Céline as moral agent

The most disturbing thing about Louis-Ferdinand Céline was not the monstrous aspect, in his writings, but an odd saintly quality in his private life. This was most evident in his private practice as a medical doctor in the Paris slums; but there seem hints of it in almost every passing anecdote I have heard about him. Life and work can never be disconnected, though neither should they be wantonly confused.

Céline’s apparently fascist and certainly anti-Semitic rancour remains on the record, in pamphlets he wrote before the Second World War, and mildly diffused through the novels. The pamphlets would be easy to dismiss as incomprehensible and insane; except they were comprehensible, and Céline was not insane. Madness is his conceit, and his confusions are everywhere affectations. For instance, in his tirades he persistently names as Jews people who quite obviously were not even slightly Jewish. There is a monstrously intentional humour in this: he is being droll at a very high level of malignity.

These pamphlets, which his later wife and widow tried to keep out of print, could I think have been easily republished if in every place that Céline wrote some variation on les juifs, an editor substituted some like variation on almost any obscene common noun. Or alternatively, “the Swiss” might be substituted by the bowdlerizer; or as Baudelaire preferred, “Belgians.” It wouldn’t change the sense; but it would lower the temperature, whereas Céline was always trying to raise it, writing as he was about Hell. Indeed, one might say the intensity of his anti-Semitism spoils an otherwise perfect misanthropy: puts a wart even in that, as it were.

Actually read those horrid pamphlets, and you will find that Céline’s definition of a Jew is fairly broad. He includes, for instance, all communists, and all capitalists; all English and American writers, and without exception, all members of the Anglo-Saxon upper classes. He also includes the Catholic Church, and all the popes from Peter forward (a list in which he includes “Karl Marx”), and the Jesuit order earns a special distinction. Also, all Freemasons are counted in, and all homosexuals. Also, without distinction, everyone who is black, or Asian. As I recall, somewhere he mentioned being Jewish himself. Had I been around in 1936, I’m sure he would have included me. And in his Bagatelles pour un massacre (wonderful title, incidentally) he does not exclude any of these from the impending slaughter.

Perhaps it is worth noting, as a biographical aside, that shortly before Céline wrote it, the (literally) Jewish ballerina who was his mistress, ran off with some rich American. Having myself once been dumped by a Jewish ballerina (again, literally), who also ran off with a rich man, I can empathise with the guy to a point, though not quite so far as proposing to exterminate most if not all of the human race. (Well, I say that now, decades later, but if you’d asked me at the time it would have been touch and go.)

There is no defending anti-Semitism, gutter racialism of any other kind, or the knowing publication of inflammatory material tending to incite the democratic mob. Whether or not illegal, this is morally wrong. It is further to Céline’s shame that his infamous pamphlets sold far better than his famous novels: that he had profited handsomely until they were banned (first by the free French authorities, who took a couple of years to get around to it; and then by the Nazi occupation authorities, who re-banned them quite promptly, because of all the rude language).

Monstrous, sick, dark humour, and no respect for authority: that is exactly Céline’s routine through his novels, from the beginning when Voyage au bout de la nuit first appeared: sick, dark humour wandering purposely and brilliantly over the line not of good taste (all genuine humour does that), but of a more basic decency — and to rub it in, for an apparently moral purpose.

It is this “prophetic” quality — a quality present in all great satirical writing — which explains, too, not merely the absence of sentimentality, but a revulsion against it. He will tell things as they really are and not as they might wish to appear; he will suck all the “niceness” out of our lungs. He will tell a story as it really happens in its disjointed way — abrasively not smoothly. And he will put everything into the language of the street — but “transposed” in some carefully disjointed musical sense. All the “Beats” and other frauds copied him, or copied one feature or another; only Céline knew what he was doing, in combining these dimensions and choreographing the full range of effects.

The Céline of real life is related to the author, but certainly not the same. Quite apart from the bohemian (but not dissolute) habits, the man does give an important clue to the author. He is far from unsentimental, towards his cats, dogs, parrots, as we see in almost every photograph of him in a domestic situation. Many hateful people prefer animals to men, and vegetarianism is often a symptom of this moral disorder. But Céline is as affectionate towards the poor and desperate he treats as a doctor — invariably refusing to be paid, even by people who could afford to pay something. He is ever going far out of his way to visit and sit vigil with the dying. It is not just the money: we know there were many patients who would only come to him, who only trusted him, and would court death rather than visit another doctor. It is this instinctive quality of mercy which I believe they detected in him that was in turn the key to his gift as an observer. For if we return to the novels, we see that the obscurely pitiful details he so frequently records are just those that would be noticed by the most empathetic observer. But with the sentiment extracted, to increase the horror.

It is interesting that the dissertation, for his medical degree, was on Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865), the Hungarian obstetric doctor (son of a German Jewish grocer, most likely) who made himself a pariah in the respectable medical community of his day. This he did in the course of deducing the cause of very high mortality from puerperal fever among new mothers in hospitals across Europe. The puzzle was that women giving birth at home with midwives, or even in the streets without them, had much, much lower mortality rates. And the explanation was that doctors in maternity hospitals were not properly washing their hands, even when delivering babies after performing autopsies. A generation before Louis Pasteur proposed his germ theory, Semmelweis proposed handwashing in a lime solution that would eliminate the “contagion” and save countless lives. For his trouble and persistence he was not merely professionally ostracized but finally driven into a mental asylum, where a guard murdered him.

The dissertation, written eight years before his first novel, is in itself a fine piece of narrative, full of unmistakeably Célinean personal flourishes, and with a moral object unusual for an aspiring medicine man. Céline argues that, from beginning to end, the extraordinary achievement of Semmelweis could be purchased only at the price of his personal misery.  “Nothing is free in this world. Everything must be expiated, the good and the bad alike, paid for sooner or later. The good is necessarily much more expensive.”

And it was his highly unprofessional emotional distress at the fate of these poor dying mothers that made Semmelweis the obsessive he became — so utterly obsessive that, even without sound science, and without the slightest deference to his professional superiors, or any other view to his own personal advancement, he finally tracked down the cause and the effect.

It is further interesting that Céline himself — who had made a good marriage that would, along with his genius, guarantee his rise to the top of his profession — began to abandon social respectability in the course of studying this hero. Then after the shocking divorce, he actively sought opportunities to participate in public health projects in colonial Africa and elsewhere overseas. He was, throughout his private life, in effect a medical missionary.

The money for this cause (usually small, and repeatedly impounded by his enemies) came mostly from his writing: the exact opposite of William Carlos Williams and other doctors who have taken to poetry as a hobby and recreation from their well-paid medical day jobs.