A few minutes ago, my dear friend Linda Davies reacted to Pope Francis’ comments on the Paris massacre by saying: ‘WTF! The leader of the most deviant religion in the entire fucking world points fingers’. She was referring to the Pope’s calling for an unanimous response from the international community to end ‘deviant interpretations of the faith’ in order to justify ‘terrorist violence’. As a practicing Catholic gay man, I consider myself a walking paradox but one who demands respect even from high minded Facebook secularism.
These are the times of social media where everybody feels and, I guess, is entitled to express their own views on all matters and manipulate images in the most varied and trivial ways. But this has not always been the case. Before the emergence of the internet, images were supposed to be seen in a specific context. For example, a portrait of the Virgin in a museum had a complete different meaning (and function) than the same image in a Church. The transfer from one place to the other made it lose its ‘magical presence’. In a way, political satire has always been a way to allow social catarsis without the need to reach the point of violence. In fact, since the middle ages it was during carnival when an alteration of the social order was accepted and, even, encouraged. Satire in pamphlets and books was the other through which the human right to rebel and express dissent could be expressed. This Rabelaisian spirit is these days expressed through cartoons and also in blogging. I am a proud practitioner of the latter in my Spanish blog which is read everyday by 15K argentines who feel the need to express their cultural dissent. There, as Rabelais, Quevedo and Daumier did before me, I dwell in the acceptance of human appetite and contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear in that intellectually bulimic place called Facebook.
The thing with Facebook and Twitter is that people posts are aimed at strengthening their own idea of how they are perceived by others. This entails a conflation of that secular high-mindedness and also a sense of Rabelesian derision according to which institutions are, by definition, bad and damaging. In other words, in Facebook, people makes serious which, in order to be politically efficent, has to be funny. The result of this is that people spend more time in the social media than reading magazines like Charlie Hebdo which, as a result, are financially inviable. Charlie Hebdo (Le Canard Enchainé, and why not, loveartnotpeople.org, my popular Argentine blog) belong to a Western and savage tradition, forged in Europe, in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between the State (republicans and monarchists) and the Church. Charlie Hebdo was -will be again, let us hope- a satirical journal of a kind these days found only in France but which used to be widespread in England, Argentina, the US, etc. Like London’s Private Eye, it kept alive the nineteenth century style of direct, high spirited and extremely outrageous caricature and commentary – a tradition begun by now legendary caricaturists like Honoré 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, no less than lèse-majesté.
Philipon’s famous faux-naïf 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 Muhammed; angry rabbis and ranting bishops, along with imams -were the latest examples of that very healthy tradition of political and social outrageousness. 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 could not 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 image that enrage. Many things drove the fanatics to their act, but it was cartoons they chose to fixate on. The reason for this is that drawings are handmade, the living sign of an ornery human intention, rearing up against a piety.
I believe, however, that turning the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist 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. It was somehow odd (and also refreshing) to see Pope Francis and Francois Hollande condemning the horror one month after Charlie Hebdo’s Christmas Issue appeared with the title ‘The True Story of Baby Jesus’ and in whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. It is also quite refreshing that the Pope is condemning as ‘deviant’ those who do not tolerate the right to (sometimes cruelly) laugh at themselves. It is obviously even his case. In the image that illustrates this article, there is a threesome with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Instead of calling for Holy War, the Pope decided to consider as deviant the incapacity to laugh at one self and to respect other people’s beliefs. My friend Linda Davies’ war against institutional religion seems to be as holy and fundamentalist as the one she denounces and helps us be more aware of the intolerance inherent to that emerging high minded secularist Facebook fundamentalism. I guess that the key not to fall into the temptation to blank everything for the sake of it, is to put things (war and, why not, laughter) in its true context. J A T