Translated by Guillaume Durocher
The following is taken from Dominique Venner’s Histoire de la Collaboration (Paris: Gérard Watelet/Pygmalion, 2000), 207-16. The title is editorial.
The premonition of decadence was strong with [the writer Alphonse de] Châteaubriant, but never reached the apocalyptic fury of a Céline, a much more famous outcast.
To a great extent, the violence of the anti-Semitic pamphlets has overshadowed what was unique to Céline. It has unleashed passions upon his name which forbid a serene interpretation of his work in its totality. For some, his anti-Semitism makes him “a dog,” as said by Jacques Lanzmann. For others, who value in him the rebel, he is a kind of banner. Finally, a large portion of the cultivated public feigns to not know the condemned author of the pamphlets, focusing their attention on the creator of an inimitable, though often imitated, style.
Most critics agree that he was a brilliant artist. One of his biographers, Frédéric Vitoux, was able to express the shock that was for him this discovery:
I was seventeen years old, I was on holiday, and I had taken this paperback somewhat by chance from the family library. [. . .] On the back cover, a few lines of facsimiled writing: “One of the fiercest cries that man has ever made.” The title of this volume: Journey to the End of the Night. And its author: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. I had not known either of them. No professor had talked about them at the lycée. And my father must have deemed this reading to be too mature for me. I then did not know that this Louis-Ferdinand Céline had just died on July 1, 1961. The newspapers, it is true, had observed a methodical silence on the occasion. Céline, bah! What does it matter! The passing of Ernest Hemingway the same day, that was news, the rightful “top story” of the dailies and television! In short, I picked up this novel in total ignorance, in total innocence. [. . .] I did not know then that there are books which can overwhelm you, which can move you for life. [. . .] I have never recovered from such a reading or such a journey.
Misfortune deemed that doctor Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, known as Céline in literature, should also meddle in saying what he thought of his time. He was then adulated, hated, insulted, celebrated, misunderstood. A few lines from Mea Culpa, attached to the copy of his doctoral thesis in medicine on Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1924), a Hungarian Jewish doctor, sheds light on a part of Céline’s mystery. Written in a very conventional style, let us note in passing that this defense and illustration of Semmelweis puts a dent in Céline’s inveterate anti-Semitism. We know that Semmelweis’ Hungarian colleagues did not forgive him either for his abrasive pride or his discoveries on the prevention of postpartum infections. They hounded him from their company, driving him to madness: “Suppose that today, in the same way, another innocent would emerge who would begin curing cancer. He does not know the kind of music he would immediately be made to dance to! [. . .] Ah! He would have much more luck immediately joining the Foreign Legion! Nothing is free in this lowly world. Everything must be atoned for, good as well as evil, must be paid for sooner or later. The good is much more costly, naturally.” There. All is said on human nature and the dark image Céline has of it, having observed it up close, as a doctor for the poor and for others. “The good is much more costly, naturally.” His idealism would never recover from this discovery. The wounds of his sensitivity would end up secreting the hysterics which would horrify a stone-cold Ernst Jünger.
At first, Céline was a doctor who believed in his art. His life taught him to not believe in it anymore. He is also a man who suffered, who lived what he recounts in the Journey and in Death on the Installment Plan. He said as much: “I know what it means to get by on nothing.” Behind the absurdity of certain situations, the writer’s hypersensitivity always appears, a gift for observation augmented by the use of spoken language, lyrical argot. What he must say is too violent for academic French, a language domesticated by centuries of polishing. An emasculated language, stripped of its vitality, of its ability to evoke.
Of all this, he is supremely conscious. He wrote it in black and white in an ode to Rabelais:
Actually Rabelais missed his mark. Yes, he missed his mark. He did not succeed. [. . .] No, he was not the one who won. That would be Amyot, the translator of Plutarch: He had much more success in the centuries that followed than Rabelais. It is upon him, upon his language, that we still live today. Rabelais wanted to transmit spoken language into written language: A failure. Whereas Amyot, people today always and again want some Amyot, some academic style. That’s to write garbage: frozen language. [. . .] No, France can no longer understand Rabelais: It has become precious. Terrible to think that it could have been the opposite, the language of Rabelais could have become the French language.
And that is exactly what he, Céline, undertook in the middle of the twentieth century. A mad dream. To restore to French its vigor and truth. An idea which would take him very far. To desperation and revolt.
