Lacking a first-hand acquaintance with the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, it is entirely possible to read the six chapters of Powers of Horror devoted to his work and not realize just how laugh-out-loud funny, absurd, or even mind-numbingly tedious he can be. Kristeva speaks of his “laughter” — “piercing laughter,” “cheerful laughter,” “apocalyptic laughter” — as a counterpart, and more importantly a counterweight, to the unremitting horrors of war, hatred, violence, disease, and death he chronicles. But the portentous seriousness with which she seems to do so may not encourage the earnest reader, painstakingly navigating Kristeva’s theoretical argument, to unfurrow the brow enough to see at the outset the rather important fact that Céline is a comic writer. I offer this observation — while a genuine account of my own initial experience of reading Kristeva on Céline and then reading Céline — not merely to suggest that Kristeva can seem relatively humorless, as theorists go, nor to speculate that her sense of irony and playfulness fail to “translate” well. Both may be the case. More importantly, however, the discrepancy highlights the potentially diminishing returns of reading a literary theory of a literary corpus, or in the case of this very book, of reading a summarizing explanation of a literary theory of a literary corpus.
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