The Melancholy of Anatomy: Gate

In Feerie pour un eautre fois Celine has taken the plunge. Instead of stopping at the gates of the spirit world he has marched in.

Prose has been left far behind, so has ordinary reality. Celine is making a conscious attempt to exhaust the possibilities of language. Alongside his linguistic exuberance runs the sense that language is inadequate and must give way to music and dance. Numbers are an alternative to words. The shapes and lines which the planes trace in the sky are yet another form of expression. Celine is showing a world full of signs that the artist must decipher. He can only express it by becoming a musician. The bars of music that recur in the closing pages are proof of this. All of Celine’s linguistic innovations are an attempt to reach the other reality that those few notes contain.

In doing so he lays bare the forces that shape the universe—the cry of pain, the web of time, the dance.

One may start with the cry. Celine describes the tam-tam as a “sound like a Cathedral.” It is a religious call, embracing the community and turning it outwards towards the universe. It is greater than man for it emanates from the godhead, the “Echo’s Hollow.” At the heart of life there is this hollow, this nothingness, which the cry must fill. It is death and life: in the beginning is the word.

Nothing could be further removed from ordinary language, which is a skein spread across existence in order to hide it. The cry is a Dionysian outburst, an expression of mystical oneness with the universe. It is pre-rational: “at a certain point of their misery people don’t care a rap about understanding,” says Celine, “they just feel.” The “woofs” that Ferdinand lets out in prison are an example of this primeval feeling. At the other end of the scale the dancer’s “signs” also convey something of the cry because they unveil the spirit universe.

As it comes from the depths the cry allows men to discover what they really are. In this sense the cry represents individual existence itself. But man is not the only creature who cries out: the entire universe joins in. [The cat] Bebert makes his “brrts,” the cavalry charge at Longchamps brings a “lament from the ground.” Celine speaks of “historic sounds” that have vanished, like the blacksmith striking the anvil. All these cries echo the groans of despair that are heard each night in the prison. Ferdinand acts as “orchestra conductor.” His art consists in transmitting the universal murmur of pain; his stylistic innovations are designed to help him do this. But he is recreating rather than creating. The universe is a giant monologue and hence a work of art. Its creator is something Celine calls Time.

This has little to do with ordinary chronology. Celine does not see history as a chain of events, leading in some order to the present. The past is the same as the present and history is no more than repetition. But that is objective time, the kind that a detached observer—were such a person possible—would perceive. Whatever it is, the past lives on as memory and memory is as real as the present. The monologue of Feerie takes place in an eternal present. Later the whole action of Normance lasts a few hours but the entire 1939 war is contained within them. “In circumstances of real tragedy you see things straightaway . . . past, present, future together,” says Celine. “I televise,” he adds. “I see into my walls! the future, the past!” The Danish prison becomes the whole planet and Ferdinand roams across it, wandering through space and time. Everything he sees is one fragment of a vast pattern, of the “Web of Time.”

This sort of time operates behind the eternal present. Celine speaks of the “great jumble sale of universes, supersteinian curves.” He is fascinated by radio, television and photography because they seem to go beyond solid matter. His Ghosts use them: “Everything is photographed by waves,” he says of the trial. The crimes of the French nation will be revealed as if by camera and their currents of hatred traced as if they were currents of light.

Time moves through the universe creating and destroying, as planets are shaped and broken by the flux of matter. It can bypass ordinary reality as television ignores distance. To describe the order Time imposes Celine has recourse to another kind of vocabulary. “Time’s embroidery is music,” he says; the patterns of the universe unfold like rhythms in a symphony. He talks of the “lace of time.” The universe is a work of art and its structure is that of a dance.

To the ordinary observer, Time’s results seem arbitrary. When the English schoolgirls arrive on the Brittany beach they come from nowhere. Until now they have been “held back somewhere by Time.” Men who think they live in a solid universe find that their world is a shadow cast by Time. In itself it has no significance: “Life is filigree work,” says Celine. “What is written clearly is not worth much, it’s the transparency that counts.” The Montmarte flat, the Brittany sea-coast and the Danish prison are temporary realities, which follow one another as Time demands.