From meditations on the blackness of life and on the decadence of language, he moved towards a reflection on France. There was none more in love with France than he, therefore no one more disappointed, despairing. His misfortune was to live in a time when France was but the grimacing and derisory caricature of her past splendor. A country undoing herself, atomized into bitter individualisms. Everything was disappearing beneath his feet. Of the old France, there were only ruins. The beautiful kingdom had become this niggardly country, inhabited by jealous and quibbling petty bourgeois. Spreading from the Sorbonne to the school, rationalism had sterilized France, transformed children into old men.
Look at little children, the first years . . . They are all charm, all poetry, all cheeky playfulness . . . From ten or twelve years old, finished is the magic spontaneity! Made fishy, sneaky, stubborn dunces, more approachable little funny guys, tedious, grotesque grimacers, gossiping boys and girls, tense, stupid, like daddy and mummy. A disaster! Already almost perfect old men at the age of twelve! A downfall of stars into our ruins and muck! A fairyland disaster [. . .]. Immediately and forcefully broken in, as early as school, the great mutilator of the youth, school will have clipped their wings instead of having opened them wide and then wider still!
And yet, he sometimes – rarely, once even – in the 1941 pamphlet, A Fine Mess, imagined a veterinarian’s cure. The only cure in his view was a racist socialism, what he drolly called “Labiche communism,” which he contrasted with Vichy’s very tepid National Revolution:
I believe in a different Family Code [. . .]. A genuine code, which would include everything, beasts, goods, and people, children and elderly of France, in the same family, excluding Jews of course, one family, one father, dictatorial and respected. Therefore a respectable family where there would really be no more bastards, Cinderellas, neglected gingers, children’s penal colonies, or “Social Services,” where the soup would be the same for all, where there would be no favorites or rich kids, no chubby ones or little skinny ones, some having fun, others bending over. [. . .] Everyone in the same school! The families united, in short, all the families into one family, with equality of resources, of rights, of brotherhood, everyone having the national salary, on the order of 150 francs per day maximum [. . .]. Everything needs to be remade? Well then perfect! But [. . .] we must start everything over from childhood, through childhood, for all children. It is through this that racism begins and genuine communism too, through childhood and nothing else, through unanimous kindness, the desire that the entire family be beautiful, healthy, lively, Aryan, pure, redemptress, joyous with beauty, with strength, not only your little family, your own two, three, four brats, but the entire very French family [. . .]. Racism is family, family is equality, it’s all for one and one for all. [. . .] A common fate, no bastards, no black sheep, no stinking ones, in the same nation, the same race, no spoiled ones either, no little bosses. No more exploitation of man by man. No more wretched of the earth. [. . .] Marxism is well fucked, we are shaking up its major asset: the cold hearts of men.
Gaiety Alone Will Save Us
Doctor Louis-Ferdinand Destouches was born in Courbevoie on May 27, 1894. Céline was his mother’s first name. He began a fairly dire military service in 1912 with the twelfth cuirassiers regiment. In 1914, on horseback and wearing the cuirasse, he was wounded during the first battles, which earned a place on the cover of L’Illustré national, the Military Medal, and a recognition as an invalid in 1915. After studies in medicine, he defended his thesis in 1924 on the life and work of Dr. Semmelweis, as previously mentioned. After joining the [League of Nation]’s health service, he was sent on missions to the U.S., in Europe, and in Africa until 1927. Five years later, in 1932, he published Journey to the End of the Night, immediately hailed as a literary masterpiece. Léon Daudet wrote: “There does not exist in our literature, since Ménippée and the poems of Agrippa of Aubigné, such a howl of anger reverberated by the echoes of a spoken, muscular, and bawdy syntax, naked like the great Courbet’s daughter.” And further on: “Proust is the Balzac of chit-chat . . . from this, there is a certain fatigue from which Monsieur Céline will liberate his generation . . .”
The left-wing intelligentsia identified with the dark portrait of war and society in the Journey and Death on the Installment Plan. But the doctor-writer is reticent before any enlistment. The publication of Mea Culpa (1936), after the inevitable journey to the USSR, showed he was no fool. This book consummated his divorce with the philo-Soviet left.
Sensing the coming of another war, he claimed a Jewish conspiracy was responsible. He successively published two delirious pamphlets who suddenly made him appear like an enraged anti-Semite: Trifles for a Massacre (1937) and The School for Cadavers (1938). The first was released with a strip reading: “For a good laugh in the trenches.” Difficult to be more clear. Railing against the war and charnel houses to come, he denounced in his way “the coalition of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, Stalinism, and the Jewish lobby whose objective is to send the youth of France to be massacred in a Franco-German war, in which itself [the coalition] would not intervene before the exhaustion of the sacrificed combatants.”
