I would not be just a nuffin'
My head all full of stuffin'
My heart all full of pain
I would dance and be merry
Life would be a ding-a-derry
If I only had a brain.
-- The Scarecrow, Wizard of Oz --
A Necessary Introduction. Some readers will be tempted from what follows to write off the murdered Charlie Hebdo staffers as stupid kids who were asking for trouble and got it. True or false, I suggest that those readers read first this article to see who the murder victims were as people, not emblems.
Our purpose is not to blaspheme the 17 people killed in the Paris terrorist attacks -- we leave blaspheming to others -- but on the contrary, to honor them in a way that nobody else is doing: not dance and be merry in a Parisian ding-a-derry, but to tell the truth.
Do we succeed? As always, dear reader, you be the judge.
* * *
Kinkelism. You never heard of it.
But you have seen it -- truckloads of it. Recently, too.
Kinkelism is the secret inner essence of Charlie Hebdo, the Paris magazine that suffered a terrorist attack on January 7 in which 10 of its staff were killed. That essence, it turns out, is not a substance but a tactic.
Kinkelism derives its name from Gottfried Kinkel. Today, Gottried is so famous you never heard of him. However, in his day he was every bit as well known as Salman Rushdie; we´ll see the connection in a moment. Syrupy poet, lecturer, denizen of the world of feigning and disdaining connoisseurs and collectors, Kinkel was thrown into Spandau Prison in Berlin for participating in the failed 1848 German revolutions. He escaped to London in 1850.
Spandau Prison gave birth to Kinkelism:
"Not a single hope had become reality and even the fast-beating hearts of young men began to despair about the fate of the fatherland. Every heart yielded to a lachrymose torpor and the need began to be felt for a democratic Christ, for a real or imagined Sufferer who in his torments would bear the sins of the Philistine world with the patience of a lamb and whose Passion would epitomize in extreme form the unrestrained but chronic self-pity of the whole of Philistinism. The Maybug Club, with [Kinkel’s wife] Mockel at its head, set out to satisfy this universal need. And indeed, who better fitted for the task of enacting this great Passion Farce than our captive passion flower, Kinkel at the Spinning Wheel, this sponge able to absorb endless floods of sentimental tears, who was in addition preacher, professor of fine arts, deputy, political colporteur, musketeer, newly discovered poet and old impresario all rolled into one? Kinkel was the man of the moment….Every paper abounded in anecdotes, vignettes, poems, reminiscences of the captive poet, his sufferings in prison were magnified a thousandfold and took on mythical stature; at least once a month his hair was reported to have gone gray; in every bourgeois meeting-place and at every tea party he was remembered with grief; the daughters of the educated classes sighed over his poems and old maids who knew what unrequited passion is wept freely in various cities at the thought of his shattered manhood. All other profane victims of the revolutionary movement…who had fallen in battle or who had been imprisoned disappeared into naught beside this one sacrificial lamb….For him alone did the rivers of tears flow, and indeed, he alone was able to respond to them in kind….Kinkel never felt more at home in any role than in this one where he could seem great not because of what he did but because of what he did not do. He could seem great not by dint of his strength and his powers of resistance but through his weakness and spineless behaviour in a situation where his only task was to survive with decorum and sentiment. Mockel, however, was able and experienced enough to take practical advantage of the public’s soft heart….She caused all of Gottfried’s published and unpublished works to be printed for they all suddenly became fashionable…; she also found a market for her own life-experience from the insect world, e.g., her “Story of A Firefly”….[I]n general she displayed undeniable talent and great perseverance in converting the feelings of the educated public into hard cash."*
The above satirical portrait was rendered by an acquaintance of Kinkel: Karl Marx. I bet you didn´t know Marx had a picante sense of humor a la Heinrich Heine. More on satire shortly.
Pick a fight with an authority who misses a magnificent opportunity to shut up -- then rake in the cash: that is Kinkelism in a nutshell. The secret formula: meet, do not create, your audience´s unconscious expectations. Feed their projections; then feed your greed. We dealt at length with this middle class rebel ploy in The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion.
