Sunday, July 18, 2010

End of the Night: Issa's Sunday Service, #61

The French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline is a figure of great influence and great controversy. Widely recognized as the author of one of the great novels of the 20th century, Journey to the End of the Night, he is also almost universally denounced for his anti-Semitic diatribes and opinions. The following is an assessment of his legacy from an authoritative Wikipedia article. In my mind, however, his anti-Semitic views are so appalling as to raise the question of what a "great author" really is.

Journey to the End of the Night is among the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century. Céline's legacy survives in the writings of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Queneau and Jean Genet among others, and in the admiration expressed for him by people like Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Robbe-Grillet, and Barthes. In the United States, writers like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., William S. Burroughs, and Ken Kesey owe an obvious debt to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit, though the relatively late date of the first English language translation means that any direct influence can be difficult to demonstrate, except in Henry Miller's case, who read the book in French shortly after it was published while he was living in Paris. Few first novels have had the impact of Journey to the End of the Night. Written in an explosive and highly colloquial style, the book shocked most critics but found immediate success with the French reading public, which responded enthusiastically to the violent misadventures of its petit-bourgeois antihero, Bardamu, and his characteristic nihilism. The author's military experiences in WWI, his travels to colonial French West Africa, New York, and his return to postwar France all provide episodes within the sprawling narrative.

Pessimism pervades Céline's fiction as his characters sense failure, anxiety, nihilism, and inertia. Will Self has described Celine's work as an "invective, which — despite the reputation he would later earn as a rabid anti-Semite — is aimed against all classes and races of people with indiscriminate abandon". The narrative of betrayal and exploitation, both real and imagined, corresponds with his personal life. His two true loves, his wife, Lucette Almanzor, and his cat, Bébert, are mentioned with nothing other than kindness and warmth. A progressive disintegration of personality appears in the stylistic incoherence of his books based on his life during the war: Guignol's Band, D'un château l'autre and Nord. However, some critics claim that the books are less incoherent than intentionally fragmented, and that they represent the final development of the style introduced with Journey to the End of the Night, suggesting that Céline maintained his faculties in clear working order to the end of his days. Guignol's Band and its companion novel London Bridge center on the London underworld during WWI. (In London Bridge a sailboat appears, bearing the name King Hamsun, obviously a tribute to another collaborationist writer.) Celine's autobiographical narrator recounts his disastrous partnership with a mystical Frenchman (intent on financing a trip to Tibet by winning a gas-mask competition); his uneasy relationship with London's pimps and prostitutes and their common nemesis, Inspector Matthew of Scotland Yard. These novels are classic examples of his black comedy which few writers have equaled. He continued writing right up to his death in 1961, finishing his last novel, Rigodon, in fact on the day before he died. In Conversations with Professor Y (1955) Céline defends his style, indicating that his heavy use of the ellipsis and his disjointed sentences are an attempt to embody human emotion in written language.

His writings are examples of black comedy, where unfortunate and often terrible things are described humorously. Céline's writing is often hyper-real and its polemic qualities can often be startling; however, his main strength lies in his ability to discredit almost everything and yet not lose a sense of enraged humanity. Céline was also an influence on Irvine Welsh, Günter Grass and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski wrote "'first of all read Céline. the greatest writer of 2,000 years"

Aside from the authors cited above, Jim Morrison of The Doors acknowledges Celine's influence in today's Issa's Sunday Service selection, "End of the Night." Not as often noted about this song, however, is that there is a direct quote from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence": "

