CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 I would like to reflect on some of the questions discussed in the public sphere in December 2017 and January 2018 following the French publisher Gallimard’s announcement of the apparently imminent publication of an “academic” edition of Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets. [1]

2 Céline hardly needs introducing: the author of Journey to the End of the Night (1932), which revolutionized received ideas about literary language and narrowly missed out on the Prix Goncourt; of Death on Credit (1936), the great novel about childhood that was reviewed unfavorably by critics; and, between 1937 and 1941, of three of the most violent anti-Semitic pamphlets published since those of Édouard Drumont. There are currently five volumes devoted to Céline (four for his novels and one for his correspondence) in the “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade” series, the flagship of French literary publishing. Céline was published first by Denoël et Steele and then by Denoël alone—Steele having left the partnership because of political disagreements with Denoël in 1936—until December 1945, when Denoël was murdered following the Liberation. Céline became a Gallimard author in 1952 when he returned to France after his trial.

3 The current controversy began on December 1, 2017, on the website of the monthly magazine L’Incorrect, which was founded by friends of Marion-Maréchal Le Pen. It ran an interview with François Gibault, a lawyer representing Céline’s widow, Lucette Destouches. [2] Gibault discussed a new edition of the pamphlets entitled Écrits polémiques, with a preface by the writer Pierre Assouline, that was published in 2012 by the Quebec-based small press Editions 8, run by Régis Tettamanzi. The publisher had taken advantage of the fact that under Canadian law, texts enter the public domain fifty years after the death of their author, instead of after seventy years as in France. Livres Hebdo asked on December 21, 2017: “Will Gallimard republish Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s three anti-Semitic pamphlets next May? The question is dividing the web, worrying associations, and drawing the government’s attention.” [3]

4 The announcement certainly aroused a fair amount of emotion and provoked public, private, and official reactions: a petition signed by more than sixteen thousand people, threats by booksellers to boycott Gallimard publications, heated debates on social networks, a suggestion to reverse the recent renaming of a street in Paris as rue Gaston Gallimard, etc. Frédéric Potier, interministerial delegate for the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia at the Ministry of the Interior, who was the first to demand the removal of the “anti-Semitic and far-right author” Charles Maurras from the national commemorations of 2018, sent a message to Antoine Gallimard asking him to “address concerns” regarding the republication: “At a time when we must fight harder than ever against the scourge of anti-Semitism, the ways in which these texts are made available to the general public must be considered carefully.” [4] Antoine Gallimard subsequently met with Potier. The following weeks saw the publication of numerous opinion pieces on the subject, culminating in a press release to AFP on January 11, 2018, in which the publisher announced the indefinite postponement of the project to publish Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets: “In the name of my freedom as a publisher and my sensitivity to the times, I am suspending this project because I do not believe the necessary methodological and memorial conditions have been met to carry it forward peacefully,” he wrote.

5 In a petition launched following the announcement of the project, a number of academics and researchers, including Pierre-André Taguieff, Marc Angenot, Annette Becker, and Laurent Joly, stated the reasons for their opposition to the planned publication. I will cite an extract from their statement here:


Anyone who reads Céline’s pamphlets can recognize their dangerous virulence […] The author’s literary aura, which endows them with additional seductive power, must not obscure their historical basis, nor the propagandistic role that Céline himself wholeheartedly claimed for them. During the Occupation, the texts proved to be formidably effective at trivializing anti-Jewish hatred, making it “acceptable,” and preparing people for the discriminatory measures put in place by the Vichy government from 1940. The pamphlets are characterized by the ease with which they lend themselves to being cut up and quoted. For these reasons, the proposal to republish any of Céline’s pamphlets must not be taken lightly. A critical edition of the pamphlets should take into consideration their very particular status and examine the effects they have had. While they can, in some respects, be classed as pamphlet literature, they also clearly fall into the category of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda inspired by National Socialism. […] These texts are related, through their “citations,” to the histories of Judaism, anti-Semitism, racism, and anti-racism. The history of ideas and social concepts is also relevant. Given that they seek to make their readers believe certain things and act a certain way, they must also be subjected to argumentative discourse analysis. In other words, any academic edition would have to be produced by a team of specialists in the various relevant fields. […] Such propaganda texts require rigorous contextualization that can identify falsified quotes or figures and dismantle lies and defamatory accusations. [5]

