In addition to his celebrated 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline wrote three political “pamphlets”—one nearly 400 pages in length—between 1937 and 1941 warning of the Jewish threat to France. These often-scatological works endorse wild anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and justify the murder of Jews. Last year, the French publishing house Gallimard announced its plans to publish a new edition of these pamphlets, leading to months of intense controversy in France. Eventually Gallimard backed down, although not without issuing a statement that “condemning [the pamphlets] to censorship hinders efforts to reveal their roots and ideological reach and cultivates an unhealthy curiosity instead of critical reasoning.” Robert Zaretsky responds:
First, it has never been a question of censorship. The pamphlets can be found not just in libraries and used bookstores . . . but also on the Internet, where one can download a PDF in seconds. Besides, the work of examining the literary roots and measuring the ideological reach of these pamphlets has been under way for decades. From Alice Kaplan’s pathbreaking work . . . to Pierre-André Taguieff and Annick Durafour’s recent study Céline, le race, le juif, there has been no shortage of scholarly works. (Or for that matter damning ones: Taguieff and Durafour reveal that Céline denounced a number of French Jews to the Vichy authorities.) Finally, Gallimard’s refusal to issue the pamphlets à la Mein Kampf—namely, with the texts buffered by a solid critical apparatus—would more likely encourage than discourage “an unhealthy curiosity.”
But this last point nevertheless raises a number of questions. How reasonable is the assumption that a full-blown scholarly edition of Céline’s pamphlets would protect innocent readers against its radioactive qualities? . . . Why, in fact, do we need a critical edition of Céline’s murderously anti-Semitic ravings at all? As the historian Tal Bruttmann remarked, Céline’s pamphlets, unlike Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is historically unavoidable, hardly deserves such attention. His writings were not a blueprint for a totalitarian state’s war aims, but instead a collage of rancid claims thrown together by a vile man who happened to be a great novelist. What do they tell us—apart, that is, from that Céline was an anti-Semite? That is hardly, Bruttmann drily concludes, “a great discovery.