I didn’t really have any great hopes for this thin volume containing 60 short texts by (mostly contemporary) French writers inspired by the Charlie Hebdo attack, but the five euros I paid for it in the Hyper-U went to a good cause (Charlie Hebdo) and I thought that with 60 writers there was at least a pretty good chance of finding something worth reading. Unfortunately I didn’t really find that much. Much of the book consisted of the usual meaningless platitudes which undoubtedly well-meaning people invariably come out with after such events, along with plenty of unrealistic advice from people who really have no idea what they’re talking about concerning what “we” all have to do to make sure something like this never happens again. Perhaps the words “60 écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression” should have been enough to warn me that they’d all be saying the same thing. But no, I exaggerate, it wasn’t quite that bad…
For convenience, I have divided this post into sections:
followed by my comments on certain texts about which I found more specific things (or simply more) to say:
- Philippe Claudel: Je suis Charlie, mais un peu tard
- Jean-Paul Enthoven: Je me souviens
- Fabrice Humbert: Je suis Charlie
- Bernard-Henri Lévy: Ce qui restera de 11 janvier
- Ian Manook (alias Patrick Manoukian): Pleurer ou pas
- Gérard Mordillat: Contre Dieu
- Anne Nivat
- Antoine Sfeir: Réapprendre la résistance
- Frédéric Beigbeder
and finally a
- General conclusion – et une petite note en français pour mes lecteurs francophones.
Many of the contributors simply share their memories with us, and often in an eloquent and moving manner – either their memories of the murdered cartoonists, whom they often knew personally, or simply their memories of hearing the news of the killings and their reaction to it.
Elisabeth Roudinesco, for instance, in Serrer les rangs, p.139, which can be read here, recounts her memories (starting in 2002) of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the people behind it.
Jean-Paul Enthoven in Je me souviens (p.55), Colombe Schneck in Quand la guerre est rentrée dan la maison (p.146), and Michaël Uras (p.158) tell us about their memories of hearing the news, along with some comments and reflections on the events and their aftermath.
Often, as in the case of Christophe Ono-dit-Biot (Au revoir, Président, p.120) their texts are moving and well-written, and just occasionally, as in the case of Romain Puértolas (Le jour où la bombe aux couleurs arc-en-ciel explosa sur le monde, p.128) even reveal a sense of humour which I’m sure the guys at Charlie Hebdo would have appreciated!
Some writers (Philippe Claudel, for instance) use the opportunity provided by this book to have a go at anyone who’d dared say anything negative about Charlie Hebdo following their decision, in 2006, to republish the famous Danish cartoons of Muhammad, accompanied by a few of their own, accusing such writers of treachery and cowardice, and sometimes even seeming to want to lay part of the blame for what happened at their door.
Many, for instance Jean-Paul Jouary (Comment peut-on être Charlie ?, P.83), Frédéric Lenoir (Un drame qui recrée du lien, p.89) and François-Guillaume Lorrain (untitled, p.97), are desperately trying to find or create meaning in the events and their aftermath, and to find something positive, hopeful and uplifting to say, with the result that they end up all saying the same predictable things for the umpteenth time, each trying to be more poetic, profound, abstract and philosophical than the rest. Unsurprisingly, Bernard-Henri Lévy also comes into this category, but I have much more to say about his contribution below.
Frédéric Lenoir talks about “cet acte horrible et d’une profonde portée symbolique”. He doesn’t seem to realise that while most people would agree with his subjective opinion that this act was horrible, the answer to the rather important question of whether it was d’une profonde portée symbolique is entirely in our hands. That was the intention of the killers, certainly, but should we really be so helpful as to give them, posthumously, exactly what they wanted? I’ve written more about this interesting question here.
A few writers, such as Guillaume Jan in Salut à toi, Mohammed (p.81) and Serge Raffy in Lettre à Charlie (p.133) actually have something interesting and original to say, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt‘s unsubtle but highly amusing little text Manuel du fanatique – pour en finir avec l’humanisme, la tolérance, la sagesse et autres débilités… (p.143) contains much humour, but (unfortunately) also a lot of truth.
Philippe Claudel, in his contribution entitled Je suis Charlie, mais un peu tard (p.32), tries to lay part of the blame for the killings at the door of that part of the French press which thought that Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, accusing the writers concerned of cowardice, lack of solidarity and a betrayal of the noble principles of liberty of expression, artistic creation and laïcité. After having reassured us that he doesn’t think that those who condemned Charlie Hebdo at the time ever suspected that it would all end, years later, so brutally and tragically, he continues:
Notre lâcheté d’alors s’est drapée, pour que nous puissions la rendre à nous-mêmes acceptable et continuer ainsi à nous regarder dans la glace sans rougir, dans la prose pâteuse du respect nécessaire à apporter à toute religion et croyance. C’était oublier la hiérarchie des valeurs qui fait que, dans une société démocratique et libre, le respect des religions ne doit pas s’exercer au détriment du respect premier qui est celui des opinions, du débat d’idées, de ceux qui les expriment et y participent, citoyens, intellectuels, artistes, hommes politiques.