7 Antoine Gallimard, following these developments and the public reaction, said that it would probably never be the “right time” to publish the texts. He is absolutely right. The essayist Philippe Muray claimed that the pamphlets were not “written,” by which he meant that, in contrast to Céline’s novels, they were composed in a rush. [6] I agree with him on this point. Bearing these different views in mind, I would like to consider the question from three different angles: 1) the debate on the nature of the texts; 2) their reception and the literary recognition Céline received in 1937–1938 on the publication of Bagatelles pour un massacre, and the role played by laughter in this reception; 3) what republication of the pamphlets would mean today. Another question to be asked is why we are now faced with a problem that has no good solutions.

Categorization errors regarding the nature of the texts (and the consequences of the resulting misinterpretations)

8 We are not dealing here with texts belonging to a purely literary discourse, but rather texts that were intended as acts (the term that Léon Daudet himself, an important critic at the newspaper L’ Action française, used in his review of the book): acts of discourse, in the sense that to say is to do, as in the theory of speech acts developed by Austin and Searle—whose murderous ideology and politics ultimately nullify any literary judgment of the work.

9 When the pamphlets first began to attract attention in the 1980s, after the inclusion of Céline’s novels in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, it is my view that Céline experts went down the wrong track. They generally adopted, without really questioning them, the psychoanalytical readings put forward at the beginning of the 1980s, particularly by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Kristeva described the pamphlets as a “phantasmatic build-up,” [7] an “avowed delirium,” [8] texts that are “doubtless contradictory, hotheaded, ‘raving’ if you wish,” [9] and that, “in spite of their stereotyped themes, carry on the wild beauty of his style.” [10] This analysis, one of the first to consider this side of Céline’s output, has long been seen as authoritative. To describe anti-Semitic texts as “raving” is to treat them as a purposeless exercise in incoherence with no message for others, no interaction with their surroundings or the world. It also makes it impossible to classify the pamphlets alongside other forms of speech and genres used to express criticism, like satire or lampoons, or more recently manifestos or petitions, as codified forms of protest, accusation, or social denunciation.

10 In contrast, very little attention has been paid to the French Canadian academic Marc Angenot’s major book, La parole pamphlétaire: typologie des discours modernes (1982), which was published at around the same time by Payot. Angenot expressed surprise that recent, rapid developments in narrative poetics had neglected the analysis of what he called “social discourse.” More broadly, he was struck by the inability of non-genetic structuralism to account for doxological and persuasive genres. In other terms: “delirium” vs. “text.”

11 For any writing deemed to be literary in any way, the notion of text took precedence over that of discourse. Simplifying the issue somewhat, we can say that for reasons connected to the institutional and intellectual configuration of literary studies in higher education in France, French critics completely forgot about the genres of discourse codified by rhetoric, in other words different types of occasion or institutional context for addressing different types of audience, and discourses dealing with equally different temporalities: the future in the case of political writing, and the past in the case of legal writing (the question this type of literature aims to answer being: what happened?). The same critics have thus generally seen the pamphlets as almost contextless and possibly as isolated “literary” artefacts. Studies of the pamphlet as a genre, of the position of the enunciator, of the form and content of pamphlet discourse, of the strategy behind the syntagmatic development of texts, of the social functions fulfilled by pamphlets, of clichés presenting pamphlets as expressions of a solitary individual, a temperament, or a mood—all of this was relegated to the background.

12 In our case, Céline’s pamphlets are extremely clever texts that manipulate with skill: I mean manipulation here in the sense it has in communication studies, of deliberate dissimulation and asymmetry in the information relationship between author and reader. Nevertheless, they have generally been interpreted not in terms of their rhetorical techniques, but as utterances moved by the singular passion of a subject placed outside himself, creating the illusion of an enunciator that the texts always strive to present as independent, free of any partisan connection, and answering to no one but himself. The research into Bagatelles pour un massacre carried out by Alice Kaplan and later systematized by Régis Tettamanzi, in contrast, showed that these texts can be compared to other anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi gazettes and brochures of the time, and that they comprise a sort of cut-and-paste literature based on collage and plagiarism, despite the pamphleteer’s constant proclamation of the authenticity of his words as his highest virtue. [11]

