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Charlie Hebdo Was Their Friend

For the French, the murders were unusually personal

A French reader tells me something I didn’t know about Charlie Hebdo and the role the dead cartoonists played in French life:

Just a word as a French reader (thus, as yet free from the ‘trigger warning’ US hell; and happy to be part of a Left not completely consumed by silly ‘culture wars’).

A big chunk of the outrage and horror, which I completely feel right now, at the murder of the Charlie cartoonists and columnists stems from a very simple fact, that I’m not really seeing reported in the Anglo press: we’ve known the guys all our lives. They were institutions, but of a very special kind; ie, they were just as essential to (as in ‘part of the ontological essence of’) France as, say, the New York Review or NY Times (or TAC, maybe, a few decades from now) to the USA, but they were also people with whom you’d be laughing once a week: in a way, more close family than distant journalists. They were an Aufhebung, as Hegelians would say, of the great journalist, the magnificent singer you’ve listened to your whole life, and the funny uncle whose snarky, irreverent and borderline jokes would, willy-nilly, enthrall you. I get that people on your side of the pond plainly didn’t know them, but please try to keep in mind the intimacy many French felt for these cartoonists when you want to gauge our public mood.

As far as the ‘nasty kids’ and ‘useless provocations’ anathemas go, I’d like to yell that it’s not true, or at the very least offer some extremely important proviso. First, any Charlie reader, and I mean any, would, time and again, choke on a cartoon (even the cartoonists themselves, sometimes). Which, in and by itself, would school you: you’d learn to turn the other cheek, you’d learn to feel others’ pain at being offended, you’d learn lo let go of your pain at being offended, and, last but not least, you’d learn that, sometimes, the only offense was to your vainglorious self. Sure, on the whole, that made for an unholier-than-Thou and a leave-no-holy-cow-unskewered weekly: “bête et méchant”. But, for the reader, it was also a weekly lesson in humility and humanity. (All the more nowadays. Ross Douthat’s column was really great in that respect.) And if you really couldn’t swallow it, well, easy-peasy: you could always turn the page, and, if your anger was not yet quelled, you only had to stop buying Charlie for a few weeks, long enough for your wrath to abate. Then the fun could begin anew. (I’m just going to point out here that so it was for lefty me; and so it was for a number of conservative and traditionalist friends: Charlie at noon, Barrès before bed, you’re in for happy dreams.)

One last thing. It’s always fun to import others’ problems for homeland media consumption and cockfighting, but lest it be forgotten, translation is never easy, ever the least when you’re translating humor. Cultural boundaries notwithstanding (the drawing part of the cartoon), no Charlie cartoon would be complete (nor understandable) without its label and dialogue, written in French, written for French readers, written for people who could get the French quips, quotes, gags and rhymes. So please don’t go jumping all outraged about how it’s all so scatological and such if you didn’t get the joke, because there might just still be one right there under your nose. The Charlie team surely did (and hopefully -those left- will again) test many limits, but it also has something to do with a very central notion and tradition for French humor, that of the “bon mot” (I’m sorry but I don’t think I can do it justice if I try to explain it, so I’m leaving it a that French phrase). Those most ‘sensitive’ cartoons were always also a form of dancing in the face of madness, a politeness of despair, a puncturing of the buffoonery that our wihsful Schwarmerei is. Is it that no Charlie cartoon was ever lame or an utter failure? There sure were some, as cartoonists also get tired, angry, unimaginative, or rushed when the publishing line nears. Or should we believe that there never was a New York Times paper so devoid of content or replete with nonsense that it wouldn’t have been better left unpublished?



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