Celine and Poincaré: Novelist and Politician
Louis-Ferdinand Celine walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes. A mature man, with a colossal stock of observations as physician and artist, with a sovereign indifference toward academism, with an extraordinary instinct for intonations of life and language, Celine has written a book which will survive, independently of whether he writes other books, and whether they attain the level of his first. Journey to the End of the Night is a novel of pessimism, a book dedicated by terror in the face of life, and weariness of it, rather than by indignation. Active indignation is linked up with hope. In Celine’s book there is no hope.
A Parisian student, who comes from a family of little men, a rationalist, an anti-patriot, and a semi-anarchist — the cafes of the Latin quarter swarm with such types — enlists, to his own astonishment, at the very first trumpet call, as a volunteer in the army; he is sent to the front, and in the mechanized slaughter finds himself envying the horses who perish as men do, but without mouthing false phrases; after being wounded and bemedaled, he wanders through the hospitals where successful doctors exhort him to speed his return to the "flaming cemetery of battles"; as an invalid, he is discharged from the army; he departs for an African colony and there pines away from human baseness, from the heat and the malaria of the tropics; he makes his way illegally into the United States, and finds employment in Ford's plant; he finds a true mate in a prostitute (these are the genuinely tender pages in the book); he returns to France, becomes a physician to the poor, and, soul-sick, wanders through the night of life among the sick and the hearty, all equally pathetic, depraved, and miserable.
Celine does not at all set himself the goal of exposing social conditions in France. True, in passing, he spares neither priests nor generals nor ministers, nor the president of the republic. But all the while the warp of his tale extends considerably below the level of the ruling classes, cutting across the milieu of little men, functionaries, students, traders, artisans, and concierges; and in addition, on two occasions, it transports itself beyond the boundaries of France. The present social system is as rotten as every other, whether past or future. Celine, in general, is dissatisfied with men and their affairs.
The novel is conceived and executed as a panorama of life's meaninglessness, with its cruelties, conflicts, and lies, with no issue, and no light flickering. A non-commissioned officer torturing the soldiers just before he perishes together with them; an American coupon clipper airing her emptiness in European hotels; French colonial functionaries brutalized by greed and failure; New York, with its automatic unconcern for the man without a checkbook, technically perfected to suck the marrow from human bones; then Paris again; the petty and envious little universe of scholars; the protracted and docile death of a seven-year-old boy; the rape of a little girl; the little virtuous rentiers who murder their mother in order to economize; the priest in Paris and the priest in darkest Africa, both equally alert to sell a man for a few hundred francs, the one an accomplice of civilized rentiers, the other in cahoots with cannibals … from chapter to chapter, from one page to the next, the slivers of life compose themselves into a mud-caked, bloody nightmare of meaninglessness. Receptivity which is passive, with its nerves sliced open, without the will straining toward the future — that is the psychological base of despair, sincere in the convulsions of its cynicism.
Celine the moralist follows the footsteps of the artist, and step by step he rips away the halo from all those social values which have become highly acclaimed through custom, from patriotism and personal ties down to love. Is the fatherland in danger? "No great loss, when the landlord's house burns down. … There will be rent to pay just the same." He has no use for historical criteria. Danton's war is not superior to Poincaré's: in both instances the "patriotic function" was paid in the coin of blood.Love is poisoned by selfishness and vanity. All forms of idealism are merely "petty instincts draped in high-faluting phrases." Even the image of the mother is not spared: on meeting her wounded son "she squealed like a bitch whose pup had been restored. But she was beneath a bitch because she had faith in those syllables she was told in order to deprive her of her son."
Celine's style is subordinated to his receptivity of the objective world. In his seemingly careless, ungrammatical, passionately condensed language there lives, beats, and vibrates the genuine wealth of French culture, the entire emotional and mental experience of a great nation, in its living content, in its keenest tints.
And, concurrently, Celine writes like a man who has stumbled across human language for the first time. The artist has newly threshed the dictionary of French literature. Pat expressions fly off like chaff. And, instead, words that have been excluded from circulation by academic aesthetics, and morality become irreplaceable to give expression to life in its crudeness and abjectness. Erotic terms serve Celine only to rip the glamour from eroticism. He operates with them in the same manner in which he utilizes the names of other physiological functions which do not meet with recognition on the part of art.