In a rather different register, Céline published in 1941 a new pamphlet, A Fine Mess, already mentioned. No doubt the only one of his works to be illuminated with a faint halo of hope. Besides the famous tirade on “Labiche communism” which we would be wrong to take lightly, he presents a poetic meditation on the spirit of France, written in the fifteenth-century style, not without some very unfair swipes at Montaigne:
I want songs and dances . . . I do not care for reason . . . What do I care for intelligence, for pertinence? For designs? I’ve none! [. . .] What do I care for M. Ben Montaigne, preachifying, sneaky rabbi? . . . He is not the joy I am searching for, fresh, cheeky, mischievous, moved . . . [. . .] I would like to die of laughter, but light-heartedly . . . For two or three verses, Bellay is dearer to me than Racine . . . [. . .] I have no need of sermons, but of a light-hearted deliverance, as do all those of my blood [. . .]. Gaiety alone will save us, not the factory! No plan for this or that, nor boorish grumbling, no Ruffians’ oafish mongrel stratagems [. . .]. Let us coddle, celebrate our own music! Which will make us float prettily above the horrors of the Time, of a fine and fresh and swift flight . . .
This curious book, where the anti-Semitism, while present, is secondary, shows Céline’s feelings at the turning point of 1940–41, when the future, for once, did not seem to him to be completely black. The inspired pamphleteer expressed his furious anger, but here it was against Christian sermonizing, Vichy’s last recourse:
To spread among the virile races, among the hated Aryan races, the religion of ‘Peter and Paul’ admirably fulfilled its work, transforming into decrepit beggars, into sub-men from the cradle onwards, the subjugated peoples, the hordes intoxicated with Christianic literature, throwing themselves distraught and stupid to the conquest of the Holy Shroud, of the magic hosts, abandoning forever their Gods, their exalting religions, their Gods of blood, their Gods of race . . . Thus is the sad truth, the Aryan has only known how to love and adulate the god of others, has never had his own religion, a white religion . . . What he worships, his heart, his faith, was provided to him ready-made by his worst enemies . . .
The book was banned by the Vichy authorities in the southern zone and provoked strong reservations in the Propaganda Abteilung.
A Jewish Interpreter and Admirer of the Anti-Semitic Prophet
One of Céline’s least well-known interpreters was a Jewish resister, Choron-Gourewitz. Amidst the turmoil, this Zionist fighter dared to face without revulsion the writer’s anti-Semitism, interpreting the whole of his work as revealing the fractures of modernity.
Céline, symbol of a world which is disappearing, is also one of the foreshadows of a world which his coming. The work of Céline is the most startling record of this era, as is the figure himself. It in itself sums up the historical drama at play; it is an end and a beginning. [. . .] To sum up Céline is to sum up his era. To understand Céline is to understand a country, his country: France. Never has one man alone symbolized so well the human tragedy and the entire tragedy of a country.
What is the drama of the era and the tragedy of France according to Choron-Gourewitz?
We are often in agreement with Céline when he denounces Judaism as an evil, as a way of life based on false values. [. . .] Like the Jews, Céline is a loner, a man from nowhere, who has nothing to hold on to. Diaspora Judaism creates only negative, big-mouthed, and sterile men. Diaspora Judaism is the way of a life of a decadent and fallen society. Céline feels the decadence of the so-called Greco-Roman Western civilizations; he feels the “Jewish” future which this decadence prefigures; he fears it. He recognizes in this dissociation of white societies the great primitive fear, the fear of solitude. He has seen Jews up close; he knows them, he knows that they are not on his side, but that this entire fall, this loss of virile energy will hurl against them the Western world. And that is then the cry of revolt of the anti-Semitic Céline.
Céline and Germany
Contrary to a stubborn myth, the works of Céline were never favorably received in Nazi Germany. After various twists and turns, a German translation of the Journey was released in 1933 by a small publisher (whom Céline deemed to be a Jew), Julius Kittls Nachf., living in Czechoslovakia since 1928. Whereas anti-Nazi critics reacted relatively positively to the book, notably Max Brod, the official critics of the Third Reich ignored it completely, except when making an argument against “French decadence” of which the book was the purported illustration. In 1939, the same publisher released in succession translations of Death on the Installment Plan and Mea Culpa which were also ignored by the German press. Better, in 1938, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan were included on the list of books banned from dissemination in the Reich. The ban was never lifted, let it be stressed. We will not waste time then on the fantastical claims of some authors assuring that the Journey was republished in Germany in 1940, or that such and such a book by Céline was translated during the Occupation. All of this is false. Only one book, Trifles for a Massacre, was the object, not of a translation, but of a calamitous adaptation, in 1938, by Zwinger de Dresde publishing, under the title Die Judenverschwörung in Frankreich (“The Jewish Conspiracy in France”). Errors and contradictions abound in this text amputated of a quarter of its length and completely reworked. In his study of the subject, Alain de Benoist highlights the numerous mistakes by various authors who ascribe to the party or to the SS the paternity of this false “translation.”
