The categorical imperative “Do Not Draw the Prophet” clashes with the thousand nuances of art.


This editorial appeared in the magazine’s February 2015 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma and was translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott. The “insoumission” of the title has a markedly more defiant spirit than the English “insubmission.” It also alludes to Michel Houllebecq’s novel Soumission.

The five days from January 7 to 11, from the massacre at Charlie Hebdo to the Sunday marches all over France, drove us into a storm that’s impossible to escape. What sense can be made of this event? We have cried, we have been angry, we have paid tribute. But all of that is nothing compared with the event’s scope, which goes far beyond us. We must see what kind of future it leads to, and be cautious about how we interpret it now. It is an opportunity to re-evaluate everything, and to ask fundamental questions: How do we live? What examples do we have? What examples do we set? The image by Blutch on the issue’s cover [see page 34] tells us how to stand firm in the chaos, how fragile that position is, and of the world’s difficult balancing act in the face of terror. It also suggests that an indefatigable conviction can hold the dogs at bay—hence the insolent middle finger.

1. The press. The terrorists did not walk into a cabinet session or political gathering, but an editorial meeting. This act may remain etched in our memories as a sacrilege: by crossing that threshold, the terrorists abruptly sanctified that space, which became like the holy of holies. In the thick of a propaganda war, the terrorists didn’t attack sites of political power, but a mirror of their own activities—places that spread information and opinion. This event has bolstered the press’s strength and its power. These armed propaganda units think the Western press is pure propaganda. Their reasoning overlooks the real alternative: in the face of propaganda, there can certainly be other sources of propaganda (as seen in the United States through the aberrations of Fox News), but, most important, there can be thought, subtlety and intelligence. Propaganda aims to manipulate souls and confine bodies to ensure the dictatorship of terror. Its religious nature is only secondary. God is only a pretext.

At a time when the press is moribund, with Charlie itself staring into the abyss, terrorists are ironically the only ones to grant it such importance. By a scary paradox, images of the Prophet are all over the Internet, but only printing them counts as blasphemy. Coming from a religion of the Book, Islamic terrorists may well be the last to continue to believe in the power of the actual press. This is a disturbing thought for those working in print media. The 6 am lines on the morning of the release of Charlie’s “week after” issue left some newspaper vendors bitter but also served to show distracted readers immersed in their iPhones the extent to which the newsstand network has shrunk. Where can you look for Charlie when half of the newsstands have disappeared? Luz said it magnificently: draw, make newspapers, make magazines. Love paper. What is written remains. On the contrary, the terrorists have chosen to fight on the Internet. The drawing pencil was certainly brandished against the Kalashnikov, but also against the digital dissemination of jihadist videos. A drawing in the January 14 edition of Charlie ironically noted the absurd detail of the Kouachi brothers dying in a printing shop: “After the visit to the paper, I’m worried that death in the printing shop might seem too intellectual.” That’s exactly it. The attack was not directed at the political. Those who were targeted and affected were us, the intellectuals.

2. The spirit. During the Sunday marches, many demonstrators discovered that they were laying claim to a spirit. In fact, they were demonstrating not so much for secularism and freedom of expression as for the plain and simple right to laugh about things. To be insolent, biting, critical, satirical. To be witty, mocking, funny. The best commentaries on the fanatics are by satirists. Who today will point out the golden beard of the cleric from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who claimed responsibility for the massacre? A caricature by Cabu would have done the job, but the newspapers are too solemn to allow themselves that. Luckily, the gathering of heads of state was hilarious: the entire world, including the fiercest enemies of press freedom, was marching behind Charlie Hebdo. You could complain about it, but you could also just laugh. It’s a magnificent thumbing of the nose. It was as if satire was entering reality. Everyone became his or her own caricature. The world has been like Ubu Roi for a while now, but for the course of one demonstration the world was finally right side up, with the satirists in front, and the kings behind.

Charlie carries on a French spirit that has taken diverse, even contradictory shapes: Rabelais, La Bruyère, Voltaire, Daumier, but also Jarry and the Surrealists (Breton’s “black humor”). There is also the commonplace that the French would die for a quip. But this attack touches on the country’s recent history. By “killing” Charlie, the terrorists also attacked the spirit of irreverence in France since the 1960s. They attacked fifty years of history. Behind Charlie, there is the “dumb and mean” spirit of the satirical newspaper Hara-Kiri, Serge Gainsbourg’s provocations, and Droit de réponse (a polemical talk-show that aired from 1981 to 1987 and featured journalists from Charlie), but also the irreverence of Godard (the Hail Mary scandal in 1985) and Pialat—all our headstrong figures. Don’t touch our heroes. The contrast with the desert of today is saddening. We don’t have many people left. Cynical baseness was spreading like an oil slick. We couldn’t take it anymore, we were suffocating, the rats had invaded the ship.