On the very first page of the novel the reader unexpectedly runs across the name of Poincaré, the president of the republic, who, as the latest issue of Le Temps reports, hies himself in the morning to open a lap-dog show.
This detail is not a piece of fiction. Evidently this is one of the duties of the president of the republic, and personally we see no ground for objecting to it. But the mischievous newspaper quotation obviously is not intended to serve the ends of glorifying the head of the state.
Yet, ex-President Poincaré, the most prosaic of all outstanding personalities of the republic, happens to be its most authoritative political figure. Since his illness he has become an icon. Not only the Rights, but the Radicals deem it impossible to mention his name without pronouncing a few words in pathetic avowal of love. Poincaré is, incontestably, the purest distillate of a bourgeois culture such as the French nation is — the most bourgeois of all nations, pickled in the consciousness of its bourgeoisdom, and proud of it as the mainspring of its providential role toward the rest of mankind.
The national conceit of the French bourgeoisie, cloaked in exquisite forms, is the crystallized precipitate of the ages. The past, the time when their forefathers had a great historic mission to perform, has left the descendants a rich wardrobe which serves as a cloak for the most hidebound conservatism. The entire political and cultural life of France is staged in the costumes of the past.
Just as in countries whose currency is fixed, so in French life fictitious values have a compulsory circulation. The formulas of liberationist messianism, which have long since gone off the parity of objective reality, still preserve their high compulsory rate. Conventionalities seem to have taken on flesh and blood, attaining an independent existence. Powder and rouge might still be considered fraudulent; but a mask ceases to be a forgery: it is simply a technical instrument. It exists apart from the flesh, and it subordinates gestures and intonations to its own self.
Poincaré is almost a social symbol. His supreme representativeness molds his individuality. He has no other. Just as in the youthful verses of this man — he did have a youth — so in his senile memoirs there is not to be found a single original note. The interests of the bourgeoisie form his genuine moral shell, the source of his icy pathos. The conventional values of French politics have entered into his marrow and blood. "I am a bourgeois, and nothing bourgeois is alien to me." The political mask has fused with the face. Hypocrisy, attaining the character of the absolute, becomes a sincerity of its own sort.
So peace-loving is the French government, according to Poincaré, that it is incapable even of presupposing any mental reservations on the part of the enemy. "Beautiful is the trust of the people always endowing others with its own virtues." This is not hypocrisy any longer, not subjective falsehood, but a compulsory element in a ritual, like a postscript vowing eternal faithfulness appended to a perfidious letter.
Emil Ludwig put a question to Poincaré, at the time of the occupation of the Ruhr: "In your opinion, is it that we don't want to pay, or that we are unable to pay?" And Poincaré replied: "No one likes to pay of his own accord."
In July, 1931, Brüning asked Poincaré by telegraph for cooperation, and he received for an answer, "Learn to suffer."
But just as personal egoism, when it transcends a certain limit, begins to devour itself, so too does the egoism of a conservative class. Poincaré wished to crucify Germany so as to free France from anxiety once and for all. Meantime, the chauvinistic distillations of the Versailles peace, criminally mild in the eyes of Poincaré, condensed in Germany into the ominous visage of Hitler. Without the Ruhr occupation, the Nazis would not have come to power so easily. And Hitler in power opens up the prospect of new wars.
The national French ideology is built upon the cult of lucidity — that is, logic. It is not the logic of the eighteenth century, wined by an audacity that overthrew the entire world, but the niggardly, cautious, and ready-for-any-compromise logic of the Third Republic. With the condescending sense of superiority with which an old master explains the precepts of his craft, Poincaré speaks in his memoirs of "these difficult operations of the mind: selection, classification, coordination." Unquestionably, difficult operations. But Poincaré himself performs them not within the three-dimensional space of the historical process, but in the two-dimensional plane of documents. To him truth is merely the product of law proceedings, the rational interpretation of treaties and laws. The conservative rationalism of ruling France bears the same relation to Descartes as does, say, medieval scholasticism to Aristotle.