Céline’s literary recognition in 1938 and the reception of Bagatelles

13 It is hard to avoid the conclusions suggested by the successful publication and critical reception of Bagatelles pour un massacre. Of all the author’s works published in the 1930s, it was the one, along with Journey to the End of the Night, that received the most press coverage and the highest critical acclaim. [12] Its sales between 1938 and 1944 are estimated at seventy-five thousand copies. Out of the sixty or so articles devoted to Bagatelles between December 1937 and fall 1938, fewer than ten express clear opposition to its content. [13] In the daily press, negative opinions were mostly confined to titles with low circulation. The major weeklies, in contrast, described it in glowing, enthusiastic terms. Le Canard Enchaîné stated—I quote—“What we have here is a nice, clean, neat sort of hate.” Its columnist talked of a “masterpiece”—a word used frequently in this regard even though the press had never used it to describe Journey in 1932: “from a literary perspective,” wrote another journalist, “Bagatelles pour un massacre is a masterpiece of the highest order.” Gringoire, Candide, and Je Suis Partout all greeted the pamphlet as the emergence of a “popular” anti-Semitism. Brasillach, who was convicted and shot in February 1945 following one of the notorious purge trials, saw the text as a sign of the imminent revolution of the “native French”: “It is impossible for a French-born Frenchman not to read at least some of these pages with relief […] it is four hundred pages of invective, four hundred large-format pages of insults […] Read this book, make sure other people read it.” [14]

14 In view of the volume’s growing success, L’Action Française soon honored it with a spot on the front page, where Léon Daudet pondered the meaning of a “symptomatic” book: “Make no mistake, this book is AN ACT, and one that may perhaps, one day, have formidable consequences […] it is a predatory book, one that appears under a stormy sky, illuminated by lightning […] the match lit here is capable of starting a fire twenty kilometers away […] if, after Germany and Romania, France embraces anti-Semitism, we will no longer be able to stop it.” [15]

15 We now turn to the critical reaction of the literary intelligentsia. Even a respectable magazine like Cahiers du Sud spoke of a “masterpiece”: “It would be a blatant display of stupidity to attempt to deny that Bagatelles pour un massacre is a masterpiece on the pretext that its author treats Jews as kikes.” [16] The Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), for its part, reserved a special place for the volume. In February 1938, Marcel Arland claimed it marked the return of the authentic language of the author’s first novel:


Bagatelles pour un massacre is Mr. Louis-Ferdinand Céline at large […] He is having the time of his life […] playing his role with a perfect mixture of frenzied abandon and conscientiousness […] It is first the Jew himself, in his specific race, his distinctive traits, that Céline attacks […] Setting out to express a very distinct hatred, he ends up exposing all his hatreds. And the word Jew almost takes on the sense that the word bourgeois had not so long ago. It is in the name of independence, frankness, and lyrical emotion that Céline speaks of the subject. […] it is a good thing for such indictments to be raised, even if they are confused, muddled, or wrong on half the counts […] The Céline of Bagatelles joins and extends that of Journey. There is no doubt that Céline produces his best work at those moments when he is directly moved and reacts as he pleases, with no concern for fiction nor composition. [17]

17 Gide had until then not seen fit to comment on Céline’s works. In April 1938, as the book was becoming more widely known beyond the literary field, he chose to review the pamphlet in the NRF alongside a work by Jacques Maritain. The result was an article of calculated provocation in which he expressed approval of Céline in the name of freedom and the rights of literature:


Céline excels at invective. He will attack anything. Judaism is no more than a pretext here. A pretext he chose because it was as crude, as trivial, and as well-known as possible; the one that most readily mocks nuance, enables the most cursory judgments, the most enormous exaggerations, has the least concern for fairness, gives the writer the freest rein to indulge in excess. And Céline is never better than when he is at his least measured. He’s 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. [18]

19 In her analysis of the pamphlet’s sources, Alice Y. Kaplan says correctly that Bagatelles “transferred to the world of belles lettres a subject that would not normally have gone beyond the confines of small-scale pamphlet literature aimed at a mass audience.” [19] Indeed, Céline managed to blur the boundaries between different levels of culture, high and low, to bring into contact sections of society that were not supposed to meet, and so, as one columnist wrote, “to bridge the gap between debauchery and purity, between the ideal and the mire, between baseness and grandeur.” [20]

