Anselm Jappe discusses the life and works of Celine and their relation to the populist politics of resentment, Nazi propaganda, and the mass culture of the postwar era, noting that Celine’s lauded style, in its consonance with his “ideological delusions”, meets Hitler’s definition of propaganda (“it is not about convincing, but about the power of suggestion” and emotions) and that, while Celine’s “… endless succession of fragments, almost devoid of meaning if one takes them in isolation, which are intended to stimulate immediate impulses, recall the techniques of Goebbels, they also prefigure a totalitarian technique that would only make its appearance a few decades later: the videoclip.”
From Céline to the Videoclip – Anselm Jappe
Earlier this year I published a selection of essays in France entitled Crédit à mort,1 devoted especially to the financial crisis and its social repercussions. The title is obviously a detournement of the title of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s second novel. There was, however, no direct reference to Céline’s text; my title was only a play on words involving “death” and “credit”. Nonetheless, I later realized just how appropriate the reference to Céline actually was and that I had made a good choice without at first being aware of it. My book is largely a denunciation of the false forms of social critique that have emerged due to the crisis of capitalist society. In the book I denounced above all the one-sided polemic directed against finance, the banks and speculation, considered not as the visible aspect of a more profound crisis—the crisis of the accumulation of capital—but as the actual cause of the devastating crisis of the capitalist way of life. This polemic against speculation, which can be found on the left as well as the right, attributes all the world’s evils not to a social structure, but to a small group of people motivated by greed and desire for power. The workers and the honest depositors must be defended from the parasites of finance: this appeal appears to have generated a consensus that includes even Barack Obama, George Soros and Mario Draghi.
Such a position falls far short of an understanding of the connection between abstract labor and value, commodity and money, capital and wages, that pertains to the specificity of capitalism and is the cause of the current upheavals. Moreover, it responds to the very widely felt need to find someone to blame, whose disappearance would solve everything without having to change anything else about the rest of society. Such a worldview has existed, with numerous variations, for more than a century, but it has always assumed the form of a kind of populism. And populism displays the characteristic of existing both on the right as well as the left, sometimes with almost identical arguments. Right now it is undergoing a major resurgence. Populism substitutes emotions for critique, and especially one emotion of immeasurable power: resentment. It is not by chance that one of the most popular thinkers of our time, Slavoj Zizek, has recently rehabilitated the political value of “resentment”.2
We do not have to call attention to the fact that Céline, even disregarding any political orientation, was a bard of resentment, a resentment of the highest degree, directed against everything and everyone, a resentment on a cosmic scale. This was his terrible strength: expressing, without mediations, nakedly and crudely, the emotions that life in modern, bourgeois and capitalist society can effectively arouse. From this point of view, Céline is unsurpassed. He represents a real temptation. The first time you read the Journey to the End of the Night, when you are young, can be just as unsettling as one’s first reading of Nietzsche or the first time you contemplated Munch’s The Scream. And in every such case it is necessary to avail oneself of a subsequent distancing in order to distinguish how much truth each such example contains from its simple shock effect.
Of course, in that segment of the populist critique of finance that employs a “leftist” language there are not many direct references to Céline,3 especially not to his political “ideas”. But it was a characteristic trait of Céline’s populism to oscillate—at least in appearance—between the left and the right. It is well known that Journey was greeted by a large part of the leftist press as a denunciation of capitalism; Leon Trotsky himself devoted a basically positive (and otherwise quite perspicacious) article to the book. Obviously, these early admirers would be quite disillusioned by the turn towards the right taken by Céline just a few years later. Everyone knows that the rabid opposition between a sanctified ego and a totally “evil” world can be attractive to both the right as well as the left. As it turned out, Céline’s opening to the “left” was only a temporary and opportunist impulse: already, in various articles published in medical journals in 1928, he was proposing a medical practice at the service of a strict factory discipline, one that would put even the sick to work, since the interests of the employer were more important than the interests of “the people”.4 Céline was never either an anarchist or a communist and, as Michel Bounan says, “the question is not to understand how a ‘libertarian’ could have gotten mixed up with the Nazis, but why someone like him ever thought it was a good idea to disguise himself as a ‘libertarian’”.
