticots rendent l'Europe absolument incultivable … Plus qu'un désert de pourriture!" Inevitable on the personal level, Courtial's suicide becomes a symbol of the suicidal tendencies of a civilization whose scientific spirit has been completely undermined and given over to materialism.

To this point, Mort à crédit reflects the binary structure of Voyage, with a similar widening of the vision of death. On the other hand, because of its symbolic repercussions, Courtial's destiny is profoundly tragic, and prepares the catharsis which occurs during the last few pages of the novel, where it becomes apparent that his decline has been accompanied by a corresponding ascent on the part of Ferdinand: "Ça m'atténuait les malaises de relever la tête … le ciel était d'une grande clarté … Je crois que jamais je l'avais vu si net … Ça m'a étonné ce soir-là comme il étoiles découvert … Je reconnaissais toutes les étoiles … Presque toutes en somme … et je savais bien les noms!" What Ferdinand has learned from Courtial amounts to an initiation into the ways of Nature, and even though it magnifies his knowledge and fear of death, it also liberates his consciousness.

By this "epilogue," which provides the mechanism for release of tension, Céline reveals an important change in his attitude toward the reader, as well as in his art. These changes are actually contained embryonically in the fragmented legend of King Krogold which takes up much of the prologue, but it is not until the upswing of the ending that the artistic significance of the elliptical Krogold myth becomes clear. In this respect, the themes of the legend—death, betrayal, vengeance—although they are also major themes in the novel, are less relevant than the fact that Céline is casting an image of the novelist as a teller of tales that ennoble and transcend reality, and elevate the spirit of the listener by their poetic vision.

This metaphor also evokes the notion of an essentially oral art, brought out in Mort à crédit when the narrator recounts fragments of his legend to Gustin, Mireille, and André. Significantly, the language of the novel, while less rich than in Voyage, is also less literary. It is here that Céline establishes his characteristic use of the "trois points," a key factor in his transposition of the rhythms and vitality of the spoken language. This is the beginning of the "style émotif" of which he writes in Entretiens avec le Professeur Y: "Le lecteur qui me lit! il lui semble, il en jurerait, que quelqu'un lui lit dans la tête!… dans sa propre tête!"

The storyteller image will continue to be an important reference point throughout the rest of Céline's work. In Guignol's Band I, the novelist presents himself as "Ménéstrel pour tous précipices … Baladin faridondant aux Antres du Monde." In the Hindus correspondence, he calls himself "un rêvasseur bardique." The title of D'un château l'autre continues the metaphor, as does the image of the protagonist in this and the last novels, wandering through time and making legends from history. If the metaphor is later enriched with others, it already reveals in Mort à crédit a far greater esthetic distance than in Voyage, and although death continues to dominate the author's vision of reality, the notion of "crédit" implies a certain reprieve. The time that kills is also the artist's entrance into the continuum of life.

It can be assumed that Casse-pipe would have continued the path opened by Mort à crédit. The fragments extant indicate a direct chronological sequel, dealing with Ferdinand's life in the army. Just how much Céline wrote of this novel is not known, and probably never will be, since the manuscript was among the papers scattered when his apartment was seized and pillaged during the Liberation. If, as Jean Ducourneau suggests Casse-pipe was begun immediately after Mort à crédit, then Céline interrupted it—and possibly abandoned it—in order to write his notorious pamphlets.

The anti-Semitism of Bagatelles pour un massacre, L'Ecole des cadavres, and Les Beaux Draps is not directly germane to this study. Without wishing to excuse Céline's treatment of the Jews which he himself later admitted to be indefensible, it could well be argued that the Jews as such are not his prime target. The main object of his hostility would seem to be French society with its widespread alcoholism, its atrophied education system, its sterile formalistic literature, its social injustices—all of which tend to transform people into robots: "L'Imagination matérialiste nous condamned à l'infini dans la destruction, la philosophies matérialiste, la poésie matérialiste nous mènent au suicide par la matière, dans la matière … Les hommes épris de la matière sont maudits. Lorsque l'homme divinise la matière il se tue."

On this level, the pamphlets tend toward the same end as the novels: a regeneration of the spirit of life. This is manifested in the ballet scenarios which begin and end Bagatelles, in the dedication of L'Ecole des cadavres to Julian the Apostate, the emperor who ejected the corrupt Christian power structure and restored the cult of the ancient pagan gods, and finally in Les Beaux Draps: "Il faudrait réapprendre à danser. France est demeurée heureuse jusqu'au rigodon. On dansera jamais en usine, on chantera plus jamais non plus. Si on chante plus on trépasse, on cesse de faire des enfants, on s'enferme au cinéma pour oublier qu'on existe."

Apart from its polemical content, Bagatelles furnishes considerable information about Céline's art. First, the ballet scenarios indicate a passionate interest in the dance, which has not been present in his writing since the end of L'Eglise, but which will become an increasingly important symbol of life in his work. Secondly, there is a prolonged attack on academic literature as a purveyor of secondhand emotions, with a strong statement on the necessity of a style that transposes into literature the living forms of the spoken language. In itself this is not a new discovery, as we have seen from our discussion of Mort à crédit, but it does show that Céline was working on a conscious level. Finally, Céline recognizes two influences that are well worth exploring: Barbusse and Léon Daudet's Le Rêve éveillé.

The connections with Barbusse are fairly obvious. The autobiographical form, concern for the common people, and de-mystification of war which characterize Le Feu are bound to have found affinity in Céline's temperament. But the greatest impact is on the stylistic level, with the possibilities which Barbusse opens up for literary use of the spoken language. Le Feu is almost completely composed of dialogue, of which the following sentence is typical: "Faut que j'cherche la voiture-dentiste, à cette fin qu'on m'accroche c'râtelier et qu'ils m'ôtent les vieux dominos qui m'restent." The structures and vocabulary of slang and popular speech, widely present in Barbusse, are at the base of Céline's own style. Of course, Céline goes much further than his predecessor. Barbusse is a realist, concerned with reproducing the language of his "poilus." His only transposition is in the typography, and this, too, is an attempt to approximate actual pronunciation. Céline both exploits his source more fully and enriches it with literary usage and invention. His aim is not to write the spoken language, but to give the reader the impression of a speaking voice.

The Daudet influence is much more fundamental. Daudet's main thesis is that man's dreaming is a constant process, which is most often masked during waking hours by the functioning of the rational faculties. To produce the dream state in oneself, one has only to suspend one's judgment, and limit oneself to watching what is projected into the consciousness. The dream itself is composed of an influx of concentric waves, moving from the outside to the center, bringing various impressions, images, fragmented memories, desires, and premonitions. At the center, the waves are condensed into a single theme: "Ce thème c'est le 'être ou ne pas être' de Shakespeare, et l'on peut dire de lui qu'il est, pour les trois quarts du temps, le lieu géométrique de notre personnalité toute entière."

Daudet goes on to analyze the dream as the source of artistic creation. From the initial dream state, the subject moves into a state of "distraction," and from there to a feeling of the sublime. This brings about a renunciation of self and leads in turn to meditation, which, with an act of will, becomes creation. Within the meditative state, free reign is given to what Daudet calls "hereditary memory" (a concept not unlike Jung's collective unconscious, which first alternates, then mingles with individual memory in an ascent toward the universal).

Although this synopsis does little justice to the subtlety of Daudet's analysis, it is sufficient to show that Le Rêve éveillé played a powerful role in the elaboration of Céline's art. It is at the basis of the atmosphere of delirium that pervades the novels, of the extensive use of personal memories, of the creation of archetypal figures, and of the frequent elliptical references to events and personages of the past. It is certainly no accident, either, that to express the life-death dualism, in the last novels Céline, like Daudet, makes frequent use of Hamlet's words. In a way, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Daudet's essay describes the whole of Céline's evolution, for the novels, beginning with the very subjective vision of Voyage, ascend toward an ever greater degree of universality and detachment. Although it is not possible to ascertain exactly when Céline read Daudet (Le Rêve éveillé was published in 1926), certain references to the dream in the Meudon speech of 1933 make it probable that it was before then, and it is altogether possible to place the influence before Voyage, in which delirium, as Michel Beaujour has shown, is a conscious technique for evading an intolerable reality. The substantive influence, however, comes with Mort à crédit and the following works, where the dream is no longer used merely as a personal escape (this function is fulfilled in the prologues which precede the narrative of all the novels after Voyage), but as a progressively more selfless liberation of the reader.

Guignol's Band completes the childhood-adolescence cycle opened by Mort à crédit, and brings Céline's art to the threshold of maturity. As in Mort à crédit, the narrative proper is preceded by a prologue that reveals an unlivable present reality—in this case the bombing of Orléans at the beginning of World War II—and works up to a frenzy of delirium, followed by a plunge into the past. The pattern of the narrative here is, however, more complex than in Mort à crédit: the binary movement with a sudden upswing at the end is replaced by a clear ternary structure, through which the novelist achieves a definitive victory over the ego-centered, death-dominated vision of the earlier works. Further-more, all the major figures in this novel have the richly archetypal qualities of Courtial des Pereires, so that the entire action takes place on a much more universal level.

In the first section of the narrative, Céline extends the scope of the superego figure represented by Ferdinand's father in Mort à crédit to include the whole of French culture: Cascade and his band are an unmistakable allegory of the degenerate French society already portrayed in Bagatelles. Similarly, Ferdinand's rebellion against this milieu, which culminates in his attempted murder of Mille-Pattes—a symbol of Cascade's power—is a widening of Céline's own revolt against readymade superstructures. As we shall see, however, the rebellion is not a total rejection, but an effort to establish a more equitable balance between the individual and the collective. Such a balance is possible only if the potential of the individual has been determined and realized.

This is the function of the second part of the novel, which explores the two major areas of experience needed to complete Ferdinand's initiation: the spiritual and the esthetic.

The spiritual dimension is created through Sosthène de Rodiencourt. Sosthène embodies the religious mode of knowing the harmony of the universe, which, as Céline presents it, is a mixture of genuine mystery, superstition, and mummery. Like his scientific counterpart Courtial, Sosthène is on the decline when Ferdinand encounters him: from a traveling magician with genuine powers he has degenerated into an exotic confidence man more interested in money than in the spirit. Yet Sosthène's false spirituality is relevant, for it prepares Ferdinand for the real spiritual dimension represented by Virginia: it is through Sosthène that he meets her.

With her youth, her beautiful legs, and her transcendent laughter, Virginia is the incarnation of life in its purest form. It is important to note that this life is at first inaccessible to Ferdinand however, and it is only with the incursion of Cascade's band into the idyllic life of Virginia's house, and particularly with the return of Mille-Pattes, that he is able to seduce her and release her potential fertility. In other words, if the esthetic principle is perceived initially as a spiritual value, it is only within the cultural context that creation—symbolized by Virginia's pregnancy—becomes possible. Through the Virginia episode, Céline also points toward the form that his subsequent creation will take, namely, the dance. Virginia's dancing and laughter mark her as a prototype for Lili, the ethereal dancer of the last novels. Significantly, it is Sosthène's lack of the spirit of the dance that is seen as his greatest weakness, and Ferdinand's possession of it that enables him to outstrip his "master" in the realm of the spirit.

The last section of the novel draws the spiritual and cultural themes together, and, in dissolving the tensions between them, emphasizes their interdependence in sustaining the creative act. The climactic scene—the celebration, with all the major characters present, of the "feast of Saint Ferdinand"—resolves itself into an apotheosis for the protagonist, the Chaotic revelry being the final initiation rites after which he experiences the ecstacy of liberation: "C'est le moment de respirer! Humez-moi ce souffle!… C'est vrai … c'est de la bouffée marine … ça vous déferle au parapet … ça vous arrive en sautes rafales … vou débarbouille" (Pont de Londres).

The freedom is not unqualified, however, London is Cascade's territory, and to that extent Ferdinand remains a prisoner of his culture. Moreover, as the last pages of the novel show, his relationship to the spiritual and esthetic principles represented by Sosthène and Virginia is essentially one of responsibility. In line with Daudet's analysis of the dream, Céline sees his inspiration as coming from outside of him, and limits his role as artist to that of protector and guide for the life forces in which he participates. An analogous notion is expressed a few years later in the Hindus correspondence: "Je ne crée rien à vrai dire—je nettoye une sorte de médaille cachée, une statue enfouie dans la glaise—Tout existe déjà … Tout est fait hors de soi—dans les ondes je pense—Aucune vanité en tout ceci—c'est un labeur bien ouvrier—ouvrier dans les ondes—…"

The humility reflected here is a far cry from the hostile attitude represented in Voyage, and must be seen as a result of Céline's evolution away from egocentricity. The apparent paradox of transcending the ego through autobiography is resolvable in Jungian terms, the descent into subjectivity leading eventually to the archetypal domains of the collective unconscious. Similarly, it is through submission to time—as represented by the autobiographical form as a whole, and the Cascade myth in particular—that the novelist is able to reach an extratemporal perspective, his own fate diminishing in importance as his perception of archetype becomes firmer. The catharsis afforded by the last part of Guignol's Band stems directly from the merging of Ferdinand's destiny into the larger frame of reference provided by the Cascade group, Sosthène, and Virginia. And with this increase in distance between the reader and the protagonist, life is perceived not in its turmoil, but as the beautiful movement of pure forms.

The pattern of narration in Guignol's Band corresponds closely to Céline's idea of the "métro émotif." This metaphor which the novelist (first in the Hindus letters, then in Entretiens) uses to describe his art is built around the image of a descent from the surface, followed by a nerve-racking journey through the emotional underground of life. Characteristically, Céline does not say what the destination is. Erika Ostrovsky suggests that it is the dream, but, as Céline points out, the dream is part of the journey itself. The ending of Guignol's Band would seem to indicate that the point of arrival is a more elevated position, from which a peaceful contemplation of the surface is possible.

As the first of the novels of maturity, Féerie pour une autre fois definitively establishes both the mythical dimension of Céline's vision and the positive direction of his art. This is accomplished partially through the structure, which remains the same as before, and partially through the interplay of the major characters, whose archetypal dimensions are now made explicit.

Beyond his personal betrayal of Ferdinand, the sculptor Jules appears as an incarnation of universal evil: his leglessness is diametrically opposed to the positive value of the dance; his workshop in an obscure subbasement suggests a sort of hell; and during the bombing, he is specifically described as "l'empereur des flammes" (Normance). As myth, Jules is the embodiment of all energy that is oriented toward destruction.

At the other extreme, Lili (Arlette), the narrator's dancer-wife, incarnates the good: "La noblesse toute harmonie, la danseuse en l'âme et au corps, noblesse toute!" (Féerie). Lili represents total transcendence. To her, the bombing appears as so much ballet, and in the battle between the angels (both Jules and Lili are thus described), it is obvious that Lili is the victor. At the end of the novel, Jules is effectively stripped of his power, while Lili is as ethereal and carefree as ever.

As narrator, Céline presents himself from the double point of view of doctor and chronicler. In both roles he is on a lower plane than either Jules or Lili. Where they appear as angels, the narrator is part of the degraded and depraved civilization symbolized in the concierge's lodge, and embodies the anxiety and suffering of man.

The doctor metaphor asserts the preservation of life, and the fact that Céline is reduced to impotency in his role as doctor makes the forces of death seem all the more powerful. In the early part of the narrative, it is Jules, a quasi-supernatural force, who is responsible for preventing him from going to his medical duties. But the novelist reserves the bulk of his disgust for his fellow men, those who, within the lodge, act as impediments to the forces of life. Normance, an archetype of materialism who blocks the way to his dying wife Delphine, is described as being worse than Jules: even misdirected energy is preferable to inertia. The other people in the lodge are another aspect of the same degenerateness, reflecting the moral and spiritual atrophy which Céline detected in France at large. On another level, all the people in the lodge, including Normance and Delphine, may be considered as an image of the novelist's public. Given the futility of the doctor's attempt to help Delphine (which symbolizes the novelist's attempt to revive the dying spirit of his civilization), it is not surprising that Céline should have implied by the title of his fantasy that it would be more accessible to readers of another time.

The sense of being misunderstood in his own time also partially explains the image of the chronicler: Céline is suggesting that even if his contemporaries are too degraded to take an interest in the "deluge" that is destroying them, he should at least record it for future generations. We cannot take him too literally, however, for although the last novels do constitute a kind of chronicle of the end of the war, and although some episodes, such as the scenes of Sigmaringen in D'un château l'autre, may actually be valuable as history, Céline's imagination always eclipses the dispassionate observer in him. This is particularly true in Féerie, where it is perfectly obvious that Céline is not concerned with any real events—the bombing of Montmartre, for example, never took place—but with conveying an emotional impression of the reality of his time. The principal meaning of the chronicler image must rather be seen as a continuation of the immersion-in-history concept already discussed in respect to Guignol's Band: subjection to time leads to victory over time. What is new here is that in portraying himself as a chronicler, Céline is presenting his credentials as one who has personally experienced what he is writing, in order to draw the reader into the same journey. If the reader can recognize in Céline's presentation of the deluge a reflection of the underlying anguish of his time, he can be released from it.

Release, in Féerie, as in Guignol's Band, is effected through an increase in the distance between the reader and the narrator, but in Féerie the process is more complex and more markedly an esthetic one. After the bombing, the narrator is a complete wreck, and it takes the return of Ottavio to bring him back to Lili and safety. On the highest level of interpretation, Ottavio is an emanation of the novelist's own creative energy. If Lili, as spirit of Life, is the source of Céline's inspiration—"heureusement que j'ai Lili dites, pour faire un livre! en faire un livre!… plutôt!" (Normance)—he can remain in contact with her only through Ottavio, that is, creation. In breaking through the wall of the destroyed building to the intact twin that adjoins it, Ottavio also underlines the power of art to unify or restore an otherwise disparate experience. The presence in the intact apartment of the actor Norbert Loukoum (Le Vigan in the following novels) illustrates the transposition of reality necessary to the process, while the actor's fixed pose evokes a form capable of transcending the movement of time.

The balance achieved here is a delicate one. Even the power of art cannot abolish the presence of death, as is shown by the corpse that Ferdinand finds in the otherwise limpid water of the bathtub. Also, the failure of Loukoum's attempt to retain Lili reveals the incapacity of any fixed form to "capture" life, and perhaps, as well, the ultimate primacy of life over art. Nonetheless, as the narrator's suffering humanity merges into the wider perspective afforded by Lili's spirit, Ottavio's energy, and Loukoum's purity of form, the tension built up during the novel is relaxed. With the final image of Céline's writings, instead of bombs, falling from the sky, the work's therapeutic purpose is accomplished: the unbearable has been made bearable.

The doctor-patient relationship between the novelist and his reader, suggested in Féerie, is brought out explicitly in D'un château l'autre through Mme Niçois. It is from her window that he first sees Charon's boat, the image of death that acts as a catalyst for the beginning of the narrative, and the "2cc" of morphine which he injects to alleviate her pain are evocative of the trance-like state that he needs to induce for his "therapy" to be effective. When she appears again at the end of the novel, Mme Niçois is half-paralyzed and dying, but at the same time she is accompanied by a double, Mlle Armandine, equally old, but endowed with astonishing vitality. This illustrates the twosided effect which Céline expects to produce: on the one hand, in imposing his vision of a collapsing civilization, he tends to generate the paralysis of despair; on the other, the narrative acts as a purge that restores energy and lightness.

The main narrative uses many of the same devices as in Féerie. If the Charon's Barque hallucination seems to prefigure a journey toward death, the presence among the crew of the actor Le Vigan—established as a symbol of artist form in Féerie—announces the possibility of transcendence. Again, as in Féerie, the action under the guise of a chronicle, takes place in a deliberately microcosmic setting, this time the city of Sigmaringen.

The symbol of destructive energy in D'un château l'autre is Aïcha von Raumnitz. Although a lesser demon than Jules, she is equally indiscriminate: anything that disturbs her order produces the same swift and deadly reaction. Against this image of Death, Céline pits the spirit of Life, and Aïcha and her hounds are opposed by Lili and Bébert. Lili plays much the same role as before, her instinctive serenity and total freedom of movement providing the impetus and direction of transcendence. In particular, she is Céline's key to all the secret corners of the castle: "Lili allait où elle voulait dans tout l'Hohenzollern-Château … d'un dédale de couloir à l'autre … du beffroi de tout en l'air, des cloches, à la salle d'armes, à fleur du fleuve … un itinéraire que d'instinct!"

Entry to the castle is essential. The castle allows an overview impossible elsewhere: "… tous les toits du bourg, et la forêt … on comprend la vie de château … la vue de làhaut et de loin … le détachement des seigneurs … la grande beauté de pas être villains." Although his status as a human being places him among the villeins, through Lili, through creation, the artist can reach detachment and tranquillity. Furthermore, through his contacts in the castle, Céline is able to participate in the train journey to Bichelonne's funeral, which resumes the whole novel, and gives it its final direction. Beginning, as the novel does, as a journey toward death, and going through the same vicissitudes of hunger, cold, and the struggle to survive, when the funeral ceremonies abort, the voyage turns back on itself, and with the presence of the children and the pregnant women taken on as passengers in Berlin, it becomes a journey toward new life.

The regeneration suggested here is confirmed by the epilogue. Through Mlle Armandine, the reader is released from the tension that comes from identification with the narrator: at the end, she, not he, is at the center of our attention, and we are able to share her benevolent scorn for him. It is in this context that one can explain the numerous interruptions in the narrative, where Céline comes back to the surface to complain about his publishers and his other woes. It is possible that these passages, in their genesis, reflect a real fatigue in the author, but he exaggerates the scope of his personal troubles, deforming his own image in order to prepare and facilitate the separation from him that is necessary to the final catharsis. In the prologue, the narrator, half ironically, presents himself as a universal scapegoat—"coolie de l'ouest." At the end of the novel, Céline is seeking a similar exorcising power for this art.

In Nord, Céline pushes the idea of a salutary art to its extreme. Early in the text, he compares himself to Jesus, a comparison that is picked up by the Le Vigan figure, who is consistently presented as Christ and savior. (In this context, the indication that Le Vigan used to play Le Misanthrope, but has long since ceased to do so, is very significant as a sign of Céline's own evolution.)

The positive force of art is brought out once more through the Lili figure. As before, in the battle between life and death, Lili is made to represent life and the esthetic ideal. Her frequent dancing in Marie-Thérèse's tower (again Céline carefully notes the overview) marks her superiority over the web of hostile relationships and dangerous events that threaten the protagonists' lives at Zornhof.

Nord differs from the previous novels, however, in that the esthetic symbols are more closely woven into the texture of the narrative. Le Vigan and Lili, instead of being episodic figures, are constant companions of the narrator, and for the most part they act as a community. In molding direct experience (the narrator), transposition (Le Vigan), and the spirit of creation (Lili) into a unity, Céline is able to maintain throughout a greater distance from the sources of tension than in any of the previous novels. This procedure obviates the necessity of a release of tension at the end, and allows Céline to use that important structural position for another purpose, to clarify the relationship between his writing and his medicine.

He does this through Harras. In the composition of the novel, Harras has a position similar to Mme Niçois' in D'un château l'autre: his two appearances act as a frame for the major part of the action, and thus provide the perspective in which the novel should be considered. There are two particularly striking aspects of Harras in himself: the fact that he is an Oberartz—a "supra-doctor"—and his enormous laughter. As Oberartz, he is above the vicissitudes of history: in the midst of war, for example, he can travel freely to international conferences, in the peaceful pursuit of world health. His laughter is the outward sign of this transcendency. He can laugh when Lili accidentally sets off all the Berlin antiaircraft defenses, just as he can mock his own role as Nazi judge at the end of the novel.

In respect to the protagonists, Harras acts as protector by constantly assuring their safety. On another level, in obtaining the narrator's permit to practice medicine, he also has the function of justifier. In the microcosm of Zornhof, Harras is the power that gives Céline his very raison d'être: the supra-doctor becomes the spirit of medicine. (The end of the novel brings a refinement of this notion, when Harras is eclipsed by the psychopathologist Goring, suggesting that the physical preventive medicine practiced by Harras is inadequate in the modern world, whose most urgent diseases are of the mind.) In specifically placing his writing under the patronage of medicine, which at its highest degree of perfection is an attempt to reestablish natural harmony, Céline makes quite explicit the positive intention of his work.

The progression toward total transcendence is brought to its conclusion in Rigodon. Although the exterior structure of this novel remains the same as before, it is characterized throughout by a gentle serenity. Even in the prologue, where the narrator indulges in his customary attacks on his publisher and predicts the imminent destruction of the white race, the angry tone is gone, replaced by a constant sparkling humor. Furthermore, instead of the usual delirium around the theme of death, the prologue ends with a metaphor of the novelist's art.

Borrowing his initial image from Bergson, Céline explains that a punch into a box of iron filings will produce the shape of a funnel, and that although a human intelligence can be satisfied by a simple description of the phenomenon, he, in his writings, has chosen the viewpoint of an ant: "… l'intelligence de la fourmi toutéberluée, qui se demande par quel miracle un autre insecte, fourmi comme elle, a pu faire tenir tant de limaille, brin par brin, en tel équilibre, en forme d'entonnoir." The idea of working so close to his material is basically the same as we have seen before. In Entretiens he compares himself to an impressionist painter, thereby suggesting in yet another way the distance that must exist between the actual narrative—the process of "painting"—and the position from which the work should be "viewed." What is particularly interesting in the funnel image, however, is that from the ant's viewpoint, the direction of the form is toward the top, that is, the wider, open end of the funnel. In this metaphor, Céline reaffirms, more clearly than ever before, the positive orientation of his writing.

The main body of the narrative bears this out. Once again in the form of a pseudo-chronicle, the action appears as a sequel to Nord, consisting of a series of train journeys across the ruins of Germany to Copenhagen. The first section follows a downward trend, both geographically and emotionally, the southward journey from Rostock to Sigmaringen coinciding with a multitude of images of death and disintegration. On the symbolic level, the two most significant indications are the fact that Harras, in his brief reappearance, has lost his laughter, and Le Vigan's leaving of the group in Sigmaringen. It appears at first that Céline has been stripped of his two most precious projections: medicine and art. In fact, as the second half of the novel reveals, it is he who is abandoning them.

The northward journey from Sigmaringen to Copenhagen, though not without its tensions and images of death, follows a steadily upward direction. Le Vigan is replaced by a group of children: art has been transcended by life. Although Céline depicts the children as cretins, their role is clearly positive: they save the group from starvation by finding food, and, later, they become Céline's passport to Denmark. They are always happy, and toward the end the novelist specifically designates them as a symbol of hope: "… je pense là à eux, trente ans plus tard, s'ils vivent toujours foutre ils sont grands l'heure actuelle, là-haut … aussi peut-être qu'ils ne bavent plus, qu'ils entendent très bien, absolument rééduqués … des vioques rien à espérer, n'est-ce pas? mais des mômes tout."

Just as the children's vitality more than compensates for the loss of Le Vigan, the loss of Harras' laughter is overcome by the narrator's own entry into the level of laughter. Throughout the second part, even in the gravest circumstances, he laughs at himself, at others, at the whole situation.

The arrival in Copenhagen is nothing less than an epiphany. It is springtime, and the city is a haven of peace in the midst of war. The final episode is a return to Eden. The narrator and Lili go to the countryside on the outskirts of the city to verify that they still have their "treasures": their real passports, their marriage certificate, and their cyanide. Each of these items is rich with symbolism. The passport, as proof of identity, signifies that Céline has arrived at the end of his life-journey intact. The marriage certificate symbolizes the total merging of the narrator with Lili, the marriage of experience with the spirit of the dance: hence the title of the work. Beyond history, beyond art, apotheosis has been reached. But total liberation is only possible in death, which explains the presence of the cyanide. Death, here, is no longer the negation of Life, but the peaceful end for one whose work has been completed. That Céline put the final touches on this novel the day he died is poignantly significant: there could be no reason for writing anything more. Rigodon is his Nunc dimittis, and, as such, is a fitting epilogue for the whole opus.

Beginning with the perception and fear of his own death, magnified by the sense, so common to the twentieth-century artist, of the stagnant decrepitude of Western civilization, Céline's ethos, in the context of the two world wars that form the backdrop to his novels, takes on the proportions of an apocalypse. His art, an organic outgrowth of his struggle against egocentricity, in which he saw the underlying causes for the paralyzing fear of death, is initially self-exorcism. But as the work develops it becomes an increasingly altruistic attempt to free the reader from his anguish. On this level, his literary and medical careers coincide: Destouches, the author of Semmelweiss, and Céline, the novelist, become one. Precisely because his work is so organic, however, it is almost imperative for the reader to consider the opus as a whole. The initiation provided by the early novels into the "emotional underground" is indispensable to the liberating effect of the later works. Because of their progressively more elliptical nature, these can seem a nightmarish and often blurred vision of disintegration, but when viewed from the proper perspective, they appear as a gradual spiraling away from the cataclysm to a point where death is no longer a reason for sterile fear, but a promise of renewed life and a stimulus for creation.

Jane Carson (essay date Summer 1981)

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SOURCE: "Céline: The Fire in the Night," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 117-30.

[In the following essay, Carson examines picaresque themes and the metaphorical significance of fire in Céline's fiction. "In Céline's novels," Carson writes, "the images of fire reveal many of the author's ideas about creativity and the act of writing."]

The narrators of Céline's novels, from Bardamu in Voyage au bout de la nuit to the doctor of Rigodon, share a desire to recount a journey which, as they are the first to point out, leads to no magic solution, no shining Grail. From the opening of the first novel the dominant image in Céline's fiction is black and hopeless night. It is not strictly true, however, that "nothing" shines. Night is frequently brightened by fires, sometimes to the extent that it turns into day. Beyond this, in a figurative sense, the story itself may be considered a bright spot in the writer's night.

The journey here compared to life is the aimless wandering of the picaro, the search his sustained and perilous effort to survive. The picaresque novel is a peculiar elaboration of the quest theme as we know it in Western literature, and, since its first appearance in Spain, this episodic pseudo-autobiographical form has inspired innumerable imitations and variations. Unlike the hero of myth, the picaro is no better endowed than other people, he does not cross the threshold into the other world, and the only boon he gains to pass on to his fellows is the tale of his own adventures. In this respect his "quest" is an archetypal failure. Although he lacks a sense of sacred mission, the picaro, driven by a desire to rise in society, still seems to be engaged in a search. Inasmuch as he usually rejects, in the end, the goal of wealth he has been pursuing, the only result of his journey is a need to communicate his peripatetic history to a reader. The picaro's history is varied, scatological, darkly humorous, morally ambiguous. He narrates it himself. The outcome of his quest is the writing of his novel.

A. A. Parker insists on the following four points as essential to the true picaresque: the picaro is of disreputable origin, he has a profound desire to rise and become a gentleman, instead he becomes a social delinquent, and after sinking to the depths of depravity he experiences a religious conversion. Céline's work is almost a parody of these points: his protagonist is of respectable middle-class parentage, his greatest desire is to descend to the depths of human experience, he becomes not an outlaw but a moral delinquent, and he denies the possibility of a spiritual exaltation. Step by step, Céline's narrators follow this distorted version of the picaresque, with the result that his assembled novels may be taken as the history of the inverted picaresque adventure of the future novelist. The frustrated quest forms the basis for each of Céline's novels, some of which adhere to the picaresque pattern more closely than others. The point that each novel makes, and for which the succession of novels stands as evidence, is that the protagonist gains nothing from life but a story to tell.

In the thirty years (1932–61) during which the narrator gradually becomes the doctor/novelist identified as the writer, the quest theme in its picaresque variant remains predominant. The picaro is a thief, and one of his archetypal predecessors is Prometheus. The narrators of these novels are the purveyors of a stolen flame, the work of art they have somehow seized in their travels, the story they have culled from life. Fire is a metaphor for the novel. In Céline's novels, the images related to fire reveal many of the author's ideas about creativity and the act of writing. The narrator sees himself as a fire-maker, and the light of his work fitfully illuminates a world of otherwise unrelieved blackness.

Early in Voyage au bout de la nuit, shortly after Bardamu discovers the horrors of war and the loneliness of night, he finds consolation in watching villages burn. The weather is dry, and every night some burning village can be found to brighten the darkness and provide some distraction from the constant fear Bardamu and his men feel riding about looking for their regiment: "Un village brûlait toujours du côté du canon. On en approchait pas beaucoup, pas de trop, on le regardait seulement d'assez loin le village, en spectateurs pourrait-on dire." There seem to be no people in these villages, no sense of disaster, just flames to light up the night. "Ça se remarque bien comment ça brûle un village, même à vingt kilomètres. C'était gai. Un petit hameau de rien du tout qu'on apercevait même pas pendant la journée, au fond de'une moche petite campagne, eh bien, on a pas idée la nuit, quand il brûle, de l'effet qu'il peut faire!" The men watch churches, barns, and haystacks burning and collapsing as if they were watching a movie; they fall asleep with a sense of security unique in the novel's war episodes. The fire makes the night bearable: "Mais quand on a des feux à regarder la nuit passe bien mieux, c'est plus rien à endurer, c'est plus de la solitude."

Fires, both large and small, from candles to full-scale flaming bombardments, reappear frequently in Céline's novels, generally at night. They are not always reassuring, but they always provide light and a better look at the night. All through Voyage Céline compares life to a night-journey; fire is a positive element in this journey. Furthermore, according to Gilbert Durand, fire can be equated with the word: "le feu est très souvent assimilé à la parole." This same image appears in the opening words of John's gospel. The written word, or the novel, is the fire in Céline's night, and an analysis of fire imagery shows the role of verbal art in Céline's imaginative space. The four works from which examples are drawn here—Voyage au bout de la nuit, Guignol's Band, Normance, and Nord—span his writing life from his first novel to the last published during his lifetime.

Fire consumes garbage. This is not one of the more widely recognized functions of the work of art, but the action of fire is very similar to the act of digestion, a ready metaphor for reading, and for writing as well. Digestion is generally believed to remove the useful parts of food and eliminate the remainder as waste, whereas, as everyone knows, "fire purifies"; what is unconsumed must be "pure." If the act of writing is seen to be related to fire, the experience is presumably cleansing. If the work itself is like fire, it is apt to burn those who come in contact with it. Fire often becomes liquid in Céline's novels and flows like lava. There are also many explosive, eruptive scenes. The volcano is an important image. However, this deluge of fire is not a form of divine retribution, for it is often man-made. It is the human race's attempt at self-destruction. The third aspect of fire to be examined is its power to attract and kill, like a lantern drawing moths at night. People are drawn by the flickering light on a movie screen because it makes the night a little brighter, life a little easier. The work of art is in fact a suicide on the part of the artist, for to fix anything is to kill it, and to fix one's dreams is to kill oneself.

Bardamu in Voyage falls ill in Africa and decides to leave his post in the jungle. Before leaving, he takes a lesson from his experience at war and sets a match to his hut to light up the night. "Cela se passait après le coucher du soleil. Les flammes s'élevèrent rapides, fougueuses." Just as the fire is a form of speech and represents the written word, so the fire-maker is the writer. Jules in Normance and Borokrom in Guignol's Band are outstanding examples: Jules calls down a bombardment and Borokrom throws bombs. Through the images of fire we see the artist's view of himself; he is an incendiary, a pathfinder, a Cassandra crying on the ramparts, a prophet, a sorcerer unconsumed by his own flames. The fire-maker sees himself at least as a prophet, if not a god. He denounces the evil he sees around him and reveals what is to come. The news is not cheering.

The incendiary and the arsonist are intent on destroying by fire. The writer who sees himself in such terms—as the kindler of a destructive fire—writes to destroy something, illusion perhaps, as well as literary convention. The wandering writer, the picaro, will see much in society about which his audience must be disabused.