20 To praise it, those who approved of the pamphlet strove to emphasize the linguistic and stylistic qualities of an author whose novels they had previously excoriated in the name of taste and beauty. Academia finally found a social use for the transgression of norms and admitted Céline into the fold of national literature: “it is lucky,” agreed the columnist of La Revue hebdomadaire, “that a Céline has been found to talk of these things in the appropriate language, and when one considers his subject, one is tempted to forgive his vocabulary.” [21] It made a “vulgar” author respectable: “while reading [the pamphlet],” wrote Brasillach, “I had no regrets about spending time with Mr. Céline.” [22] In a way, Céline’s anti-Semitism can be seen as the price for his admission to “French literature,” payable to those who, to put it plainly, using Emmanuel Berl’s words, were less bothered by the obsessive repetition of the word “Jew” than that of the word “shit.” [23]

21 Those who came out in favor of the pamphlet in these political and literary circles had until then refused to grant the least literary or artistic value to the writer’s previous novels. Their enthusiasm for the pamphlet was proportional to the disdain with which they had greeted Death on Credit, barely a year earlier, when they had demanded the novel be burned or at least censored. Jean-Pierre Maxence, who had written of his “repulsion” at Death on Credit, found Bagatelles pour un massacre “admirable”:


Mr. Louis-Ferdinand Céline shows his full worth. He has found the right formula […] we are satisfied […] In a novel, this kind of vocabulary and slang can be tiresome. […] Invective—and perhaps especially the language of invective—is not always suitable for a novel. In a pamphlet, in contrast, the use of invective is effective. […] It is no longer aimed at imaginary beings, but very real figures, fully fleshed-out faces. From this perspective, and from many others […] Bagatelles pour un massacre is certainly Mr. Céline’s best book. [24]

23 Academia’s enthusiastic support of the “vulgar” tone of Bagatelles can be analyzed in terms of the division of labor at work in anti-Semitic discourse. Far from being received solely as the anti-Semitic pamphlet that history sees it as, Bagatelles pour un massacre actually marked an important moment in its author’s career. It led to his being recognized as a writer by a significant portion of the literary world, which had initially refused to see the author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit in those terms. The approving critical responses that I have just quoted provide ample evidence of the anti-emitism prevalent in French literary culture at the time.

Terror of laughter

24 I now come to my second point: laughter and Terror. Readers and critics nowadays who are in favor of republishing the pamphlets frequently invoke laughter and comedy as witnesses and guarantees of the innocuousness, even innocence, of a discourse and a style. The situation in 1937–1938 was similar. There is a whole history waiting to be written of how laughter, in its various forms, contributed in those years to undermining and destroying the French Republic and its democratic values.

25 Writers at the time heavily emphasized the laughter unleashed in them by Bagatelles pour un massacre. Laughter indeed belonged to the panoply of methods deployed by Céline to erode solemnity, to ridicule, to overcome his readers’ misgivings, and unite them in a community of complicity. Brasillach declared that he was “royally amused” while reading the pamphlet and that he had found “joy and consolation” in it: “all we ask for is permission to enjoy ourselves,” he concluded. [25] The author of a review in L’Émancipation Nationale stated that reading it had made him “sick with laughter.” [26]A reviewer in La Revue de France confided that he had “laughed a lot while reading these outrageous ‘trifles [bagatelles].’” [27]

26 By stating that he saw Céline’s pamphlet above all as a literary exercise, Gide also indicated that he wanted nothing to do with the type of pleasure triggered in the reader by the author’s anti-Semitic jokes and wordplay. The predatory laughter it aroused was intended to destroy the culture and spirit of the salons and the world. This destructive laughter, indifferent to the nature of what it destroyed, was, in Bagatelles, the driving force behind puns (“je vous Zay,” referring to Jean Zay, the minister of education from the Popular Front), deliberately incorrect titles (“Madame Valéry” instead of “Monsieur Valéry”), and scatological and symbolic mutilations of proper names (“Blaoum,” “Bloum,” “Bloom-Bloom,” “Bite-Blum,” all referring to Léon Blum, leader of the Popular Front). This linguistic deformation is an indicator of the ideological ambition of a pamphlet that sought to move words and terrorist laughter into the political sphere, where they would ultimately have to be taken seriously.