The events provoked an unexpected reappropriation of “a French spirit” (but not the only such spirit), far removed from the pettiness of “national identity.” The jeering country mocked the digital blurring of Charlie covers by news outlets in the United States. In Paris, the march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation awakened the pride of a people that made the Revolution. This spirit is conveyed through education. In this time of submission, teachers continue to read Molière’s Tartuffe with their students—teachers, who are absurdly called “the last rampart of the Republic” (an idiotic expression also used to refer to the army, the police and firefighters), when they are actually the first hand to pass along knowledge. But the blindness of the authorities is to blame: if the cult of numbers and mathematics had not been implemented to the detriment of the arts and social sciences (but let’s call them the “humanities”), there would be fewer children struggling with the world being offered to them. Learning the subtleties of language and thought, that is the priority.

3. Drawing. The release of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission on the day of the massacre was a frightening coincidence. We need to dwell on the signs. An event sparks thousands of signs, it is magical in its essence, it goes beyond comprehension. Everything takes on significance, because everything catches your mind. Like the pigeon droppings that landed on François Hollande just as he was greeting Luz. It’s too good to be true, yet it’s true. On the other hand, we have the sinister coincidence of Soumission’s publication on January 7, which could only elicit anger. Though certain critics will strive to convince us of Houellebecq’s talent, from now on and forever he will be tied to the massacre. The absolute indecency of this fetid and incendiary book’s release on the same day was certainly not anyone’s fault. But there are no coincidences when it comes to an event; it’s as if everyone is frozen in an eternal photograph. Nicolas Sarkozy’s elbowing his way into the photo of heads of state may long be his ball and chain.

So Houellebecq becomes a word, an idea, the anti-Charlie. With his obsession for sullying everything, he is the embodiment of “meh” France, the rancid, depressive France of the beginning of this century. A France already anachronistic. A France represented by this intellectual without convictions, who tries things out “just to see,” to be less bored, who writes out of boredom. He is the typical French embodiment of a vintage trend, with his prose lifted from Flaubert, Céline and Sartre, but completely flattened out, deadly boring. He is the very picture of the writer without a conscience. Another sinister book was released at the same time, Jean Rolin’s Les Événements, which shares Houellebecq’s petit-bourgeois fantasy of a civil war led by extremists coming along to entertain us. Now we must hold tight and not let these opportunistic vultures prowl around. Every one of these uninspired writers mired in the sordid and the police blotter merely gathers the crumbs left behind by journalists. We have to put an end to these so-called X-rays of French society, which only reveal their authors’ sad bile. If Charlie could make us understand once and for all that our era needs courage and conviction, and that we’re done with spinelessness—that would be a step in the right direction.

We could also take note of how, since the 1990s, drawing has become a refuge for intelligence and conviction. Now that literature in France has primarily become an unimportant society game, drawing brims with an understanding of the world. Drawing has undone literature. Maybe the terrorists were not mistaken: they are attacking the true men of faith. As Luz said, the cartoonist has kept the soul of a child (he just draws “little guys”) and that childlike part of him demands liberty and truth. This conviction is behind every drawing in Charlie.

No one has paid enough attention to the fact that a drawing is polysemous. We speak of “freedom of expression,” yet it is not the words of journalists that are called into question, but the drawings of artists. The categorical imperative “Do not draw the Prophet” clashes with the thousand nuances of art. The “All is forgiven” on the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s “post-issue” has a double meaning: the Prophet forgives the offenses and rallies the cause of “Je suis Charlie,” and the caricaturists forgive the extremists (the proof being that they are still laughing at them). At the same time, the reconciliation is provocative: it depicts the Prophet again (but “it’s my little guy,” says Luz) and the drawing mocks the co-option of Charlie through the “Je suis Charlie” logo. There’s intelligence for you: a condensation that welcomes paradox, a subtlety that results in something like the drawing’s meaning being placed in orbit and infinitely revolving on itself. It’s the art of montage, of concision and sudden leaps that make us burst out laughing. We have to express our admiration for the living. How was Charlie’s team able to produce this issue? How did Luz find the idea for his genius cover? Luz deserves tremendous admiration for the way he was able to take on the responsibility for an “irresponsible paper” during these terrible days. For the way he was able to remain punk, with his army jacket and kamikaze headband, while speaking with great eloquence: his press conference was heartrending.

4. The team. We must also express what touches us, here at Cahiers. Charlie is a small team; the paper has a print run equivalent to our own. The team has been decimated. Yet Willem, Luz, Riss, and the younger Catherine and Coco have stood back up. That’s enough to gather a team and start again. The “week after” issue was not open to contributors from around the world, but remained faithful to the usual team: a stubborn gesture of confidence in a “team.” What is a team? It’s the combination of a small number of united individuals and the spirit that drives them and spreads beyond them. Charlie Hebdo is an admirable example, which succeeds in mixing generations at a table, though they’ve had their share of arguments in the past. This is why the French were so affected by the massacre. Depending on your age, you could identify with Wolinski, Cabu or Charb.