Three contemporary Kinkelers:
1956: Grace Metalious scored a delicious financial coup when her impeccably boring novel, Peyton Place, was GASP! SHUDDER!! banned in Boston, a fact trumpeted not in Boston but on the book´s cover. I take that back: Peyton Place is excellent bedtime reading; you will need toothpicks to prop your eyelids open.
Talk about an honest-to-God sensation: in the 1950s only the Bible sold more copies.
1989: the novel The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was dead in the water until it had the good fortune to be the target of a religious fatwa delivered by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa called for Rushdie´s assassination, and he was placed under police protection. Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 2007. A chronic Kinkelist, Rushdie is -- besides being a serial bigamist -- "immensely rich."
2014-15: Judging by its trailer, the Sony movie "The Interview" was conceived and born in a coffin. It would have stayed there had North Korea not issued threats and (presumably) hacked Sony. Sony caved in and on December 17 canceled release of the movie.
The upshot was instant. From the New York island to the gulf-stream waters a firestorm of protest swept America. Even President Obama chimed in, declaring Sony "made a mistake."
Oh, well. Since you insist... Deciding cowardice is the better part of valor, Sony backtracked and released "The Interview." Fact: it earned $31 million online, more than any other Sony picture, and grossed $5.4 million in theaters. I hope Sony had the decency to follow a fundamental precept of Emily Post and send North Korea a thank you note.
All of which brings us to the latest manifestation of Kinkelism: Charlie Hebdo.
Prior to the terrorist attack, Charlie´s financial situation was genteelly described as "fragile." A report published in May 2014 was more to the point: like Mack the Knife, bankruptcy was sneaking ´round the corner. With a 60,000 circulation bloated to 7 million this week, Charlie's money problems are over for the time being.
Want to buy the post-attack edition? Good luck -- the line forms at the rear. P.T. Barnum, a contemporary of Kinkel and incorrigible punster, cut to the quick of long and winding queues: "Every crowd has a silver lining."
So sacred is the latest sacred IN cause, Charlie Hebdo = Freedom of The Press, the French state is talking about publicly subsidizing Charlie. Here, Kinkelism achieves its apotheosis. The fearless, shin-kicking, give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death middle class rebel metamorphoses caterpillar-like into a government bureaucrat. That anti-climax is singularly old hat, and is part of the overall plan. The Source of Terrorism (p. 195):
"Albert Camus quoted [the Romantic poet] Petrus Borel, ´I was conscious of my power and I was conscious of my chains,´ then observed, ´But those chains are valuable objects. Without them it would be necessary to prove, or to exercise, this power which, after all, one is not very sure of having. It is only too easy to end up by becoming a government employee in Algiers, [where Borel devoted]…the rest of his days to closing the cabarets and reforming morals in the colonies.´”**
Is bureaucracy The French Temptation?
Herds of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, diploma-waving graduates whose open-secret purpose in life is to be a gratte-papier (pencil-pusher) with SNCF (the French train system), lead you to believe the answer is yes.
Bureaucracy is definitely a French temptation. However, it is not the French Temptation.
* * *
In the mainstream media and public mind, Charlie Hebdo and the word satire are nuclearly fused; I have never found the former without the latter. That lock-step, universal consensus is all the more reason to go ahead and ask a question nobody is asking: is Charlie satirical?
Evidently, the answer depends on how you define satire. I think anybody who researches this question will find a suitable definition in Wikipedia:
"Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—´in satire, irony is militant´—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This ´militant´ irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack."
I invite you, dear reader, to look at the two Charlie cartoons at the top of this post. Be honest when you turn out the lights tonight and stare at the ceiling: do you find anything funny in them? Witty? Satire is closely associated with irony, so where is the irony, i.e., feigned ignorance, the discrepancy between surface and underlying meanings? Where is the double entendre? Name one specific concrete vice/folly/abuse/shortcoming the cartoons pointed out. Mohammed in particular, Muslims in general, are shamed, but how are they supposed to improve themselves as a result? Simply put, what constructive social criticism did the provocative cartoons provoke? None occurred -- which is why bullets flew.