Jean-Paul Sartre’s slander, immediately after the war, portraying Céline as on the Nazis’ payroll is equally baseless. On the other hand, the writer was certainly more engaged than he was willing to recognize after 1945. But he would nonetheless retain his outspokenness. Benoist-Méchin has described a dinner at the German Embassy, in February 1944, where a furious Céline cast against Hitler (“a mage for Brandenburg”) imprecations which made Otto Abetz tremble. The Reich ambassador had incidentally few intellectual affinities with the writer, but he was sensitive to his fame and to the use he could make of him.
Jünger, for his part, felt a veritable revulsion. The recollection he wrote of his first meeting with Céline (December 7, 1941) would provoke a trial and a polemic after the publication of his War Diary:
There is in him that maniacal gaze, turned in on itself, which shines as at the bottom of a hole. [. . .] He says how much he is surprised, stupefied that we, soldiers, do not shoot, do not hang, do not exterminate the Jews – he is stupefied that someone disposing of the bayonet does not make an unlimited use of it. [. . .] He evidently expressed the monstrous power of nihilism . . .
In fact, Céline’s only admirer and supporter among the occupiers was Karl Epting, director of the German Institute. This complicity would be the justification for an accusatory report [. . .] signed on January 28, 1942 by Dr. Bernhard Payr, a close colleague of Alfred Rosenberg, head of the Shriftumspflege Amt (publishing surveillance office) and wandering party inspector. It is in this capacity that after his visits to Paris in 1941 and 1942, he wrote this report which denounced the “errings” of the German Institute, astonished by the relations between Epting and certain French authors supported by his Institute, beginning with “Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with whom Mr. Epting is particularly close. [. . .] Yet this figure is extraordinarily contested,” added Dr. Payr. “In its day, in his book Journey to the End of the Night, he glorified conscientious objection. He put into question and dragged in the mud just about all the positive values produced by human existence.”
The anti-Semitic pamphlets themselves did not enjoy Dr. Payr’s favor, who faulted them for their “hysterical” and “obscene” character. In an article on French literature published in Rosenberg’s review, Payer had already criticized A Fine Mess, a publication deemed to be “negative.” He would repeat these criticisms in 1942 in his book Phönix oder Asche, covering the French literature of the Occupation, of which Gérard Loiseaux has published a translation. In his recollections published in 1981, Gerhardt Heller (1909–1982) confirmed Payr’s accusations: “If Céline benefited from the total support of the German Institute, other Occupation authorities considered that they should not have allowed such abject books to be published . . .” Preferring Claudel to Céline, Heller forgets to add that he was himself part of these “authorities” for whom the author of the Journey was one of these “decadent” expressionists like Emil Nolde or Gottfried Benn, denounced by Nazi literature.
Castle to Castle
Besides A Fine Mess and Guignol’s Band (1944), the latter being fiction, Céline published no books during the Occupation, but he did write numerous letters to journalists, sometimes in view of eventual publication. He also granted a few interviews, delivering acerbic and unrestrained criticisms of Vichy, the Jews, or the Germans.
With authorizations granted by Karl Epting in hand, the writer left Paris for Germany on June 17, 1944, accompanied by his wife, Lucette, and his cat Bébert. They stayed first at Baden-Baden where they were joined by his friend Le Vigan. After several moves, he arrived on October 28 at Sigmaringen where a certain number of French refugees had gathered, and where Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval had been taken by force. “Céline was absolutely without illusions,” wrote Marcel Déat. “If ever he would have the time to write a ‘journey to the end of the war,’ it would be the most astounding pamphlet of anti-Nazism.” He was not mistaken.
The writer hoped to reach Denmark where he had put away a “war chest” drawn from his author’s rights, which would be confiscated from him. Having obtained the necessary authorizations, he then set off for Copenhagen through a Germany expiring under the bombs. With Lucette and Bébert always at his side, he entered Denmark on March 27, 1945. The new authorities being zealous, he would be imprisoned for eighteen months following the defeat of the Reich. From the long and chaotic trek begun in the summer of 1944, he would later draw his German trilogy: From Castle to Castle (1957), North (1960), and Rigadoon (posthumous publication, 1969). Seeking to organize his defense, Céline shamelessly disavowed himself, for which Maurice Bardèche would criticize him in his biography. But he retained his harsh tongue. Jean-Paul Sartre, who defamed him in Les Temps modernes of December 1945, would learn this at his expense. As he was imprisoned and threatened by the courts of the épuration, the author of Les Mouches accused the other of having been “on the Nazis’ payroll.” Retaliation came in the form of a short pamphlet (Tempest in a Teapot ):
[Y]ou had your little success at the “Sarah” [theater] under the boot with your The Flies [play] . . . Can’t you now find three little acts, quickly, for the occasion, in a hurry, The Informants? [. . .] We’ll see you there in person, with your little buddies, sending your detested colleagues, called “Collaborators,” to the penal colonies, to the firing squad, into exile . . . Would this be comical enough? You, of course, strong in your text in the starring role . . . as a mocking and philosophical tapeworm . . .