The figure who can move inside this dangerous web is the dancer. She alone can unveil the universe without smashing it. Celine feels that the tragedy he is depicting emerges from a great Dionysian ritual of music and dance. The dancer, like the sailing-ship, can move as she pleases. Ballet is movement set to music. Celine sees music as the ultimate reality. Music expresses the secrets of the universe. When Ferdinand is in prison his jailers keep him quiet: “They don’t want me to sing,” he says. If he sang, he would escape from his cell into the higher world. The street ballads, scattered throughout Feerie, portray a legend where the sad accoutrements of normality—rationalism, function, prose and pretence—are left behind.

That is the key to Celine’s view of music and dance: they are based on loss of self. As his prime interest is neither intellectual nor technical he enjoys all kinds of music. His taste is not highbrow. He is not a lover of classical ballet rather than modern, nor the reverse. It is not even essential to know which dances he likes and why. He wants to be emotionally moved. It is not a matter of feeling sorrow or joy, but of being carried off to the sources of sorrow and joy. The parallel with the sexual experience is clear. In his lovemaking with Sophie, Bardamu has moments that he calls “erotico-mystical” and Ferdinand goes into a similar enchantment when he contemplates the dancer. There is no question of knowing the dancer from the dance or even of knowing her from the onlooker. Both are caught up in the ecstasy.

The process of loss and recovery of self is the same as the destruction-creation cycle of Time. Since the universe is a piece of lace-work or a symphony, the artist constructs his forms as part of a greater creation. Ferdinand describes this: “I do what I like here, I hear everything over again . . . I make tropical hurricanes . . . I create the charges of the grand manoeuvres.” The memories of his past life are woven into the flux of Time. He reaches out from his prison cell and turns them into a new reality. In discussing the dancer, Celine puts it the other way around. She is transparent: to be “opaque” is a great crime—and the “waves” of Time pass through her gestures and reveal themselves to the spectator. In both cases the artist submits to and imposes herself on the universe.

The dancer communicates through her movements, which are a living reproach to the writer because they demonstrate to him the inadequacy of his instrument—language. When she visits Ferdinand in prison she is not allowed to speak French; but “fortunately Lili has signs.” They express in ritual form what the writer struggles to say with words. “Just the hands! The fingers, a gesture . . . The flower of being,” sighs Celine.

Feerie abounds with spells and wizards. Jules has a “marvelous power of enchantment” and as for Bebert, he is “sorcery itself.” But Ferdinand is the man who can transform reality with his imagination. “I can always laugh by myself . . . all I need is to be left in peace, straightaway a story comes into my head.” His powers run rampant in the Brittany episode. Ferdinand recreates it, presenting it as the eternal Brittany that emerges from the sea as if from Time, a Brittany made out of language. The main theme of these pages is magic itself: Brittany is Merlin’s kingdom, the Celtic stronghold. “No one can escape the enchantment of the emerald bay,” says Celine. Here are the forces of the spirit world: the sea, always in motion, always dangerous; the rose, symbol of beauty—”from the cradle to the De Profundis the rose is your link with the Heavens”; the leggy English girls and their promise of femininity. Even the satire—the insistence of the fleas swarming over the beaches—adds an element of fantasy. This is an absurd, frightening, beautiful realm.

Celine is asserting Ferdinand’s power to intervene with the forces of Time, to create his own reality. That is what he, the author, is doing with Feerie. The Stock Exchange collapses and crowds throng the streets, laughing and singing. Feerie, “the book that rejuvenates your soul,” has turned drab post-war Paris into a world of comedy and dance.

Celine goes deeper into the artistic process when he describes Jules. Jules keeps looking at himself: “his little mirror . . . he would look at himself a hundred times a day.” The mirror does not reflect his ordinary appearance, much less his ordinary personality. He is engaged in self-transformation—”the true artist creates himself,” says Celine. A man’s normal character does not matter much, since it is a fragile thing of pretence. The artist looking into himself changes and projects his personality.

This is why he is his own work of art.

Jules illustrates the process graphically: he smears his colours all over himself: “I am a paintbox,” he cries. Looking into his mirror Jules sees himself in different ways: “I see myself huge! . . . then tiny! like a pea I see myself.” Once self-creation has been accomplished, the process of imposing one’s vision on the world is easy. Time is, after all, working in the same way as the artist. Jules turns Paris into one of his neo-naturalistic paintings. The bombing is described in terms of colour: Jules “was daubing the sky blue, green, yellow.”