However, merely proving that Céline was always politically right wing misses the real point. It is clear that he was by no means any kind of “right wing anarchist”, or someone who had “nobly” gone astray. His case does not seem to be comparable to those of Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt or Gottfried Benn, Drieu La Rochelle or Charles Maurras. One cannot discern in him even one iota of argued, even if mistaken, reasons, but only an unequalled taste for the sordid. That is why the Céline who was the pamphleteer and collaborator (who denounced to the Germans, with their first and last names, the “Jews” who, in his opinion, should be arrested) arouses a disgust and a repugnance that dwarfs the odium provoked by other intellectuals of that era who also supported totalitarianism.
Here we may note the difference between writers and philosophers and their different responsibilities. Although for several decades an attempt has been underway to question this distinction in the name of a certain “poetic thought”, criticizing the demand for conceptual rigor in the name of the allegedly more profound truths contained in literature, it does not appear to be entirely futile to firmly maintain this basic distinction: philosophy cannot dispense with logic and argumentative structure. The philosopher is therefore responsible for every statement he makes, because it must be the result of a prior chain of argument. The writer, on the other hand, can simply say whatever he sees and feels about whatever comes into his mind, without having to be obliged to defend anything he says at any time. He has more of a right to contradict himself. Naturally, there are authors (such as Nietzsche) who belong to both categories, but in the form of a mixture that does not affect the differences with respect to principles that exist between them. However, one cannot make an appeal to this right to a relative degree of irresponsibility of the writer in the case of Céline, as his numerous defenders have done. His anti-Semitic pamphlets were not a temporary aberration, but the culminating point of a hatred that is not just the product of a personal pathology, but the concentrated expression of a social phenomenon.
Ernst Jünger, who for his part made an effort to distance himself from Nazism, met Céline in 1941, when Jünger was a German officer in occupied Paris. In an impressive passage in his diary, Jünger expresses his shock and horror at a Céline who accused the German occupiers of being too “moderate” and encouraged them to conduct house to house searches in Paris to round up Jews and communists. According to Jünger, for a person like that, science itself (in this case, biological racism, which pretended to be scientific) serves only as a weapon to kill as many people as possible. Actually, the ideas he professed do not matter: they are interchangeable and their only purpose is to allow him to climb up into a tower from which he can sow terror by shooting into the crowd.5
Jünger undoubtedly grasped a central aspect of Céline and of the mentality that Céline represented. Even his anti-Semitism—which for Céline, in any event, was not limited to the period of his pamphlets, but was displayed from the beginning of his literary career and even his correspondence proved that it was by no means just a pose, but a real and authentic obsession—seemed to be the consequence of an even deeper drive to annihilate what he hated and desired at the same time. From this perspective, Céline would have also been capable of placing himself at the service of a Stalinist campaign against the “bourgeoisie” or the “Trotskyists”. His choice of anti-Semitism as an outlet for his resentment, however, was not accidental; the homicidal force of modern anti-Semitism also derives from the fact that it is better adapted than any other ideology to express this grudge against the entire world that is so widespread in the modern era. Rather than being a political sympathizer of the Nazis—Céline bragged that he despised all “ideas”—Céline found himself to be psychologically sympathetic to them6 and shared the same “death drive” and the same desire to purge the earth of the “impure”. To state that the case of Céline does not express a political ideology in the strict sense of the term, but a certain approach to the world, a certain psycho-social constitution, a certain “mentality”, is not by any means intended to reduce his case to a question of personal “character” or individual pathology. What is interesting about Céline is his unquestionable ability—one could see it as a kind of merit—to powerfully express that diffuse hatred for the world that is not accessible to critical consciousness and which subsists at the level of a confused griping and grumbling. There can be no doubt that, compared to smug mediocrity and to the conviction that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, the feeling of visceral disgust and rebellion seems much more justified and constitutes the starting point for every critical perspective on the world. But too often in the history of the 20th century it was thought that any form of discontent could develop towards revolutionary action: from the leader of German social democracy, August Bebel, who at the end of the 19th century wanted to perceive the nascent popular anti-Semitism as a “socialism of imbeciles”, to a segment of the “alter-globalization” movement, which believes it can discern a common struggle between English students and Palestinian suicide bombers, or between Bolivian miners and football fans. From this perspective, Céline can always count on many admirers on the left. Trotsky, however, had already observed that Céline was not a revolutionary (or that he was only a revolutionary as a novelist), but that he was instead “discontented with men and their actions”. If Céline is a revolutionary, he is a revolutionary in the same way that the Parisian suburban slum revolts are, or as the revolt of Reggio Calabria was in 1970.
