Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Last tango with Charlie

I was going to leave the American spat about the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo alone, but then I came across this article. It didn't rehearse the old arguments, but said something new. Vladislav Davidzon, a Russian-American living in Paris, picks up on the American intellectual context of the PEN boycott with insight and verve. His target is the parochialism of American bourgeois prissiness. And there are some great lines in his piece:
 …as an American writer living in Paris, one has the acute feeling of being a witness to the moral and intellectual self-immolation of the American intelligentsia. 

 “Their account of Charlie Hebdo is like a Google-translated version of Rabelais,” the American writer Lauren Elkin lamented. 

Stale prudishness was mistaken for solidarity with the oppressed. 
 And even amongst the defence there was,
 ...the older strain of American prurience lurking in the rhetoric of the magazine’s American defenders … a ritual of bourgeois ideological self-abnegation, lacking all esprit and vitality. 
There is a lot more in the piece to chuckle at, but he nails it. Charlie Hebdo's literary critics were utterly humourless, morally censorious, and, well, depressingly conventional. It's bloody puritanism again. Some selected cartoons (all any of them saw) offended their sensibilities, even if they had been correctly interpreted. The cartoons weren't "punching down," they were punching them.

It is the suburbanisation of politics and it is everywhere. A middle class sense of propriety and constraint, linked to a paralysing fear of life, means we debate in semi-detached shackles. Argument is infused with anxiety about saying the wrong thing, thereby stepping outside the bounds of convention. What has happened is that the convention has replaced the cause and it is the cause that matters.

If you want to understand the demagogic appeal of Nigel Farage, it is because he deliberately breaks these rules, but does so in order to destroy the cause. In this way he appears subversive, but he is the ultimate suburban. He wishes to license the expression of the petty hatreds and prejudices that liberals are trying to outlaw. He is the other side of the same dismal coin.

It's time to realise that liberation is fun, equality can be fought for with humour and that free and happy societies are not the products of the denial of pleasure. Liberty is the product of a love of life, not a moral disapproval of the bits we enjoy. And irreverence has long been the weapon of the oppressed. This is why Davidzon provides the best defence of Charlie Hebdo that I have read. He writes:
Charlie Hebdo is, let it be said, utterly joyous and carnal fun for anyone with an anarchic sense of mirth. It is vital and scabrous and it skewers all religious and political pieties with equal glee. Descended from the glorious genealogical tradition of Honoré Daumier and the bande dessinée, the planar blocky design is all thickened line and sensuousness. The covers are strikingly designed in a creamy pastel palette. It is true that the cartoons do range all along the spectrum in quality, but many of them are uproarious, witty, and shrewd. They characterize the convention of sublime take-no-prisoners political savagery and sexual bawdiness that has always run through French political tradition, and which simply does not exist in American politics. Many of Charlie’s targets richly deserve the mocking opprobrium. The entire project is permeated with sex and libidinous fidelity to the bodily appetites. It is earthy rather than “vulgar.” 

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