27 Among far-right journalists like Daudet, Béraud, Brasillach, or Rebatet, laughter was part of polemical and political culture. The predatory laughter of caricatures and articles in the French press at the end of the interwar period marked the convergence of several traditions: anti-Republicanism, fin de siècle anarchism, bohemianism, and the farcical spirit of Montmartre cabarets and revues, where an interest in politics was always coupled with a refusal to take it seriously. [28] In his Bréviaire du journalisme (1936), Daudet argued that L’Action française’s aim was to “move our readers, make them laugh, make them think”; he believed the most accomplished polemical writing was that which managed to unite “comedy with insult.” In Notre Avant-guerre (1941), Brasillach describes being endlessly amused by the development of events, and recalls Bagatelles pour un massacre as a book “of great eloquence” and “joyous ferocity.”

28 When Darquier de Pellepoix, who was appointed by Pierre Laval in May 1942 as the head of the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs, used the phrase “he who laughs last laughs longest” in La France Enchaînée (a newspaper to which Céline subscribed), Bernard Lecache, the founder of the Ligue internationale contre l’antisémitisme (LICA, International League Against Anti-Semitism), was reduced to responding to his threats by saying in Le Droit de Vivre: “The grand words, the grand principles, have long since been discarded. One no longer says: ‘Die, Society!’ Society is not all bad. Let the Jews die, everything will be fine! […] Are we complaining? It’s because we don’t understand French, we don’t know how to take a joke.” [29]

29 In 1938 there were very few writers capable of understanding the real significance of the trend of mockery sweeping across society. Jean Giraudoux observed that laughter was the Trojan horse of propaganda: “Satire is a laughing spy.” [30] Bernanos also intuited the link between derisive laughter and society’s inability to defend itself. He wrote in Scandale de la vérité (1939): “for my part, I have stopped laughing. Like many brave people around the world, I have stopped laughing.” Paulhan commented that in seeking to do away with clichés and rhetoric, literary Terror had given birth to slogans and watchwords.

30 Between 1937 and 1939, while Céline was publishing his pamphlets, Breton was preparing his Anthology of Black Humor, which came out in June 1940. He thought he could preserve humor, the “only intellectual commerce that can be considered high luxury,” [31] by contrasting it to innuendo and the “heavy-handed jokes” [32] and “trivial gaiety” [33] of Rabelaisian comedy, “in which the ‘Gallic spirit’ gladly recognizes itself.” [34] He referred to the pages in Freud where the latter, in 1928, had exalted the ferment of revolt, the spectacular nature of humor, and emphasized its liberating, fine, and elevating aspects. [35] Breton chose to ignore the destructive violence and ferocity that laughter sometimes contains. He passed over Baudelaire’s analysis of Satanic laughter in silence as well as Freud’s 1905 text Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which exposed the psychic mechanisms of aggressive pleasure, suppressed unconscious hatred, and the community created by laughter at the expense of an excluded other.

31 In January 1938, Raymond Queneau, who was writing a Traité des vertus démocratiques (Treatise on democratic virtues) at the time, published the remarkable polemical article “L’humour et ses victimes” (“Humor and its victims”), which opposed Surrealist manifestations of humor. He commented that their humor no longer had anything in common with the great Dadaist laughter of the early years. He suggested that the humor of Jarry and the literary anarchism of the bohemians had turned into the most reactionary form of conservatism and that it now served as antidemocratic propaganda:


Those who only know how to demolish and who confine themselves to the most sterile mental forms […], find it extremely difficult to make an honest career as a writer or artist and to earn any glory; to do so, they must first come out of their confinement and approach the territory of poetry, politics, etc. in disguise. But they soon need to make excuses to themselves, and humor serves as that excuse, as well as their excuse to others. Humor thus becomes synonymous with cynicism. There are people who make humor, this kind of humor, a daily habit […] Whatever they do, their excuse is ready. If they do something lousy, it’s for the sake of humor, and in that case, we can do nothing but accept it. If they are guilty of cowardice, it’s also for the sake of humor. [36]

