Magazine article The New Yorker

Satire Lives

Magazine article The New Yorker

Satire Lives

Article excerpt

SATIRE LIVES

The staff of the French magazine Charlie 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 Hebdo was--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 Enchaine 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 Honore 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 lese-majeste.

Philipon's famous faux-naif 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, Honore: 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, Francois Hollande. …

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