Fire cleanses, as Bardamu points out in Voyage: "Ma mère n'avait pas que des dictons pour l'honnêteté, elle disait aussi, je m'en souvins à point, quand elle brûlait chez nous les vieux pansements: Le feu purifie tout!" We notice at once that Bardamu's mother is not purifying anything whatsoever, unless it be a world full of soiled bandages, in which case she has a long way to go. She is in fact destroying, and might have said more aptly. "Le feu nous débarrasse des saletés." Bardamu quotes her presumably to justify his odd behavior when, in the middle of a drenching nocturnal rain, he sets fire to his hut and sets off into the forest with a raging fever:

Le moment vint. Mes silex n'étaient pas très bien choisis, mal pointus, les étincelles me restaient surtout dans les mains. Enfin, tout de même, les premières marchandises prirent feu en dépit de l'humidité. C'était un stock de chaussettes absolument trempées. Cela se passait après le coucher du soleil. Les flammes s'élevèrent rapides, fougueuses…. Le caoutchouc nature qu'avait acheté Robinson grésillait au centre et son odeur me rappelait invinciblement l'incendie célèbre de la Société de Téléphones, quai de Grenelle, qu'on avait été regarder avec mon oncle Charles, qui chantait lui si bien la romance. L'année d'avant l'Exposition ça se passait, la Grande, quand j'étais encore bien petit. Rien ne force les souvenirs à se montrer comme les odeurs et les flammes. Ma case elle sentait tout pareil. Bien que détrempée, elle a brûlé entièrement, très franchement et marchandises et tout. Les competes étaient faits. La forêt s'est tue pour une fois. Complet silence.

This passage contains repeated references to the past—to the narrator's childhood, to his predecessor Robinson, to his fear of the forest, which dates from the war. Flames, like odors, bring back memories, says Bardamu, reducing the Proustian concept of involuntary memory to a hazy nostalgia for childhood which is just barely comforting, and which certainly does not transcend temporality. Bardamu has surrendered to a childish impulse to destroy the hut which gave him painful memories, to protest against the company which had exploited him, against Robinson who had stolen all the money and left him alone in the jungle, against the jungle which surrounded him and held him prisoner. He does not seek to regenerate the past in order to stand outside time; he destroys memory's dirty bandages, leaving a cleaner past in which little Bardamu and his uncle watch the telephone company burn down. He has recreated a childhood experience already purified by faulty memory. The action of the flames, like writing, wipes out the unpleasant present, reinstates an agreeable but inaccurate past.

Bardamu enjoys the odor of the fire because it brings back memories. But the purifying quality of fire, as Bachelard tells us, is at least partly due to its ability to deodorize. Instead of deodorizing, Bardamu is creating a voluminous quantity of malodorous smoke. In the same way Céline's writing kindles a flame which creates the unpleasant smell of vomit, defecation, war and disease. The novels themselves, the product of a picaro's observations, are full of odors.

The bombardment in Normance creates an odor of burning people mixed with gunpowder and tar—a scene from hell: "I'odeur!… Je suis assez sensible aux odeurs … c'est de la poudre là-dessous et du feu … et du reste … du goudron aussi … c'est ça les Déluges, des odeurs et puis encore d'autres … des trouvailles … oh, un relent de viande grillée!" The opening scene in Guignol's Band, also a bombardment, brings out the roasted meat image again with a baby "tout cuit à point."

In Nord we meet the prostitutes who build a fire in a hole in the plain to roast the Rittmeister's horse: "que ça sent si fort!" The scene is a grotesque caricature of the underground Reichsgesundt in which the doctor and his party took refuge earlier, with a filthy pond full of horse entrails in place of the Finnish bath, screaming prostitutes instead of smiling secretaries. The doctor's role is reversed: he is not expelled from the hole as he was from the Reichsgesundt; he invades it to save the count and the Revizor, who are being beaten. The hole is also a distorted transposition of the count's basement kitchens. The count himself is not able to join the villagers as they feast on the singed horsemeat left by the fleeing women. Formerly a hoarder, he watches his rescuers eating the remains of his own mare. The scene is one of near-cannibalism, with the horse substituted for the count, the "Rittmeister," who later dies from brutal treatment. The distribution of meat is accompanied by a parody of civilized manners, as if the action were set in an expensive restaurant: "un romani qui découpe … petites tranches? minces?… ou des épaisses?… il nous demande notre goût?"

Céline's fire departs from both of the purifying qualities noted by Bachelard (deodorizing and cooking) because his fire creates odors and the flesh that is cooked was not originally intended to be eaten. "La viande cuite représente avant tout la putréfaction vaincue." Cooking facilitates digestion and achieves a civilized victory over food's swift decay. But "la personne cuite" interrupts the natural process of putrefaction without benefiting people in any way. Fire harms people; they are not meant for burning. Céline's novels deliberately attack people, serve them up to themselves "tout cuits à point." These works are fiery, and they sear. At the same time, the novels have a purifying quality. By transforming garbage and distasteful subjects into art, Céline somehow exalts humankind's dirty linen, even if he does not destroy it. People are evil, but a novel about people is good. This is true alchemy: from such stuff to create literary flames of lasting value.

Céline's writing may have accomplished this very object on a personal level. To burn away the trash of memory, to protest against all the companies and encircling forests which have enslaved us and held us prisoner—who would not set fire to a houseful of soaked socks with that in mind? As we have seen, the flame is the word. Other writers have professed more openly the cathartic value of writing (Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir). Céline offers the cleansing experience as an excuse for pyromania.

Céline's love for the ocean, boats, harbors, and rivers has been noted: Danièle Racelle-Latin sees the boat as the dominant image in Voyage; Gilbert Schilling considers water the dominant element. "He who dreams water cannot dream fire," says Bachelard, and it must be admitted that in Céline's water-ruled world fire behaves much like water. Even taking into consideration that certain metaphorical combinations of fire and water are literary conventions (a flood of light, a rain of fire, sunset over the ocean), Céline's novels include an unusually large number of fire/water couplings and, in Normance, repeated references to the bombardment as a modern-day Deluge. The flames cascade, inundate, splash, surge. The sky melts, the Seine boils, molten cataracts pour down at Jules's command. "C'est une inondation de feu," "des vraies cataractes de lumière!" "les cascades du ciel!" "de vrais torrents," "un fleuve," "tout Paris en mer de feu!"

The doctor hypothesizes in Nord that Berlin is under heavy attack, and the underground Reichsgesundt has probably been destroyed: "Grünwald doit être un lac de feu." The lake of fire reminds us of the Finnish baths which formerly occupied the same place and contributed to a womblike atmosphere; by now they have been transformed into their antithesis, a volcano: "le cratère des bains finlandais" All of Berlin, the doctor supposes, has become a volcano: "l'impression … que Berlin est tourné volcan."

The flood from the sky in Normance resembles nothing so much as a volcanic eruption, Céline does not hesitate to say so: "au moins quatre immeubles qui sautent!… qui rejaillit! une lave, des torrents de lave qui fusent! haut! haut! éclaboussent autour! tout le quartier!… et le métro! submergés!… il doit faire chaud sous le tunnel!… ils y sont tous!… toute la Place bouillonne de «Bengale» … un volcan d'éclaboussures!" These repetitions of the words volcano, lava, crater show this latest flood to be one of fire, for Céline's world is not destroyed by a long hard rain. The rain is of fire, the flood of molten rock. War images are fire images. War is essential to his fictional universe. War erupts, spreads out, devastates like a volcano.

The first hint of the importance of the volcano image is the dedication of Normance: à Pline l'Ancien. Frédéric Vitoux points out that the dedication makes a flattering comparison between Céline and Pliny the Elder, emphasizing the author's innocence as a dedicated chronicler. As the doctor explains, "Saquez pas le probe chroniqueur!… regardez un peu Pline l'Ancien, il a fallu des années qu'il se décide à son grand moment … qu'il aille renifler le Vésuve!" Pliny's curiosity led him to examine Vesuvius, and when he warned the people of their danger, he himself died asphyxiated by the fumes. That the doctor should cite him as an example implies that he sees himself as a latter-day martyr, a chronicler of disaster—specifically, of a volcanic eruption—who has suffered from his devotion to scientific observation. One of the problems, of course—and one that he recognizes fully when he insists that he is inventing nothing, simply reporting—is whether the chronicler only observed the eruption, as he claims, or whether, like Jules, he actually provoked it. The problem is a crucial one for Céline, repeatedly accused of collaborating. The doctor may place the responsibility for the cataclysm on a perfectly unadmirable character—Jules—still, it is not only clear that Jules is performing the work of the artist (as is the doctor), but it is also obvious that the doctor identifies with him: "C'est pas une petite histoire de faire raffluer les Déluges, de nous faire foncer dessus charges sur charges des quatre horizons! au doigt!… zessayez! zessayez un peu! Vous allez dire que je me régale, que je suis un cataclyste aussi." The entire novel justifies the label. To mitigate his condemnation and enhance the role of "cataclyste," the doctor compares Jules to Noah, pointing out that the Flood was nothing next to this inundation of fire. Noah is a savior; we can only hope the artist is too.

Bardamu's burning of his jungle hut is a reply to a deluge, and he compares himself to Noah. The combination of the drenching rain and Bardamu's fever makes everything appear to be melting. Everything is losing its shape, its rigidity, its solidity. Everything is returning to the state of primal chaos: "Tout fondait en bouillie de camelotes, d'espérances et de comptes et dans la fièvre aussi, moite elle aussi. Cette pluie tellement dense qu'on en avait la bouche fermée quand elle vous agressait comme par un bâillon tiéde. Ce déluge n'empêchait pas les animaux de se rechercher, les rossignols se mirent à faire autant de bruit que les chacals. L'anarchie partout et dans l'arche, moi Noé, gâteux. Le moment d'en finir me parut arrivé." Feverish, Bardamu finds it hard to distinguish between things; the fire in his body shows everything about him in its chaotic state, although the hut still forms an artificial barrier between him and the rain. Taking the situation into his own hands, this false Noah burns the ark, the partition between him and anarchy. By burning the hut, he burns the rain's "bâillon tiède," and his fire is a form of speech. His message is that nothing but illusion separates us from chaos. The night rain is life, the fire a flicker illuminating the flood, which otherwise might not be seen. The novel is the fire, really a torch in the darkness. Céline writes with a purpose: to show us that the world does not conform to the structure we conventionally give it, that we are in fact surrounded by anarchy. In any case this is the structure of his fictional space, the imaginary landscape through which his picaro journeys and from which he gathers the material for the fire in the night his books represent.

"Pendant que nous parlions des nègres, les mouches et les insectes, si gros, en si grand nombre, vinrent s'abattre autour de la lanterne, en rafales si denses qu'il fallut bien éteindre," we read in Voyage. One insect fluttering around a lamp at night is a nuisance, but a cloud of them, drawn by the light and falling dead in droves, is more than inconvenient; eventually the light must be put out. People, too, are drawn to fire, even when it means their own death. Bardamu admits that it was a suicidal attraction to fire that made him join the army: "A présent, j'étais pris dans cette fuite en masse, vers le meurtre en commun, vers le feu…." Inevitably, fire attracts large numbers of insects seemingly bent on self-destruction. War has the same effect on humans. People are often compared to insects in Voyage, but never more appropriately than in the description of their mindless rush to war. It is not the fire alone that attracts people; they are actually drawn to death-their own or someone else's. Friends and relatives gather to watch a man die, and their swarms under the lights remind one of flies: "Et comme il y en avait des parents! Des gros et des fluets agglomérés en grappes somnolentes sous les lumières des «suspensions»." The fascination of fire is at least partially the fascination of death.

The fundamental image of Voyage au bout de la nuit is that life is a journey through night; the secondary image of art as a flame reinforces the idea that the work gives another perspective, illuminates the night in at least a limited way. This does indeed bestow a certain conventional immortality on the work: it is a torch that can be rekindled long after the death of the author. In this respect the fascination with the work of art is also linked to death.

Céline's remarks on the cinema reveal a tendency to regard it as escapist, but he has much more respect for the illusions of the movie theater than for the commonly accepted illusions of love. As Bardamu watches a film, he feels again the fatal attraction of the moth to the lantern: "Alors les rêves montent dans la nuit pour aller s'embraser au mirage de la lumière qui bouge." The film, like a novel, is the fire that sets the dream ablaze. It is not like life. The well-lighted theater is compared to a cake, the people pressing about it to larva. "C'était comme tout le contraire de la nuit." The movie is illusion, but it sheds some light on reality. "Ce n'est pas tout à fait vivant ce qui se passe sur les écrans, il reste dedans une grande place trouble, pour les pauvres, pour les rêves et pour les morts." The cinema is unquestionably a positive dream-producer. It gives courage to face the darkness outside. It is the part of the film that is "not quite alive" that makes these dreams possible.

For its creator as well, the work has the fascination of death. Writing is like dying. The writer is spearing something within himself and fixing it at the end of his pen. Showing it to a reader has some of the morbid quality of exhibiting the corpse of a suicide to the public. Not only does the writer feel himself bleeding as he writes; he feels that every phrase, once set down, destroys the possibilities for growth in another direction; the possibilities become fewer and fewer until the whole work is pinned down, no longer palpitating, to become what each reader chooses to make of it. The reward for the grisly business is that the work has the power to light up the night.

After all, fire is not always fatal; it also warms, like the war in Voyage "La guerre avait brûlé les uns, réchauffé les autres, comme le feu torture ou conforte, selon qu'on est placé dedans ou devant." The author is inside, the reader happily toasting himself in front of the fire. It is significant that although the work burns, it is not consumed. One of the few things not damaged by the thorough bombing in Normance is the doctor's book. The apartment building is a shambles, fire is everywhere, but his papers did not burn: "et que ça avait pas brûlé!… le plus drôle!" The concierge gathers together the papers which are blowing in the street: chapters from various books mixed in with old bills and letters. This is Céline's final comment on the book; it is a disconnected and intensely personal mixture of odd papers blowing down the street for anyone to catch hold of. We may discard them or use them to light a fire (literally or spiritually), as we choose.

Almost by definition, the picaro is an apprentice. Bardamu had prepared for the hut-burning in Voyage by an apprenticeship in the art of fire-making, just as any artist practices his craft. "Malgré que je fusse maladroit naturellement, après une semaine d'application je savais moi aussi, tout comme un nègre, faire prendre mon petit feu entre deux pierres aigües." He lacked the time to become adept at striking the stones: "Beaucoup d'étincelles me sautaient encore dans les yeux." With sparks in his eyes, Bardamu is building a fire, as if the coruscating eyes themselves made the fire eatch. The fire-maker is in a position of great power; the writer who sees himself as a fire-maker is not belittling his role.

Jules, in Normance, has more than shining eyes; his entire body gleams: "le moulin brille à présent, luit!… Jules aussi luit sur sa plate-forme! reluit!" Jules looks as if he is on fire. He sends off sparks; he has caused the conflagration. "Regardez-le done! ses doigts! les bouts! vous voyez pas les étincelles?" Jules appears to be a sorcerer cursing the city. Jules "empereur des flammes," Jules pointing a flaming finger at the clouds and calling down a rain of fire shows us an imposing picture of the artist-prophet. The doctor-narrator also sees himself as a prophet, one of the denouncing variety. "Y a des dénonceurs de périls! je suis de ceux!"

The doctor's excuse for his flamboyant, jerky, repetitive style is that the nature of his material—catastrophe—and his role as universal scapegoat require just such an emotional style. "J'ai pas de cinéma personnel pour vous faire voir le tout assis … confortable … ou comme dans un rêve … ni de «bruitage» non plus … ni de critiques rémunérés aptes à me vous tartiner mille louanges du tonnerre de Dieu de mes génies!… j'ai que l'hostilité du monde et la catastrophe!… je perds la catastrophe je suis perdu!" Without cinematic effects or critics to persuade the public to like him, the writer must rely on showmanship, and disaster makes a good show. In any case, his message of denunciation is perfectly sincere. He does not need Jules's power to summon disaster to be able to see catastrophe in Europe's future. He believes that his fire enables him to foresee what is to come, particularly the consequences of war.

The writer's clairvoyance makes him an excellent leader and pathfinder. Such is the position of the doctor in the last novels, as he wanders through Germany in search of refuge. He organizes the journey and protects his little band (wife, friend, cat) from the sometimes contained, sometimes savage hostility surrounding them. His expression of the loneliness and uncertainty of his position in Nord can be poignant: "Vous diriez de l'encre notre sousbois … y a làhaut les nuages qui sont illuminés, brillants … des pinceaux des cent projecteurs et des reflects d'autres explosions … nord … est … mais dans notre pare nous, rien … l'encre … deux pas … trois pas … vous vous sentez devenir tout ouate, tout nuit, vous-même … un moment vous êtes étonné de chercher encore, quoi?… vous ne savez plus…." The use of the second-person pronoun and the sense of dissolving into the night universalize the experience described and include the reader, even though the repeated "encre" implies that Céline is describing the loneliness of the writer. We are all seekers. Although he recognizes that he is not the only one looking for something—a path, an answer, Céline nevertheless remains convinced that of all those seeking, he alone knows in which direction to go. In this he is descended from a long line of poets and writers who sincerely believed the role of the artist is to point the way. Victor Hugo's radiant poet in "Fonction du poète" is just one example. His luminous brow is the only bright spot in a night of total darkness. "Il rayonne! il jette sa flamme / sur l'éternelle vérité!" Flooding with his light the entire world, he leads the people to God. Céline's purpose is not to reveal God, but to force people to recognize the reality and finality of death. His position as Cassandra ("dénonceur de périls") is not likely to win him great popularity, but he is upheld by the certainly that he is right. For Hugo, poet, message, and medium all cast light, illuminate the future, point the way. For Céline too the writer is a pathfinder, flamethrower, seer, and wizard.

Borokrom, the piano player of Guignol's Band, got his name from his ability to make bombs: "Enfin on l'appelait Borokrom à cause de son savoir chimique, des bombes qu'il avait fabriquées, paraît-il, au temps de sa jeunesse." His propensity to throw them is another matter. The first incident takes place in a bar, where Joconde is responsible for a brawl, "C'est elle qu'incendiait." She inflames the dockers gathered there; under the impression she is being mistreated, they attack Cascade and begin to destroy the bar. Boro starts the barrel organ to add to the din, then throws a grenade. "Wrroung!… le tonnerre de Dieu! La tôle qu'explose! Quelque chose alors! et ces flammes!… Ah! merde! J'ai vu! Merde! C'est lui!… Dans les flammes là!… Dans le feu jailli! Il a jeté le truc!" The explosion effectively breaks up the fight and all escape.

Boro turns on the organ and throws the grenade at the same time because he uses them to the same effect: to create a diversion, and the key word is create. Borokrom makes music and bombs; both inspire an intense emotional reaction in his companions. His task, as a performing artist, like the writer's, is to create an emotional response. Céline himself insisted that conveying emotion was the main purpose of his writing. Borokrom is an incendiary—so is Céline, in his way.

The second bomb also permits Boro to escape, and especially to destroy the evidence of Claben's murder. He shuts Delphine and Ferdinand in the basement with the dead body. Just as Ferdinand forces the trap-door open, an object is thrown inside and explodes: "Au moment pflof!… plein dans la pêche!… je prends un caillou … en pleine gueule! pflam!!! je dingue!… je culbute!… à la renverse!… Brrouum!!… Un tonnerre qu'éclate dans le noir!… là en pleine cave!… en même temps!… en plein bazar!… Ah! c'est féerique!… plein la gueule!… Je suis écroulé sous les décombres … C'est lui qu'a jeté le truc! Maudit chien … une explosion formidable!… Encore lui!"

We are struck by the parallel between Borokrom, the bomb-throwing piano player, and Jules, the bombardment-provoking painter of Normance. Borokrom obviously used bombs to help him escape, but one wonders why Jules chose to make a holocaust of Montmartre. The doctor suggests that Jules is a frustrated ceramicist looking for a kiln: "lui qui parlait toujours de son four! qui souffrait de pas avoir un four … un four «grand-feu»! je le trouvais servi!… qu'il nous montre un peu sa maîtrise s'il était si artiste au four!"

Jules is, in fact, displaying his artistry with a colossal flameshow—the light beams sweeping across the sky are, after all, "pinceaux." The doctor himself exercises his artistry in describing the light show. Page after page is filled with colors; the lights are compared to jewels, flowers, and delicate lace. At this point the creative arts of the painter and writer fuse: the bombardment is their masterpiece. The doctor tells us, "faudrait être artiste pour vous faire voir les couleurs … la palette…." Modestly, the narrator professes to be a simple "chroniqueur," unequal to the task of rendering the "féerie" in the sky. Any of a number of brilliant quotations would give him the lie:

Le ciel crève à gauche, là juste!… brrac! au Sud!… une cataracte d'or d'en haut … un fleuve des nuages … jaune … et puis vert … c'est pas commun comme masse de feu ce qui cascade, rejaillit, inonde … je vous ai raconté pourtant … mais là vraiment c'est le ciel entier qu'on dirait qui fond … et puis d'en bas on voit des rues qui s'élèvent … s'enlèvent … moment en serpents de flammes … tourbillonnent … tordent d'un nuage à l'autre … une église entière qui part, se renverse, tout son clocher pointu, brulant, en espèce de pouce!… c'est extraordinaire! renversé sur nous!… l'Église d'Auteuil … je vous l'ai raconté … à l'envers … mais elle, pas si flambante tout de même … plutôt en reflects … ah vous voyez c'est pas semblable … vogue! s'envole … c'est que je suis pas artiste peintre, je vous rends mal l'effet…. j'ai que du petit don de chroniqueur….

The writer writing about the painter painting produces an extraordinary work of art. At one point the doctor compares Jules's real painting unfavorably to his sky painting; as an ironic condemnation of surrealistic painting, the intent—and the effect—is to form a highly laudatory word-picture couched in derogatory language: "Je l'avais vu vernisser ses toiles … moi parfait plouc, aucune autorité d'art, je m'étais dit à moi-même: il le fait exprès! il bluffe le bourgeois! il leur peint des autobus sur la mer de Glace … et les Alpes elles-mêmes en neiges mauve, orange, carmin, et les vaches paissant des couteaux!… des lames d'acier! des poignards en fait d'herbe tendre!… maintenant il nous sorcelait autre chose!… c'était plus terrible que ses gouaches! c'était un petit peu plus osé!" The sky-painting is indeed bolder, but not significantly different in style. The upside-down church, the sky melting into a golden cataract, the streets mounting in serpentine flames to the clouds, are the living, moving, colorful offspring of the bus on the sea of ice and the cows grazing on steel blades. The difference in medium is, however, significant. By substituting fire for paint, the artist attributes divine qualities to himself, especially when he uses fire to paint the heavens, where only the sun or Zeus' lightning bolts should provide color. Since fire can be equated with the word, the sky-painting is essentially a linguistic image, and we have not merely a writer describing a painting, but a writer describing the artistic scope of language. The visual effects alone are spectacular. When the writer becomes incendiary, his novel will have an explosive effect.

Jules's work of art is not just a display of fireworks for people to gape at on the fourteenth of July; it is an air attack, part of a war. The bombing is a form of expression. Jules, the idfigure, creates a very beautiful work of art expressing anger, aggression, and the urge to destroy. Certainly Céline does nothing less with his novel. He sees himself as a painter of destruction. Not only does he depict the destructive forces already existing (war, poverty, death); he sees creation as stemming from destruction; he is Jules calling the bombers, directing them, setting the fire. Fire consumes; destruction is the subject and, in a sense, the work of the artist. Céline's novels directly attacked French literary conventions of vocabulary, syntax, and, of course, punctuation. He did not see the writer as the staid guardian of the purity of French letters, but rather as a bomb-thrower.

The novelist's journey takes place in the metaphorical darkness of nihilism, but the written word is a kind of fire lighting up the night. The functions of the work of art and the roles of the artist are implicit in the images related to fire and the fire-maker. Fire cleanses by consuming garbage. It flows like lava, and Céline's version of the apocalypse is a deluge of fire. Fire draws insects to their own destruction. The fire-maker is an incendiary or a prophet; inasmuch as the prophet uses fiery language and flings bomb-like prophecies, the two roles are perhaps indistinguishable. Céline's picaro, as represented in his successive narrators, wants to keep moving and light fires. His final gesture, the summing up of his life and experience, is the novel which he casts like a bomb in the face of his public. This is the endpoint of the journey, the final twist he gives to the picaresque form, his distorted version of a version of the quest. From heroes seeking the Holy Grail, through little boys stealing grapes from blind men, we have come to the artist hurling his brimstone-filled prophecies at the reader. In its journey, the quest itself has been transformed.

Further Reading

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Buckley, William K. "Céline: The Rumble Under Our Floorboards." Studies in the Novel 21, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 432-9.

Provides an overview of contemporary critical response to Céline's fiction, noting the persistence of reactionary and outdated interpretations of his work.

Clemmen, Yves W. A. "Travel, Fiction, and the Cross-Cultural: Céline and Tournier Experiencing the Other." CLA Journal XXXVIII, No. 1 (September 1994): 46-58.

A comparative study of travel themes and transcultural encounters in Journey to the End of the Night and Michel Tournier's Les Meteores.

Dickstein, Morris. "Sea Change: Céline and the Problem of Cultural Transmission." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 205-24.

Examines the transformation of Céline's literary legacy among American authors, including Henry Miller and the Beat writers.

Kristeva, Julia. "Céline: Neither Actor Nor Martyr." Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, pp. 133-9. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Discusses the ambiguous combination of comedy, compassion, and morality of Céline's literary style.

Jameson, Fredric. "Céline and Innocence." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 311-9.

Examines Céline's narrative strategies of observation and detachment, drawing comparison between the conventions of detective fiction and Céline's physician protagonists.

Kaplan, Alice, and Philippe Roussin. "Céline's Modernity." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 421-43.

Explores Céline's depiction of American industrial society, urban life, and disillusionment in Journey to the End of the Night and the novel's influence on subsequent American literature.

Luce, Stanford. "Why Professor Y?" In Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, pp. 243-51. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Traces the origins of Conversations with Professor Y and the symbolism of the letter "Y" to Céline's correspondence with Milton Hindus.

Nettelbeck, Colin W. "Historical Vision in Céline's Last Novels." In Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, pp. 268-78. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Reconsiders the significance of Céline's postwar fiction, particularly the interplay of historical and autobiographic elements in Féerie pour une autre fois I and II, Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon.

Roussin, Philippe. "Getting Back from the Other World: From Doctor to Author." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 243-64.

Examines the significance of Céline's dual self-identity as a practicing physician and author, particularly as related to his utopian medical perspective during the 1920s.

Roussin, Philippe. "The Logic of the Reception of Céline's Works in the Thirties." In Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, pp. 111-21. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Examines initial critical reaction to Journey to the End of the Night, contemporary literary norms against which the novel was evaluated, and the influence of critical interpretation on the social context and meaning of the text.

Spear, Thomas C. "Céline and 'Autofictional' First-Person Narration." Studies in the Novel 23, No. 3 (Fall 1991): 357-70.

Explores distinctions between autobiography and autofiction and Céline's conflation of fact and fiction, nonlinear presentation, and narrative identity in his novels.

Thiher, Allen. "Céline's Journey to the End of the Night: From One Asylum to the Next." In Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, pp. 144-54. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Examines the elements of Cartesian duality and Renaissance folly in the parodic reversal of reason and madness in Journey to the End of the Night.

William K. Buckley (essay date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Novels: From Narcissism to Sexual Connection," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 51-65.

[In the following essay, Buckley examines Céline's treatment of sexual desire and love in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan.]

"Ah, Ferdinand … as long as you live you will always search for the secret of the universe in the loins of women!"


… the female mystery doesn't reside between the thighs, it's on another wave-length, a much more subtle one.

(Castle to Castle).

After Freud, modern novelists grew more conscious of not only their own literary expression as a kind of narcissism, but also of the narcissism in the characters they created. Distress about narcissism, therefore, can be easily detected in modern novels. "The psychoanalytic concept of narcissism," says Russell Jacoby in his study Social Amnesia (1975), "captures the reality of the bourgeois individual; it expresses the private regression of the ego into the id under the sway of public domination … it comprehends the dialectical isolation of the bourgeois individual—dialectical in that the isolation that damns the individual to scrape along in a private world derives from a public and social one. The energy that is directed toward oneself, rather than toward others, is rooted in society, not organically in the individual…. The mechanism of this shift is not the least the society that puts a premium on the hardening of each individual—the naked will to self-preservation." This naked will to self-preservation, this hardening of oneself is an apt description of most protagonists in our modern novels. These terms are an especially good description of Céline's main character in his first two novels: the young Ferdinand.

Still creating their storm of interest and influence after fifty years, Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) are good examples of modern novels which use a narrator who expresses his hardened feelings over both his narcissistic and crushed ego-ideals, and over his careful love choices. Ferdinand, like so many in modern fiction, is a character who has withdrawn his libido from the outer world because his contact with that world has brought mostly economic and emotional disaster; and, in defense, he has directed his libido to his ego. Major American scholarship on Céline has not explored the sexual behavior of Céline's characters as closely as it needs to do. Of course there have been important discussions of Céline's views on sex by many. McCarthy gives us a rather negative assessment of the author's views in his biography Céline (1975), as does J.H. Matthews in his book, The Inner Dream: Céline as Novelist (1978). In comparing Céline's views on sex to Baudelaire's views in Journaux intimes, McCarthy claims that Journey shows women as "predatory," that Céline suggests "women need to destroy men because there is a link between female sexuality and cruelty," and that, in the final analysis—because of the behavior of Musyne and Lola—"sex turns out to be disgusting" for Ferdinand, reflecting Céline's personal view that the male loses himself in orgasm with a woman because he is "weary" to have done "with himself." J. H. Matthews offers an equally negative view of sex in Death on the Installment Plan. He points to several episodes in the novel which support his point that sex "brings no consolation of any kind, no sense of release. It is a heightened form of terror…. Ferdinand's sexual contacts revitalize the cliche that represents sex as a form of death and likens the ecstasy of orgasm to dying." The client who early in the novel invites the young Ferdinand to engage her in oral sex; the sexual demands made upon Ferdinand by Madame Gorloge, and her theft of a jewel from the young boy's pocket; Gwendoline, the sex partner Ferdinand meets after crossing the Channel, and whom Matthews calls the vagina dentata; Nora's desperate actions with Ferdinand at Meanwell College; the astonishing scene between Antoine and his wife, to which Ferdinand and his friend Robert are voyeurs: all these scenes are examples of what Matthews calls Céline's linking of violence and eroticism. Matthews further maintains that even masturbation is "marked by terrorism" in this novel, especially when the boys at the English boarding school cruelly beat and masturbate the retarded Jongkind for getting penalties during a soccer match. Therefore since at "no time in his life has Ferdinand felt capable of trusting women enough to love any of them," masturbation becomes the "significant feature" of his early life. "It is a direct expression of his profound need to change his destiny in a world ruled by violence and predatory sexuality, where [Ferdinand] is alternately victim and pariah." I agree with Matthews that in most of these scenes "tenderness has no place," and that masturbation, sodomy, and rape become the clear but worst examples of narcissism in this novel. One could argue, for example, that Gorloge's seduction of the little Ferdinand is an example of emotional exploitation born out of the economic brutalities which exist between the classes in Paris, or that Antoine's attempt to copulate with his wife using butter, while Ferdinand and Robert look on and laugh, is an illustration of common but secret sexual hilarities. Ferdinand's laughter in this scene, and our mix of laughter and uncomfortable surprise, is to free us from pompous judgment, to suspend our surprise in humor—much as Chaucer does in his tales on sex. And yet I believe that Ferdinand's experience with Nora, as I will show, is the exception to what Mattnews and McCarthy call the predatory nature of sex in Céline's novels. In fact, his feelings over Nora are very exceptional indeed, for they begin Ferdinand's emotional education, his learning to see women as affirmations of beauty and life.

In her Céline and His Vision (1967), Erika Ostrovsky sees Céline as debunking sex, but for a very special reason: "Céline tends to blacken most descriptions" of sexual gratification, but in a "spirit of mockery," because the author "finds this business of 'I lo-o-ve you' vulgar, heavy-handed, and cheaply sentimental." As a result, she says, Céline intends to show us that eroticism is also "quite frequently linked to violence": witness Hilda, the sixteen-year-old, who waits for troop trains in Castle to Castle, Frau Frucht, addicted to sexual perversion, in Castle to Castle, Ferdinand's escape from a brawl with women on board the Bragueton in Journey, or Céline's comment in North that the more cities burn the more crazy for sex women become. Ostrovsky is quick to point out, however, that Céline can also be quite positive about sex, can even see sex as regenerative. She points to the author's descriptions of Lola, Molly, Madelon, and Sophie in Journey, Nora in Death on the Installment Plan, and Virginia in Pont de Londres—all characters reflecting, perhaps, Céline's comment in a letter to Eveline Pollet: "I love the physical perfections of women almost to the point of madness. It's a truth I reveal to you. It governs all the others." Moreover, Ostrovsky comments on Céline's astonishingly positive description of Sophie in Journey, that "if anywhere in Céline's work there is a glimpse of hope and beauty, of sun and joy, it is in the sight of such women … only the physical perfection of a woman, an animal, a gesture, can offer affirmation or a momentary respite from horror."

Wayne Burns and Gerald Butler go even further in their positive estimations of Céline's treatment of sex. In his essay "Journey to the End of the Night: A Primer to the Novel," (from the recently published anthology of essays edited by James Flynn entitled Understanding Céline [1984]), Burns says that "Through loving the woman's body—Sophie's, Tania's, Molly's, even Madelon's—[Ferdinand] comes to love the woman herself. Much as Céline would have disliked having Ferdinand compared with Mellors (Céline once described Lady Chatterley's Lover as 'a gamekeeper's miserable prick for six hundred and fifty pages') Ferdinand's attitude towards women is essentially Lawrentian in that he comes to the woman herself through her body." Burns also reminds us of Céline's long "lyrical description" of Sophie in Journey. In his essay "The Feeling for Women in Céline and His American Counterparts," (also from Understanding Céline), Gerald Butler not only maintains that Céline's view of women is one of adoration when compared to the way women are seen in Miller and Kerouac, but also "that it is not true," as Julia Kristeva claims (in her chapter on Céline entitled "Females Who Can Wreck the Infinite," from her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection) that Céline's fiction "shows all women as of only two kinds: desexualized and delightful on the one hand and sexual and terrifying on the other, so that beauty is what wards off the sexual." "Sophie," Butler says, "is both sexual and, in her sexuality, a miracle of delight for Ferdinand." Her "presence and Ferdinand's reaction to it is enough to give the lie to the 'heroism' of Robinson that is the epitome of that bitterness and 'sense of superiority' and 'heaviness' that the world … teaches." And in his essay "The Meaning of the Presence of Lili in Céline's Final Trilogy," he says that Lili is "put forth in the novels as a guiding light for humanity," that even "her animal qualities, in the positive sense that Céline gives to 'animal'" (and here Butler means Lili is on the same "wave-length" as animals—she tunes in only those who are helpless) "do not detract from her comparison to a heroine from Dickens, for Lili's 'heart' does not exclude the 'animal' but seems to be profoundly connected with it. If that is so, then all the sexuality of human beings that Céline does not at all present in these novels in a favorable light is not an expression of animality in the sense that Lili is like an animal. Rather, the implication, the message for human beings is that they should have real animality above all by having hearts, as Lili does."

These are the important discussions of Céline's view of sexual feeling. My intention here is not to further discuss Dr. Destouches' views on sex and love, interesting and shadowy as this topic is turning out to be. (See, for example, Céline's own definition of love and sex in Marc Hanrez's Céline [1961].) Rather, my intention is two-fold: first, to describe how the young Ferdinand came to feel that women are regenerative, worthy of trust, and beautiful (how he learned about what Ostrovsky, Burns, and Butler are calling the positive aspects of sexual experience); and second, how the older Ferdinand came to realize that the sheer naked force of his will and the hardening of his heart would not help him be less narcissistic, would not help him gain sexual satisfaction. My goal is to open a more detailed investigation into those scenes of Céline's novels which describe modern sexual behavior, to look more closely at the sexual needs, desires, and secrets of Céline's characters.