To see what satire looks like, return to the top of this post -- to Mad Magazine´s send-up of The Lone Ranger. This 1958 gem proved that adolescent humor can be simultaneously funny and serious, that it is capable of great insight. Contrary to everything we had been told, the famous American Melting Pot didn´t melt. After Mad´s takeoff came out, a lot of people looked in the mirror and did not see the same face. The cartoon heralded the civil rights movement in which particular and wider issues in society boiled to the surface. Constructive social criticism abounded. Over 50 years later, What you mean...we? remains in the popular lexicon. I don´t know about you, dear reader, but even today I can´t think about the cartoon without laughing.
You don´t have to leave France to find satire. Le Canard Enchaîné is a weekly newspaper that combines humor and investigative reporting. Circulation: 492,000 (2010). You read correctly -- that is eight times the circulation of the pre-attack Charlie.
Which brings us to this juncture: if Charlie Hebdo is not satirical, what is it?
Charlie´s lawyer, Richard Malka, stepped up to the microphone and answered that question. "We will not give in. The spirit of 'I am Charlie' means the right to blaspheme."
Blasphemy. Richard, we completely agree with you. Which means, instead of saying the satirical Charlie Hebdo, we should be saying the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo. Starting now, we will do exactly that.
What is blasphemy? Merriam-Webster´s definition is cogent, straightforward:
"1. a : the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God
b : the act of claiming the attributes of deity
2 : irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable"
You just saw Charlie in spades. Note that blasphemy, unlike satire, is humorless -- exactly like Charlie´s cartoons.
The times, they are not a-changing. Contrary to what French President Francois Hollande is braying, there is nothing whatsoever "reborn" about Charlie. The latest edition demonstrates for all to see that the terrorist attacks did not change Charlie´s editorial policy one iota:
The cover cartoon is a psych 101 textbook case of unconscious wish fulfillment. Mohammed announces "I Am Charlie," sheds a tear, declares "All Is Forgiven." Obviously, some clever fellow at Charlie has the power to peer inside Mohammed´s mind, to read his innermost thoughts and feelings. Only god can do that. Thus, as foretold by Charlie´s lawyer, the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo continues being the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo. You disagree? Go argue with Richard the lawyer; see also definition item 1b above.
Instead of the probable outcome of more attacks -- Muslims, including the moderate King Abdullah II of Jordan, are outraged and enraged by the I Am Charlie cartoon -- there is a common sense solution:
Reasonable limits on the media have long been recognized and accepted, viz., there is no right to slander, libel, defame, incite to violence, encourage pedophilia, yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Look again at the Charlie cartoon picturing Mohammed with a Jewish star up his ass. What if you awoke one morning to discover that Charlie published the same cartoon with your mother or daughter in Mohammed´s position? You would sue Charlie so fast its head would spin 360 degrees, exorcist-style. And, you would win.
Charlie would say there is a difference between slander and the right to blaspheme; it is the latter that Charlie claims to practice and defend. Sorry, Charlie: if I only had a brain...
Think back, dear reader, to when you were 10 years old. Remember your playmate who boldly announced, "If there is a God, let him strike me dead in five seconds." Remember how nothing happened?
Charlie is playing the same preadolescent game. To wit:
Charlie assumes the obvious. Unlike slandering a human being, anyone can get away with blasphemy because no deity, in this case Mohammed, will show up in court with a lawyer in tow and lawsuit in hand. If I were a family member of a murdered Hebdo staffer, right now I would be wistfully contemplating that unprecedented and unparalleled event, preferring it a thousand times to what happened on January 7.
All we are asking is that religions as group entities be accorded no less respect and -- why not? -- legal protection than any other group. In calling for judicial recourse, we are putting backbone in Pope Francis´ view of the Charlie affair. "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others...There is a limit."
I will go further. Had legal recourse existed, the Paris attacks would not have existed.
Concluding this point: is blasphemy The French Temptation?
Close, but no cigar. Blasphemy is unequivocally part of that temptation; however, blasphemy is not that temptation per se.
