A Biscuit Tin Full of Tears: Rereading Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night
I’m rereading Ferdinand Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night,” for the first time in more than a decade. For those who’ve never read it, here’s a short description of the book: a young wiseass Frenchman named Bardamu is sitting in a Parisian café, arguing with his friend about the merits of the French spirit. As they’re arguing, a column of soldiers marches past. Bardamu, in a spontaneous act somewhere between patriotism and Dadaist provocation—joins the poilus on the march. After he decides he’s had enough of this esprit-de-corps, he tries to fall out of the ranks, but it’s too late. They close around him and he’s led into a garrison. Before he knows it, he’s a soldier. Although he already considered himself something of a misanthrope up to this point, the Great War is his first experience of how wretched, ugly, and insane the species is. He quickly learns the maxim propounded by boxer Willie “Will-o-the-Wisp” Pep, that “he who hits and runs away lives to fight another day.” Only Bardamu does a lot more running than hitting. But because he makes such a close friend of cowardice—much as Captain Kurtz made a friend of horror in Heart of Darkness—Bardamu survives where many others die. He ends up in several mental hospitals, and bounces around the homefront for a while. His experiences with women arouse his lecherousness but also his contempt for the fairer sex. It’s not personal or even misogynistic. He appears to hate humanity (with good reason, as war is a very human endeavor), and women play a key part in the propagation of the human race. After the Great War ends, Bardamu courts more misery by signing on to set sail for French Colonial Africa. There he gets a closeup look at the rubber plantations—what John Dunlop and King Leopold hath wrought. The brutality of the slavedrivers, their exploitation of the dirt-poor Africans, and the seeming conspiracy of the natural environment to kill his white ass only further embitter him. Although now—thanks to the creeping jungle illness—a delirious kind of insanity has been added to the mix. The worse things get, the more amused Bardamu seems to be. Or, as famous comedian / exhibitionist masturbator Louis C.K. once said, “No matter how bad life gets, it’s still funny.” Bardamu nearly dies from a combination of malaria and dysentery before being shanghaied, sold to work on a tramp ship heading for harbor in New York City. It's here that his misery and alienation deepen to levels he couldn’t heretofore imagine, even in the bloody nightmare of war or in the jungle infested with Cenozoic-sized mosquitoes. Walking around Manhattan, he is lost—reduced to the insignificance of an atom—his disorientation as a pauper and foreigner only exacerbated by the beauty and wealth abounding. Everything is a temptation to him: the silent movies he watches at the giant Times Square cineplexes, the lovely flapper girls marching past in stockings and high heels; the shop windows and luxury hotels, the very sight of which torment him with pleasures he’ll always be too poor to enjoy. He has always been painfully aware of his relative poverty, but he knew the streets of Paris well enough to avoid the sights that might tempt and mock him. Here, where he doesn’t know the terrain, every step is treacherous, and could lead to another penthouse or department store fronted by a gold-gilded revolving door. Eventually he finds his way to Detroit, and from there returns, tired and defeated—perhaps utterly destroyed—to France. Once home, he assumes his vocation as a doctor, working at a small clinic in a shabby Paris suburb. What was Céline—or his alter-ego Bardamu—up to here? Why push oneself to such extremes not just once, but time after time? My own personal experience of war left me exhausted and wary of having any further exciting experiences for the remainder of my life. Where does one even get the energy to court the darkness the way Céline did, going from war to a godforsaken outpost in French Cameroon, then onward to America? We all seem to want to live a full life, but the real question is what it’s full of, and for Bardamu, well...it consists mostly of shit, and yet he never quite seems to tire of eating it. We get some indication of what drives Bardamu after he reaches America and looks up a girl he knew in France, asking her for money, help, shelter. She ushers him out of her apartment, and he consoles himself as he goes out into the dark and cold Manhattan night thusly: “Always getting shoved out into the night like this, I said to myself, I’m bound to end up somewhere. That’s some consolation. ‘Chin up, Ferdinand,’ I kept saying to myself, to keep up my courage. ‘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.’” He is seeking some kind of truth beyond the readymade ones that suffice for almost all people, whether it be God, country, family, or merely a subsistence wage. If he doesn’t find anything at the end (and he doesn’t) he will have at least satisfied his curiosity. He will have learned that there is nothing, and that—paradoxical as it sounds—is something. He is not an anarch in the sense of Ernst Jünger (though his relentless interior monologue does sometimes swell to verge on becoming a secret second self.) Still, he uses the hypocrisy, falsity, and pure nightmarishness of the world and people as a kind of whetstone against which to hone his own mind and soul. Death and the attritional affects of time on the living are not only fascinating to him, but an obsession, which he regards as the sole manifestations of genuine truth. Whenever he sees his own face accidentally in some reflective surface, he notes the changes, the new lines and furrows, the deepened look of defeat, the rodentlike eyes. His curiosity is morbid, but limned by an almost a Cronenbergian love of the entropy’s progress. He also sees and feels the way time and gravity imprint themselves on women he rediscovers after the passage of years. Women he still finds beautiful, but now compromised by flaws marring the dimmed illusion of perfection. And of course, because he is a prick, he relishes the way time undercuts their confidence and value in the sexual marketplace, putting them (almost) within his reach. And still, despite the book’s reputation as being a nihilistic black comedy, there is a strong undercurrent of genuine sadness, authentic and bereft of all melodrama. If it were only so bleak and misanthropic as I remembered it, rereading it now wouldn’t be so painful. It would just be boring like “American Psycho,” or as tediously transgressive as “Naked Lunch” or “Fight Club.” It’s the less guarded, much rarer moments, that make it so wounding, even to my mostly benumbed senses. Sure, part of it is that I’m older, and the defeated tone rings much