Ne nous leurrons pas : c’est la peur qui a gouverné notre méfiance à nous engager alors aux côtés de l’équipe de Charlie Hebdo, pas autre chose. (p.32,4)
Whether anyone working for Charlie Hebdo is or was an anti-islamist or a racist is an open question, but it can’t be denied that the idea that this is or was the case is a respectable one which has just as much right to be publicly expressed as any other. It’s also an open question whether some of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo have very much to do with ‘le débat d’idées’ or whether they’re nearer to something between puerile humour and anti-islamist hate propaganda. I wonder whether Philippe Claudel would have defended the right of the cartoonists of Der Stürmer to publish their anti-Jewish cartoons in the 1930s. And more to the point, I wonder to what extent he defends notorious anti-semitic comedian Dieudonné’s liberty of expression and artistic creation. Did any of these people who thought that Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, and that their attack on Islam was likely to do more harm than good, actually demand that the magazine be censored, prosecuted or shut down? Not as far as I’m aware. If they did demand any of these things then they were certainly on the wrong track and Philippe Claudel’s accusations are justified, but otherwise they were simply exercising their right to express their opinion. And why, exactly, does he assume that the reason for their criticism of Charlie Hebdo was ‘fear, and nothing else’? Might there not, just possibly, be reasonable, intelligent grounds for disagreeing with the tactics Charlie Hebdo was employing, and don’t those who hold such opinions have as much right to be heard as anyone else? In the much-quoted (although probably apocryphal) words of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Or, as I often put it myself, everyone has a right to his opinion, no matter how stupid it is. Is it not just a little bit hypocritical of Monsieur Claudel to apply this excellent philosophy to Charlie Hebdo but to deny it to everyone else? And what’s all this about a ‘hierarchy of values’? As far as I’m concerned religious ideas are just opinions, just as anti-religious ideas are just opinions, and they all have an equal right to be heard. In other words it’s OK to publish insulting cartoons about Muhammad (or to say that all Catholic priests are frustrated paedophiles, or to make jokes about the Holocaust), and it’s equally OK to criticise the people who do so and tell them they’re not really helping matters. The only thing which is not OK is to use physical violence against those who say things one finds offensive – and that includes the legal physical violence which eventually results from the application of censorship laws and libel actions.
Things don’t get any better when Monsieur Claudel attempts to analyse why the killers did what they did, to discover the real cause of the problem and ask what can be done about it. He starts by looking at the killers’ motives, and immediately rejects any connection with their religion:
I wouldn’t for a minute wish to suggest that the average Moslem isn’t just as peaceful as the average Christian, or that the Koran can’t be interpreted in a completely non-violent manner, but by those final words Monsieur Claudel reveals himself to be someone who has never read the Koran and knows very little about Islam. To say there’s absolutely no trace of violence in that book or that religion is just as ridiculous as it would be to say the same thing about the Bible and Christianity! So, if it had nothing to do with their religion, what was their motive exactly? Monsieur Claudel seems to have no doubts on the matter, and continues as follows:
But why, exactly, did these people want to ‘scare, frighten, cause a tragedy, wield weapons, and kill’? Monsieur Claudel has much more difficulty with this question, but he does his best and comes out with some things which are far from being beside the point:
So far, so good. This is the same discussion we’ve heard so often regarding the Nazis. Were they monsters, or were they in fact human beings. The first viewpoint puts all the blame on them, as individuals: either they were particularly evil people or they were in some way insane, but in either case they weren’t normal, they weren’t like us, which absolves us from all responsibility. The second viewpoint puts the blame on the human race: yes, these were normal human beings, and normal human beings often do evil things. So if we don’t want to see such things happen again the human race has to be changed, and that human race includes us ! Lots of people find the first viewpoint more comfortable, but anyone who’s read much of what I’ve written on this blog (my text on the film – and the philosopher – Hannah Arendt being a particularly appropriate example), will have no doubt as to where I stand on the matter. So, here I agree completely with Philippe Claudel, but I’m a lot less happy with what comes next:
There’s certainly some truth in what he says, but also a lot of pious, hypocritical rubbish. Let’s examine his statements more closely… This isn’t the place to get into a deep philosophical discussion about ‘human nature’ and what (if anything) that expression actually means, but I have no difficulty whatsoever with his statement “leur nature profonde n’était pas différente de la nôtre”. If he thinks “leur langue était la nôtre” then he hasn’t been listening to the way young people in the Parisian banlieues, especially those with a north African background, actually speak to each other these days! Given their north African background, “mangé les même nourritures” seems a bit unlikely, and although I have no idea what Philippe Claudel does in his spare time and know just as little about what the Charlie Hebdo killers did in theirs, his statement “leur loisirs étaient les nôtres” does strike me as just a little improbable. None of these things are very important or relevant, but that can’t be said of the rest of his statements. While some of them are indeed literally true (“Ils ont grandis sous les présidences que nous avons connues”, for instance), taken as a whole they summon up a vision of perfect national unity which doesn’t exist in France, nor in any other country I can think of. The ideals of the French Republic are “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, and excellent ideals they are too. And if The Political Compass is to be believed, France comes nearer to achieving these left-wing, libertarian ideals than any other European country – which is one of the reasons I’m glad to live here! Unfortunately, however, this says more about the rest of Europe than it does about France, and anyone who believes that these noble ideals have been perfectly realised is not only extremely optimistic, but also extremely ignorant about the everyday realities of French society. Philippe Claudel gives the impression of being just such a person, and of believing that the fact of being a French citizen, i.e. of qualifying for a French passport, is a guarantee that no matter where you live or who your parents are, whether you’ve got white skin or brown skin, whether you’re called Achmed or Jean-François, you have exactly the same chance as any other French citizen of getting a good education and a good job, being treated with equal respect by the police, the authorities and your fellow-citizens, and have an equal chance of seeing your dreams come true. He seems to be totally ignorant of the fact that (relative) poverty exists in France, that there are good quartiers with better public facilities and worse quartiers with worse ones, that there are good schools and bad schools, and that poverty tends to persist from one