In Death on the Installment Plan, young Ferdinand, already hardened to real connection from his brutal experiences in Paris as the son of a mother and father who want him to be a success, retains an erotic fantasy for Nora, the wife of an English school master. He has been sent by his parents to Meanwell College, in England, in order to learn English for business purposes so that when he returns to Paris he will start his business career off on the right foot. Badgered by an embittered and humiliated father, watching his mother work herself to death in their lace and furniture shop, and seduced by their female customers, Ferdinand is a tight-lipped adolescent, unable to connect with anyone, and full of childhood memories that are violent and sad. He is a classic self-preservative personality. And in this novel his masturbation preserves gratification in fantasy. He compliments his fantasies for Nora this way: "I can still see her…. I can bring back her image whenever I please. At the shoulders her silk blouse forms lines, curves, miracles of flesh, agonizing visions, soft and sweet and crushing…. The kid that came around to lap me up had his money's worth on Sunday night … But I wasn't satisfied, it was her I wanted…. Beauty comes back at you in the night … it attacks you, it carries you away … it's unbearable … I was soft in the head, from jerking off on visions … The less we had for meals, the more I masturbated…." Ego regresses into id under the power of parental domination, fantasy masturbation, and the sheer weight of poverty at the bankrupt English boarding school. Ferdinand's ego-libido creates Nora as his "object-choice." In one scene he masturbates with a school friend, while thinking of Nora, and, as the angry narcissist, fuels his mild sadism with attacks on sentimentality in love. At the same time, however, his attack on sentiment exhibits a deep desire for real connection, and this is what gives this novel a complexity rarely found even in our best modern British and American fiction.

"We did each other up brown … I was ruthless, I couldn't stop, my imagination kept winding me up … I devoured Nora in all her beauty…. I'd have taken all her blood, every drop … Still it suited me better to ravage the bed, to chew up the sheets … than to let Nora or any other skirt take me for a ride…. To hell with all that stinking mush!… Yak! yak! I love you. I adore you! Sure, sure!… Why worry, it's a party. Bottoms up! It's so lovely! It's so innocent!… I'd wised up when I was a kid! Sentiment, hell! Balls!…. I clutched my oil can…. You won't catch me dying like a sucker … with a poem on my lips."

When Nora does, at last, come to Ferdinand's room, out of her own mad loneliness and lack of connection to her husband, and abruptly flattens him out with her caresses, giving him, as Céline says, "an avalanche of tenderness," young Ferdinand does surprisingly well in responding. In bed with her he is beginning to reject, I believe, his narcissism—if only for a moment:

I try to soothe her pain, to make her control herself … I caulk wherever I can … I knock myself out … I try my best … I try the subtlest tricks … But she's too much for me … She gives me some wicked holds … The whole bed is shaking … She flails around like crazy … I fight like a lion … My hands are swollen from clutching her ass! I want to anchor her, to make her stop moving. There. That's it. She's stopped talking. Christ almighty! I plunge, I slip in like a breeze! I'm petrified with love … I'm one with her beauty … I'm in ecstacy … I wriggle…. On her face I go looking for the exact spot next to her nose … the one that tortures me, the magic of her smile."

In feeling "love," and in "looking for the exact spot" which tortures him, Ferdinand replaces his fantasy of Nora with her reality. Unfortunately Nora "breaks loose" from Ferdinand, and runs from the school to make her way to a bridge, where she will jump into a river to her death, a "nightgown fluttering in the wind." This whole scene is charged with the helpless desperation of human behavior. "I knew it," says Ferdinand, "she's "off her rocker!… Dammit to hell … Could I catch her?… But it's none of my business … There's nothing I can do … The whole thing is beyond me … I listen … I look out through the hall door … to see if I can see her on the waterfront … She must be down by now … There she is again … still screaming … 'Ferdinand! Ferdinand!'… her screams cut through the sky…." It is Céline's intention, as Wayne Burns has pointed out in Understanding Céline, "to make the reader hear cries he has never heard before; to make him realize that there is no end to these cries (in either time or circumstance), for they are cries which cannot be remedied by religion or philosophy or morality—much less by the paltry palliatives of social reform or even social revolution."

Ferdinand does go after her, but feels helpless and endangered as he stands on the bridge with the retarded boy both he and Nora had been taking care of at the school. We hear more of her pleas as she "flits" like a "butterfly" from one street lamp to the next. Sirens and whistles blow, rescue squads arrive, but nothing has helped. She is a "little white square in the waves … caught in the eddies … passing the breakwater!" It is Céline's intention, as he later has Ferdinand say in Journey to the End of the Night, "to go deeper and hear other cries that I had not heard yet or which I had not been able to understand before, because there seems always to be some cries beyond those which one has heard." This need to hear the "cries" of humanity is not the impulse of a narcissist, for he is not, as Freud says in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914), "plainly seeking" himself "as a love-object." Nor is Ferdinand seeking a Nora as males would seek women to "save," those who would fulfill the male's desire to believe that "without him she would lose all hold on respectability." Even though Nora's behavior could trigger the narcissistic impulse in Ferdinand to rescue her, "justified by her untrustworthy temperament sexually and by the danger to her social position" (as Ferdinand might say it), it does not do so, neither in fantasy nor in reality. For there has been no "skill in argument" to win Nora, to save her from Meanwell College, no real seduction on Ferdinand's part. In fact, his self-preservative impulse remains defiant and hostile after her death, for he fears he will take the rap for it. Freud has it that "the attitude of defiance in the 'saving' phantasy far outweighs the tender feeling in it, the latter being usually directed towards the mother … in the rescue phantasy, that is, he identifies himself completely with the father. All the instincts, the loving, the grateful, the sensual, the defiant, the self-assertive and independent—all are gratified in the wish to be the father of himself…. When in a dream a man rescues a woman from the water, it means that he makes her a mother … his own mother." Yet Nora is not rescued. The drowning is no phantasy. And Ferdinand, after hearing Nora's cries and feeling he was sure to get caught and blamed, runs back to the school to wake Nora's old husband out of his own torpor. The scene we see then is painful: the old man, drunk on the floor, making masturbatory gestures with the flesh on his stomach; and Ferdinand, observing, and finally giving up, leaving to pack his bags for Paris "at the crack of dawn."

Despite the suicide, both Nora and Ferdinand had freed themselves, momentarily, from their environments, fixed as they were to their economic realities: Ferdinand to his petit-bourgeois Paris background and Nora to her bankrupt English middle-class. Without moralizing or sentimentalizing their encounter, Céline shows us Nora and Ferdinand achieving a moment of difficult tenderness. "It seems very evident," Freud says in "On Narcissism," that "one person's narcissism has a great attraction for those others who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are seeking after object-love." As an adult, Nora has rejected part of her narcissism, and a kind of vulnerable, nervous, but tender compassion remains. She is no Madame Gorloge, who, as the wife of Ferdinand's boss, orders Ferdinand to take his clothes off and make love to her. "She grabs me by the ears … She pulls me down to mother nature … She bends me with all her might…. 'Bite me, sweet little puppy … Bite into it!'"

Ferdinand plays "the ardent lover," and charges into her, as he had seen her husband Antoine do when he and Robert were spying on them, "but much more gently." "She squashed me against her tits! She was having a hell of a good time … It was stifling…. She wanted me to work harder … to be more brutal … 'you're ripping me apart, you big thug! Oh rip me'…." Ferdinand did not have to play the "ardent lover" with Nora; nor could their lovemaking be called "ripping." She was not, as he characterized Gorloge, a "vampire." She was a "mirage of charm." Neither was Nora a Gwendoline, Ferdinand's "Greasy Jone," the English fish and chips girl he meets on the docks before finding Meanwell College. "She kept repeating her name. She tapped on her chest … Gwendoline! Gwendoline!… I heard her all right, I massaged her tits, but I didn't get the words … To hell with tenderness … sentiment! That stuff is like a family…. She took advantage of the dark corners to smother me with caresses…. We could have done our business, we'd certainly have had a good time … But once we'd had our sleep out, then what?" "Anyway I was too tired … And besides, it was impossible … It stirred up my gall … it cramped my cock to think of it … of all the treachery of things … as soon as you let anybody wrap you up…. That's all I had on my mind in the little side streets while my cutie was unbuttoning me … She had the grip of a working girl, rough as a grater, and not at all bashful. Everybody was screwing me. O well…."

Rather, when Ferdinand sees Nora for the first time, he is astonished at his reaction to the gentleness in her face: "the special charm she had, that lit up on her face when she was speaking…. It intimidated me … I saw stars, I couldn't move." Ferdinand's narcissism is under attack by such powerful gentleness, tenderness, and charm because it is responding to it, needing it, and weakened by it in its self-preservative inner life. For all through the Meanwell College scene, Nora will be tending to the needs of a helpless retarded boy. And even though Ferdinand's young narcissism is interested in the idealized Nora—the Nora of his dreams, the picture of her which helps him adjust to his bitterness—he still responds, physically to her, and not to her manipulations, as he did with Gorloge and Greasy Jone. This is especially remarkable when you consider Ferdinand's characterization of himself earlier in the novel: "you'll never know what obsessive hatred really smells like … the hatred that goes through your guts, all the way to your heart … Real hatred comes from deep down, from a defenseless childhood crushed with work. That's the hatred that kills you." Even more remarkably, it may be said that Ferdinand gets a bit of compassion from Nora, learns from her, as he too walks with the retarded boy Jongkind, who "whines like a dog" after Nora's death.

I got to get the brat home … I give him a poke in the ass…. He's worn out from running … I push him … I throw him … He can't see a thing without his glasses … He can't even see the lamp posts. He starts bumping into everything … He whines like a dog … I grab him and pick him up, I carry him up the hill … I toss him into his bed … I run to the old man's door…. He blinks a little, his eyelids flutter … He don't know from nothing … 'She's drowning! She's drowning!' I yell at him. I repeat it even louder … I shout my lungs out … I make motions … I imitate the glug-glug … I point down … into the valley … out the window!

Ferdinand's heart and naked self-will are now less hardened to women, and to those who are victims of biology.

In Journey to the End of the Night, Ferdinand, as an adult, is the eloquent spokesman of revulsion from European colonialism and modern warfare, the voice of revulsion from our traditional beliefs in brotherhood, marriage, and love. He does not believe in our modern love, which is, for him, a "poodle's chance of attaining the infinite." His travels in the novel from the front lines of World War I, to Paris, to New York City and Detroit, to Africa, and back to Paris, have given him an anti-idealistic view of human behavior. "The great weariness of life," he says near the end of the novel, "is maybe nothing but the vast trouble we take to remain always for twenty or forty or more years at a time reasonable beings—so as not to be merely and profoundly oneself, that is to say, obscene, ghastly, and absurd." His first relationship with a woman in this novel is with Lola, an American nurse who believes in the existence of the soul and in patriotism, and it is a relationship characterized by a weariness because Ferdinand believes only in survival after coming home from the war. The understanding between them is of the body not the heart because the hardened heart cannot be trusted during war time. At first he accepts Lola for what she is, and this is even more of a step forward for his self-preservative personality, even less narcissistic than his relationship with Nora, for he no longer needs to see the female body in idealized images: "If I had told Lola what I thought of the war, she would only have taken me for a depraved freak and she'd deny me all intimate pleasures. So I took good care not to confess these things to her … she hadn't only a fine body, my Lola,—let us get that quite clear at once; she was graced also with a piquant little face and grey-blue eyes, which gave her a slightly cruel look, because they were set a wee bit on the upward slant, like those of a wildcat." When Ferdinand does admit that he is not going back to the front, Lola leaves him, furious at his lack of ideals, and returns to New York. But when Ferdinand arrives in New York, he meets Lola again.

she inquired after my genital lapses and wanted to know if I hadn't somewhere on my wanderings produced some little child she could adopt. It was a curious notion of hers. The idea of adopting a child was an obsession with her … what she wanted was to sacrifice herself entirely to some "little thing." I myself was out of luck. I had nothing to offer her but my own large person, which she found utterly repulsive.

"Really, it's a pity, Ferdinand," Lola says, "that you haven't a little girl somewhere…. Your dreamy temperament would go very well in a woman, whereas it doesn't seem at all fitting in a man…." This is an interesting description of female narcissism, to which Ferdinand responds with some of his own. Lola's attitude toward Ferdinand is cool, but now she has found a way to object-love: through a child she could possess the ideal of what she thinks Ferdinand should be. The desire Lola has for Ferdinand is not based on a need to tend him, nor is the desire Ferdinand has for Lola based on a need to protect her. There is, therefore, no anaclitic object-choice here. Rather, Lola looks at Ferdinand as a lover who should be what she wants him to be. And Ferdinand looks at Lola as a source for adventure in America. Her body to him was a endless source of joy because of its "American contours"; she is "a type" that appeals to him. Only when Lola gives him money and he takes off for Detroit to work in the Ford plant, do we see a strong and more radical change in Ferdinand's desires for women. The mechanisms involved in his new object-choice—Molly, the Detroit prostitute—are now more anaclitic than narcissistic, more dependent than independent, and not so much concerned about being with an "American type." And although Ferdinand's relationship with Molly shows remarkable similarities with Freud's description of male love for the grande amoureuse (especially when Freud describes the childhood experiences, the mother-complex, and youthful masturbatory practices of those who have "love for a harlot"), I believe that the following remarks show Ferdinand freeing himself of narcissistic self-absorption, and combining, if only for a time, his feelings of sex and tenderness, despite the fact that he is eventually fonder of his longing to "run away from everywhere in search of something."

I soon felt for Molly, one of the young women in this place, an emotion of exceptional trust, which in timid people takes the place of love. I can remember, as if I'd seen her yesterday, her gentleness and her long white legs, marvellously lithe and muscular and noble … (emphasis added)

"Don't go back to the works!" Molly urged me, making it worse. "Find some small job in an office instead…. Translating, for example; that's really your line … you like books…." She was very sweet giving me this advice; she wanted me to be happy … if only I'd met Molly…. Before I lost my enthusiasm over that slut of a Musyne and that horrid little bitch Lola!"

At the end of the Detroit chapter, we begin to understand the causes of Ferdinand's narcissism, and his possible solutions for his troubles:

Molly had been right. I was beginning to understand what she meant. Studies change you, they make a man proud. Before, one was only hovering around life. You think you are a free man, but you get nowhere. Too much of your time's spent dreaming. You slither along on words. That's not the real thing at all. Only intentions and appearances. You need something else. With my medicine, though I wasn't very good at it, I had come into closer contact with men, beasts, and creation. Now it was a question of pushing right ahead, foursquare, into the heart of things.

No longer do we have a character at the mercy of narcissism—like the young Ferdinand—because the narcissist would never want to plunge "into the heart of things." Rather, the adult Ferdinand sees conventional love (i.e. egocentric romantic love) as doomed to fail in a world where so many people have to scrape and crawl just to get by, in a world where Nature's lessons are hard to swallow, where "sex is the poor man's pocket gold mine."

To love is nothing, it's hanging together that's so hard…. All our unhappiness is due to having to remain Tom, Dick, and Harry, cost what it may, throughout a whole series of years.

And near the end of Journey, when Ferdinand visits a bistro for some cheap fun, living, as he says, a "capitalist's existence without capital," we hear him comment with irony and compassion on a female singing group from England, who are bawling out their little songs of love: "They were singing the defeat of life and they didn't see it. They thought it was only love, nothing but love; they hadn't been taught the rest of it, little dears…." Ferdinand finally realizes that conventional love, the kind we see today everywhere in American culture, richly narcissistic as it is, fails to help anyone—especially him.

What would help he tries to describe for us at the end of the novel, after seeing the death of his friend Robinson at the hands of a romantic lover. Ferdinand says about himself that he is just "a quite real Ferdinand who lacked what might make a man greater than his own trivial life, a love for the life of others." This "love for the life of others" is not at all narcissistic, and it is the kind of love which the young Ferdinand began to achieve when he took Jongkind back to the school the night Nora died, and when he banged on the door to tell Nora's old, drunken husband that she was dying. It is the kind of love which would allow death to be

imprisoned in love along with joy, and so comfortable would it be inside there, so warm, that Death, the bitch, would be given some sensation at last and would end up by having as much fun with love as every one else. Wouldn't that be pretty? Ah, wouldn't that be fine? I laughed about it, standing there alone on the river bank, as I though of all the dodges and all the tricks I'd have to pull off to stuff myself like that full of all-powerful resolves…. A toad swollen out with ideals!

But Ferdinand dismisses even these ideas as hopelessly idealistic for a man like him.

What does help him are not resolves, but what he finds in Sophie, the Slovak nurse who works at the lunatic asylum with him. In his relationship with Sophie, I believe, we see a man nearly free of narcissism. For Sophie is a woman

who still from time to time caught me to her, her whole body strong with the strength of her concern for me and tenderness and a heart full also and overflowing and lovely. I felt the directness of it myself, the directness of her tender strength. (emphasis added)

Male narcissism could never feel the directness of tender strength in a woman's body, the kind of strength Ferdinand now finds that he desires to have not only for himself, but also for women. It is this tender strength in a woman's body, this sex-tenderness and a full heart, which can ease the hardened heart and cruel naked self-will of a man.

I have been looking at scenes which show Ferdinand as an individual seeking meaning and sexual fulfillment. Yet there are other kinds of scenes in Céline's novels which do not emphasize individual sexual action, but rather mass sexual action. These scenes are astonishing in their impact, and they need further study—for they show Céline as a keen observer of herd psychology. Questions, therefore, remain to be answered.

For example, what is the function of Céline's délire and exaggeration in the episode from Death on the Installment Plan, where, in the Bois de Boulogne, Ferdinand and Mireille make love in public, and an orgy of sexual chaos moves and surges a crowd up to the Arc de Triomphe, where they are routed by "twenty-five thousand" policemen? Or what is the meaning of that scene in Guignol's Band, where Virginia and Ferdinand are swept up in a chaos of orgy, violence, and delight in the night club, where people are copulating in a jumble of arms and legs? There are similar scenes of mass, violent delight in North and Castle to Castle. Are these "little narcissistic eccentricities," as Céline labels his writing in Guignol's Band? Or are they scenes which tell us to: "Palpitate, damn it! That's where the fun is!… Wake up! Come on, hello! You robot crap!… Shit!… Transpose or it's death! I can't do any more for you. Kiss any girl you please! If there's still time!" Perhaps these mass scenes expose the flimsiness of even our most sophisticated ideas about love, or perhaps they speak of what Céline thought to be some ancient longing in sex, the "quite bestial act" of it, as he said. Ferdinand (and later Céline himself in his World War II trilogy) are both swept up by such sights and crowds in every one of the novels—as if this author, as a physician, wants us to understand that he sees impulses which repeat themselves on a huge scale, as if all of human life is joyously trapped into having such feelings out of the sheer biological surgings of the species, as well as out of our small motivations, brutalized as they are by war and stupid economies. Witness this description from Castle to Castle, where in a railway station, Céline's favorite locale for the mob's sexual délire, we see that:

sadness, idleness, and female heat go together … and not just kids!… grown women and grandmothers! obviously the hottest ones, with fire in their twats, in those moments when the page turns, when History brings all the nuts together and opens its Epic Dance Halls!… you've got to have phosphorus and hunger so they'll rut and sperm and get with it without paying attention! pure happiness! no more hunger, cancer, or clap!… the station packed with eternity!

Are these scenes of mass erotic action in direct conflict with Ferdinand's lessons about tenderness? Or do they, then, in their juxtaposition with Ferdinand's raptures, for example, over Sophie, show us the value of individual, sexual tenderness in the face of "History"?

More comment is also needed on the intriguing relationship between what Ferdinand enjoys about women (their astonishing bodies, their compassion and intelligence, their ability to have orgasms, and their "wave-lengths"), and what Céline says about sex for men ("it allows a guy a few seconds delirium which permits him to communicate with her"). How do we square Céline's striking portraits of what women have to offer men with this statement from Rigadoon (1961):

all our theater and literature revolve around coitus, deadly repetition!… the orgasm is boring, the giants of the pen and silver screen with all the ballyhoo and the millions spent on advertising … have never succeeded in putting it across … two three shakes of the ass, and there it is … the sperm does its work much too quietly, too intimately, the whole thing escapes us … but childbirth, that's worth looking at!… examining!… to the millimeter! fucking … God knows I've wasted hours!… for two three wiggles of the ass!

And lastly, careful analysis is needed on the relationship between what we see as the positive aspects of sexuality in Céline, what Burns calls "the essentially Lawrentian attitude" Ferdinand gains in coming to the woman, and Céline's personal comment that "(coitus is delirium): to rationalize that delirium with precise verbal maneouvers seems to me silly." Perhaps Céline sees deeper than my critical phrase "positive aspects of sexuality"—a "precise verbal maneouver" if ever I could invent one. Just how deeply and broadly Céline sees can be detected as early as 1916, the date he wrote a poem for his parents in his early twenties, while traveling to Africa. Even at this early date we see that Céline's vision of sexuality is much like the "town crier's," who remains perched in a minaret:

     Stamboul est endormi sous la lune blafarde
     Le Bosphore miroite de mille feux argentés
     Seul dans la grande ville mahométane
     Le vieux crieur des heures n'est pas encore couché—

     Sa voix que I'écho répète avec ampleur
     Announce à la ville qu'il est déjà dix heures
     Mais par une fenêtre, de son haut minaret
     Il plonge dans une chambre, son regard indiscret

     II reste un moment, muet, cloué par la surprise
     Et caresse nerveux, sa grande barbe grise
     Mais fidèle au devoir, il assure sa voix

This indiscreet glance, which plunges into a bedroom, and yet remains mute, frozen with surprise, is a remarkable description of not only our reaction to the sexual scenes we see in Céline's works, but it also characterizes the young Ferdinand's sights of sex behavior in Death on the Installment Plan, as well as the eventual mature view of sexual behavior in the later novels. For as an author, Céline continues to sing that our odd sun rises, despite what he has seen either in or out of his délire, and no matter how many times "History brings all the nuts together and opens its Epic Dance Halls." At every reading of his novels, Céline continues to plunge us "into the heart of things."

Wayne Burns (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "'I'll Protest If It Kills Me': A Reading of the Prologue to Death on the Installment Plan," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 180-92.

[In the following essay, Burns discusses incongruities between the narrator of Journey to the End of the Night and the narrator of the prologue to Death on the Installment Plan. According to Burns, the later work "is a distinct and separate novel that makes its own demands in order to express its own intentions."]

The novel of adventures, the tale, the epic are [an] ingenuous manner of experiencing imaginary and significant things. The realistic novel is [a] second oblique manner. It requires something of the first: it needs something of the mirage to make us see it as such. So that it is not only Don Quixote which was written against the books of chivalry, and as a result bears the latter within it, but the novel as a literary genre consists essentially of that absorption.

—José Ortega y Gasset

I'm first of all a Celt—daydreamer, bard. I can turn out legends like taking a leak—with disgusting ease. Scenarios, ballet—anything you like—just while talking. That's my real talent. I harnessed it to realism because I hate man's wickedness so much; because I love combat.

—Céline in a letter to Milton Hindus, 29 May 1947


The first thing to be said about Death on the Installment Plan is that it is not a prolongation of Journey to the End of the Night—not, as it may initially seem to be, first a prolongation forward (for thirty-two pages) into the life of the mature Ferdinand who appears in Journey and then one backward (for more than 540 pages) into the childhood of the same Ferdinand. The mature Ferdinand of Death is not the mature Ferdinand of the end of Journey, nor is the eighteen-year-old at the end of Death the same Ferdinand who enlists in the army at the beginning of Journey. For all their fundamental likenesses, the Ferdinand of Journey and the Ferdinand of Death are, in both character and function, quite distinct, and they render the two novels quite distinct.

Why distinctions so primary have not been generally recognized I have difficulty understanding. Perhaps it is because most readers and critics read Journey first, since it is better known and more widely discussed and is, in the opinion of most critics, Céline's best novel. Then, if they go on to read Death, they may be inclined, for obvious reasons, to see it as a backward extension of Ferdinand's adventures in which Céline draws upon his boyhood to repeat, even more savagely, everything that he has said in Journey. Approached in this way, Death may well appear to be a lesser novel, despite the fact that nearly all critics concede its superiority in matters of structure and style. But to read Death in this way is like reading Great Expectations as a revision of David Copperfield. Death is neither a greater nor a lesser Journey; it is a distinct and separate novel that makes its own demands in order to express its own intentions. The similarities are always there. They are bound to be there in any two novels of any novelist. But they are there with variations and developments that make Death a quite different and, in my judgment, a much greater novel.


In the first thirty-two pages of Death, which have come to be designated the prologue, Céline introduces Ferdinand Bardamu, the mature "I" who stands behind the boy "I" who then, in the succeeding five hundred forty-one pages, tells the story of his growing up. Or, put another way, the boy "I" is the "I" the mature "I" conjures up from his memories in order to present the fullest possible account of what he was like as a boy and what he went through in growing up. It therefore follows that if we, as readers, are to understand the boy we must first understand the man: whether he is the same Ferdinand who narrated Journey, a few years older but otherwise essentially unchanged, or whether he is a Ferdinand who has, in growing older and becoming a writer as well as a doctor, taken on a somewhat different character.

As the novel opens, Ferdinand is mourning the death of "Madame Bérenge, the concierge … a good friend, gentle and faithful." Alone again, he has no one left to mourn with him:

Those people are all so far away … They've changed their souls, that's a way to be disloyal, to forget, to keep talking about something else.

Poor old Madame Bérenge; they'll come and take her cross-eyed dog away … Someone will have to put out the fire in the lodge. Whom will I write to? I've nobody left. No one to receive the friendly spirits of the dead … and let me speak more softly to the world … I'll have to bear it all alone.

Now these words, I submit, could not have been spoken as Ferdinand here speaks them by the Ferdinand of Journey. While there may be lines in Journey that approximate these, when Ferdinand is speaking of Molly or Bébert or Aleide or Robinson, the tone is different, the expressions of sentiment more guarded. The Ferdinand of Journey could hardly bring in Bérenge's "cross-eyed dog" as unashamedly as Ferdinand does here; nor could he then add, as Ferdinand does here, the line about putting out "the fire in the lodge." And the Ferdinand of Journey could never, under any circumstances, acknowledge that he might wish "to speak more softly to the world."

In the paragraph that follows, as Ferdinand speaks of Madame Bérenge's final moments, he does lapse into the kind of bitterness he so often expresses in Journey. Yet even here the tone is different. While he knows that he can talk about his hatred, and promises to do that "later on if they don't come back," he would rather "tell stories … stories that will make them come back, to kill me." This final phrase, "to kill me," can neither be erased nor denied. It is there, prophetically there. It has to be, since the stories he proposes to tell them (and us) are not stories that anyone wishes to hear, and he must therefore be killed for telling them. "Then," he concludes, in a voice more resigned than defiant, "it will be over and that will be all right with me."

In the passages that follow Ferdinand continues to speak more softly, and seemingly with more self-assurance. In talking with his cousin Gustin, who is also a doctor, he is affectionate, at times even playfully affectionate, and always compassionate. And if he says scathing things about his patients en masse he is kindness itself, for all his ferocious grumbling, when he treats them individually. But then Ferdinand could never, even in his worst moments in Journey, be unkind to his patients—not even when, by his own admission, he behaves "in that stupid way" in treating a sick child:

I had been feeling very strange in mind and body, and the screams of this little innocent made a ghastly impression on me. What screams, my God, what screams! I couldn't bear it another second.

No doubt something else too made me behave in that stupid way. I was so furious I couldn't help expressing, out loud, the rancour and the disgust I had been feeling, too long, inside myself.

"Hey," I said to this little screamer, "don't you be in such a hurry, you little fool! There'll be plenty of time yet for you to yell. There'll be time, don't you worry, you little donkey! Pull yourself together. There'll be unhappiness enough later on to make you cry your eyes out and weep yourself silly, if you don't look out!"

When Ferdinand suffers the same kinds of provocation in a comparable scene in Death he reacts altogether differently—not because he suppresses his feelings of rancor and disgust but because he no longer has such feelings to express or suppress. After putting up with the antics and lamentations of a drunken mother and father, he does everything he can for their sick little girl; then, in a gesture "that was better than talking," he tries to cheer her up by making a swing for her doll. Conceivably the Ferdinand of Journey might have done something like this, although I can't recall an instance in which he actually does, but—and this is the crucial point—he could never, having done such a thing as making a swing for a child's doll, go on to observe: "I thought I'd cheer her up. I'm always good for a laugh when I put my mind to it." In Journey Ferdinand is never good for a laugh—at least not for this kind of a laugh, with no trace of bitterness or satiric bite in it. These are the words of a gentler, more relaxed, more self-assured Ferdinand—a Ferdinand much like the real-life Céline who appears in the reminiscences of his friends of these years.


In mentioning the real-life Céline I am not, I hasten to add, trying to validate my interpretation by an appeal to biography. Whether the Ferdinand of Death is more like Céline than the Ferdinand of Journey is of no real consequence here. What matters is that passages such as this—and they recur throughout the early pages of the novel—tend to modify Ferdinand's character in just those ways that lend credibility to his becoming, like Céline himself, a writer who is at once a "daydreamer, bard" and a relentless "realist." Although Ferdinand has not, like Céline, won fame and fortune with his first novel ("I wasn't making enough money yet to go off and write full time"), he has been writing "big fat books," and he is presumably the author of Journey: "a little pimp, Bébert … He ended up on snow. He'd been reading the Journey…." At any rate Gustin's remarks, when Ferdinand first mentions his writing, echo the critical refrain that Journey gave rise to: "'You could talk about something pleasant now and then.' That was Gustin's opinion. 'Life isn't always disgusting.'"

Against this opinion Ferdinand offers no defense. Instead he concedes that Gustin may, in part at least, be right:

In a way he's right. With me it's kind of a mania, a bias. The fact is that in the days when I had that buzzing in both ears, even worse than now, and attacks of fever all day long, I wasn't half so gloomy … I had lovely dreams … Madame Vitruve, my secretary, was talking about it only the other day. She knew how I tormented myself. When a man's so generous, he squanders his treasures, loses sight of them. I said to myself: "That damn Vitruve, she's hidden them some place …" Real marvels they were … bits of Legend, pure delight … That's the kind of stuff I'm going to write from now on….

Although Ferdinand's manner is playful—as, for instance, when he is talking about squandering his treasures—he is nevertheless responding seriously to Gustin's criticism. "I might," he remarks a bit later, "have consulted some sensitive soul … well versed in fine feelings … in all the innumerable shadings of love…." But, he adds, "sensitive souls are often impotent." And so, when he rediscovers the "bits of Legend" that he had written earlier, "the kind of stuff I'm going to write from now on," he again turns to Gustin:

I wanted to talk to him about my Legend. We'd found the first part under Mireille's bed. I was badly disappointed when I reread it. The passage of time hadn't helped my romance any. After years of oblivion a child of fancy can look pretty tawdry … Well, with Gustin I could always count on a frank, sincere opinion. I tried to put him in the right frame of mind.

"Gustin," I said. "You haven't always been the mug you are today, bogged down by circumstances, work, and thirst, the most disastrous of servitudes … Do you think that, just for a moment, you can revive the poetry in you?… are your heart and cock still capable of leaping to the words of an epic, sad to be sure, but noble … resplendent? You feel up to it?"

Gustin's response to Ferdinand's affectionate banter is wonderfully appropriate: he dozes on without saying a word. But that doesn't stop Ferdinand, who proceeds to read the part of his legend that recounts the death of "Gwendor the Magnificent, Prince of Christiania." And while Gwendor's death is a mixture of gore and sentimentality, the rhetoric with which he expresses it is truly impressive, as Ferdinand himself points out when, at a climactic moment, he interjects, "Get a load of this." Nevertheless Gustin, who may still be dozing, remains unimpressed:

Gustin's arms dangled between his legs.

"Well, how do you like it?" I asked him.

He was on his guard. He wasn't too eager to be rejuvenated. He resisted. He wanted me to explain the whole thing to him, the whys and wherefores. That's not so easy. Such things are as frail as butterflies. A touch and they fall to pieces in your hands and you feel soiled. What's the use? I didn't press the matter.

Yet if Ferdinand does not press the matter he still continues to read—until Gustin, in what may be taken as his ultimate critical statement, falls "sound asleep." And his later expressions of kindly tolerance, when Ferdinand is about to read more of his legend, are equally discouraging: "Go on, Ferdinand, go ahead and read, I'll listen to the damn thing. Not too fast, though. And cut out the gestures. It wears you out and it makes me dizzy."


While there is, by this time, no mistaking Gustin's response to King Krogold, Ferdinand's attitude remains ambiguous. From the time when he and Vitruve and Mireille find the first part of the legend "under Mireille's bed," where she not only sleeps but earns her living, there is a tone of mockery in just about everything he says about the legend—a tone which belies his seeming sincerity in defending his "masterpiece," particularly when his defense ("Such things are as frail as butterflies") seems almost as absurd as the "masterpiece" he is defending. For that matter the legend is riddled with lines totally out of keeping with its overall mood and tone—as, for instance, in the following passages:

Gwendor's army has just suffered a terrible defeat … King Krogold himself caught sight of him in the thick of the fray … and clove him in twain … Krogold is no do-nothing king … He metes out his own justice…. (my italics)

After the battle King Krogold, his knights, his pages, his brother the archbishop, the clerics of his camp, the whole court, went to the great tent in the middle of the bivouac and dropped with weariness. The heavy gold crescent, a gift from the caliph, was nowhere to be found … Ordinarily it surmounted the royal dais. The captain entrusted with its safekeeping was beaten to a pulp. The king lies down, tries to sleep … He is still suffering from his wounds. He wakes. Sleep refuses to come … He reviles the snorers. He rises. He steps over sleepers, crushing a hand here and there, leaves the tent … (my italics)

That the italicized lines are intentional seems beyond question. But are they to be understood as the inadvertent slips of a hopelessly naive Ferdinand? Or of a Ferdinand who cannot quite stomach the rhetoric of his "romance"? Or are they direct authorial intrusions on the part of Céline in which he is playfully undercutting the pretensions of the legend? The truth is, unless I have somehow been remiss in my reading, the novel provides no satisfactory answer to these questions.

Equally puzzling, though in a somewhat different sense, is the passage in which Gwendor meets Death:

"O Death! Great is my remorse! Endless my shame … Behold these poor corpses!… An eternity of silence will not soften my lot …"

"There is no softness or gentleness in this world, Gwendor, but only myth! All kingdoms end in a dream …"

"O Death, give me a little time … a day or two. I must find out who betrayed me …"

"Everything betrays, Gwendor … The passions belong to no one, even love is only the flower of life in the garden of youth."

And very gently Death gathers up the prince … He has ceased to resist … His weight has left him … And then a beautiful dream takes possession of his soul … The dream that often came to him when he was little, in his fur cradle, in the Chamber of the Heirs, close to his Moravian nurse in the castle of King René…. (my italics)

The words of Death that I have italicized express Céline's titular theme so eloquently that they might stand as an epigraph to the entire novel. But why, if this is true, are they tucked away in the middle of the gory legend, then encased in the rhetorical trappings that Gustin, and Ferdinand too at times, find either boring or funny? Are the italicized words another disguised authorial intrusion in which Céline is mocking the pretensions of the legend from a still different angle—by inserting lines more appropriate to the death of his old teacher, Metitpois, than to the poeticized death of Gwendor? Or is the entire passage a virtuoso performance in which Céline, via Ferdinand, is exercising his literary prowess ("I could make alligators dance to Pan's flute") by demonstrating that he can, when he chooses, imbue his high-flown rhetoric with significant meaning? To these and related questions the novel once again provides no clearcut answers.

But—and I know this question will, to many critics, seem dangerously heretical—does this lack of certainty really matter that much? Do we, as readers, have to know exactly how much Ferdinand the writer knows at any given moment about his own writing—especially when the effects of that writing are not dependent on how much Ferdinand knows? Do we, in reading Don Quixote, have to know exactly how much Don Quixote knows at any given moment when the effects of what he is saying and doing are not dependent on how much he knows? Nevertheless, it may be objected, Sancho Panza is always there to let Don Quixote (and the reader) know just how foolish he is being. Where is Ferdinand's Sancho?

