Defilement, War and the Corpse.
On Abjection in Gadda and Céline

Katrin Wehling-Giorgi

In Voyage au bout de la nuit, Louis-Ferdinand Céline writes: «Ce qui guide encore le mieux, c’est l’odeur de la merde». (1) The abundance of obscene vocabulary and the obsessive presence of the scatological element in Céline’s writings are among its key characteristics. Indeed, his narrative is centred around the thematics of war, illness and death. The crude depictions of the physical effects of violence and decomposition lie at the very heart of his fiction. In Gadda’s works, the presence of dirt and defilement is accompanied by the frequent evocation of death and dissolution, which culminates in the central presence of the corpse. While generally less graphically depicted than in Céline’s works, Gadda lays considerable emphasis on the corporeal representation of death, as we can infer from the meticulous description of the violated body on various occasions. Despite the stylistic and thematic differences, there are a number of significant parallels in the relationship between the fictional element of abjection and the central topic of the dissolution of the self in both authors’ writings.

In suggesting a comparative perspective on Gadda’s and Céline’s oeuvre, I am not treading uncharted territory: a number of critics have identified analogies in their writings. (2) Works which have dealt with an aspect of the element of abjection in particular include Leucadi’s Il naso e l’anima (Leucadi 2000), an illuminating study centred on the significance of the olfactory element and its relation to the Gaddian protagonist’s delirium. Leucadi emphasizes the fundamental link between the insistent presence of foul odours, which he ascribes the function of «catalizzatore dell’immaginario dello scrittore», and the melancholy subject. In this context, he identifies a «retorica dell’olfatto malinconico» in literary tradition as such, including other «virtuos[i] dell’olfatto» such as Shakespeare, Swift and Céline. The critic also highlights the link between Gadda’s obsession with unpleasant odours and his penchant for the satirical: «La satira ha bisogno più di puzze e marciumi che di essenze celestiali. Un buon satirico ha un naso tarato sugli odori schifosi». (3) Elio Gioanola, on the other hand, has considered the Gaddian fascination with dirt from a Freudian point of view, considering the fear of contamination which transpires in his works as a direct symptom of the author’s deep-seated neurosis, manifest in his obsession with order. According to the critic the insistent presence of scatological phenomenology in Gadda’s writings, which is closely linked to the «forza d’attrazione dei primitivi attaccamenti anali», provides a significant interpretative key to the entire «costellazione delle métaphores obsédantes» (Gioanola 2004: 141) in his oeuvre. Gioanola’s psychoanalytical analysis of Gadda’s works, however, does not dwell on the parallel with Céline’s narrative.

An aspect which has not received much critical attention to date is the intrinsic relationship between the imagery of abjection, represented by the abundance of the obscene in both Gadda’s and Céline’s work, and the dissolution of the self. The fascination abjection evidently exerts on the two writers (4) seems to be closely linked to its transgressive nature, relating to both its thematic dimension and its «fonction de désémantisation» on language. (5) A Kristevan theoretical framework, mainly based on her early critical essay D’une identité l’autre and her seminal work Pouvoirs de l’horreur, provides a useful interpretative tool in this context. (6) The comparative perspective, whose relevance has been confirmed by Gadda himself, will allow us to gain some further insight into the phenomenology of the subject in both authors’ works. (7) Particular emphasis will be laid on the textual imagery of dissolution and intrusion into the space of the self in the context of the thematics of defilement, war and death.

Gadda and Céline share the view that the self cannot be reduced to a clear-cut, unitary substance, which is of course one of the central characteristics of modernism. Whereas the traditional «ideal of disengaged reason», in Charles Taylor’s words, «requires a tight centre of control» in the subject, the two authors in question explore the very fragmentation of the purported «core» of the individual. The «liberation of experience» which underlies some of the most central developments of the modernist era seems to require us to «step outside the circle of the single, unitary identity», opening ourselves to «the flux which moves beyond the scope of control or integration». The need for an escape from the restrictions of the unitary self has indeed become an important recurring theme in the early twentieth century. (8)

As a consequence, the author himself no longer functions as the «unifying artistic and ideological centre of the novel», which still forms an integral part of Bakthin’s account of the dialogical novel instead. (9) Rather, his presence has a dispersive effect on the narrative, resulting in a profoundly heterogeneous text permeated by plurilingualism and polyphony. The linguistic plurality of Gadda’s and Céline’s works is characterised, respectively, by the adoption of various forms of regional dialect and by the abundant use of the argot (slang) and colloquial speech. The discontinuous syntax, on the other hand, mirrors the «sense of the nihilistic disorder behind the ordered surface of life and reality», a further distinguishing trait of modernism. (10) As Krysinski argues, the frequent disruptions of narrative structure in the two authors’ works are also the direct effect of «emotions and feelings as sentence regulators», presenting the real as «deformed [...] through the emotional vibrations of the subject» (Krysinski 1997: 202).

A considerable number of ideas expressed in Gadda’s writings are shaped by a long-term engagement with philosophical concepts, which extensively feature in his early theoretical writings. Albeit in large part remaining at the level of «fervido dilettantismo» (Roscioni 1974: xvii), his studies had a profound effect on his literary texts. The idea of the dissolution of the self assumes a prominent position amongst the thoughts discussed in Meditazione milanese. Similarly to the dispersive character applied to the «dato», the basic component of reality which forms a «sistema» together with other dati, Gadda posits the subject as an essentially fragmentary entity. While the dato is referred to as «un nucleo logico che ha in sé una inesauribile ricchezza di riferimenti, una infinità di riferimenti» (SVP 725), the author challenges the traditional Cartesian concept of a well-defined «essence» or «substance» which purportedly delimits the existence of the self on numerous occasions:

Altro errore profondo della speculazione: di vedere ad ogni costo l’io o l’uno dove non esistono affatto, di veder limiti e barriere, dove vi sono legami e aggrovigliamenti. (SVP 647)

Contrary to the traditional notion of the unified self, Gadda envisages the subject as an agglomeration of relations and entanglements, a mere «system» amongst an innumerable number of further systems. Rather than assuming a clear-cut definition, then, the dato is distinguished by its intrinsically heterogeneous constitution, consisting in its infinitely divisible nucleus.