generation to the next. It is a simple fact that the children of poor, badly educated parents, who grow up in poor districts, just do not have the same chances as the children of rich, well educated parents in richer parts of the country. It is one of the tasks of the state to try to compensate for this fact, and, by subsidising education for instance, to try to level out these natural differences and provide everyone with as equal as possible a chance of succeeding in life. That’s far from being an easy matter, and one would have to be very optimistic or very ignorant to think that the French state has completely succeeded in this. On top of that we have the question of racism. While that’s undoubtedly a much bigger problem in many other countries, again, one would have to be very optimistic or very ignorant to maintain that there is no racism in France. So, while it’s literally true that “Ils ont grandis sous les présidences que nous avons connues, entendus les mêmes discours politiques que ceux que nous avons entendus,” etc., there’s something that Monsieur Claudel seems to be forgetting, namely that the same discours politiques and the words, ideas and policies of the same presidents, have a very different meaning for those at the bottom of the societal ladder than for those in the middle or nearer the top. And the discours politiques of a party like the Front National and the millions who vote for it undoubtedly have a very different meaning for those with a north African background than for “real” Frenchmen.
Not that any of this completely explains the fact that these particular people did what they did, let alone justifies their acts. After all, there are millions of poor, ill-educated young men with a north African background, in France as in other countries, who do not become converted to a radical and violent offshoot of Islam and do not go around machine-gunning cartoonists. So, do I have a better explanation than to regard their deeds as “simplement des actes de délinquance”? I hope so. Let us start with the fact that France, just like pretty well the rest of the world, is a profoundly capitalist country, and that capitalism is in many ways a very bad system. This certainly isn’t the place to get into a serious examination of the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism (if you’re interested in understanding that system you could do a lot worse than to read David Harvey’s excellent little book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism), but suffice it to say that the essence of capitalism is that the entire economy (and along with it people’s work, their income and the rest of their lives) is driven by the fact that capital must grow, and that everything else (whether people are happy, healthy, well fed and well educated, and lead fulfilling lives, to name just a few things) comes very much in second place. This means, in practice, that people are often oppressed, either within a society, e.g. by maintaining an army of unemployed to keep wages down, or externally, e.g. via (neo)colonialism. Such ideals as “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” have nothing to do with it: if capital can grow faster by making people unfree, unequal and less inclined to help each other, then that’s what will inevitably happen. Throughout history, many people have seen this and tried to fight against the system, but their efforts have often been severely misguided. Both communism and fascism were attempts to overthrow capitalism and replace it with something better, and in my opinion the same could be said, to a great extent, about religion. While every religion contains a lot of ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, much of it harmless but some of it harmful or downright dangerous (which is why the French laïcité is such a wonderful and necessary tradition), and while that which the great world religions have done in practice has often left much to be desired, every religion will tell you, at least, that you should feed the hungry, help the poor and generally treat your fellow man with respect rather than simply use him as a means to make more money and become more powerful. Let me first admit that I know next to nothing about the backgrounds of the Charlie Hebdo killers and my ideas about them could be completely wrong. I’m just using my imagination, and this is what my imagination tells me… They came from poor families, grew up in poor districts with bad public facilities and went to bad schools. They saw their friends leaving school with no useful qualifications, and even those who had them found difficulty finding well paid work because they were Arabs who came from the wrong part of town. At the same time, they were bombarded from an early age with messages which told them that to be someone, to be a fully worthwhile human being, you have to have certain things – especially things which cost a lot of money – the sort of money they never seemed to have, and which they saw little reason to think they ever would have. And they looked at the people who had succeeded in getting the money and the things, and saw that they weren’t happy and that they were leading empty, superficial, meaningless lives. They also felt they were looked down on and treated as second class citizens, stopped in the street by the police more often than the ‘white’ French people who lived in the better quartiers, and generally regarded with suspicion. On an international level, they saw that power and money count for more than justice or human rights, and that the life an Arab or a Moslem is worth much less than that of an American or an Israeli, just to give two not entirely random examples. So, they grew up with a strong feeling of ‘the world is a mess, French society is a mess, and we’re looking at the wrong end of it’. When people experience a generalised feeling of being excluded and downtrodden, they often do nothing about it. If they’re not particularly politically conscious, they may well put it all down to fate and bad luck, blame it on themselves or say “that’s just the way things are” and learn to live with it. When these same people find a point to focus on, when they realise that it’s not just themselves as individuals who are the victims, but that they belong to a group (be it defined by race, religion, language or even class) which is being systematically mistreated, that’s when they find it much easier to rise up against whoever or whatever they feel is responsible. The focus in this case is religion, culture and ethnicity, and whether or not the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo were launching a deliberate attack on Arabs or Moslems (as opposed to simply criticising certain aspects of a certain religion), that’s certainly the way their work was interpreted by large sections of the groups in question. What I’m basically saying is that the actions of these killers, misguided and counterproductive though they were, cannot usefully be regarded as anything other than a political act, just as the planting of a bomb by the IRA or the assassination of a prefect by Corsican nationalists is a political act. The problem, then, is a political problem, a problem with society, a problem with ‘The System’. Claudel seems to have understood this when he writes the following sensible words, even if what we’ve read so far would cause me, personally, to doubt it:
I don’t have an easy answer to the problems which lie at the root of this tragic event, and I fear that no such easy answer exists. No, the answer, if it exists, will require nothing less than that we ‘rethink our world’, as Philippe Claudel puts it. And writing off the action of these killers as “simplement des actes de délinquance” is not a good way to start.
