Journey to the End of the Night is the dark, cynical novel whose protagonist Ferdinand Bardamu follows a path similar to the one author Céline had taken through life to that point.
That includes being born and raised in France and commencing a medical education before entering the army to fight in World War I, a stint working for a company in Africa, travel to the United States including Detroit, and completion of medical education and then working at a solo practice in the Paris area.
The novel is written in the first person from Bardamu’s perspective. There is limited plot to it; it’s more a series of incidents along with the narrator’s running commentary—almost all disparaging—on life and humanity.
How you as a reader experience Bardamu’s witty, ceaseless cynicism will depend of course on your own attitudes as well as on what mood you happen to be in at the time. It might come across as clever, funny and insightful and give rise to a smile of appreciation, or just be a real downer. I felt both at various times (as I do when I spend an extended period of time with someone like that in real life.)
I jotted down a few quotes from the book, mostly from the early chapters, that I think give a good sense of this dark tone, this attitude that people, including Bardamu himself, are crazy and evil in his eyes, and that there’s not much you can do about it but recognize it for what it is and try to avoid the worst of it:
The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When that’s done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That’s work enough for a lifetime.
When you stop to think about it, at least a hundred people must want you dead in the course of an average day, the ones in line behind you at the Metro, the ones who look up at your apartment when they haven’t got one themselves, the ones who wish you’d finish pissing and give them a chance, your children and a lot more.
Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion. Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of. Escape is good enough for the wise.
If you’ve got to love something, you’ll be taking less of a chance with children than with grownups, you’ll at least have the excuse of hoping they won’t turn out as crummy as the rest of us. How are you to know?
Death is chasing you, you’ve got to hurry, and while you’re looking you’ve got to eat, and keep away from wars. That’s a lot of things to do. It’s no picnic.
Maybe what makes life so terribly fatiguing is nothing other than the enormous effort we make for twenty years, forty years, and more, to be reasonable, to avoid being simply, profoundly ourselves, that is, vile, ghastly, absurd.
So what to make of this? I can be quite a pessimist as well, and certainly I see an alarming amount of ugliness in the world. Yet I mostly don’t see myself in Bardamu.
But I don’t reject his worldview for the reasons I think most people would.
I assume the overwhelming majority of people would be repelled by Bardamu’s attitudes for one of two broad reasons. One is because it doesn’t feel good to see the world as he does, and most people prefer happy talk for its consequences, regardless of accuracy. That’s not me though. I prefer truth. I want to see the world as it is—good, bad, or in between.
The other reason I think most people would instinctively object to Bardamu is that they go through life with the assumption that by their nature objectionable things must be exceptions. That is, however most people live their life most of the time is “normal” and therefore OK. “That’s just how things are,” “that’s just life,” etc. are seen as defenses against any kind of doubt or criticism. To have a problem with “normal” stuff would be like having a problem with breathing, or with the sun rising in the east.
This attitude is at least as foreign to me as picking what you believe based on how it makes you feel. Indeed, I’m often most bothered by precisely those instances where what is most accepted or at least ignored by mainstream society is worse than the things regular folks get up in arms about, or where what is legal is worse than many things that are illegal. I don’t think it’s impossible, or even particularly uncommon, for what most people treat as normal to be fully worthy of cynicism.
No, insofar as I differ from Bardamu, it’s on empirical grounds. He sees (almost) nothing but crumminess wherever he looks. I see all kinds of good and bad, but if anything I see more total instances of people treating others with kindness, compassion, and respect than the opposite.
Plus, I think you have to target your cynicism much more narrowly for it to be accurate. There are contexts in which I have to shake my head at how awfully people routinely behave, but it’s not all contexts.
For example, based on my observations in life, people are far more apt to behave monstrously when they see themselves as acting as part of a collective (mob mentality) than not, when they are acting so as to fulfill some job or predefined social role than not, and when something emotionally powerful like religion or politics is involved than not. Most people, most of the time, when just acting as individuals are actually pretty cool. I like them just fine; they don’t trigger Bardamu-like reactions in me.