Gadda’s reflections on the notion of subjectivity are not limited to his theoretical writings, though. They play a similarly significant role in his narrative, where the concept of the incongruous disposition of the self surfaces in the repeated invectives against the first personal pronoun. According to the protagonist of La cognizione, the linguistic designation of the self presupposes an illusory notion of unitary essence:

Quando l’essere si parzializza, in un sacco, in una lercia trippa, i di cui confini sono più miserabili e più fessi di questo fesso muro pagatasse… che lei me lo scavalca in un salto… quando succede questo bel fatto… allora… è allora che l’io si determina, con la sua brava mònade in coppa, come il càppero sull’acciuga arrotolata sulla fetta di limone sulla costoletta alla viennese… (RR II 637-38)

In his monologue, Gonzalo draws an analogy between the penetrability of the self and the lack of protection provided by the wall surrounding his family’s property, a key symbolism which will be further discussed in relation to the concept of «defilement». Furthermore, the reference to the Leibnizian notion of the «monad» in this context recalls the antithetical distinction drawn in Gadda’s theoretical writings between the rationalist philosopher’s notion of the «impermeable», «windowless» simple entity and the author’s idea of the heavily fragmented, permeable subject. As he writes in Meditazione milanese: «La mia monade e il mio io sono delle baracche sconquassate rispetto alle pure sfere d’acciaio di Leibniz e hanno mille finestre e mille fessure» (SVP 832).

The intrinsic complexity applied to the external world hence equally concerns the Gaddian concept of the self, which cannot be pinned down to a unitary substance. The idea of a hidden multiplicity inherent in the notion of selfhood is further elucidated in the following example given in Meditazione milanese:

Esempio: l’individuo umano p.e. Carlo, già limitatamente alla sua persona, non è un effetto ma un insieme di effetti ed è stolto il pensarlo come unità: esso è un insieme di relazioni non perennemente unite. [...] è assolutamente impossibile pensare Carlo come persona, come uno, come un pacco postale di materia vivente e pensante. Ciò vien praticato su larga scala: eppure è cosa grottesca, puerile, degna di mentalità pleistoceniche. (SVP 649)

According to Gadda, then, the self is determined in purely relational terms: it is nothing but a grouping of effects at a determinate moment in time. This idiosyncratic account of selfhood is further reflected in his texts, which are heavily fragmented by the plurivocità of narrative discourse. Indeed, as early as in the Racconto a direct connection between the dissonance of fictional voices and the fragmentation of the (authorial) self is established: «quello che più mi preoccupa è: “la discontinuità mia propria, soggettiva, inerente al mio proprio lirismo”». The inconsistent application of narrative perspectives remains one of Gadda’s most fundamental preoccupations throughout his literary career, and he is well aware of the fact that the «narrazione ab interiore» and «ab exteriore» often conflate with the subjective viewpoint of the author in his writings (SVP 461).

Rather than being based on a coherent framework of philosophical principles, Céline’s texts are firmly rooted in the instinctual drives. Emotion clearly enjoys a privileged position in his writings, as he famously declares:

Vous savez, dans les écritures, il est écrit: «Au commencement était le Verbe». Non! Au commencement était l’émotion. Le Verbe est venu ensuite pour remplacer l’émotion, comme le trot remplace le galop, alors que la loi naturelle du cheval est le galop; on lui fait avoir le trot. On a sorti l’homme de la poésie émotive pour le faire entrer la dialectique, c’est-à-dire le bafouillage, n’est-ce pas? (11)

Having achieved in his works a manner of writing which is «emotionally rather than intellectually based», (12) amounting to a genuine «culte de l’émotion», (13) the narrative text itself serves as the main source for any critical approach. Indeed, as Krysinski puts it, Céline’s outlook appears to be «metonymically inscribed in his discourse», ultimately giving the impression of being «incidentally» added to the narration (Krysinski 1997: 212). While there is hence no comparable theoretical framework underlying the idea of the fragmented self in his writings, there is a strong emphasis on the element of dissolution in the literary imagery, which frequently centres on man’s physical vulnerability. Indeed, as Jean-Pierre Richard argues in his enlightening essay on the notion of «nausée» in Céline’s oeuvre, the lack of cohesion affecting the Célinian body becomes a symbol of the world’s own state of disintegration: «La grande maladie du corps célinien – et prenons ici le corps pour une figure de l’être – c’est, on le voit, l’incertitude interne, le manque de tenue». (14) The fragility and the «loose» constitution of the flesh which abundantly features in Céline’s abject imagery are suggestive of the subject’s own contingence, an aspect which is further reinforced by the emphasis on the semantic field of liquefaction in his writings.

In Voyage au bout de la nuit, Céline’s debut novel from 1932, the French author underlines the subject’s tendency to «molecular» dispersion:

Tout notre malheur vient de ce qu’il nous faut demeurer Jean, Pierre ou Gaston coûte que coûte pendant toutes sortes d’années. Ce corps à nous, travesti de molécules agitées et banales, tout le temps se révolte contre cette farce atroce de durer. Elles veulent aller se perdre nos molécules, au plus vite, parmi l’univers ces mignonnes! Elles souffrent d’être seulement «nous», cocus d’infini. On éclaterait si on avait du courage […] Notre torture chérie est enfermée là, atomique, dans notre peau même, avec notre orgueil. (V, 337)

Reminiscent of the passages quoted previously from Meditazione milanese, what is underlined here is the lack of an «essence»/«substance» of the individual and the hypocrisy inherent in the traditional concept of the self. While Gadda stresses the composite nature of the subject, Céline’s emphasis lies on the individual’s natural tendency to dispersion and its underlying essence consisting in nothing but a collection of molecules. Richard pertinently traces the powerful imagery of collapse and deliquescence in the author’s text, identifying «éparpillement» and «avachissement» as two of the central characteristics of the Célinian protagonist. He is defined as essentially «inapte à la rétention»:

Tout part, en effet, ici d’un manque de conviction des enveloppes: que ce soit par la fragilité, fatigue, indécision, elles s’avouent tôt ou tard incapables de contenir la poussée interne des substances. (Richard 1962: 35-36)

The «scanty delineation» («maigre limite»; I, 169) of the object denoted by the obscene word indeed equally applies to the subject, whose physical and mental fragmentation abundantly features in the author’s text. While Gadda’s ideas on the dissolution of the self tend to be in dialogue with the philosophical writings which precede most of his fictional works, the Célinian disintegration of the subject is inscribed in the narrative imagery of the text. The constant tension perceived between individual identity being predicated on the need to maintain a stable identity and its alleged inclination towards dispersion becomes a crucial aspect of both authors’ writings. The polyphony of the text and the continuous ruptures in its syntax are rooted in a profound distrust of language as an ordering principle, representing a direct challenge to the conventional concept of linear narrative and the unitary conception of the self.

Kristeva, one of whose aims is to underline literature’s fundamentally heterogeneous nature, places significant weight on the semiotic component of language, which is based on the workings of the instinctual drives and the unconscious. Her ideas on the disruptive effect of abjection in literature and culture in general are extremely helpful in establishing a link between the presence of the obscene and the subject in literature. Contrary to the common perception of a fixed boundary between the outside and the inside, demarcated by the imagined line around the perimeter of the body, Kristeva argues that these alleged borders of selfhood are continuously punctured by the physical flow that crosses them: urine, tears, excrement, vomit, blood, sweat and semen. Bodily fluids, indeed, «m’indiquent ce que j’écarte en permanence pour vivre», hence by their very presence constantly emphasizing my existence «aux limites de ma condition de vivant» (P, 11). It is the very threat these instances of abjection form towards the subject through their in-between/hybrid state that determines their unsettling effect, which is also the reason for their taboo status in society: «Il y a, dans l’abjection, une de ces violentes et obscures révoltes de l’être contre ce qui le menace et qui lui paraît venir d’un dehors ou d’un dedans exorbitant, jeté à côté du possible, du tolérable, du pensable» (P, 9).

The function of abjection on a purely physical level is similarly applied to the destabilisation of all systems of order, meaning, truth and law. In Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Kristeva places significant emphasis on the intrinsically disruptive effect of abjection: it disturbs «une identité, un système, un ordre», and it is further referred to as «ce qui ne respecte pas les limites, les places, les règles» (P, 12). In fact, the influx of abjection causes a narcissistic crisis in the subject which reveals its «unstable» position. As Nick Mansfield puts it, what abjection ultimately «unleashes [...] is the internal ambiguity and uncertainty that logical systems try to deny or disguise». According to Kristeva the «first and fundamental purpose of systems of order is to repress ambiguity and contradiction, to assert the singularity of truth, the certainty of law». (15) The obscene word, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: lacking an objective referent (I, 168: «sans référant objectal»), it crosses «la frontière constitutive et indépassable du sens» (I, 172) and thereby mobilises «les resources signifiantes du sujet» (I, 168).

Kristeva credits Céline’s work with baring precisely those elements which language as a system of order usually represses (such as taboo and transgression), ultimately revealing that «plus que fuyant, l’objet [est] impossible» (I, 167). Slang has a disruptive function on language, it produces a «semantic fuzziness» within the utterances that it punctuates. Ultimately, the effect is that of «approche[r] ce vide du sens que Céline semble viser» (P, 226-27). In fact, the author’s idiosyncratic style with its self-interruption and gaps in logic and order emphasizes the breakdown of bodily stability and the symbolic order while drawing attention to the fragility of the subject. By identifying the disjointed sentential rhythms and the subversive effect of obscene words in Céline’s narrative, Kristeva underlines the delicate position of the «subject en procès du langage poétique» (I, 166). According to the critic, transgressive language best captures the multifaceted nature of reality: «Rien de mieux qu’un mot obscène pour entendre les limites d’une linguistique phénoménologique face à l’architectonique hétérogène complexe de la signifiance» (I, 142-43).

A similarly subversive effect can be ascertained in Gadda’s heterogeneous texts, whose polyphonic register and different dialects are aimed at revealing the underlying, «spastic» nature of language: «lo “spasmo”, “l’impiego spastico” [della parola], può comportare una dissoluzione-rinnovazione del valore» (Come lavoro, SGF I 437). In its transgression of conventional linguistic forms, the vernacular provides the author with an additional expressive resource. According to Gadda, indeed, dialect transcends the traditional surface of expression, assuming an epistemological function which the standard Italian linguistic canon lacks. As the author writes of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, a much admired Roman vernacular poet:

La parlata del popolo – e più che mai nel Belli – segna l’affiorare di uno spostamento spastico della conoscenza dal tritume delle correnti obbligative [...]. Attinge ai limiti egualmente dolorosi ed egualmente fecondi d’un conato di rivendicazione gnoseologica e d’un dissolvimento della inanità nella maccheronea. (Arte del Belli, SGF I 555-56; my emphasis)

While the expressionistic slant of the argot and the vernacular clearly provide the two authors with powerful instruments of linguistic subversion, at a content level it is the element of the obscene which has a disruptive effect on both the narrative and the narrating self.


The First World War and its atrocities acted as the catalyst for both Gadda’s and Céline’s careers as writers. According to Kristeva, the war played «le role de la mort de Béatrice» (P, 178) in triggering off the French author’s scription, an allegation which is confirmed by Céline himself: «sans le maréchal de logis Destouches, il n’y aurait jamais eu Céline». (16) Gadda’s first attempt to write, on the other hand, resulted in the Giornale di guerra e prigionia, a personal account of his experience of the conflict. As Leucadi pertinently points out, the war provided the first impetus for a number of the author’s later literary preoccupations: «molti dei motivi ossessivi della scrittura di Gadda si sono radicati proprio in questo periodo. I risentimenti, le collere, gli odi, le passioni del giovane sottotenente saranno la materia grezza di tante pagine delle opere maggiori» (Leucadi 2000: 27). While the conflict is present as a theme in all but one of Céline’s novels (Mort à credit), marking the author «for life, both physically and psychologically» (Thomas 1979: 46), the experience of the Grande Guerra remains an important event without being excessively thematized in Gadda’s oeuvre.

The narrative representation of the conflict of course provides ample opportunities to portray man’s physical and mental decay. The vivid graphicness of Céline’s fictional imagery is marked by the medical observations of the author, a practising physician at the time of Voyage’s composition. The scorching heat of the tropics in colonial Fort-Gono and the horrors of the war depicted in the novel have an appalling effect on man, who is predominantly represented in his physical vulnerability. His true nature is clearly exposed in these borderline situations, which expose the instinctual drive and reveal his «internal dispersion». On the boat trip towards Africa, this is precisely what is laid bare to Bardamu: «c’est depuis ce moment que nous vîmes à fleur de peau venir s’étaler l’angoissante nature des Blancs, provoquée, libérée, bien débraillée enfin, leur vraie nature, tout comme à la guerre» (V, 113; my emphasis). The deliquescence of man and his feebleness are two of the leitmotifs of Céline’s fiction which are amply documented in the narrative imagery of his works, becoming particularly clear in man’s literal dissolution under the African sun: «Sous le climat de Fort-Gono, les cadres européens fondaient pire que du beurre. Un bataillon y devenait comme un morceau de sucre dans du café, plus on le regardait, moins on en voyait» (V, 144). The «mollesse» of man reduces him to a non-cohesive piece of flesh. Not only man himself, though, but the concept of time itself, and indeed the entire world, seem to crumble in the tropical climate:

On avait à peine le temps de les voir disparaître les hommes, les jours et les choses dans cette verdure, ce climat, la chaleur et les moustiques. Tout y passait, c’était dégoûtant, par bouts, par phrases, par membres, par regrets, par globules, ils se perdaient au soleil, fondaient dans le torrent de la lumière et des couleurs, et le goût et le temps avec, tout y passait. Il n’y avait que de l’angoisse étincelante dans l’air. (V, 147)

The Célinian self literally «melts» away in a «lyrical» form of fusion which encompasses not only the subject but also the soul, thoughts and even temporal awareness (Richard 1962: 34). In an osmotic process, the disintegrating drive of the outside world penetrates the membrane of the self, causing a similar form of upheaval on the inside. Towards the end of the Voyage, Bardamu reaches the conclusion that there are only two conditions which reveal the true nature of man, which is «immonde, atroce, absurde»: «je ne me peux empêcher de mettre en doute qu’il existe d’autres véritables réalisations de nos profonds tempéraments que la guerre et la maladie, ces deux infinis du cauchemar» (V, 418). Both illness and the «traumatisme déchirant» of war (Richard 1962: 34) provide supreme metaphors for the fragile disposition of man.

Albeit his narrative imagery bears less of the typically Célinian violence and crudity, Gadda’s experience of the war had an equally determining impact on the author.  While he embarked on his experience as an interventista, his high hopes in the «cleansing» effect of the war were gradually crushed. On top of the actual battlefield experience, Gadda suffered enormously from the disorder and lack of discipline amongst his compatriots, (17) which even led him to praise the enemy for their superior organisational skills. The lack of structure and hygienic conditions in the war camp are perceived as just as threatening an experience of humanity and its primitive nature as the battlefield events themselves.

The author’s fellow soldiers are repeatedly associated with «polluted» imagery. In an early letter from 1915 to his friends (A. Gobbi, D. Marchetti and L. Semenza), Gadda dwells on the «animalesque» nature of his comrades, and the poor standards of sanitation in the camp are continuously underlined. The soldiers are collectively referred to as a «branco» or «mandra» of «manzi viscidi» or «belve», and there is a constant emphasis on the excremental, «contaminating» element («scacazzamento della mandra»; «ciascuno caca, piscia e trombazza in presenza di tutti gli altri»; «Il cumulo scrementizio sale nel cesso ad altezze cospicue: nella sottostante vasca la marea delle orine cresce fino allo straripamento», Letter from 30/6/1915, in Gadda 1983c: 5-6). The hyperbolic description of physical discharge in this context clearly expresses the author’s uneasiness, while the presence of his fellow soldiers is directly associated with the threat of being engulfed by the surge of excrement which nullifies the author’s individuality within the beastly «mandra».

In Eros e Priapo, Gadda once more recalls the miserable conditions of the trenches, «quel cenciume, quel canagliume, quel tubercolume, quel pattume, quel sudiciume, quel brulichio di cimici, con vermini, e scarafoni, che è da certi grovigli di popolo senza mangiare»:

Che chi l’ha vedute e annasate le trincee [...] dove troppi miseri languivano insudiciati e sdraiati come cento sacchi di materia morente dopo aver tutta adempita (cioè empìta) la fossa che correva come lati di poligono sotto gli stianti e le fòlgori la bruciata spalla del monte. E più tremava De Madrigal d’aver a morire intriso in quella maionese e imbalsamato di que’ balsami (o balsamelle o beciamelle che le fussono) più che di morire inchiodato per sé solo – Finitque in odoribus aevum. (SGF II 272-73)

The imagery of death and dissolution here once more accompanies the memory of war, which is further associated with unpleasant odours and viscid substances («maionese», «balsami»), as we shall further explore below. The direct reference to «groviglio», one of the key terms frequently employed in a philosophical and literary context in Gadda’s writings, further underlines the close relation to dissolution and chaos. The threatening presence of alterity, represented by the abject imagery in the context of the war, mirrors the subject’s fear of dissolution in the face of death. While the Célinian body is literally rotting with disease in a supreme ode to abjection, Gadda’s autobiographic account of the conflict focuses on contamination and the effects of the horrors of war on man as the dominant factors of his experience.