Jean-Paul Enthoven‘s contribution is entitled Je me souviens (p.55), and consists of a series of short and sometimes quite personal anecdotes and memories, most of them beginning with the words “Je me souviens”. For anyone who’s interested, you can find the complete text here.
He tells us that January 11th. was his birthday, and that when he saw one or two million people gathered at the Place de la République it was almost as if they’d all come to celebrate it. We hear about the lines by Louis Aragon which he found coming into his head that day, and also that it had occurred to him that there was a Charlie in À la recherche du temps perdu. He talks a bit about Bernard Maris, the only one of the victims he knew personally, he tells us an amusing little story from Mille et Une Nuits and occasionally he writes something pensive and slightly poetic which I found well worth reading:
Dernier rêve, dernier réveil, dernier café, dernière douche, dernier baiser, dernière course heureuse dans l’escalier ou dans la rue, dernier bonjour aux amis attablés, dernière cigarette, dernier mot – et la mort qui foudroie.
Ce qui est terrible avec les dernières fois, c’est qu’elles ne se signalent pas. Personne ne sait quand il fait l’amour pour la dernière fois. Personne ne sait qu’il voit la Tour Eiffel pour la dernière fois. (p.58,1)
Unfortunately he also writes quite a bit with which I was much less happy:
Yeah, go on, express your emotions, you moron! That’s really going to help matters. And then this little gem:
I mean, what a load of rubbish! What annoyed me the most about this contribution, however, was the way in which the author tried to make some sort of vague, insinuating connection between the Charlie Hebdo killings and the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, and to have a go at that author personally:
Autour de moi, pourtant, un ou deux millions d’hommes et de femmes se tenaient debout. Guère soumis. MH aurait-il trop hâtivement théorisé selon sa physiologie ? Trouvait-il quelque jouissance à se prosterner devant un(e) Maître(sse) ? Était-il masochiste ? Pervers ? Extra lucide ? Aveugle ?
Aux dernières nouvelles, on signale qu’il a interrompu sa campagne de promo. Son agent a cru devoir préciser : « MH s’est mis au vert, à la montagne ».
Là encore, c’était le style MH : avec lui la France se couche quand elle est debout, et la neige a la couleur de l’herbe. (p.55,9)
On the following page Jean-Paul Enthoven quotes some lines from the book L’Étrange défaite by Marc Bloch and speaks in very positive terms about it, mentioning almost in passing that it is “le contraire de Soumission“. I must admit that I haven’t yet read Soumission, but I have read all Michel Houellebecq’s other novels and I found plenty in them which I wouldn’t hesitate to describe as ‘beauty and intelligence’. It would be most unfair to judge Monsieur Enthoven’s entire oeuvre by this one article, but were I to do so I would be very surprised indeed to find anywhere near as much ‘beauty and intelligence’ there as in the works of Michel Houellebecq!
The contribution of Fabrice Humbert is entitled simply Je suis Charlie, and consists of a very short story (just two pages) in which we follow a mugger as he stalks his prey, then later, as he leaves the scene of the crime, 500 euros richer. It is implied that he may have stabbed his victim in the process, although we weren’t present at the mugging itself and aren’t given any concrete details. As he walks he sees windows opening and people coming out of their front doors. He feels guilty, thinks they’re all looking at him and wonders why. How can they know what he’s just done? More and more people come out onto the street, and they all seem to be looking at him in a strange manner. He finally hears an old woman pronounce the incomprehensible phrase “Je suis Charlie”.
What a bizarre story, and what is its relevance to the subject of the book? The action presumably takes place on the day of the Charlie Hebdo killings, and we’re probably meant to assume, from the strange looks he gets, that the mugger is of Arab appearance. But what on earth is the author trying to say with this story? Buggered if I know!
Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s contribution, Ce qui restera de 11 janvier, can be read in a slightly adapted form here.
He starts by posing a very interesting question, one which I was asking myself on January 11th., when I wrote:
So, those were my thoughts at the time, but let’s see how Bernard-Henri Lévy poses the question, and whether he can do any better than I could in trying to answer it:
Mais il y a tout de même quelque chose de mystérieux […] dans la mobilisation de ce dimanche.
Car enfin, il y a déjà eu en France, et il y a déjà eu en Europe, et il y a déjà eu, en particulier, en Italie, des attentats terroristes de grande ampleur.
Et l’on a déjà connu, pour s’en tenir à la seule France, d’entières périodes – je pense à la guerre d’Algérie – où des bombes explosaient chaque matin ; où l’on tirait, au Petit-Clamart, sur le président de la République ; où les commandos du FLN et de l’OAS rivalisaient d’imagination et de sauvagerie pour mettre Paris à feu et à sang.
Mais jamais l’on n’avait vu, ni même imaginé, quarante-trois chefs d’État et de gouvernement, autant dire un quart des Nations unies, faire le déplacement pour défiler au coude à coude avec les survivants des attentats.
Jamais, depuis le 8 novembre 1942 et le fameux discours en français du président Roosevelt venant, en pleine guerre antinazie, sur les antennes d’une miniscule radio qui s’appelait Radio-Londres et qui était la radio des Français libres, dire, comme aujourd’hui John Kerry et son hallucinant «Je suis Charlie» prononcé, lui aussi, dans la langue de Molière, sa solidarité avec la France, l’on n’avait vu l’Amérique vibrer de cette émotion fraternelle avec la nation soeur par excellence.
Et puis ces millions de Français descendus dans la rue pour crier leur deuil d’un petit journal satirique dont nombre d’eux connaissaient, la veille encore, à peine l’existence […]
Tout cela est du jamais vu et reste, je le répète, presque impossible à comprendre. (p. 91,1)
Bernard-Henri Lévy continues for several pages to wonder about this question, trying out various explanatory theories, before finally reaching the following conclusion:
Not that Monsieur Lévy hasn’t found quite a few things to be certain about along the way:
Ce qui est sûr, c’est qu’il y a désormais toute une Europe et, au-delà de l’Europe, toute une partie de la planète qui a choisi de penser qu’elle n’a plus à choisir entre ces deux versions de la bêtise, de la haine et, au fond, du nihilisme que sont l’islamisme d’un côté et les populismes fascisants de l’autre.
La France est de retour : preuve, soit dit en passant, que la grandeur d’un pays n’est pas réductible à sa « compétitivité » ou à la plus ou moins bonne conformité de ses comptes avec les « paramètres » d’une bureaucratie, fût-elle européenne.
L’Europe est de retour : la vraie Europe, celle de Husserl et de cette universalité concrète, fondée sur des valeurs et principes partagés, que veulent abattre les deux avant-gardes du fascisme contemporain que sont, en France, le fondamentalisme musulman et leurs jumeaux qui, comme Jean-Marie Le Pen ont tenu à déclarer qu’ils n’étaient «pas Charlie». (p.95,1)
I couldn’t agree more with his words “la grandeur d’un pays n’est pas réductible à sa « compétitivité » ou à la plus ou moins bonne conformité de ses comptes avec les « paramètres » d’une bureaucratie, fût-elle européenne.”, and I sincerely hope that both Bernard-Henri Lévy and your good self, dear reader, are aware of the extent to which they can, at this moment, be applied to Greece!
On the other hand, I’m not at all sure that the demonstration of January 11th., impressive though it was, provided any proof that “la France n’a plus peur”, nor that “La France est de retour”. Now I, personally, was not aware that anyone, in France or elsewhere, was of the opinion that France was “à bout de souffle, déclinante, en voie d’être rayée de la carte des puissances”. France is certainly no longer the world power that it was when it was at the centre of a world-wide empire, just as Great Britain no longer is. Both countries, however, are permanent members (with veto power) of the United Nations Security Council, both possess nuclear weapons and both are important members of the EU. What more does BHL want? Neither was I aware that France was ever afraid, but I shall be kind and attribute these differences of perception to the fact that Bernard-Henri Lévy is a better observer of French and European opinion than I am. Maybe I’ve been living in my own little world and have missed all this; I won’t deny the possibility. Neither have I ever, in the slightest degree, had the feeling that I had to choose between Moslem fundamentalism (or Christian, for that matter) and the sort of ideas which are expounded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk. I have never had the slightest doubt that these are two particularly stupid and useless ways of looking at the world, and I find it a very strange idea that anyone, in France or elsewhere, might ever have seriously thought that these were the only two options available!
