Artistic license

I always get Céline and Ezra Pound confused, I said. I was being snide. You can be snide discussing Louis Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound. But I had to explain this time. How I’d only made that comparison because both were vicious anti-Semites and fascists. Céline was pro-Nazi (but not necessarily pro-Hitler) to the point of being a collaborator. The only thing that kept him from the firing squad–which he deserved–was his reputation as a writer. He was a seminal figure in Holocaust Denial as well. Just an evil bastard all around. Loathsome. Not that he cared what other people–aside, perhaps from his fellow collaborators–thought. The more one is hated, he said, the happier one is. I believe the Resistance had him marked for assassination but the war ended first and he became something for the liberated and restored judicial system. They let him go.

Ezra Pound was not much better, though unlike Céline at least he seemed to be certifiably mad. It probably saved him from the gallows. He spent the war in Mussolini’s employ, delivering viciously treasonous and unhinged anti-Semitic broadcasts. He was captured after the war by a literary-minded American officer. Bad luck. They kept him in a cage and he railed and ranted. The worm had turned.

But what writers they were, both of them. Pound one of the finest ever in the English language, certainly in American English. His stuff utterly mystifies me, I could spend years trying to crack it. It’s bare boned, gorgeous, magnificent. Céline was one of the greatest of French writers, we had nobody like him in American literature till Burroughs, who in fact idolized Céline. It’s weird how so many Americans took Céline to heart–but then the United States had never experienced a Nazi occupation. We could read his prose and separate the writer from the times, I suppose. (Ginsberg befriending him, though, remains a little hard to figure out.) I know that my rule has always been you have to separate the art from the asshole. I know a lot of literary types like to excuse Céline and Pound’s “excesses”, as if writers are different from you and me. But a war criminal is a war criminal. Some just write really well.

In his defense at his trial Céline composed Réponses aux accusations formulées contre moi par la justice française au titre de trahison et reproduites par la Police Judiciaire danoise au cours de mes interrogatoires, pendant mon incarcération 1945–1946 à Copenhague. You’ll find it in his canon, in English, titled Reply to Charges of Treason Made by the French Department of Justice. I’ve never seen it, though I’d love to, as its prose apparently swept the judges off their feet. He never served another day in jail. Céline should have hung but he wrote so well. Pound too. They hanged that hack Lord Haw Haw (real name William Joyce) even though his copy was nowhere near as vile as the spew that came from Pound’s pen and mouth during the war, nor as corrosive as any of Celine’s wartime pamphlets. But Céline got off with a one year sentence, suspended, and later an amnesty. Genius has its perks. Artistic license. The Americans, not so literary minded, were a little harsher on Pound, who was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for twelve years. Not that he was actually insane, he was just eccentric and vile and hypergraphically talented, yet weird enough to pass for a lunatic. He wrote The Pisan Cantos during his stay. Hot wind came from the marshes and death-chill from the mountains.

Lord Haw Haw, a lousy writer, received no mercy. His fellow Englishmen, who’d listened to him on Nazi radio every day till the end of the war, felt no pity. Nor did anyone clamber to save his scrawny neck as they had Pound’s and Céline’s. The sentence was death. May the swastika be raised from the dust! he yelled artlessly. His neck snapped seconds afterward.

The Nazis themselves had no soft spot for wayward intellectuals. Thus they tortured and shot without compunction one of the greatest historians of modern times, Marc Bloch. Though his influence is imperceptible in the United States, he had revolutionized the study of history when he co-founded (with Lucian Febvre) the Annales School of thought. Bloch and Lefebvre’s methods were to narrative history what Thucydides was to Homer. To the Nazis, however, Bloch was just another resistance member who wouldn’t talk. Not that they were unaware who he was. No mercy was shown despite his brilliance. Klaus Barbie himself is said to have tortured him. You can imagine their conversations. Yet Bloch still wouldn’t talk. Then, with the Americans already in France, Barbie had a squad take him into the courtyard of the Gestapo building and execute him. Vive La France! Bloch cried out. He was 57 and looked like a rumpled college professor. He’d been working on Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien. In English they titled it The Historian’s Craft, seeming to utterly miss the point. Bloch wrote his last pages in his cell. 

Barbie was finally caught in 1983. He’d been in Bolivia since the war, surrounded by like-minded Nazis while enchanting successive dictators. He helped to overthrow a democratically elected government or two, dealt in arms, taught torture. It was a good life. Then his luck ran out and he was extradited to France in chains. It was a huge trial, every day in the papers. The Butcher of Lyon, they called him. He had killed, either by his own hand or his own direct order, fourteen thousand people. Men and women. The elderly and children. Entire families. He never wrote anything that I know of, but he performed exquisitely painful tortures. He literally–not metaphorically–skinned men alive during interrogations. In an era of abundant state sanctioned sadists, Barbie stood out for the quality of his work. If pain were literature he was a Céline. If pain were poetry he was an Ezra Pound. He was that good.

The evidence against Barbie was overwhelming–the Germans kept accurate, detailed records of everything they did, no matter how horrible–and he was convicted of crimes against humanity, among them the killing of Marc Bloch. They threw him in jail for the rest of his life. That life lasted till 1991, when cancer ate up his insides and he died at aged 77 in agony and awfulness and alone. When I stand before the throne of God, he said, I shall be judged innocent. 

What a strange little essay this was. It just gushed out while I was watching Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis, you know, he can do that. I saw a photo of his headstone once. A Greek friend translated it for me. I don’t hope for anything, it read, I don’t fear anything. I’m free.

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