In the last week, the French publishing house Editions Gallimard formally announced that it would be re-printing the virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets of Louis-Ferdinand Destouche, known to the world as Céline. Born in 1894, Céline gained international critical acclaim with novels like Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit; in the ’30s, however, he embraced Nazism, and the consequences of that choice have colored discussion of his work since then.
After years of refusal, his 105 year-old widow finally agreed to let the pamphlets—Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre), L’École des cadavres (The School of Corpses), and “Les Beaux Draps” (A Fine Mess—be re-printed in France for the first time in decades.
This announcement has ruffled familiar feathers. France’s leading Nazi hunter is leading the charge of French Jewish groups that oppose the re-printing, saying that it would be “unbearable” to find the essays in a library.
It hardly takes a literary historian to see their point. What Céline wrote in these essays turns your stomach:
“What’s happening with the kikes in Italy and France is exactly what happened with pseudo-sterilization. It’s no mystery…. If you want to get rid of the rats in a ship, or the stink bugs in a house, do you de-rat by half, and exterminate on just the first floor? You’ll be reinvaded in a month by ten times the rats, by twenty times the bugs….”
No matter how moving and meaningful Céline’s previous work might’ve been, this stuff is not more than anti-Semitic dross, and there’s certainly something to be said of an effort to stem the flow of infectiously hateful writing into the public sphere.
But to look away from this ugliness is to insist that there’s nothing useful in getting a sense for the snarling reality of what anti-Semitism looked like during that period (the essays, by the way, will be presented “in a scientific style” that would fully dissect their anti-Semitic content, according to a spokesman from the publishing house). Limiting our understanding of Nazi-era anti-Semitism because we’re afraid that people will find the original work inspiring is to rob this work of what makes it useful to future generations. With anti-Semitism now such a sprawling and often misused term, it may be useful to remind ourselves what this eternal hatred actually looks like at its most feverish peak, and to do that we have to read even—or especially—the most hateful stuff.