But what are we to make of his expression “la vraie Europe, celle de Husserl”? I think I can safely say that I find myself in a minority, in France as in the rest of Europe, due to the very fact that I’ve even heard of Edmund Husserl, and in an even smaller minority due to the fact that I know something, even if it isn’t very much, about his philosophy. But even I have great difficulty forming any idea of what BHL might possibly have in mind when he talks about “l’Europe de Husserl”. Husserl was an influential 20th. century philosopher, within the Continental tradition at least, and whether this is something we should be happy about is an open question which I certainly do not intend to address here, but has he made an important enough contribution to European history or culture to have ‘a Europe’ dedicated to him? If we were to talk about ‘the Europe of Leonardo da Vinci’, of Voltaire, or of Napoléon, there I can let my knowledge and my imagination do their work and I can perhaps come up with some idea of what those particular Europes might look like. But ‘the Europe of Husserl’??? And if I have such difficulty in finding anything resembling a concrete significance in these words, then what, I ask you, is the average Frenchman or European who’s hardly heard of the poor guy likely to make of these words? Let me tell you. Many people, and, I fear, the majority of those who read this piece, are going to think more or less as follows: if the famous philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks in such terms of Edmund Husserl then we have every reason to be convinced that Edmund Husserl was a wonderful guy and that the Europe which Bernard-Henri Lévy associates with his name must have been a wonderful place and that we should find the fact that it no longer exists very regrettable. This, apparently, is what passes for communication in the Europe of Bernard-Henri Lévy, and if and when that particular Europe ceases to exists, I doubt if I shall regret it very much.
Ian Manook (alias Patrick Manoukian), in his contribution Pleurer ou pas which you can read in its entirety here, talks about the fact that the death of his 88-year-old mother had coincided almost exactly with the Charlie Hebdo killings, and begins by comparing the two events:
Maman est morte le 8 janvier et je n’ai pas beaucoup pleuré parce que c’était dans l’ordre des choses. Mourir à 88 ans, avant tous ses enfants, après une longue vie sans trop de grands malheurs, dans son sommeil, sans trop souffrir, c’est dans l’ordre des choses.
La veille, douze personnes sont mortes dans l’attentat contre Charlie Hebdo, certaines que je connaissais et d’autres pas, et j’ai beaucoup pleuré parce que ça, ce n’est pas dans l’ordre des choses. Mourir pour un dessin ou sur l’ordre d’un Dieu, ce n’est pas dans l’ordre des choses. (p.99,1)
While this is all very normal and all very understandable, I can’t help thinking that this talk of “l’ordre des choses” is symptomatic of the general human tendency to expect some sort of ordered purpose or design behind the events of their lives – an inability or unwillingness to accept the fact that things just happen, with effect inevitably following cause and a good dose of quantum randomness thrown in for good measure. A need to think that things happen a certain way because that’s how they were meant to happen, that’s how they were planned. And if this ‘plan’ doesn’t really exist (or if, at least, we can find no good evidence for its existence, nor, should it exist, for what it might be) then a willingness to just make something up which we would like to be true and to go about convincing ourselves that it is.
He goes on to tell us, in very approving terms, about his mother’s faith, and this fits very well with what’s gone before:
De cette foi qu’elle a toujours gardée et que j’ai perdue, j’espère qu’il en reste malgré tout encore un tout petit peu en moi. Assez pour croire très fort que personne ne l’a trompée, ni sur terre, ni au-delà. Elle y a tant cru, toute sa vie, de toute son âme, qu’elle mérite que ça soit vrai. Que là où elle a toujours rêvé d’aller après, elle y est déjà aujourd’hui […] (p.99,8)
His mother was obviously quite a tolerant person:
Perhaps if the author were to think about it a bit longer and a bit more deeply, he might realise that the Charlie Hebdo killers were also des croyants, although of a much less tolerant type than his mother, and perhaps it might even occur to him to think that the root of the problem is belief itself. Because belief in this context means the claim that certain facts are definitely true when one does not in fact have sufficient evidence to support that claim. Regardless of whether the particular belief system driving those killers was representative of, or an inevitable consequence of, Islam (and I think most honest observers would agree with me that it was not), the point is that once you start believing things then you don’t know where that’s going to take you. It often leads to love and tolerance, but it can just as easily lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-burning or the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Gérard Mordillat‘s contribution Contre Dieu can be read here (about half way down the page, under “L’intégralité ici :”). While not tremendously original it is at least an intelligent text (perhaps the most intelligent in the whole book) which makes one or two good points which may not have received sufficient attention elsewhere, for instance the question of whether the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad is actually forbidden by Islam, and of who or what had been ‘insulted’ and had to be ‘avenged’:
C’est le point de départ ; à l’arrivée, il y a deux tueurs fascistes qui s’érigent en juges et bourreaux sous prétexte de « venger le prophète ». Mais venger qui, et de quoi ?
Je ne doute pas qu’il y ait eu un prophète en Arabie au VIIe siècle. S’appelait-il Mahomet, c’est une autre histoire. Comme le dit une grande islamologue, Jacqueline Chabbi « c’est un peu trop beau pour être vrai ». Mahomet signifie « le loué », le « louangé », c’est un surnom, pas un nom. Peut-on injurier un surnom ?
