Accompanying many of the appalling accounts of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo is a reproduction of the satirical weekly’s cover. It features a caricature of the writer Michel Houellebecq, garbed in a blue wizard’s outfit, face unshaven, jowls sagging and eyes bleary (no doubt from one glass de trop), smoke spiraling from a cigarette wedged between his fingers. No doubt in a slurred voice, France’s best-selling novelist, whose new book Soumission (Submission) went on sale that same day, offers his predictions for the near and more distant future. While he foresees losing his teeth in 2015, Houellebecq also predicts that, in 2022, he will convert to Islam.
I bet most American readers who gazed at the cover of Charlie Hebdo have felt the same bemusement I did when I first glimpsed the journal when, nearly 40 years ago, I first visited France. Something along the lines of “huh?” Staring at the cavorting nudes by Georges Wolinski—“How could they look so innocent, yet be doing such lewd things?”—I was, well, shocked. Even worse, I was stymied. Struggling to place the journal in my own American experience—“Is this some kind of cross between Mad and Screw?”—I suddenly felt so very out of place in France.
I’ve since grown older, with much of that time spent studying French history, but I haven’t grown much wiser. The “huh?” has yet to fully morph into an “aha!” This applies, I confess, even for many things French, including the peculiar literary tradition into which we can plug not just Charlie Hebdo but also Michel Houellebecq. But what I have learned about France since that first visit does help not only to place both journal and novelist but also to understand that our place is with those demonstrators at the Place de la République as they brandish signs declaring “Nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo.”
It is fitting, perhaps even incestuous, that Houellebecq figures on the weekly’s cover. While the fuller American accounts of the tragedy offer quick histories of the journal, they have scanted the venerable (and checkered) tradition from which it slouches, as well as the artistic and ideological ties that bind it to Houellebecq. Perhaps we should even imagine a Wolinski-like sketch of Houellebecq, wearing only his wizard’s cap, sitting at a bar with an equally buck-naked journal staff, throwing back a glass over the caption “Les Hebdomecq.” (Mec is French slang for guy.)
While historians can trace this vital, often bulging vein of French humor as far back as Rabelais, it is easiest—a rationale, after all, that Charlie Hebdo made its credo—to go no further than the Belle Epoque and the birth of le fumisme. Practiced by performers in the cafés of then-exotic Montmartre, fumisme was part disdain, part mockery and zesty provocation, shuffled and dealt with cutting accuracy to its pathetic target—namely, the bourgeois clients who, escaping their humdrum lives and filling the room, couldn’t get their fill of hearing their way of life ridiculed. It was, as the historian Jerrold Seigel has noted, “a refusal to treat the official world with seriousness and respect.”
When fumisme, which transforms blasé skepticism into pure art, migrated from Montmartre to the trenches of World War I, the result was the ancestor of Charlie Hebdo, the remarkable paper still called Le Canard Enchaîné. With soldiers at the front lines battered not just by German shells but also by French propaganda about the nature of the war they were fighting, the paper announced, in its inaugural issue 100 years ago, that it would “battle censorship, the misdeeds of conformism, and ‘bourrage de crâne’”—the lies with which the government crams (bourrer) French skulls.
A century later, Le Canard Enchaîné still snipes with deadly accuracy at all comers from the ideological trenches, now deepening across France. The journal appears, like Charlie Hebdo, every Wednesday. Walk along a Paris boulevard on a Wednesday evening, and you will see men and women, some in business suits, others in jeans, lounging with neatly folded copies across their legs, smiling as they scan the cartoons and articles. In her heartbreakingly beautiful French Lessons, Alice Kaplan reflects on her effort to master the “r” sound. For her, the drama of learning French—how to be French—dwelt in the “r.” Hélas, I will always be what Kaplan calls an “R Resister,” but my Mont Blanc was elsewhere. As I tell my own students, when they sit at a café table, open Le Canard, and smile at a pun, at a puncturing of a public figure—pun and punctures usually come in packages—then they will get French and France.
But what France are we now getting, or will we get in 20, 30 years? In his new novel, Houellebecq suggests, with the same fumisterie, stylistic verve, and ear for language found in Le Canard and Charlie Hebdo, that it will not be a France where one reads Le Canard or Charlie Hebdo. Instead, as summaries of the book reveal (it went on sale on Wednesday, and I’m still waiting for my copy), it will be a France where, in 2022, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-Muslim and anti-European National Front, comes out the front-runner after the first round of the presidential vote. In the second round, secular republican parties ally with a moderate Muslim party to form a Popular Front. They win, and the leader of the “Muslim Fraternity” becomes president. Claiming the Ministry of National Education, the Muslims slowly introduce Shariah law that the story’s narrator, a failed academic, and the rest of France slowly “submit” to.
Hence the double entendre of the book’s title and the media event around its publication—at least until Wednesday’s tragedy, after which Flammarion, the book’s publisher, canceled Houellebecq’s promotional tour. And hence the questions left to us by Houellebecq, Charlie Hebdo, and their ideas of France. Houellebecq wants to provoke us with the vision of a France reduced to a consumerist desert, thirsty for purpose or meaning that older religions like Christianity and communism can no longer supply but that Islam can. Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard Enchaîné provoke us with the example of intellectuals risking, and losing, their lives to prevent such a future. In the end, I will never fully or truly get Charlie Hebdo. But that’s OK: I don’t have to. It now seems clear, as they demonstrate their grief, that the vast majority of the French, Muslims and Catholics, conservatives and socialists, young and old, recognize how much they have gotten from such journals.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, will be published in March by Harvard University Press.