The obvious answer is Gustin, who plays a straightforward Panzaic role throughout Ferdinand's readings. Vitruve also functions Panzaically, as does her niece Mireille. But it is Ferdinand himself, in his real or assumed naïveté, who most effectively undercuts his own dreams of what is "noble … resplendent." Up to the time of his delirium, Ferdinand is a divided personality: on his Quixotic side, he tries to believe in and defend his romance even as, on his Panzaic side, he can't help revealing how his own life and the lives of all those around him give the lie to all his idealistic fancies—just as Metitpois's death gives the lie to "his classical memories, his resolutions, the example of Caesar …" The effect of these Panzaic revelations is therefore to permit us, as readers, to see clearly what Ferdinand has only begun to see dimly, namely, that the gory agonies in his legend are but rhetorical fantasies he has concocted in a vain attempt to escape what he and the people around him are going through; that his legend is to him what drinking is to Gustin, what Mireille's dirty stories are to her, what his mother's memories of his father are to her.


Toward the end of the prologue Céline sends Ferdinand into a fever or delirium in which he comes close to madness before he finally resolves his inner conflicts. The delirium is brought on by his trip to the Bois with Mireille, the girl with the "sumptuous ass." "Christ Almighty, what a rear end. That ass of hers was a public scandal." Yet this is not, he explains, what attracts him: "What attracts me is your imagination … I'm a voyeur. You tell me dirty stories … And I'll tell you a beautiful legend … Is it a bargain?… fifty-fifty … you'll be getting the best of it." Ferdinand then tells her the story, complete with settings and costumes, of "Thibaud the Wicked, a troubadour." "The tone appealed to Mireille; she wanted more." But on the way home they abandon his "beautiful Legend for a furious discussion about whether what women really wanted was to shack up with each other"—a discussion that ends up with Ferdinand talking about dildoes and Mireille, going still further, talking about girls growing phalluses "so they can rip each other's guts out." At this point, apparently feeling that Mireille has not only outdone him but will tell the whole world that he has "behaved like a beast," Ferdinand first resorts to violence and then goes off into a delirium that ends with the words: "It was hell."

When he comes to, after being brought home by an ambulance, he is in bed, and his mother and Vitruve are in the next room waiting for his fever to go down. But fever is not all he is suffering from: "Fever or not, I always have such a buzzing in both ears that it can't get much worse. I've had it since the war. Madness has been hot on my trial … no exaggeration … for twenty-two years." But he outruns her; he raves faster than she can: "That's how I do it. I shoot the shit. I charm her." Yet it isn't easy: "My thoughts stagger and sprawl … I'm not very good to them. I'm working up the opera of the deluge … I'm the devil's stationmaster … The last gasp is very demanding. It's the last movie and nothing more to come. A lot of people don't know. You've got to knock yourself out. I'll be up to it soon…." By the time he gets to the last few lines Ferdinand's near madness has been transformed into near sainthood, and he is once more the Ferdinand he was in the opening pages. He is knocking himself out—for us—so that we can know what we don't yet know: the truth about life and death. And he does this knowing full well that we, his readers, will come back to kill him.

In putting Ferdinand back together again as a near saint who is writing (as well as doctoring) in order to save us, Céline comes as close to revealing Ferdinand's deeper motives as he ever comes in the prologue. For his compassion, though always disguised, is always there. It is there when he is mourning Madame Bérenge's death; when he walks blocks out of his way because a stray dog is following him and he has to feed it and try to save it; when he speaks so tenderly to Gustin, as he always does, and excuses his looking "to the bottle for forgetfulness"; when he says, "I wouldn't want to be too hard on Vitruve. Maybe she has had more trouble than I have"; when he looks at his mother's crippled leg "as skinny as a poker" and says, "I've seen it all my life." Céline cannot, however, permit Ferdinand to remain a near saint—either as doctor or writer. No one would believe in him then. He cannot even permit him to be a near hero. Heroes can only feel and see and know what Gwendor knows, or what Metitpois knows, "with his classical memories, his resolutions, the example of Caesar"; whereas Ferdinand feels and sees and knows what Death knows, what Death tells Gwendor: that "there is no softness or gentleness in this world … but only myth! All kingdoms end in a dream."

In bringing Ferdinand to a full understanding of these words Céline renders him forever incapable of being heroic, or for that matter, of acting, or speaking, or writing heroically—except in play or jest. When Ferdinand can no longer believe in dreams and myths he can no longer be a hero. He may perform actions that outwardly correspond to those of a hero; he may even risk his own life to save others; yet so long as he performs these actions without believing that they will somehow make people or the world better, without, in short, believing that they have any meaning beyond their material consequences, his actions cannot possibly be heroic. To be heroic they would have to derive from, or express, beliefs or faiths or dreams or myths that evade or deny the real world. For Céline as for Ortega y Gasset "materiality" contains a "critical power which defeats the claim to self-sufficiency of all idealizations, wishes and fancies of man … the insufficiency of all that is noble, clear, lofty." In the novel, Ortega explains, "reality, the actual can be changed into poetic substance" but only "as destruction of the myth, as criticism of the myth. In this form reality, which is of an inert and insignificant nature, quiet and mute, acquires movement, is changed into an active power of aggression against the crystalline orb of the ideal. The enchantment of the latter broken, it falls into fine, iridescent dust which gradually loses its colors until it becomes an earthy brown. We are present at this scene in every novel."

I have quoted Ortega at such length because his critical argument so closely anticipates the dramatic argument with which Céline concludes the prologue—as he brings Ferdinand, still in bed, and still so feverish that he intermittently lapses into delirium, into direct conflict with his mother's idealized account of her life with his dead father:

She's telling Madame Vitruve the story of her life … Over and over again, to make it clear what a time she's had with me. Extravagant … irresponsible … lazy … nothing like his father … he so conscientious … so hardworking … so deserving … so unlucky … who passed on last winter … Sure … she doesn't tell her about the dishes he broke on her bean … how he used to drag her through the back room by the hair … Not one word about all that … nothing but poetry … Yes, we lived in cramped quarters, but we loved each other so. That's what she was saying. Papa was fond of me, he was so sensitive about every little thing that my behavior … so much to worry about … my alarming propensities, the terrible trouble I gave him … hastened his death … all that grief and anguish affected his heart. Plop! The fairy tales people tell each other … they make a certain amount of sense, but they're a pack of filthy stinking lies….

Ferdinand here defines it all, both for himself and for the reader: "Nothing but poetry," or "a pack of filthy lies." Enough to make Ferdinand leave his sick-bed to vomit. And when the lies continue he "can't stand it," and takes refuge in his legend: "If I've got to be delirious, I'd rather wallow in stories of my own." If, in other words, he has to wallow, he would rather wallow in his own "pack of lies" than in his mother's. And that is what he immediately proceeds to do:

I see Thibaud the Troubadour … He's always in need of money … He's going to kill Joad's father … Well, at least that will be one father less in the world … I see splendid tournaments on the ceiling … I see lancers impaling each other … I see King Krogold himself … He has come from the north … He had been invited to Bredonnes with his whole court … I see his daughter Wanda, the Blonde, the Radiant … I wouldn't mind jerking off, but I'm too sticky … Joad is horny in love … Oh well, why not….

In his interjected comments, Ferdinand is jerking off to, or trying to jerk off to, his own stories in much the same way that his mother, as he sees her, has been jerking off to hers. But his mother's fantasies, as he listens to her talking to Vitruve, overwhelm his own: "I can't stand the sight of her anymore, she gives me the creeps. She wants me to share in her fantasies … I'm not in the mood … I want to have my own fantasies…."

At this point Ferdinand lapses into another delirium in which he sees himself in his "gallant ship" on "a long tack across the Etoile," only to come to as his mother says: "Ah, if only your father were here"—words that so inflame Ferdinand's feelings of hatred that he yells them straight at his mother: "My father, I say, was a skunk! I yell my lungs out … "There was no lousier bastard in the whole universe! from the Galeries-Lafayette to Capricorne….'" At first his mother is "stupefied. Transfixed…." After that she attacks—with words, fits, and finally the umbrella, which she breaks across his face. But Ferdinand refuses to give way. In a finale that is at once a prevision of the rest of the novel and a restatement of the artistic commitment with which he opens the prologue, he declares that he will not put up with his mother's idealized memories: "I'll protest if it kills me. I repeat that he was a sneak, brute, hypocrite, and yellow in every way."

Everything Ferdinand says or does in his battle with his mother reveals his powerful Oedipal jealousy: "The deader he is the more she loves him. Like a she-dog that can't get enough … But I won't put up with it…." And when she starts up again and is "ready to die for her Auguste," he threatens to "smash her face," but instead, "in a blind rage," he smashes her, as well as himself, with gestures and words that come straight from the depths of his Oedipal agony: "I bend over and lift up her skirt. I see her calf as skinny as a poker, without any flesh on it, her stocking all sagging, it's foul … I've seen it all my life … I puke on it, the works …" Unnerved finally, his mother backs away and runs for the stairs, while Ferdinand—and this is the final touch—hears "her limp all the way down."


This is the mature Ferdinand who is, in the guise of the boy Ferdinand, about to tell the story of his growing up. And he has, through his words and actions, foreshadowed the nature of the story that he feels he must tell, the way that he feels he must tell it—or, more accurately, he has foreshadowed the first 325 pages of the story that he feels he must tell; namely, the story of his inability to deny his feelings in order to become like his parents. And because both his father and mother, along with nearly everyone else in their world, are mired in middle-class poverty and ideals that sustain people in that condition, it is to be the story of his struggle to overcome the neglect and even hatred, disguised as love and sacrifice and virtue, to which he is constantly subjected. And because he has come to realize that "there is no softness or gentleness in this world," that the myths in which these ideals are enshrined are like his own legend, or on another level, Mireille's "dirty stories," or the fairy tales his mother tells about his father, his story is to be not a legend or a fairy tale, but a protest against all "the fairy tales people tell each other"—all the fairy tales that people jerk off to.

What Ferdinand's words do not foreshadow, however, is the latter or Courtial half of the novel, which is something of a legend or fairy tale in itself, though of a totally different kind. Courtial, the fatherly Quixote, takes the sixteen-year-old Ferdinand as his Panzaic son, and together they defy the world's lies with hopes and dreams of their own—until the world finally catches up with them and reduces their "crystalline orb" to an "earthy brown." Céline's choosing not to foreshadow or in any direct way acknowledge or anticipate this latter half of the novel raises a number of questions for which once again, I have no very satisfactory answers. Possibly he felt that he could not allow Ferdinand to speak directly about that part of his life in which he was happy without lessening the intensity of the tragic outlook he is trying to establish. Or possibly Céline felt that everything Ferdinand says about his legend and about the stories he is going to tell actually does apply to the second half of the novel, since it too ends on a note of despair. It can even be argued that Courtial is present in spirit if not in name when Ferdinand tries to speak more softly to the world, or when, more specifically, he remembers the pitiful dreams of Auguste, his dead father: "I think of Auguste, he liked boats too … He was an artist at heart … He had no luck … he drew storms now and then on my blackboard."

Yet Ferdinand's softness never impairs his vision. Auguste's dreams, unlike Courtial's, are but impotent fantasies. For him there is nothing in this world but the lies he tries to live by and would have others live by. He, along with almost everyone else, has become like the people Ferdinand described earlier in Journey: "they really have got love in reserve … Only it's a pity people should still be such sods, with so much love in reserve." The distinction Ferdinand draws here is critical. For if he can pity people for being such sods he cannot pity what they do, as sods, to themselves and one another, in the name of some fairy tale or another. What they do, as sods, he hates; the fairy tales that provide them with both impetus and justification for doing what they do he hates even more. And he is determined to express his hatred so forcefully that he will, as he promises in the very beginning of the prologue, "tell stories that will make them come back, to kill me, from the ends of the world."

Having revealed so much about himself and the stories he will tell, the mature Ferdinand makes his final exit by first asking Emilie, the maid, who is still there beside his bed, to lie down with him in her clothes, so that she can accompany him on a make-believe cruise (presumably a continuation of the cruise he embarked on earlier in his delirium). The significance of the ports of call on this cruise Emilie "doesn't get," although her response indicates that she understands the lying down part: "'Tomorrow,' she says, 'Tomorrow….'" With only this promise to sustain him, Ferdinand is "really alone," as he was at the opening of the prologue; and he sees, as he returns to his delirious state, "thousands and thousands of little skiffs returning high above the Left Bank … Each one had a shriveled little corpse under its sail … and his story … his little lies to catch the wind with." And these are the same "dead" (now corpses and in skiffs), the same "lies" ("the fairy tales people tell each other … a pack of filthy stinking lies") Ferdinand encounters at the beginning of his cruise: "The whole town is on deck. All those dead—I know them all … The pianist has caught on … He's playing the tune we need: 'Black Joe' … for a cruise … to catch the wind and weather … and the lies…."

David O'Connell (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: An Introduction," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 100-10.

[In the following essay, O'Connell provides an overview of Céline's literary career, novels, and critical reception.]

In the last twenty years, Louis-Ferdinand Céline has emerged and, in the opinion of most major critics, joined Proust as one of the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century. This change in his literary fortunes is one of the most interesting stories in modern literature, and is understandable if one remembers that Céline's work was surrounded by what amounts to a conspiracy of silence by French (mostly leftist) intellectuals from the end of World War II until about the mid-sixties. Having been accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the war, it took almost twenty years for his name to be cleared. Once it became apparent that despite his vocal anti-Semitism of the late thirties he had not been a Nazi collaborator during the Occupation, there was no way to stop the frustrated and widespread desire of younger Frenchmen to read Céline and to know more about his life and work.

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches was born on 27 May 1894 in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris. His father worked for an insurance company and his mother, to make ends meet, ran her own retail establishment, a soft goods store in the Passage Choiseul near the Place de l'Opéra on the Parisian Right Bank. Beginning in 1899, the family lived at the same address as Mme Destouches's store and young Louis, an only child, attended local schools before being sent by his parents in the years 1907–9 for protracted stays in both Germany and England in order to learn the languages of these two countries. In his mother's thinking, such knowledge would eventually come in handy in the lace business. This early exposure to foreign languages and cultures was unusual for a young French boy of this period, especially for one from his less than privileged petit bourgeois social class.

After his return from aboard, he took odd jobs during 1909–12, working for various small businesses in his neighborhood. Although he later claimed that the desire to study medicine had come to him early in life, he still did not attend school through these adolescent years. Not long after reaching the age of eighteen, in 1912, he joined a cavalry regiment and attained a rank equivalent to that of sergeant by the time the war began. He was seriously wounded in the arm while carrying out his duties at the front in Flanders and was operated on shortly thereafter. Fearful that army doctors would take the easy way out and remove his arm, he insisted on being treated without anesthesia. Thus he kept his arm, the loss of which would have impeded his later medical career. Awarded the Médaille Militaire for his bravery in battle, he was sent back to Paris to rest and recuperate. His disability for the arm injury and damage to his ear drums was rated at 75 percent, so there was no chance of his being sent back to the front.

A year later, in May 1915, he was assigned to the French consulate general in London, where he worked in the passport office. During the year that he spent there, he married Suzanne Nebout, a French bar girl working in one of the local nightclubs that he frequented, but he did not register the marriage with the French Consulate. When he left London a year later, having been definitively released from military service, he left his wife behind. In search of adventure and to earn a living, he spent the next year in West Africa working as a trader in the bush for a French forestry company. His stay in the Cameroons was shortened when, due to ill health caused by the harsh climate, he had to return home. Back home in France in May 1917, he seemed ready to settle down. Taking accelerated course work, he completed his baccalaureate degree in 1919. Enrolling at the medical school of the University of Rennes in that same year, he completed his medical degree in 1924 and, in the process, married Edith Follet, the daughter of the school's director. The marriage to Nebout was disregarded under French law.

With his doctoral dissertation, entitled La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1818–65) (The Life and Works of Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis), published by the medical school, and good connections in the medical profession thanks to his marriage, he seemed to have a bright professional future ahead of him. But this very perspective, a bourgeois life of privilege, did not appeal to him. On the contrary, he felt restricted by it. For this reason, he left his wife and daughter in 1925 to take a job as a doctor with the League of Nations. Thanks to this new post, he was able to travel to Geneva and Liverpool, and even back to West Africa. He also made a trip to the United States, Canada, and Cuba that lasted more than two months in 1925 and that took him to a number of cities, as well as to Detroit, where he took a particular interest in the social, psychological, and medical problems of assembly line workers in the Ford plant located there. These wanderings continued until 1928 when he finally settled in Clichy, a dreary working-class suburb of Paris. Divorced in 1926, he spent the next ten years there, the first three in private practice and, beginning in 1931, as an employee of the local town clinic.

It is at this point, at the age of about thirty-two, that Céline began to write. He devoted most of his free time during the next four years to the composition of his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Its publication in 1932 was by far the major literary event of the year. As Leon Trotsky, a great admirer of the book, but much less so of Céline the man, put it: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes". The novel is a startling one to read, its bitter pessimism affecting readers in a powerful way even today, more than a half-century after publication. It is impossible to be indifferent to Voyage and, by extension, to its author.

Léon Daudet, at the time a member of the Goncourt jury and an ardent admirer of the novel, sought to have Voyage awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize. The other members of the jury were frightened, however, by the idea of awarding the prize to such a bitterly pessimistic work. Thus, as a matter of simple politics, the award went to the now totally forgotten and insignificant writer Guy Mazeline for his novel Les Loups (The Wolves). Instead, and as a kind of consolation prize, Céline's first novel was awarded the Renaudot Prize.

Voyage opens with young Ferdinand Bardamu talking with his friend and fellow medical student, Arthur Ganate. The point of view of the novel, from the beginning, is that of a first-person narrator. Bardamu sees a parade passing by and, in a fit of patriotism, decides to join the army. From here we follow him to the front and then back to Paris where he convalesces. This section of the novel contains some of the strongest antiwar passages ever written. In the process, it attacks the stupidity of professional military men, the cupidity and mendacity of politicians, the plundering and exploitation of civilians behind the front lines, and the docility with which the average citizen accepts his fate. After this, Bardamu goes off to Africa where he works in the bush for a French company. Here we see colonialism at work, with black natives being systematically exploited by the whites as well as by each other. Although the narrator clearly feels that the natives are inferior to whites, he still displays sympathy for their woes, since the white colonials are only creating more problems for them. At the end of this section, as during the previous section in France, the hero lapses into a state of delirium brought on by the stress of living. Delirium to Céline is an escape from the stressful reality of modern life, and it is only through delirium that he escapes from Africa.

When he awakens, he is in New York, and from here his travels will take him to Detroit, where he falls in love with Molly, a local whore, and works in a Ford factory. While in the United States, he comes in contact with modern, unrestrained capitalism and the worship of money and material comfort as reflected in modern American life. At the same time, he sees how people at the bottom of the social ladder live in comparison to the rich. Here, in Detroit, he meets up again with a certain Léon Robinson, his alter ego, whom he had already met in other stressful situations, at the front in France, in Paris, and even in Africa. Partly in order to get away from Robinson and partly to put his own life in order, Bardamu leaves the United States and returns to France where he decides to study medicine.

Here, about a third of the way through this 500-page novel, begins what can be called the second part of the work. Now, instead of running away from reality, he vows to attempt to meet it head on. First, his life as a doctor in the working-class suburb of Rancy is chronicled. Caring for the sickest and least educated segment of society. Bardamu descends into the lowest circles of the hell of modern life. Inevitably, he again runs into Robinson, who is living in the neighborhood. When Robinson tells him that he has been hired to assassinate a neighbor, Old Lady Henrouille, who has become a nuisance to her son and daughter-in-law, both of whom want to get rid of her, Bardamu tries to stay out of it. As Robinson is setting the bomb that he hopes will detonate later and kill the old lady, it suddenly goes off in his face, blinding him. At this point, Bardamu gets involved with the Henrouilles and helps them arrange for both the old lady and Robinson to work in the crypt of a church in Toulouse where they serve as guides for tourists interested in seeing the mummies preserved there. Finally, after the trip to Toulouse, Bardamu returns to Paris where he works in a privately run mental institution. Here, he seems to conclude at the end of the novel, he will be safe from man, the most dangerous predator in the universe. Living among the insane, he has finally found his place in the world.

This second part of the novel, which some critics have found slower to read than the first part, is highlighted by the author's strong social protest against poverty and ignorance as well as against some of the tools that, in his view, society uses to maintain the social status quo: alcohol, the press, and modern cinema.

Although this description offers only an overview of the plot of Voyage, it should be clear that the overriding concern of the novelist is to depict the conditions of modern life. The words of the great Catholic novelist of the interwar years, Georges Bernanos, still apply to Voyage: "Pour nous la question n'est pas de savoir si la peinture de M. Céline est atroce, nous demandons si elle est vraie. Elle l'est" ("For us the question is not to decide if Céline's view of life is horrible, but whether it is true. It is)".

As the first part of the novel is characterized by flight and a search for self and for meaning to existence, the second part is static and shows the hero willing to stay in place, to compromise if necessary, while awaiting death and attempting to find out what meaning he should eventually assign to that event. Living and working among the poor, Bardamu, like Céline himself, comes to the realization that life for most people in our modern consumer societies is humdrum and boring. The major difference between the rich and poor is that the former have the means to buy forgetfulness, while the poor, whom Céline knew all too well, do not have any such opportunity. Much has also been written about the Bardamu/Robinson relationship, but Merlin Thomas's assessment is probably the most sensible. To him, each of these characters represents a different view of death. Bardamu, who has a role to play in life, is still struggling to go on living. Robinson, however, who has no role to play, is happy to have his life ended. Murdered by Madelon, he "had decided upon his own death: he could have avoided it … it all amounts to a question of ultimate acceptance of the lot of humanity." As the novel ends, Bardamu has clearly decided to go on living. He knows that death is what awaits him at the end of the night, but his time has not yet come. Céline showed that his knack for inventing catchy titles was no accident when his next book, Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan), appeared in 1936. Like Voyage—and all the novels that would follow—this book is adapted from the author's own experiences. It goes back in time to the period that precedes the action recounted in Voyage, to Céline's childhood and adolescence.

Although he enjoyed publicly poking fun at Proust, Céline nonetheless admired his ability to fashion an imposing multivolume novel out of the stuff of memory. As if to mimic Proust, Céline begins Mort à crédit by showing us the mature Ferdinand at work as both a doctor and a writer. But when he lapses into a state of delirium brought on by both an attack of malaria contracted in Africa and a recurrence of dizziness caused by war wounds, we cannot help thinking of Proust and of the privileged moments, like the one provoked by the dipping of a butter cookie, the famous madeleine, that brought back understanding of past events through the process of involuntary memory. Here though, Céline, who was always proud of his war record and, through the darkest days of exile after World War II would always consider himself to be a true patriot, stresses his difference from Proust. Whereas the latter always wrote in long, highly stylized periodic sentences about upper bourgeois and aristocratic characters, Céline used this fit of delirium to summon up recollections of his working-class past and express them in a slang that is even more daring than the one experimented with in Voyage. Furthermore, the style relied more and more on what he later called his "style télégraphique," little bits of sentences, divided and punctuated by three or more dots. The reason for this technique, he claimed, was that in order to achieve the emotional effect that he sought, he had to write the way people talk, adapting oral speech slightly so that the reader, even though reading, would still have the impression of being in the presence of genuine working-class speech. Beginning with his childhood in the fictional Passage des Bérésinas, the transposed Passage Choiseul of his youth, where the family lives and his mother works, the first-person narrator, Ferdinand, paints a bleak picture. His father, a loser stuck in a dead-end job, takes out his frustrations by beating his son. His mother, unfortunately, is not much better, and the family eats only noodles for most of their meals because his mother is afraid that anything else will leave odors in the lacework that she has for sale. The relatives are just as bad, with the exception of his grandmother, Caroline, who dies in due course, and his uncle, Edouard, who understands, helps, and consoles him.

Leaving school in his early teens, long before finishing his baccalauréat degree, he works at two different jobs and is fired from each one. His Uncle Edouard luckily intervenes and suggests that the boy be sent to England for language study. Enrolling for a year in Meanwell College in England, Ferdinand eventually has an affair with the headmaster's young wife, Nora, and returns home. Like Molly of Voyage, Nora is treated with sensitivity and warmth and stands out in Céline's fiction for this reason. Back home, Uncle Edouard once again comes to the rescue and introduces Ferdinand to an inventor and con man, Courtial des Pereires. Just as Robinson had slowly assumed more and more importance in the earlier work, now Courtial, with his quacky experiments and projects, becomes a major character as the novel progresses. But when he finally commits suicide near the end of the work because his idealistic vision cannot be achieved (just as Robinson had been killed off by his creator because there was no place for him in life), Ferdinand realizes that, like Bardamu in Voyage, he will have to go ahead on his own and make sense out of life.

Returning to Paris from the experimental farm that Courtial had organized, he decides that he will have to get away from his family and seek true independence. Ironically, he seizes upon the army as the place to find this fresh start in life, and it is with this intention in mind—joining the army—that we leave him at the end of the novel.

Mort, although a successful novel by any criterion, did not achieve the same overwhelming success as Voyage. It did, however, solidify Céline's reputation as a pessimistic writer with a generally negative view of family and social relationships. Despite the warm feelings that the narrator expresses for his Uncle Edouard (and some of the warmest pages that Céline ever wrote concern this character), it is difficult to disagree with this assessment. Like Voyage, Mort was immediately translated into all the major European languages and kept Céline's name alive as an important author (seemingly, but not really, of the Left) in a world about to go to war.

Céline's royalties from the publication of Voyage, in France and around the world, were substantial. He used them to buy a house in Saint-Malo, but he still continued to live in his shabby Paris apartment and never stopped working among the poor and dispossessed. The translation of his work into Russian resulted in the accumulation of a vast sum of money held in his account in the Soviet Union. Since the Soviets would not send him the money, he accepted an invitation in 1936 to visit what the French Left held as an article of faith to be the workers' paradise and to spend his money there. As a result of that trip, Céline published the first of four political pamphlets that appeared during 1936–41. Mea Culpa (Through my fault), the first of them, attacked Russia as a brutal dictatorship organized on the philosophical basis of materialism. Its citizens he announced, live in filth and depravation and are exploited by a new ruling class—the Party. The title of the work is obvious: Céline repented for having allowed people to believe that he was sympathetic to the organized political Left in France.

His next pamphlet, Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a massacre), exploded on the political landscape. In this work, Céline's political consciousness, comparatively subdued in his two novels, where he makes extensive use of understatement, and only beginning to show itself in Mea Culpa, now directs itself in a frontal assault on international Jewry. Claiming that the Jews in France, with their brothers in London and New York, are planning another war in which they intend to wipe out the Aryans, he calls for the neutralizing of Jewish power in France. Reaction to the work, which runs on for over 400 pages, was mixed in France, and in fact many intellectuals, including André Gide, the reigning pontiff of French letters, thought that he was kidding, that the anti-Semitic tone was so exaggerated that it could not be sincere and must be ironic. But when, in the following year, 1938, Céline published another pamphlet, entitled Ecole des cadavres (School for cadavres), that picked up where the first one left off, going so far as to propose a Franco-German alliance against Russia and the Jews as the only way for Europe's Aryans to survive, there could be no doubt about his intentions. As a result of these pamphlets, Céline found himself politically isolated from both the Left and the Right, and he remained in this state for the rest of his life. The last of the four pamphlets, Les Beaux Draps (A nice mess), was published during the Occupation in 1941 and castigates the French army for running away from the Germans. The basic proposition of the work is that France ought to institute what Céline thought would be a true form of communism in which everyone would receive the same salary no matter what form of work he did. In this book he drops the anti-Semitism of the years 1937–38 and presents himself as a true patriot and a decorated hero of the Great War. In fact, after the outbreak of hostilities, Céline served on board a French vessel in the Mediterranean that was shelled by the German Navy. Although he openly called for a Franco-German alliance in 1938 to counter what he took to be Soviet, British, and Jewish attempts to start a new war, he rallied to the defense of his country once the Germans attacked.

Céline's major literary projects during the Occupation were his two-part novel Guignol's Band, and the fragments of what may have been a large novel entitled Casse-Pipe (Kick the Bucket).

The word "guignol" in French usually refers to a kind of marionnette show, the "Grand Guignol," that inspires deep emotion in children because of the extremes of human behavior that it can depict. The word can also be used to refer figuratively to a human being who is comic and ridiculous, and it is this meaning that Céline presumably wanted to give to the novel. The old narrator, who is in fact none other than Ferdinand himself, gazes back over the course of the next 900 pages and reflects on the foolish and laughable youth that he once was and of the "band" of characters that he came to know while residing in London for a year during World War I.

Guignol's Band I, published in Paris in 1944, deals with the underworld characters—pimps, prostitutes, and the like—that Céline knew during his year in London. Various adventures in the first volume culminate in a flight to the French consulate where Ferdinand demands to be reintegrated into the French Army, since he has concluded that service at the front could not be more dangerous than life in the London underworld. It is here, however, that he meets Sosthéne de Rodiencourt, a would-be magus who seeks access to the fourth dimension of existence. Ferdinand falls under his spell, much like the earlier Ferdinand of Mort had been bemused by Courtial. As part 1 ends, we find them going off together in search of adventure. In the second part of the novel, which was not published until 1964, two years after Céline's secretary had accidentally come upon it, the quack inventor, Colonel J.F.C. O'Calloghan, who is working on a new type of gas mask, and his lovely niece Virginia, become major characters. The same type of unbelievable and farfetched events take place throughout this second part, which culminates, once again, with Ferdinand's symbolic crossing of London Bridge in order to leave these characters behind and seek more adventures elsewhere. The plot line of the two parts is generally incoherent, and most critics have found that the novel fails for this reason. However, J. H. Matthews contends that this failure of narrative was a deliberate strategy on the part of Céline. In this novel, "plot is downgraded," he claims, "so that readers will not concentrate upon narrative incident so much as on the manner in which Ferdinand gives an account of events." This might well be the case; but it does not make this tedious novel any easier to read.

Casse-Pipe, preserved in a few fragments that constitute less than 200 pages of text, is centered on barracks life in the cavalry during the period of 1912–14. Chronologically, it fits into Céline's life between Mort and Voyage, just as the two parts of Guignol's Band may be read as an insert in Voyage between the episode in Paris after Bardamu is wounded and his trip to West Africa. The sections of the novel that remain are all that survived the plunder of Céline's Paris apartment after his departure in May 1944. Remaining fragments of it may be rediscovered at a future date.

Féerie pour une autre fois (Fairy tale for another time), which appeared in two volumes in 1952–54, is generally considered to be Céline's weakest work of fiction. It must be admitted, however, that in comparison to the critical attention devoted to his other novels it has not yet been closely studied. Ostensibly written during his exile in Denmark, where he fled in 1945 and remained until 1951, when he was granted amnesty and allowed to return to France, this book is best considered as a transitional work that shows Céline moving from the transformation of his lived experiences into the form of a novel, as in Voyage, Mort and Guignol's Band, to what will become, in his last three books, chronicles that do not seek to fool the reader any more, and where the first-person narrator is Céline himself. In the opening pages of Féerie, part 1, we find the embittered narrator in Paris, but throughout most of the book he is in prison in Copenhagen lamenting his fate, pointing out, among other things, that there are many real collaborators freely walking the streets of Paris, while he is in prison and in exile. The action of Féerie, part 2, written before the first part but published after it, is set in Paris and revolves around an Allied air raid on the French capital. The word "féerie," which denotes a form of entertainment that includes an element of magic and supernatural, is essentially Céline's ironic fantasy about himself. It fails as a novel, if that is what it is supposed to be, but is perhaps redeemed by the fact that it points the way to Céline's last three works, generally hailed by critics as masterpieces.

Once the Allies had landed in France, Céline realized that it was only a question of time until Paris would be liberated and he would be called to account for his prewar writings. Convinced that he stood virtually no chance of receiving a fair trial from the Communist-dominated Resistance, he decided to flee. In July 1944, he left Paris with his wife Lucette, the former ballet-dancer whom he had married the year before, his friend the actor Le Vigan, and his now-famous cat, Bébert. After a short stay in Baden-Baden, he made a trip to Berlin to visit hospitals and then remained for several months in Kränzlin, in Brandenburg, northwest of Berlin. When the Vichy government, by now in exile, retreated to Sigmaringen, Céline moved there and joined the French colony in November 1944. He stayed on with them as a kind of house physician until March 1945. At that time, and allegedly to recover money he had hidden in a friend's back yard in Copenhagen before the war, he left for Denmark. He arrived there safely three weeks later.

The events of this nine-month period were to become the subject matter of Céline's last three works: D'un château l'autre (Castle to Castle), published in 1957, Nord (North), which he brought out in 1960, and Rigodon (Rigadoon), which he completed the morning of the day he died, 1 July 1961. This last text was not published, however, until 1969.

The events of Céline's life during this period of flight are not recounted in order in the trilogy. Nor does he seek strict verisimilitude, as would a professional historian. The subject matter, while based on the author's personal experience, includes a certain amount of fiction and fantasy. The end result, however, is that we have over a thousand pages that describe life in the closing days of the Third Reich. The Allied bombardments, the reactions of the French puppets to their inevitable fate, and the growing awareness of the general population that their cities will soon be overrun by the enemy are all vividly recounted.

These three books are also remarkable in that they reflect Céline's contempt for the Germans. The same man who had sought a Franco-German alliance in 1938 now scoffs at them and their leaders. Another recurrent theme is that of the corruption of leadership, for the masters in the Third Reich never seem to lack any of the creature comforts so absent from the lives of ordinary citizens. A third continuing theme is that of the collapse of Germany itself, the confusion and disintegration of a whole society. Finally, what is perhaps the most important theme of the three works, and which links up with Voyage in this regard, is that of sheer survival. Céline will do anything, flatter any person, do whatever is asked, merely to go on living, to survive until another day when the conditions of normalcy will finally be at hand. Both the fright and desperation that he experienced, and the cunning required to overcome them, are recounted by Céline in his usual self-deprecating way. Convinced of his own political innocence, for which he argues throughout these pages, he also strikes a note for the poor and dispossessed, with whom now more than ever he identifies. These three volumes, properly called chronicles rather than novels, are the last works of Céline's literary career.

In April 1945, a French court issued a warrant for Céline's arrest as a collaborator, but it was only eight months later that French officials in Copenhagen demanded his immediate extradition. The Danes responded by imprisoning both Céline (for fourteen months) and his wife (for two months). In February 1947, Céline's declining health caused him to be hospitalized. After another four months, his health restored, he was allowed to go free on condition that he not leave Denmark. He thus remained in that country until his amnesty in France was declared in April 1951. The last ten years of his life were lived in quiet and seclusion on the outskirts of Paris where he earned his living, as always, by practicing medicine. As mentioned above, his last three books, the chronicles, were composed during this period.

In the United States, the number of writers clearly influenced by Céline is greater than for any other European writer, living or dead. Henry Miller for years was fond of telling anyone who would listen how much he owed to Céline. Jack Kerouac, in the frenzied, breathless flight of On the Road (1957) and in the analysis of the effect of drugs on his heroes, took his cue from Céline's famous delirium scenes in which his hero, overcome by the pain of living, escapes from reality into a kind of therapeutic dreamworld. Joseph Heller, in Catch-22 (1961), took the whole idea for his novel from the first part of Céline's Journey. As Bardamu learns in the opening pages of the novel, while serving at the front in the late summer of 1914, there is nothing more insane than war between two civilized nations. Wounded and rehabilitated in Paris, Bardamu decides that the only way to avoid returning to the combat zone is to act crazy. But French doctors know that anyone insane enough not to want to do his patriotic duty is really sane, and this is precisely the "catch" that Heller places at the heart of his own novel. Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), expanded on the theme of the man who voluntarily decides to live in a madhouse. In this, too, he follows Céline, for if Bardamu is forcefully interned in an asylum early in Journey, by the end of the novel he is a doctor in charge of one. Finally, the most interesting Céliniste to surface in recent years has been Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Céline's influence in him, however, does not grow out of Journey, but rather from the later novels, mentioned above, that chronicle among other things the Allied destruction of a large part of Germany's civilian population in 1944–45. As Céline's prestige grows, more American disciples will no doubt emerge.