truer to a middle-aged man than it did to sapling in his early 20s. Stumbling on some passages as a young man produced not even the slightest twinge of doubt or recognition. But now—having had my ass kicked by the world—I can almost hear an echo as from a pebble dropped into a well, rereading the following: “As long as we’re young, we manage to find excuses for the stoniest indifference...But later on, when life shows us how much cunning, cruelty, and malice are required just to keep the body at ninety-eight point six, we catch on, we know the score, we begin to understand how much swinishness it takes to make up a past. Just take a look at yourself and the degree of rottenness you’ve come to. There’s no mystery about it, no more room for fairy tales; if you’ve lived this long, it’s because you’ve squashed any poetry you had in you.” There’s not just pain and sadness in the reading, but shame—an emotional Fremdscham for the entire human race from which such truths only further alienate one. Céline forces us to recognize how essential cowardice is to survival. But the medicine only goes down and doesn’t strike one as hectoring because he so ruthlessly examines himself before judging anyone else. In the reflection glanced in passing shopfronts in New York he discovers something just as bad anything he saw in Ypres or Cameroon. But the sadness also comes from realizing that Céline was not so much courting the darkness and bitterness as slowly being driven to carry them, like an overburdened mule. It’s no coincidence that his alter-ego, Bardamu, takes his name from two French words, “Barda” which means “pack,” and “mu” from the verb “mouvoir” which means “to move.” As the pícaro sets out, he drops the baggage of lies and received wisdom, but picks up that which comes with experience and hard truth. The only way to truly drop pack, like Zola’s troops in La Débâcle, is to die. And Bardamu—as he constantly reminds us—is too cowardly and illogical to kill himself. But is he a mere misanthropic mule, an accursed beast carrying the twin burdens of mechanized war and industrialization? His cynicism the stigmata of one forced to suffer alone for the sins of modernism? *** A misanthrope is “one who hates or distrusts humankind.” One could not get burnt as badly as Céline did without once having trusted, and then having that trust repeatedly violated. Misanthropy feels like a philosophical decision, a willful turning-away or discounting of all evidence of human kindness or decency that might alter one’s perception. Bardamu looks for goodness, and rather than not finding any at all, finds just enough to make the agony excruciating, to turn bitterness to rage. If there was only his own pain and betrayal to deal with, he could laugh at it, and the novel could be the darkly hilarious creation many claim it to be. But what about the moments like the one when he meets Alcide, the poor functionary with the waxy mustache and watery eyes laboring in the African colony? Rather than doing a mere three-year hitch like Bardamu, Alcide has signed on for two tours, six years in total. Wondering what kind of night-journeying masochistic psycho would enlist for such abuse—with Africa still rightfully regarded as “the White Man’s Graveyard—” Bardamu begins snooping around Alcide’s quarters. It’s there that he discovers a biscuit tin with a photo of a little girl inside. What’s afoot here? An illegitimate child? Pederasty? All of the speculations which, if verified, would only further confirm Bardamu’s low opinion of humanity, prove to be wrong. Alcide explains the situation to Bardamu in full, being shy and averting his eyes the whole time, embarrassed by his own decency. His brother and his sister-in-law died, you see, leaving behind a little girl who had suffered from infantile paralysis. Because she still has some residual atrophy, he is paying for her rehabilitation among the Sisters of Charity in Bordeaux, along with her general education. Since Bardamu had reacted with disgust to almost everything he saw and heard up to this point in his journey, he tries to react in the same way here. It’s not so much a defense mechanism anymore as a conditioned reflex. He uses bitterness the way the French artillerymen used the Canon de 75 mm antiaérien, as a matter of unthinking survival: “Obviously Alcide was perfectly at ease, at home so to speak, in the higher regions, on terms of familiarity with the angels.” So far it drips with something like contempt, but Bardamu’s pen runs short of acid as he tries to sneer his way through to the end. “You wouldn’t have known it to look at him. With hardly a thought of what he was doing, he had consented to years of torture, to the crushing of his life in this torrid monotony for the sake of a little girl to whom he was vaguely related. Motivated by nothing but his good heart, he never showed it.” That last line is the key to why Bardamu’s hardened carapace finally cracks, letting leak out the little bit of light he still secretly carries within, like Bukowski’s bluebird, this “never show[ing] it.” After his time in the army, spent around generals caparisoned in fetid cloaks of patriotism; after being around doctors and nurses with their sanctimonious well-wishing for the wounded and maimed and insane soldiers (in between sexual assignations); after seeing the red-nosed priests (tight off sacristy wine) pontificating about the hereafter while keeping far away from the frontlines; after glimpsing the sadism hidden in the ferretlike eyes of the medicos claiming they only want to help when administering electroconvulsive therapy to already broken men, Bardamu was confronted with this: a man who was bashful, actually secretive about this selfless act that bordered on something as indecent as simple Christian goodwill. It leaves Bardamu defenseless, if not quite speechless. The pickling of this man’s putrid soul becomes forgivable from this moment forward. To let his guard down like this many more times would have broken him, for good, and would have made the novel impossible reading, too bleak even for me. In the last paragraph of this chapter—the last time Bardamu lets his guard down, the last perhaps, where Céline showed himself so naked—we get the following passage: “Suddenly he fell asleep in the candlelight. After a while I got up to look at his face. He slept like everybody else. He looked quite ordinary. There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.” It's one thing to see a sentimentalist fall to pieces. It’s also common enough to see “transgressive” writers like Palahniuk or Easton Ellis never really letting the mask drop. It’s quite another to watch a man fight against feeling, fail, and reveal his humanity almost against his will. It happens. You just have to ignore what the critics say and keep your eye on the page as if it were a bird in flight.