Nous ne savons pas quand Mahomet est né ni quand il est mort. La tradition considère que c’est en 632 mais cette hagio-biographie a été mise par écrit près de deux siècles après la mort de Mahomet. C’est-à-dire qu’en réalité, historiquement, nous ne savons rien où presque de l’homme Mahomet ; et absolument rien de son aspect physique. Un Mahomet légendaire, paré de toutes les grâces et de toutes les vertus, naîtra plus d’un demi-siècle après sa mort sous l’égide du calife ‘Abd Al-Malik, qui en fera en sorte son porte-parole.
Comment faire la caricature d’un homme dont on ne sait rien ?
Les dessins publiés par Charlie Hebdo ne sont pas des caricatures mais des portraits imaginaires, peut-être des portraits charge mais des portraits du Prophète de l’islam ; aussi imaginaires que ceux que l’on trouve abondamment dès le XVe siècle dans la tradition ottomane et perse et jusqu’à nos jours dans la tradition chiite. Une partie des musulmans ne s’offusquent en rien que l’on représente Mahomet comme un homme du VIIe siècle. La sacralisation de sa figure n’est qu’un diktat fondamentaliste venu au XIXe siècle du wahhabisme, et c’est cette figure légendaire qui réclamerait d’être « vengée » ?
Soyons sérieux. (p.105,9)
He also has something to say about the concept ‘insult’, something about which I had a lot to say myself here.
I described this piece as “perhaps the most intelligent in the whole book”, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s probably also the most anti-religious. While defending Charlie Hebdo against some of the accusations which have been levelled at it, Mordillat never misses an opportunity to have a side-swipe at religion:
Charlie serait islamophobe… parce qu’il se moque des intégristes et des fondamentalistes musulmans. À ce compte, il est aussi christianophobe parce qu’il se moque des grenouilles de bénitier et des punaises de sacristie, de Jésus, du pape et de toute la quincaillerie bondieusarde chrétienne. Ajoutons qu’il est aussi vraisemblablement judéophobe parce qu’il se fout de Moïse et des prophètes. Et, pour faire bonne mesure, sans doute antisémite puisqu’il critique la politique du gouvernement israélien massacrant les populations civiles palestiniennes qui font tache sur « la terre sacrée »… Tout cela n’est que faux procès. Charlie est tout simplement et sainement anti-clérical. Par l’humour, la satire, l’ironie, il lutte contre tous les clergés : qu’ils soient chrétiens, musulmans, juifs, bouddhistes, shintoïstes, zoroastres, raéliens, j’en passe et des meilleures. Et si l’on regarde ce que publiait la presse française au moment de la séparation de l’Église et de l’État en 1905, on peut trouver que ses caricaturistes sont plutôt timorés, comparés à leurs anciens…
Enfin Charlie serait « provocateur », irresponsable, criminel en somme et récolterait ce qu’il a semé. C’est là le plus odieux des retournements de langage. Ou alors c’est provocateur par nature de dire le réel, de l’affronter, de le mettre en lumière. En leur temps, Spinoza pour le judaïsme, Richard Simon, Ernest Renan, Alfred Loisy pour le christianisme et de nombreux auteurs musulmans des premiers siècles, Abou Nawas, Al-Hallaj, Al-Razi ont été eux aussi accusé d’être des provocateurs et ostracisés. À leur mesure, les journalistes de Charlie Hebdo sont dans le même sillage… celui de la raison critique, de l’intelligence contre l’obscurantisme.
He finishes with one last anti-religious rantette:
I couldn’t have put it better myself!
Anne Nivat‘s untitled contribution (p.110) can be read in a somewhat adapted form here. Like so many of the writers in this book, she spends much of it using a lot of words to convey two simple messages: “It’s terrible!” and “I don’t understand it”.
Fortunately she also has some slightly more interesting things to say. She talks about the many young ‘djihadistes’ she’s met in the course of her work as a war correspondent (many of whom were French), and tries to understand why they do what they do and to apply what she’s learned to the Charlie Hebdo killers and several other perpetrators of recent Moslem fundamentalist attacks in France and the US. Unsurprisingly she’s found evidence of the unfortunate but widespread human tendency to prefer a difficult, dangerous, perhaps shortened but undeniably exciting life which gives them the feeling that they’re ‘living life to the full’ and doing something ‘meaningful’, to a quieter, safer, more comfortable and generally more civilised life which they experience as boring and ‘meaningless’:
Didn’t Jean-Paul Sartre have quite a bit to say about this? (not to mention Ernest Hemingway). I wonder how many people wholeheartedly approved of such sentiments when they were expressed in more intellectual and/or literary terms by Messrs. Sartre and Hemingway and when the victims were likely to be Germans, Spaniards on the wrong side in the civil war, bulls or African wildlife, but fail completely to understand or appreciate them now that the authors are Moslem fundamentalists and the probable victims are people just like themselves…
The online version finishes with the following fairly sensible words, which are missing from the book:
The printed version finishes with the conclusion that the real motivation of the ‘djihadistes’ is simply their desire for ’15 minutes of fame’:
Can it really be that simple?