The much-trumpeted "sense of proportion" has become the sense of petty proportions. It endows the mind with a tendency toward mosaics. With what loving care does Poincaré depict the most insignificant episodes of statecraft! He copies the order of the White Elephant, bestowed upon him by the Danish king, as if it were a priceless miniature: its dimensions, shape, pattern, and the coloring of the stupid fingle-fangle — nothing is left out in his memoirs.
Words serve him either to define the size of the reparations or to figure as rhetorical decorations. He compares his sojourn in the Elysee palace with the incarceration of Silvio Pellico in the dungeons of the Austrian monarchy!"In these salons of gilded banality nothing struck a responsive chord in my imagination." Gilded banality, however, is the official style of the Third Republic. And Poincaré's imagination is the sublimation of this style.
On the very eve of the impending war, Poincaré was making a maritime journey between Petersburg and France: he does not miss the opportunity to insert an oil landscape into the anxious chronicle of his journey: "the pale, almost deserted sea, indifferent to human conflicts." Word for word, precisely what he had written in his matriculating examination at the Lycée! When he dilates upon his patriotic worries, he lists, in passing, every kind of flower that decorated his summer retreat: between a code telegram and a telephone conversation — a scrupulous catalogue of a florist shop! At the most critical moments, the Siamese cat also intrudes, as the symbol of family intimacy. It is impossible to read without a feeling of suffocation this autobiographic protocol, lacking a single living image, lacking human feeling even, but replete instead with "indifferent" seas, ferns, garlands, hyacinths, doves, and the all-pervading odor of a Siamese cat.
There are two spheres in life: the one public and official, which is passed off for the whole of life, the other secret and most important. This dualism cuts across personal relationships, as well as social: across the intimate family circle, the school, the courtroom, parliament, and the diplomatic service. It is lodged in the conditions of the contradictory development of human society, and it is peculiar to all civilized countries and peoples. But the forms, the scope, and the masks of this dualism are luminously tinted with national colorations.
In Anglo-Saxon countries religion enters as an important element into the system of moral dualism. Official France has deprived itself of this important resource. While the British masonry is incapable of comprehending a universe without God, and, similarly, a parliament without a king, or property without the proprietor, the French masons have deleted "the Great Architect of the universe" from their statutes. In political deals the wider the couches are, the better the service: to sacrifice earthly interests for the sake of heavenly problematics would imply going headlong against Latin lucidity. Politicians, however, like Archimedes, require a fulcrum; the will of the Great Architect had to be supplanted by values on this side of the great divide. The first of these is — France.
Nowhere is the "religion of patriotism" spoken of so readily as in the secular republic. All the attributes with which human imagination has endowed the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have been transferred to his own nation by the free-thinking French bourgeois. And since France is an image female in gender, she has had conferred upon her the traits of the Virgin Mary as well. The politician steps forward as the lay priest of a secular divinity. The liturgy of patriotism worked out in elaborate detail forms a necessary part of the political ritual. Words and expressions obtain which automatically engender their echo of applause in parliament, just as certain church words are cued to call forth kneeling or tears on the part of the believers.
However, there is a difference. By its very nature the sphere of true religion is removed from daily practice; given the necessary delimitation of jurisdiction, collisions are as little likely as the crash between an automobile and an airplane. The secular religion of patriotism, on the contrary, impinges directly upon day-to-day politics. Personal appetite and class interests rise up in hostility at every step against the formulas of pure patriotism. Fortunately the antagonists are so well educated, and above all so bound by mutual pledges, that they turn their eyes aside on all ticklish occasions. The governmental majority and the responsible opposition adhere voluntarily to the rules of the political game. The chief of these reads: "Just as the movement of physical bodies is subject to the laws of gravity, so the actions of politicians are subject to the love of the fatherland."