Although Normance has some plot its real structure comes from dance. Behind the chaos of the bombing is a series of movements, which seem random but which are variations on a pattern. Ferdinand’s wanderings make up a circle. He begins and ends in the same place and in the same state of hallucination. “This is the exact same spot where I was so ill,” he notes in the final pages. In the meantime he has explored and exhausted his circle.

Around him everything is in motion: “the pieces of furniture bump into one another, get entangled, pursue one another around,” people collide, Montmarte is turned upside down. Celine stresses that this movement has its own order. The “surface is doing a polka,” he says, and the chest of drawers “has been waltzing.” The landing outside his flat is a “dance hall.” In the book as a whole, movement is circular. There is no sense that any of the movement leads anywhere, but it is internally consistent and hence harmonious.

In Normance the solid universe has been blown apart. Jules rips a hole in the sky with his cane and a chasm appears in the ground. The Butte is a “crater” and the furniture on the avenue Gaveneau “flies up into the trails of the aeroplanes.” It is a question of “God upside down.” But Celine notes that “even the upside-down explanation does not work, now there are only physical, mathematical and moral surprises.” The universe is constantly changing its shape. Time has vanished too.

Objects are transformed. Sometimes they change roles with men. The “pieces of furniture become people waddling around,” while the crowd is “no longer people but things.” In the flux of the universe places and men are interchangeable: Montmarte is another Vesuvius, Celine another Pliny. Things lose their function so that the bottles in Armelle de Zeusse’s flat are a “torrential avalanche” and the furniture on the stairs is a “dance palace.” The planes in the sky become all kinds of creatures, anything except cold machines. They are “butterflies,” “bats” and trains that go through tunnels. Sometimes they are demons from a fairytale. One of them is “a giant monoplane stuffed, racked with engines,” while others are “winged monsters.” Celine exhausts his vocabulary to find names for the new forms and finally he gives up: “they don’t have names any more,” he says of the planes, “I’ll make them up.”

Meanwhile the people disintegrate. Ferdinand describes their physical break-up: “you are pulled apart! neck! head! shoulders! feet!” This is a symbol of the break-up of character. People lose their old roles or find strange new ones. Armelle de Zeusse is not in her flat and no one knows where she is. Elise Nanton does nothing but go around screaming, “I am a Haitian!” And who is the mysterious “Eugene’s wife,” who talks a great deal and whom no one knows? When terrified by the explosions, Raymond forgets who he is: when his wife devours their marriage certificate, he does not even know whether he is her husband or not. By contrast Lutry is an astronomer who cares nothing for the earth and is delighted with the new, open universe. By a “pure miracle” he is carried up into the sky. He has lost his old existence and is enjoying a “celestial experience.”

Meanwhile there is Ferdinand, who himself speaks with many voices. An established novelist he attacks translations, a child of the Passage he grumbles about black-market butter. He wants to show there is no set subject matter and no set way of looking at it. He doubts the truth of what he is describing: “perhaps I only thought I saw Jules.” Is Jules really leading in the bombers? Lili does not think so, Ferdinand is not sure. What level of reality is he perceiving? He says he is “first and foremost an observer of things.” But he repeats, “I am hallucinated.” Celine portrays his narrator’s mind as a constant flux. Ferdinand forgets to mention Cremoille and launches into self-criticism: “What’s the matter with me? A fine thing for me to set myself up as a chronicler! . . . I forget whole characters.” His book is the Paris that is being bombed. As in Feerie Celine insists that the act of writing and the creation of the universe are one and the same thing. He compares Ferdinand’s head with the world outside. “I feel my head as big as the arch,” says Ferdinand, “I am like the house when it sways.” At the end of the book the pages of his manuscript are hurled over Montmarte to mingle with the returning bombers. He is at one with the web of Time.

—Patrick McCarthy, Celine

1 Response to “The Melancholy of Anatomy: Gate”

  1. 1 Miep October 7, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Blood moon eclipse peaking around 3:30 a.m. your time, if you’re up.

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October 2014

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