In his contribution Réapprendre la résistance, which can be read here, Antoine Sfeir poses the question:
He starts his answer with a prediction which has fortunately turned out so far (I’m writing this on 20 July 2015) to be incorrect:
And some good advice for the forces of law and order, which unfortunately wasn’t followed:
When are the police going to start using dart-guns which fire a fast-working sedative in this sort of situation, the sort of thing which is used to catch dangerous and fast-moving wildlife? In the rest of his text, having warned that further jihadist attacks are inevitable, Sfeir gives some generally quite sensible advice about how the French should act in the months and years to come:
Il va nous falloir réapprendre la résistance ; il va nous falloir réapprendre également à rejeter la pensée unique, à multiplier les avis pluriels, à ne pas prendre pour argent comptant tout ce qu’on nous dit, à développer notre esprit critique – si français, reconnu dans le monde entier -, à réintroduire le doute dans nos certitudes péremptoires. En un mot, réapprendre à dire NON.
Non à la violence sauvage de terroristes masqués, défenseurs autoproclamés du Prophète de l’islam, dont ils ne connaissent ni les fondements ni l’esprit.
Non à la défaite de la liberté d’expression, à la tentation de l’autocensure, par peur d’attirer en réponse la rage de barbares incontrôlables. Quel que soit son goût douteux ou son degré de provocation, la satire est salutaire ; si elle va trop loin, un État de droit possède l’arme de la justice pour réparer l’outrage éventuel.
Non à la stigmatisation d’une population musulmane qui serait, au mieux, suspecte d’abriter en son sein de futurs jihadistes ou, au pire, de comploter pour islamiser et voiler la France entière, comme certains essayistes polémistes et autres romanciers opportunistes voudraient le laisser entendre. Au risque de me répéter inlassablement, je continuerai d’asséner que les musulmans en question, croyants ou pas, pratiquants ou pas, sont d’abord Français, et ce depuis deux ou trois générations – c’est-à-dire plus longtemps que moi ; qu’en France, il n’y a pas de communautés mais des individus citoyens ; que la laïcité, unique au monde, garantit aux citoyens non seulement le respect de toute foi ou opinion philosophique, mais aussi le cantonnement de cette conviction dans la sphère privée.
Non, enfin, aux compromissions politico-financières de nos gouvernements avec des régimes archaïques, fondamentalistes, comme l’Arabie Saoudite et son petit voisin, le Qatar. (p.148,6)
It’s a pity he finds it necessary to take a side-swipe at Michel Houellebecq (“autres romanciers opportunistes”) who, after all, is simply a novelist (and a good one, at that!) who is exercising his right of freedom of expression – and using it to say something interesting! And what’s all this about “en France, il n’y a pas de communautés mais des individus citoyens”. Is France really that homogeneous? I’ve never come across a country that was, and having lived in France for nine years I’m convinced that Antoine Sfeir is confusing his dreams and wishes with reality! Really, what country has ever existed without containing different communities within it – and if this applies in France, just as it does everywhere else, why should that be a problem ? And is the famous French “laïcité” really “unique au monde”? The French may have invented a new word for it, but everywhere else it’s known as the separation of church and state, and exists (sometimes imperfectly – see the Kirchensteuer in Germany and the Queen’s position as head of the Church of England) in every country which isn’t a theocracy – and fortunately there aren’t many of them left in the world!
And last but not least, Frédéric Beigbeder‘s contribution (untitled, p.16) is short enough to be quoted in its entirety:
Now, what could I possibly add to that?!
In spite of my sometimes severe criticisms of some of these texts, I would still advise people to buy and to read this book. Your five euros will go to a good cause, and you will find much in this slim volume which is moving, intelligent, well-written and occasionally amusing. To get to those bits you will have to wade through quite a lot of useless, predictable bla-bla-bla, but you might well find it worth the work.
If, on the other hand, you expect to learn anything about this event, to gain any new insights into the Charlie Hebdo killings and their aftermath, to better understand their background, or to formulate ideas on what could or should be done to prevent any such thing happening in the future – if you have any such expectations, you might well be sadly disappointed.
It’s interesting that some of the best texts in this book (e.g. Victor Hugo: an extract from his Discours à l’Assemblée constituante, 1848, p.78 and Voltaire: an extract from Traité sur la tolérance, 1763, p.162) are by authors who have been dead for centuries. The implication, I fear, is that when it comes to writing about tolerance and freedom of expression, it’s all been said before – and better – a long time ago.
Et enfin, une petite note pour mes lecteurs francophones. Désolé que je n’ai pas écrit ce texte en français. Bien que je n’ai aucune difficulté avec la lecture française, écrire un texte comme celui-ci dans cette langue est malheureusement au-delà de mes capacités. Si, comme je l’espère, vous trouvez que j’ai quelque chose d’intéressant ou d’utile à dire aux lecteurs français, si le français est votre langue maternelle, et si vous avez le temps et l’envie de traduire ce texte, alors je serais très heureux d’ajouter votre traduction à ce poste!
|author||60 écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression|
|title||Nous Sommes Charlie|
|publisher / version read||Le Livre de Poche|
|read||11/05/2015 – 18/06/2015|