“Paris is always showing its teeth; when it is not scolding it is laughing.” – Victor Hugo
Read in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on a satirical journal in Paris earlier this month, that declaration by Victor Hugo in Book Three of Les Misérables gets your attention. The passage continues in the same vein. When Paris allows itself the luxury of being stupid, “then the universe is stupid in company with it.” Having admitted as much, Paris “bursts out laughing in the face of the human race.” A century and a half before Charlie Hebdo, Hugo is telling us “What a marvel is such a city! it is a strange thing that this grandioseness and this burlesque should be amicable neighbors, that all this majesty should not be thrown into disorder by all this parody, and that the same mouth can to-day blow into the trump of the Judgment Day, and to-morrow into the reed-flute! Paris has a sovereign joviality. Its gayety is of the thunder and its farce holds a sceptre.”
“The Ideas of the Universe”
Amazing enough, to read that passage in mid-January 2015, but two paragraphs later, after Hugo pictures the city of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Gavroche, and Javert “showing its teeth,” he writes, “Such is Paris. The smoke of its roofs forms the ideas of the universe.”
Given the cloud of images and thoughts and sounds that has been spreading over the online universe since January 7, you have to think Hugo’s mind was tuned to some prophetic strain in the music of the spheres as he sat at his desk, writing in exile on the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey.
The passages quoted are from the Collins edition of the novel (the Hapgood translation) that I found in a Bristol U.K. charity shop in April of 2000. It had taken me a shamefully long time to pick up and actually read Les Misérables. I knew the story well, not by virtue of the film or the musical, but, I have to confess, the comicbook.
As I write, I’m sitting between two tomes. One contains the first 20 issues of Classic Comics, which my father had bound into a single volume for my eighth birthday. The other, weighing in at 1070 closely printed pages, is Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th century Paris in the years between 1927 and death by his own hand in 1940; the book has been at my bedside or desk side for the past decade. That my earliest impressions of Paris were as turbulent as recent events was thanks to the crudely drawn caricatures of literature performed in Classic Comics, which I read compulsively as a child. No. 1 in the series is Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, which has D’Artagnan arriving at the gates of Paris on foot and ends with the beheading of the blonde “tigress” Milady, pretty heavy stuff for a first-grader. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, No. 6, begins as casks of wine are spilled on the cobblestones and Mme. Defarge, watching in “death-like silence,” thinks, “The wine is red — like blood! Someday, there will be blood in the streets.” The most powerful and lasting impression of any comicbook I ever read, however, was made by No. 9, Les Misérables, its cover showing Jean Valjean in flight through the rat-infested sewers of Paris, the wounded Marius draped over his shoulder; when you open the comic, there’s the shock of the enormous nightmare apparition of Inspector Javert rising over an array of factory smokestacks. Further food for nightmares is No. 18, another capricious adaptation of Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose cover depicts a vast cartoon Quasimodo rearing up larger than the cathedral itself, his huge hand clutching at a sword-waving soldier. Soon to come in the series were Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. Is it any wonder that I have a history with the dark side of the City of Light?
Into the Unpresent Present
A half-century of lost time later I’ve progressed to the serial Fantômas, as filmed by Louis Feuillade in 1913, the year Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way was published. The cover of the Kino DVD and the first of the novels the serials were based on shows the giant masked avatar of evil standing over Paris looking curiously contemplative, chin propped on closed fist, the other hand holding a long bloody dagger. The actions of the fanatics who attacked Charlie Hebdo are dwarfed by the all-encompassing murderous ruthlessness of Fantômas, who, among other feats, wipes out the Simplon Orient express in an attempt to destroy his arch-enemy Fandor, a reporter, of all things, on the newspaper La Capitale. The pleasures of the Simplon episode, however, are not in the chaos and carnage of the crash but in the location footage of Paris streets, buildings, shops, cafes, and people, real-life citizens of the metropolis gaping at the camera as they approach it and move aside. It would be thrilling enough to see Proust and Debussy’s city coming to life before your eyes even if you didn’t already have Paris on the brain after Charlie Hebdo.
What first attracted me to The Arcades Project — described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect” — was the Hunt translation of Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Benjamin’s prose arcades or passages recalled Balzac’s elaborate descriptions of the Palais Royale and the “disreputable bazaar” of the Wooden Galleries, “the homeground of publishers, poets, pedlars of prose, politicians, milliners, and lastly the prostitutes who roamed about it in the evenings.” Reading Balzac in the aftermath of Hebdo, your eye is caught by the “witty news-sheet” that enjoyed “the right of ridiculing kings and the gravest events of the day, in short of using a bon mot to call everything into question.” There are also references to “witty caricatures sketched on grey paper by people who no doubt had sought to kill time by killing something else to keep their hand in.” The novel’s poet-journalist hero Lucien is told that he’s coming “into the thick of a fierce battle,” where ink is spilt “in torrents” of “cutting epigrams, stinging calumnies, unrestrained abuse.”
Baudelaire on Caricature
If The Arcades Project has a hero other than the man who imagined and compiled it, it’s Charles Baudelaire, whose essay “The Essence of Laughter” coins a phrase that could also serve for Benjamin’s “immense gallery of anecdote.” In the context of a journal like Charlie Hebdo, whose mocking images of Muhammad provoked the murderous attack, the other Charlie’s argument has an eerie resonance, as when he speaks of “the comic as a damnable element, and one of diabolic origin” and as “one of the clearest tokens of the Satanic in man.” A few paragraphs later he brings the matter even closer to the Hebdo/terrorist dynamic, noting that objects of veneration were taken with “deep seriousness” until “men began to laugh at them,” and so “Indian and Chinese idols are unaware that they are ridiculous; it is in us, Christians, that their comicality resides.”
Concerning the assassination of caricaturists in 2015 for laughing at objects of veneration, it’s likely that Baudelaire would take the long view of Charlie Hebdo, as “flysheets of journalism” that are “swept out of sight with the same tireless breeze which supplies us with fresh ones.” The most notable exception to this generalization is Daumier, who has a place in the Arcades, where Baudelaire celebrates the “foundation of decency and bonhomie” in his work and his refusal to handle “themes that exceeded the limits of the comic and could wound the feelings of his fellow men.” Nevertheless, Daumier spent months in jail for his anti-royalist work in the journal Le Caricature, a publication Baudelaire described as “a hurly-burly, a farrago, a prodigious satanic comedy, now farcical, now gory.”
While the Classic Comics version of Les Misérables offers, in its own crude way, the novel’s mixture of romance, heroism, injustice, evil, endurance, bravery, the flags and barricades, passion and beauty, it doesn’t have Hugo’s prose, for instance these sentences that appear in Walter Benjamin’s “Immense Gallery of Anecdote”: “All that can be found anywhere can be found in Paris” and “There is no limit to Paris.”
The more I think about it, in fact, the rallying cry that went up two weeks ago needs a broader subject. It should be Paris, not Charlie. That’s it — Nous sommes tous Paris! We are all Paris!
As the news of the attack broke, I was reading Canadian author and critic Murray Pomerance’s The Economist, a novel featuring Arnand de Flore the Prophet, who lives in Paris and publishes L’économie géo-globale or EGG, a highly influential journal “which had become, in Paris as everywhere, the talk of the town. Beacon, icon, fortification.” EGG was “absolutely everybody’s prayerbook,” including the “American State Department” and “Al Queda’s inner table.” You can find out more about Pomerance’s unique, richly woven tour de force centered on another terrorist event (7/7, the 2005 London bombings) at www.chapters.indigo.ca, or by contacting the publisher: email@example.com or on the Oberon Press web site.