Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night is an unflinching gaze into the abyss, one of the bleakest, most brutally honest novels I have read.
It recalls Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, but I found it more disturbing than either, I because instead of focusing on the darkness of the wild / jungle / desert / violence, it examines the abandonment of all human decency within civilization.
Few books capture misanthropic despair so honestly.
Here are some of my favorite bits…
Obviously Lola was nuts with happiness and optimism, like all people on the good side of life, the ones with privilege, health, security, who still have a long time to live. She kept bothering me with the soul, she was always going on about it. The soul is the body’s vanity and pleasure as long as the body’s in good health, but it’s also the urge to escape from the body as soon as the body is sick or things are going badly. Of the two poses, you take the one that suits you best at the moment, and that’s all there is to it! As long as you can choose between the two, you’re all right. But I couldn’t choose anymore, my die was cast! I was up to my neck in the truth; death dogged my every step, so to speak. It was very hard for me to think of anything but my suspended sentence to be murdered, a fate which everyone else regarded as just the right thing for me.
In this kind of deferred death agony that hits you when you’re lucid and in good health, the mind is open to nothing but absolute truths. Once you’ve been through it, you’ll know what you’re talking about till the end of your days.
The chairs and tables he bequeathed me showed me what ingenuity can do with crushed soapboxes. That sinister individual also taught me how it is possible, for want of anything better to do, to propel those ungainly, caparisoned caterpillars which, quivering and foaming at the mouth, kept assailing our forest cabin, far into the distance with a short swift kick. God help you if you are clumsy enough to crush one. You’ll be punished with an entire week of intense stench, which rises slowly from that unforgettable mash. He had read somewhere that those horrible monsters were the oldest animals in the world, dating, so he claimed, back to the second geological period! “When we’ve come as far as they have, my boy, won’t we stink too?” His exact words.
I’d always worried about being practically empty, about having no serious reason for living. And now, confronted with the facts, I was sure of my individual nullity. In that environment, too different from the one where my petty habits were at home, I seem to have disintegrated, I felt very close to nonexistence. I discovered that with no one to speak to me of familiar things, there was nothing to stop me from sinking into irresistible boredom, a terrifying, sickly sweet torpor. Nauseating.
On the point of dropping my last dollar in this adventure, I was still bored. So profoundly that I even refused to envisage the most urgent steps I should have been taking. We are so trivial by nature that only amusements can stop us from dying for real. I clung to the movies with desperate fervor.
They hand you a tray at the entrance, and you take your place in a line. You wait. The girls around me, delightful candidates for dinner, didn’t say a word to me … It must feel really funny, I thought, to be able to go right up to one of those young ladies with the tidy, prettily shaped noses, and say: “Miss, I’m rich, very rich … just tell me what it might please you to accept …”
Everything that was so complicated a moment before would suddenly become so simple, so divinely simple … Everything would be changed, the forbiddingly hostile world would turn into a playful, docile, velvety ball, rolling at your feet. Then and there, perhaps, you’d throw off the exhausting habit of dreaming about successful people and enormous fortunes, because then you’d be able to put your hands on all that. The life of people without resources is nothing but one long rebuff and one long frenzy of desire, and a man can truly know, truly deliver himself only from what he possesses. As for me, I’d picked up and dropped so many dreams, my mind was cracked and fissured, full of drafts and disgustingly out of order.
While perorating thus artificially and conventionally, I couldn’t help realizing that there were other reasons than malaria for my physical prostration and moral depression. There was also the change in habits; once again I was having to get used to new faces in new surroundings and to learn new ways of talking and lying. Laziness is almost as compelling as life. The new farce you’re having to play crushes you with its banality, and all in all it takes more cowardice than courage to start all over again. That’s what exile, a foreign country is, inexorable perception of existence as it really is, during those long lucid hours, exceptional in the flux of human time, when the ways of the old country abandon you, but the new ways haven’t sufficiently stupefied you as yet.
As long as we’re young, we manage to find excuses for the stoniest indifference, the most blatant caddishness, we put them down to emotional eccentricity or some sort of romantic inexperience. 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 close 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. Life is keeping body and soul together.
“Your studies won’t do you a bit of good around here, son. You’re not here to think, you’re here to make the movements you’re told to. We don’t need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees … Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We’ll think for you, my boy! A word to the wise.” Lucky for me that he warned me. It was just as well that I should know the manners and customs of the house. I’d already made enough stupid blunders to last me at least ten years. From then on I was determined to pass for a quiet little drudge. When we had our clothes back on, we were sent off in slow-moving files, hesitant groups, in the direction where the stupendous roar of machinery came from. Everything trembled in the enormous building, and we ourselves, from our ears to the soles of our feet, were gathered into this trembling, which came from the windows, the floor, and all the clanking metal, tremors that shook the whole building from top to bottom. We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts.
That’s how everything ends. In absurdity. Long before the audience, the tyrant is bored with the play he’s acting. When he’s good and sick of secreting delirium for the benefit of the public, he goes and gets laid. When that happens, he’s washed up. Destiny drops him in two seconds flat! His fans have no objection to his massacring them with might and main!
A room changes in a few months, even if you don’t move anything. Old and rundown as things may be, they still find the strength, the Lord knows where, to get older. Everything had changed around us. Not that anything had moved, no, of course not, the things themselves had actually changed, in depth. Things are different when you go back to them, they seem to have more power to enter into us more sadly, more deeply, more gently than before, to merge with the death which is slowly, pleasantly, sneakily growing inside us, and which we train ourselves to resist a little less each day. From moment to moment, we see life languishing, shriveling inside us, and with it the things and people who may have been commonplace or precious or imposing when we last left them. Fear of the end has marked all that with its wrinkles, while we were chasing around town in search of pleasure or bread.
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