* * *
Right now, Charlie defenders are jumping up and down, tearing their hair out, emitting buffalo-like effusions and foaming at the mouth at what they are reading here. Unabashed, unabridged Kinkelism; zero satire; unfunny cartoons; preadolescent playground antics -- how dare he? Makes you want to...go out and get...a gun.
If Charlie truly wants to show it is something other than a sponge able to absorb endless floods of sentimental tears..., a political colporteur, musketeer, newly discovered poet and old impresario, there is a way to do it. It comes in three parts.
Charlie, shortly after your staffers were slaughtered, several hoaxes were committed in your name. We call upon you to lead the charge and denounce them as quickly as possible.
1. Desperately seeking not Susan but somebody to hate, every single one of the mainstream media grabbed the fallen policeman image at the top of this post and ran with it. For the British media´s Get him! God Damn it -- get him!! tirade, click here. Want more? -- O.K., click here.
The media´s red hot and throbbing campaign for justice (read: revenge) is a sawed-off version of the Olympic Games motto: Harder, Faster, Louder, Dumber. Such is their contribution to Western civilization. Sorry, CNN, BBC, L.A. Times, New York Times, Washington Post, et al: instead of the heartless murder of a wounded public servant, something else took place -- something that is singularly revealing about terrorists.
To see what actually occurred, watch this replay and analysis of the policeman video. It is plain as day: the policeman, Ahmed Merabet, was not shot as he was lying defenseless on the pavement. The terrorist missed.
The video has given rise to numerous speculations: that the terrorist fired a blank, that the entire Hebdo massacre was faked; that, seeking a pretext to increase its control over civil society, the French government was either a participant in the attack or knew about it and let it happen; etc. While all things are possible, some things are more probable than others. In that light, we offer another explanation of the missed shot:
The terrorist was ambivalent about what he was doing. On the one hand, he wanted to kill the cop; on the other hand, he wanted the man to live. As a result, his bullet was neither here nor there.
Regular readers of this blog know our fundamental position. Most terrorists are middle class rebels, which means most terrorists are torn asunder by unconscious ambivalence. Our prior post observed:
"It appears that one of the killers, Said, left his identification in the getaway car. You ask, how could he be so stupid?
Stupidity in the normal sense of the word has little to do with it. What happened was a classic Freudian slip, mistake, gaffe, goof.
Said was ambivalent about what he was doing. On a conscious level he wanted to do what he did; on an unconscious level he wanted to be stopped, to get caught, fail. We saw the same phenomenon before, in 2010, with Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square Bomber and vintage middle class rebel turned terrorist. He carelessly left the keys to his getaway car in the second car containing the bomb. He had to take the train home and return the next day with extra keys to recover the getaway car.
You don´t think the Kouachi brothers [were] ambivalent? In 2008, when Chérif was tried for terrorism, he told the court that
´he was motivated by U.S. troops' abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But he said he was relieved when he was arrested.
"The closer the departure got, the more I wanted to turn back," he told the judge, according to Le Monde. "But if I chickened out, I was in danger of looking like a coward."´
It is one of the great tragedies of our times that the CIA, FBI and other counter-terrorist forces don´t have the foggiest idea about the key role ambivalence plays in terrorism. If they did, you would see governments set in motion an entirely new strategy, completely new tactics. As for what that new dynamic might be, it was discussed in our post of May 7, 2010, ´The Times Square Bomber: Normal, All Too Normal.´ I suppressed it because of the suspicious nature of the geographic locations of the readers attracted to it."
Charlie Hebdo, the ball is in your court. Show you are whom your fans believe you to be. Expose the defenseless policeman fraud perpetrated by your media cohorts. Otherwise, be prepared to find a place among them as a co-conspirator.
2. Who has not seen the videos and photos of 40+ world leaders locked arm-in-arm in a Paris street, fearlessly and heroically leading the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in a gigantic protest against the Paris terrorist attacks. If that march, organized and headed by French President Francois Hollande, did not make you feel warm and gooey inside, nothing will. For a sample weepy -- "tears came to my eyes" -- report that Gottfried Kinkel would have run up the flagpole, "Array of world leaders joins 3.7 million in France to defy terrorism," click here.