Auguries of Innocence
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell through all its regions.
A dog starved at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipped and armed for fight
Does the rising sun affright.
Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.
The wild deer wandering here and there
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misused breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.
The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved by men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.
The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh.
He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them, and thou wilt grow fat.
The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from Slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of Envy's foot.
The poison of the honey-bee
Is the artist's jealousy.
The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The babe is more than swaddling bands,
Throughout all these human lands;
Tools were made and born were hands,
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;
This is caught by females bright
And returned to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.
The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes Revenge! in realms of death.
The beggar's rags fluttering in air
Does to rags the heavens tear.
The soldier armed with sword and gun
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.
One mite wrung from the labourer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands,
Or if protected from on high
Does that whole nation sell and buy.
He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mocked in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.
He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
The questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.
The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.
When gold and gems adorn the plough
To peaceful arts shall Envy bow.
A riddle or the cricket's cry
Is to doubt a fit reply.
The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.
If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding sheet.
The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
William Blake

I can't speak to the Céline, but the Blake is brilliant. There is the well-known opening 2 couplets:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

And the 8 lines towards the middle:

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

And near the close, the lines from which Morrison quotes, the only lines in the poem were the rhyme is, songlike, repeated consecutively:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

All three sections, plus the final lines, are strung together by a long catalog of examples, bolstering the poet's argument and assuring his immortality, and ours.


The featured poem from the Lilliput archive comes from issue #91, September 1997 and is by Cathy Drinkwater Better. Enjoy.

crows gather
row of hunched forms
immersed in no-mind
Cathy Drinkwater Better

paying no attention
to the departing spring...
translated by David G. Lanoue



Charles Gramlich said...

Ever since I reached adulthood I've been amazed at how seemingly intelligent people, and people of great creative skill, in eithe art, music, literature, or science, could also hold nasty, brutish views. It seems, unfortunately, to be a characteristic of humans that we can reach for the stars at the same time we wallow in nameless filth. this is on reason I don't respect many "people." I try to respect certain accomplishments and works, but the individuals who did them may not be worthy of adulation or emulation.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

This is a huge issue and, though accepting the flawed nature of all human beings, is something beyond tolerance. It boggles the mind and grieves the heart.

Anonymous said...

maybe one needs to re:surrect (a study of) Alchemy ?

(with re:gaurdes towards any dichotomy:

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Blake ... amazing.

TC said...


I suspect that Céline, with his frightening ordeal in World War I and his later experiences doctoring to the poor at his clinic, would have subscribed implicitly to this:

The beggar's rags fluttering in air
Does to rags the heavens tear.
The soldier armed with sword and gun
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Both your generosity and perception are immense ... thanks for widening the view ...


David Cranmer said...

I second Charles's comment. And lots of history here I was unaware of, in particular, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Insightful post. Thanks.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, David. These are tough issues to struggle with. The eternal Shakespeare/Shylock debate. Great authors like Knut Hamsun and their Nazi connections. Bukowski comes up again, as he did in a Facebook comment to this post, in the article on Hamsun.

Hate is hate. There is no way around it.

TC said...

Some writers are lightning-rods.

Has anybody actually read Journey to the End of the Night? The world is in it. The world is what it is.

Writers one can like when they are good. People one can take or leave but they are there. Some are even writers. Authors one distrusts from the get-go.

Paradox: The Diminishing Increase of an Author.

At any rate the state of hate is ever in a great debate, quoth Geoffrey Chaucer.

Then there's love, which is something else again, and, according to the same source, always conquers everything.


Poem (Hate Is Only One Of Many Responses)

by Frank O'Hara

Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don't be shy of unkindness, either

it's cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe
you don't have to fight off getting in too deep
you can always get out if you're not too scared

an ounce of prevention's
enough to poison the heart
don't think of others
until you have thought of yourself, are true

all of these things, if you feel them
will be graced by a certain reluctance

and turn into gold

if felt by me, will be smilingly deflected
by your mysterious concern

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


A most sincere thanks for your link back (Paradox: The Diminishing Increase of an Author), which begins to peel back the layers for those who wish to enter in and examine their thoughts - look first to yourself, then to others.

Though you've said it pointedly yourself, the example of Johnson, and the brilliant O'Hara poem certainly bring it home.

I've placed "Journey" on hold at the library - looking to myself.

"The world is in it."

"Hate is only one of the many responses."