Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tragedy at Charlie Hebdo

Like every decent human being, I am aghast at the slaughter that occurred today at Charlie Hebdo. I've been discussing the event with various correspondents and thought that the response below to the indented remark might be of some more general interest:

Victor Navasky's "The Art of Controversy" is worth revisiting in explaining the power of images in particular to give offense (having to do, Navasky argues, with the speed at which images can cross cultural borders).

What doesn't cross borders, however, is the context out of which different styles of satire grow. There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: "gouaille." Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the Pope's face, etc. It's an anarchic populist obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred, powerful, etc. It's not exactly apolitical (attacks on Marie-Antoinette surely had a political valence), but it has nothing in common with John Oliver or Jon Stewart, whose use of obscenity is tame by contrast. It is a humor that is at heart blasphemous rather than political, and it is a tradition of blasphemy from which it derives. So the fanatics are not wrong in that respect: Charlie Hebdo is out to undermine the sacred as such. It is their enemy. In a sense, reproducing their imagery tends to sacralize them as an embodiment of an ideal of free speech--exactly the opposite of what these anti-idealists are about. It transforms the shock of their obscenity into the exaltation of their martyrdom. But it has, alas, proved their destiny to become martyrs: Tels qu'en eux-même enfin l'éternité les change.

UPDATE: I've expanded this post into an op-ed for Al Jazeera America.


Anonymous said...

Except that Charlie Hebdo's "blasphemy" has been aimed at all major religions and has exempted no one. There are no excuses. This was grotesque slaughter and an atrocious attack on free speech by a fascist ideology which foments religious extremism.

Anonymous said...

I guess there's no putting the brakes on importing millions more of a hostile culture?

Anonymous said...

Disgraceful, Arthur. And publishing it in Al Jazeera? Shame on you.

James Schmidt said...

As usual, a brilliant and subtle piece (and, hence, likely to be misunderstood). The expanded version on Al Jazeera is even better: the right words in the right place.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jim. Likely to be misunderstood turns out, unfortunately, to be an understatement, but the piece has drawn a lot of attention, for better and for worse.

Anonymous said...

Your article proves you have no understanding whatsoever of Charlie Hebdo. Your article is an insult to human decency. Shame on you.

brent said...

Looking over the reprinted illustrations from Charlie Hebdo, my first thought was, no, these aren't really being turned into Scripture, just appreciated, like a retrospective exhibit. And they are, as you point out, far too edgy, too oppositional and too vulgar to be recuperated as sacred text, in any sense. But in observing the response, the vigils, the day of national mourning, I see your point: not the cartoons but the act of making them, of pushing the envelope, of making everyone laugh uncomfortably, that mission has indeed been elevated to a kind of national purpose.

But wasn't that Charb's intention, particularly heard in his brave remark ("pompous," he called it) about dying on his feet, not his knees? The French nation is apparently seizing this sad moment to elevate the tenacious dissent of the gouaille into a national treasure--and I would see this as a fulfillment, not a travesty, of Charlie's mission.

I only hope the French mood of public piety will not deteriorate--as ours did after 9/11--into a mindless and intolerant patriotism. Charlie's true legacy would be to puncture the aggrandizing efforts of LePen Hollande, Sarkozy or any other politico who tries to claim its force.

Unknown said...

Yes, Brent, well said, and I fully agree. 9/11 showed how easily a nation can be deranged by justifiable anger, and France may well be headed in that direction.

Michael Metz said...


Appreciate the articulate post as always and the unique perspective, but had hoped for more at this moment. There's a time for the judgement of historians, and this seems one.

Can we, should we, as a society, allow such incendiary commentary? All of us in the west support freedom of the press, but there are always limits, eg, libel laws, hate-crime laws, Holocaust denial laws.

Where do you stand on the intentional mockery of the believers' religion? I don't know what is appropriate, what is your guidance?

Michael Metz

Unknown said...