So many heartstrings were pulled that the cold fish, American mainstream media could not resist attacking President Obama for not participating in the fearless leader march. Jake Trapper, CNN´s chief Washington correspondent, thundered, "I´m ashamed by U.S. leaders´ absence in Paris." You knew things were getting serious when the oligarchy´s court jester and obsessive-compulsive plagiarist, Fareed Zakaria, seconded Tapper´s motion.
Taking their cue, the downstream bottom-feeder press and politicos piled on. Harder, Faster, Louder, Dumber: hmmm -- there it is again. Anyway, it worked like a charm: the Obama administration was driven to admit it had made a mistake.
Only one problem. There was nothing to admit. President Obama did exactly the right thing by being a no-show. Trapper was trapped; Zakaria, zapped.
Hollande´s fearless leader march was one of the most shameless political scams ever perpetrated:
There is an old saying that a politician is someone who, when he sees a crowd, steps in front of it. Hollande added a new wrinkle...
Le Monde and The Huffington Post exposed the truth. The heroic, courageous world leaders were on a blocked-off, heavily-guarded street, discreetly isolated from the hoards of The Great Unwashed, the sans-culottes; according to his ex-lover, in private the socialist man-of-the-people Hollande calls the French people "the toothless ones."
I´ll say one thing for Hollande´s pre-packaged spontaneous march: appearance and reality finally coincided. Thanks to the two media outlets mentioned above, the heroic, courageous leaders were shown to be what they really were: a corps of officers without any troops.
Charlie, stand and deliver. Show you are something other than a Kinkel at the Spinning Wheel, a professional dilettante. Reveal to the French people and the world the Hollande photo op fraud. Do it despite the fact that, like the iconic image of the fallen policeman, the whole emotional swindle works in your financial favor.
Hollande´s too. Post-attack polls show a 21% jump in his tanked popularity. Harder, Faster, Louder, Dumber -- see, what did I tell you? Works every time.
3. We come to the final proof. It is the simplest but hardest.
Our post of February 12, 2012 posed this question to media everywhere: "Where does freedom of the press end and libertinage for newspapermen begin?"
Charlie Hebdo, we challenge you to boldly go where no journalist has gone before -- ever. Answer the question.
* * *
My immediate reaction on hearing of the Paris terrorist attacks was identical to when the news broke of the Boston Marathon bombing. The attacks had middle class rebel written all over them.
Let´s start with the perpetrators. The Parisian supermarket terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, was a convicted robber and drug dealer. As for the Kouachi brothers, Cherif worked as a fish monger and pizza delivery man. Said had a three-year youth employment contract with the Mayor´s office, but was terminated. The brothers were able to put sandwiches on the table thanks to dubious sources of income.
The three terrorists were not socioeconomic middle class in origin but lumpenproletariat -- temporally-employed or unemployable outcasts, actual or protocriminals. As emigres who were at home neither at home nor abroad, they qualified as middle class in its wider, anthropological sense discussed in our prior post, viz., intermediate, transitional and/or marginal people.
As for socioeconomic middle class rebels, two were present but absent in the Paris attacks. One was dead, the other in prison. It is fair to say that had the pair never existed, the attacks would never have existed.
1. Chérif Kouachi met with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Our article of April 4, 2011, "Anwar Al-Awlaki: Heads We Win; Tails You Lose," noted we had made other
"posts on Anwar al-Awlaki (11/23/2010, 11/12/2010, 10/31/10, 10/15/2010), known as the ´bin Laden of the Internet.´... Born in New Mexico, Anwar holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Colorado State (1994); he studied for a Ph. D. in human resource development at George Washington University. Daddy was a Fulbright Scholar, Agriculture Minister of Yemen, and university president."
The reason for our attention: al-Awlaki was the poster boy for middle class rebel turned terrorist. He was killed in a drone attack in 2011.
Al-Awlaki was identified as the organizer of and inspiration behind the Paris attacks.
