The staff of the French magazineCharlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker.(Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy. There are satirical magazines and “name” cartoonists in London and other European capitals, particularly Brussels, but they tend to be artier in touch and more media-centric in concern. Charlie Hebdowas—will be again, let us hope—a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone. Not at all meta or ironic, like The Onion, or a place for political gossip, like the Paris weekly Le Canard Enchaîné or London’s Private Eye, it kept alive the nineteenth-century style of direct, high-spirited, and extremely outrageous caricature—a tradition begun by now legendary caricaturists, like Honoré Daumier and his editor Charles Philipon, who drew the head of King Louis-Philippe as a pear and, in 1831, was put on trial for lèse-majesté.
Philipon’s famous faux-naïf demonstration of the process of caricature still brings home the almost primitive kind of image magic that clings to the act of cartooning. In what way was he guilty, Philipon demanded to know, since the King’s head was pear-shaped, and how could merely simplifying it to its outline be viewed as an attack? The coarser and more scabrous cartoons that marked the covers of Charlie Hebdo—and took in Jesus and Moses, along with Muhammad; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams—were the latest example of that tradition. In the era of the Internet, when images proliferate, merge, and alter in an Adobe second, one would think that the power of a simple, graffiti-like scrawl was minimal. Indeed, analysts of images and their life have been telling us for years that this sort of reaction couldn’t happen anymore—that the omnipresence of images meant they could not offend, that their meanings and their capacity to shock were enfeebled by repetition and availability. Even as the Islamist murderers struck in Paris, some media-studies maven in a liberal-arts college was doubtless explaining that the difference between our time and times past is that the ubiquity of images benumbs us and their proliferation makes us indifferent. Well, not quite. It is the images that enrage; many things drove the fanatics to their act, but it was cartoons they chose to fixate on. Drawings are handmade, the living sign of an ornery human intention, rearing up against a piety.
For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them martyrs, misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory. Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances. It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine’s special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. (Did the Pope see it?)
Nor was it only people’s pieties that the cartoonists liked to tweak. Georges Wolinski, eighty years old, born of a Polish Jewish father and a Tunisian Jewish mother, caused a kerfuffle two years ago by creating a poster—for the Communist Party, no less—in favor of early retirement, which showed a happily retired man grabbing the rear ends of two apparently compliant miniskirted women. “Life Begins at Sixty” was the jaunty caption. Yet Wolinski, for all his provocations, was a life-affirming and broadly cultured bon vivant, who became something of an institution; in 2005, he was awarded the Légion d’ Honneur, the highest French decoration.
In recent years, Charlie Hebdo has had to scrabble for money. It gets lots of attention, but satirical magazines of opinion are no easier to finance in France than they are in America. Still, Wolinski and his confederates represented the true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization, in their acceptance of human appetite and their contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear. The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally. (The name Charlie Hebdo came into being, in part, in response to a government ban that had put an earlier version of the magazine out of business; it was both a tribute to Charlie Brown and a mockery of Charles de Gaulle.) The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.
As the week came to its grim end, with the assassins dead and several hostages—taken not by chance in a kosher grocery store—dead, too, one’s thoughts turned again to the inextinguishable French tradition of dissent, the tradition of Zola, sustained through so much violence and so many civic commotions. “Nothing Sacred” was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith. “Nothing Sacred”: we forget at our ease, sometimes, and in the pleasure of shared laughter, just how noble and hard-won this motto can be.