Gallimard said it intended to publish Celines Jew-hating, pro-Nazi tracts – written in the late 1930s and early 40s – in a scholarly 1,000 page tome, complete with references, footnotes and all-important context.
As so often happens in this accelerated age, the backlash began before the project could even proceed, with Gallimard accused of encouraging "nostalgia, which risked sanctifying incitement to murder", in the pages of the French magazine LObs. Meanwhile, the Conseil Reprsentatif des Institutions Juives de France, the umbrella organization for French Jewry, said the pamphlets were a "gross incitement to racist and anti-Semitic hate."
This, they undoubtedly were.
While his 1932 novel Journey To The End Of The Night is still regarded as a classic – a recent edition is given the honor of a foreword by acclaimed Booker Prize winner John Banville – Celines reputation as a novelist is now almost always caveated with acknowledgment of his hateful propagandizing. The author died in 1961, but his widow Lucette Destouches, still alive at 105, had faithfully stuck to his wishes and blocked any attempt at the republication of his infamous pamphlets, until now.
France has its own particular difficulties with anti-Semitism infecting its culture. While Celines tracts have never been banned, neither have they been reissued in any format since the 1940s. But the Republic has made other attempts to curb Jew-hatred, whether in the academy or in popular culture.
The Gayssot Law, introduced in 1990, effectively made Holocaust denial a crime, and was used against 'revisionists' such as Bruno Golsch and Robert Faurisson. But still anti-Semitism rears its head, most recently with the bombastic 'comedian' Dieudonne, who caused controversy in 2014 with his "quenelle" gesture, an inverted Nazi salute deliberately designed to test Frances anti-Nazi laws.
France is not the only country with historical and present day racists, and Celine was certainly not the only person to write hateful materials.
In Germany, copyright on Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf, which was held by the Bavarian regional government, lapsed in 2016. The authorities responded by publishing an annotated, footnoted version, much as Gallimard had suggested doing with Celines pamphlets, pointing out how damaging the ideas contained within had been - and could still be. It became a runaway bestseller.
When American gunman Dylann Roof was arrested and investigated after opening fire on the congregation of a black church in 2015, killing nine, he was found to be a fan of The Turner Diaries, a notorious 1970s novel advocating race war and a white uprising against the Jewish-controlled "system." Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, was also a fan of the book. Yet the United States First Amendment mentality means that no one has ever made a serious attempt to have the book banned.
Different cultures certainly have different approaches. And those who would support the suppression of texts such as Celines would say that the U.S., having never experienced totalitarianism, cannot lecture those that have in Europe.
But those in France who advocated against Gallimards publication of Celines tracts should not be so quick to celebrate their apparent victory.
Too often, condemnation of intolerable views can morph into an "out of sight, out of mind" approach. Its easy to imagine that if we do not see racist views on our bookshelves, or hear them broadcast, they do not exist.
But in an age of unlimited information access, this is profoundly naive. It took me all of a minute to find a free online English translation of Celines 1937 pamphlet Bagatelles Pour Un Massacre (..."it's always some Jew who is up to something...from some Kike-ish or Masonic committee..."). Im sure it wouldnt take the average internet racist much longer. Surely its better to have a footnoted, contextualized text in the world instead of a dubious version put out by an amateur and sympathizer.
Moreover, a fundamental question always comes with attempts to suppress or censor ideas, no matter how bad they are: Once one has accepted that someone gets to decide what adults can read or watch in their own time, we are left with the question of who exactly we trust in that role.
Societies across the world have not struggled in the past to find men (and some women) willing to take it up, but those where the censor holds sway are inevitably stunted compared to those where ideas – especially stupid, bad ideas – can be debated openly, placed in context and ultimately defeated.
As recently as the French presidential election last year, Marine Le Pen sought to downplay Frances role in the rounding up of thousands of Jews at Pariss Vel' dHiv in 1942. That country has shown that it still has not dealt with its demons from the Vichy era.
And France is unlikely to do so soon if it insists that the best way to deal with the racist writings of one of its most famous writers is not to study them but to simply declare them beyond discussion.
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