The Inflation of Literature
The Crippled Giant.
by Milton Hindus.
Boar’s Head. 159 pp. $2.00.
In the summer of 1948 Milton Hindus, then a young teacher of literature at the University of Chicago, made a strange journey. At some personal sacrifice, he went to Denmark to see Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the French novelist who had written anti-Semitic tracts prior to and early in the war and had been accused by the Resistance of collaborating with the Nazis. For some years Hindus had been Céline’s most vocal American admirer and had helped him in many ways, from writing laudatory essays about his work to sending him food packages. Hindus’ journey was strange not merely because he was a Jew visiting an apparently unrepentant anti-Semite, but because a major reason for his visit was his inability to reconcile himself to the fact that Céline was, in fact, an anti-Semite. In an introduction to an American reprint of Céline’s novel Death on the Installment Plan, Hindus had speculated on the similarity between Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets and Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” must as Gide had previously taken Céline’s rantings for satire. (Previously, however, in a tortured article for an Australian magazine, Hindus had written, “I, a Jewish Nationalist, find myself in the position of defending an anti-Semite in his anti-Semitism—that is where the complications of modern society have led us. Society has grown so complicated that we no longer know whom to blame.” The road to certainty was a devious one.)
Now certain kinds of Jewish publicists will immediately consign Hindus to perdition with the pat phrase: Jewish self-hatred. But that phrase provides only a simple discharge of emotion, not an understanding of problems. And while I can hardly call myself a “defender” of Hindus, I want, in these few lines, to get at what seems to me the heart of his problem—which is not his problem alone.
To do that, we must turn to Céline. Like Hindus, I greatly admire Céline’s novels. Céline speaks for the underside of European society, the petty bourgeois crushed almost to lumpen status, the worker demoralized, the intellectual contemptuous of his own intellectuality. He represents the 20th-century underground man, fed up with ideas and ideologies, hating whatever is official, and despairingly aware of how incongruous is his overwrought consciousness in contrast with his feeble activity. In a brilliant essay on Céline’s first novel, Leon Trotsky compared his protagonist with Poincaré. At first sight, this comparison may seem a piece of political forcing, but actually it directly reveals Céline’s significance: Poincaré stands for the official cant of French society, Céline for the actual feeling at its base and in its interstices.
At the same time Céline is an aesthete (the crimes of Hitler, he told Hindus, were the result of bad taste) who fears and scorns his aestheticism. When Hindus showed him reviews of his books, for which he was probably ravenously hungry, Céline violently asserted his lack of interest in anything but “How much money will they bring me?” For all his great mimetic-literary gifts, Céline fears his mind, all mind; he is an intellectual suffering from an extreme case of self-disrespect, which is not necessarily incompatible with self-love. He is a romantic whose romanticism has curdled and who has no intellectual resources on which to fall back. Consequently the torrent of language in his novels, which is like a stream of noise designed to drown out the agonies of feeling and the burdens of thought.
Trotsky said something similar in political terms: “Céline will not write a second book with such an aversion for the lie and such a disbelief in the truth. The dissonance will resolve itself. Either the artist will make his peace with the darkness or perceive the dawn.” Trotsky meant, of course, that anyone with so total a grasp of the decay of modern life would have to choose either fascism or socialism, and though one need not accept the political terms of his analysis, as I myself do, one must grant that he was right in insisting that Céline’s dissonance is the dissonance of European society seeking resolution. And, in his gruesome anti-Semitic tracts, it found it.
Now it is to the credit of Milton Hindus that he sensed all this some years back, and therefore described Céline as a key artist of our time. But so great was his admiration for Céline’s work that he literally could not bear the thought that Céline could sink to anti-Semitism. And so he went to Denmark to see for himself.
The Crippled Giant, the journal he kept during his visit, is a record of disillusionment. With a naivety that would be absurd were it not so pure, Hindus found to his horror that Céline was still an anti-Semite. “He [Céline] said . . . that the great crime of the Nazis was that they had awakened anti-Semitism without having any real program. . . . He knows that in writing a violent diatribe like Bagatelles pour un massacre in 1938 against the Jews, he was like a man screaming ‘Fire’ along with the Hitlerian maniacs in the crowded theater of Europe, but he sees his case from within and knows the train of causes that brought him to that act and therefore expects to be forgiven.” And again: “I asked Céline if he blamed the Jews for getting France into the war, and he said no at first and then modified that with the statement that the Jews had a part in starting the war, but that their part was no larger than Hitler’s.” And this to a Jew who had been his most intrepid American defender and had journeyed thousands of miles to see him.
Céline is a very sick man. During his conversations with Hindus, he betrayed signs of extreme paranoia, was subject to irrational avarice, found great pleasure in humiliating his visitor, and showed a blatant callousness with respect to his own moral responsibility and guilt. Clearly his mentality reflects that of a broad stratum in Europe: a mentality driven to irrational, sadistic, and self-humiliating excesses. As Céline perceptively and sadly remarked of himself: “I’m like the porcupine—if I uncurl I’m lost.”
Meanwhile Hindus suffered terribly. He developed tics in his eye, “unaccountable” pains in his legs and fingers. “My feelings toward Céline undergo as many alternations as do those of a disappointed lover.” Finally, the disappointed lover rebelled, and began abusing Céline in his journal with as little dignity as Céline had abused him in conversation. Yet, in the end, enough love remained for Hindus to offer Céline whatever royalties he would make on the book, despite his recognition that “this man is across too great an abyss from me to be reached ever.”
The Crippled Giant is written in a tone of melodramatic hysteria that might be tolerable if it announced something genuinely shocking (say, that Russia was a slave state at a time when most intellectuals supported Stalinism), but which seems inappropriate for a rather belated personal discovery. After all, Hindus, like any other reasonably intelligent person, should always have known what he so painfully learned: that a great writer can also be a great scoundrel.
Yet a particular significance lies in Hindus’s experience: it is a classic instance of what might be called the “culture sickness” increasingly prevalent among American intellectuals and the intellectualized middle class. Hindus’s previous inability to see the truth about Céline was based, I think, on an extreme overvaluation of literature at the expense of immediate personal and social experience: a writer as good as Céline—how could he be a fascist? This overvaluation, or misunderstanding, of culture is widespread in America today partly because of the failure of radical politics and the intellectuals’ consequent sense of social powerlessness. As an intelligent man Hindus could easily have seen the simple truth about Céline, but his supreme attachment to literature would not let him. As long, however, as we are unable properly to distinguish between literature and experience, as long as we fail to acknowledge that a writer who provides us the deepest aesthetic satisfactions can also hold the most repugnant opinions and values, we shall muddle both our reading and our lives. How it is possible for a man to write the profoundest truth in one book and the vilest lies in another is indeed a heart-breaking question; but first we must acknowledge that it is a real question.
I am afraid that Hindus has not recovered from his “culture sickness,” for toward the end of his book he begins to doubt the value of Céline’s novels. But that is just to reverse his original error. The books stand, their value unimpaired by Céline’s personal wretchedness. Hindus says that “Céline is a splinter in my mind that I’ve got either to absorb completely or eject completely.” And there is the root of his trouble, as of his sad and humiliating experience—for loyalty to literature and to life requires that the splinter be neither ejected nor absorbed.