33 Laughter had changed sides; it had become the laughter of the lynch mob, an “absorption of the great by the petty,” and one of the ways in which literary terrorism ultimately contributed to the ongoing destruction of values and the rout of democratic ideals. Queneau concluded: “The cowardice of the use of humor we are currently witnessing is to attack what is most difficult, what demands the most virtue, everything elevated, and so to make common cause with mediocrity. It is a force that tends to belittle and demean everything—and people rush to its aid. Mediocre people cannot tolerate the possible existence of grandeur; nor can humorists […] humor, therefore, was necessary for the goals that were more or less unconsciously proposed.” [37]

34 The place of calumny, the undermining effect of laughter, and the role it played in the annihilation of republican and democratic ideals and language all testify powerfully to the alliance between the mob and the elite[38] to which Hannah Arendt referred in the context of totalitarianism. This alliance “rested largely on the genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability” [39] in the form of the distinguished language, the pretenses, and the false culture of the bourgeois world: “the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing.” [40] After the war, Sartre analyzed this terroristic function of comic writing in “The Portrait of the Antisemite”: “They [anti-Semites] know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.” [41]

35 Facing the hypothetical academic republication of the pamphlets more than seventy years after these comments, we must ask ourselves a few simple questions: Would people these days laugh when reading these texts? Who would laugh? Who and what would they laugh at? Would they laugh at purposefully chosen quotes and extracts? Céline having become, over the last thirty years since the first performances by Fabrice Lucchini, an author for actors (Podalydès, Gallienne, Balmer, Dana, Lavant, Deutsch, etc.), would it be feasible to add selected fragments from the pamphlets to the existing corpus of texts read in public, in a theater? What type of ephemeral community would such laughter create?

Freedom of expression and “censorship”

36 A second important argument often put forward in favor of publishing the anti-Semitic pamphlets is that not publishing them would amount to an act of censorship and a violation of freedom of expression in a climate depicted as increasingly puritan and socially restrictive. Some also suggest that anti-Semitism is just an opinion and that there is no justification for punishing an opinion—but anti-Semitism in the Republic is not mere opinion: it is an offense against public order, a crime. The argument that freedom of expression would be curtailed is a variation on another argument of a higher order: “They want to prevent the republication of Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets,” which crops up in diverse forms from the most varied people—we must “trust the public,” trust its “intelligence,” its “critical judgment”; “we must burst the abscess and publish them as soon as possible”; “the public are adults”—buttressed by the claim that literature is an exceptional case and so “everything is publishable.” And finally, in the current populist version: “What right do they have to deprive the public of reading the text?” or even “anyone, not just researchers, should be able to access and read these texts.” As the Americans might contend: it is necessary to stop trying to purify words, acts, customs—anything that might be construed as an insult or an act of contempt by the communities concerned. Or to put it another way: if we allow the publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammed, we must also allow the publication of Céline’s pamphlets.

37 Here we have the classic argument of liberalism, that of the veil of ignorance, of decision-making in the abstract, which has been much discussed and challenged since its reformulation by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971). The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment that involves putting oneself in the original position, with no knowledge of one’s own tastes, attributes, and social position in order to be able to choose the best principles of justice with the veil of ignorance guaranteeing fairness. The hypothetical situation is a way of thinking about the system without letting one’s own interests interfere. Because the principles selected by individuals in this thought experiment are against any kind of discrimination, these individuals would therefore defend the principle of freedom according to which “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.” [42] It is difficult, however, to apply this argument to Céline’s pamphlets: it is simply not possible to judge them in the abstract. Like all writing with a purpose, they are produced and maintained by a context and a reality, by the encounter between a context and a reality. That is why to republish them would be to revive them, to bring their words and their message back to life.

38 Those who use the accusation of censorship as a form of blackmail are those who privilege individual liberty above all else, neglecting the general interest and particularly its guarantor, the law. They normally refer, implicitly or explicitly, to the definition of free speech as set out in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. In this connection, it is worth noting that Little, Brown and Company, Céline’s US publisher in the 1930s, published his first two novels but then declined to publish Bagatelles pour un massacre in January 1938. [43] The First Amendment specifies a notion of freedom of speech that simply does not exist in France, where it is guaranteed but not absolute. It is precisely defined by laws that restrict it in certain cases: incitement to murder, racial hatred, discrimination, etc. Céline’s pamphlets are guilty precisely of incitement to racial hatred. It is from this point of view, and not the “literary” one, that they must be considered. And we see no reason why the law should make a categorical exception in their case.

