Auden, Rabelais, and “Charlie Hebdo”

By Nina MartyrisJanuary 21, 2015

Auden, Rabelais, and “Charlie Hebdo”

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, grieving New Yorkers turned to W. H. Auden’s beautiful poem “September 1, 1939” in search of solace and hope. It did not fail them. Although it was prompted by that other black September in which Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, the stately and elegiac lines,

The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

could have been composed especially for their wounded city. The fact that the poet had been a proud New Yorker, and written these lines in a gay bar in Manhattan as the clouds of war encircled the “bright / And darkened lands of the earth,” made them even more meaningful.

Today, as another great city mourns after a murderous assault on its people and a cherished Enlightenment ethos of individualism, free speech, and irreverent laughter, that great poem containing the tolling lines, 

The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

can once again offer not just words of comfort, but, more critically, clues on how to respond, emotionally and intellectually, to this very complex tragedy. From the number of tweets quoting from the poem accompanied by the hashtag #CharlieHebdo, many have turned to it already. So how should one respond? Anger and grief are appropriate enough. Even hatred, however unappetizing, seems only natural given the brutality of the crime. But what if we could temper these powerful emotions with a clarifying tincture of irony?

If this sounds disrespectful, it is not meant to be. Irony embodies a sophisticated and nuanced approach of which men such as these — Saïd and Chérif Kouachi and their al-Qaeda mentors — are innocent, for the fundamentalist’s sentimental world is an irony-proof one, and the only clarity an extremist seeks is through his telescopic gun sights. Conversely, irony is, or should be, the operating idiom of a satiric magazine like Charlie Hebdo, though some of its Semitic caricatures of the Prophet were so earnestly obscene as to completely lack the polish of irony. Their post-attack cover, though, of a tearful Prophet holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign with the headline “All Is Forgiven” hit the right note of sympathy and ironic resistance. One must also add that the Kouachi brothers’s last-heard triumphant shout, “We have killed Charlie Hebdo,” turned out to be a gratifyingly ironic one, since all their Kalashnikovs have done is turn the obscure and nearly bankrupt Charlie into a blockbuster.

Confronted with the Nazi abyss, a threat far more organized than Islamism, an “uncertain and afraid” Auden put his hope in the invigorating power of irony — expressing the wish that the pinpricks of rationalism and skepticism would rouse a Europe pinioned under the jackboot of apathy and fear; a continent where “the seas of pity lie / Locked and frozen in each eye,” to quote from his other great prewar poem, his elegy for W. B. Yeats. Consider the following eloquent stanza from the September poem, lit with faint but reassuring smudges of hope:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:

Novelist Ian McEwan quoted briefly from these lines in his response to the Paris killings, but replaced “irony” with “fragile”:

On a dark night for mental freedom, a few fragile points of light: the calm, determined crowds gathered in cities across France; the hope that the general revulsion at these murders might have a unifying effect; the fact that a cult rooted in hate is a frail thing and cannot last; the fact that the psychopaths are vastly outnumbered.

Although “fragile” perfectly captures the mood in the raw aftermath of the killings, the best responses have not been fragile but robustly ironic. This is evident not merely in the homage of cartoons (including those from Islamic countries like Egypt and Lebanon) affirming the heroism of the stubby pencil, but also in the vigorous debates that have offered a range of contextual views taking into account the many factors that have culminated in this frightening moment.

The Charlie Hebdo murders have turned out to be one of the best testing grounds of that noble but abstract notion of free speech. Cartoons, unlike literary novels or academic works, are easy to read (or misread), and so for once, millions of people are actually familiar with the offending content in question. This clarity, however, has only helped to confuse. Revulsion at the killings has been almost universal, but many who wanted to unequivocally support freedom of expression have found themselves genuinely upset by the lewdness of the cartoons — a conflicted feeling resulting in that ironic, interrogative slogan Suis-je Charlie? (Am I Charlie?).

