1 The announcement in late 2017 of Gallimard’s plan to republish Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets triggered a wave of protest leading to the suspension of the project. But the publisher has not given up on it altogether. “We are going to study the conditions for a reception that will allow us to republish and analyze these pamphlets,” said Antoine Gallimard, the CEO, in spring 2022. “They will be in the public domain in ten years’ time. It would be a shame not to produce a critical edition before then.” Meanwhile he has released three previously unpublished works by Céline: Guerre, Londres, and La Légende du Roi Klogold. A complete edition of Casse-pipe has also been scheduled for 2023.
2 The project has raised serious questions that continue to provoke controversy.
3 This dossier presents three articles that examine the question from various sides, although without exhausting the possibilities for debate. In the first, Philippe Roussin, a research director at the CNRS who wrote his dissertation on Céline in 1991 and is now a literary theorist, explains why he thinks it would be wrong to republish the pamphlets, which violate the law against the incitation of racial hatred. “Would people these days laugh when reading these texts?” he asks, as they did when they were first published? For a well-known publisher like Gallimard to publish them would give them a dangerous legitimacy.
4 A year earlier, in contrast, Pierre-André Taguieff, a historian of racism, explained why the texts deserve to be republished, but not in the way Gallimard had planned. The publisher was merely intending a French reissue of a critical edition already published in Quebec, which Taguieff considers to be defective because it erases much of the context in which the anti-Semitic pamphlets were originally published. He invokes “a cognitive imperative that has been particularly emphasized by historians: the need to shed more light on an often neglected aspect of pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic propaganda in France.” He believes that censoring the pamphlets would backfire by encouraging pirate editions and attracting non-specialists to read them on the internet, where they are freely available with no critical apparatus. He supports a critical edition produced by a multidisciplinary team.
5 The psychoanalyst Patrick Merot is also in favor of republication, but for a different reason: He argues that the anti-Semitic pamphlets are evidence of a rupture in Céline’s life, an onset of “madness,” and that they can therefore help us understand the work of a writer who described the world as a sort of “immense charnel house” dominated by hate.
The risk of legitimization
6 Against those in favor of republishing Céline’s three anti-Semitic pamphlets, the literary theorist Philippe Roussin presents a threefold argument in Vacarme. After having challenged the frequent “misinterpretation” of the nature of the texts, he describes in detail how Bagatelles pour un massacre was received when it was published on the eve of the Second World War, before pondering “what their republication would mean today.”
7 The pamphlets are not “texts belonging to a purely literary discourse, but rather texts that were intended as acts […] whose murderous ideology and politics ultimately nullify any literary judgment of the work.” In his eyes, the French literary world went down the wrong path after Céline’s novels were added to the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series in 1981. “Psychoanalytical readings,” most prominently that of Julia Kristeva, tended to normalize the pamphlets and ignore their original purpose by treating them as the result of “delusions.” Literary specialists tended to treat them as “almost contextless […] isolates,” without considering their relation to a “genre of discourse” rooted in a very specific historical context. And yet, as the literary critic and historian Alice Kaplan has shown, they are “extremely clever texts that manipulate with skill” by borrowing directly from the “anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi gazettes and brochures of the time.”
8 Second, Roussin cites the extraordinary response to Bagatelles pour un massacre in the most respectable press and in the literary world at the time. Negative critiques were few and far between. Céline “produces his best work,” wrote Marcel Arland in the Nouvelle Revue française (NRF), the most popular literary magazine. Also in the NRF, André Gide, who until then had not deigned to comment on Céline’s novels, saluted him as a “creator”: “He talks about the Jews in Bagatelles in the same way as he talked in Death on Credit about the maggots that his powerful imagination had just created.” Many critics described Bagatelles as a “masterpiece.” “What we have here is a nice, clean, neat sort of hate,” wrote the Canard Enchaîné. Roussin writes of “academia’s enthusiastic support” for an author who had hitherto been treated with suspicion. He also shows how effective the laughter Céline triggered could be: a “terrorist laughter,” “the laughter of the lynch mob,” a “predatory laughter […] intended to destroy the culture and spirit of the salons and the world.” And he asks: “would people these days laugh when reading these texts?”
9 Finally, he attacks one of the most frequently advanced arguments in favor of republication: censorship. According to Roussin, this argument is a form of “blackmail” from “those who privilege individual liberty above all else, neglecting the general interest.” Should we take refuge behind the American philosophy of free speech, despite how it has been abused in recent years? In France, these pamphlets quite simply violate the law against the incitation of racial hatred. For a well-known publisher like Gallimard to publish them would give them a dangerous legitimacy.
Read this article
A cognitive imperative
11 The historian of ideas Pierre-André Taguieff, a specialist in the study of racism who supports the republication of the pamphlets but only in a critical, multidisciplinary edition, explains his position in Cités. Although he was pleased when Gallimard announced its decision to suspend the project, he observes that the texts will, in any case, enter the public domain in France in 2031 (seventy years after Céline’s death) and that it would be better to be prepared.
12 His opposition to Gallimard’s republication hinged on what he describes as the poor quality of the planned critical edition. It would have been a reissue of a book published in 2012 in Quebec (in Canada, works enter the public domain fifty years after the author’s death). The edition’s critical apparatus is purely literary, but the “pamphlets call for an entirely different approach than [the] novels,” writes Taguieff. Moreover, the existing volume contains “errors […], omissions and oversights” that are clearly due to the editor’s “appreciation for Céline”: he “denies that Céline acted as an informer during the Occupation and passes in silence over his relationships with various officials at the SD [a Nazi Party intelligence service].”