Céline's future reputation as one of the two great novelists of twentieth-century France seems secure. Although the linguistic fireworks found in his novels obviously suggest a comparison with James Joyce in English, scholars are only now analyzing his prose to discover the secrets that make it work. As no great novelist or school of fiction has arisen in France in the quarter century that has elapsed since the death of Camus, Céline and his work have to a large extent filled the vacuum.

Erika Ostrovsky (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Creator and Destroyer of Myths," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, Ostrovsky examines Céline's adaptation and subversion of myth themes and patterns in his novels.]

Céline has elicited so much critical commentary—especially in the past decade—the corpus of interpretations devoted to him is so rich and varied, that one might well ask what still remains to be said. Yet his work, by its extraordinary complexity and vitality, constantly inspires, even demands, new explorations. Among these, the treatment of myth elements in his fictions suggests itself as a fecund although (to date) insufficiently used approach. This essay, while necessarily limited in scope, will attempt to make at least an initial incursion into that challenging domain.

At the very outset, however, a clarification is mandatory: the analysis of myth elements here will not deal with factors immediately visible, such as the use of characters, situations, or sites from mythology or the recreation of ancient myths in modern form (as found in the works of many contemporary French writers, for example, Anouilh, Butor, Cocteau, Giraudoux, Sartre, and Wittig). True, mythological figures do at times appear in Céline's fictions (Charon, the Minotaur, Jupiter, Neptune, Venus, centaurs, and sirens), and, on occasion, the author claims the title of mythographer or creator of legends. But these phenomena are only of minor interest for the present undertaking. Matters far less evident and thus—characteristically—much more fundamental in Céline's writings are those that are based on his recognition of the plight of modern man who lives in a desacralized world, yet feels a profound (though hidden) nostalgia for legend or myth. This nostalgia, also observed by one of the great specialists in the field—Mircea Eliade—translates itself, according to the latter, into what he terms "mythological behavior" manifesting itself in a variety of ways in our lives dominated by the profane. Since, however—and this is essential for the purposes of the present analysis—this "mythological behavior" finds its essential expression in the domain of the imaginary, it demands, for its discovery and analysis in literature, the study of myth patterns that are evident in some aspects of a fiction and follow specific models with which specialists of mythology are well acquainted.

Three of these patterns, representing a choice determined by the richness of the material found in Céline's major fictions as well as by their importance in any consideration of myth structures, will furnish the principal areas of exploration in this essay: (1) Initiation; (2) The Modalities of Time; and (3) Cosmogony and Eschaton. It must immediately be added, however, that, although Céline's adherence to myth patterns is of great interest, his subversion, truncation, or suspension of them is just as fascinating and speaks equally of the author's profound originality. Both as creator and destroyer, Céline remains here—as elsewhere—one of the most innovative of contemporary French writers.

Our point of departure will be Initiation—the point of departure par excellence. Traditionally, the pattern it follows consists of a certain number of motifs and stages: separation of the novice or candidate for initiation from his birthplace, native soil, or the maternal domain; segregation in a place both distant and unknown; crossing of a threshold; encounter with a guardian, guide, double, or spirit; trials (frequently in the form of torture); symbolic death (mutilation, sacrifice, circumcision, subincision); a night journey or visit to the underworld/otherworld; a radical transformation in his mode or level of being; the acquisition of a different name; the revelation of a fundamental truth or mystery; the triumphant return of the initiate, now in the possession of important secret knowledge; the transmission of this knowledge to the community.

Even when seen by itself, this list of motifs and phases in the initiation scenario already reveals many striking parallels with the itinerary of Journey to the End of Night (whose very title, of course, suggests the motif of the night journey): the protagonist, Bardamu, like the traditional neophyte, is separated from his native world (Paris, the Place Clichy) and will proceed to a series of distant and unknown places (battlefields, Africa, America); he crosses the first threshold (represented by the image of an empty space obscured by rain but also—perhaps even more powerfully—through stylistic means such as a brutal change of rhythm, the suspension of punctuation, a different lexical register); he encounters a guide or double (Robinson) who will appear at every important turning point, or crossing of another threshold, in the novel; Bardamu undergoes trials, torture, and mutilation, as well as a radical change in his mode of being. Most important of all, a fundamental truth is revealed to him. This occurs in two stages: the first marks his passage into adulthood (which, in the traditional initiation, introduces the neophyte both to death and sexuality) and is here expressed in the famous sentence: "One is as virgin to Horror as to sensuality"; the second, after this loss of virginity and the progressive discovery that occurs throughout the novel (in a pattern repeated several times), is summed up in the formula: "The truth of this world is death."

It is at this point that Céline's fiction ceases to adhere to the mythological model and its subversion begins. After having explored and left the "Other World" (at the exact center of the novel), the initiate, Bardamu, does not return triumphant, although in possession of important secret knowledge. On the contrary, he remains a stranger, an outsider, fixed in a pose of failure at the conclusion of his long night journey. And the transmission of the fundamental truth acquired (usually the final stage of the initiation scenario) is completely reversed, for Journey to the End of Night ends in an appeal for silence: "Let's speak no more about it."

While the Initiation pattern illuminates many aspects of Céline's early novels (for one could, space permitting, trace similar parallels in Death on the Installment Plan and Cassepipe), a much more dramatic (although related) scenario is applicable to the later works, from Le Pont de Londres onward: that of the shaman. The mythological model in question contains the following elements: illness, seizures, possession, disintegration of personality, as signs of vocation, of being chosen; tortures (even involving the symbolic dismemberment of the body or its reduction to a skeletal state); manifestations of furor, heat, trance, ecstasy; ascension or levitation; astral voyages or descents into hell; extraordinary powers in the realm of poetry, prophecy, medicine; visionary states; a prodigious memory; the discovery of a new language; communication with animals, especially birds; the transmission of illuminations to the members of the tribe.

It will certainly have become apparent to those who know Céline's works well, how many parallels can be found between these attributes and those of the narrators (and their companions or doubles) in his later fiction, such as Sosthène de Rodioncourt and Mille-Pattes in Le Pont de Londres or Jules in Féerie pour une autre fois. The first enters repeatedly into trance states; the second is, in effect, reduced to a skeletal shape and performs vertiginous acts of levitation at the Touit-Touit-Club (a place whose very name suggests, among other things, the sound of a bird-call); the third, whose body has undergone dismemberment (he is a double amputee) ascends to the top of the Moulin de la Galette (an image of the Axis Mundi?) and directs an infernal round. Descents into hell occur quite frequently in Céline's last trilogy and are represented by entry into subterranean labyrinths, tunnels, room no. 36, and bomb craters, or assemblies of monsters and demons in Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon. The protagonists of these novels also manifest others of the shaman's unusual powers: that of prophecy (for example, the "extra-voyant" narrator of Castle to Castle); of poetry (such as the writer-doubles of almost all the narrators); of communication with animals (the cat, Bébert, chief among them) and especially with birds (the role of "bird-charmer" had already been attributed to Sosthène and will revert to the narrator at the end of Céline's last novel, Rigadoon); of medical skills (which make the protagonist of almost all the later fiction a witch doctor or medicine man, in the truest sense of the word).

In this case, as in the previous one, it can be seen that the subversion of the mythological model (as powerful as adherence to it) operates at the moment of the scenario where the triumphal stage usually begins. Thus, ascension inevitably ends in a fall or a derisive failure—for Mille-Pattes as well as for Jules. (Of course, this pattern had already been prefigured by the grotesque end of Courtial des Pereires' balloon in Death on the Installment Plan, but it becomes more dramatic in the later works.) Ecstasy, if it occurs at all, leads to nothing (as in the case of Sosthène); the discovery of a new language is limited to that of an apocalyptic Esperanto or the sign language of cretins; the transmission of an illumination to the members of the tribe either ends in disaster or never takes place at all.

Let us now proceed to the second stage of our itinerary: the Modalities of Time. According to mythological thinking, there are two kinds of time: profane time—linear, chronological, irreversible—which leads to degeneration, decrepitude, and death; the time of origins, of absolute beginnings—primordial, auroral, infinitely recuperable—characterized by strength, purity, perfection. For modern man, who considers himself defined by history, it is the former that dominates, creating a profound sense of anguish that is the result of his "fall into time" and the temporal flow that leads, inevitably, toward death. It is this kind of time that is so powerfully evoked in a passage of Death on the Installment Plan (a work whose very title translates this obsession): "Ah! it's really terrible … how one loses people along the way … pals one never sees again … never … who've vanished like dreams … it's all over … gone … then one will also be lost … in the dreadful torrent of things … of days…." An attempt, overwhelming in its futility, to halt the flow of time, follows this pronouncement: "A mad desire took hold of me … to jump into the fray … to block their path … to stop them in their tracks … so they wouldn't move at all anymore!… so they'd stand still … once and for all!… So I wouldn't see them leave anymore!" But the "dreadful torrent of … days" cannot be halted nor turned from its course. One cannot be cured of the ravages of time. At most, one can attempt to nullify it by projecting oneself out of the temporal. Bardamu had already expressed this wish in his cry: "To leap out of Time!" and had momentarily succeeded by various forms of escape—the cinema, voyages, eroticism, delirium. But they provided only a short respite and rapidly gave way to an awareness of temporality and its accompanying anguish. It is of no avail either to circumnavigate the globe and to visit the "other world." For once one stops running, "one picks up the thread of the days again, the way one has left it dragging here, filthy, precarious. It waits for you."

If, according to mythological thinking, the return to the Origin is the only way to kill the dead time that leads to death and if, by ritually returning to the beginning of the world one can re-create the paradisial state which preceded our fall into time, then in Céline's fiction, any attempt to break the temporal flow fails in the final analysis. At most, what remains is a nostalgia, an unslated thirst for such a state and some frenetic attempts to attain the Time of Origins (i.e., a Golden Age when a strong, pure race of supermen peopled the earth). The latter seem to lead to the monstrous pronouncements made by the narrators of the pamphlets that coincide (both temporally and historically) with Aryan myths and the racist theories of the Nazis.

The only true means of escaping linear and destructive time (according to nearly all mythologies) is by a repetition of the act of creation—or cosmogony. Such an act is possible for the creator of fiction even if it is impossible for his creatures. First of all, because any construction (in this case, that of a book) is a repetition of the act of Creation, an absolute beginning and, as such, a way of restoring the initial instant, the plenitude of a present without any trace of history. Second, because the writer (and the reader) can move outside of historical and personal time and gain access to an ahistorical and transpersonal dimension: the time of the imaginary that contains all the liberty lacking in the temporal realm of living—a time that is expanded or contracted and where one can, once again, experience all things with the same intensity as when they occurred at the very first instance. The writer can also refuse linear time in his fiction and, by means of structures, suggest a world sheltered from the ravages of chronological time. In his early novels, Céline seems to have undertaken this task by a relatively simple chronological reversal of episodes or of entire works (such as Journey to the End of Night, Death on the Installment Plan, Guignol's Band, parts 1 and 2). In his late works however, fictional time itself is expanded or contracted; it even exists simultaneously (for example, in Rigadoon where, in numerous passages, verbs in the past, present, and future tense are found in the same paragraph, even in the same sentence); it is exploded, winds back upon itself, and finally becomes so chaotic that it no longer seems to exist at all. It is then no more the representation of a leap out of time but the very annihilation of time itself. This state of nothingness, this regression or return to the amorphous and to original chaos, is the point where what one could term Endzeit rejoins the Urzeit that figures in all the myths of the End of the World.

This brings us to the last stage of our exploration: Cosmogony and Eschaton. Traditionally, the order of these two terms would be reversed, for the Eschaton supposes the total destruction of the cosmos and its return to chaos—to the primordial massa confusa—in order to subsequently permit the renewal or absolute regeneration of the world. Whether it is a question of the diurnal and nocturnal cycle, the round of the seasons, or the Great Year of the cosmos, the pattern remains the same.

In the case of Céline's fiction, the eschatological phase is, of course, the most evident. According to most critics, he is an "apocalyptic" writer, the destroyer par excellence of an existing (literary) universe, a specialist in the reduction to zero. He himself reinforces this impression by the pronouncements of many of his narrators: "I am the thunder, the cataclysms," one of them says; "I write the opera of the Flood," another adds. All of this might lead one to think that the mythological model would constantly be subverted or sabotaged and that, in his works, cosmogony would never follow the eschaton. It will be seen, however, that even this subversion would be subverted by Céline on occasion.

Naturally, readers of Céline are well aware of the fact that the stages of the destructive phase are painted in great detail and occupy the predominant place in his fictions and that, from Journey to the End of Night to Rigadoon, an apocalypse of human origin is taking place. All the motifs of the eschaton are present: destruction by fire due to criminal acts of war; floods of all kinds, often tragic but at times comical—such as the deluge of vomit during the Channel crossing in Death on the Installment Plan or the flooding of toilets in North; the reign of demons and the resurrection of the dead, in Death on the Installment Plan or in Castle to Castle; the ruin of entire civilizations and the destruction of humanity as a whole, in the last trilogy and especially in Rigadoon. Not only on the mimetic but also on the stylistic level, this annihilation is reflected. The latter is expressed by the fragmentation of the novels' structures, the atomization of syntax, the deluge of words, the chaotic nature of fictional time and space.

However, and this is most important, the subversion of the mythological model—exceptionally—does not take place at the moment when Céline's life and work come to an end. For, if one closely examines the second part of Rigadoon (from the moment the narrator suffers a head wound), one sees that a transformation takes place and a turning point has been reached: the end of the world allows a new creation to take place. The first indication of this is that the "infernal music" that has pursued the narrator ever since the initiatory head wound inflicted during World War I (described also as "excruciating noises," "the opera of the Flood," "the small song of Death") undergoes a metamorphosis the instant the final head wound is suffered during World War II. The music now heard is: "A song!… magnificent! as magnificent as the panorama … a song like a symphony for this ocean of ruins … crazy ruins … 'waves of little flames' … pink … green … and small crackling bouquets … the souls of the house … far … very far away … dancing…." Noises have changed into a "magnificent song," "a symphony"; the Flood image has given way to that of the "ocean" and of the "wave" (symbols of birth and becoming); the harsh and brutal colors of destruction have become tender tints of "pink" and "green"; flames have changed into flowers; the round of demons and witches has been transformed into a dance.

From this moment on, a sense of calm and peace will reign; a pause occurs that is neither emptiness nor absolute ending, but rather a time of rest before something takes place. This something, ushered in by inexplicable laughter (the laughter of creation), is the birth of a new world. In the beginning, the seeds of primordial life appear, breaking forth from the original and most primitive substance—clay (or mud)—in the form of creatures existing on the simplest level, beings in a larval state, animallike, functioning on a preverbal level: the "little cretins" with whom "everything is possible" and "everything begins again." Together with the author-accoucheur we witness the birth of new life which, truly, arises from its own ashes.

Thus, not only does cosmogony follow the eschaton but, in the last part of Rigadoon, there is a brief yet extraordinary passage in which one sees a kind of garden of Eden where the narrator and his wife (resembling the first human couple) are surrounded by fabulous birds that eat from their hands (in the presence of Bébert, the cat) as trusting as the animals at the dawn of creation, before the Fall.

This renewal out of the void takes place not only on the level of mimesis, however. Céline, after having submitted literary style to eschatological action, assures us (parodying Genesis of Judeo-Christian mythology) that "In the beginning was emotion" and to re-create style from the base of emotion. And, although the narrator of his final work announces that "each creation carries within itself, with itself, its birth as well as its end," we might add that each end (and this is substantiated by all his novels) carries within it its own birth or rebirth. And, although the title, Rigadoon, contains the image of a target riddled with bullet holes (and thus, of death), it contains at the same time a reference to creation through dance, by dancing.

Thus, Céline, in the work completed at the moment of his death before entering into absolute silence, gives us a brief glimpse of dawn at the end of cosmic night.

Philip H. Solomon (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Reading Céline," in Understanding Céline, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 5-15.

[In the following essay, Solomon provides an overview of the major themes and characters in Céline's novels.]

Céline preferred to think of himself as a stylist, but it would be more appropriate to consider his writings in terms of a particular vision of the human condition. Vision is a crucial concept in Céline's novels. Several of his novels begin with a unique pattern of opening signals. The narrator finds himself in a set of circumstances articulated by a mythologized head wound which results in his having perceptual distortions. These distortions self-consciously announce that the reader is entering the realm of fiction, whatever similarities—and there are many—will emerge between the author, the protagonist-turned-narrator, and the protagonist. In D'un château l'autre (1957, Castle to Castle), the narrator will refer to himself as a visionary, a "lucid super-seer," one who sees clearly, by means of heightened perception, beyond or through surface appearances. Beginning with Féerie pour une autre fois (1952, Enchantment for Another Time), the reader may begin to question the focus and scope of that lucidity as a kind of double vision sets in. Céline's condemnation as a Nazi collaborator for his anti-Semitic writings and his subsequent prosecution (Céline would consider it persecution) become an integral part of his novels' subject matter. These latter narratives serve, among other things, as a means of self-defense and self-exculpation. How, one might wonder, could such a visionary be so shortsighted with respect to his support of an ideology that would lead to genocide?

But first, by way of introduction, let us explore what the seer sees. All of Céline's novels are marked by the presence of war. Céline's fear and hatred of war is conditioned not only by his own circumstances—he was a disabled veteran of World War I (and served briefly as a ship's doctor and ambulance driver during World War II)—but also by the devastation of his country in the so-called "war to end all wars." As the principal battleground of World War I as well as one of its major participants, France incurred staggering losses—1.4 million dead, an entire generation wiped out. For Céline, war has no geopolitical justification. It is a grotesque mockery in which misguided, incompetent, and callous leaders, political and military, countenance the slaughter and maiming of millions of ordinary citizens to further their dubious goals.

Céline chooses to focus not so much on the fighting itself but on the landscapes of war, external and subsequently internalized as traumatic memories. The battlefields of Flanders in World War I become deceptive landscapes in which the ordinary hum of insects is replaced by the whine of bullets, deadly expanses on which, viewed from a distance, tiny uniformed figures shoot at one another for reasons they are unable to comprehend. As for World War II, with its saturation bombings, it leaves in its wake a world turned upside down—cities transformed into necropolises, asphyxiated soldiers still guarding their posts, multicolored fires whose seemingly cheerful flames make one forget their origin, buildings reduced to numbered bricks as if they were about to be constructed. Céline depicts the horrors of war but also its perverse beauty. When survival at any price becomes one's chief concern, "normal" values are no longer applicable. Cowardice is transformed into a virtue. The insane seem reasonable in the midst of universal insanity. When Céline's protagonist leaves the front, he remains haunted and obsessed by the carnage he has witnessed, by the specter of death.

But if war, as Céline presents it, is antiheroic, it is, nonetheless, a desirable activity for its participants. It liberates, as it legalizes, an inherent human predilection for killing. Céline represents daily existence as a struggle to maintain a coherent identity, some semblance of civilized behavior, in the face of a natural tendency, accelerated by war, for such constraints to collapse. Spite, cruelty, hatred, exploitation, and various forms of brutality ooze through that protective envelope, even in the absence of war. Céline adds an element of geographical determinism to this volatile mixture. Warmer climates bring such nefarious elements to the surface more readily than do colder climates; the Southerner is thus more unstable than the Northerner.

All of Céline's protagonists—successive versions of the same figure, designated as Bardamu in his first novel. Ferdinand in those that follow—are engaged in the apprenticeship of life. They lose their illusions along the way and are transformed into older and wiser, if not more cynical, narrators. They are shaped not only by their experience with war and all it connotes but, in a more general sense, by the realities of an existence marked by disintegration, disorder, and death. Throughout the novels they experience and bear witness to the passage from order to disorder as structures of all kinds crumble away. Societies fragment under the pressure of war, relationships and personalities erode, and the advance of technology turns individuals into anachronisms. They discover that surface appearances are deceptive, masking only temporarily the dangers lurking behind them. Their plans and dreams are transformed into absurd fantasies. Beauty is revealed to be a veneer for the ugly and grotesque, and virtues can no longer be distinguished from vices. Céline's universe is a place of confusion (in the literal sense of a "running together"), heteroclite, in which hierarchies and categories no longer hold. Céline wields his pen like a scalpel (he was, after all, a doctor by vocation). He dissects the human condition, exposing its malignancies, but he offers no treatments or cures.

Céline's fictions are haunted by the ubiquitous presence of death, for that is where disintegration and disorder ultimately lead: death as an immediate settling of accounts, and death "on the installment plan." War takes care of the former; disease, poverty, despair, and a gamut of deleterious instincts and emotions will eventually help to pay off the latter. Some characters, like Robinson in Journey to the End of the Night, become death's willing accomplices, driven to despairing acts by their inability to create a meaningful existence for themselves. Ferdinand, for his part, cheats death, if for no other reason than to bear witness to the truths, however unpleasant, that experience reveals, to transmit the disorder of life through the order of art. We are meant to admire his cleverness and his tenacity in that effort.

What one might term the nobler sentiments—love, tenderness, self-sacrifice—rarely counterbalance the panoply of destructive tendencies that surround the protagonist and from which, given his privileged role, he is largely exempt. Ferdinand's infatuation with Virginia in Guignol's Band II is a parody of romantic love that transforms him into a buffoon but also, and here he shares the common penchant for violence toward others, into a brutal rapist who assaults his idolized beloved and makes her pregnant. For Céline's protagonists, sexual love is usually either a masturbatory fantasy or the expression of a brute instinct that weakens a man and makes him an easy prey for the devouring female. There is a fear of women in Céline's novels that transforms them into ogres or into self-effacing, and thus non-menacing, dependents. Even Lili, Ferdinand's wife in the later novels, is a vaguely defined background figure, the incarnation of the dancer. Her existence is subsumed by her husband's.

Children receive special treatment in Céline's fiction by virtue of their contrast with adults. According to Céline's concept of reverse metamorphosis, children are the butterflies that will become "maggots" (Céline prefers the more negative designation to the relatively innocuous "caterpillar") once they reach adulthood and begin to assume the noxious personality that is inherent to the species. The narrator of Guignol's Band I remembers with great fondness and tenderness the groups of children playing in the wet, gloomy streets of London. Their games and their songs endow those streets with a gaiety and light they would otherwise not possess. Animals, perforce innocent, also receive their share of affection. One of the companions of the journey traced in the wartime trilogy is the cat Bébert, to whom his master demonstrates an exemplary kindness.

How does one cope with existence, as Céline depicts it? Delirium is one way. One of its forms is the simple delusion, entertained at least briefly, that things are not as bad as they seem or will get better. In Death on the Installment Plan, Ferdinand's mother Clémence insists that honesty and hard work—time-honored middle class values—will permit her commerce in handmade old lace to return to prosperity, despite the increasing popularity of machine-made goods and the growing dominance of the department store. A more extreme form of delirium is insanity, a permanent withdrawal behind the walls of one's own mind, an abdication of responsibility for oneself and the world. The journey, one of the major themes in Céline's novels, can itself be a form of escape, each new place bearing with it new possibilities. But such opportunities quickly evaporate. They were, after all, but a mirage, since existence is everywhere the same, since one cannot leave one's self behind. Movement becomes yet another delusion, a rigadoon (the title of Céline's last novel) in which one stays, despite the appearance of progress, in the same place. Ferdinand is fascinated by ships. But his reveries of distant shores are short-lived. The only satisfactory voyages are those of the imagination. The journey of life must, of course, end with death. Ferdinand, modern picaro, ironic Ulysses, learns to travel underground, picking his way through the interstices of existence and observing its tragicomedy.

Although they convey a pessimistic view of the human condition, Céline's novels are by no means humorless. But their humor is most often black and bitter. Verbal wit in the service of iconoclasm, satire, and demystification exposes the ludicrousness of individual and societal pretentiousness. Neither the narrator nor the protagonist are immune from such scrutiny—to which they frequently respond with self-deprecating irony or sarcasm. There is a comical incongruity in the protagonist's clumsy but determined efforts to order an existence that becomes, in the face of such attempts, that much more problematical. That we know the protagonist's survival is never in doubt permits us to be both apprehensive about the defeats he suffers and convinced he will devise the necessary stratagem that will permit him to recover before moving on to the next catastrophe. His resiliency is amusing as is that of the cartoon character who, flattened or shattered, reconstitutes itself before another devastating encounter takes place. The wartime trilogy is replete with such incidents as Ferdinand stumbles, sometimes literally, from one obstacle to another in his fitful progress toward Copenhagen. There is a good deal of humor as well in Céline's depiction of those individuals whose larger-than-life idiosyncrasies shape their own equally eccentric universes. In Guignol's Band II, Sosthène de Rodiencourt (the aristocratic name does not match the behavior of its bearer), mystic and illusionist, believes he has appropriated the strength of a demon and decides to demonstrate his new powers by zigzagging through the traffic on Piccadilly Circus—transforming it into a literal circus. The comedy comes to an end when the clown is beaten into submission under the clubs of the police.

There are several secondary characters like Sosthène, and they constitute one of the salient aspects of Céline's novels. Their brand of delirium transcends simple insanity. They are obsessed with a variety of manias that are magnified to an epic scale. Like massive force fields, they bend the universe around themselves so it becomes an extension of their own personalities, a closed system that is, at least temporarily, impermeable to the contingencies of external reality. Eventually, such systems break down, with far more catastrophic results than the thrashing Sosthène received from the Bobbies. In Death on the Installment Plan, Courtial, inventor and polymath, blows his brains out when his mind can no longer conceive and, above all, verbalize the schemes that have been his refuge.

Certain secondary characters are fascinating in the ways they serve as doubles for the protagonist. These individuals embody conflicting or alternative aspects of the protagonist's psyche. Their autonomous yet dependent existences dramatize the protagonist's or narrator's awareness of his own complexity. Jules, the legless painter in the two volumes of Guignol's Band, incarnates the dark side of the artist, the perversion of creative ability for personal satisfaction. In the wartime trilogy, Le Vigan, film actor and collaborator, represents by his sinking into insanity the temptation to abdicate lucidity in the face of harsh reality. Doubles like Robinson and Le Vigan also serve a necessary function vis-a-vis the protagonist: they can take the journey of life beyond the limits imposed upon the latter. The protagonist must survive, must remain lucid, in order to fulfill his dual function: to bear witness to his and others' experiences and, having become the narrator, to transform memory into text.

One cannot read Céline without taking into account his anti-Semitic writings. Although one could suppose that Céline, having heard as a young boy his father read anti-Semitic literature aloud at the dinner table, simply espoused the views of the elder Destouches, it is more reasonable to assume that he chose to be an anti-Semite (the earliest evidence for his prejudice dates from 1916). The choice was not difficult to make or to sustain. Although a previous wave of anti-Semitism in France, generated by the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906), had waned by the early 1920s, a second, far more powerful, surge took place in the 1930s. Many factors contributed to this renewal of anti-Jewish sentiment. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s there was a considerable immigration to France of Eastern European Jews, particularly from anti-Semitic Poland.

Many of these immigrants were manifestly Jewish in dress and speech, and thus stood out from their more assimilated French brethren. As Nazi racist policies grew more rigorous (Hitler had become chancellor in 1933), a number of German Jews fled to nearby France. Jews, as well as other immigrant groups, competed with the French for relatively scarce jobs in a weak national economy. A sense of the decline of democratic political and social institutions gave new vitality to such right-wing organizations as the Action Française, always ready to blame the Jews for France's troubles. The coming to power of the leftist Popular Front government (1936–38), under the leadership of the Jew Léon Blum (1872–1950), drew the wrath of the anti-Semites, convinced that the Popular Front was proof of an international Jewish conspiracy and, concomitantly, that France was in need of a New Order like that of Germany.

One must remember that during that during these years anti-Semitism in France was not associated with what we would designate today as the "lunatic fringe." Respected national figures were infected by the disease, and anti-Jewish literature was inexpensive and readily available. In short, there was no stigma attached to being an anti-Semite and expressing such views publicly, in speech or in writing. That situation would change in 1939 with the passage of the Marchandeau law making it illegal to defame a particular religious or ethnic group and subsequently with the German occupation of France, when anti-Semitic publications served to support Nazi racial policies and would justify an accusation of treason. Céline's first two pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un massacre and L'Ecole des Cadavres, were both published before the war, withdrawn from circulation following a suit for defamation, and then republished during the Occupation. His third pamphlet, Les Beaux Draps, appeared initially in 1941. The views expressed in the pamphlets were seconded by Céline's letters to collaborationist newspapers and his presence at various anti-Semitic functions.

Even a very cursory reading of Céline's pamphlets (Bagatelles pour un massacre is briefly examined in the final chapter of this study) reveals the familiar cliches of the anti-Semitism of the period. Although Céline claimed they were pacifist in intent, directed only against those Jews who were supposedly leading France into another catastrophic war with Germany, the pamphlets condemn all Jews as racially inferior, as conspiring to take control of the world for their own power and profit, as parasites infecting an otherwise healthy Aryan society. Céline does not call specifically for violence against the Jews, although he does express his admiration for Hitler's racist policies. However, his message is clear: arouse hatred and disgust for the Jews by exposing their true nature and intentions so that they will be restricted, as second-class citizens, to the most limited role possible. Céline would later deny that the Holocaust had ever taken place.

Apart from some stray remarks, Céline's novels are free from the anti-Semitism he displays elsewhere. However, Céline's condemnation and prosecution as a traitor for his anti-Semitic pamphlets and contributions to collaborationist newspapers shape the protagonists of the later novels, beginning with Féerie pour une autre fois I. Protesting his innocence, claiming he had composed the pamphlets to save his country from going to war and had not written a line for pro-Nazi newspapers, Ferdinand sees himself as an innocent victim of persecution, a scapegoat for a humiliated nation. He has recourse to the Romantic myth of the writer pursued for his unpopular views—and generating new art as a result of that pursuit. Crossing the war-ravaged German landscape, he makes no connection between the events of history and the course of his personal life. In fleeing to the presumed safety of Denmark, he attempts to outrun history and then, having failed to do so, cannot understand why he was jailed. The "lucid super-seer" has somehow become blind to the nature and consequences of the ideology he espoused and publicly defended.

The apprenticeship of life for Céline's protagonists is inseparable from the relating of their experience, from its transformation into a text. The temporal distance between the protagonist-turned-narrator and the protagonist is the "space" within which the fictions are generated. For Céline, so long as the two do not coincide, there are further stories to be related. Mobility—the voyage as coterminous with the journey of life—leads to immobility, the protagonist becoming the narrator, and then the voyage is reiterated through words. In Féerie I, the narrator, confined to a cell in a Danish prison, frees himself through the medium of his narration and in his text ranges unencumbered over time and space.

Céline describes his style at length in a mock interview entitled Entretiens avec le professeur Y (1955, Conversations with Professor Y), which will be analyzed in the last chapter of this book. His point of departure for the definition of that style is his rejection of written French, a language that he considered lifeless and artificial. In one of his pamphlets he criticizes the French schools for imposing that sort of language upon generations of students, using the models furnished by the half-Jewish writers Montaigne (1533–1592) and Proust (1871–1922). Putting aside Céline's anti-Semitism, one must remember how influential the highly centralized French educational system was, and still is, as the purveyor of an elitist linguistic standard. One should note as well a more carefully maintained separation between written French and spoken French than is the case with English, particularly in America.

Céline turned to spoken French as a repository of emotion and energy, as well as of more colorful expressions. But Céline rejects any notion of a simple recording of that spoken language. He seeks, paradoxically perhaps, to transmit those qualities through the medium of a (re)written language, carefully arranged for maximum effect, so that it will be capable of expressing a given content while creating an emotional resonance in the reader. Céline refers to his style as a "métro émotif," an "emotional subway," trains packed with the heteroclite materials of his fictions, plunging along the twisted tracks of his phrases. The ties supporting the tracks are constituted by his use of ellipsis points that permit him to cut away the dead tissue of standard syntax, leaving behind the essential aspects of the phrase to explode upon the reader's sensibility.

It is obvious that the impact of Céline's style can best be felt by the reader fluent enough in French to appreciate the texts in their original language. Fortunately, for those American readers not having the requisite command of French there exist the superlative English translations by Ralph Manheim. Céline's readers, whatever their language, will find that their trip on his "métro émotif" is a unique experience, an exhilarating ride on an underground rollercoaster rather than on a sedate subway. Reading Céline is sometimes tiring but never tiresome.

Sally M. Silk (essay date September 1992)

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SOURCE: "Caught in the Dialogic: The Célinian Narrator Silenced," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 107, No. 4, September, 1992, pp. 795-805.

[In the following essay, Silk discusses the effect of cultural alienation on the protagonist's ability to communicate in Journey to the End of the Night.]


Dialogism's emphasis on an interplay of voices is grounded in Bakhtin's conception of the word as social material. Because "all words have the 'taste' of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour," the notion of a word of one's own becomes impossible. Privacy and the word are incompatible in a way that recalls Geertz's view of culture as a symbolic system that can be characterized by its public nature. Although Bakhtin affirms everywhere in his writings that all words belong to the public domain (this is, after all, dialogism's most salient characteristic), nowhere does he explore the dynamics behind a textual subject's relationship to culture. Therefore a fundamental question remains unanswered, one that comes directly out of his work, but is never addressed therein: What happens to the relationship between culture and dialogism when a subject is forced into discursive marginalization by another voice in a text? How is dialogical activity problematized when the self is litera(ri)lly invaded by an other?

To begin to examine this issue, it is useful to locate where the mutual attraction resides between culture and the word. Geertz's view of culture suggests we start by looking closely at Lacan's concept of the Symbolic Order. Because it is precisely the place where desire is rearranged and laws are erected in order to allow a subject access to language, the Symbolic Order can be regarded as the place where culture and the word intersect.

If Lacan's theory is going to be useful in helping us get at the problematics of dialogism, it must be noted that while the Symbolic Order is the place where a subject gains entry into language, it is also the place where a loss occurs, in view of the subject's mediation through an other necessary to the process of acquiring language. How does dialogism account for the acquisition of language as well as the loss of self? I argue that this question can be answered by projecting the Symbolic Order on to a spatial plane, imagining it as an area possessing both a center and a periphery, with the center giving full primacy to the public and the word, while the periphery designates virtual isolation and alienation from language.

Enlisting Lacan to contend with problems of dialogism is an idea that emerged from a reading of Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit. The loquacious narrator Bardamu, despite his remarkable manipulation of language, remembers his travels to Africa and becomes entangled in a colonial discourse that he is unable to master. He undergoes a discursive decentering so complete that the narrative voice, known for its skill with words, is ultimately silenced. Bardamu, in resisting culture as it is embodied in the Symbolic Order, becomes a marginalized subject as he moves farther and farther away from the center of the Symbolic Order. When he arrives at what I have conceptualized as the periphery, he is left without a voice. To understand how he copes with this prospect of an endangered relationship to the word, the role of the other (on whom the subject depends for a definition of self) needs to be foregrounded.

In Céline's text the other incarnates the "public" from which the subject grows increasingly isolated as it approaches the boundaries of the Symbolic Order. Despite conflict between the two, the subject actively goes in search of the other. This complicated dynamic between self and other grows so intense that the subject must actually do violence to the silence he suffers in order to ensure dialogical engagement in the realm circumscribed by the Symbolic Order.

Bardamu's stay in Africa represents the only time in the novel when he is without language; the episode functions as a key textual moment that positions him at the periphery of the Symbolic Order. I shall demonstrate that when the self is forced into discursive marginalization by an other, when it is pushed to the limits of the Symbolic Order, from a dialogical perspective, the narrator suffers dramatic consequences.