In his poem, Auden, who had lived in Berlin as a young man and was a great admirer of the German language and literature, starts out by seeking to understand the roots of Nazism and what it was that had “driven a culture mad” and made it worship a “psychopathic god” like Hitler. His gaze travels all the way from Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism to the vindictive reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War. It was this last humiliation that he was probably referring to when he wrote the almost childishly simple but honest lines:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

In the last week, many opinion writers have used this axiom of retribution — the rough justice of revenge — to semi-explain the murders. They have zoomed out from the narrow Charlie Hebdo alley to take in the larger political and historical picture, in order to connect the rise in competitive jihadi violence to the strife in Syria, Gaza, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and also highlighted the rift between the largely poor Muslim migrant population of Paris and the rest of the city. This last is a legacy of France’s colonial past in Algeria — a conquest whose “barbarism” was strongly condemned by the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Auden could well have been commenting on all of the above when he wrote:

Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

But other essayists have riposted that it is disingenuous and dangerous to endlessly blame the sins of Islamic fanaticism on the sins of history, and that doing so is tantamount to an apologia for a misanthropic ideology. There is some hard truth to this view: kidnapping and killing schoolchildren and shooting cartoonists and shoppers are bloodthirsty assertions of power that have little to do with righting historical injustice or promoting the cause of marginalized Muslims.

But no matter where you stand on the debate, it’s impossible to ignore the surpassing irony of the Free Speech vs. Blasphemy debate: the fact that the country with the most enlightened free-speech laws, the US, is best friends with a country with the most despotic free-speech norms, Saudi Arabia. To sup with the Saudi regime is to feed, with however long a spoon, an intolerant ideology that frames the Charlie Hebdo murders as a conscience killing of blasphemers. The French cartoonists were, to quote Auden’s words from his Yeats elegy, “punished under a foreign code of conscience.”

Auden was a great believer in the restorative powers of comedy — as a devout Christian and even more devout homosexual, he had to be. In the introduction he wrote for the anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s essays, he discussed the importance of what he considered were the three main elements of the human condition: Work, Prayer, and Laughter. And though his thoughts may be outside the narrow furrows of the Free Speech vs. Blasphemy debate, they are well worth reflecting on. “A satisfactory human life, individually or collectively, is possible only if proper respect is paid to all three worlds [Work, Laughter, Prayer],” Auden wrote: 

Without Prayer and Work, the Carnival laughter turns ugly, the comic obscenities grubby and pornographic, the mock aggression into real hatred and cruelty. (The hippies, it appears to me, are trying to recover the sense of Carnival which is so conspicuously absent in this age, but so long as they reject Work they are unlikely to succeed.) Without Laughter and Work, Prayer turns Gnostic, cranky, Pharisaic, while those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires — an attempt which can only end in utter catastrophe, shipwreck on the Isle of the Sirens.

In the latter years of his life, Auden was influenced by the works of that old arrant bawd Rabelais, the French Renaissance writer and monk, whose cant-free style and ribald humor Charlie Hebdo tries hard to emulate. Rabelais’s most famous work, his giant saga called Gargantua and Pantagruel, contains a strikingly relevant allegory for our times, in the story about how the narrator goes for a long ramble inside Pantagruel’s enormous mouth, and discovers a whole “civilization” flourishing under the giant’s tongue and teeth of which he is completely ignorant. Utterly amazed, the narrator writes, “Then I began to think that it is very true which is commonly said, that the one half of the world knoweth not how the other half liveth.” He could of course be talking of the entrenched fragmentation in any contemporary megacity. The Kouachi brothers may have been of Algerian descent, but they were, in every way, Parisians who had been born, partially raised, and radicalized in Paris — except that their Paris was the shabby, suburban, migrant Paris under the tongue and teeth of the over-city.

When the Catholic Church tried to suppress Rabelais, he responded with an even more vigorous broadside of mockery, which is exactly what Charlie Hebdo did after Islamist extremists destroyed their offices in 2012. It published one of its funniest covers, showing a Muslim man kissing a male cartoonist, while the tagline bragged: “Love Is Stronger than Hate.” Rabelais the humanist would have applauded, as would have Auden — not merely of the two men kissing (although that would have delighted him) but of the way agape had resolutely upped its ante in the face of annihilation.

As the darkness over Paris is pierced by the pathos of millions of candles glimmering in its many public squares, those great architectural monuments to revolution and free speech, the anguished concluding lines of “September 1, 1939” flicker to life:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


Nina Martyris has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New RepublicSlateSalon and The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Nina Martyris has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New RepublicSlateSalon and The Millions.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!