Michael Metz, my position is "two cheers for civility and propriety." Giving gratuitous offense is not my cup of tea, but I will defend to the death the right of those who feel otherwise to offend whomever they please. As my detractors feel they have the right to offend me, and more power to them.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Michael Metz,

I think the article was a particularly appropriate reminder that we need to keep some perspective about this terrible attack. Charlie Hebdo is indeed very much in the business of giving gratuitous offense. Mockery of religion is their bread and butter. I can’t imagine what the victims would have thought about a special mass being said for them at Notre Dame.

There can be no prohibition against blasphemy in a republic. If God is unhappy at being mocked, he should appear in the Place de la République and speak for himself, something which one assumes the Supreme Being is perfectly capable of doing. In the absence of such an appearance, I say let men speak for themselves and leave God out of it.

I don’t want to live in a country where there are limits against blasphemy that are enforced by religious lunatics armed with AK-47's. Basically, I don’t want to live in what Pakistan has become.

Anonymous said...

Art and Brent, many thanks for your intelligent and perceptive comments.

dairy queen

FrédéricLN said...

Very relevant post, thank you.

About "at heart blasphemous rather than political", it might be added that such "blaspheme" is not against God. It may be against religion, but only in the meaning of "against the distance between real religions and what they should be according to their own principles".

It is basically a blaspheme against aristocracy, about any claim to be more that human, to deserve some special protection status.

A famous drawing from Charlie Hebdo says that so well — in which prophet Muhammad says from Islamists "C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons".

This tradition was very lively in the Middle Age and Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" starts in this tone (On n’entendait que plaintes et imprécations contre les flamands, le prévôt des marchands, le cardinal de Bourbon, le bailli du Palais, madame Marguerite d’Autriche, les sergents à verge, le froid, le chaud, le mauvais temps, l’évêque de Paris, le pape des fous, les piliers, les statues, cette porte fermée, cette fenêtre ouverte ; le tout au grand amusement des bandes d’écoliers et de laquais disséminées dans la masse, qui mêlaient à tout ce mécontentement leurs taquineries et leurs malices, et piquaient, pour ainsi dire, à coups d’épingle la mauvaise humeur générale.)

Passerby said...

The (sad) irony is that instead of killing Charlie, the terrorists likely made it live longer.

Before the tragedy, Charb explained that he newspaper was getting close to bankruptcy, selling only 30K copies/week when it needed 35K to break even. They tried to get collect donations but failed to meet their quota.

Apparently since yesterday many people have call to take subscriptions and today the surviving members of the editorial team have not only confirmed that they will publish next Wednesday on schedule, but that they will print 1 million copies...

Of course will people forget and subscriptions driven by emotion will slowly dry out. But it looks like Charlie Hebdo just earned the hard way treasury for a few more years.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Art Goldhammer for making sense .
I grew up with Wolinski and Cabu and I enjoyed their brand of humor

However they were not journalists and contributed little to the public democratic discourse in France. As members of France's tight establishment they were certainly in a position to expose some if its less democratic aspects but they did not do so

No doubt they showed great personal courage in taking on the islamists (absolutely) but in the context of French society and the history of french secularism their choice of target was hardly radical

Charlie H was "impertinent" but impertinence/insolence imply an existing authority that will tolerate the outrecuidance , to an extent . This makes sense in French context with its aristocratic mores and subservience to an authority that defines and gives meaning, but not in more democratic america. Tea-partiers can brand Obama a Hitler , this would never be seen as a form of "insolence". Obama is not a monarch. In the end, as with any type of insolence , Charlie Hebdo's superficial and self-important barbs stayed well within the boundaries of what was permitted to them

FrédéricLN said...

— After some thought, a reservation about my own comment above. It expressed my own understanding of Charlie Hebdo's humor, but, until Wednesday, I was not a subscriber not did I read often the paper. So my point may ben wrong. —

FrédéricLN said...

… and a commentator on my blog ruins my understanding of Charlie Hebdo's blaspheme:

"on a quand même eu droit à un dessin de la Sainte Trinité en train de se sodomiser, sous le titre "Mgr Vingt-trois a trois papas"".

Well, I won't translate, but that is explicit blaspheme against God.