Céline And Bébert At Sigmaringen

My attention was first drawn to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s final trilogy by the bizarre fact that he travelled though an almost-crushed Germany with both his wife and his cat. Travelling with a cat is quite hard at the best of times, and the bouncing rubble can hardly have made it easier. Bébert seems to have been a highly unusual cat, coming when called.

I was also curious to discover why this once so avant-garde writer had become an anti-Semite (so rabid that the Nazis found him embarrassing) and a quisling. Just as I was reading about the make-believe enclave created for the remnants of the Vichy government, a picture of Sigmaringen Castle appeared in the news; for his widow had just died, at the age of 107 our last living link with the place and time.

Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets have long been banned. He was writing this memoir in the Fifties, and had either lost interest in the Jews or had learned from his Danish imprisonment to shut up about them. So I never did discover directly what had been driving his animus. There was certainly nothing to be found in the trilogy by way of admiration for Hitler, the Nazis or the Germans, and he talked about collaborationists and liberators as being the same kind of opportunist scum.

He seemed upset by the use of white phosphorus on Dresden, but there was something else that exercised him even more: the Senegalese soldiers of the Free French general Leclerc and their alleged penchant for beheading civilians with their sabres. Again and again he returns to this theme, in connection with a massacre at nearby Strasbourg. If this really happened, I wonder idly what sensation of black empowerment might have accrued from decapitating whites. More to the point, being beheaded by a black man held a special horror for Céline, greater than other ways of dying. I myself could think of many worse ways to go, and I cannot see why the skin colour of my executioner should matter to anybody.

Indirectly, I thought I could see an aetiology for his anti-Semitism. For Céline seemed terribly upset by all and any “miscegenation”, especially with Asiatics, under which rubric he seemed to consider the Jews. Lumping Jews and Chinese together seems bizarre to us, but this does in fact seem to have been his mental furniture. He may have been influenced by “the Décadence” (Baudelaire and Huysmans) and taken things too biologically.

In addition, his obsession with “carriers” must have had something to do with his profession of doctor in the slums of Paris. Nowadays we are more inclined to believe in “hybrid vigour” than in “racial purity”, and cannot see the least analogy between ethno-religious minorities and typhus. Perhaps Céline had purely personal reasons that he did not share with readers of his final trilogy, or perhaps the cognitive mistake was inherent in the medical science of his day. The hero of Ford Madox Ford’s quartet is an old-fashioned Tory and a wannabe Anglican saint, but nevertheless stands for the lethal-chambering of unhealthy children. Such eugenics were originally about handicaps, alcoholism and syphilis, but could all too easily be extended to an ethnic group you did not like. In which case I have to wonder what other awful “scientific” blunders we might be making right now. My money is on permitting blanket coverage of electro-magnetic radiation.

Posted on March 1, 2020 at 19:00 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Odds And Ends, Miscellaneous

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