French police in Paris in 1941 arresting 5,000 workers who dared to stage an anti-nazi demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
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Céline: Master of misanthropy

"Journey to the End of the Night" is the finest novel ever written by a far rightist.

Voyage au bout de la nuit, or Journey to the End of the Night, first published in 1932, is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It is also the finest novel ever written by a far-right sympathiser, as its author was retrospectively labelled by critics after the war. Other examples of novels by political extremists of the right – On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger, or Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt – are at the least interesting, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s exuberantly misanthropic masterpiece, which does not declare any political affiliation or entertain anti-Semitic ideas, is unique as a revolutionary work of art and had a profound influence on writers as disparate as Samuel Beckett and William S Burroughs, Jean Genet and Günter Grass. It could be said that without Céline there would have been no Henry Miller, no Jack Kerouac, no Charles Bukowski, no Beat poets.

Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches – his grandmother’s first name was Céline, hence the pseudonym – was born in 1894 in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie. His father worked as an insurance clerk and his mother was a lacemaker. In later years he liked to claim that he had spent a miserable childhood with his constantly warring parents, but this seems to have been another of his many exaggerations and embellishments, for a friend claimed that the couple lived together in comparative tranquillity. Ferdinand was barely into his teens when he went to work as a messenger boy, but his much-maligned parents must have had high ambitions for him, since they sent him to live for a year in Germany and another year in England in order that he should learn a couple of useful languages. His early education was largely self-administered, and he seems from the start to have wanted to be a doctor.

First, however, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the French army and two years later found himself fighting in the First World War. Within weeks of the opening of hostilities he was wounded in the arm while attempting to deliver a despatch under heavy German fire, a piece of bravery – or stupidity, as the older and wiser Destouches would surely have said – for which he was awarded a medal and which even brought him a brief moment of fame. The injury later led to his discharge from the army. He had a job for a while in London, where he got married – a union that was never registered with the French authorities – then went to Africa to work for a French trading company in the Cameroons. Returned to France, he was sent by, remarkably, the Rockefeller Foundation to Brittany to help in the fight against tuberculosis in the region.

By the early 1920s he was studying medicine in Rennes and was married, this time officially, to the daughter of the director of the medical school there. The couple had a daughter, Colette. However, in 1925 Céline abandoned his wife and child and got a job with the League of Nations and travelled extensively in Europe, Africa and America – his experiences studying working conditions at the Ford factory in Detroit left a lasting impression and form the background to one of the most powerful sections in Journey to the End of the Night. Returning to France he opened a medical practice in a Paris suburb, specialising in obstetrics. Later he gave up the practice to work in a public dispensary, largely tending the poor.

These are the facts that were to be embellished, exaggerated and twisted into fantasy in his first and greatest novel. Céline was an autobiographical writer of a special kind. To say that he was cavalier with the facts would be an understatement. Journey is a dream-version of his life. “Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar,” Wallace Stevens wrote, and Céline’s guitar was tuned to a mode that had not been heard since the days of Rabelais, François Villon and Jonathan Swift. He described himself as a comic lyricist, but while there is deep comedy and high lyricism in Journey, the savagery of its vision puts its author in the company of the Greek tragedians.

Journey is usually thought of as a First World War novel but in fact the opening wartime sequence takes up only a fraction of the narrative. War for Céline is a kind of murderous circus performance. “Could I, I thought,” says his protagonist, Bardamu, “be the last coward on earth? How terrifying! . . . All alone with two million stark-raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs? . . . You can be a virgin in horror the same as in sex.” Caught up in this murderous roundabout, Bardamu quickly loses his innocence and learns the essential lesson: “Men are the thing to be afraid of, always, men and nothing else.” And what is a man? “You know . . . the trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he’s fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there’s a dream.”

The unexpected gleam of light at the end of that simile is typical of Céline’s style. Journey may look like a rambunctious hotchpotch thrown together by a misanthrope in a hurry but the book is very carefully, indeed beautifully, crafted. At intervals in Bardamu’s fierce fight with the world the cannon smoke clears and we are given a glimpse of another landscape, where peace and beauty are possible:

Between two lines of roses, the avenue, rising gently, led to the fountains . . . [A]long the side paths, great cubes and rectangles of dark-coloured canvas were flapping, carnival booths, which the war had taken by surprise and suddenly filled with silence.

Bardamu’s frenetic adventures take him from the battle front to a convalescent home for shattered psyches, on to a Conradian heart of darkness in colonial West Africa where he is sold as a galley slave aboard a ship that takes him to New York, “a standing city”, as he says in wonderment. He goes on to Detroit, where he is confronted with the horror of the assembly line – “We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din . . .” – until at last he escapes the New World nightmare and returns to France, finishes his medical studies and sets up as a doctor in the fictional suburb of Rancy, working among the poor, the maimed, the helpless and the hopeless.

Before and during the Second World War Céline disgraced himself by writing a series of rancidly anti-Semitic pamphlets. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 he fled, first to Germany and then to Denmark. He was branded a collaborator and was sentenced to prison in absentia, although later he was granted amnesty and returned to live in France in 1951. He died of an aneurysm in 1961, broken in spirit and reputation, but still defiant. It was a sad and ugly end to the life of a great literary artist. His political enormities will not be forgotten, but neither will Journey to the End of the Night, his legacy and his masterpiece. It is a very great work, which opened an entirely new chapter in fiction-writing. Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.

A new edition of Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night”, with a foreword by John Banville, is published by Alma Classics (£9.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood