“Each of us, within, was as if devoured by a conflagration, and our hearts were no more than a pinch of ashes. Our souls were laid waste. For a long time now we had believed in nothing, not even in nothingness. The nihilists of 1880 were a set of mystics, dreamers, the routineers of universal happiness. We, of course, were poles apart from these credulous fools and their vaporous theories. We were men of action, technicians, specialists, the pioneers of a modern generation dedicated to death, the preachers of world revolution, the precursors of universal destruction, realists, realists. And there is no reality.”
When Blaise Cendrars is going at full speed, his presentation of humanity as a terminal condition, a diseased state that tends naturally toward self-destruction, can be a singularly exhilarating experience. Refusing the consolations of science and a naïvely optimistic belief in progress, he envisions man as fundamentally and mortally sick, with increasingly destructive warfare the inevitable expression of this sickness. In his classic 1926 novel, Moravagine, Cendrars draws on the picaresque form to send his titular hero—a crippled brute given to raping and murdering women—and his psychiatrist, the ironically titled Raymond Science (the book’s narrator) on a world tour in the years leading up to the Great War, taking them from Europe to America and back in a darkly comedic odyssey of destruction and non-enlightenment. If the offhand brutality of Cendrars’ merciless vision can occasionally be off-putting, the novelist’s headlong prose (as translated into English by Alan Brown) tends to swallow up these instinctive objections in the totality of its death-seeking embrace.
In one of the central pair’s first adventures, they join a revolutionary/terrorist group in the early days of the Russian Revolution whose final goal is the assassination of the Tsar, but who spend most of their time conducting Stalin-like purges of their enemies. Unencumbered by the ideologies of previous generations, the group is free to identify their activity for what it is: a pursuit of destruction for its own sake. In the sense that they don’t seek justification in outmoded concepts (“we… believed in nothing”) and give themselves freely to the common pursuit of humanity, “universal destruction,” they qualify as realists in the most visionary sense of the word; they recognize reality for what it is. The fact that “there is no reality”—or rather, that the accepted “reality” is nothing but a series of false principles on which the world pretends to operate—only makes their genuinely nihilistic understanding all the more potent. As Cendrars piles descriptor upon descriptor—his more ecstatic passages tend to form into lists—the series of rhetorically charged clauses keeps accumulating until they’ve formed into a coherent (and frightening) vision of gleeful decadence.
“Olympio is a large reddish orang-outang. Whether he comes from Borneo or not, he’s the most elegant creature aboard. It takes two Innovation trunks to hold his collection of suits and his under-finery. It is impossible to set foot on deck without immediately bumping into him. Early in the morning there he is in white flannels, in a colored sweater from which emerges the collar of a Byronic shirt, his feet shod in suede, his hands gloved in chamois, playing tennis, shuffleboard or deck-golf. His attitude towards his partners is icily correct.”
But it’s not all cold-blooded murder and nihilistic despair. After all, this is a comic adventure, even if the comedy often reeks with the stink of death. Not so the orangutan episode, the novel’s one moment of flat-out good cheer. After their Russian adventure, Moravagine and Raymond flee to America with a death warrant on their heads. On the boat, they meet the performing ape, Olympio, and the three become inseparable. Decked out like a man of leisure, adept at sports, the ape is the most refined primate on board, a “civilized” counterpart to Moravagine’s crudely charismatic brute. Whatever satirical mileage Cendrars gets out of his staging (and the image of the ape, a debased form of man, frumped up in all his finery provides a provocative image of humanity’s pretensions), it’s as a pure instance of good-natured humor that the scene works best, a welcome respite between bouts of mass murder, measured out in the novelist’s neatly modulated prose. But as the brief interlude comes to an end and the two men and the ape share a final liqueur and round of conversation, Olympio slips his hand under his shirt and gives the lie to civilized propriety with a crude gesture of self-satisfaction. Good behavior only goes so far in Cendrars’ world.
“Life is crime, theft, jealousy, hunger, lies, disgust, stupidity, sickness, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, piles of corpses. What can you do about it, my poor friend?”
By the time of the novel’s conclusion—the onset of World War I—the rest of humanity has caught up with the titular hero; in the narrator’s words, “the whole world was doing a Moravagine.” Pushing forth the usual justifications—as the narrator calls them, the “big words… Liberty, Justice, the Autonomy of Peoples”—the nations of Europe pursue their mutual destruction in the same way they’ve done since the beginning of recorded history. But in opposition to the lying concepts that serve only to reassure, Cendrars provides a list of his own “big words,” words that more accurately characterize humanity and get to the heart of the real experience of war.
If lies and stupidity tend to bring most wars to their breaking point, then it is another word from the list that seems to explain humanity’s deep-seated need for destruction. From the beginning of the novel, Raymond insists that sickness, and not, as generally believed, health, is the natural condition of man. “[Diseases],” he says, “belong to this state of activity which we call life. They may be its main activity.” As a psychologist, he’s concerned not with mere physical sickness but a more pervasive mental sickness and by extension, a state of moral disease. So, if this sickness is endemic to humanity, the condition which inevitably leads to the “piles of corpses” of the Great War and innumerable subsequent skirmishes, then the question remains indeed: what can you do about it? The only possibility is to take the doctor’s own prescription as offered at the novel’s midpoint: incline towards imbecility and live only in the absurd. Not the most comforting conclusion, but Moravagine is one of the least reassuring novels ever written. In Cendrars’ world, humanity may be incurable, but for those willing to accept the author’s vision of life as an inevitable journey toward hell, there’s nothing left to do but savor the dizzying (and occasionally uproarious) ride down.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.