Doctor No

John Sturrock

In November 1931, La Gazette médicale in Paris carried a curiously vehement piece on the treatment of bleeding gums. It was signed Dr Louis F. Destouches and it took issue, in a blizzard of exclamation-marks, with the medicine of the schools, asking what good the professoriat and the textbooks were to a confused general practitioner, who wanted to do something simply therapeutic for his patients. This irascible, very literate broadside modulated in the last few lines into a puff for Sanogyl, a new remedial toothpaste, and it was the last thing that Dr Destouches published before his prodigious debut in fiction one year later, as Louis Ferdinand Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. There were foretastes of Céline in the truculent medical journalism and puffery of Destouches, but nothing to compare with the epochal vituperation with which the Voyage is filled; if he was to keep a practice the doctor required a cover. Céline was that cover, a first name borrowed from this unfamily-minded man’s one commendable relative, the grandmother who had been a fount of refreshing sarcasm for him when he was a small boy but who had died when he was ten. The Voyage raised the name Céline instantly to the heights, but he kept Destouches on too, as an alias to practise medicine under, up to, during and even after the Second World War.

Céline made money and leisure for himself from his books but he never let doctoring altogether go. His surgery hours were the writer’s field-work, because then he could be the licensed voyeur of the hurts and privations of his (working-class) patients. Medicine had no cure for death, so his regard for its usefulness was limited, but he valued the company of the poor and unhealthy because they had two strong reasons to feel insecure, and that to him meant that they were informed human beings, who could see life for the hostile and precarious experience it was. So Dr Destouches stayed on as a benefactor, and as someone interestingly distinct from the impious Céline, the foul-mouthed anarchist who had written the Voyage and who later became the most recklessly abusive of French anti-semites in his pamphlets, ‘Bagatelles pour un massacre’, ‘L’Ecole des cadavres’ and ‘Les Beaux Draps’. There was a moment, after the war, when the virtues of Destouches may have saved Céline from suffering further for his trespasses: in 1951, when the charges of wartime collaboration against him were re-heard, the examining judge is said not to have realised, or to have been told, that the good doctor, against whom there was no really damning evidence, was also Céline, the author of such unforgivable books. Destouches/Céline got their clearance and could come back to France, after six years of a hugely resented exile in Denmark.

Bleeding gums were just what the doctor ordered, to make Céline’s case against the abstractions of academic medicine. As forms of bodily decay they are neither distinguished nor complicated enough to interest the Faculties; but then there is a cruel divide between the Faculties and the GP. Céline cared only about treating disease, he resisted the idea that he should understand it as well; he put welfare ahead of technique. This, however, does not make him into a saintly altruist, toiling magnanimously in the back streets of Paris; his motive for practising as and where he did was as much revenge, on the bourgeois medical establishment of which he had briefly been a part but with which he had broken, and which in its moneyed smugness knew nothing, he protested, of the abjections of proletarian life. This was a role he had first prescribed for himself in the extraordinary thesis which he presented when he was qualifying (had the professors been as dim and narrow-minded as Céline claimed they were, they would have thrown it angrily out). There was more of biography than of medical information in what Céline wrote, and years afterwards the thesis was published, on the back of his first novels, as La Vie et l’oeuvre de Semmelweis. Semmelweis was to him a gratifying discovery, a Hungarian doctor in the mid-19th century who was the first to realise that puerperal fever was a killer in labour wards because obstetric staff did not sterilise their hands or instruments. He was not listened to by the authorities in Vienna where he worked and young women continued to die. In the end, in Céline’s telling of the story, Semmelweis is literally maddened by his failure to get others to see that he is right and infects himself deliberately. Céline had the facts of the case somewhat askew, but never mind: he tells a disheartening story with precocious verve, and takes an unholy pleasure in its moral: that Semmelweis, genius, poet and, finally, an outcast, was punished for having wished his fellow human beings too well.

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