Le Rabelais de nos jours

Justin Erik Halldór Smith on Charlie Hebdo.

In response to the recent attempt by some members of PEN to betray persecuted editorialists throughout the world by refusing to honor the survivors of a right-wing death squad’s attack on a group of caricature artists in Paris a few months ago, Harper’s has taken my April essay out from behind its paywall. Many have been writing on the Internet about their exasperation with all the ‘think pieces’ on this topic. When will we have finally had enough? they wonder. My answer is that there will be no more need for ‘think pieces’ when there will be sufficiently serious thinking about this question. What the PEN protesters have given us is a refusal-to-think piece: Twitter-worthy, infantile, presentist American identitarianism that both denies commonalities of experience and history when they are present (as between Europe and the Arab world), and presumes such commonalities when they are in fact absent (as between Anglo-American and French traditions of humor and satire), all on the basis of the ungrounded extension of the currently preferred American analytic lens of ‘whiteness’ and ‘non-whiteness’. This lens certainly reveals quite a bit about American history and its enduring legacies, but very little about the broader history of the Mediterranean and its peoples, against the background of which the recent Charlie Hebdo incident is best understood.

Dayum, this guy can word. “Twitter-worthy, infantile, presentist American identitarianism” is one for the ages. (And yes, “American” belongs there. I often prepare to bristle when I see that word, because it [or rather its plural] often precedes some stupid remark like “are so pathetic to think ‘pussy’ means ‘vagina'” or just “are so thick.” But in this case there’s a parochialism that just wouldn’t fly in places that share several borders with foreign countries.)

Honestly, people who have signed the PEN letter are openly admitting that they have never even looked at Charlie Hebdo, and even that they would not be in a position to understand the French if they were to look it. I can accept that your overall judgment of it might, after thorough consideration, be negative (just like you might not like Lolita, Gargantua, Monty Python…), but that is just patently not what is happening here. As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems to me thatCharlie Hebdo has been Justine Sacco’d in the Anglosphere: summarily judged, and then subject to a campaign of ruthless denunciation. Except that Charlie Hebdo is not a Tweet, but a decades-long collaborative endeavor, and those of us in the part of the world that is still capable of interpreting texts and images in a nuanced way are left scratching our heads when we see the unreflective, summary judgment passed on such a complicated body of work –often misfiring, but often unquestionably courageous and unquestionably funny– as if it were some dumb Tweet or other source of ephemeral online outrage.

Yes but you see they have friends who say it’s racist. Those friends also haven’t read or understood it, but they too have friends who say it’s racist. If you go back far enough there must be some people who actually have read and understood it, and are Correct to say it’s racist. Otherwise…well there wouldn’t be all these people saying it is, would there. That’s democracy.

Honestly from what I can see that’s about the level of the “thinking.” It sort of has to be, since it’s so easy to find people explaining how and why Charlie is not racist. It has to be some ridiculous level of trust in chains of transmission from one right-on person to another right-on person that can trump all those people who do know something about the subject.

In the Harper’s piece what I was trying to do was to insist on a revision of the facile view that what Charlie Hebdo represented was something distinctly and exclusively ‘Western’, ‘Enlightenment-based’, etc. Hence my attempt, space permitting, at a sort of genealogy of the joke and of the sources of bawdy literature –of which I see Charlie Hebdo as a descendant– in pan-Mediterranean oral folklore. I detect here a possibility for going back around all the apparent dichotomies that both French laïcité defenders such as Alain Finkielkraut as well as the American left thinkers who have taken such a firm stance on Charlie Hebdo have helped to perpetuate, and finding a shared history and a common reality.

To put this a bit differently, Rabelais is closer to an anonymous medieval Arab raconteur than he is to, say, Peter Carey. You can classify Charlie Hebdo as a product of the wit-shrouded racism and imperialism of the Enlightenment, assimilating it to Voltaire and so on, but there is an alternative genealogy, which I have been trying to draw out, which connects the modern European satirical tradition to something much larger than Europe, and to something much older than modernity. It is my opponents, and not me, who are perpetuating the ideology of European exceptionalism by acting as though satire has no roots, and can have no purchase, outside of Europe.*

Ah now that’s interesting – Charlie as a descendant of Rabelais. There is no American Rabelais; maybe that’s why this all goes so wrong.


  1. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Ah now that’s interesting – Charlie as a descendant of Rabelais. There is no American Rabelais; maybe that’s why this all goes so wrong.

    But there is (American) Mark Twain, and look what the PEN-protester types do with him: refuse to teach him in public school because he used the word “nigger” and gawd, that’s racist!

    Not that I have reason to think that any one of those specific 150 mush-heads have actually boycotted Twain before, but it’s exactly the same kind of non-thinking reaction. Can’t have their pure ideology contaminated by any coarse drawings or ugly words!

    And if any of those 150 are smart enough to realize why it’s valuable to read Twain who uses the word “nigger”, but not smart enough to realize why it’s valuable to read Hebdo which uses ugly cartoons of Islamists (as well as racist French politicians, the pope, etc) … well, I don’t know how they explain to themselves why one is okay and one isn’t.

    Hypocrisy? American exceptionalism? Blindness? Dunno.

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