Defilement and Disintegration

As we have just seen, a central instance of abjection in both Gadda’s and Céline’s works is defilement, which often appears in the form of physical waste products. Bleeding, vomiting, defecation and urination are frequent occurrences well beyond the strict context of the war in both author’s texts. It is notable that Gadda, perhaps due to his «radical sense of nineteenth-century Lombard propriety» (Sbragia 1996a: 26), is far more prudish in the use of physicality than his French counterpart. In fact, as Leucadi has poignantly observed, the Milanese author applies a superior linguistic code in the passages focusing on bodily parts and abject elements in general («di fronte alla puzza lo stile di Gadda punta verso l’alto», Leucadi 2000: 114), almost as if to mitigate their «low/base» content. The author was even apologetic of the transgressive tone of some of his writings. When confronted on the insistent presence of the «materia escrementizia» in La cognizione del dolore, which evidently exerted some form of fascination on the author, he seems visibly embarrassed: «Ero pazzo, dovevo essere pazzo... Come mai mi sono abbandonato a queste sconcezze! Non posso consentire, non posso consentire che si pubblichino simili sconcezze per i tipi di Einaudi, no, no, è troppo bisogna togliere... ero pazzo» (Gadda 1993b: 206, quoted in Gioanola 2004: 125).

«Merda» is perhaps the most common manifestation of abjection throughout Gadda’s works, resulting in a full-blown «ossessione escrementizia» (Roscioni 1997: 55) or «furor excrementicius», as Gioanola terms it (Gioanola 2004: 125). (18) It is a regular presence in some of the author’s earlier short stories, as well as in L’Adalgisa and Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana. The first appearance of excrement is in the early racconto Una tigre nel parco, in which the child comes into direct contact with «merda». The episode causes a genuine horror in the protagonist at subsequent encounters with any type of physical discharge. As Leucadi emphasizes in the context of the child’s reaction to the actual smell of excrement, the episode marks the first encounter with an instance of the Other, from which he deduces «l’esistenza di altre possibili persone e costumi» (SGF I 79). The direct contact with excrement triggers a «delusione narcissica» in the protagonist which directly draws on the imagery of intrusion and the desire of protection: «le imaginative, per me così veementi, di casa, di protezione, di chiusura, di porta sbarrata, di mura della città, di corpo di guardia, di esclusione degli sconosciuti dalla città e dalla casa» (SGF I 77). The direct contact with alterity in the guise of the «strana marmellata» causes the child to seek protection from the contaminating threat from the outside. While Leucadi argues that the protagonist’s strong reaction to the olfactory presence of abjection lies in his melancholic disposition, the encounter with defilement above all triggers an archaic fear of self-annihilation/engulfment which can be traced in the abundant narrative imagery of intrusion.

The metaphor of external invasion as an influx of the Other into the space of the self finds its most striking example in La cognizione del dolore’s imagery of filth and dirt accompanying the crowd which intrudes into Gonzalo’s house. Indeed, the family villa assumes the role of the space of the subject in the narration, a locus which is continuously invaded by the village people. The constant emphasis on the lack of protection provided by the property’s fragile surrounding wall and its consequent penetrability (19) further emphasize the threat that the outer influx of abjection poses to the self:

La turpe invasione della folla.... Gli zoccoli, i piedi: nella casa che avrebbe dovuto esser sua.... I calcagni color fianta, i diti, divisibili per 10, con le unghie.... e la piscia del cane vile, pulcioso, con occhio destro pieno di marmellata, dentro cui sguazzavano cicìk e ciciàk le piante quadrupedanti di quegli zoccoli. Un rutto enorme [...]. La collettività; gli altri; il plurale maschile.... L’interminabile processione verso la piscia.... (RR I 732)

The appearance of the peones or the servants is generally accompanied by some sort of «lezzo» or «fetore», and for Gonzalo the intruders are nothing but «maiali». Further recurring images of abjection in relation to the intruders include «mosche, moscerini e crepuscolari mosconi», «pulci», «polli», «il cagnolino (lercio) del Poronga», «piscia», «pesce morto, fetente», «funghi dall’odor di piedi» (RR I 726-27) etc., all of which assault the «sacred» space of Gonzalo’s home. Hence the confines of the villa, which primarily embody the monadic sphere of the self in La cognizione, also symbolize the penetrability of the subject which is constantly assaulted by the outer invasion of abjection. The repeated evocation of the womb-like nature of the Villa-Matrice, moreover, hints at the uterine bond between Gonzalo and the mother, the failed severance of which poses a further hindrance to the individual’s struggle towards psychic freedom and independence. (20) The protagonist’s longing for protection and intimacy within the domestic walls («dove lui e sua madre dovevano soli entrare e resistere; e attendere», RR I 729) suggests his desire to return to the pre-narcissistic maternal space, reconstituting the bliss of the originary union with the progenitor. The imagery of abjection therefore presents a threat to both the subject itself and the recovery of the filial union with the mother, the failure of which further emphasizes the vulnerability of the self.

Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit abounds in instances of obscenity. As Richard argues, the high physicality in the author’s writings amounts to a genuine «obsession scatologique», which has a distinctly disintegrating function (Richard 1962: 39). The phenomenology of abjection, whose descriptions go into minute detail, is omnipresent in Céline’s oeuvre and its disease-ridden bodies, populating conflict zones and urban locations alike. On his visit to the «caverne fécale» of Manhattan’s public toilets, for instance, Bardamu encounters «les hommes déboutonnés au milieu de leurs odeurs et bien cramoisis à pousser leurs sales affaires devant tout le monde, avec des bruits barbares» (V, 195). The noises emitted in the act of defecation are compared to those of wounded men or women in labour, further descending into graphic corporeal imagery. Another prominent phenomenon is diarrhoea, which according to Richard becomes «la figure physiologique la plus frappante [...] de la débâcle où l’univers entier est emporté» (Richard 1962: 39). The white children in Fort-Gono, also referred to as the «plump European maggots», are quite literally wilted by the heat and constant diarrhoea: «[ils] se dissolvaient de leur côté par la chaleur, en diarrhée permanente» (V, 144). Generally, odours and sensory impressions play a crucial role, assuming the function of «l’ultime résidu de l’être éparpillé» (Richard 1962: 40). As we read in the Voyage, «c’est par les odeurs que finissent les êtres, les pays et les choses. Toutes les aventures s’en vont par le nez» (V, 180; quoted by Richard 1962: 40).