Yet even the sun of patriotism has its spots. A surfeit of mutual indulgence is inconvenient in that it engenders the feeling of impunity and erases the boundary between what is laudable and what is reprehensible. Thus political gases accumulate which explode from time to time and poison the atmosphere. The Union-General crash, Panama, the Dreyfus case, the Rochette case, the Stavisky crash — these are landmarks on the road of the Third Republic familiar to all. Clemenceau was nicked by Panama. Poincaré personally always remained on the side lines. But his politics fed from the very same sources. Not without cause does he proclaim his teacher in morality to be Marcus Aurelius, whose Stoic virtues managed to abide quite well with the morals of the imperial throne in decaying Rome.
In his memoirs Poincaré laments that "during the first six months of 1914 … the abject spectacle of parliamentary intrigues and financial scandals passed before my eyes." But war, of course, with a single swoop swept away all selfish motives. Union sacrée cleansed the souls. This is to say: the intrigues and the rascalities swung inward behind the patriotic scenes, there to assume unheard-of proportions. As Celine relates, the more drawn out the critical resolution at the front, the more depraved the rear became. The picture of Paris in wartime is depicted in the novel by the hand of a merciless master. There is almost no politics. But there is something more: the living substratum out of which it takes form.
In all court, parliamentary, and financial scandals of France, what hits one between the eyes is their organic character. From the industry and thriftiness of the peasant and the artisan, from the wariness of the merchant and the industrialist, from the blind greed of the rentier, the courtesy of the parliamentarian, and the patriotism of the press, the numberless threads lead to the ganglia which bear the generic name of Panama. In the web of connections, favors, mediations, masked semi-bribes, there are thousands of transitional forms between civic virtue and capital crime. No sooner does an unfortunate incident shrivel the irreproachable veils, exposing to view the anatomy of politics — at any time, in any place — than it becomes immediately necessary to appoint a parliamentary or judicial committee of investigation.
But precisely here arises the difficulty: what to begin with, and where to end?
Only because Stavisky went bankrupt at an inopportune moment was it revealed that this Argonaut among small saloon keepers had, as his errand boys, deputies and journalists, ex-ministers and ambassadors, some denoted by initials, others by their full names; that papers profitable to the banker passed through the ministries like lightning, while the harmful ones were held up until rendered harmless. Using the resources of his fancy, salon ties, and printing paper, the financial magus created wealth, played with the lives of thousands of people, bribed — what a coarse and an impermissibly precise word! — rewarded, supported, and encouraged the press, the officials, and the parliamentarians. And almost always in a nonincriminating manner!
As the scope of the work of the investigation committee grew wider, the more obviously hopeless the investigation became. Where one was prepared to unearth crime, one revealed only the usual reciprocity between politics and finance. Where the source of the disease was sought, the normal tissue of the organism was found.
As attorney, X was the guardian of the interests of Stavisky's enterprises; as journalist, he supported the tariff system which happened to coincide with Stavisky's interests; as people's representative, he specialized in revamping tariff duties. And as minister? The committee was endlessly occupied with the question whether X, while holding the post of minister, continued to receive his attorney's fee, or whether in the interval between two ministerial crises his conscience had remained as clear as crystal.
What a load of moral pedantry is there injected into hypocrisy! Raoul Péret, former chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, candidate for president of the republic, turned out to be a candidate for capital criminal. Yet, according to his profound conviction, he had acted like everybody else," perhaps only a trifle less carefully — at any rate, not so fortunately.
Against the background of the "abject spectacle of parliamentary intrigues and financial scandals" — to use Poincaré's expression — Celine’s novel attains a twofold significance. Not without cause did the well-meaning press, which in its own time was wroth with the public investigation, immediately damn Celine for calumniating the "nation." The parliamentary committee had, at any rate, carried on its investigation in the courteous language of the initiated, from which neither the accusers nor the accused departed. But Celine is not bound by convention. He ruddy discards the gratuitous colors of the political palette. He has his own colors. These he has ripped from life, with the artist's privilege.
True, he takes life not in its parliamentary cross section, not on the ruling heights, but in its most prosaic manifestations. But this does not ease matters any. He bares the roots. From underneath the veils of decorum he exposes the mud and blood. In his ominous panorama, murder for the sake of trifling gain loses its extraordinariness: it is just as inseparable from the day-to-day mechanics of life, propelled by greed and self-seeking, as the Stavisky affair is inseparable from the much higher mechanics of modern finance. Celine shows what is. F or this reason he appears as a revolutionist.
