March 02, 2004

History and Declasse Consciousness

Following yesterday’s entry, I have organised some more material on Céline, material that may lead you to think that the people with whom I argue about Céline are right and I am wrong. If that’s how it comes out so be it. Make up your own mind.

Benjamin only read Voyage To The End Of The Night. Scholem had wanted him to read Bagatelles For A Massacre. Perhaps he did, but if he did he kept quiet about it. All that is available by Benjamin on Céline is a handful of remarks recorded in correspondence or by friends, and an essay in which Voyage is discussed. Benjamin’s verdict on the book was that it reflected the perspective of the Lumpenproletariat, a social group lacking in what Benjamin called ‘class consciousness’. ‘Céline, in his description of it, is quite unable to make visible this defect in his subject.’ The book is a ‘retreat on the part of bourgeois aesthetics’ that nevertheless ‘succeeds in vividly portraying the sadness and sterility of a life in which the distinctions between workday and holiday, sex and love, war and peace, town and country have been obliterated. But he is quite incapable of showing us the forces that have shaped the lives of these outcasts. Even less is he able to convey how these people might begin to react against these forces.’

Scholem, with whom Benjamin discussed Bagatelles pour un massacre had his own views on Céline. He wrote that ‘The book caused quite a stir. That Céline’s nihilism had now found a natural object in the Jews was bound to give one food for thought. Benjamin had not yet read the book, but he was under no illusions about the dimensions of anti-Semitism in France. He told me that those of Céline’s admirers who were influential on the literary scene got around taking a clear stand on the book with this explanation: … it really was nothing but a joke. I tried to show him how frivolous such a recourse to an irresponsible phrase was. Benjamin said this own experience had convinced him that latent anti-Semitism was very widespread even among the leftist intelligentsia and that very few non-Jews … were … constitutionally free from it.’ (Walter Benjamin: Story Of A Friendship, p. 212.)

There is a remark by Benjamin on Céline in the Arcades Project (p. 300) –‘Gauloiserie in Baudelaire: “To organise a grand conspiracy for the extermination of the Jewish race./ The Jews who are librarians and bear witness to the Redemption”… Céline has continued along these lines. (cheerful assassins!)’

In a letter to Max Horkheimer on April 16, 1938, Benjamin wrote, ‘You may have seen Gide’s dispute with Céline… “If one were forced to see in Bagatelles pour un massacre anything other than a game, it would be impossible to excuse Céline, in spite of all his genius, for stirring up banal passions with such cynicism and frivolous impertinence”… The word banal speaks for itself. As you will recall, I was also struck by Céline’s lack of seriousness. Gide, being the moralist he is, otherwise pays heed only to the book’s intent and not to its consequences. Or, being the Satanist he also is, has he no objections to them?’ (Correspondence, p. 558)

Benjamin describes Céline as a popular novelist (Roman populiste). This form ‘represents not so much an advance for the proletarian novel as a retreat on the part of bourgeois aesthetics… It is no accident that … Journey To The End Of The Night … is concerned with the Lumpenproletariat. Like the Lumpenproletariat, Céline, in his description of it, is quite unable to make visible this defect in his subject. Hence, the monotony in which the plot is veiled is fundamentally ambiguous. He succeeds in vividly portraying the sadness and sterility of a life … But he is quite incapable of showing us the forces that have shaped the lives of these outcasts. Even less is he able to convey how these people might begin to react against these forces. This is why nothing can be more treacherous than the judgment on Céline’s book delivered by Dabit, who is himself a respected representative of the genre. “We are confronted here with a work in which revolt does not proceed from aesthetic or symbolic discussions, and in which what is at issue is not art, culture, or God, but a cry of rage against the conditions of life that human beings can impose on a majority of other human beings.” Bardamu – this is the name of the hero of the novel – “is made of the same stuff as the masses. He is made from their cowardice, their panic-stricken horror, their desires, and their outbursts of violence.” So far so good were it not for the fact that the essence of revolutionary training and experience is to recognise the class structure of the masses and to exploit it.’ (Benjamin Selected Writings, 2, p. 752.)