The Narrative Voice: Colonizer Turned Colonized

Bardamu's marginal cultural position in the Symbolic Order is revealed in his confrontation with colonialism in Africa. Sent to man a tiny provisions store in the jungle, he has difficulty adjusting to the colonial behavior that his fellow countrymen slip into so effortlessly. Before arriving at his own little store deep in the jungle, he stops in a town where he observes a fellow countryman exploiting a group of natives. He nervously describes how this French entrepreneur takes complete advantage of an African family wishing to sell a basket of raw rubber. When the entrepreneur pays the family by wrapping a dirty handkerchief around the neck of one of the children instead of giving them a few coins, Bardamu comments: "La famille sauvage contemplait à présent le petit orné de cette grande chose en cotonnade verte … Il n'y avait plus rien á faire puisque le mouchoir venait d'entrer dans la famille." Although he appears cynically indifferent to the incident, Bardamu does, in effect, demonstrate his complicity in an imperialist discourse. For just as the child wears this symbol of civilization around his neck, so too does Bardamu occupy the voice of the ethnographer, a role that authoritatively describes the handkerchief's introduction into the family as if he understood the natives' symbolic systems.

The ethnographic voice assumed here by Bardamu silences the other. For when the bewildered family leaves the store, their lack of understanding is interpreted in the text as silence. Discursively, Bardamu embodies what Said terms "the power of culture," a force that maintains its stronghold "by virtue of its elevated position to authorize. The power of culture is an agent of, and perhaps the main agency for, powerful differentiation within its domain and beyond it too." Bardamu's voice is legitimized, and "powerful differentiation" is brought to a dramatic climax when he ends the scene with a description of the African father receiving "un grand coup de botte en plein dans les fesses" from the shopkeeper. Literally kicked out of the shop, the native sets into relief Bardamu's own inside position, both in the shop and in the authoritative discourse of colonialism.

Bardamu is firmly ensconced in the Symbolic Order, for colonialism owes its discursive strength to the Symbolic Order's function as the place where desire is repressed and laws erected. But Bardamu is not at all prepared for what will happen to him when he leaves the entrepreneur to run his own shop in a remote corner of the country. His place in the Symbolic Order, which up to this point has guaranteed him access to language, is about to be overthrown. It is in the tiny village of Bikomimbo that the constitution of the subject becomes a completely traumatic operation.

We have seen that Bardamu's unwillingness to recognize the natives as a legitimate other allows him to appropriate a colonial discourse that silences them. One might think that by denying the natives a voice, he simultaneously denies himself an addressee, thereby compromising his position in the Symbolic Order. Curiously, however, the natives in Bikomimbo do not threaten his secure position in the Symbolic Order; instead, a westerner very much like himself encroaches upon his space in the Symbolic Order. In Bikomimbo he meets up with his alter ego Robinson, the character that he unexpectedly keeps running into throughout the novel and actually begins to seek out. We shall see that what Bardamu has done to the natives, i.e. silence them discursively, Robinson will do to Bardamu. The disturbing confrontation between Bardamu and his alter ego Robinson propels discourse in a centrifugal direction so that in the end Bardamu is left completely voiceless, as silent as the natives he portrayed only several scenes earlier. Before proceeding further, it would be useful to examine how the concept of silencing an other involves the co-opting of discursive space.

In a study of nineteenth-century travel writing about Africa, Mary Louise Pratt explains that the narrating western voice codifies the other because the "eye/I" that looks and speaks "commands what falls within its gaze." Houston Baker comments that her conclusions demonstrate "a writing of the 'Other' out of relationship to his or her native ground and into the sexual, commercial voyeuristic fantasies of imperialism." Bardamu's narrative is undoubtedly a product of the power of this ethnographic "eye/I" and is dialogically engaged with it. However, an important difference is that Bardamu never wishes to impose himself on the native. He is there not because of an active desire to participate in the colonial apparatus, but rather, like many colonists, in self-exile from France. He does not possess "the will to intervene" that characterized the travel writing explored by Pratt. She explains that this nineteenth century "will"

emanates from an unknown site behind the speaking 'I'—behind the periphery of what is seen, from a seat of power that should probably be identified with the state,[…] the current conception of state [being] a form of public power separate from both ruler and ruled, constituted most basically by the exclusive right to exercise legitimate violence within a certain defined territory.

In the previous scene in which the native family is "kicked out" of the shop, Bardamu simultaneously accepts and resists the colonial "eye/I." He accepts it insofar as he allies himself with the petty colonial entrepreneur and thus feels he should view the situation from his perspective; but he resists it in that he is uncomfortable interpreting a world he himself does not comprehend. Therefore Bardamu is forced to adopt the privileged voice that Pratt calls the "eye/I" at the same time that he enters into conflict with it.

Bardamu's discomfort with the western monopoly on discourse suggests that he is also ill at ease with the traditionally western concept of blackness as a sign of absence, negation, and silence, as explained by Henry Louis Gates in Figures in Black. Bardamu, the colonialist cum deserter, writes about Africa, the continent shrouded in a myth of darkness. Maintaining resistance to the ethnographic authority behind the "eye/I" means he must also penetrate this darkness. Doing so requires confrontation with the "Signifying Monkey," who, Gates explains, is "he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language." In other words, in the jungle where Bardamu will meet his alter ego Robinson, he is surrounded by others (i.e. the natives) who, like him, also function on the margin. This is likeness intensified. In Bikomimbo Bardamu will thus literally see versions of himself everywhere. Colonial exploitation performed by Bardamu at the level of theme thus occurs in discourse as well. A close reading of the scene itself will reveal how the feeling of oppression that accompanies exploitation is discursively played out.

Robinson, starved for interlocutors, consistently reads Bardamu's thoughts, forces Bardamu to listen to his longwinded pronouncements about the natives, and exploits Bardamu's presence to keep talking. Bardamu finds him disturbing, and although he writes "Je cessai de converser avec ce forban," it becomes obvious that Bardamu seeks to appropriate the self-assured status represented for him by Robinson's voice, even though he is simultaneously afraid of it.

The animals in the vicinity of the hut make so much noise that Bardamu writes: "On en finissait par ne plus s'entendre entre nous dans la case. II me fallait gueuler à mon tour par-dessus la table comme un chat-huant pour que le compagnon me comprît." By substituting "chat-huant" in the original French expression "gueuler comme un veau," Bardamu plays with a cliché and, consequently, a traditionally secure position in the Symbolic Order. Moreover, reduced to an animal-like state, verbal communication begins to fade between them, an indication of his increasing distance from the center of the Symbolic Order.

Bardamu, becoming desperate in his need to shed some light on the fast approaching darkness, asks his predecessor: "Comment vous appelez-vous? N'est-ce pas Robinson que vous venez de me dire?" Bardamu doesn't understand him the first time, and never receives an answer the second time. This unfulfilled desire to know Robinson's name, to be able to assign the primary signifier to a referent amidst all this confusion, dramatizes Bardamu's now more than ever questionable relationship to discourse.

His connection to the Symbolic Order deteriorates as both the outside noise and Bardamu's own inability to understand Robinson grow stronger. Even the simplest metaphor on the part of Robinson throws Bardamu into a discursive situation that the latter is apt to misunderstand.

Vous n'avez pas du coton pour vos oreilles? me demanda-t-il encore … Si vous n'en avez pas, faites-en donc avec du poil de couverture et de la graisse de banane. On réussit ainsi des petits tampons très bien … Moi je veux pas les entendre gueuler ces vaches-là!

Il y avait pourtant de tout dans cette tourmente, excepté des vaches, mais il tenait à ce terme impropre et générique.

Focusing on the alter ego's language, Bardamu, a master with words, tries to create a superior position for himself by drawing attention to this particular use of "vache." However, by reading Robinson literally, Bardamu demonstrates his inability and/or unwillingness to deal with the highly valorized rhetorical device of metaphor, a sign that he has difficulty coping in the Symbolic Order. Moreover, he reinforces his vulnerability to the presence of this alter ego so that semantic play takes on threatening overtones.

Bardamu is lost because he misreads his alter ego. Discursively, his position has become so unstable that he even discards a literal understanding of Robinson's words in favor of a symbolic reading of the latter's advice to use earplugs. Bardamu writes:

Le true du coton m'impressionna subitement comme devant cacher quelque ruse abominable de sa part. Je ne pouvais plus m'empêcher d'être possédé par la crainte énorme qu'il se mette à m'assassiner là.

Paranoia grows so intense here that Robinson's advice is portrayed in terms of a plot against Bardamu, who even goes so far as to use the word "assassiner." Bardamu's suspicion of this resourceful combination of banana oil and animal hair demonstrates his unwillingness to "stick Africa in his ear." Unlike the fantastic Rabelaisian play with this part of the body, Bardamu's paranoia about tampering with his ear demonstrates a rejection of all that is playful in language in order to keep every line of communication open. In his desperation, Bardamu requires a more direct link with language, one that can assure him the decisive orientation of the Symbolic Order rather than the misorientation suggested by his inability to reconcile his body with its surroundings (witness his resistance to Robinson's advice to use earplugs).

Confronting his alter ego in the jungle has resulted in the desire for guaranteed communication, that is, communication without mediation. Robinson's subversive earplug advice requires Bardamu to shut out communication entirely while what he desires more than anything in Bikomimbo is the opposite. Robinson advocates transgression of the rules of the communicative act as it is embodied in la parole intermédiaire; but Bardamu, throughout the story admittedly less daring than his alter ego, does not have the courage to block the receiving end of an enunciative act so that he may sleep undisturbed. He is too sensitive to language to plug his ears. If Bardamu transgresses in the way he plays with conventions of language, he resists going so far as to transgress its very properties in terms of enunciative positions. If "transgression is both positive and desirable," if "it breaks, frees, opens, makes possible fictional construction and reconstruction, and guarantees authentic literariness," then Robinson's presence in Africa causes Bardamu not to see a reflection of himself in the alter ego but rather to engage in a confrontation with his writerly self.

Is it any wonder, then, that Bardamu's dilemma turns into one concerning being heard/read? When he explains anxiously: "Mais que faire? Appeler? Qui? Les anthropophages du village?… Disparu? je l'étais déjà presque en vérité!," the reader is actually the only one who can recognize his predicament because Robinson is gone and Bardamu does not deem the natives acceptable as illocutionary partners. Even though he rejects Robinson's advice to use earplugs and therefore stop listening, Bardamu himself is not listened to because no one can hear him from his position in the jungle.

One might assume that Bardamu's connection to the Symbolic Order is problematic because of the conflict he experiences with the only one who can guarantee him an entry into language, i.e. the alter ego Robinson. I shall demonstrate, however, that it is because of Robinson that Bardamu's confrontation with his writerly self calls into question his relationship to the Symbolic Order.

For if the Symbolic Order marks the point at which the subject gains entry into language, then Bardamu appears to be teetering on the edge of such a space. Does his peripheral position in the Symbolic Order suggest then that he is not subject to the division of self that accompanies any entry into language? Can Bardamu be considered a unified subject exempt from the "negative imperatives" that characterize the Symbolic Order as a site of disconnection and repression?

In order better to answer this question, it is useful to return to Pratt's concept of the "eye/I." It was demonstrated earlier that Bardamu both accepted and resisted this imperialist position; now, however, the western ethnographic voice no longer attempts to describe its surroundings. Instead, the "eye/I" seeks recognition by an other.

The pivotal moment in the African episode occurs at this point: Robinson disappears without a trace in the middle of the night, his absence affecting Bardamu's search for an addressee. Bardamu is debilitated by the very fact that the power of his western language is now superfluous in the jungle. Without an interlocutor to guarantee communication, Bardamu lacks the proper environment for an enunciative act. If the natives were silenced as others, Bardamu is himself silenced in the jungle because he refuses to accord them any illocutionary rights. We learn that he ends up being discursively assimilated to the natives:

Les noirs petits et grands se décidèrent à vivre dans ma déroute en complète familiarité. Ils étaient réjouis. Grande distraction. Ils entraient et sortaient de chez moi (si I'on peut dire) comme ils voulaient. Liberté. Nous échangions en signe de grande compréhension des signes.

Bardamu and the natives communicate exclusively through nonverbal signs. But we soon learn that he cannot abandon language for silence. He grows feverish, and in his delirium decides to set on fire the hut in which the natives feel at home. The smell of burning rubber reminds Bardamu of when he was a small child in Paris witnessing a dramatic fire at the telephone company. Should it come as a surprise that the memory of burning telephone wires in France is triggered by his attempt in Africa to put an end to a hated enunciative situation? Like the telephone company fire, signs exchanged with the natives represent a threat to language. This episode opened with the abuse of an African family as they tried to sell a basket of rubber to a western entrepreneur; the scene ends with Bardamu, desperate for the western voice of his alter ego, setting the same material on fire. At the beginning when the family selling rubber is mocked by westerners, Bardamu is planted firmly in the Symbolic Order; by the end, when he is silenced by the absence of a western other, he has been pushed to the edge of the Symbolic Order so that it is now he himself who sets fire to the very material that introduced him to Africa.


Bardamu's status as a subject with regard to his now marginal position in the Symbolic Order raises an important question. Do we conclude that he is not a split subject because he has moved away from the censorship necessary to keep the Symbolic Order functioning smoothly? I would argue that the Symbolic Order's drive to reorganize and repress desire in a way that culture is then produced keeps Bardamu very much on the inside of the boundaries of the Symbolic Order. Bardamu and the natives do communicate by signs, but where the natives have their own language and culture, Bardamu is dispossessed by the loss of a western interlocutor, the other without whom there is no self. He is denied verbal communication and, positioned at the edge of the Symbolic Order, is left discursively homeless.

The natural reaction is therefore to leave Africa and go in search of Robinson who, as alter ago, holds out the only possibility of identity for Bardamu. The Symbolic Order, as the promise of a move towards language, becomes the mechanism by which Robinson's status as reified other silences Bardamu. When Jameson speaks of the Symbolic Order's power to humiliate the subject, one can look to the role of the western other embodied here by Robinson to see how it operates. Pushed to the limits of the Symbolic Order, Bardamu sets fire to his silence in order to regain language. The consequence of this destructive act is to pursue the other that is Robinson, thereby deciding Bardamu's status as a split subject unable to survive without the Symbolic Order.

Bardamu embodies the Symbolic Order's characteristic trait of continually ensuring the infinite division of the subject within culture, the guaranteed separation of self from other. Juliet Flower MacCannell notes that the modus operandi of the Symbolic Order is just this, that it "reminds us that the drive of culture is neither benevolent nor malevolent; it is a mindless, inexorable drive towards division, splitting. It is aimed, but only at producing, through this fission, the energy and the power to perpetuate itself."

The energy so vital to the Symbolic Order derives its heat from the "warm[th]" inherent in the tensions of the dialogical word. Bakhtin's work on dialogism has made possible this analysis of alterity in culture as it is represented by the Symbolic Order. Throughout his writings he speaks of the "boundary," perhaps nowhere more eloquently than in the following statement:

The realm of culture has no internal territory; it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect, the systematic unity of culture extends into the very atoms of cultural life, it reflects like the sun in each drop of that life. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and its significance; abstracted from boundaries, it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

The emphasis Bakhtin places on the importance of boundaries to dialogical activity has been held up to a different light in this reading of Voyage au bout de la nuit. When examined discursively in Céline's text, the edges of the Symbolic Order's "drive of culture" resound with properties that define the ensnaring space of dialogism.

Andrea Loselle (essay date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: "Fading Images: The Touristic Itinerary and Spatial Representation in Céline's German Trilogy," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 16-35.

[In the following essay, Loselle examines the narrative presentation of time and space in Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, and Céline's role as a chronicler of historical reality and postwar tourist.]

Imagine, Amalia, you're sitting in a room screening a film and the projector jams. Right in the middle of a cross fade between scenes. You see double. The frozen images of the scene just past, and the not-quite formed images of the next scene. If you live in changing times, querida, you get two of everything (diplostathmos). You get Ayatollahs and video cassettes. The sexual revolution and the Moral Majority. You bottle Coca Cola in Athens and you load Ritz Crackers on a 747 cargo jet headed to Montevideo. (Chrono Jasuel, letter to his niece, translated from Esperanto, 41) …

In 1917, Hachette issued a reprint of its Guides-Joanne to Paris. Its editors stated in the introduction that they had hoped, as many had in 1914, that the war would be short lived, but the complete exhaustion of their stock of Paris guides had forced them by 1917 to issue a reprint during wartime. Except for minor changes to statistics and the addition of a few new museums and monuments, the editors took care to retain the guide as it was before World War I. They did, however, add a supplement "sur feuilles roses" dated April 15, 1917 with information on curtailed transportation services, higher tarifs, closed museums, and a more current point of interest, the Invalides, where one could view, among other war trophies and souvenirs on display, a "bombe jetée par un zepplin le 29 janvier 1916, et carte du thêatre de la guerre." The supplement does not say where the bomb had actually been dropped; all one is certain of is that it managed to land intact, as a defused museum artifact, within the walls of the Invalides.

One smiles at the mental picture of a war raging without a museum's walls and its harmless, touristic representation within, a feckless redundancy of what could at any minute fall from the sky and blast such displayed serenity to smithereens. But this image is also a retrospective bird's eye view of history in the making. The war as a past event was already being integrated into everyday life and would figure as another kind of spectacle staged behind glass. This observation is more palpable in light of the fact that the supplement is dated no later than nine days after the Americans officially declared war on Germany (April 6, 1917), a positive sign to the editors, perhaps, that the war might soon be brought to an end. An isolated, historical artifact representing two articulations, the guide approximates Chrono Jasuel's much later and more radical perception of changing times—a blurring of cultural difference—as a film frozen between two screens. Unlike the guide, the film's medium is a sign of technological advancement. Only stopping the film strip enables one to read, and thus reterritorialize, all the contradictory cultural juxtapositions.

The war in 1917 would figure prominently in the actual use of the guide, because the seventeen "promenades" mapped out in it could hardly be expected to function smoothly when most museums had closed and stored their treasures elsewhere for safekeeping, and transportation was irregular or, as in the case of the bus service, nonexistent; still, it would have been understandably impossible, the editors wrote, to tailor the guide "d'après I'état des choses actuel qui n'a d'ailleurs qu'un caractère transitoire, et varie d'un jour à I'autre." War and tourism are not, it would appear, concurrent activities despite the overlapping "feuilles roses," because war is transient, and tourism is its immobilized monumentalization. It would be difficult to map out and measure distances in the guide without the transportation channels and sites. The war would thus make the guide as a set of signs and markers uncommunicative and purposeless, prefiguring, perhaps, with the supplement itself a remapping, a new organization. The supplement, though originally a temporary representation of present conditions, nevertheless ends up in its own way on permanent display like the bomb and the map of the war theater. From this perspective, tourism makes war, after the fact, eminently "visitable" as an inert spectacle, a concept to which the Hachette guide caught between two states bears testimony.

Then again, whereas war and tourism are separate, consecutive activities, the tourist industry would gain much of its momentum from the war, because it boosted France's weakened, postwar economy. Furthermore, the war in its aftermath greatly enhanced the tourist trade through the creation and development of new paths and roads, and improved technology. Michelin launched its lucrative series of guides verts with a guide to the battlefields of the Great War. Tourism, then, was parasitic on the war's networks and sites. Realizing the great economic profits to be reaped from the tourist trade, the French government finally placed the Office National du Tourisme under the change of an Under Secretary of State for Tourism, Gaston Gérard, in 1928. More than ever before, tourism was, like war, a national concern. Tourism and war, therefore, are seen to coincide not on the level of event but on that of their organization and movement.

Turning to the aftermath of another war, the second, one finds the same dynamic of double images (war and tourism) of which this article's epigraph and the 1917 guide to Paris are exemplary but frozen parables. Nowhere is this more evident than in the context not of a guide but of a series of three novels, the German trilogy (D'un château l'autre, Nord, Rigodon), L. F. Céline's autobiographical narrative of his flight from Paris through Germany to Denmark at the close of the Second World War. Writing in the postwar France of the 1950s, Céline imagined war and tourism as intimately linked. They constitute two readings so parallel that they are often confused; the numerous references to war and tourism in the trilogy tend, for example, to obscure the narrator's identity. He is both an avowed chronicler (an anachronized historian) and a reluctant tourguide/tourist to the events and places of his history. Oscillating rapidly between his historical narrative and digressions into the present, the narrator registers confusion as to the nature of his narrative when he states: "maintenant nous voici en tourisme et pleine Histoire!…" Even though he consciously attempts to increase the temporal distance between his wartime experiences and their capitalist, touristic representation by taking on the identity of the "feudal" chronicler, the narrator has no control over changing times. For the reader, the temporal blurring, as in the example of the jammed projector, leads both to isolating and comparing frozen, past and present images, and to making him and her aware of a cultural acceleration that cannot be arrested.

If one compares the German trilogy to the Paris guide, it appears that the transition from war to tourism may have accelerated from one war to the next, making it thus possible for Céline to identify them more closely with one another. This is equally evident if one also reads the trilogy side by side with Céline's first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, which opens with the narrator's experience of the first war. Its style is far less fragmented and fast-paced, and its narrative structure is an uncomplicated chronological progression without shifts from past to present. The narrator, Bardamu, belongs to the cavalry and, although airplanes were a significant, new presence in World War I, they play no role in the novel. Subsequent chapters involve Bardamu's travels; these are not vacations, or even "working vacations," but travel based either on necessity (a job in Africa or at the Ford factory in Detroit) or on discovery (Bardamu arrives by boat in America). The trilogy's rapid style and temporal oscillations show that, as life accelerates through technological innovation, the world appears to shrink. And, as speed effaces space, it effaces the history of a time when space was strategic and invasions meant crossing and appropriating boundaries, not flying over them. Time as "contemplative" space, or as the distance one needs to perceive difference, disappears for both the chronicler and the tourist. Video cassettes next to Ayatollahs and Ritz Crackers loaded on a 747 jet headed for Montevideo are scrambled images caused by technological speed. Similarly, the confusion between chronicler and tourguide/tourist is predicated on acceleration.

Articulating the relationship between time and space through its representation in war and tourism uncovers the problematic of speed that lies at the core of the German trilogy. In the early 1950s, at the same time Céline was beginning the trilogy, a new field of study called "time-geography" appeared. Time-geography analyzes life-spans (or "biographies") as paths in temporal space; space, therefore, is "space over time." It maps out how much an individual accomplishes in the course of a day, a week, a year, and by what means one can "intensify" his or her temporal "paths" through speed and frequency. Just as speed is erasing space, tourism as a degraded speed aesthetic in the trilogy is, as I shall argue, not war immobilized, but it is based on war's organized form of "mobilization." It overtakes the narrative, that is, history itself.

The trilogy recounts the narrator's four-month stay at Sigmaringen, locus of the displaced Vichy government in 1944, his extended stay at "Zornhof," which he locates in northern Germany, and other short stops along the way. This flight is unavowedly motivated by the author's/narrator's anticipated prosecution by a military tribunal for wartime collaboration in France prior to his flight and stay at Sigmaringen. Neither pure fact nor fiction, Céline's chronicle is both a novelistic autobiography and a history related out of chronological sequence. The first book, D'un château l'autre, on the narrator's stay at Sigmaringen would, if placed in its proper chronological sequence, appear after the passage through Ulm in the third book, Rigodon. And the second book, Nord, with its major stops at Baden-Baden, Berlin, and "Moorsburg" ("Zornhof") would take the place of the first book, because these are the first stops in the narrator's itinerary.

Cut up into mostly short sections (not chapters), the trilogy entertains its readers with amusing anecdotes about Pétain's daily walks, his conversations with Pierre Laval, with other French collaborators (Paul Marion, Abel Bonnard, Fernand de Brinon, Alphonse de Chateaubriant), and with German officials (Otto Abetz), and doctors (Harras). But it also describes sudden bombardments, fire-bombed cities, masses of panic-stricken peoples, and carbonized victims. Like the narrator and his traveling companions—his wife Lili, the actor Robert Le Vigan, and the cat Bébert—everyone is frantically fleeing the Allies, either by hiding or by boarding overcrowded trains headed north beyond the reach of the Allies. As it crumbles beneath the Allied invasions and is gradually strangled by her ever shrinking defense lines, Nazi Germany becomes a shifting map of scurrying peoples of all nationalities, who can no longer make sense of their surroundings, who all carry false identity papers, and who, out of hunger and fear, become more and more "dislocated." They are all possessed, being literally dispossessed of their identities. When Céline, Lili and Le Vigan have new identity photos taken in Berlin, they discover that they no longer resemble their peacetime selves but rather disjointed, upside-down Picassos. Le Vigan, the actor, starts losing his mind when he repeatedly replays one of his film roles, Christ on the cross. Another character, Pretorius, thinks he can still hear Hitler's Nuremberg rally speeches. Lepers, madmen and professional assassins are also encountered on the way to Denmark and, toward the end of the journey, the narrator is even saddled with a band of nameless, retarded children.

Woven into the lighthearted anecdotes and hallucinatory confusion, the narrator constructs his self-defense. According to his version of the story, other compromised writers such as Montherlant and Morand escaped "persecution" (= prosecution); but Ferdinand alone is the sacrificial lamb, the "bouc providentiel," "la seule vraie ordure: Ferdinand!" as he writes his history, he laments that public opinion is "'antimoi'." But, why Ferdinand must bear such seemingly excessive persecution appears to have very little to do with the virulent anti-Semitic pamphlet, Les Beaux draps, which he wrote and published in 1941 during the Occupation—not to mention the Occupation reprintings of the other two anti-Semitic pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) and L'Ecole des cadavres (1939). Here he temporally obviates his crimes in the telling of events in that he only admits to a first crime that excludes his pamphlet-writing activities before his flight: "mais d'avoir quitté notre patrie qu'était notre fatal premier crime … le premier pas toujours qui compte!…" This step not only begins the trilogy but also negates the real motives behind his leaving France. The earlier "written" transgressions are blurred by this "first" step across the border, a physical, hence more seemingly obvious, political transgression.

Time also colors the way Céline states his case, which is, an accusation against his past and present treatment with a few nasty prophecies ("avec mes 'Nostradamus'") thrown in for good measure on the bleak future of the French race. The trilogy, then, provisionally breaks down into two oscillating moments: the narrative of the past flight and the discursive passages on present trials and tribulations. These intercalated discursive passages, or digressions, remind the reader that the narrative of past events falls under the category of "souvenirs payés," an expression which the reader must interpret in two ways: (1) as the memory of the narrator's personal sufferings coupled with his assertion that he has done his time in prison; (2) as the advances Brottin Achille (= Gaston Gallimard) has given the narrator for his "memoirs," that is, the trilogy. The narrator receives no congés payés for his labor: "que je lui [Achille] dois des sommes et des sommes, qu'il dit! homo deliquensis, j'ai dit!…" He is perpetually indebted to his editor, who at various points in the trilogy, sends emissaries (Norbert Loukoum [= Jean Paulhan] and Roger Nimier) to check up on his progress. The economic, temporal doubling in souvenirs payés further relieves the narrator of the burden of his guilt, because it leads the reader away from the other possible telling of history centered on cause and effect (he fled because he knew he was guilty) and substitutes in its place a personal chronology characterized by eyewitness testimony, succession of events, and digression. The gist of the chronicler's temporal indebtedness—real Nietzschean Schuld—is that writing history is an interpretive strategy of power and, as we shall see later, such a strategy would ideally be one that succeeds in maintaining a stable place not to be consumed by the passing moment and against which one is not forced to pay installments: "les dettes, si vous êtes ministre, ne comptent pas…." Only the victors appear to have won the right to institute and live comfortably off their history. As one of the vanquished, the narrator is faced with the threat of being economically excluded from the ruling or official version of history and thus makes it clear that he intends to tell his story in another way: through the anachronistic voice of the feudal chronicler, an historian who has lived the history he recounts. He emphatically writes, "moi chroniqueur des Grands Guignols, je peux très honnêtement vous faire voir le très beau spectacle que ce fut, la mise à feu des forts bastions…."

The models Céline uses and cites, both in the trilogy and in the numerous interviews conducted as he was writing his work, come from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as well as from the seventeenth century. At that time memoirs and histories were still not clearly differentiated. As "exemplary" histories, chronicles and memoirs would come to be considered as too subjective and moralizing, and therefore less objectively reliable than the "scientific" histories representative of nineteenth-century historiography. Céline's chosen chroniclers and memorialists, Froissart, Joinville, Commynes, Montluc, Tallemant de Réaux and their sources and models, Caesar and Tacitus, all left ample room for what Céline in one interview calls "affabulation," obliging him, he concedes, to call his work a novel. "L'air du temps," which the trilogy's chronicler struggles to convey, will be construed as subjective.

To make the reader see the spectacle in modern day, postwar France, Céline relies not so much on the mere power of literature to re-present past events as on a strategy to make literature theorize (as spectacle) "historical reality" as a contemporary cultural construct. For the "truth" of evidence is subsumed by another—tautological—proof, the chronicler's own inability to prove that the people he remembers were real: "la preuve le mal que j'ai moi-même à vous donner un petit peu de preuves, que ces personnes furent bien réelles et agissantes, plaignez le pauvre chroniqueur!…" The rare, strategic appearance of the literary tense of the passé simple makes it even clearer that the chronicler's history is so remote that it lacks the weight of live memory and becomes no more than an object, a dusty souvenir of forgotten times. His evidence is his memory, which has no official place precisely because it is deemed subjective. Memory is more literary than literature, which, in the first instance, was like a self-defensive maneuver explicitly pitted against cause-and-effect history. The spectacle cannot therefore accede to the level of event as historical evidence but only to the level of potential touristic spectacle, which Céline sees as a spectacle degraded by capitalist organization and appropriation. Ultimately, seeing the spectacle is seeing a defenseless self-defense. The chronicler's history is doomed to be misread, because his strategy against historical knowledge as instituted event is simultaneously undermined by modern history's often unacknowledged double, tourism.

Tourism is the pervasion of historical spectacle at its most formal and controlled. As Dean MacCannell's book shows, tourism functions semiotically, relating sites to their markers. Furthermore, like written historical interpretation, tourism is oriented toward monumentalization; and it will be the trilogy's acknowledged task to maintain, if it can, the difference between its own monumentalization as authentic, lived experience, and tourism's monumentalization as staging and simulation. Tourism will, therefore, threaten to invade the trilogy and make it something else. The inevitability of this struggle lies in the fact that it is the modern tourist, the narrator's interlocutor, who reads the history. The reader as tourist (and vice versa) is not, however, to be construed as a superficial reader of cultural and historical artifacts; on the contrary, he is a participant in a cultural practice: "The tourist comports himself 'as if' he has seen the things he has visited. It is through sightseeing that he enters into a relationship to society." The cultural and historical artifacts that the tourist visits reaffirm in their organization and presentation the social context that places the tourist not in the past, but in the present (reading as recognition).

This "reading" (a "spectacular" theory) will undermine the chronicler's account, which as a genre, according to Hayden White, "represents it [historical reality] as if real events appeared to human consciousness in the form of unfinished stories." Although the absence of closure would appear to safeguard living memory against the dead souvenir, the trilogy radicalizes White's as if and closes it, because the chronicle is an avowed generic fiction, an anachronism having no place in the present. Consequently the tourist's formal "as if," emphasized in MacCannell's semiotic study, is forced both to collide and to coincide with the chronicler's lived "as if." What precludes the success of the chronicler's labors, one notes, is the present, which White describes in temporal terms as an unfinished story. Danto points out, however, that "a statement about the past is a covert prediction of the outcome of an historical inquiry." As the outcome posited by the trilogy, tourism, a new history, privileges spatial organization over time so that the chronicle will be both denied and given a place. Finally, tourism will end up theorizing literature as semiotic leisure instead of work.

On the one hand the chronicler pits his fading, anachronistic world against the vulgar tourist world: "le tourisme, l'aventure sont des ornements de la Paix, qu'on m'en parle pas en ce temps de guerre!…; "Tout n'a pas toujours été touristique, hélicoptère et salles de bains, hôtesses 'pin-up' comme de nos jours…." On the other hand, writing on the past turns the chronicler into a guide and the reader into a tourist, so that even the chronicler's history is ultimately touristic: "Ça vaut la peine, puisque nous sommes en touristes, que je vous parle un peu des trésors tapisseries, boiseries, vaisselles, salles d'armes…." Only through tourism, it seems, is the reader able to "relate" to the chronicler's experience of the collapse of Nazi Germany. In referring to his subsequent incarceration in Denmark, the chronicler will have to insist that he has done some tourism, too: "j'ai même fait du tourisme tel quel, en autobus grillagé…." He even calls the handcuffs he had to wear "sight-seeing menottes." Statements blurring the distinction between chronicler and tourist/tourguide far exceed those attempts to retain the distinction partly because, as mentioned earlier, the chronicler uses the confusion to effect transitions between the past and the present. In addition, addressing us puts the chronicler in the compromised position of being chronicler and guide at once. Nevertheless, these transitions are fraught with implied differences in that two visual values are presented in the guises of the eyewitness and the sightseer ("sight-seeing menottes" is within this context an oxymoron). The chronicler and the tourist are also two different economic types of traveler: the wartime traveler (souvenirs payés) and the off-time, vacation traveler (congés payés). Furthermore, two different speeds predicated on the difference between authentic and reproducible semiotic experience explicitly distinguish the past from the present: the war-torn chronicler's meticulous process of the "remémoration" of his old-fashioned war and the tourist's accelerated, package tour. As two different readings, the chronicle and tourism are consequently two separate representations. They meet where the identification between chronicler and tourist forms the figural "deterritorialization" of the chronicler's history spurred by the problematic of writing history in the modern present.

Thus, the trilogy's history does not encompass just the chronicler's past but France's past, from the time of Caesar, Tacitus, and the Crusades to the present. Repeatedly opposing his cumbersome genealogy to the tourist's quick, superficial "take" on it, the chronicler is weighed down by his origins, the tradition out of which he writes and the long, repetitive histories of the campaigns of the "hunters" and the "hunted" criss-crossing the map of western Europe. Yet, if tourism is pervasive, then the chronicle can only be read as a tour guide and historical monument to the past sights/sites of collision and bloodshed, like the first post-WWI Michelin guide. Thus, the chronicler and his companions keep turning into tourists of their own flight, if only because tourism consistently invades the narrative of the past: "Moi, mes cannes, Lili, Bébert, nous voici touristes…." Bombed-out Berlin is more like a Hollywood stage set ("c'était une ville plus qu'en décors …") or a fantasized re-presentation of the war, where all the peoples passing through are tourists and not participants: "où sont les autres voyageurs?… 'sight-seeing'?… new-Berlin?…" Pretorius asks Ferdinand and his companions if they are in Berlin "'en touristes.'" A getaway train headed north is "ce tourisme 'stratégique spécial'…." Writing and reading history are equivalent to the secondary invasion of the tourist industry: first the barbarian hordes and war, then the tourist hordes. Touristic secondary invasion in the history itself turns the chronicler's memories into signs that no longer correspond to history, that is, the "real" events, but to a touristic reading that is perceptible in the difference the chronicler draws between, for example, two pictorial representations or "spectacles": the tapestry and the comic strip.

The tapestry is his preferred visualization of what writing history is: "le mieux je crois, imaginez une tapisserie, haut, bas, travers, tous les sujets à la fois et toutes les couleurs … tous les motifs!… tout sens dessus dessous!… prétendre vous les présenter à plat, debout, ou couchés, serait mentir … la vérité: plus aucun ordre en rien du tout à partir de cet attentat [the attempt on Hitler's life]…." The experience of disorganized simultaneity juxtaposed to the linear organization of a chronology makes the chronicler wonder why he cannot "coudre tout de traviole" as painters and musicians do. He would like his history to be more an unmediated spectacle than a reading. Roger Nimier, the persistent editor from Gallimard, will later give the despondent, overworked chronicler a solution both to writing his memoirs more quickly and to making them sell better in modern France. He tells him to use the comic strip in his chronicle to replace large chunks of his writing: "'trois … quatre images par chapitre … chapitres 'contractés' … trois lignes pour cinquante des vôtres, habituelles….'" The chronicler listens sceptically to the solution, and then rejects it because a popular, fragmented style à trois points is the chronicler's trademark. His rapid, exclamatory style would, in effect, be an element guaranteeing the authenticity and labor behind his history.