Complementary to the subversive function at a linguistic level, the heavy presence of the Other in the form of scatological imagery has a similarly fragmentary effect on the unitary concept of the self. The habitual, direct contact with corporeal dysfunctions and the familiarity with illness and disease repeatedly stress the link between the physical element and the disintegrating concept of selfhood. While contemplating the rotting teeth of Abbé Protiste, to cite one more example, the protagonist’s reflections reduce man to a mere collection of entrails, thereby once more challenging the concept of the physical cohesion of the body:

Cette corolle de chair bouffie, la bouche, qui se convulse à siffler, aspire et se démène, pousse toutes espèces de sons visqueux à travers le barrage puant de la carie dentaire, quelle punition! […] Puisque nous sommes que des enclos de tripes tièdes et mal pourries nous aurons toujours du mal avec le sentiment. Amoureux ce n’est rien c’est tenir ensemble qui est difficile.  L’ordure elle, ne cherche ni à durer, ni à croître. Ici, sur ce point nous sommes bien plus malheureux que la merde, cet enragement à persévérer dans notre état constitue l’incroyable torture. (V, 337, emphasis mine) (21)

The striking graphicness of the passage and the emphasis on corporeal discharges, as well as the stress on the body’s orifices further substantiate the close relation between abject imagery and disintegration. According to Kristeva, the physical flows that cross our bodies «threaten to contaminate our sense of individual identity and security». The anxiety grounded in the permeable dividing line between the inside and the outside of the body, moreover, «is replicated endlessly in [our] unease over frontiers and separation in general» (Mansfield 2000: 83), providing the basis of the archaic fear of self-obliteration. While the protagonist’s disintegration is repeatedly evoked in the Célinian text, (22) it is the abject imagery accompanying the violated body which provides the most powerful illustration of the fragmented self.

If scenes centred on physical dissolution don’t occur in the context of war and violence in general, the author seems to have a particular fascination for the graphic imagery of childbirth and its derivatives, miscarriage and abortion. The maternal body only further protracts the perverted, dual symbolism of birth/origin and death. By bestowing mortal life, the mother embodies both divine and murderous qualities, rendering her a simultaneously fascinating and abject figure. The crude depictions of the pregnant body in Céline’s writings are particularly disturbing, as we can witness in the following example of a patient suffering a miscarriage:

Cette expulsion de foetus n’avance pas, le détroit doit être sec, ça ne glisse plus, ça saigne encore seulement. [...] Je lui découvre le trou de sa femme d’où suintent des caillots et puis des glou-glous et puis toute sa femme entièrement, qu’il regarde. [...] Laissons la nature tranquille, la grace! (V, 302-3)

The utter indifference of the protagonist in the face of his female patient’s agony («C’était cent francs de perdus pour moi, voilà tout!», V, 303) stands in striking contrast to the violence of the scene and the overpowering presence of bodily fluids, which further underline the disintegration of man’s physical cohesion. In another scene of a clandestine birth, Bardamu claims that the body always tells the truth, a statement which seems to account for the author’s mercilessly detailed depiction of physicality: «C’est quelque chose de toujours vrai un corps, c’est pour cela que c’est presque toujours triste et dégoûtant à regarder» (V, 272). The violated Célinian body not only provides a powerful representation of the disintegrated self, but its graphic depiction also seems to lay claim to an epistemological form of significance.


While the influx of defilement serves to highlight the fragile disposition of man, the utmost expression of abjection is constituted by the notion of death, which is objectified in the corpse. According to Kristeva, the dead body «tombe tout entier au-delà de la limite, cadere, cadavre. […] le cadavre, le plus écœurant des déchets, est une limite qui a tout envahi». In the deceased body we behold the breaking down of a world («l’effondrement d’un monde») that has erased its border («qui a effacé ses limites»; P, 11). The desecrated body becomes a tangible representation of the fragmented self. In Mansfield’s words, the corpse «is the uncertainty of the life/death dividing line, literally in our faces» (Mansfield 2000: 84).

Given Céline’s protagonists’ medical profession, the dead or dying body is naturally a frequent presence in both the Voyage and Mort à crédit, while in Gadda’s detective novels the corpse constitutes the focal point of the narration. The crime episodes in both of his major novels are accompanied by explicit images of disintegration. The desecration of the victim’s body and the general rupture the crime brings about in the causal chain (revealing what Ingravallo terms «la debilitata “ragione del mondo”»; RR II 17) ultimately acts as a metaphor for the dissolution of the self. This indeed seems to be Ingravallo’s experience when contemplating Liliana’s violated body in Quer pasticciaccio:

La morte gli apparve, a don Ciccio, una decombinazione estrema dei possibili, uno sfasarsi di idee interdipendenti, armonizzate già nella persona. Come il risolversi d’una unità che non ce la fa più ad essere e ad operare come tale, nella caduta improvvisa dei rapporti, d’ogni rapporto con la realtà sistematrice. (RR II 70)

The emphasis in Ingravallo’s reasoning is clearly on the dehiscent effect the direct confrontation with death has on the individual. «Decombinazione», «sfasarsi» and «risolversi» clearly hint at the dissolution objectified in the corpse, which becomes the symbol of the fragmented sense of modern subjectivity.

The nature of death and its emphasis on the material element also find expression in the very last scene of La cognizione, in which the contemplation of the body evokes a return to the most basic elements of existence: «Questa catena di cause riconduceva il sistema dolce e alto della vita all’orrore dei sistemi subordinati, natura, sangue, materia: solitudine di visceri e di volti senza pensiero. Abbandono» (RR I 754). The eventual abandonment towards the end of the narration signals the individual’s horror of yielding to biological physicality and decay, a regression to «the residual lump of substance» (Sbragia 1996a: 27). The violence of the delitto exerted on the body turns the readers’ attention to the «horror» of subordinate systems, which ultimately leads to a state of utter, «visceral» dissolution. This, in turn, coincides with the moment in which the novel reaches its final impasse.