2. Abu Hamza al-Masri, an imam. The son of a middle class army officer, al-Masri studied civil engineering in Brighton. He was deported from London to New York where he was recently convicted of terrorism and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Al-Masri was the mentor of Djamel Beghal who played a decisive role in the radicalization of Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly. Beghal reportedly made sandwiches for a living; his wife and children live on welfare in England.
Recently, French police arrested 12 suspects in the Paris attacks, so more socioeconomic middle class rebels may surface. Whatever the outcome, there is precious little that is new in what came down January 7:
The Paris attacks are the latest manifestation of a phenomenon discussed in The Source of Terrorism (p. 272):
"The combination of middle class rebels with lumpenproletariat elements can have consequences as spectacular as they are lethal. According to investigators, the attacks in Madrid in March 2004, were the work of a ´collaboration of educated, middle-class and ideologically radical Muslims with drug dealers and petty criminals.´ Elaine Sciolino, ´More Madrid suspects at large,´ International Herald Tribune, April 12, 2004.
Two other notable cases: (i) the Symbionese Liberation Army whose members in 1974, kidnapped the heiress Patti Hearst; (ii) the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. Andreas Baader was a high school dropout and petty criminal. Ulrike Meinhof was the daughter of a prominent art historian.
The relationships between middle class rebels and petty criminals that generate hyper-violence have never been adequately portrayed, much less analysed; Dostoevsky’s The Possessed comes the closest. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood explores how, acting together, two petty criminals were capable of committing a heinous crime that neither could have committed alone."
In addition to blasphemous cartoons, Anwar al-Awlaki had another reason to have it in for the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo. Sons and daughters of militant leftist families, bureaucrats and schoolmasters, a wrought iron manufacturer, a gastroenterologist, it is impossible to read the biographies of the dead Charlie staffers -- Charb, Cabu, George Wolinski, Professor Bernard Maris, Dr. Elsa Cayat -- without concluding the magazine was from top to bottom a middle class rebel production.
As discussed in The Source of Terrorism, middle class rebels have no greater love than to hate other middle class rebels. Had authorities understood and worked with that innate tendency to split, split, and split again, terrorism as an operative, organized force in the world would have disappeared a decade ago. And 17 people in France would still be alive.
With middle class rebellion, have we finally arrived at The French Temptation? No, the temptation is clearly an aspect of middle class rebellion; it is not that rebellion per se.
* * *
I can´t give you brains but
I can give you a diploma.
-- Wizard of Oz to the scarecrow --
The road to understanding terrorism starts with French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). 124 years after his death, he remains the archetypal middle class rebel. Nobody beats Rimbaud -- or France, for that matter -- in middle class rebellion, the source of terrorism.
As a university student, I discovered Rimbaud while reading Camus´ The Rebel. The long and the short of it: Camus reveals more in 10 pages than Rimbaud scholars do in 1,000. I defy anybody to dispute that contention.
To understand Rimbaud further, I knew I had to learn French and go to France. I got my chance in 1992, and subsequently spent 17 years there researching and collecting material for The Source of Terrorism. In addition to studying Rimbaud´s poems, activities and letters, I wanted to discover what he was rebelling against. I found out.
My second day in Paris I went to the Musée d´Orsay. I parked myself in front of Henri Fantin-Latour´s painting "Un Coin de Table" shown at the top of this post. Rimbaud is the teenager. Next to him, at the far left, is...ah, there´s the rub.
A Parisian tiré à quatre epingles -- dressed to the nines -- stepped in front of me; Parisians sometimes do that. Determined to impress his lady companion, he proclaimed tour guide-style, "And here we have the famous painting of Rimbaud with his friend, Baudelaire."
Had he not blocked my view, I probably would have let it pass.
"Verlaine...It´s Paul Verlaine," I muttered. "Baudelaire and Verlaine were not the same guy."
The Parisian asked me where I was from, then flew into a rage; Parisians sometimes do that. "Ducon" was his only comment printable here.
For some inexplicable reason, an old saying, "Money talks, bullshit walks," entered my head. I took out my wallet, displayed $200 in French franks, sweetly intoning "Verlaine; Paul Verlaine."
