Pound’s Fecal Hell, Céline’s Shitty Utopia

Here’s a lengthy passage about defecating from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932). Our narrator has just abandoned ship in New York and made his way to the city.

It just so happened just to one side of my bench there was a big hole in the sidewalk, something like the Metro at home. That hole seemed propitious, so vast, with a stairway all of pink marble inside it. I’d seen quite a few people from the street disappear into it and come out again. It was in that underground vault that they answered the call of nature. I caught on right away. The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking feces with barbarous noises from everyone.

Men among men, all free and easy, they laughed and joked and cheered one another on, it made me think of a football game. The first thing you did when you got there was to take off you jacket, as if in preparation for strenuous exercise. This was a rite and shirtsleeves were the uniform.

In that state of undress, belching and worse, gesticulating like lunatics, they settled down in the fecal grotto. The new arrivals were assailed with a thousand revolting jokes while descending the stairs from the street, but they all seemed delighted.

And so on! The shitting scene actually goes on for several more paragraphs in which we’re treated to a kind of comical version of Ezra Pound’s beloved (at least by me) “Canto XIV,” the shit canto. Here’s a good section:

Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto;
The stench of wet coal, politicians
. . . . . . . . . . e and. . . . . n, their wrists bound to
their ankles,
Standing bare bum,
Faces smeared on their rumps,
wide eye on flat buttock,
Bush hanging for beard,
Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,
newts, water-slugs, water-maggots,
And with them. . . . . . . r,
a scrupulously clean table-napkin
Tucked under his penis,
and. . . . . . . . . . . m
Who disliked colioquial language,
stiff-starched, but soiled, collars
circumscribing his legs,
The pimply and hairy skin
pushing over the collar’s edge,
Profiteers drinking blood sweetened with shit,
And behind them. . . . . . f and the financiers
lashing them with steel wires.

And the betrayers of language
. . . . . . n and the press gang
And those who had lied for hire;
the perverts, the perverters of language,
the perverts, who have set money-lust
Before the pleasures of the senses;

howling, as of a hen-yard in a printing-house,
the clatter of presses,
the blowing of dry dust and stray paper,
fretor, sweat, the stench of stale oranges,
dung, last cess-pool of the universe,
mysterium, acid of sulphur,
the pusillanimous, raging;
plunging jewels in mud,
and howling to find them unstained;
sadic mothers driving their daughters to bed with decrepitude,
sows eating their litters,
and here the placard ΕΙΚΩΝ ΓΗΣ,
and here: THE PERSONNEL CHANGES

Ok, so Céline’s pink marble shit pool isn’t as gross as Pound’s Hell. Pound’s Hell is obviously a reimagining of Dante’s Inferno, and thus we get “Faces smeared on their rumps / wide eye on flat buttock, / Bush hanging for beard,” a descriptive jumble in which faces are either transposed onto asses or asses are being described as faces, the contortion of the human body, and so on. Céline seems to delight in the opportunity the shit pool presents for unrestrained masculinity to run free. It’s like a “football game,” it’s a “rite and shirtsleeves were the uniform,” and so on.

He evokes an atmosphere of manly gregariousness exaggerated to the point of the grotesque. The ease with which the men laugh and joke seems to amplify the shit-spattering and belching somehow. This linkage between camaraderie and feces, sophomoric humor and infantile evacuation is totally at odds with the doom, horror, and bile of Pound’s Hell. Perhaps it’s the apparent disregard the damned have for their surroundings, like the “scrupulously clean table napkin” tucked under one of their penises, the public addresses spouted from assholes; they tend to go on with the hideous business of their lives without regard for the squalor they’re mired in. This is part of the point, of course, as Hell is just whatever you were doing in life, plus a kind of punitive metaphorical morality. If you talk nothing but shit your whole life, you go to Hell and literally speechify out your asshole.

If shit is part of the punitive metaphor of Pound’s Hell, then Céline’s shit pool is a masculine utopia in which (in the Freudian scheme of things) the id’s desire for the pleasure of expulsion come to terms with the super ego’s pressure to acculturate and socialize. And yet what emerges is not comforting but even more disturbing than either the unrestricted reign of pure pleasure or total repression.

This is where things get a bit trippy for me, because we’re presented with a dilemma here. My first instinct is to say that the shit pool scene reminds us of the necessity for the struggle between the individual’s pleasure and the codes and norms of society. If this is what we get when the two meet, count me out, thank you. I’ll take repression any day. Incidentally, I think this is also what Pound’s “scrupulously clean napkin” tucked under the penis is about – the terrible meeting of civility and pleasurable filth.

But of course my instinct is to say it’s gross, because I’m someone who’s internalized cultural codes and mores that tell me not to flaunting my shit everywhere. If I were more like one Céline’s defecaters, I would recognize the scene as something liberating.

I think this last reading is less convincing for other reasons – in Journey Céline seethes with loathing for almost everyone. I can’t imagine one of literature’s most pessimistic, misanthropic writers positing a Utopian vision of anything without the express purpose of exposing its stupidity. Pound was misguided about who belonged in Hell, as his World War II radio broadcasts clearly show, but he at least saw its necessity. Céline, while less extravagant in his vision, produces something far more disgusting, which must have pleased him.

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