But Celine is no revolutionist, and does not aim to be one. He does not occupy himself with the goal of reconstructing society, which is chimerical in his eyes. He only wants to tear away the prestige from everything that frightens and oppresses him. To ease his conscience from terror in the face of life, this physician to the poor had to resort to new modes of imagery. He turned out to be the revolutionist of the novel. Generally speaking, that is the law governing the movement of art: it moves through the reciprocal repulsion of tendencies.
Decay hits not only parties in power, but schools of art as well. The creative methods become hollow and cease to react upon human sensibilities — an infallible sign that the school has become ripe enough for the cemetery of exhausted possibilities — that is to say, for the Academy. Living creativeness cannot march ahead without repulsion away from official tradition, canonized ideas and feelings, images and expressions covered by the lacquer of use and wont. Each new tendency seeks for the most direct and honest contact between words and emotions. The struggle against pretense in art always grows to a lesser or greater measure into the struggle against the injustice of human relations. The connection is self-evident: art which loses the sense of the social lie inevitably defeats itself by affectation, turning into mannerism.
The richer and more solid is national cultural tradition, the more abrupt is the repulsion from it. Celine's power lies in that through supreme effort he divests himself of all canons, transgresses all conventions. He not only undresses life's model, but rips her skin off. Hence flows the indictment of calumny.
But it is precisely in his impetuous radicalism of negating the national tradition that Celine is deeply nationalistic. Just as the French anti-militarists prior to the war were most often desperate patriots, so is Celine a Frenchman to the marrow of his bones, a Frenchman who has torn himself loose from the official masks of the Third Republic.
Celinism is moral and artistic anti-Poincaréism. In that is Celine's strength, but, too, his limitation.
When Poincaré compares himself to Silvio Pellico, he is apt to give one the chills by this combination of smugness and bad taste. But does not the real Pellico, who was incarcerated not in a palace, as head of the government, but in the dungeons of Santa Margherita and Spielberg as a patriot — does he not reveal another and a much higher side of human nature? Instead of this Italian Catholic believer, who was besides a victim rather than a fighter, Celine might have reminded the eminent captive of the Elysee palace of another prisoner who spent four decades of his life in the prisons of France, prior to the time when the sons and grandsons of his jailers named one of the Parisian boulevards after him — namely, Auguste Blanqui. Is that not evidence that there is something lodged in man which is capable of raising him above himself?
Only because there are numerous and well-paid priests serving the altars of false altruism does Celine turn away from greatness of mind and heroism, from great projects and hopes, from everything that leads humanity out from the dark night of the circumscribed I. It seems almost as if the moralist who is so ruthless to himself had been repelled by his own image in the mirror, and smashed the glass, cutting his hands. Such a struggle may enervate, but it does not break out toward the light's glimmer. Hopelessness ever leads to docility. Conciliation opens the doors to the Academy. There has been more than one previous occasion when those who have blasted the literary foundations ended underneath the dome of immortality.
In the music of this book there is a dissonance pregnant with much meaning. By rejecting not only the present but also what must take its place, the artist gives his support to what is. To that extent Celine, willy-nilly, is the ally of Poincaré. But, exposing the lie, he instills the want for a more harmonious future. Though he himself may consider that nothing good can generally come from man, the very intensity of his pessimism bears within it a dose of the antidote.
Celine, as he is, stems from French reality and the French novel. He does not have to be ashamed of his ancestry. The French genius has found its unsurpassed expression in the novel. Beginning with Rabelais, likewise a physician, there has branched, in the course of four centuries, a splendid genealogy of the masters of epic prose: from life-loving belly laughter down to hopelessness and despair, from the brilliant break of day to the depths of the night.
Celine will not write a second book with such an aversion for the lie and such a disbelief in the truth. The dissonance must resolve itself. Either the artist will make his peace with the darkness or he will perceive the dawn.