From New International, Vol. I No. 1, July 1934, p. 28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Journey to the End of the Night
by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
500 pp. Boston. Little, Brown and Co., $2.50.
Once again the moribund body of the existing order has been slashed wide open and all the abscessed interior displayed. The surgeon this time happens, to be an actual Paris medico; but in art as, apparently in life, he is no great healer. Because no Frenchman has been so frank since Rabelais, because Dr. Destouches or “Louis-Ferdinand Céline” was hitherto unknown, and because his Journey to the End of the Night was gypped out of last year’s Prix Goncourt, the book has been a carefully fostered sensation.
The sales mount and the Samuel Putnams and the other doom-haunted middle-class intellectuals ponder whether the book is “a prelude to revolution or better a mournful overture to that suicidally irrational era ... upon which the human race appears to be entering”.
To one more aware of the inexorable forces assembling for revolution this novel seems less an overture and more a cacaphonous finale to the mad symphony of individualism. For it is difficult to conceive of another book which will spread out with more terrible comprehensiveness and yet with such stubborn fatalistic acceptance, the cringing hypocrisies, the pullulating diseases, the tortures taken and given, and the endless savage murders of a world where only a few “lucky” rich escape the horrors they themselves create.
Bardamu, the autobiographic protagonist, is plunged at twenty into the war. At times with the sardonic casualness of Robert Graves, but more often with a realism which equals anything in the now traditional war-debunking novels, the author presents that bloody chaos where men are forced into murder or suicide by utterly stupid, remote officers whom Bardamu, for one, would rather kill than any German. But here, as throughout the book, he is always revolted but never really in revolt. The war, he says, makes him “sensible enough to be definitely a coward forever”. He tries to be taken prisoner but stumbles instead upon a wound, a medal, and the role of a minor hero invalided to Paris.
He escapes the rest of the war only by flight to the French Congo, where he works for a rubber company. But here humanity is even more horrible.
“In the cold of Europe, under prudish northern fogs, except when slaughter is afoot, you only glimpse the crawling cruelty of your fellowmen. But their rottenness rises to the surface as soon as they are tickled by the hideous fevers of the tropics ... You catch sight in the white race of what you see on a pretty beach when the tide goes out; reality, heavy-smelling pools of slime, the crabs, carcasses, and scum.”
Here and throughout the book the tumerous depths of an utterly rapacious civilization are scooped out with almost masochistic eagerness. Like Robinson Jeffers, Céline is so bemused with the Gorgon’s snaky head he never for a moment thinks of the possibility of cutting it off. Like the American poet, too, this pathologically morbid son of a demoted professor cannot be content even with a meticulous pyramiding of genuine corpses, but must add carrion of his own creation. With hysteric single-mindedness he eliminates almost completely from his five-hundred pages any aspects of life which might contain a hint of human courage, fidelity, creativeness, unselfishness or even of intelligent selfishness, with the result that his narrative writhes into a macabre fantasy where characters lose reality in a world that is always night. Nevertheless, perhaps no artist before has so irrefutably damned the colonial system of exploitation. Here are the robbed and diseased and tortured Negroes, the brutalized and blank-minded whites, themselves preyed upon by the climate, hating the natives, each other, and the bigger thieves at home whom they try unsuccessfully to beat in a world-wide muddle of thievery.
Escaping from a jungle outpost so girt round with horrors as to be unconvincing even if true, our Ulysses reaches America by even less credible adventures.
In this America there is more than Joycean bizarreness, more than the projection of madness in a war-demented, fever-ridden misanthrope. There is a despairing cynicism so complete it refuses honesty even to the reader. “You must choose”, he says, “between dying and lying. Personally, I have never been able to kill myself”.
Refusing the first genuine love he has met, that of a Detroit prostitute, because “I was fonder still of my own obsession, of my longing to run away from everywhere in search of something, God knows what”, he returns to his starting point, Paris. He assumes the life of a penurious doctor in a slum, chiefly because, as he later realizes, the sick are less dangerous to his reckoning, than the well. The remainder of the book – more than half – is a rambling and wearisome repetition of disease, poverty, treachery, insanity, and murder, in which Bardamu is increasingly involved.
The gross richness of its style, the sustained passion of its hatreds, the furious documentation of its negations, lend this book an epical magnificence. But really the most amazing thing about it is its naivete: Not once does this doctor come near to discovering the quite remediable causes of the boils and chancres he so savagely probes. He curses himself for being forced by hunger to take fees from the half-starving sick, yet never once reflects that such evils can be forever removed by overthrowing the rule of parasitic minorities. He pours his hate on the superficies of capitalism, the skyscrapers in which he sees only “architectural agony”, the machines which sweat men into robots – without once thinking what may happen when the workers control their work. He lusts vainly for the beautified women of the rich – whose charms he ingenuously assumes are now hereditary – and is so convinced “the poor already smell of death inside” that he never once sees the growing life within them, the dawning revolutionary consciousness, the promise of a society which will eliminate the horrors at which he screams.
For with all his Zolaesque realism, Céline is blind, blind to the central horror which is not the incredible ills mankind endures today but the fact that those ills continue while they are curable by the very beings who suffer most. This man is so caught in the toils of individualistic anarchy that his very book is a supreme selfishness ; for it is written not really to taunt the bourgeoisie with their filth, to feed the discontent of the middle-classes (though it will do both), not at all to awaken the masses to revolution, but only as another attempt at a personal escape – by an emetic. He spews out, as he admits, only that he himself may forget.
The Marxian revolutionist is not often as eloquent as Dr. Destouches but he is, in the last analysis, not only a more effective but a more sincere hater of our contemporary society.
Last updated on 25 February 2016