The tragedy gives rise to a hope: that perhaps this attention to Charlie will raise awareness of the essential importance of a team. Today we need teams: minds gathering with a common goal. “Team” is the best word. A “group” is too closed in on itself, too homogenous, too dogmatic; a “gang” is too childish, potentially criminal. A “team” can go far, and Cahiers knows a thing or two about that: gather a few passionate film buffs and, Big Bang, it’s the New Wave. A team does not stop, it moves forward with a common goal, it does not form an autarkic, closed, utopian community—it creates reality for all of us. Utopia is not a good concept, contrary to what those who yearn for the ’60s and ’70s would have us believe. All that matters is reality, what is made here and now. In the name of an idea. We need a realism of every instant to effectively make the idea enter reality. For many people, Charlie was a gang of jokers, and that was true; they were buddies, but this gathering of intelligence and talent created a “spirit.” A spirit is born when buddies gather to work together, for a long time, and then everything becomes possible. The team is the initial, primitive cell that allows the creation of ideas and solutions, in every field and for everyone.

5. The future. If this event is fundamental and has a scope that we certainly have difficulty imagining today, it is because a cause has been found. A spirit has become a cause. “Charlie” is not merely a vague “Liberty, I write your name.” “Charlie” fills a political void. Everything about this event is a question of faith: What do we believe in? And therefore of action: What do we stand for? It confronts us with our actions. This is why the march cannot be taken lightly, particularly for those adolescents and young people who recognize themselves in its demands. What example do we set? For the terrorists, the battle is fought on the field of education, the transmission of a way of thought. This explains the recruitment of disappointed or angry youth at an idealistic age, literally without a cause to call their own, and whose dreams our era has made its (stupid and dangerous) mission to shatter. In the ocean of cynicism, the Charlie idea was a lifeline. So, of course, nothing is easier than burying the event, bemoaning the “hijacking” of Charlie, and acting as if nothing had changed. To grumble on and on, to mock “national unity”—we’ll leave that to the professional whiners. The most important thing is this: the rats disappeared for a moment, and other, more intelligent faces appeared, such as Abdennour Bidar, a Muslim philosopher whose courage and lucidity circulated from editorials to talk-shows, and the rapper and filmmaker Abd Al Malik. Fascinating editorials succeeded each other in Le Monde and Libération, constantly getting better as the days passed, considering the event from every aspect. Suddenly everyone was writing, everyone was talking. It was as if the ice had been broken.

It could all come to an abrupt end or it could continue. It depends on us. To prepare the future, journalists must also live up to the event. Which words do we apply to things? While Le Monde’s newswire was the only reliable source during the events, the daily’s role in naming the event is incomprehensible. How could it run the headline “The French 9/11” the day after the massacre? What is unique about an event is that it cannot be compared. By comparing, we summon vestiges, scraps of affects and ideas—we cause interference. The day after the march, the headline in Le Monde ran, “It was January 11,” and then on Wednesday, “After January 11,” as if to impose an analogy with 9/11. Does that mean that the march rather than the massacre is the event? The eleventh is merely the consequence of the seventh, amplified by the terror on Friday. For the moment, these five days compel us to speak about the events in the plural, because they do not have a name yet.

To block the rhetoric of terror, we must also be able to analyze images. The terrorists’ scheme is to introduce images of war so we speak of “war” rather than “attacks.” How remarkable that Friday’s double assault on the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, shown through crosscutting, was aimed at two similar buildings, two big gray or black cubes, reminiscent of a barracks and a bunker. The anchors who don’t look at what they are showing did not see that the Hyper Cacher supermarket is a dark green bunker relaying an image of “war” to dazed television viewers. Western journalists are tremendously naïve when it comes to the instinctive power of sound and images. On BFM TV, Christophe Hondelatte dared to proudly announce, “We are broadcasting Coulibaly’s recording with the propaganda passages deleted because it is out of the question that we be complicit.” But doesn’t he realize that, by contradicting the “fanaticism” argument, the mere calm of Coulibaly’s voice is as effective as any propaganda? We need journalists better equipped to face these images, or we’ll be heading for disaster. Sometimes it’s not so serious; we can force a laugh, as on the day of the march, when TF1 reporters started talking about the crowd of “anonymous people,” as opposed to the group of heads of state. Since when are demonstrators “anonymous”? Was everyone supposed to be called “Charlie”? Cahiers had been thinking about returning to media critique for a while. We begin this month.

There’s no need to be sorry that the irreverent Charlie has become a “symbol,” for symbols take on great significance in an archaic war of images. If the word bothers you, just tell yourself that Charlie Hebdo has become an idea: one of courage, liberty and conviction. But don’t forget other words: intelligence, impudence, irony, warmth, generosity, joy. And perseverance. Charlie Hebdo had asked for donations last November because it was in financial peril. The paper moved forward alone until finally there was this amazing recognition. Do not be bitter: this is how it is; important things are achieved alone, at night. Perseverance bears its fruit, even if this time fate interfered in a fashion too cruel. For our part, we have a model. Those men sitting around a table, we see them alive. Let us hope it is possible that this mental image will structure the political ideas of tomorrow.

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