17 January 2016

In the opening entry of this blog, I quoted a few paragraphs from an exhibition that I visited in March last year at Tate Modern, a while before publishing that first post. The passage made an impression on me at the time, and I photographed it, not knowing what I might do with it. Months later, after I’d begun making notes for this (still unnamed) blog, I came across the snapshot and immediately recognised in the last line the title I wanted.

Conflict, Time, Photography

The problem was the passage was uncredited, and this bothered me. In part, I wanted to give due credit, but mainly I just wanted to know. Was it a page from an existing book, or had it been written for the exhibition and mocked-up to look like a printed page? At the time, I emailed the Tate, but have never had a response. No better title suggested itself, so I decided to push ahead and use the quote anyway, and there it is now, at the top of this page.

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me at the time to simply paste the complete text into an internet search engine and see what turned up. A few weeks ago, I tried doing exactly that, first putting in the entire passage, with which the search engine understandably struggled, and then shorter and shorter segments. At first, nothing much surfaced, but after some persistence, I found this passage from a novel by Céline, Journey to the End of Night: The quartermaster was the guardian of the regiment’s hatreds. He, until further notice, was master of the world. Anybody who talks about the future is a bastard, it’s the present that counts. Invoking posterity is like making speeches to worms.

It was not the same passage I’d seen at the Tate, but the last two sentences were identical, which doesn’t happen by accident. If it had just been the phrase speeches to worms’ I could imagine easily enough that the curator had gotten this stuck in his mind, that it might simply have been passed on to him idiomatically without his ever having known its origin. But to quote whole sentences verbatim was obviously deliberate, and surely implied knowledge of the original Céline novel. Was the exhibition text, then, some kind of literary mash-up?

There was only one way to find out. The Tate website’s exhibition page led me to the website of the publisher of the exhibition catalogue who I emailed to ask if they could put me in touch with the curator or simply pass on a note on my behalf. A few days later I got a reply: the curator was currently travelling, but they’d sent him my message and he’d get back to me. Weeks passed. In the meantime, I read up on Céline; I didn’t know much about him, and couldn’t remember where or when I’d last seen his name, or if I’d read any of his writing. Nonetheless, something was lurking in my memory, something half-remembered that I hoped I was wrong about.

Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches was born in 1896 in Courbevoie, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. Later in life, he described his childhood as difficult and his parents as quarrelsome, but biographers mostly agree that this was an exaggeration and fairly typical of how the adult Destouches would embellish the facts. Other accounts maintain that his parents were loving, had a tranquil marriage, and had ambitions for their son beyond his lower-middle-class upbringing, sending him to live in Germany and England to learn the local languages. To defy his parents, he joined the army in 1912 and two years later found himself fighting on the North African front after the outbreak of the First World War, an experience that was to inform his writing, and a trauma which might account for the schism he apparently inflicted on himself in the years after the war. In 1919 he married Édith Follet, had a daughter and settled into an ostensibly idyllic life as a country doctor until abruptly abandoning his family to write Journey to the End of Night under the pen name Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The text was an instant literary sensation, receiving approbation and derision in equal measure, and has gone on to be a seminal work of modernism, influencing contemporaries such as Beckett, de Beauvoir and Sartre, as well as the American beat writers of the 1950s and 60s, through to Irvine Welsh today. It made Céline a darling of the literary left.

I’ve not yet read the book — I think it scares me a little — but, as I read up on Céline, a picture of both the man and the novel emerged. It follows the life of Ferdinand Bardamu, beginning with his experiences in the Great War (the extract above is taken from the War chapters), then moving to America where he takes a job for the Ford Motor Company and rails at the dehumanising effects of industry, before finally settling in Paris to become a medical doctor. Curiously, Bardamu’s journey shadows that of another man, Léon Robinson, who he frequently meets by chance throughout the book, a kind of hapless alter ego to Bardamu, who is, of course, a biographical stand-in for Céline, which is, in turn, the nom de plume of Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches. Céline, or Destouches, or Bardamu, fills the book with a constant stream of invective, cynical and misanthropic ranting at the nature of human beings and society, in a style that would become typical of his writing throughout his life, reaching its hysterical apogee in the now notorious pamphlets.

Céline’s pamphlets. How even to approach these? Again, I’ve not read them — they have been, understandably, out of print for decades — but the accounts that remain describe passages of antisemitic diatribe that turn the stomach. They were written before and during the Second World War, when Céline sided with collaborationists and, by some accounts, kept company with Nazis, one of whom was said to remark that Céline’s antisemitic ideas were too extreme even for the Third Reich. For a flavour of the style and content of the pamphlets, we can turn to Patrick Modiano who opens his first novel,  La Place de l’Étoile, with a parody of their ranting prose. Modiano’s Jewish protagonist is the victim of a tirade of hatred delivered by a character called Doctor Bardamu: Ah, the foul-smelling mould of the ghettos! … that shithouse lothario! … runt of a foreskin! … Lebano-ganaque scumbag! … rat-a-tat … wham! … Consider this the Yiddish gigolo … this rampant arsefucker of Aryan girls! … this brazenly Negroid abortion! … And so on.

As I read all of this, it came back to me that I’d encountered Céline’s work probably thirty years ago as a student, but I’d steered well clear of him the moment I heard of his reputation. I was also reminded of something from Teju Cole’s Open City, which I read a few months ago. After thumbing through my paperback edition of Cole’s book for some time, I found the passage. Cole’s narrator wanders the streets of Brussels, a city made monumental by the rape of the Congo and stops before a bust celebrating the poet Paul Claudel. Claudel came to fame in the 1930s when he was a noted supporter of the collaborators during the Second World War, and, despite his right-wing political stance, was looked on kindly by many on the left including WH Auden who was an admirer of his poetry. I wondered, says Cole’s narrator, if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life?

Today, finally, I received a reply from the curator. Dear Roger, it reads, you’re quite right, these quotes are a mash-up, and indeed the last two sentences come from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. You are the only person who realised. Thanks for taking the time. I suppose that the exhibition was trying to examine some of the different ways people misremember history and so one of the underlying themes is amnesia in relation to the remembering and reconstruction of past events in wars, and the mash-up approach was part of this. I think we have to be very careful about believing photos and captions because they’re just another kind of fiction.

Which brings me back to my title. I could change it, I suppose, but ultimately that would be a whitewash, it would break connections, it would deny complicity and a kind of shared guilt. Better that I let it stand — as a reminder, or, if you like, a monument.

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