Prestige and credibility

39 A third obstacle to the republication of the pamphlets is, in the specific case of a company like Gallimard, the prestige and credibility of the publisher. The normalizing effect of publishing them and the legitimacy it would lend them should not be taken lightly. Céline’s relevance is no longer solely literary, as it was in the 1980s when his novels were added to the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade and critical essays and theses devoted to his work proliferated. These days it is political, as shown by the stir caused by the national commemoration planned and then canceled in 2011, and by the public reaction to the projected republication of the pamphlets in December 2017 and January 2018. His name is now associated with the return of xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout Europe, as well as in France. Whether one likes it or not, he is part of the reconstruction of what was known in the 1930s as an “anti-Semitic library”: Drieu la Rochelle’s Romans, récits et nouvelles have been in the Pléiade since 2012, Le dossier Rebatet (comprising texts by Lucien Rebatet including Les Décombres, a bestseller during the Occupation with 250,000 copies sold) is now available in Laffont’s “Bouquins” series (2015), and a volume of Maurras’s writing, L’avenir de l’intelligence et autres textes, has just been published in the same series.

40 I would like to conclude by quoting Annie Ernaux. Here is her response when asked what she thought of her publisher’s plan to republish Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets:


I am absolutely against the project to publish Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets, and it is worth mentioning that I have read them […]. I think it’s one thing for the pamphlets to be easily available on the internet and another thing for them to be on sale in stores, and moreover published by a company as prestigious as Gallimard. Republishing them would dignify them, and so lessen their unbearable burden. If a book with the same content were to appear today without Céline’s name attached to it, it would obviously not be published. Writers are not above the law. Either what we write matters and has an impact, or what we write does not matter and has no impact. In the case of Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets, we are talking about other people’s deaths. [44]