Without going into the details of the psychology of resentment, it is nonetheless necessary to recall that in Céline the injuries (real or imaginary) that he suffered are always and only felt as insults to the individual persona; the ego sees itself as the victim of the “world” or of the “others” taken as a whole. Envy and the desire for vengeance are their presupposition and their consequence. Resentment is therefore closely connected to the narcissistic personality, who, deep down, only recognizes himself and denies the independent existence of the external world. Actually, the record shows that Céline, far from having been eternally at the mercy of events like his hero Bardamu, doggedly pursued fame and wealth and hated everyone who did not provide him with the narcissistic satisfaction that he expected: this is why he turned his back on the left after the failure of Journey at Goncourt in 1933, and in 1936 he wrote his denunciation of the Soviet Union, Mea Culpa, after his return from a trip to that country, where a Russian translation of Journey had just been published and where he felt offended because he was welcomed with less fanfare than André Gide.
Today, of course, hardly anyone defends Céline the pamphleteer or Céline the collaborator. But does this not presuppose distinguishing between the great writer and stylist, on the one hand, and his deplorable deviations when he ventured on a terrain for which he was not suited and concerning which he understood nothing, on the other? Faced with such a great writer, one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century, and perhaps—according to some “authoritative” voices—the “greatest” French writer of the 20th century, are not such criticisms somewhat mean-spirited? Do we have to throw overboard the stylist who caused French literature to be divided into pre- and post-Céline? Is it not enough to cover up his shameful deeds with a veil of compassion after having condemned them?
Such a position enjoys a broad-based consensus of support today. Obviously, it is hard to define “great writer”, but most of the French literary world seems to be convinced that Proust and Céline are the supreme examples of “great writers” in the 20th century (and we know that they are the ones that keep the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series alive, as they are at the top of the sales charts). Is this not a way to put an end to any further controversy?
We shall not address the indecency of speaking of “persecution” or “censorship” in the case of a person who, in a way that was by no means metaphorical, called for a pogrom in terms that were not at all different from the most vulgar Nazi propaganda. We must instead ask ourselves if there is a close connection between his writing and the positions he espoused.
During Céline’s trial for collaborating with the Nazis, which took place in Paris in 1950 while he was still in Denmark, the anarchist journal Le Libértaire surveyed intellectuals with libertarian leanings to discover what they thought about the trial.7 While the majority supported the writer against the “repression” exercised by the state, and also agreed in almost every case regarding the literary value of the Célinian oeuvre and, more generally, of the value of his role as the author of anti-capitalist exposés, the Surrealists André Breton and Benjamin Péret expressed their low regard not only for the man, but also for his works. Breton confessed that he never made it past the first third of Journey and was incapable of separating the “character” of a writer from his works. Perhaps by that time he was able to more clearly discern what Kaminski himself or Victor Serge were incapable of fully comprehending before the war,8 and who still expressed in 1938—on the occasion of the publication of Bagatelles pour un massacre—their disillusionment with regard to what they interpreted as the defection of someone who, just a few years before, they considered to be a comrade, or at least an author who had faithfully depicted the tribulations of the common man in a world of oppressors.
