Philosophizing is simply one way of being afraid, a cowardly pretense that doesn’t get you anywhere. (p. 177)
Seinfeld‘s George Costanza once had an epiphany. He recognized that his life was the exact opposite of what it should be; every single decision of his life had been wrong. Seinfeld convinces him that “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” Humor ensues as the ill-fated George suddenly profits from his new, inverted approach to life.
Botched, bungled, vulgar, vile, sinister, sickening, disgusting, disgraceful. Negation: the theme of Journey to the End of the Night. In the modernism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, we necessarily reject life by affirming it, which means we paradoxically affirm life only by its reversal. Our narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, journeys through the trenches of WWI, the jungles of French colonial Africa, the streets of New York City, the factories of Detroit, and, in Paris as a medical doctor, the halls of science, medicine, and psychiatry. The point of all this?
“What with being chucked out of everywhere, you’re sure to find whatever it is that scares all those bastards so. It must be at the end of the night, and that’s why they’re so dead set against going to the end of the night.” (p. 189)
Seekers of nihilism will not find nothing here (yes, you read that correctly); Céline had a fearless hunger for reality. Not that Céline delivered a doctrine; every possible answer to life struck him as bizarre. Rather, he uncompromisingly assessed the human comedy in all its contingency.
In the whole of your absurd past you discover so much that’s absurd, so much deceit and credulity, that it might be a good idea to stop being young this minute, to wait for youth to break away from you and pass you by, to watch it going away, receding in the distance, to see all its vanity, run your hand through the empty space it has left behind, take a last look at it, and then start moving, make sure your youth has really gone, and then calmly, all by yourself, cross to the other side of Time to see what people and things really look like. (p. 247-8)
I. Ferdinand Bardamu’s Bogus Journey
Bad guys lose, good guys win. A hero animated with a vision initiating and sustaining a journey over all sorts of obstacles. Yes, the odyssey. A well-worn plot structure, it classically offers many devices affirming life without sacrificing narrative propulsion: electrifying escapes from setbacks, temptations, monsters, annihilation. Often, our pilgrim gains insight into his quest via the spiritual world by climbing down into an underworld of death. Upon his return home, the transformed protagonist overcomes a series of frustrations, perhaps putting himself in a position to prove haters wrong by passing a set of ordeals. Life is worth the trouble. Duh, winning!
Unlike a traditional odyssey — The Aeneid, Le Morte d’Arthur, Lord of the Rings — Bardamu’s adventure begins with no great summoning; he joins the military merely on a whim. He continuously escapes the monsters of contemporary life, not through courage and heroism, but through explicitly acknowledged cowardice. His journey includes no party, no companion, no close friend, except Léon Robinson, a hopelessly corrupt acquaintance Bardamu absurdly and accidentally meets at every step. Bardamu must resist temptations of credulity: happiness, status, citizenship, respectability, science. As a contrast, giving into temptation simpliciter signifies sanity.
To counter the abomination of being poor, why deny it, we are in duty bound to try everything, to get drunk on anything we can, cheap wine, masturbation, movies. No sense in being difficult, “particular” as they say in America. Year in year out, we may as well admit, our concierges in France provide anyone who knows how to take it and coddle it close to his heart with a free-gratis supply of all-purpose hatred, enough to blow up the world. In New York, they’re cruelly lacking in this vital spice, so sordid and irrefutably alive, without which the spirit is stifled, condemned to vague slanders and pallid bumbled calumnies. Without a concierge you get nothing that stings, wounds, lacerates, torments, obsesses, and adds without fail to the world’s stock of hatred, illuminating it with thousands of undeniable details. (p. 182-3)
Journey is many things, but it is not cynical. Contemporary cynicism doubts displays of integrity on the assumption that everyone necessarily acts from their perceived rational self-interest. Cynics demand more rationality in life: we’re not acting as rationally as we can, either from faulty reasoning, false premises, incomplete information, et cetera. A cynic doubting the merits of higher education may explain that greedy professors financially exploit naive students with hopes for careers that simply do not exist. As a contrast, someone who finds absurdity in rationality itself would have a completely different complaint. Consider Céline’s take on professionalized science.
Grey-haired, umbrella-carrying schoolboys, stupefied by the pedantic routine and intensely revolting experiments, riveted by starvation wages for their whole adult lives to these little microbe kitchens, there to spend interminable days warming up mixtures of vegetable scrapings, asphyxiated guinea pigs, and other nondescript garbage.