War, by the way, is as clear an example as any of how horribly people are capable of acting when they’re thinking in terms of being a member of a collective acting toward another collective, when they allow themselves to be a cog in a machine, just doing their “job” and following orders, and when they get caught up in the emotions of “God and country.” The fact that people almost all fall for this—the fact that pacifism is the exception rather than the rule amongst humans—does indeed reveal a huge flaw in human nature. So this is one context where I think Bardamu’s sardonic take on humanity is on the money:
Maybe our colonel knew why they were shooting, maybe the Germans knew, but I, so help me, hadn’t the vaguest idea. As far back as I could search my memory, I hadn’t done a thing to the Germans, I’d always treated them friendly and polite…I’d have liked to understand their brutality, but what I wanted still more, enormously, with all my heart, was to get out of there, because suddenly the whole business looked to me like a great big mistake.
Maybe another reason I don’t fall into the thoroughgoing cynicism of Bardamu has to do with the passage I quoted earlier wherein he noted that putting your love and hope into children is perhaps less foolish than having any optimism about adults because at least it’s not proven or apparent yet that they are irredeemably rotten.
My thought is that there’s an important sense in which we always remain the same person we were as a child. When I look inside myself, I see the same “me” that I did then. So when I look at others, I try to remind myself of the same thing, that whatever was good, innocent, kind, beautiful, etc. in them way back in their childhood is still in there somewhere, and there’s always some hope that it will reemerge.
Here’s a super obscure reference: You know who came to my mind when contemplating Bardamu’s negative attitudes? There’s an indie documentary from 2004 called I Like Killing Flies about New York restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, as repellent—yet in his strange way, hilarious—a misanthrope as you’ll likely ever come across.
At one point in the film, Shopsin declares that one of the most important pieces of self-knowledge anyone can achieve is to realize that they’re a piece of shit.
That’s Bardamu. He sees everyone as a piece of shit, but at least can pat himself on the back at his self-awareness that he is no exception.
But as Shopsin goes on to point out, that realization is liberating in a way. Once you realize that basic fact about yourself and about humanity, you need not pressure yourself to keep up some façade of being a good person (though as indicated in one of the above quotations from Journey to the End of the Night, Bardamu perhaps has not come to this conclusion and still feels this “fatiguing” pressure), and so you can relax and indeed appreciate the rare occasions when you actually do something good.
That relates to another point I found myself pondering while reading this book.
Many would likely see Bardamu’s attitudes as indicative of an immoral or amoral nature, as perhaps seeing rottenness in everyone else so as to excuse it in himself.
But I think you can see cynicism like his in an interestingly different light, and partly I base this on introspection concerning my own tendencies toward cynicism.
For all he goes on page after page after page about how accepting he is about how awful everyone is, and about how he surely would never be so naïve as to be motivated by moral concerns (as opposed to self-preservation as far as avoiding prison and such), the very fact that he’s so hyperaware of all the ugliness around him and so obsessed with pointing it out indicates to me that it greatly bothers him.
That implies that there is some idealistic standard in his mind that people are failing to reach. If human behavior were just bland, neutral facts that it’s inappropriate to be outraged by, then he wouldn’t describe it as “crummy.”
Bardamu’s depressive nature isn’t a product of just his perceiving ill behavior all around him, but also of his awareness that we—and he—can and should do vastly better. It is the supreme sadness of the idealist, who sees how vast is the gap between the world and his ideals.
Because it turns out that Bardamu—in spite of his cynicism, or perhaps I would say because of the idealism that ultimately underlies his cynicism—is able to recognize counterexamples to his pessimistic worldview. In Africa for example, he comes across a man altruistically making sacrifices to support a faraway niece, and in Michigan he has a relationship with a “hooker with a heart of gold” type named Molly who is genuinely good to him, and in each case rather than deny or explain away what he sees, he praises and appreciates it.