The distinction between copyists and writers that Roland Barthes spoke of, or the distinction made by Luigi Pirandello9 between writers of “the style of things” and writers of “the style of words”, cannot be applied to Céline. Céline seems to be the “copyist” par excellence, a “writer of words”, but here language itself becomes a content; much more than in Joyce, for example. His destructuring of language is itself a political program.
We are not talking about just the manifest content of Céline’s oeuvre. It is much more rarely observed to what degree his style, so often praised, is found to be, at least after Journey, consonant with his ideological delusions. Céline recaptured the methods of the postwar avant-gardes, of the Dadaists and Joyce, but for a totally different project: to foreclose the possibility of any judgment, to seduce and violate the reader, to replace the distance and the possibility of control by the reader—elements that characterized the novel of the 19th century—with what Céline called his “petite musique”: an endless melody that enchants and insinuates, hammers and manipulates. The ellipsis, the trademark of his later novels, and the absence of a real syntax produce an uninterrupted flow that never allows the reader to pause and ask himself about what he is reading. Céline does not propose to elaborate ideas, not even in a literary form, but to arouse emotions. And this is called propaganda: it is not about convincing, but about the power of suggestion. Hitler explicitly pointed this out in Mein Kampf. And for the Nazis, as for Céline, reason—which often leads to doubt—is “Jewish”, while the Aryan allows himself to guided by “emotions”.10 From this perspective, Céline’s postwar novels (the so-called “wartime trilogy”) play an interesting transitional historical role: although the endless succession of fragments, almost devoid of meaning if one takes them in isolation, which are intended to stimulate immediate impulses, recall the techniques of Goebbels, they also prefigure a totalitarian technique that would only make its appearance a few decades later: the videoclip. One could also say that Célinian writing is a kind of literary rap, one that never pauses to take a breath, and in which due to its momentum we allow ourselves to be swept along without asking where it is taking us and what it means, while the words hit us below the belt. No discussion: believe, obey, fight.
Translated from the Spanish translation, "De Céline al videoclip" at: http://amputaciones.blogspot.com/2012/05/agitprov-de-celine-al-videoclip-anselm.html
Original Italian text, "Da Céline al videoclip", was published in the journal Agalma, no. 23, 2012. Website at: http://www.mimesisedizioni.it/Agalma/Agalma-23-Scrittori-o-scriventi.html
- 1Anselm Jappe, Crédit à mort. La décomposition du capitalisme et ses ennemis, Editions Lignes, Paris, 2011.
- 2Slavoj Zizek, “La colère, le ressentiment et l’acte”, in Penser à gauche. Figures de la pensée critique aujourd’hui, Editions Amsterdam, Paris, 2011.
- 3At this very moment there are protests underway on Wall Street, which was described by Céline in Journey as the church of a strange religion. See Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, New Directions Books, New York, 1960, p. 192.
- 4See Michel Bounan, L’Art de Céline et son temps, Editions Allia, Paris, 1997, who quotes the sources.
- 5Ernst Jünger, Strahlungen I (1949), Klett-Cotta-Verlag, Stuttgart, 1979, p. 320. After the war, Céline tried to sue Jünger for these characterizations.
- 6Something that was precociously noted by the German exile H. E. Kaminski in his pamphlet, Céline en chemise brune (1938), recently reprinted by Editions Mille et une nuits, Paris, 1999.
- 7The resulting article was recently reprinted in the journal A Contretemps (Paris), no. 40 (2011).
- 8Victor Serge, “Pogrom en quatre cents pages” (1938), in Victor Serge, Retour à l’Ouest. Chroniques (juin 1936-mai 1940), Agone, Marseilles, 2011.
- 9“Discorso all Reale Accademia d’Italia” (on Giovanni Verga) (1931), in Luigi Pirandello, Saggi, Poesi, Scritti varii, edited by Manlio Lo Vecchio-Musti, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milan, 1960, pp. 391-393.
- 10See Kaminski, op. cit.