In Céline’s work, death is an obsessive presence in the protagonist’s mind. It is a constant companion of Bardamu’s, who claims to be perpetually «en sursis du mort» (V, 82). To name one of Céline’s numerous rants associating the living directly with death, he claims that «un homme [...] ce n’est rien après tout que de la pourriture en suspens» (V, 426). Moreover, man is repeatedly compared to a «sac à larves» and associated with the «asticot» (maggot), the symbol par excellence of physical decay and decomposition. Man’s internal and external «rotting», which is graphically and seemingly dispassionately depicted on numerous occasions, causes a strong feeling of revulsion in the protagonist («j’aurais vomi la terre entière»; V, 173), the sign of a violent inner upheaval. Death is the inevitable consequence of the «mollesse» and «flaccidité» which constitute the Célinian individual. The frequent evocation of the corpse provides an objective representation of the subject’s state of «éparpillement».

The physical aspect of illness and death also heavily feature in Céline’s second novel, Mort à credit. After a frenzied attack on his father, the protagonist Ferdinand is shaken and horrified by the vulnerability of the body, which permanently finds itself on the verge of death. He is surprised by his father being «si faible, si mou». (23) Subsequently to the violent struggle, Bardamu witnesses the literal falling apart of the self:

Des mains… des jambes… de la figure… et de dedans partout… C’est une infâme cafouillade… C’est une vraie panique du rognons… On dirait que tout se décolle, que tout se débine en lambeaux… ça trembloche comme dans une tempête, ça branle la carcasse, les dents qui chocottent… J’en peux plus! (MC, 271)

The crude physicality of the passage once more exemplifies Céline’s predilection for graphic scenes and a base employment of language, which radically distinguishes itself from the high register which typically accompanies Gadda’s narrative episodes of corporeal dissolution. The imagery of bodily fragmentation dominates the protagonist’s deliberations on the subject of death. The above section is directly followed by a scene of defecation, which further emphasizes the presence of the obscene surrounding the narrative depiction of the disintegrating self: «J’ai le trou du cul qui convulse... Je chie dans mon froc... [...] Je m’allonge tout au long par terre... Je sais plus ce qui existe [...] mais j’ai l’oignon qui ferme, qui s’ouvre... C’est la contraction... C’est horrible» (MC, 271). Once more in this instance, abjection accompanies the physical upheaval of the subject, culminating in the imagery of the fragmented body.

As established in the above discussion, abjection in its various manifestations plays a significant role in the depiction of a disintegrative impulse in Gadda’s and Céline’s work. The insistent presence of bodily fluids, unpleasant odours and crude physicality signals the assault of alterity on the subject, the fear of which consistently accompanies their writings. While Gadda’s ideas on the fragmentation of the self are deeply rooted in the concepts of complexity and the infinite divisibility of matter first expressed in Meditazione milanese, the phenomenology of the subject in Céline’s work is most manifest in the metaphors of illness and physical decay which are portrayed in minute detail in Voyage and Mort à crédit.

Whereas there are of course considerable differences in the style and thematic context depicting obscenity in the two authors’ works, a dissimilarity which is reinforced by the different degrees of physicality depicted in their language, it is the subversive effect on language, text and subject which provides a common interpretative key for their oeuvres. Indeed, both Gadda and Céline abstain from an attempt to rationalize or order the chaos of the external/internal world in their writings, advocating the search for an unconventional form of expression which would adequately capture its very complexity instead. The use of the macaronic and the argot, for instance, provides an opportunity to move beyond traditional forms of language use. The continuous disruption of narrative and syntax through the use of disruptive suspensions (e.g. three dots) and staccato rhythms in both authors’ oeuvre, on the other hand, challenges conventional narrative linearity, providing a further outlet for the discontinuous narrating self. As Kristeva argues, both sentential rhythms and obscene words simultaneously perturb the clarity of the judging consciousness and the designation of an object, thereby contributing to the disruptive effect of abjection on a content-level.

The First World War and the experience of man’s contingency provide ample occasions for the literary exploration of violence and physical ailment, and it is indeed in this context that, most markedly in Céline’s case, the imagery of abjection and man’s vulnerability are first explored. The presence of defilement, however, provides a further recurrent motif in the depiction of subjectivity. While in Gadda’s writings domestic space provides a fundamental metaphor for the confines of the self and the constant threat of engulfment, in Céline’s writings disease and the grotesque depiction of the deformed human body, together with the recurring semantic field of deliquescence and dissolution, offer a graphic reflection of the subject’s state of dissolution. Ultimately, it is the central role assumed by the violated/dead body, either as part of a malicious crime (Gadda) or in a medical, almost voyeuristic context (Céline), which supplies the most compelling image of the fragmented self. By placing the abject at the very centre of their oeuvre, emphasizing the fragile border of existence, Gadda and Céline employ an effective metaphor for the changes affecting the late modernist notion of subjectivity.

Oxford University


1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), 35. Any future references to Voyage are taken from this edition and will appear as (V).

2. One of the earliest studies of the two authors is an essay by Francesco Muzzioli (Muzzioli 1975), which centres on the presence of the corpse and the revelation of the occult in Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana and Voyage au bout de la nuit. A further focus on the parallels between Gadda and Céline can be found in Vladimir Krysinski’s essay (Krysinski 1997), which centres on the fundamental role of subjectivity in their works. The critic identifies emotions and feelings as «sentence regulators which produce a “spasmodic” effect», amounting to a representation of the real as «deformed through the emotional vibrations of the subject». The most broadly-based comparative study of the two authors is in Norma Bouchard’s book, which examines the pre-war novels of Céline, Gadda and Beckett. Her focus is not on a textually-based analysis of parallel thematics in the authors’ oeuvre, though, but rather on a critical remapping of the 1930s and a rethinking of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism (Bouchard 2000a). The controversial nature of Bouchard’s attempt of a critical remapping of Gadda’s writings has been addressed in some detail by Stellardi (Stellardi 2004).