A comic strip, a linear series of pictures, is the literature of the future: "'comics! comics! pas dix ans que tout sera aux comics!… sens unique!…, exclaims Nimier, and not, as the chronicler wishes, "tout sens dessus dessous!…" It would also be a trivialized modern version of one of the functions of the tapestry, the commemoration of an event—like the popular assumption that the relatively belated appearance of Vietnam comics meant that the American public had finally learned to put behind itself the shame of defeat and mythologize its experience of that war. Such commemorative tapestries, like the comic strip, would sometimes consist of a series of panels telling the story of a particular historical or mythological event (e.g., the Bayeux tapestries); but for Céline, the tapestry stands for the chronicler's privileged representation of his singular experience of events in his style, whereas the comic strip is a metaphor for changing times. Through the tapestry the chronicler attempts to create a spatial, nonchronological dimension to time. What happens to the chronicler, however, is that no sooner does he call up the example of the tapestry, than his carefully embroidered history turns into a comic strip, a secondary invasion: "fines tapisseries, broderies d'astuces, le style, j'en suis!(…) je vous laisse en plan, et mes comics!…." His "comic" irony uncovers the fatality of his imagery and style. Since the tapestry was posited as a model of simultaneity and style, the threatened confusion of comics with the tapestry appears to bring the representation of time and chronology back into focus as the advent of a stripped down "'style étiquette,'" a comic pastime and not tragic, time past.

As Roger Nimier well understands, the consequence of the confusion is "capital." The problem for the feudal chronicler, as he looks with dismay upon capitalist modernity, is that history, the one he lived, has turned into tourism. The economic principle dictating the use of the old battlegrounds for the tourist armies is parallel to the transition between the time-consuming, meticulous creation of the one-of-a-kind tapestry and the mass-produced, infinitely reproducible comic strip. Tourism feeds off history by transforming it into an economic value. The transition from war maneuvers, flight, wandering hordes of refugees, or any kind of war travel to tourist travel is accelerated with a speed commensurate with the escalation of the cost of living. The chronicler too, needs hard cash, because he has some real debts to pay off. As much as he may critique the tourist world, he is nevertheless capitalizing on it through his history and making value exchanges in the form of his souvenirs payés. Caught up in the momentum of his needs and the comic strip world, his fear that his account will become pure appearance and disappear is justified: he, too, is actively participating in the system of fetishized values that effaces and deterritorializes his own history.

The ironic originality of the trilogy's critique of tourism as part of an escalating movement, and this just as the trilogy is becoming touristic, is that it consistently brings tourism in to succeed and to precede war. Each interval of touristic peacetime promises a technologically more advanced war and new invasions of foreign hordes, like the Chinese "invasion" prophesied by the chronicler. Similarly, each war promises a technologically more effective tourist industry: after the Franco-Prussian War, the massive World Exhibition of 1900; World War I, and trench warfare bring the airplane and the guide vert, better organized and faster tourism; World War II and Blitzkrieg are followed by superjets, helicopters and "pinup" stewardesses. Travel and speed are the key elements supporting this hypothesis because wars, from the chronicler's point of view, are first of all travel: "Dans les très vieilles chroniques on appelle les guerres autrement: voyages des peuples…." The two terms, war and voyage, are interchangeable because they belong to the same principle of invasion. "Peoples" travel either in economic warfare or in armed warfare.

For Céline, the proof of this continuation is travel and speed, because peoples are always on the move. The reasons for war, then, are pure inventions: "ce qui n'existe pas ils l'inventent! on a inventé les Croisades n'est-ce pas?" Europe, the chronicler keeps repeating, is nothing but a vast Roman arena of gratuitous massacre, where participation is mandatory because the civilian in modern warfare is also a target. Total participation is underscored by the use of the word "peuples"; for, despite the posited effacement of territorial boundaries, peoples are representations of cultural boundaries and territories to be invaded and conquered. Yet, each war employs a newer, more efficient technology, which in peacetime is rationalized into ideological progress as the (touristic) abolition of boundary: "'Mais c'est pour ça que les guerres existent!… le progrès! plus de distances! plus de passeports!'" War, the first motive for travel, a prime mover, is the true progressive factor, not peace: "En vrai, un continent sans guerre s'ennuie … sitôt les clairons, c'est la fête!… grandes vacances totales! et au sang!… de ces voyages à plus finir!…" More efficient strategies and technological inventions emerge from war, only to organize touristic warfare in peacetime on the same disputed battlefields, "les Arènes d'Europe!"

The oscillation between past and present in the trilogy serves this dual critique of war and tourism. The title of the first book of the trilogy, D'un château l'autre, for example, reflects the series of rapid, temporal transitions between war and tourism that occurs within the narrative, because a château is either a prison or a castle: from prison (Sigmaringen, where Pétain's Vichy government was held against its will) to castle (the chronicler's tour of the treasures and portraits in the Hohenzollern castle), to prison (the laborers and the chronicler are prisoners of Zornhof), to castle (not a place the chronicler says that he would recommend to tourists because it is not picturesque), to prison (Vestre Faegnsel prison in Denmark), to castle ("sight-seeing menottes"). These transitions would closely resemble the recent conversion of the Berlin "no-trespassers" Wall into the Berlin "welcome" Wall. But modern war, the chronicler adds, has gained too much momentum. This assertion is represented by the chronicler's own transitional speed where even the preposition à is absent from the title of the first book to reflect the intensification of the quick changeovers. There can be no contemplative moments, no intervals of inert time, no space and no place to hide when nuclear Vesuviuses can be set off and multiplied at great speed with the mere push of a button:

dans un autre genre, bien mémorable, j'ai vu ce qu'on ne reverra jamais: les grandes manoeuvres de cavalerie, 1913, du camp de Cercottes, déploiements, mouvements tournants en fourrageurs, sept divisions!… à la trompette!… l'héros de l'avenir sera envoyé immobile, ficelé au poteau, bâillonné, lancé dans la stratosphére, aura juste le temps de faire pipi, tour de la terre! et hop!… chez lui!… plus fera de tours, plus sera héros!

At Zornhof ( = the House of Wrath) in the second book, Nord, the chronicler writes that only the rich and powerful have the luxury of endless space and contemplation. Musing on the mansion's vantage point over a vast, nondescript terrain where he can watch hordes of refugees traveling from the East, West and South, he writes: "y avait un certain envoûtement à regarder ces étendues, ces terres ocre, un charme … on massacre ses heures … il faut être riche et tranquille pour s'occuper de l'horizon…." This is also the economically liberated vantage point from which the chronicler would ideally like to write his history. It is, in fact, from a similar (but much less exalted and needy) position that the chronicle is launched: from the window of Madame Niçois, his patient, overlooking the Seine. The chronicler establishes himself at the outset as a voyeur, a stationary eye. Yet, he still faces the problem of how to write his chronicle when the momentum of the modern world consumes and effaces it as it is being written:

transposez alors!… poétisez si vous pouvez! mais qui s'y frotte?… nul!… voyez Goncourt!… là la fin de tout!… de toutes et tous!… 'ils ne transposaient plus' … à quoi servaient les croisades?… ils se transposaient!… depuis ils se font éjecter, de Passy, leur seizième étage, par super-jet conditionné, direct Golgatha … sept minutes … photographiés aux 'Oliviers' … Monsieur en Joseph … Madame en Marie (…) retour avant l'apéritif!… depuis que chaque homme moteur au cul, va où il veut, comme il veut, sans jambes, sans tête, il n'est plus qu'une baudruche, un vent … il ne disparaîtra même pas, c'est fait….

Literature, war, tourism, and speed are all triggered by "transposer," a term Céline has used before—beginning with his first pamphlet, Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937)—to describe his style émotif. This time, the word "transposer" serves as a global critique. The crusades were travel (transposition as displacement), and the old chroniclers transposed these displacements, that is, wrote about them with style. Transposition, therefore, also means being able to take one's time to invent a style. Touristic displacements are not true transpositions, because speed consumes the space and time needed to write an authentic, lived experience. Instead, people are disappearing into a speed zone as the motors that carry them off eliminate any necessity for physical exertion and thought. Paradoxically, movement is an immobilizing force, in that it makes space and time not relative but irrelevant, like watching a film from a stationary position. The car, for example, "c'est une façon de sortir du Temps, des gens, et de l'espace…." The trilogy's chronicler is caught somewhere in the middle, transposing his transpositions in an intensified speed zone where style is disappearing. The result, like the instance of the comic strip, appears comic rather than tragic. The chronicler envies tragedians such as Racine and Sophocles, because their tragedies could take their time to reach a tragic end with just a little incest plot to go on. Then he adds: "les anciens temps étaient jouisseurs (…) maintenant je vous demande: un continent à effacer?… affaire de deux … trois minutes!… Here once again, the chronicler begins with a discussion of style and literature and ends with a comment on the antithetical nature of speed and style.

Commenting on the relationship between speed and the writing of history, Paul Virilio has underlined the temporal significance of the chronicler's time when history and its writing were complementary:

In fact, history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems. At the end of the fifteenth century, it is still for Commynes a stable memory, a model to be reproduced. Annals are seasonal, like the war that returns every year in springtime. Linear time is eliminated, as it was from the ancient fortress in which "the enemy Time" was beaten by the static resistance of the construction materials—by duration.

Memory and monument are counterposed to linear time, calling up once again the tapestry metaphor for style and simultaneity and the comic strip as the suggested means to replace parts of the narrative. Linearity is disrupted in the trilogy so that its history might sustain its monumentality; a strict adherence to chronology would, like a film, play into speed's momentum. Unlike the touristic monument, the trilogy, as a monument threatened with becoming touristic, is more actively strategic (Céline the self-proclaimed pacifist is, in his own way, always at war). Disrupting the chronological sequence of events will paradoxically stabilize and "spatialize" the chronicler's memory by turning it into the model of history as a repetitive, cyclical phenomenon.

Thus the chronicler's memory is not so much that of human consciousness, as Hayden White argues, but rather of the conversion of the chronicler into a fixed point of historical density, into a timeless geography that circumscribes a space from which the chronicler can attack and retreat at will. The effect of recounting the itinerary of his flight out of chronological sequence—and the reader is frequently reminded that the order was deliberately changed—is the isolation of the two places where the chronicler stayed the longest, Sigmaringen and Zornhof, which occupy nearly all of the first two books, D'un château l'autre and Nord. The third book, Rigodon, however, proceeds rapidly from one train station to the next, skipping over the comparatively lengthy stay at Sigmaringen; and it is in this book that, predictably, many of the chronicler's observations on speed and tourism occur. Such a strategy is what one could not see were one to see a map of the trilogy's itinerary. That is, perhaps, one reason why no one, especially Céline, has ever made one. A map would be a comic strip "correcting" the narrative by reinterpreting and metrically measuring it into a strict itinerary. This would be the very opposite of what the chronicler wishes to do, which is to "sew" everything "de traviole."

The absence of the map stems from the familiar opposition in Céline's work (beginning with the pamphlets) between authentic and inauthentic experience. In Bagatelles pour un massacre, Céline draws a distinction between lycéens whose emotions are merely lues and students of the école communale whose emotions are lived hence vues. To describe the mediated emotions of the lycéens, Céline uses the metaphor of the road map. Using a road map to culture, as would a tourist, means that emotion has not been experienced firsthand. Even though one must read the trilogy to get a sense of the chronicler's particular vue, the opposition between things seen and things read is retained in the trilogy. The absence of a map suppresses the touristic, semiotic reading that favors the rhetorical metaphor of history as a disorganized, simultaneous set of events experienced first hand. Céline's style is geared to resist appropriative representation as touristic transposition.

What the map cannot reflect, in addition, is the strategic viewpoint (a spatial rhetoric) that Sigmaringen and Zornhof share in common: the former is a castle from which a dynasty once ruled its fief ("repaire berceau du plus fort élevage de fieffés rapaces loups d'Europe!"; the latter is a mansion overlooking a modern fief where bibelforscher (Jehovah's witnesses or conscientious objectors), gypsies and prisoners of scattered nationalities are forced to farm the endless beet fields and where the quixotic Rittmeister disappears with his trusty mare on an ill-fated, imaginary campaign. The Hohenzollern castle at Sigmaringen and the Zornhof mansion have dominion over their fiefs and are centers from which their dominion is enforced. As Virilio writes in Speed and Politics, a fief is an ancient battleground upon which the Frankish conqueror erected his castle as a kind of look-out tower. The Crusades, the Hundred Years' War, and civil wars such as the Thirty Years' War are all feudal troops on the march with stopping points: from castle to castle. Thus space was regulated as a strategic element of war so that dispersion could always be centralized or centralization could always be dispersed.

In any case, the maneuvers, like the chronicler's nostalgic reference to the maneuvers of the French cavalry of World War I, were stable and repeatable. The power-to-invade schema appears to hold the same through the centuries, but modern technology disrupts the stability of the schema without annihilating the power by subtracting space or territory from its functioning. Movement is no longer tactical, a question of strategic view-points and terrains, but technical, a question of who will get there first. In this dynamic, space is always convertible, emptiable or fillable. One might conclude from this analysis of speed and space that Céline, ever the unrepentant, racist reactionary, would favor a return to feudalism to counter the capitalist predicament of his indebtedness. But this hasty conclusion would forestall investigating the fate of his style, if only because the chronicler's half-serious prophecies of France being invaded by Asiatic hordes do not suggest that he is susceptible to such "utopic" idealism.

If space used to be a safety net, a viewpoint from which one could transcend the course of history and write, then the state of speed without space, that is, "deterritorialization," suggests, too, that language has been let Joose (deterritorialized) to follow a course of proliferating, detachable signs to be emptied or filled according to need. For in the trilogy "true" writing is always nostalgically associated with an anchored style and having a contemplative space in which to develop that style. Language is a bygone look-out tower, an example of which can be verified in a saying—itself a viewpoint found in a book of "detached" sayings—by Anatole France: "La géographie et la chronologie sont les deux yeux de l'histoire" (Dictionnaire des proverbes, sentences et maximes, Larousse). The chronicler would lament that one of these eyes has been poked out, so that what the saying says no longer functions as a stabilizing look-out tower and topples over. In other words, both language and travel (historical and touristic) are now principles of pure, intensified movement.

By their very movement, war and tourism set the conditions for the possibility of another kind of communication which, in its banality, takes on a "reality" of its own. This reality, the ideology one takes for reality, would be none other than progress itself as the kind of accelerated movement inherent in the approach of "time-geography." One notes that, in the trilogy, the original, feudal meaning of "banal" (pertaining to the suzerain's district or his "ban") has ironically lost all boundary and definition, spreading into undifferentiated, convertible space as touristic "banalization." "Biographies" in this regard are a suppression of the event in favor of metrically measurable life-span paths. Faced with this predicament, in his equally fast and escalating style, Céline predicts the advent of an accelerated war of the "same": "demain vous verrez les mêmes, rassemblés en souks au Kremlin, Russie, à la Maison-Blanche, U.S.A., une autre guerre en plein!… dix, vingt Hiroshima par jour …" or "comme demain re-ici!…" The power of language, like its power to say ten, twenty Hiroshimas a day, is trivializing, not stabilizing. This particular power makes tourism in the trilogy a logical counterpart to modern war. Thus it follows that, if tourism is the new history, history is caught up in progress, thus converting this once-stable field, at least from Céline's embittered point of view, into an organized, touristic war machine: "Histoire! Géotechnie!…"

In a present that tends to invent—like Céline, with a certain morbid delight—its temporal "end" in nuclear disaster (even though the world has yet to experience a nuclear war), it seems strange that the loss of space does not carry as significant an affective charge. In narratives involving travel (flight, adventure, journey, epic) organized by an itinerary, space is usually less important than the temporal progress of the itinerary. Time does not really change even though journeys take less time. What has changed is space; and the less space there is over time the more porously touristic the experience of space becomes. Céline's German trilogy allows itself to become touristic so that we, as tourists, might take the time to become readers of irredeemable space and not of our temporal fictions. If, as the chronicler claims, style is an endangered species, the life of his work, as labor and not leisure, depends upon space.

Yves Pagès (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Céline and Anarchist Culture," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 321-31.

[In the following essay, Pagès examines right-wing extremism and libertarian discourse in Céline's writing. According to Pagès, "the momentum of anarchic subversion that surfaces in Céline's fiction almost imperceptibly valorizes certain ethical or existential perspectives that are by nature antiauthoritarian."]

It is important to remember one's first impressions of a book. When I first read Voyage au bout de la nuit at the age of sixteen, I felt as though I were entering into an uncensored language, one that bypasses the usual split between the spoken and the written; above all, I felt as though I had encountered a work whose rebellious nature and resistance to social norms had more confused the boundaries between poetry and politics. Soon after, I learned that the author, who had described Voyage as a text that was "too anarchistic," if not the only novel of the century to have a "communist soul," had, since 1937, also written three anti-Semitic pamphlets and had thus effectively collaborated, at least by writing these impassioned tracts, in the xenophobic massacre of the 1940s. From then on, we needed only to choose our side. For some people, Céline was the inspired destroyer of the dominant order, the acerbic critic of "the end of the night" of modern misery. For others, he was the filthy loudmouth, author of racist slurs and herald of the imminent massacre. It was thus necessary to forget one or the other, if not to reclaim one instead of the other, since his work seemed to be forever irreconcilable with itself. Unlike Rimbaud, who destroyed his pen so that he could become an arms dealer, Céline left us an oeuvre that is neither incomplete nor repudiated. On the contrary, it oscillates between several incompatible impulses that Céline, the genius of one or two books, would definitely have subordinated to the level of unresolvable ideological debates. After reading Guignol's Band, however, it seemed to me that this schematic view of the Célinean dilemma missed the essential point. Published in 1944, just a few years after his racist pamphlets, Céline's English saga continued the insidious undermining initiated in Voyage; this was accomplished by the double critique of dominant social norms and of the registers of literary writing. Thanks to his obsessive rhetoric, the emergence of anti-Jewish, anti-black, anti-homosexual, anti-communist banalities did not diminish the rebellious spirit of his first book. The anti-Semitic ranter did not replace the iconoclastic novelist; from beginning to end, they more or less coexisted, constructing, work by work, an ambivalent oeuvre that was often contradictory and wrought by political turmoil.

As ambivalent as it may be, this Célinean ideological jumble is not timeless; it belongs to a very specific period. Its reactionary or leftist temptations are related to an important historical time lag produced by World War I. In his fiction, Céline never stopped reproducing the frozen, nostalgic image of the early 1900s as an Eden, in addition to feeding his racist obsession with a visionary pacificism taken from his apocalyptic lessons in murderous bellicosity. In other words, he polemically interpreted and fictionally transposed the epochs through which he lived not according to the political divisions of the 1930s and 1940s, but by means of a double psychic universe: the idealism of the pre-1914 world and the trauma of the Great War.

If we were to try to locate the links between, for example, Drieu la Rochelle's or Barbusse's ideology and Céline's, we would run the risk of missing the true stakes of the latter's ideology. By returning to the sources of the extremist discourses specific to the years 1871–1914, however, we can examine the raw forms of the two original tropes in Céline's political statements. The first comes from an ultra-right-wing discourse that enjoyed a brief popularity amidst the racist fervor of the Dreyfus affair and was given a second wind during the early 1900s by numerous ultra-patriotic, corporatist, and racist movements. The second evolves within a composite libertarian discourse driven by a variety of forces, from anarchic unionism to radical individualism, which attained its moment of glory in the 1890s before gradually declining during the belle époque. The resurgence of a pre-1914 xenophobic and generally reactionary discourse in Céline's pamphlets of 1937–41 and in his post-1945 novels is clear. This discourse contributes to a fundamental coherence in Céline's work that is impossible to ignore. It still remains to be seen whether the libertarian resurgence of the early 1900s, the relatively unknown side of the pre-Célinean political universe, furnishes his work with another sort of coherence.

We can discern three axes within the remnants of libertarian thought: the critique of normative knowledge, which is based on the denunciation of the dominant scholarly and academic cultures; the critique of the notion of progress, which is characterized by a certain defiance toward the cult of mechanized and alienating work; and the critique of the working class and its proletarian messianism, which is linked to a rejection of the oppressive laws of social conformity and of the idea of class consciousness. But this schematic classification poses a new problem. These three axes essentially resume beating, term for term, the dead horses specific to the themes found in pre-1914, ultra-right-wing discourse: anti-intellectualism, which critiqued the decadence of the democratic intelligentsia in the name of a more or less aristocratic elitism; reactionary antiprogressivism, which rejected Enlightenment thought and applauded the return to ancien régime values; and moralistic antimaterialism, which denied class antagonism in the name of a systematic and corporatist conception of national community. The convergence of anarchic and ultra-right-wing foundations in Céline's work is not simply a coincidence. The referential ambivalences of his extremisms seem to share a single ideological core, which the historian Zeev Sternhell labels "pre-fascist" in his book Ni droite, Ni gauche. One could say that, thirty years later, Céline returned to the sources of the revolutionary right's laboratory of ideas by going down the same convoluted paths of this initial synthesis between the antidemocratic left of the post-Dreyfus era and the moral neocorporatism of the Action Française. Céline in turn used the pretext of rhetorical anarchy in order to camouflage the ultra-right-wing essence of his texts. His seemingly ideological contradictions thus conform to the framework of a superseding coherence, that of the "national populism" of the turn of the century.

This a priori, seductive hypothesis seems nonetheless to omit an essential aspect of Célinean ambiguity. In Céline's work, fascinating polemical filiations tend to become purely backward-looking, conservative, and racist litanies without giving rise to any new, right-wing system of values. His reactionary babbling does not become truly Pétainist or pro-Nazi enthusiasm, giving his blessing to family, work, and triumphant Aryanism. The only gesture that his satirical verve borrows from ultra-right-wing thought is that of a totally self-contained, redundant denunciation: "a system of hostilities with no way out." Céline does not follow this positive element found within the fascist agenda, the Spartan utopia that for certain people included the notions of eugenics and pan-Europeanism; in fact, he embraces only their rage for nihilist devalorization. It is thus essential that we ask ourselves if the libertarian affinities of his discourse do not also feed a voracious, critical negativity. It is not a question of simply detecting the slightest "revolutionary" positivity in the sense of a collective, social emancipation; however, it does seem that the momentum of anarchic subversion that surfaces in Céline's fiction almost imperceptibly valorizes certain ethical or existential perspectives that are by nature antiauthoritarian.

The critique of scholarly and academic norms of knowledge manifested in all of Céline's work seems at first to exist for the sake of a socio-literary exchange value: authenticity. In opposition to the professional dilettante, Céline offers the model of an "authentic" author who attempts to reconcile the existence of the narrator with the idealized life of his characters. This model closely resembles that of the proletarian writer glorified in the late 1920s by Barbusse or Poulaille. But, in the final analysis, we see that Céline's work does not follow this agenda of social realism, which is supposed to represent the misery of working-class conditions while actively participating in its fight for emancipation. A stranger to this literary valorization of class consciousness, Céline, like the Paris Commune writer Jules Vallès before him, uses authenticity as a stylistic weapon. As antibourgeois as it may claim to be, this weapon challenges only a single experience, either marginal or "irregular," which is in perpetual opposition to the classical, mimetic, and conformist uses of the dominant language. This is where Céline gets his repeated praise—that is to say, for "direct emotion"—which, associated with his verbal lynching of the so-called sophisticated intelligentsia in Bagatelles, tends to be mistaken for the irrational and anti-intellectual rhetoric of a Barrès and his fascistic spiritual sons. However, in Céline's novels, on the periphery of the pamphleteer's diatribes against the dominant cultural cartels, we sense the emergence of figures who can be seen as alternatives to knowledge: the "bohemians" and "inventors" of Death on the Installment Plan; the visionaries and street musicians of Guignol's Band; or the wanderers and vagabonds who appear throughout his work. These contrasting silhouettes converge in the virtually clandestine model of the autodidact, the person who has reappropriated culture without passing through the mediation of a uniform, scholarly knowledge. It is in this way that the characterization of the intellectual, who is systematically deconstructed, does not culminate in a purely "emotional" nihilism, but rather in the covert revalorization of a type of apprenticeship without master—the autodidacticism that was one of the characteristic traits of the anarchic ideas in circulation at the beginning of the century. Within the unofficial culture of these libertarian spheres, it is possible to distinguish three particular pre-Célinean cases: the artisans, who acquire partial savoir-faire; the vagabonds, who, in pursuing their itinerant experiences, survive by means of an eclectic knowledge; and the orphans and social outcasts, who waver between various skewed registers of knowledge. We must add that slang, the corporate language of laborers, the idiom of hoboes, and the debased linguistic register of all marginal people, constituted a privileged, minor art of anarchic discourse during the belle époque. The critique of normative knowledge thus leads to a principal model that is subversive in a constructive way: the autodidact's existential fusion of knowledge.

In Céline's work, like that of Vallès, the satire of intellectual conformity is fomented by a violent diatribe against the educational system. For the anarchists of the early 1900s, school was like an "antechamber of the barracks," a place for "licking into shape," a place of "pesky, puritan, and sullen oppression"; for Céline, school emblematizes "the disaster of enchantment [féerie]." These parallel attacks inevitably conclude in a purely negative critique, which closely resembles, once again, the ultra-right-wing harangues against "state education." Nevertheless, a number of Céline's novels depict the childlike extravaganzas that seem to survive the wreckage of this failed academic space: the "Meanwell College" episode in Death on the Installment Plan; that of the "Orphans of the Red Cross" in Castle to Castle; or that of the "idiotic kids" in Rigadoon. The apparent nihilism in his critique of school allows a space for intermediary communities "peopled by children who are at their games and little nothings and giddy pleasures and showy stuff," which reminds us of the atmosphere of the "free areas" that the anarchists established during the belle époque. We know that the young Destouches, as a cavalryman stationed at Rambouillet, had an opportunity to come into contact with "La Ruche" (The Beehive), established by the libertarian pedagogue Sebastien Faure according to the principles of "integral" education propagated by the Fourierists. The episode of the "agricultural phalanstery" in Death on the Installment Plan, inspired by this experience, allows Céline to revalorize another type of playful, eclectic, and noncoercive apprenticeship to knowledge: the "passionate" pedagogy of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. The emancipated brats of Blêmele-Petit, who "discipline themselves" and "no longer understand obedience," like the "little hordes" of "pha-langette" Fourierists, are the New Men of one of the rare utopias that Céline spares from his apocalyptic polemics.

The critique of the illusion of a working class begins with a meticulous deconstruction of the concept of the proletariat: "The misfortune in all this is that there are no 'common people' in the poignant sense that you understand…. The heroic, egalitarian proletariat does not exist," Céline concludes in a letter to Elie Faure dated March 1935. This pithy remark defines the alleged proletariat as an obvious expression of the nothingness of human nature, a pure dynamic of voluntary submission, and a collective "hypnotic" violence. By reducing the popular entity to the level of vicious proles, to a subservient mass or hallucinating crowd, without proposing in return the slightest aristocratic relief, Céline engages only in an exercise of purely nihilistic devalorization. It nevertheless seems that certain unspoken anarchic/individualistic assumptions within this denunciation of proletarian messianism harbor some ethical outlets at the heart of a social space that Céline describes as a game of the "Roman arena" and of "massacre."

In the moralizing satire concerning public cowardice and voyeurism—which, as M. C. Bellosta notes in Céline ou l'art de la contradiction, is borrowed from a profoundly reactionary version of neo-Jansenism—Céline isolates several rare exceptions to the rule of human nature's false virtues. These exceptions, as in the case of the soldiers Bardamu and Robinson, or their insubordinate and self-mutilated alter egos of the years 1914–18, demand the right to "fear," that is to say, the right to an active cowardice. While watching villages burn, they practice a "voyeurism" that distances them from the insane bellicosity. Princhard's monologue at the beginning of Voyage establishes the minimum agenda for this ethical alternative: it consists of an opposition between collective cowardice and a simple, passive resistance "without ideal," between the honors earned via social struggle and a "fundamental unworthiness," between a "formal disgrace" and an "automatic dishonor." Permitting oneself to "stink" in order to remain "pacifist," to be "disgusting enough to disgust the Nation"—these are the paradoxically positive principles of Célinean resistant stoicism that we also find in the writings of André Colomer, the insubordinate libertarian who wrote in 1916:

I was not fleeing the battle by deserting, rather, I was looking for it. Staying in the melee would have been, in every way, a cowardice for me…. By denying myself to the Nation, I was eliminating the possibility of all effects and all repairs. I was declaring my own state of war. I was positioning myself not merely outside their melee, but against their melee.

Behind Céline's satire of mass servility, reactualized in the pseudo-Freudian form of a "sadico-masochistic" death drive, lay another critical reference, to Discours de la servitude volontaire, written by Montaigne's friend, the humanist Estienne de La Boétie. In this text, which lays bare the masses' "unrelenting will to serve," we find Céline's principal insight: "Men cling … to all of their sadness, and we cannot coax them to let go." For the sixteenth-century humanist, the "decision to be a serf" is a direct result of the familiar custom of "cretinization" through the games of the Roman arena and of the reproduction of despotic relations throughout the social pyramid. By stigmatizing the sadomasochistic inertia of the masses in accordance with these same principles, Céline reappropriates one of the most characteristic positions of attack within the individualist anarchy of the belle époque. Interestingly enough, during this period, La Boétie's Discours was paradoxically transformed into a bible for the call to rebellion. In the final analysis, we can see that the Célinean critique of the proletariat's desire for bondage does not attempt in any way to justify a natural social hierarchy, but instead seeks to revalorize an alternative subversion that rejects both the revolutionary illusions of the workers' movement and the Stations of the Cross of state reform. In his own way, Céline reappropriates the spirit of provocation that emblematized certain belle époque "outlaws/scofflaws" who were similar to the anarchist Jules Bonnot; in April 1912, Bonnot converted his own death into a war machine to be deployed against the double rule of tyranny and servitude after he was besieged at Choisy-le-Roi by hundreds of police and gawking vigilantes. As early as 1910, the young libertarian and Nietzschean Victor Serge explained this pre-Célinean politics of the worst, in all its positivity, as a need "to make the ignominy of masters, or even the ignominy of subjugation, felt through our obstinate independence."

Céline's critique of the idea of the proletariat was inspired by Gustave Le Bon's early version of sociology; beginning in 1895, Le Bon proposed the theory of a "psychology of the crowd" in opposition to that of Marxist materialism. According to this psycho-sociologist, the masses are incapable of both initiative and rebellion and are thus nothing but a mob displaying "irrational" behavior, which, in the end, does nothing but unconsciously follow the "suggestions" of a "leader." This theory would become reactualized by the massive tyrannies of the twentieth century, all of which, from Leninism to Nazism and on through the fascisms of Mussolini and Sorel, developed an intimidating manual of totalitarian propaganda out of the art of governing by "collective hypnosis." It is true that Céline's work constantly divides the proletariat into "hallucinating" hordes, but it does not culminate in a celebration of the leader or the modern Prince of Public Opinion. Instead, Céline celebrates a "transversal" perspective, which aligns the charisma of the leader with the manipulated crowd so as to emphasize an individual path that goes against the current of the dominant order's commands and the slavish imitation of the dominated; this is the perspective that the Stirnerian anarchist Albert Libertad summarized in 1905: "We love the man, we hate the crowd. We reiterate the cry of this pamphlet: Against the shepherds, against the flocks."

If Céline's harangues against the shams of the intellectual and the proletariat have much in common with the critical nihilism of right and left-wing extremists, they do not lead to an enthusiasm for the national populism of the belle époque, but rather to the paradox of ethical and existential figures who exhibit underlying affinities with libertarian thought: the autodidact, who embodies a notion of apprenticeship without a master and the pedagogical utopias of the Fourierists; and the resister, who glorifies pacifist counter-heroism and active neutrality when confronted by the dead ends of voluntary servitude and the obedience of the masses. We could carry out the same analysis with respect to Céline's critiques of the idea of progress and of the symptoms of social "degeneracy"; these also present unusual individual alternatives. Two examples would be Doctor Semmelweis's experimental skepticism, which haunts Céline's entire oeuvre, and, among others, Mère Henrouille's "gay knowledge," which suggests the glorification of categorical idiocy. It is only in terms of this theoretical agenda that we can distinguish his anti-Semitism, which does not generate any covert libertarian perspective and does not reveal the underside of the utopian setting. Céline's anti-Semitism is not the departure point for all of his political uncertainties, as has often been said, but, on the contrary, it signifies the specific moment when Céline silenced his creative uncertainties at their source and sentenced himself to a racist univocality that closed in on itself, an ideological rhetoric that henceforth became a shield, blocking all the outlets that his antiauthoritarian affinities had previously unlocked.

It is important to reiterate the way in which Céline literally reappropriated fragments of libertarian sensibility; their significant substance was derived from perspectives that did not present themselves as a doctrine of political concepts, but rather as marginal, partial, and eccentric figures, actors in an interior phantasmagoria who are like ethical or existential indices immersed in a fictional space. Anarchy was never more than potential ideological material, a series of banalities that needed to be reenergized with the help of a subversive imagination and writing. The reactionary side of Céline's work, culminating in the pamphlets of the late 1930s, expressed itself in an ostentatiously political way, which tended to radically simplify Céline's system of thought, to subsume his imagination within a univocal ideological paradigm. In this Célinean game of hide-and-seek between politics and literature, we need to read beyond the evidence or proof of supposedly "engaged" texts and look instead to the political unspoken, which probably engages the mental universe of the writer even more profoundly than that which is stated: those liberating scenarios that a literary oeuvre creates, and not the declarations of ideological faith, which essentially serve as decoys for the work; those norms and conventions that the oeuvre cunningly subverts under the guise of certain motivating norms and prejudices—the utopias of intimate asides masked by official slogans.

Rosemarie Scullion (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Céline in Cross-Cultural Perspective," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 513-22.

[In the following essay, Scullion discusses Céline's depiction of American capitalist society, his literary influence on American writers, and his often problematic critical interpretation.]

Reminiscing on his world travels in postwar conversations with Robert Poulet, Louis Ferdinand Céline derided the boundless "commercial optimism" he found animating life in the United States during his visits in the 1920s and 1930s: Americans "tend not to revel in the morose…. When they realize they're no longer perky, they check their pulse and temperature." One might think that the moroseness in which Céline typically wallowed and the irksome cheeriness with which he saw early twentieth-century America engaging in its mercantile endeavors would have made the encounter between two such incompatible temperaments necessarily brief and therefore inconsequential. But Voyage au bout de la nuit's extended account of New York's urban Darwinism and Detroit's industrial alienation, the author's duplicitous dance with Hollywood, and the entwining of his professional, personal, and literary identities with such figures as Henry Ford, Elizabeth Craig, and Milton Hindus indicate that a distinct American presence asserted itself in Céline's life and writings. And as the scholars and authors in this issue skillfully demonstrate, Céline, the quintessentially French modernist, has also left his mark on American intellectual and literary life.

The modern tourist, Roland Barthes remarked, suffers from the "virus of essences," which narrows the scenic scope of his ethnological inquiry to a cluster of easily assimilable clichés. In seeking to "know" a foreign land and its people, Barthes's typically middle-class travelers follow guidebook selections of the monuments that reveal essential truths about the culture being observed. Although Céline's trips to the United States were largely of a professional nature, the knowledge he gleaned from these excursions—which later found its way into Voyage's literary depiction of American life—has much in common with the touristic essentialism that Barthes indicts. Céline can, of course, be credited with redescribing the American Dream of unlimited material wealth and human productivity in decidedly more nightmarish terms than the dominant ideology at the time would have allowed its subjects to fathom. But the monuments around which his narrative gravitates in Voyage—New York's towering sky-scrapers and Detroit's industrial colossus—flatten rather than bring into relief the great complexity and heterogeneity of American society.