They themselves, when all’s said and done, were nothing but monstrous old rodents in overcoats. Glory, in our time, smiles only on the rich, men of science or not. All those plebeians of Research had to keep them going was their fear of losing their niches in this heated, illustrious, and compartmented garbage pail. What meant most to them was the title of official scientist, thanks to which the pharmacists of the city still trusted them more or less to analyze, for the most niggardly pay incidentally, their customers’ urine and sputum. The slimy wages of science. (p. 240)
The prestige of science is a completely modernist phenomenon, not in the sense of systematic learning, but the broad vision that we can in principle achieve a purely detached, objective, neutral way of approaching the world. Céline found the entire business of science grotesque — the mania for unimportant detail, the incomprehensible material sitting in unread academic journals, the status jockeying, etc. Not coincidentally, Bardamu’s experiences with ordinary people differ little from his experiences with the insane.
Because I was always kind to the inmates, which was my nature, I lived on the dangerous rim of madness, on the brink, so to speak. I didn’t go under, but I felt in constant danger, as if they had lured me by stealth into their unknown city. A city whose streets became softer and softer as you penetrated further between its slobbery houses, with their melting, ill-closed windows and their dubious sounds. The doors and the ground are unstable, shifting… And yet something makes you want to go further, to see if you’ll have the strength to retrieve your reason from the wreckage. Reason can easily become an obsession, as good humor and sleep are for neurasthenics. All you can think of is your reason. Everything’s out of kilter. It’s no joke. (p. 367-8)
This modernist atmosphere breathes irrationality into rationality, bean counting that misses the inarticulate aspects of experience. Theologians once employed philosophers as their henchmen; in modernity, the professors became autonomous, spending their efforts working for “the religion of the flag.” Progressives designed modern society as a giant classroom, spreading literacy, responsibility, so everyone can march in step as mass-produced heroes, always looking busy at all costs. Be happy or else! Céline concluded that the do-gooder rabble-rousing started by men of learning directly led to the Great War’s absurdity. After all, if we think about utilitarianism from the strictly rational perspective of squaring means with ends, we should be able to maximize the average happiness of a population by murdering unhappy people, telling ourselves pleasant falsehoods, and mobilizing every dimension of life with economic improvement.
The lies that were being told surpassed the imagination, far exceeded the limits of the absurd and the preposterous — in the newspapers, on posters, on foot, on horseback, on pleasure boats. Everyone was doing it. In competition, to see who could lie the most outrageously. Soon there wasn’t a bit of truth in the city.
The little that had been left in 1914, people were ashamed of now. Everything you touched was phony, the sugar, the aeroplanes, the shoes, the jam, the photographs… Everything you read, swallowed, sucked, admired, proclaimed, refuted, defended was made up of hate-ridden myths and grinning masquerades, phony to the hilt. The mania for telling lies and believing them is as contagious as the itch. Little Lola’s French consisted of only a few phrases, but there were all patriotic: “On les aura!…,” “Madelon, viens!…” It was enough to make you cry. (p. 44-5)
Everything is going great. We’re passionate about what we do. Going forward, always improving, better and better, a can-do attitude, a positive outlook. Céline found the essence of vulgarity in mindless enthusiasm, the rah-rah fan-like attitudes humans readily catch from others. Experiencing the receiving end of marketing, advertising, propaganda, was an ineliminable feature of the modernist experience. Refusing to childishly embrace calculated promises, Céline had a humanist interest in the human condition. Nihilism? One doesn’t need a book for that, just a smiling salesman.
If we lived long enough, we wouldn’t know where to go to start a new happiness. We’d have strewn aborted happinesses all over, the whole earth would stink of them, unbreathably. The ones in the museums, the real abortions, turn some people’s stomachs, the mere sight of the things makes them want to vomit. And our loathsome attempts to be happy are miscarried enough to sicken you long before you die for real. (p. 328)
II. A Maze of Modernity
Bardamu had a fundamentally aesthetic grudge against reality. A quest for grace, never perfection. Any idealistic striving — for truth, for goodness, for beauty — looked no different than a clinically diagnosed “conviction mania.” It isn’t as if Bardamu had to slay a Minotaur before he could escape his Labyrinth. Rather, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth fused into one; reality was both Minotaur and Labyrinth.
Maybe those vast accretions of matter, those commercial honeycombs, those endless figments of brick and steel didn’t affect the habitués the way they did me. To them perhaps that suspended deluge meant security, while to me it was simply an abominable system of constraints, of corridors, locks and wickets, a vast, inexplicable architectural crime. (p. 177)
This dissonant world simultaneously united and divided man with his rationalized, mechanized environment. A floor of a factory.
