I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death…
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.
Conscientious Objector, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
It’s hard not to love the French in general and it’s actually quite impossible for me. I realized I wasn’t going to win this one the first time I saw a McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées and felt like I’d just been stabbed. Or being moved to tears by Edith Piaf singing La Marseillaise (which is how I learned to roll my “r” in French, or try to). Too late, I thought, they’ve really got me now.
I had the good fortune to be in a band that played the Theatre L’Olympia for a month back when the quintessentially French impresario Bruno Coquatrix ran the place (it’s named after him now). A month in Paris involved many long, late night philosophical discussions with that special brand of iconoclast that can only be produced by a country that is simultaneously devoutly Catholic and devoutly secular. An entire country that can hold the propositions A and not A in its collective mind simultaneously and be devoutly French at the same time.
At the heart of this apparent dichotomy is the grand history of the French satirists Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire. And of course you can’t speak of Molière without thinking of the Comédie-Française, a state theater founded in 1680 and that is essentially devoted in large part to performing works of satire to this day.
Think about that for a minute. A country where satire is, and has been, a central part of culture for hundreds of years.
When I saw the news about Charlie Hebdo, I felt like I knew those people. Which I didn’t, but I definitely know the type. They have the ability to put their intellectual pen right on a tender spot and use ridicule and satire to say something that is political actually quite serious. Very serious. Sometimes they kill you for this kind of thing. There’s a long history of the mortality of satire that probably predates the trial of Socrates.
Because sooner or later, satire becomes serous business.
Whether it’s a corporation trying to silence a whistleblower or maniacal jihadis venting a psychotic bloodlust, we all think we would stand up and speak truth to power. It’s comforting to think so. Even–and maybe especially–in a cartoon. The iconoclasts would probably be the first to lampoon themselves if they felt they were becoming too iconic. That’s OK–they are still heroes for we lesser mortals.
They say the pen is mightier, but boy there are some days it really doesn’t feel that way. And it is on those days we will remember Charlie Hebdo and all the others and we say “je suis Charlie.”