Louis Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night

November 29th, 2012 § 0 comments

Struggling Against Something Impossible: Journey to the End of the Night

The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.
And maybe it’s treacherous old age coming on, threatening the worst. Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside of him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.

Fifty years after his death, Louis-Ferdinand Céline remains a controversial figure, on one hand, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, on the other, a vicious anti-Semitic and convicted Nazi collaborator. Even earlier this year, when his name was removed from a list of nationals to be celebrated by the French state due to complaints at his selection, his detractors had to admit that he was a brilliant writer. His debut novel, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932 and nominated for the Prix Goncourt, is a semi-autobiographical tale starring his reoccurring stand in, Ferdinand Bardamu. Céline’s style is at once apparent, favouring hyperbole, vulgarity and heavy ellipsis, often veering off on an angry soliloquy about whatever it is that has offended him at the time.

Céline’s hatred would be easy to write off as the ranting of a madman, were it not so pointed and accurate. It is very hard to shake off the feeling that Céline’s Ferdinand is right, because it is hatred tempered by experience. All the things that the novel shows us, Céline has seen first hand. Like Bardamu, he had fought and been wounded in the First World War, spent some time working in the colonies, visited the Ford factory in Detroit, and doctored to the poor in Paris. His misanthropy is all-inclusive though, he has equal contempt for his military superiors and the French upper class as he does for the poor, who often refuse to pay him and abuse him for the privilege. The only people spared of his rage are children, because there is still a small chance that they won’t turn out as crummy as the rest of us. The optimism of his youth is destroyed in turn by the futility of war, the savagery of the colonies, and the abject pettiness of human nature.

Ferdinand’s relationships with women are problematic; he treats them poorly and they treat him badly in return. None of the women are faithful either; Lucy and Musyne cuckold Ferdinand for the advancement of their dreams, Molly as a necessity of her job as a prostitute, and Sophie for his own health. Not that Ferdinand ever seems to care. The women come and go, and Lucy is the only one to reappear later, when Ferdinand is down and out in New York and tracks her down to bully her into giving him money. She has achieved her dream of leaving France for a new life in America, but she looks old and anxious, and is obsessed with adopting a daughter to focus all her love on. A warning that getting what you want doesn’t solve your problems. Ferdinand should know, in Detroit with Molly, it seems he actually has a chance of happiness, but he has to leave her to chance the phantoms that drive him from place to place. In his memory he turns her into another phantom, if he could find her again, perhaps it could be happy, but it is easy to love phantoms on account of the distance, “very little presence, that’s the whole trick, especially in love.”

The real flaws of human nature (as in Death on Credit, also about Ferdinand’s dealings as a doctor in Paris) are most apparent when Ferdinand sets up shop as a doctor in the fictional Parisian slum of La Garrene-Rancy. As a doctor serving mostly the poor, he is often willing to let payment slide (admittedly, he helps people more out of his own curiosity than any sort of kindness), which earns him a great deal of scorn, both for the obligation they owe him in doing so, and the notion that a person would have to pay for any respectable doctor. The people that he helps not only insult him behind his back, but also use him as a last resort for when other doctors are not available, or they can’t afford to pay. As a doctor, he is also made privy to the terrible things that people do. On more than one occasion, he goes to the homes of families who allow women to bleed to death from a miscarriage or complications from an abortion, rather than face the shame that would occur should they be admitted to a hospital. Another of the slum’s denizens, the Henrouilles, attempt to pay him to have old Madame Henrouille committed so they will no longer have to support her financially, and later enlist his help when an attempt to murder her is botched. In dealing with the sick, Ferdinand sees all the aspects of our nature we try so hard to hide, the lust, the greed, malice, and stupidity.

The only other constant throughout the novel is the character, Léon Robinson, who seems to appear wherever Ferdinand goes, from the war, to the jungles, Detroit, and later again in Paris. Robinson is dangerous because he believes the world owes him something, and even when he has something he is never happy and wants more. When the Henrouilles need someone to get rid of Madame Henrouille, he takes the job, only to end up blinding himself in the process. Later in the novel, when his sight has returned, he has a good income, and is engaged to Madelon, the woman who cared for him when he was blind, he still feels compelled to murder Madame Henrouille for her share of the business and abandon Madelon. In his great outburst at the climax of the novel, he tells the unhinged Madelon that he is disgusted by existence, that he can no longer believe that love can make everything any less putrid, “you want me to eat rotten meat?” he says, “with love sauce”? After his slow and agonizing death of infection caused by two close range shots to the gut courtesy of the jealous Madelon and her hidden revolver, Ferdinand laments that he hasn’t one great idea to die for like his friend. Robinson’s death, like every other event in the novel, drags him closer to the end of the night.

We are all heading to the end of the night; it is only a matter of time before we reach our destination. People will betray you and leave you, and if, by some small miracle, they don’t, they’ll die on you anyway. Your youth will desert you, leaving you old and infirm, and then you’ll really be in the shit. When it is all that remains, you’ll love your misery, cradle it close like some phantom lover, convince yourself it is more special than all the other misery that surrounds you. Like Ferdinand says, “that’s what we look for all our lives, the worst possible grief, to make us truly ourselves before we die.” In the end, as somnambulists sleepwalking through our lives with nothing but misery and our regrets, we are ultimately an “old lamppost with memories on a street that hardly anyone passes anymore”. That is the pathetic truth of existence; you either face up to it or lie to yourself like everybody else. As Céline tells us, you have to choose. I’ve never been able to kill myself either.

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream on November 4th, 2011.

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