In 1946, in his Copenhagen prison, Céline copied in a schoolchild’s notebook passages from the Mémoires d’outre-tombe. He was already thinking of the Fable for Another Time and identified with Chateaubriand, whom he also calls René: “René dreams of France, the soul of France, and I dreamed of her too, me, miserable dog . . .” He also wrote letters to the resister Albert Paraz which the latter would publish in Le gala des vaches. One finds there the obsessive idea that the “Aryans” are the indeed the most cretinous and despicable on this earth:
In my prison, there were 500 wardens, all Aryan, with 500 million Aryans in Europe. They are killing me for anti-Semitism, and they cheer! Where are the traitors, the shits! You would want me to lament before the fate this vile, bastard, prideless, faithless riffraff! Why thanks! I think the same of Aryans as Vercingetorix and Joan of Arc thought of them during their torment! Fine nastiness! Long live the Heebs! The Fritzes were never pro-Aryan, only anti-Semitic, which is absolutely stupid.
Amnestied in 1951, he took refuge in his shack in Meudon with Lucette and stray dogs. He lived out his last years in poverty, working as a doctor for the poor, writing, and publishing. At his funeral, in July 1961, besides Robert Poulet, among a few rare faithful, one observed Roger Nimier, who was his tireless defender at [the publishing house] Gallimard.
1. Statements reported by the monthly Informations juives of February 1987: “Céline is for me one of the great criminals of the history of France. I say what I think: Céline is not a man, but a dog.”
2. Frédéric Vitoux, Le Figaro magazine, September 7, 1996. Frédéric Vitoux is the author of La Vie de Céline (Paris: Grasset, 1988) and of Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Misère et parole (Folio, Essais).
3. Apologies for this very flat rendition of: “Je m’y connais en vache enragée,” literally, “I know about mad cows,” from a French expression on those so desperately deprived they would eat infected meat. – GD
4. A Renaissance French writer known for his particularly creative and earthy use of language, sometimes shockingly so. – GD
5. Preface to the Club du Livre’s edition of Rabelais (Paris: 1958).
6. Céline, Les beaux draps (Nouvelles Éditions françaises, 1941), 160.
7. Apparently named after Eugène Labiche, a prolific nineteenth century playwright known for his playful comedies focusing on bourgeois family life. – GD
8. The set of laws and regulations promoting family life in France. – GD
9. Céline, Draps, 152-54.
10. Metallic body armor protecting the torso. – GD
11. On Céline, in addition to his own works and the pamphlets not available in bookstores, one can turn to the Lettres des années noires (presented by Philippe Alméras, Berg International, 1994). Among the numerous biographical studies cited in this book’s general bibliography, one can also notably consult François Gibault, Céline, 1894-1961, three volumes (Paris: Mercure de France, 1981-85).
12. Pierre Monnier, Céline et les têtes molles (Bulletin célinien, Bruxelles, 1998).
13. Céline, Draps, 128-31.
14. The German propaganda office in Paris. – GD
15. Choron-Gourewitz, Shem, a review of the Mouvement national hébreu, August 1944 (article republished in the review Vouloir, October 1993).
16. As a conscientious Zionist, Choron-Gourewitz criticized diaspora Judaism.
17. Alain de Benoist, Céline et l’Allemagne, 1933-1945 (published by Le Bulletin célinien, Brussels, 1997).
18. Ancestor of the Goethe Institute. – GD
19. Gérard Loiseaux, La littérature de la défaite et de la collaboration (Fayard, 1995). On this book, see Alain de Benoist’s factual remarks, Céline, 82-83, note 127.
20. Céline, Lettres.
21. Marcel Déat, Mémoires politiques (Denoël, 1989), 897-98.
22. An untranslatable pun: Les Mouches (The Flies) and Mouchards (The Informants). – GD
23. Albert Paraz, Le gala des vaches (Paris: Éditions de l’Élan, 1948), 94.