42 The final question we must ask ourselves is simple: Why do we need these texts?


  • [1]
    This article is a reworking of “Céline et le politique,” a presentation to the Colloque international in Paris, Sciences Po, July 4–7, 2018, and a conference held at the EPhEP, Paris, Centre Sèvres, November 22, 2018. The author would like to thank Hélène l’Heuillet and Anne Simonin.
  • [2]
    See the roundup of press articles about the incident on the website Le Petit Célinien, which traces the origin of the controversy to an interview with Philippe Sollers in the online magazine La cause littéraire on July 18, 2017: “The only critical edition of the pamphlets is available in Canada, from Editions 8, in a critical edition by Régis Tettamanzi, and it is that edition that will probably end up being published in France. This is a scoop I’m giving you, this is what Antoine Gallimard told me. A critical edition changes everything. Instead of people taking clichés or phrases out of context, there will be a modern, critical study. […] Céline is like a rocket, one can certainly judge him as despicable, but first and foremost there’s his literary talent, which is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about that. If all it took to be recognized as a great writer was to have the right opinions, it would be easy.”
  • [3]
    Laurent Lemire, “Les pamphlets antisémites de Céline en mai 2018 chez Gallimard ?” Livres Hebdo, December 21, 2017. Translator’s note: This quotation is our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of foreign language material cited in this article are our own.
  • [4]
    See Clément Solym, “Le gouvernement ne sera pas ‘censeur’ des pamphlets antisémites de Céline,” Actualitté, December 18, 2017.
  • [5]
    “À quelles conditions rééditer aujourd’hui les pamphlets antisémites de Céline,” BibliObs, December 12, 2018. In 2017, Pierre-André Taguieff and Annick Duraffour published Céline, la race, le juif. Légende littéraire et vérité historique (Paris: Fayard).
  • [6]
    Philippe Muray, Céline (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981), 127–128.
  • [7]
    Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 184.
  • [8]
    Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 180.
  • [9]
    Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 174.
  • [10]
  • [11]
    Alice Y. Kaplan, Relevé des sources et citations dans Bagatelles pour un massacre (Tusson: Du Lérot, 1987); Régis Tettamanzi, Esthétique de l’outrance, idéologie et esthétique dans les pamphlets de Céline, 2 vols (Tusson: Du Lérot, 1999).
  • [12]
    André Derval, L’Acceuil critique de Bagatelles pour un massacre (Paris: Editions Ecriture, 2010).
  • [13]
    Press release, Fonds Céline, I.M.E.C.; archives of the C.D.J.C.
  • [14]
    Robert Brasillach, “L.-F. Céline : Bagatelles pour un massacre,” L’Action française, January 13, 1938, 3.
  • [15]
    Léon Daudet, “Un livre symptomatique, Bagatelles pour un massacre,” L’Action française, February 10, 1938, 1.
  • [16]
    Gaston Derycke, “Bagatelles pour un massacre par Louis-Ferdinand Céline,” Les Cahiers du sud, June1938, 469-470.
  • [17]
    Marcel Arland, “Bagatelles pour un massacre, par Louis-Ferdinand Céline,” Nouvelle Revue Française, no. 293, February 1938, 308–310.
  • [18]
    André Gide “Les Juifs, Céline et Maritain,” Nouvelle revue française, no. 295, April 1938, 630–636.
  • [19]
    Alice Y. Kaplan, Relevé des sources et citations dans Bagatelles pour un massacre (Tusson: Éditions du Lérot, 1987).
  • [20]
    Serge Doring, “L’Ecole des cadavres,” Rex, December 9, 1938.
  • [21]
    Gonzague Truc, “L’art et la passion de M. Ferdinand Céline,” La Revue hebdomadaire, July 1938, 550–555.
  • [22]
    Brasillach, “Bagatelles pour un massacre,” 3.
  • [23]
    Emmanuel Berl, “Louis-Ferdinand Céline antisémite,” L’Homme libre, January 21, 1938.
  • [24]
    Jean-Pierre Maxence, Gringoire, May 22, 1936, 4; Maxence, “Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Bagatelles pour un massacre,” Gringoire, March 4, 1938, 4.
  • [25]
    Brasillach, “Bagatelles pour un massacre,” 3.
  • [26]
    “Reflets de la semaine, propos de l’homme d’en bas,” L’Emancipation nationale, January 14, 1938, 2.
  • [27]
    M. Richard, La Revue de France, March 1938, 101–104
  • [28]
    Jerrold Seigel, Paris Bohème, culture et politique aux marges de la vie bourgeoise 1830–1930 (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 208 ff.; Daniel Grojnowski, Aux commencements du rire moderne, l’esprit fumiste (Paris: Corti, 1997).
  • [29]
    Bernard Lecache, “Haines en commun et feux croisés. Droite, gauche : pan sur les Juifs,” Le Droit de Vivre 102, February 19, 1938, 1.
  • [30]
    Jean Giraudoux, “Caricature et satire,” Littérature (1941) (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), 147–48.
  • [31]
    André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), xiii.
  • [32]
    Breton, Anthology, 3.
  • [33]
    Breton, Anthology, 98.
  • [34]
  • [35]
    Breton, Anthology, xviii.
  • [36]
    Raymond Queneau, “L’humour et ses victimes,” Volontés 2, January 20, 1938, collected in Queneau, Le Voyage en Grèce (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 80–88. The article was written following a speech by Breton on humor in October 1937.
  • [37]
  • [38]
    Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 326.
  • [39]
    Arendt, Origins, 333.
  • [40]
    Arendt, Origins, 332.
  • [41]
    In Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. George J. Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 14.
  • [42]
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Cambridge: HUP Belknap, 1999 [1971]), 53.
  • [43]
    See Alice Kaplan, “Selling Céline: The Céline-Little Brown Correspondence (1934–1938),” Céline, USA, South Atlantic Quarterly 93, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 373–419.
  • [44]
    Annie Ernaux, “La lutte c’est la vie,” Le Journal du Dimanche, May 27, 2018, 37.

Gallimard’s temporarily suspended plan to publish Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets has aroused much debate in literary circles. The controversial status of the texts, their literary virtuosity, their supposed “historical” character, their “hidden” psychoanalytical meaning, or even their literary “interest”: none of these are sufficient justification for a republication that would be dangerous in the current climate. This article analyzes the debates that have arisen over the last two years around the political questions raised by authors, critics, publishers, and readers concerning these controversial texts.

  • critics
  • anti-Semitism
  • literature
  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Philippe Roussin
Philippe Roussin is a research director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and deputy director of the Centre de recherche sur les arts et le langage (CRAL) (Centre for Arts and Languages) (mixed research unit CNRS-EHESS-UMR). His publications include Misère de la littérature, terreur de l’histoire, Céline et la littérature contemporaine (Gallimard, 2005).
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