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Art and the antisemitism dilemma

What do you do when one of your favorite writers supported killing Jews?

French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Source: public domain/Wikimedia
French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Source: public domain/Wikimedia
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

A great many people in the U.S. are talking about censorship these days.

The right has been denuding school libraries of various works dealing with sexuality and gender issues, which has prompted an outcry against “book banning” from teachers’ groups and the progressive left in general.

The progressives, however, appear blissfully unaware of their hypocrisy, given the hurricane of censorship they have unleashed in recent years, which included everything from tearing down statues to ceasing publication of a Dr. Seuss book because of a single drawing.

It is easy to simply condemn both sides for all this, but unfortunately, the thing is more complicated than that.

This dilemma has been much on my mind because I am currently reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s extraordinary 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night. Written in vivid and sometimes surrealist prose, it is a semi-autobiographical novel in which its protagonist wanders the killing fields of World War I, the hell of France’s dying African empire, the overwhelming mechanized beast that was the United States, and finally the impoverished suburbs of Paris. Marked by corrosive irony, sarcasm and misanthropy, it is nonetheless a tribute to the power of brute honesty and the manipulation of language, creating a world unto itself, however ugly that world might be.

I have long had a soft spot for Céline, mainly due to his second work, Death on the Installment Plan, a fictionalized memoir of his lower-middle-class childhood. I grew up lower middle class, and Death on the Installment Plan is probably the most accurate and devastating portrayal of that class ever written. Yet it is not a work without empathy for its struggling and striving characters. Céline eviscerates, pities and loves them simultaneously, with all the ambivalence that those of us who knew such a childhood can instantly recognize as our own.

My love of Céline’s work troubles me, however, because it can be said without exaggeration that he was a genocidal antisemite.

He made no secret of this, once writing, “A pile of a million dead stinking yids is not worth the life of a single Aryan.” He advocated a French alliance with Hitler and, once the Nazis conquered France, became a fairly enthusiastic collaborator.

Worse still, it is said that he privately lamented the fact that the Germans were dragging their feet on slaughtering the entire Jewish population of France, and his antisemitic pamphlets were so viciously over the top that even some of his fellow antisemites were embarrassed by them. Given that antisemites are, generally speaking, immune to embarrassment, this is quite astonishing.

At the end of the war, fearing inevitable arrest, Céline fled to Denmark. He was eventually pardoned, returned to France in disgrace and died in 1961 as controversial as he always had been.

He remains just as controversial today. In 2011, the French government’s plan to officially celebrate the writer was the object of intense criticism, with some denouncing it for giving state imprimatur to a monster and others declaring that great writing is great writing, however deplorable the author may be. The government ultimately sided with the critics.

Some six years later, another controversy erupted, this time over the revered French publishing house Gallimard’s plans to republish Céline’s antisemitic pamphlets, albeit with “scholarly introductions” to give appropriate context and criticism.

The French Jewish community and its allies were outraged, and rightfully so, given the massive rise in antisemitic violence in the country. There was no need to pour gasoline on the inferno. Gallimard eventually chose to forgo publication.

But the question remains: What are we to do, what am I to do, with Céline? He is a writer I love who would have been perfectly happy to see me and my entire people murdered. The dilemma is personal in every sense.

I do not believe that the answer is as simple as “separating” the artist from his art, as this is probably impossible. Instead, it involves acknowledging that, contrary to popular myths, great art is often not the product of the beautiful and the sublime. It emerges from the darkest recesses, the chthonic forces of the human psyche. The beautiful and the sublime can be the work of ugliness and perversion.

This may be unavoidable. Perhaps only the powers of the underworld can create the concentration of forces necessary to produce great works. They emerge from our vices and not our virtues. Sometimes, these vices bleed into the most malign forms of personal and political behavior.

Céline represents this phenomenon in its most extreme form, but there is no shortage of other examples: Lord Byron, Jean Genet, the Marquis de Sade and so on. Even today, we have the likes of Kanye West and Roman Polanski. There are too many to even begin to count.

The truth is that there is no solution to Céline or to any other genuine artist who is also a vile human being. Perhaps accepting the existence of their evil behavior while being careful not to lie to ourselves about it is the best we can do. It is the price we pay.

However, regarding those who are not vile human beings, but simply human, no “solution” should be necessary. Dr. Seuss and his compatriots ought to be safe from the book banners. We must be mature enough to accept their shortcomings along with the brilliance of their work, because without the one, we would almost certainly not have the other.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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