In a letter to Gershom Scholem (July 2, 1937), whom Benjamin always addressed as Gerhardt, he wrote of ‘the peculiar figure of medical nihilism in literature: Benn, Céline, Jung’. (Correspondence, p. 540). He makes a similar observation in the Arcades Project: And again: ‘On anthropological nihilism, compare… Céline, Benn.’ (p. 402)

There ‘is no real distinction, Kafka writes, between town and castle… “State and Party” – they meet in attics, live in taverns … a band of conspirators installed as the police… They are all déclassés, caught up in the collapse of the organised collective and permitted to survive… [The] burden of guilt is shifted from the sphere of production to the agents of circulation or to those who provide services.’ (Adorno, Prisms, pp. 259-60)

Benjamin sees some kind of causal nexus between Expressionism, Jung, Céline, and the German novelist and physician Alfred Döblin: “I wonder if there isn’t a form of nihilism peculiar to physicians that makes its own miserable rhymes out of the experiences that the doctor has in his anatomy halls and operating rooms, in front of open stomachs and skulls. Philosophy has left this nihilism alone with these experiences for more than a hundred and fifty years (as early as the Enlightenment, La Mettrie stood by it).”’ (chronology, Selected Writings, 3, p. 443)

‘La Mettrie, Julien Offray De (1709-1751), French physician and philosopher… His method of inquiry consisted in moving regularly from the empirical sphere of scientific facts and theories to that of philosophy proper, the latter being regarded … as the logical extension of such branches of knowledge as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, medicine and the like. La Mettrie was perhaps the first “medical” philosopher in the complete and true sense… La Mettrie … conceived of the problem of happiness … from the perspective of medical ethics, as similar to … the more comprehensive problem of health. Accordingly, he diagnosed the greatest threat to felicity to be “remorse”, a morbid and “unnatural” symptom.’ (The Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, vol. 4, pp. 379-81)

Benjamin may be onto something here. He writes:

‘In Jung’s production there is a belated and particularly emphatic elaboration of one of the elements which, as we can recognise today, were first disclosed in explosive fashion by Expressionism. That element is a specifically clinical nihilism, such as one encounters in the works of Benn, and which has found a camp follower in Céline. This nihilism is born of the shock imparted by the interior of the body to those who treat it. Jung himself traces the heightened interest in psychic life back to Expressionism. He writes: “Art has a way of anticipating future changes in man’s fundamental outlook, and expressionist art has taken this subjective turn well in advance of the more general change.” … In this regard, we should not lose sight of the relations established by Lukács between Expressionism and Fascism.’ (AP, p. 472, modified)

‘Céline … considered that [his] thesis, which was meant to sanction the end of his medical studies, in fact inaugurated his literary career… how pregnant it seems to be with the work to come! … [The] appalling slip that birth is: such is the object of Céline’s thesis… In a maternity hospital in Vienna … two workrooms, two methods. Whereas Bartch uses midwives, Klin only uses students. The result: his department is a slaughterhouse… the conclusion … if expectant mothers run fewer risks when they are handled by midwives, it’s because, unlike students, midwives are forbidden to perform autopsies. “It is the fingers of the students, soiled during recent dissections, that carry the fatal cadaverous particles into the genital organs of the pregnant women”… Woman is in labour, and she is giving birth to death… it is death, and death alone, that ushers us into the heart of the matter.’ (Bonnefis, Céline: Recall Of The Birds, pp. 17-9)

‘Oh, you’ll say, what about the gas? You complain about the gas bills? … just give yourself the gas! … chin up! … read your favourite newspaper … people who can’t take it any more give themselves the gas! … Not so good! After thirty-five years of medical practice I can tell you a thing or two … they don’t always make it … far from it! they get revived … they don’t die but they suffer plenty … on the way out, and on the way back … a thousand deaths, a thousand recoveries! and the smell! … the neighbours come running! … they wreck the joint! if they’ve stolen too much, fire’s the answer! … they set fire to the curtains … a little more suffering for you … asphyxia and burns … to cap the climax … No, gas is bad business … the safest method, take it from me, I’ve been consulted a hundred times, is a hunting rifle in your mouth! stuck in deep! … and bang! … you blow your brains out … one drawback: the mess! … the furniture, the ceiling! brains and blood clots.’ (Céline, Castle To Castle, pp. 31-2)

Journey To The End Of The Night … flabbergasted me… The book penetrated my bones, anyway, if not my mind. And I only now understand what I took from Céline and put into the novel I was writing at the time, which was called Slaughterhouse-5. In that book, I felt the need to say this every time a character dies: “So it goes”… It was a clumsy way of saying what Céline managed to imply so much more naturally in everything he wrote, in effect: “Death and suffering can’t matter nearly as much as I think they do. Since they are so common, my taking them so seriously must mean that I am insane. I must try to be saner.”’ (Kurt Vonnegut, introduction to: Céline, Rigadoon, pp. xii-xiii)

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