13 Referring to “Céline’s pro-Nazi stance,” Taguieff cites passages from the pamphlets in which Céline calls unmistakably for the extermination of the Jews: “If we need calves for the Venture, let’s butcher the Jews!”; “The Jew must disappear”; “Either we want to get rid of the Jews or we don’t want to get rid of them. Whoever desires the end desires the means, with no half measures.”
14 Taguieff bridles at the “hagiographic approach favored by Céline specialists and amateurs passionate about the ‘literary genius,’” among whom he cites the writer Philippe Sollers, a member of Gallimard’s review panel, who described Bagatelles pour un massacre as “a tremendous book.” But he rejects the argument of those who want to use anti-racist legislation to prevent republication, like the militant anti-Nazi Serge Klarsfeld, who claims to want “to avoid encouraging the trend of anti-Semitism.” Because “this political and moral imperative is opposed by a cognitive imperative that has been particularly emphasized by historians: the need to shed more light on an often neglected aspect of pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic propaganda in France.” Immediately afterward, he rejects the frequently advanced argument that it is not the right “time” because “it will always be easy to show that it is not the right time.” And while it is true that “nobody can foresee the destiny of such publications […], that risk does not, in a pluralist, liberal democracy, justify choosing censorship instead of betting on knowledge.” Censoring the texts would backfire by encouraging pirate editions and attracting non-specialists to read them online, where they are freely available with no critical apparatus. “I have, therefore, no objection to a critical and historical edition of the pamphlets,” concludes Taguieff, “as long as it displays all the guarantees of an academic work produced by specialists in the various relevant fields.”
Read this article
The origin of a hallucination
16 Does psychoanalysis still have anything new to say about Céline’s pamphlets? Yes, as Patrick Merot shows in the Revue française de psychanalyse. He does not intend to offer “a psychoanalytic interpretation of Céline’s anti-Semitism,” but “to read two singular texts […] from a clinical point of view.” His goal is to show that analysis of two of the pamphlets can “feed back into our understanding of the great novels.” He focuses on Bagatelles pour un massacre and L’École des cadavres, two texts of more than 300 pages each, both written “in haste,” the first in just a month and the second with an “urgency […] in line with Céline’s perception of the imminence of a conflict.” They take the form of a “breathless accumulation of sketched ideas rather than a structured work.” According to Merot, they are constructed around “two fundamentally distinct metaphors” that feed “two separate delusions.” In both cases, Céline places himself “in the role of victim,” specifically a victim of the Jews. In Bagatelles pour un massacre, the delusion is a fantasy of “anal sexual aggression, of sodomy,” as exemplified by many passages like: “Offer up your asses while awaiting new orders,” or “fifteen million Jews will bugger five hundred million Aryans.” In L’École des cadavres, in which Céline refers to Bagatelles (“If you want to be buggered, you just have to tell us”), the dominant metaphor is instead one of “putrefaction.” “Instead of the denunciation of an all-powerful persecutor who seeks to dominate his victims sexually, we have the description of a rotting body, reduced to the status of meat.” The body as such, that of the narrator and his fellow beings but also, collectively, the “body of nations” and the “body of the masses” (Merot’s words). In Céline’s words: “The despiritualized, depoeticized masses […] are cursed. Monstrous chaos, virulent cellular anarchy, doomed from the chromosome to all types of early cancer […].” Céline refers to “the delivery of our raw flesh, at the specified time, at the Jewish Time, to the slaughterhouses.” “This internal evil,” writes Merot, is “the presence of the bad thing inside him […] identified with the very being of the Jew.” Continuing his analysis, he concludes: “In the shift from Bagatelles to L’École, we see the fantasy transform from an initial stage of persecution paranoia, where the threat comes primarily from the other, to a second stage of delusional hypochondria, where the threat is within the body.”
17 This approach makes it possible to draw connections to Céline’s novels, which already described “an evil existing within himself,” writes Merot: “the departure point of the novels is a melancholic attitude that sees the world as nothing but an immense charnel house occasionally enlivened by bestial convulsions.” Céline once famously wrote that love is “the infinite placed within the reach of poodles.” According to Merot, Céline’s “tragedy, which was also the source of the genius on display in his great novels, is surely that he was unable to talk of anything except what he saw as the hatefulness of human nature.” Hence also his “hate-filled treatment of language.” As shown by his correspondence with his father, where he went so far as to praise slavery, Céline was always an anti-Semite. If there are no traces of his anti-Semitism in Journey to the End of the Night or Death on Credit, writes Merot, that is because he was “still master of his own passions” when he wrote them. His abrupt “[slip] into […] madness” was due to his absorption of Nazi ideology, which gave him a sense of “certainty that he knows the cause of everything happening in the world.” He becomes “a man beset by hallucinations who lets himself be carried away by his visions.” Merot gives his diagnosis: “His discourse is a form of delirious defense against the suffering he portrays.” This comparison between the pamphlets and the novels supports the idea that “it would be wrong to pass in silence over Céline’s anti-Semitic writings.”
Read this article
Translator: Isabelle Chaize, Editor: Anam Zafar, Senior editor: Mark Mellor