“I don’t want to go to war for Hitler, I’ll admit it, but I don’t want to go against him, for the Jews,” Louis-Ferdinand Céline ranted in 1937. He turned his attention to the French prime minister, Léon Blum: “I’d prefer a dozen Hitlers to one all-powerful Blum. Hitler, at least, I could understand, while with Blum it’s pointless, he’ll always be the worst enemy, absolute hatred, to the death.”
Such vile lines—there were many others—cast a dark shadow over a man who, in a universe devoid of context, would have been celebrated as one of the greatest French writers of the twentieth century, second, perhaps, only to Proust. After the war, he had to flee Paris—where, after the fall of the Vichy regime, he was tried in absentia as a collaborator with the Nazis—and hide out in Denmark until he was pardoned in 1951. Even death put no end to Céline’s shame: Just this week, Jewish community activists successfully petitioned culture minister Frederic Mitterrand to remove Céline’s name from an annual list honoring major figures in French history.
Céline—who died of an aneurysm in 1961, a broken 67-year-old—would, most likely, have taken no end of perverse pleasure in the decision to deny him his just merits. One of his favorite themes, in his prose and correspondence alike, was the laurels denied him—a few real, most imagined—for his anti-Semitic opinions. And nothing, of course, thrills a paranoid man more than proof that he is being chased. But the decision also shows how little we’ve learned from the old debate about learning to separate the artist from the art.
Céline’s great novel, Journey to the End of the Night, as well as his lesser works (most notably the wild, chaotic, and heartbreaking Death on the Installment Plan), still speak much louder than his petty pronouncements and hate-filled screeds. Choosing to hear the latter and not the former, and focusing our attention on the politics of the man and not on the permanence of the art, makes us not purer but poorer. It is time—it was time a long time ago—that we stopped with such nonsensical bits of identity politics.
“I can’t help suspecting that the only true manifestations of our innermost being are war and insanity,” Céline wrote in Journey to the End of the Night. Add to that narrow-mindedness, and the nightmare is complete.