Finally there is the perplexing question of the Leon Robinson character.
Journey to the End of the Night is not a fully realistic novel. There are elements that seem to be included for some symbolic reason or to make some point, rather than because there’s much if any chance they could happen in real life.
One of these elements is the way the mysterious Robinson keeps popping up at different stages of Bardamu’s life (and the way Bardamu is not surprised by this, in spite of the fact that in reality some of Robinson’s appearances would be enormous coincidences).
He first encounters Robinson when he is alone on a reconnaissance mission out in the country during World War I, contemplating whether and how he can slip away and avoid further involvement in the war. He runs into Robinson, who has similar attitudes about the war and has already deserted.
Then toward the end of his time working in Africa he comes upon Robinson again. Robinson seems familiar to him, but it takes him considerable time to figure out just where he knows him from.
By the time he reaches America, he’s actually expecting to run into Robinson. Walking the streets of New York, for instance, he keeps his eyes open for him on the grounds that there’s a good chance that Robinson too has come to America. I mean, think of how comically unlikely it is that two people will happen to cross paths just because they (probably) are both in the same enormous country at the same time. Yet they do (albeit not in New York), as it turns out that Robinson too makes his way to Detroit and also gets involved with Molly.
When Bardamu is back practicing medicine in France, he finally has more sustained interaction with Robinson, in fact being drawn into being a sort of passive accomplice—by keeping his mouth shut—to Robinson’s contemplating participating in a murder plot to kill an old lady for her money.
By the time they are seeing each other more regularly in France, Bardamu describes Robinson as a friend, and writes of him as if he knows him very well. There’s something “off” about that, too great an intimacy, more like he’s describing someone he has known since childhood and shared a life with, rather than someone with whom until recently he had only had a few chance encounters.
So who is Robinson, or what is he supposed to represent? Is he imaginary? Is he perhaps Bardamu himself? Has Bardamu committed certain acts, like murder, but out of guilt or whatever cannot acknowledge having done so, and so he must attribute them to this alter ego, this fictional character “Leon Robinson”?
One thing that occurred to me is that maybe Robinson represents what Bardamu claims to be but really isn’t.
Bardamu presents himself like he’s beyond all moral considerations, like he has seen through all that to how life really works, and so now he realizes that he, like everyone, is just out for himself, and is only constrained by threats to his self-interest.
But a certain amount of that appears to be bluster. Robinson, on the other hand, perhaps has taken that final step into being the misanthropic, amoral cynic Bardamu claims to be.
So when Bardamu is fed up with the war and contemplating desertion, he runs into Robinson, who has already deserted.
When Bardamu is a doctor, and thinks he no longer cares about people and their suffering, along comes Robinson, who really is cold enough to murder someone for money. He, like Bardamu, is fed up with the limited options the world allows someone like him—to work like a dog and be exploited and still barely survive—and, like Bardamu, claims to feel no obligation to any longer “play by the rules” of such a rigged game, but, unlike Bardamu, is willing to actually act on that, even to the extreme of committing murder.
By the end Robinson has become, if not suicidal, at least indifferent to whether he lives or dies, declaring himself utterly disgusted by life. Bardamu has sort of the same attitude, but perhaps realizes that in spite of his rhetoric he really hasn’t quite gone as far as Robinson in overcoming his attachment to life.
Bardamu is appalled and at the same time fascinated by Robinson, because he’s ambivalent about the side of himself that Robinson represents. It’s no wonder he feels an affinity for him, speaks of him as if he has known him his whole life, expects to have him with him wherever he goes, etc., since, if my very speculative interpretation is correct, Robinson is really an imaginary version of himself, a version that takes things a step or two further than he has been willing to do.
Journey to the End of the Night is a worthwhile, thought-provoking novel, but I won’t pretend it was an enjoyable read throughout. The unrelenting darkness wore on me, and at times it felt repetitive and overlong.