The Parisian did not blink. He took out his wallet, opened it, and...his companion grabbed his arm. "Don´t be an idiot. He´s right. Baudelaire was dead when Latour made the painting." An onlooker chuckled, nodded assent.
I deeply regretted the loss of the easy money; however, I received a consolation prize. I had the personal satisfaction that the Parisian qualified that evening for entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world´s coldest bed.
I recount the above incident in order to disabuse readers who have never been to France of certain preconceived notions. Drop any idea you may have that French school children, after Mom and Dad kiss them goodnight and close the bedroom door, pull the covers over their heads, turn on flashlights and read Sartre, Camus, Rimbaud, Tocqueville, Montesquieu. The average Frenchman today has only vaguely heard of those people. And what little is known is rapidly disappearing.
I, too, had preconceptions about France. An American friend who had spent many years there asked me before I went the first time, what I associated with the word France. "Elegance," I responded. She nodded in agreement. I then asked her the same question she had put to me. Back came the answer: "Dirt in the corners."
France is certainly the land of elegance. Camus and Sartre, Tocqueville and Montesquieu; great movies and theater; Monet and Manet paintings and Rodin sculptures; dazzling selections of forms and colors that will blow your hat in the creek; marvelous linguistic expressions and songs with finely-honed words; haute cuisine and haute couture; monumental architecture; the world´s greatest museums; the world´s best red wine. Here comes the but:
Elegance is impossible without anti-elegance somewhere. The sacred cannot exist without the profane. Descartes and the Age of Reason had their irrational shadow in the form of Romanticism, Count Dracula, Frankenstein. Moderation is impossible without extremism somewhere. Sophistication cannot exist without naivete somewhere. Relativity is impossible without an absolute somewhere. Arrogance, for which the French are famous, is impossible with feelings of inferiority somewhere.
Dirt in the corners. Anti-elegance is consummated in France like nowhere else. Uncompromising, unfunny, stupid, disgusting vulgarity is The French Temptation.
I once asked a French friend for a summary of her countrymen. "It´s right in front of you," she said, motioning at something on the sidewalk. Mouches à merde -- flies swarming over crap.
If you can stand it, look once more at the two blasphemous Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There it is -- scatological nonsense flung in your face by a careening two year old. Freud would say the French anti-elegance/elegance split is a conflict between anal-expulsive and anal-retentive personalities. Americans are no strangers to that struggle: Neil Simon´s "The Odd Couple" ran for years on TV and Broadway.
As noted, French elegance is slowly capsizing. Although anti-elegance is ever-present, it is not yet dominant. One quantitative indicator has already been mentioned: the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo was withering on the financial vine until the Kouachi brothers fired their Kalashnikovs.
Watching the long/longer/longest lines of Frenchmen with hearts all full of pain shelling out for the latest edition of Charlie, something crossed my mind. It is the subterranean context that makes meaningful mouches à merde:
As a student, I went to hundreds of bullfights. I was fascinated not by the action but by the audience. Why were they there? What were they looking for? The answer came when a bullfighter was horribly gored. An eerie hush fell over the crowd. Consciously, they had come to see a spectacle, a pageant. Unconsciously, they wanted to see a bullfighter get killed. I say that because when it actually happened the audience felt blistering, fathomless guilt.
After I figured out what was happening, I never went to another bullfight.
Charlie Hebdo turned blasphemy into a gladiatorial gesture. Daring, pushing, provocative -- above all, provocative.
On January 7, the bullfighter got gored. Curious event. Exactly as in a plaza de toros, the audience´s unconscious expectation was met. That fulfillment was expressed, however, not by stunned silence but by I Am Charlie signs sprouting like weeds. Zero orchestration occurred, for none was needed. In the nationwide participation mystique, pity for the 17 victims was transformed into self-pity. Or was it vice-versa?
Yes, my wonderful French friends, Hollande´s toothless ones, nuffins: You are Charlie.
Then again, no. Not entirely.
*Rodney Livingstone, Editor and Translator, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Heroes of The Exile,” printed in The Cologne Communist Trial, International Publishers, New York, 1971, pp. 164-5.
**Albert Camus, The Rebel, Vintage Books, 1956, p. 50.