Yesterday, July 1st, was the 49th anniversary of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s death. Celine’s writing, especially his Journey to the End of the Night and its follow-up Death on the Installment Plan, have influenced generations of writers, including Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Celine is known for his black humor, his gritty realism and his overwhelming pessimism, but from this negativity Celine creates his work, which in its very nature is a positive and a statement against the bleakness of the world as he sees it.
Early in Journey to the End of the Night, the main character says the following:
"The greatest defeat, in anything, is to forget, and above all to forget what it is that has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be. When our time is up, we people mustn't bear malice, but neither must we forget: we must tell the whole thing, without altering one word, everything that we have seen of man's viciousness; and then it will be over and time to go. That is enough of a job for a whole lifetime."
Celine made that job his own. Often times Celine is denigrated for his pessimism, but a look at his life could explain his outlook. Celine joined up with the French military just before the outbreak of the first world war and served as a runner, where he was shot in the arm during a dangerous outing, a story that may sound familiar to those who have read Journey to the End of the Night, a very autobiographical work. Like many WWI veterans, Celine retained the horrors of war in his mind and it changed his fundamental outlook on life. When he joined up with the military he “suffered” from the same patriotic fervor as most young men in his country. By the time he was declared unfit for service because of his wound, he was jaded, not just of patriotism, but of the human spirit in general.
Literary modernism was propelled forward by World War I. The horrors of war, the trenches, the machine guns, the barb wire, the chemical weapons shattered the collective faith in humanity held by people at the time. There had been wars before, but WWI was the first war to utilize modern industrial techniques as a means of destroying human beings. Like Eliot, Remarque and Ford, Celine used his pen to exorcise the demons of WWI. The violent, gritty realism in Celine’s writing is a direct result of the gloss and glamour previously used to lure young men into war. As the quote above states, man’s job is to tell all what he has seen of men’s viciousness.
After his war experience, Celine became a doctor. Celine faced sickness and death, hands on, saw what men were capable of doing to each other. As if that weren’t enough, he was then sent to Detroit to see the conditions of the workers in the factories there. Between war, pestilence and social oppression, Celine saw firsthand exactly how terrible life could be for a human being and it is this experience, this often unheard story, that he chose to tell in all of its lurid, shameful detail.
Celine’s pessimism, like Bukowski’s truth, is a function of the need to avoid dissimulation in art. Celine could not write about the world in any other terms and remain faithful to the experiences he had been through. He expounded at great length, thirty years before Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the argument that war is crazy and that to be a soldier in war one must be crazy, and that to be cowardly or pacifistic is considered crazy by society, so how can one be sane? His position is similar to that of Albert Camus, who urged resistance against an absurd universe. However, while Camus took his resistance concretely during the Nazi occupation of France, Celine was to go another way.
Celine’s writing style also broke new ground. His colloquial speech, slang, and vulgarity are commonplace these days, but at the time, to write in the voice of the people had only been done a handful of times before and never with such gusto. The idea of not only the common man’s struggle being the center of a novel, but it being told in his own voice was still foreign to a society that had grown up with the romantic and Victorian novels of the 19th century. Only a few bold writers like Gogol and Joyce had taken on this task and been successful.
This style plays into Celine’s class consciousness. Journey to the End of the Night is rife with commentary on social injustice, the inequality of wealth distribution and how the poor are given the shaft on a regular basis by the rich in order to maintain the status quo. Writers in the 19th century had tackled social injustice, such as Emile Zola, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens, but their work was still detached from the reality of the affair. What Celine and his contemporaries offered was immersion in that world. The speech patterns, the slang, the descriptions and characters—all things that would become staples of the beat movement, especially such well-known works as Tropic of Cancer and Ham on Rye.
Unfortunately, Celine may always be best remembered as a Nazi collaborator. The extent and truth of his collaboration is up for debate. Any collaboration as such would clearly damage the reputation of the man, but is it fair for it to damage the reputation of the art? If one knew nothing of Celine, would Journey to the End of the Night not still contain the same words in the same order? It’s a difficult dilemma, but ultimately the art must be severed from the artist and judged as a standalone entity. If Celine was a Nazi collaborator, it should not change the importance of his literary output. Like other marginalized writers, Knut Hamsun comes to mind, Celine’s work has often been overlooked because of his personal actions. But one cannot deny the influence his work had on the literary scene at the time and even today, when the style that he developed is still making money for contemporary writers.
Considering the dilemma of writers like Celine and Hamsun, should a writer's personal life determine the value of his work?
Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com