3. Leucadi 2000, extract from Chapter 2 in EJGS 1/2001.

4. Gioanola also argues that while Gadda certainly had a «fortissima mania dell’ordine», he was at the same time «“spasmodicamente” attratto dallo sporco» (Gioanola 1987: 91).

5. J. Kristeva, D’une identité l’autre, in Polylogue (Paris: éditions du Seuil, 1977), 168. Kristeva argues that the transgressive nature of obscene words allows the subject to cross the membrane of meaning («traverser la pellicule du sens»). Any future references to D’une identité l’autre are taken from this edition and will appear as (I).

6. The application of Kristeva’s theories of abjection to Gadda’s works in general (she has of course written extensively on Céline’s writings in both D’une identité l’autre and Pouvoirs de l’horreur) has not received much attention so far. Sbragia briefly mentions Kristeva in the context of the carnivalesque and polyphony which constitute a significant link between the two authors (see Sbragia 1996a: 26-27). Leucadi, on the other hand, repeatedly refers to Kristeva’s theories on melancholy (from Soleil noir) and its alienating effect on language, but he does not establish a parallel between the critic’s notion of abjection and its relevance in the context of the olfactory element in Gadda’s works.

7. In an interview following the award of the Premio internazionale di Letteratura for La cognizione del dolore in 1963, Gadda claims: «veramente Céline mi ha preceduto nell’impostazione narrativa e stilistica» (Gadda 1993b: 213).

8. C. Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 462-63.

9. See M. Bakhtin, On the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse, in The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 48-49 (my emphasis): «There is no unitary language or style in the novel. But at the same time there does exist a center of language (a verbal-ideological center) for the novel. The author (as creator of the novelistic whole) cannot be found at any one of the novel’s language levels: he is to be found at the center of organization where all levels intersect».

10. M. Bradbury and J. McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature (1890-1930) (London: Penguin, 1976), 393.

11. Céline, Louis-Ferdinand Céline vous parle, in Romans, ed. by Henri Godard (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), II, 933.

12. M. Thomas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 80.

13. J. Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Paris: éditions du Seuil, 1980), 225. Any future references to Pouvoirs are taken from this edition and will appear as (P).

14. J.P. Richard, La nausée de Céline, in La Nouvelle Revue Française 115-16 (July-August 1962), 34.

15. N. Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 85.

16. P. Ordioni in Cahiers Céline 1 (1976), 130, quoted by Leucadi 2000: 27.

17. «Il soldato italiano è pigro, specie il meridionale: è sporchetto per necessità, come il nemico, ma anche per incuria: provvede ai bisogni del corpo nelle vicinanze della trincea, riempendo di merda tutto il terreno: non si cura di creare un unico cesso; ma fa della trincea tutto un cesso» (Giornale di guerra, SGF II 546; quoted in Gioanola 2004: 114).

18. Gioanola further argues that in Gadda’s works, the frequent reference to cheese is closely linked to the defiling connotation of excrement: «la figura del formaggio come sporco adempie alla funzione di ponte tra alimento e escremento, secondo la tendenza, verificabile innumerevoli volte nell’opera, a operare rapidi by-pass tra il luogo dell’introduzione del cibo e quello dell’evacuazione» (Gioanola 2004: 128).

19. The protagonist’s obsession with a potential intruder/assassin into the property is noteworthy. See for instance RR I 712: «Il muro di cinta, simbolo più che munizione del privato possesso, da un ragazzo agile si poteva ingroppare e scavalcar facilmente, con poca spellatura di ginocchi, tant’era nano e ciuco, e sprovveduto anco, in arcione, delle rituali schegge di bottiglia». See also RR I 646: «l’assassino che scavalcherà il muro, o il cancello».

20. Kristeva’s theory of matricide as «notre nécessité vitale, condition sine qua non de notre individuation» is extremely relevant in the context of Gonzalo’s failed emancipation from the primary narcissistic union with the mother and the insistent emphasis on matricidal desires. Cf. Soleil noir: Dépression et mélancolie (Paris: Ėditions Gallimard, 1987), 38.

21. See also the graphic depiction of the dead cavalryman and the colonel in the opening pages of the novel (V, 17): «C’est qu’il avait été déporté sur le talus, allongé sur le flanc par l’explosion et projeté jusque dans les bras du cavalier à pied, le messager, fini lui aussi. Ils s’embrassaient tous les deux pour le moment et pour toujours mais le cavalier n’avait plus sa tête, rien qu’une ouverture au-dessus du cou, avec du sang dedans qui mijotait en glouglous comme de la confiture dans la marmite. Le colonel avait son ventre ouvert, il en faisait une sale grimace. […] Tant pis pour lui!».

22. See also the following passage from the Voyage, in which the disintegration of the self in the isolation of Bardamu’s journey to America is once more directly associated with bodily fluids (nausea): «Toujours j’avais redouté d’être à peu près vide, de n’avoir en somme aucune sérieuse raison pour exister. à présent j’étais devant les faits bien assuré de mon néant individuel. Dans ce milieu trop différent de celui où j’avais des mesquines habitudes, je m’étais à l’instant comme dissous. Je me sentais bien près de ne plus exister, tout simplement. Ainsi, je le découvrais, dès qu’on avait cessé de me parler des choses familières, plus rien ne m’empêchait de sombrer dans une sorte d’irrésistible ennui, dans une manière de doucereuse, d’effroyable catastrophe d’âme. Une dégoûtation» (V, 203-04). See also V, 198: «Je m’effilochais comme j’avais vu déjà s’effilocher ma case au vent d’Afrique parmi les déluges d’eau tiède. J’étais aux prises ici pour ma part avec un torrent de sensations inconnues. Il y a un moment entre deux genres d’humanités où l’on en arrive à se débattre dans le vide».

23. Céline, Mort à credit (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), 271. All references to Mort à crédit are taken from this edition and will appear as (MC).

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859
ISBN 1-904371-20-5

© 2011-2019 Katrin Wehling-Giorgi& EJGS. First published in EJGS. Issue no. 7, EJGS 7/2011-2017.

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