Last updated, 18 Apr 2012
Note on Louis-Ferdinand Céline
by Alexander Styhre
The French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) was born as Louis-Fernand Destouches but used his grandmother’s name as his penname. Céline is a disturbing figure in the world literature as he both renewed the literature at the same time as he expressed xenophobic and anti-Semitic beliefs both publically and in private. Céline worked as a physician, caring for the poor and penniless in the Paris suburbs and for him writing was an amateur activity. Despite his extensive clinical practice, his début Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) (Journey to the end of the night, 1934) was an instant succès de scandale. A few years later, Mort à credit (1936) (Death on installment plan, 1938) followed, further reinforcing his status as one of the most important French-speaking authors of the twentieth century. A number of novels were eventually published but Céline’s status as a major author rests primarily on his two first works. His later works are very much tarnished by his anti-Semitic stance and after the World War Céline was imprisoned in Denmark to which he fled during the end of the war.
It is not a trivial matter to locate Céline on the political scale: on the one hand he expressed right-wing beliefs and being a decorated World War I hero, while on the other he criticized militarism and mindlessness and lack of meaning in modern life. Céline was renowned for his ability to care for his patients, particularly the elderly and children and not being overtly concerned about getting paid for his medical services. By and large, Céline, similar to some other French writers of his generation such as Georges Bataille, escapes the conventional left-right scale altogether.
Speaking of Céline as a critical writer or even as a critical theorists, there are a least two major contributions from his work. First, Céline expressed the ennui and anxiety of the modern condition, theorized by philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, and Hanna Arendt. In Céline’s account of e.g., the first world war and the life in America including his visits to Henry Ford’s Highland Park plant, there is no relief from the brutality of modern life; to some extent, both Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à credit could be treated as a literary account of the critical theory view of the world, albeit with a wry sense of humour and conspicuous of cynicism. Secondly, Céline renewed the literary language by emphasizing the force and immediacy of everyday language as a literary device. The opening lines of Voyage are telling for how Céline did not care to conform to the conventions of die Schöne Literatur. Céline’s perhaps most single most important literary device is the use of his “three points of suspension” wherein sentences are never really finished but actually spills over into the next sentence, making the text unfold as a rail track craving the attention of the reader. Céline’s work is both what may be called radically cynic inasmuch as there is really no hope for mankind to wake up from the nightmare of modernity, and humanist in expressing some quirky sense of humor.
Critical management theorists can learn from Céline that regardless of the hopelessness of everyday existence, there are always possibilities for small spaces of resistance, for the ability to say no, to refuse, or at least to express the contempt over the social order. While Céline may be read as a modernist writer he is perhaps better understood in the tradition of what Mikhail Bakhtin speaks of the ancient genre of Menippean satire and the medieval genre of romantic grotesque, the folk literary genres that poke fun at royalties, political authorities, and the clergy and its ceremonies and liturgy. Perhaps, if being able to overlook his complicated political position (Martin Heidegger being another case), Céline is best characterized a follower of François Rabelais of the twentieth century.
It is indicative of the status of Céline, at least in the French-speaking world, that even his beloved cat Bébert, “the most famous cat in twentieth-century letters,” was covered in a book (Vitoux, 2008). In addition, in October 2011, the Danish state announced that it will auction a roll of toilet paper onto which Céline penned part of a novel when being imprisoned in Denmark. One may think that Céline would have appreciated such a collapse of the sacred and the profane into one another if being informed about this cultural event.
Frédéric Vitoux, (2008) Bébert: Le chat de Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle.
Styhre, A, (2011) Céline and the aesthetics of hyperbole: Style, points, parataxis and other literary devices, ephemera, 11(3): 259-270.