To be sure, Bardamu's conception of America is from the outset rather limited, inspired as it is by the anatomical mystique and promise of a New World mapped from the contours of Lola's American behind. His later "pilgrimage" to the capitalist mecca does little to make that vision any less sketchy. Those with a broader understanding of the American body politic will notice, for instance, that except for the flashing appearance of a bomb-toting servant during his visit to Lola's New York apartment, all of the individuals Bardamu encounters are—or at least are assumed to be—of European descent. This selective view of America's demography is especially striking when one considers the mass migration of African Americans to industrial centers in the North during the interwar period when Céline—and later, presumably, Bardamu—would have had ample opportunity to observe New World racism in its modernizing forms. In textual hindsight, Céline's elision of black America is perhaps not all that surprising, given the swipe he seems to be taking at American jazz in his pejorative reference to "Negro-Judeo-Saxon" music early in the novel. In a similarly reductionist mode, workers at Ford's Detroit plants are cast as pathetic simpletons who are unable and unwilling to defend themselves against their collective de-humanization. Transformed into robotic cogs in the machinery of Taylorist rationalization, they have neither the physical nor the mental wherewithal to assert their agency in a labor process designed to control their every move. While Céline insightfully identifies some of the strategies that Ford and other manufacturing giants adopted to ensure the compliance of their labor force, this important episode of Voyage bears not the slightest signifying trace of the considerable resistance mounted by American labor in the early decades of the century to the introduction of such deadening production techniques. Instead, the narrative emphasis is placed on matters of hygiene and health, reflecting Céline's own abhorrence of corporeal degeneracy and his obsession with anatomical perfection, an ideal that the wretched conditions under which workers were obliged to live and labor during this period did little to promote. Ironically, for all of his antibourgeois bluster, Céline's hygienist discourse in the Detroit episode of Voyage actually dovetailed with the aesthetic sensibilities and class-based contempt that middle- and upper-middle-class America expressed in the eugenics-inspired discourse projected onto the working poor of the early twentieth century. Céline glides subtly, though incontrovertibly, toward the condescending and elitist right in his novelistic account of class domination and exploitation, revealing deeply conservative ideological impulses that are often eclipsed in discussions of his much-touted anarchism. The following description of the prostitute Molly, the winsome angel of mercy who rescues Bardamu from the crushing monotony of the Ford assembly line, succinctly illustrates Céline's inability to think beyond the limits not only of biology but, more importantly, of hierarchy—a notion whose legitimacy was vigorously contested in the egalitarian thought of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century European and American anarchists.

Toward Molly, one of the lovely girls there, I soon developed an uncommon feeling of trust, which in frightened people takes the place of love. I remember her kindness as if it were yesterday, and her long, blond, magnificently strong, lithe legs, noble legs. Say what you like, the mark of true aristocracy in humankind is the legs.

Race, gender, and class are marked in a thoroughly conventional manner in this morsel of Célinean text, one that happens to introduce a passage in which a shadow erotic economy appears to subvert the productionist logic presented in both the Detroit and the New York episodes as the essence of America—precisely the impression left when the protagonist abandons Ford's employ for the idle existence which Molly's prostitution affords him. But in the end, Bardamu's brush with this monument of capitalist modernity is not as seditiously anticonformist as it appears to be. As is often the case with middle-class sightseers, or so Barthes contends, Céline's literary vision "mask[s] the spectacle of real conditions" in industrial America, transforming the entire Ford adventure into a crude sociological surface onto which he projects his own bourgeois hygienist anxieties before taking refuge from that specter of decay in a regal, flaxen body symbolizing the hierarchy of values that ideologically anchor his white male subjectivity.

The American writers who were apparently most influenced by Céline in the late 1930s and especially in the postwar years—Henry Miller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller—were largely oblivious to the subtle forms of conservatism and conventionality that Céline evinces here and elsewhere in his novels. The sense of Céline that appears to prevail among these writers and many readers is that of a clamorous voice of cultural and political dissidence, an impression that stems, of course, from his assaults—especially in Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à crédit—on an array of societal institutions: the military, the family, the medical profession, the school, the industrial factory, and, ultimately, the modern liberal State itself. In addition, he expressed that dissent in a style that released the novel from its conventional grammatical and syntactical strictures and allowed raw human emotion to surge through textual space. Introduced into a culture whose dominant modes of speech and comportment actively discouraged unseemly displays of human emotion—a product of what Bardamu contemptuously refers to as "Anglo-Saxon puritanism"—Céline's style must have had a great emancipatory appeal for these American authors.

As Morris Dickstein notes, the Célinean presence in American literary life was especially palpable in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the author became something of a cult figure for the Beat generation. He also influenced such writers as Roth and Heller, whose anticonformist, antimilitarist novels imaginatively fostered the anti-establishment sensibilities underlying the protests that erupted on college campuses across America in the late 1960s. Céline's disdain for humanity, and for what he saw as its intrinsic depravity, surely acted as a powerful counterforce to the imagery of consumer euphoria and domestic bliss plastered on billboards across the landscape in the postwar rush to suburbanize America. His dim view of modern technological progress and his unsettling portraits of the inane human violence that sustained such institutions as the military and the family—two key elements in the American postwar social order—lent an oppositional force not only to experimentation with new literary forms, but to other expressions of cultural discontent as well.

As instructive and engaging as such analyses of Céline's influence on American literary practices are for me, I find myself left with a nagging sense that terribly important historical, cultural, and political meaning is being dropped from the Célinean text in its transmission to the United States. As an American who is one generation removed from the countercultural appropriation of Céline, I listen with keen interest to witnesses and students of that process describing the effect that he and the writers he influenced had on my own culture. Particularly in a critical age that has so radically diminished the significance of the author, I also delight in hearing American writers present their work and discuss the ways in which Céline's contentious style has shaped their own artistic practice. Having studied French literature, history, and politics of the 1930s and 1940s for some time, I am also, however, acutely aware that Céline's rebellion against institutionalized aesthetic and societal norms is far more ideologically complex than the decontextualized reading of his work leads one to believe. Philip Watts's analysis of the Célinean resonance in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which focuses, as does Céline's German trilogy, on the Allied bombing of Germany at the end of the war, skillfully brings important aspects of this complexity to the critical fore. Generally speaking, however, Céline's postwar readers have tended to abstract his ideological discourse and aesthetic practice from the strife-ridden and trauma-laden context of the 1930s and 1940s, which greatly influenced the reception of his first two novels, impelled the writing of his pamphlets, and informed the content of his last five novels. This is particularly true in the United States, where knowledge of France's bitter internecine political struggles during the 1930s, the Occupation years, and the postwar purge is quite limited. In glossing over that context, do we not run the risk of engaging in forms of intellectual and cultural tourism that blind us to the "spectacle of real conditions" behind the literary monument Céline has become? What happens, for instance, to a timelessly subversive Céline when his writing is considered in its full historical and political specificity, a specificity that generates meanings more closely aligned with the politics of reaction and the hierarchical status quo than with the democratizing forces of his time, which so energetically sought to level that order? What emerges is no longer simply the profile of a great modernist whose seditious literary voice gleefully menaces all institutional authority, but rather a more sobering perspective on the vicious face of human intolerance.

In the course of the discussions about Céline's influence on American writers and writing, I found myself reconstructing my first encounter with Céline and the dizzying paradoxes in his writing. As a graduate student in search of a term paper topic and with an interest in European history and politics of the 1930s, I was directed by one of my teachers toward Céline—a great novelist who also happened to be—I was told—a notorious fascist. With images of goose-stepping, muscle-flexing, order-obsessed SS types in mind, I was astonished to find, first in Mort à crédit and then in Voyage au bout de la nuit, wrenching representations and what seemed to be a wholesale condemnation of the abuses of patriarchal power in a vast range of modern institutions—all of which was difficult to reconcile with what I knew to be fascism's authoritarian logic. And, as an American schooled in the history and sociology of the complex processes that leave class oppression largely occluded in the signifying practices of my own culture, Céline's focus on the effects of class violence spoke poetically to my own knowledge of similar suffering and despair in a presumably classless America—an experience whose very unrepresentability is part and parcel of that oppression. In a less cognitive mode, there was also something intangibly alluring about his irreverent, populist speech, no doubt the desemanticizing poetic voice that, as Julia Kristeva so astutely observes, issues "a call to rhythm and joy, beyond the crippling constraints of a society ruled by monotheistic symbolism." Things were, I was quickly forced to conclude, significantly more complex than I had been led to believe by the conventional academic wisdom surrounding Céline.

Figuring out how Céline got from the ingeniously comical disaffection of Voyage au bout de la nuit to the frothing aggression of Bagatelles pour un massacre five years later has been a most enlightening critical venture that has taken me far afield of my initial, admittedly reductive, perceptions of both Céline and European fascism. Closer analysis of the various hierarchies configured in his texts began to reveal a more embedded ideological accommodation of the institutional authority that Céline appears to indict, thus rendering more intelligible the evolution from Voyage to the unequivocally reactionary Bagatelles. My exploration of the intricacies of European fascism and Céline's ambivalent relation to it began overlapping with my questions about racial, ethnic, gender, and national identity, leading me to consider how Céline's textual construction of these differences—most often seen by mainstream culture as outrageously aberrant—actually mark the Other it strives to exclude in ways that are strikingly paralleled by the cultural and discursive norms of his time. Examining how Céline himself was Othered in turn by postwar literary elaborations of collaborationist evil opens a veritable Pandora's box of political projections, displacements, and massive historical denial, which allowed the society at large to focus with such righteousness on the deplorable bigotry of a writer like Céline, while dispensing with a thorough-going critique of the more refined and naturalized articulations of Western ethnocentrism and racism that contributed to the mass genocide perpetrated during the war and, in its aftermath, that continued to drive colonial policy. In extending the scope of analysis beyond the limits of Céline's literary identity, meanings begin to proliferate that not only implicate the extremist forms of misogynistic white supremacy with which Céline can clearly be identified, but that also involve the more extensive binary, phallogocentric foundations of Western thought on which our exploitative patriarchal and racist structures have continued to thrive in the postwar era. That critics are now moving well beyond what Alice Kaplan has termed the "separatist" moment in Célinean studies—the inveterate tendency to bifurcate the aesthetic and the political, the literary and the ideological, the dazzling style and the appalling racism—and toward a more "integrationist" understanding of the coherence of these facets of Céline's texts offers some hope that their intersection with and dependence on more mainstream forms of discursive Othering will be more fully elucidated in the years to come.

This special issue of SAQ and the conference on which it is based illustrate splendidly that, rather than leading to the cul-de-sac of misunderstanding and oversimplification that so often mar cross-cultural exchanges, the encounter between Céline and American intellectual, literary, and cultural life has opened up an intersubjective space abounding not only with projections and counter-projections, but also with exciting possibilities for understanding one of the "great" figures of European modernism and for generating readings of what Jonathan Culler terms "previously unseen inscriptions." While most of his postwar readers have at least some sense that Céline's writing is marked by scandal of an often ill-defined historical and political nature, many walk away with the distinct impression that he is merely a cantankerous cuss who glories in literary rebellion against the powers that be. Candid and informed discussion about the various dimensions and implications of the American presence in Céline and the Célinean presence in American writing can greatly nuance that perception, peeling back layers of historical and ideological complexity to reveal the genesis of his racist discourse and, correspondingly, the traditions of ethnocentrism that his political texts have come to emblematize. Moreover, a consideration of gender issues introduces into the debate questions concerning the production of sexual difference and Céline's willfully masterful—though everfoundering—male narrative subjectivity: questions that are far-reaching in their political and cultural implications for patriarchal institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Ironically, it is a writer who sought so stridently to fortify the boundaries of linguistic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identity, aggressively marking the Other and struggling to flush it from his field of vision, whose texts provide the opportunity half a century later to deconstruct the cultural codes that proved to be so injurious to minority groups in Céline's day, codes that have since then demonstrated their remarkable tenacity and efficacy in keeping oppressed segments of society relegated to the margins of power. While I may be succumbing here to a characteristically American reflex of attempting to turn a lemon into lemonade, we may nevertheless come to see as one of Céline's most important cultural contributions his unwitting complicity in unraveling the sign systems propelling the West's ascendancy in the modern era, signifying practices whose essential violence he categorically refused to mediate through the refinements of "civilized" speech.

Sally Silk (essay date May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit: The Nation Constructed Through Storytelling," in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1996, pp. 391-403.

[In the following essay, Silk examines the fictional invention of national identity in Journey to the End of the Night. According to Silk, "it is in Bardamu's relationship to the bourgeois patriotism of wartime France that one can locate a link to Céline's later embrace of fascism."]

Céline's oeuvre, like those of numerous other twentieth-century writers, is strongly marked by the problematic status of the writer's fiction vis-à-vis his politics. For some critics, Céline's anti-semitism and his avowed fascism raise questions about the "quality" of his writings, these overtly ideological works of the late thirties being viewed as the point towards which the works before the fascist "period" move and as the position from which his post-war work emerges. While these questions are of course important, their significance depends entirely on the way they are posed. On the one hand, they can drastically oversimplify the connection between the text and the writer's reactions to the configuration of political forces that surround him and in which his life is embedded. They can imply the kind of uninterrupted continuity of the author's consciousness over time that much recent critical work problematizes. On the other hand, such inquiries can open avenues of investigation into the development of ideological positions and the complex interrelationship of narrative, history, and ideology.

Céline's first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), does not reveal any direct connection to the fascist writings of the late thirties; in fact, the book's abject humor, as well as the reader's consistent and enduring sympathy for Bardamu, seem to undercut the kinds of violence one might expect in the text of such a controversial writer. This obviously does not mean that questions of ideology are not relevant to a critical reading of the novel; it has been demonstrated that protofascist ideology permeates the novel in ways that, although they operate quietly, are nonetheless significant for scholars of Céline, as well as for historians studying the rise of fascism in France in the 1930s. The novel's central ideological tension lies in Bardamu's alienation from the ways of life and structures of feeling of bourgeois France during the Third Republic. This alienation is played out in a number of spheres (in the alienation of the wage laborer, in the terrifying loneliness of the agent of imperial commerce) whose cumulative momentum takes Bardamu on a kind of quest that gives the novel its title. I have shown elsewhere that this alienation occurs not only on a thematic level, but, more significantly, on a discursive one as well: the text is itself a highly charged manifestation of Bardamu's "homelessness."

With regard to the bourgeois world, one of the text's most intractable problems is with that most mythical and powerful "home" of bourgeois invention: the nation. And it is in Bardamu's relationship to the bourgeois patriotism of wartime France that one can locate a link to Céline's later embrace of fascism. While the narrator relentlessly parodies this patriotism, the glorification of the nation that lies at its heart is something he cannot escape. To the extent that in fascist ideology the nation belongs to another discourse, standing in radical opposition to the categories of bourgeois nationalism, and to the extent that the fascist nation is less a "nation" than a primeval collectivity gathered in the mists of romantic historiography, perhaps we can hypothesize a development in Céline's oeuvre. His support for the fascist nation was made possible by another phenomenon: the discursive power of the nation could be escaped only though the embrace of another discourse, the counter-discourse of fascism.

This, then, is the framework into which I would like to fit a close reading of several crucial scenes in Voyage au bout de la nuit. I shall demonstrate that Bardamu becomes inextricably bound to the processes by which the category of nation is both performed and taught. Furthermore, Voyage au bout de la nuit offers insight into the discursive constitution of the "nation" itself.

Bardamu and Storytelling Gone Awry

Current work on the relationship between the nation and writing suggests that the nation is constituted in the potentially violent space opened up by the process of narration itself. Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit is a useful context in which one can observe the volatile nature of the construction of nation hood because the protagonist's heroic tales of war reveal a contestatory space in which the nation is to be constituted. Contestatory, not simply because his stories are lies, but also because they are eventually retold by others, for their ends, at his expense. When Bardamu, who is both protagonist and narrator, constructs a vision of the French nation through his stories, it is always represented as an idea that enjoys the self-assured status of epistemological truth. However, the nation is exposed as a severely problematic concept precisely at the moment when it appears so hermeneutically safe.

Thematically, Voyage au bout de la nuit never seriously ponders the question of nationhood. This is not to say that characters do not discuss the issue, for indeed, they do; but such action often appears simplistic, even predictable at times. Yet, discursively, the issue is played out in great seriousness, to the point where it becomes so complicated that the reader can practically feel every desperate breath taken by the narrator as he painstakingly reconstructs his past role as an actor in the unfolding story of the French nation.

Storytelling is Bardamu's strength. He is so gifted at it, however, that he is eventually taken in by the power of his own tales. He prefers telling stories to any other activity, not out of jouissance in Barthes's sense, but rather as a means for dealing with the weighty ugliness of the past. He explains:

Quand on sera au bord du trou faudra pas faire les malins nous autres, mais faudra pas oublier non plus, faudra raconter tout sans changer un mot, de ce qu'on a vu de plus vicieux chez les hommes et puis poser sa chique et puis descendre, Ça suffit comme boulot pour une vie tout entière.

The text we hold in our hands then, is Bardamu's way of making a virtue of necessity by telling stories.

The episode under discussion here is easily summarized: twenty years old and confined as a patient in a psychiatric hospital for fleeing the battlefield during World War I, Bardamu exploits the power of storytelling by using the text to frame stories within stories. He does so not because it helps him pass the time, but because it guarantees him visitors, and one visitor in particular. What attracts his audience is the content of his stories: he tells of the battles he fought and the love of France that kept him going. The irony here is that Bardamu, unbeknownst to his visitors, has been brought to the psychiatric hospital because he was stricken with cowardice on the battlefield, hiding behind trees whenever possible. He deceives his listeners with stories that nourish their vision of the patrie. At the end of this episode, the tables have been turned and it is Bardamu who is the true victim.

This essay will reveal, through a close reading of the passage in question, the positions occupied by a textual subject embroiled in the disruptive act of narrating the nation. I shall argue that the act of embedding war stories within the larger narrative not only completely confounds the text, but, more significantly, tells us a great deal about the problematics involved in the act of writing the nation.

Bardamu Displaced: From Battlefield to Hospital

Bardamu and his fellow patients are visited by prominent Parisian figures, as a sort of social call, because they are now "présentables et pas dégoûtants du tout moralement" to the outside world that represents the bourgeois nation. Fully aware that "on se le répéta dans les salons, que le centre neuromédical du professeur Bestombes devenait le véritable lieu de l'intense ferveur patriotique, le foyer, pour ainsi dire," he also realizes that he was an object of curiosity for all of Paris; remembering himself helpless in front of their glare, he makes fun of this society that justified its visits as taking up the cause of patriotism. As is carefully pointed out in previous chapters, Bardamu is not only terrified of war, but repelled by "[la] ferveur patriotique" as well. Thus, while the patients understand their visitors, they do not share their values and find themselves in the hospital precisely because of their improper patriotic behavior. But in reporting Parisian salon gossip ("on se le répéta …"), Bardamu is at once aware of this discrepancy and taken in by the idea that it has become fashionable to visit local mental patients in the service of one's country. Madness and patriotism are supposed to mutually exclude one another in the confines of the hospital, the former being the state one is thought to suffer if the latter cannot be experienced. But the two are constantly being played off of one another in Bardamu's narrative, to the point where they merge completely when he works himself into a mad, patriotic frenzy at the Comédie Francaise, a state that can be calmed only back at the hospital.

The narrator portrays the hospital as a theater stage on which a variety of characters play their roles: "des évêques, […] une duchesse italienne, un grand munitionnaire, et bientôt l'Opéra lui-méme et les pensionnaires du Théâtre-Français. On venait nous admirer sur place." While Bardamu and the other patients are the object of a theater-like gaze, he also finds them thoroughly entertaining, portraying them to the reader as if it is they who are on stage. Having taken the position of his audience and occupied it, Bardamu turns those who are curious into an object of curiosity that achieves a comic result contrary to that intended by his visitors. The narrative turns the tables on patient and society, on stage and audience, producing a caving in of hierarchical difference that recalls Bakhtin's observation that carnival eliminates the separation between actor and spectator. But there is a disturbing quality to this scene that Bakhtin's work does not account for: the joyful freedom that characterizes the Bakhtinian conception of carnival is nowhere present. The narrator's memory of his confinement consists of a procession-like vision of figures that he at once mocks and is impressed by. It is not clear where he stands in relationship to this image. Bardamu may be entertained by the scene, but he is nevertheless unable to distance himself from the idea of the nation as it is embodied in this privileged group of visitors come to ogle outcasts from the war. This is the claustrophobia of the bourgeois nation-state.

The discursive effect here becomes disquieting, not celebratory. One of the salient characteristics of an abject voice, this quality can be characterized as manifesting a "strain of hysteria" that "infect[s] the comic as much as the socially 'corrective' thrust of the Abject Hero's" utterances. Bardamu demonstrates his talent for storytelling in the psychiatric hospital; yet this power can only be realized in the textual narration where he counts on his reader to notice his skill. Because the latter does not know how to read this playing with roles, Bardamu the narrator only reinforces his position of confinement and the accompanying failure to find a subject-centered voice. As a result of the utterance, the narrator's position is further shaken; the only thing that he affirms is a possible misreading of his text. Bardamu as textual subject is produced by the utterance rather than vice versa. "Democratic truth" is not only wanting here, but impossible to cultivate as well.

The image of the spectacle that opens this passage gains strength as it becomes central to the action in the story. Of the "petit ballet mondain" that visits the hospital, an actress from the Comédie-Française, impressed with Bardamu's war stories, develops a rapport with him. He guarantees himself attention by relating certain juicy details that will keep her coming back. She enjoys his stories so much that she asks permission to relate "les plus intenses passages de [ses] récits" to a poet who would then put them into verse so that she may recite them during a special performance at the Comédie-Française. Bestombes, the director of the hospital and a character given to patriotic excess, addresses the press about the upcoming event. This character, whose inflated language and aw(e)ful clichés illustrate "l'intense ferveur patriotique" that Parisian society clamors to see, is represented by his ex-patient through reported speech, a technique Bardamu uses here to satirize not only a character's discourse, but epic language as well. It would lend the narrator some authority were it not for the character of the poet (the actress's friend who turns Bardamu's stories into performance material for her) who will later in the passage decisively eliminate any promise of discursive centering. These intricate layers of mediated storytelling vis-à-vis the nation (marked by Bardamu's fabrications in the first place and ending with the poet's fabulous verses) point to the fictional status of the idea of nationhood as elaborated in Anderson's Imagined Communities. Bardamu's representation of Bestombes indicates a point of confrontation, a place at which the outside world of glorified French patriotism meets the inside world of institutionalized cowards; as madness and patriotism begin to resemble one another, the latter's claims that it is based in the real are undermined. Bestombes's epic language plays an important role because Bardamu negotiates a place for it in his hierarchy of constructing the nation purely through stories. Bestombes may be mocked here, but the effect of his speech on the patients foreshadows the disembodied voice that the narrator will occupy once the poet artistically puts into verse Bardamu's stories.

Afraid of losing "la palme de l'héroïsme" that he assumes the actress has bestowed upon him, the narrator writes that his younger self becomes involved in a never-ending game of storytelling with the other patients. A mood of solidarity prevails among them as they unite to make fun of the visitors:

Nous vivions un grand roman de geste, dans la peau de personages fantastiques, au fond desquels, dérisoires, nous tremblions de tout le contenu de nos viandes et de nos âmes. On en aurait bavé si on nous avait surpris au vrai. La guerre était mûre. (emphasis mine)

In the same way that Bestombes's noble speech about the epic functions satirically, so too does Bardamu's description of patients doing battle for the most dramatic war story. But there is one overwhelming difference: where the narrator was confident playing with Bestombes's language, here he is caught up in his own epic-like description of the patients' storytelling efforts. He has significantly moved from satirizing the epic in the previous scene to a situation that he himself can only, albeit ironically, describe in epic language. Although in the satire portrayed here Bestombes is naïve and the patients are not, the narrator is so affected by the irony used to treat the discourse of the other as represented by Bestombes that he will soon be unable to distinguish between the ingenuous and the disingenuous in his own discourse. Bardamu, although he recognizes Bestombes's words as empty and artistically second-rate, is nonetheless unable to resist the powerful concept of the nation that bolsters Bestombes's soaring metaphors. His only solution is to appropriate Bestombes's language in a way that outdoes him. Bardamu makes fun of Bestombes's vision of the nation, yet becomes thoroughly involved in cultivating the fictions necessary to its representation.

The climax of the satire occurs here: the chanson de geste suggested by the doctor's speech is transformed into a "roman de geste" appropriate to the genre of this text. The significance of the tension between these two can be understood in light of the following comment about the reading process:

The text has not only an intertextual relationship to previous texts but also an intertextual relationship to itself as canonized text. The responsibility is ours for making this relation one of difference from itself, of self-estrangement, rather than of conformity with itself.

The reader cannot help but see that the narrator's text recalls a different time, a different genre; but the complicitous relationship between the narrator and his reader is broken off as the latter observes that Bardamu can no longer keep such associations at a distance. Intertextual activity operates here in such a way as to bring out the relationship between the nation and telling: what we have here is a setting into place of the conflict between what Homi Bhabha calls the pedagogical and the performative in the ambivalent writing of the nation, a conflict that will erupt once Bardamu's stories, put into verse by the poet, are recited on stage by the actress. Pedagogical temporality transforms people into objects whereby discourse derives its authority from a "pregiven or [already] constituted historical origin or event"; performative strategy, on the other hand, positions people as subjects "of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originally presence of the nation-people." The growing tension between the pedagogical and the performative introduces the problematic site of writing the nation, a site that comes into view once Bardamu's war stories leave his mouth. That is, they are first related by him to the actress, then retold by her to her poet friend, who then rewrites them for the actress, only to be further mediated by her on stage at the long-awaited performance at the Comédie-Française. Bestombes's announcement of the performance to the press who, importantly, resides outside of the hospital, marks the point at which the narrative voice enters into the struggle between the performative and the pedagogical. The reader knows that his stories are powerful because they deny his conspicuous absence on the battlefield. Bardamu the storyteller deceives his visitor, but Bardamu the narrator lets us in on his ironic joke. Bestombes's announcement, however, produces tension where there wasn't before: it introduces the "ambivalent double-writing" of the pedagogical and the performative into the narrative voice, pedagogical because the raison d'être of the upcoming performance derives its authority from the supposed historic greatness of France, and performative because the event is a spectacle (both well-publicized and well-attended), bearing witness to the idea that when subjects actively participate in national life, they renew and reproduce the "process of cultural identification." In other words, in the marginal space of the hospital, discourse is safe from the crisis represented by the split between the pedagogical and the performative; once moved to center stage, literally, the narrative voice is subject to all the problems that inhere in this double-time of writing the nation.

Stories Misplaced: From Hospital to Stage

In the final scene of this episode, Bardamu's unexpected enchantment at the performance indicates a move away from the self. For it is upon hearing the actress recite the poet's version of his own story that Bardamu is profoundly moved

en l'entendant vibrer, exhorter de la sorte, cette superbe amie, gémir même, pour rendre mieux sensible tout le drame inclus dans I'épisode que j'avais inventé à son usage. Son poète décidément me rendait des points pour I'imaginative, il avait encore monstrueusement magnifié la mienne, aidé de ses rimes flamboyantes, d'adjectifs formidables qui venaient retomber solennels dans l'admiratif et capital silence. Parvenue dans l'essor d'une période, la plus chaleureuse du morceau, s'adressant à la loge où nous étions placés, Branledore et moimême, et quelques autres blessés, I'artiste, ses deux bras splendides tendus, sembla s'offrir au plus héroïque d'entre nous. Le poète illustrait pieusement à ce momentlà un fantastique trait de bravoure que je m'étais attribué.

The emphasis here is on the delivery of a story that originally belonged to Bardamu. The colloquial, familiar style characteristic of Bardamu's language is absent from the poet's version, yet Bardamu is transported by his rival's words precisely because it is in the poet's language that he can lose himself. Sensitive to the poet's "rimes flamboyantes," "adjectifs formidables" and "solennels," and "l'essor d'une période," he is moved by a style so foreign to him that he imagines himself as the most heroic patient there; the narrator anxiously lets his reader know that the poet's "fantastique trait de bravoure" was really his own. Bardamu confuses his own invented tales with the poet's artistic renderings of them; unable to reconcile the pedagogical and the performative aspects of narrating the nation, Bardamu is caught in the conflict of relinquishing his original playful fabrications in favor of the poet's more stylized ones. In both cases, the story is inauthentic, yet it is most powerful when it is furthest removed from its original fictional point: total submission to the poet's creation means that Bardamu has completely identified with the most fictional account of the nation. Indeed, the concept of nation derives its power from the very fact that it is rooted in the shared imagination of many, a condition that is beyond the narrator's control. The nation is at its strongest here, fascinating and discursively seductive as it sweeps Bardamu up in its path.

Bardamu's récit ennobli is a fake on all counts. Through multiple levels of deception (his invented tales, the actress's recounting of them to the poet, the poet's version, the actress's mediated delivery), the narrator has turned heroism on its head and, more significantly, been brought down with it in the process. For when the actress gestures to the audience that the original teller of the tale is seated in the balcony, the other patients clamor over seats to accept their applause, concealing Bardamu from view. Eager for recognition and desperate for praise, he is defeated this time by his fellow patients, who succeed in excluding him from appearing in what is already the marginal space of the theater. When he writes "'Mais c'est de moi qu'il s'agit! ai-je failli crier à ce moment. De moi seul!,'" it is the narrator's only attempt to represent his younger storytelling self through the authoritative marks of direct discourse. The attempt fails, however, because these words are actually uttered for the reader's ears, not for other characters in the story ("ai-je failli crier") for whom they were supposedly destined; we are the only ones who hear the frustration intended for his fellow patients. What is important here, and of course ironic, is that he is now willing to identify with his own fictions of heroism. This reflects the effective force of the nation as a concept as well as the success of the poet's work, which, according to the narrator's need for verisimilitude, represents Bardamu's original story as told to the actress; for even this first version was pure invention that was then subjected to further change by the actress, then the poet, and finally, again, by the actress. In other words, it is impossible for the narrator to portray his younger storytelling self through direct discourse because the fictions cannot be authenticated: there is too much deception circulating to occupy fully a voice. Indeed, the very notion of origins or authenticity is unthinkable here.

This idea of telling as act of deception becomes central to the discursive space delineated by the relationship between nation and narration in Voyage au bout de la nuit. On the one hand, we see the pedagogical at work since the poet's glorious poem furnishes the narrator with a narcissistic pleasure as he sees his own story reflected within, a state that results from "the process of identity constituted by historical sedimentation"; but on the other hand, the representation of misery and inferiority caused by the success of a poem that is not really his is indicative of the "loss of identity [that occurs] in the signifying process of cultural identification" that inheres in the performative.

These contradictions are inextricably linked to the fact that the narrator has been victimized by a situation that was written into the initial enunciative act itself. As Nietzsche explains, telling by its very nature is deceptive:

The danger of the direct questioning of the subject about the subject and of all self-reflection of the spirit lies in this, that it could be useful and important for one's activity to interpret oneself falsely … The will to logical truth can be carried through only after a fundamental falsification of all events is assumed.

Telling is a fiction in its own right. So when Bardamu the storyteller jockeys for the position of hero alongside his rivalrous companions who have since done the same, he also finds himself in competition for that position with the poet himself, his alter ego who is the incarnation of the otherness of his discourse. The narration thus reveals an ironic parable of sorts, one that demonstrates the Nietzschean point that 1) narrative is always already false; and 2) this falsity is what subjects identify with as their "truth."

Just as fiction represents a distortion that puts "truth" in question, so too does this scene represent the refraction of a performance supposedly based on the lived experience of a brave soldier. For both Bardamus are at once spectator and spectacle, the younger Bardamu because at the gesture of the actress, all eyes turn from the stage to the audience to view the hero, and the older Bardamu because his confessional style reveals him watching a former self at the same time that he draws the reader's attention to the older one. If telling is deception, it also results in transgression because the narration has toyed with the rules of theater, with the very idea of positions as defined by Pêcheux.

Nous dirons que la forme-sujet du discours, où coexistent indissociablement interpellation, identification et production de sens, réalise le nonsens de la production du sujet comme cause de soi sous la forme de l'évidence première. Nous avons affaire à une détermination qui s'efface ellemême dans l'effet nécessaire qu'elle produit sous la forme du rapport entre sujet, centre et sense, ce que nous avons condensé en parlant d' «effet Münchhausen.» (emphasis Pêcheux)

Bardamu's narration of his storytelling antics has literally overturned the notion of "fixed" points from which an utterance is emitted. If the narrator's voice is both laughable and pathetic, if only his addressee hears his frustration, then this performance gone awry proves to be his most efficacious attempt to find a center. An overturned enunciative situation is the only one that gives him hope for ideal communication that can never be realized. His stories are mediated through others so such an extreme degree that he depends on the skills of the actress and the poet for an affirmation of self. The nation can only be told then through discourse that is always a little off. Telling stories about the glory of France becomes a textual phenomenon that overwhelms Bardamu and challenges him to participate in it, despite the fact that he holds his country in contempt. The power of fiction that inheres in the act of narrating the nation is what forces Bardamu to explode at the end of this passage. What began as parody (with Bestombes and society's visits to the hospital) has turned into something more desperate. Although Bardamu's stories are applauded for their "nationness," they are nothing more than a site of pure conflict devoid of the thing itself.

The ultimate outcome of this performance gone wrong is reflected in the fact that the actress he longs for chooses instead "cet harmonieux inverti." Her preference for the homosexual poet over the heterosexual war hero is the biggest blow yet and draws attention to Bardamu's involvement in impossible situations (the performance at the theater, an affair with the actress, a relationship with the poet), ones that can only dissolve without closure, leaving him as trapped as ever in discourse that offers him no way out. Desire for the actress is transformed into narrative desire as Bardamu is unable to complete the scene in a way he finds satisfying; in the final paragraph of the episode his "Récapitulons" announces to his reader that he will return to the scene again. Bardamu can recuperate his invented tales, but he must still submit to the illusion of the signifier that obliges the textual self to depend on an other in order to be heard. Bardamu loses himself as he speaks through the poet and the actress, even if both are inaccessible to him. His highs and lows, his continual repositioning throughout the episode, demonstrate indeed that the nation is "an ambivalent agency of narration." The removal of Bardamu's glorious stories from their originally marginal location in the hospital to center-stage in the Comédie-Française underscores the novel's obsession with speaking the nation. Representation itself is privileged over both truth and falsehood so that the narrator has no means by which to guarantee himself a secure position in the narrative.

This episode can be read in a variety of ways, but I have chosen to focus on the various storytelling positions it occupies when caught up in the act of representing the nation. Critical work on Voyage au bout de la nuit has paid little attention to the importance of storytelling, to the relationship between the exchange-value of Bardamu's stories and the completely deceptive character of fiction. His tales would appear to be worth a great deal in light of the fact that they guarantee him, in return, the repeated visits of the actress that he desires; but when the poet gets hold of his stories in order to rewrite them, Bardamu derives great pleasure from them precisely because they no longer resemble the stories he had originally told to the actress. His original stories are deprived of any exchange-value whatsoever because he is eventually completely humiliated by a situation that has backfired on him. Bardamu has been blinded by the power inherent in narrating the nation.

The Nietzschean theory that telling in and of itself is deception calls into question the very subject that got Bardamu into so much trouble: France as patrie. Although a coward on the battlefield in World War I, Bardamu is bold with words yet unable to hold onto them literally. The idea of French nationhood is exposed as a completely discursive one, created by the text itself rather than by the character's very unbrave actions. His antics and abject position at the end of this episode bring about a dismantling of the concept of patrie from the perspective of the textual subject. Yet the concept itself loses none of its potency, and indeed, is reinforced all the more because he is clearly vanquished by the fictions that allow the nation to continue to be so convincingly imagined.




Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) (Vol. 1)