Of (un)Sound Mind: Louis-Ferdinand Céline and the Phenomenology of Reading and Perception
This thesis examines the postwar writings and interviews of the controversial French writer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Broadly, I argue for what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called ‘the primacy of perception’ when reading him, and pay particular attention to the faculty of audition. First, the thesis explores sound and noise, often experienced via hallucination and tinnitus, as they are represented in Céline’s writings, especially Féerie pour une autre fois and Normance. Later, drawing on a recent move in literary studies toward questions of aurality and voice, I turn to the phenomenology of reading. The thesis’ overarching theoretical approach is heavily informed by recent developments in the cognitive sciences, especially those which emphasise the paramountcy of prior experiences, beliefs and expectations in structuring perception. The thesis explores how this plays out both in Céline’s writings themselves, where traumatic experiences from the First World War aurally recrudesce for his narrators in the form of vivid hallucinations, and in how there is an aural dimension–––or the potential for one–––to reading Céline, particularly if readers have been previously exposed to his voice through his interviews. This aural dimension is not, I argue, merely perceptual but also affective. Knowledge of who Céline was, coupled with intimacy with his voice will, for many readers, induce a sense of discomfort and even disgust, especially when recent scholarship on Céline, in particular Pierre-André Taguieff and Annick Duraffour’s 2017 book, Céline, la race, le Juif: légende littéraire et vérité historique, has blackened the portrait of an already malign figure. Later chapters attempt to articulate what it might mean to read in the wake of such works. I eschew an approach that merely seeks to identify aspects of Céline’s virulent and overt racism and antisemitism. I refrain from this for two primary reasons. First, scholars from Alice Kaplan, to Philip Watts, to Duraffour and Taguieff most recently, have already done much of this crucial work in significant, if not exhaustive, detail. Second, insofar as my focus is thoroughly reader-centric, the thesis is interested in those who continue to read Céline (for better or for worse), an aspect of whose lurid appeal is precisely that he is abhorrent or seen as beyond the pale. If his being somewhat illicit is something already priced in to many readers’ decisions to read him, by highlighting where he is most problematic, do we not risk getting caught in a double bind whereby his appeal is in fact bolstered, however grotesquely? Far from an abdication of ethical responsibility, an in-depth examination of such an appeal, however unsavoury, and how it operates, has implications for how we think about contemporary manifestations of hatred and its rhetoric. Throughout the thesis, I attend to how Céline, especially in how we comports himself in the interviews, dispositionally and rhetorically foreshadows aspects of contemporary neo-fascist discourse, most notably in his penchant for provocation and ‘doubling down’ on his past enormities, as well has his weaponising of irony and outrage.