Everything trembled in the enormous building, and we ourselves, from our ears to the soles of our feet, were gathered into this trembling, which came from the windows, the floor, and all the clanking metal, tremors that shook the whole building from top to bottom. We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts. The further we went, the more of our companions we lost. In leaving them we gave them bright little smiles, as if all this were just lovely. (p. 193-4)
Such an atmosphere left nothing stable as a remainder, only impressions and intuitions. Even love refused to gain traction; nothing solid persists.
When you stop to examine the way in which our words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard-put to it to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. That corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth, which screws itself up to whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges all manner of viscous sounds across a fetid barrier of decaying teeth—how revolting! Yet that is what we are adjured to sublimate into an ideal. It’s not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. Being in love is nothing, its sticking together that’s difficult. Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state — that’s the unconscionable torture.
Unquestionably we worship nothing more divine than our smell. All our misery comes from wanting at all costs to go on being Tom, Dick, or Harry, year in year out. This body of ours, this disguise put on by common jumping molecules, is in constant revolt against the abominable farce of having to endure. Our molecules, the dears, want to get lost in the universe as fast as they can! It makes them miserable to be nothing but ‘us,’ the jerks of infinity. We’d burst if we had the courage, day after day we come very close to it. The atomic torture we love so is locked up inside us by our pride. (p. 291)
Every odyssey’s protagonist must draw a balance between how he imposes himself on his environment and how he adapts to the world’s demands; Bardamu, no different, must walk a narrow path. But Bardamu has no insight into the intelligible order of the real. He isn’t left with relativism, as if it is arbitrary where the above balance is established. Rather, the very attempt to impose rationality on life itself leads one into darkness as its own brand of insanity. If so, wisdom consists in narrowing our horizons.
Now and then the lunatics would stand at the few dining hall windows that opened out on the street and terrify the neighborhood with their bellowing, but mostly they kept their horror to themselves. They took good care of their horror, defending it against our therapeutic efforts. That resistance of theirs was the spice of their lives.
When I think now of all the lunatics I knew at Baryton’s, I can’t help suspecting that the only true manifestations of our innermost being are war and insanity, those two absolute nightmares.
Maybe what makes life so terribly fatiguing is nothing other than the enormous effort we make for twenty years, forty years, and more, to be reasonable, to avoid being simply, profoundly ourselves, that is, vile, ghastly, absurd. It’s the nightmare of having to represent that halt subhuman we were fobbed off with as a small-size universal ideal, a superman from morning to night. (p. 359)
III. Notable Quotes
Can you take a joke? If life is a joke, then we don’t have much choice. Céline’s style isn’t as revolutionary as one might think. It has the rowdy indecency of a Rabelais, the pithy conciseness of a La Rochefoucauld, the relentless mockery of a Voltaire — squarely in the French literary tradition. But Céline didn’t have the same lightness; by temperament, he resembled Schopenhauer: both men were acutely sensitive to human suffering; both men used misanthropy as a facade, like a psychological defense mechanism; both believed suffering was inseparable from living, therefore distrusting any willful, calculated pursuit of pleasure. And both men could take a joke — but only if supersized to cosmic proportions.
He was fond of conversation, and there was a kind of terror in the way he insisted on being amusing, reassuring, and above all thoroughly sane. (p. 358)
I didn’t understand. I was being hornswoggled by everything and everybody, women, money, and ideas. I was a sucker, and I didn’t like it. (p. 63)
Did Jesus Christ go to the toilet in front of everybody? It seems to me his racket wouldn’t have lasted very long if he’d taken a shit in public. (p. 315)
“This world, I assure you, is only a vast device for kidding the world!” (p. 56)
I’d seen too many puzzling things to be easy in my mind. I knew too much and not enough. (p. 172)
I would never again succeed in sleeping fully. I had lost, so to speak, the habit of trust, the enormous trust you need to sleep soundly among human beings. (p. 369)
Anybody who talks about the future is a bastard, it’s the present that counts. Invoking posterity is like making speeches to worms. (p. 28)
Hurry, hurry, don’t be late for your death. (p. 329)
Truth is inedible. (p. 315)
When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit. (p. 236)
Existence was reduced to a kind of hesitation between stupor and frenzy. (p. 195)
Maybe we like to think different, but the world leaves us long before we leave it … for good. (p. 395)