If imminent death concentrates the mind, then reading the words of a man who is just about to die casts a profoundly unnerving pall.
On Jan. 5, precisely one year after the last word was penned, Little, Brown will publish Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression. It is billed as “a posthumous manifesto” by Stephane Charbonnier, the late editor of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the artist who went by the nom-de-toon Charb.
The act of publishing Open Letter naturally takes on the weight of its horrific context: Two days after completing the slim manifesto, Charb was killed by jihadists in the massacre at Hebdo’s Paris offices that would leave 12 dead, including five cartoonists. Charb had become the face of Hebdo to such a degree that his name reportedly was shouted by the attackers.
Charlie Hebdo had a decades-long reputation for provocative, irreverent content, but what the killers most objected to were its cartoons about Islam and the prophet Mohammed. The Hebdo offices were firebombed a few years earlier, after a cartoon Mohammed was declared “editor” of one issue.
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Charb’s tragic death casts a long shadow over this book, whose patient prose allows the cartoonist to give a fuller, more nuanced take on the ideas that incited such controversy and anger. Visual art has a visceral power to provoke; the jolt of a sharp cartoon is as immediate as a lightning strike. In contrast, over a handful of chapters, Charb lays out some of his beliefs in a manner that is far less susceptible to misinterpretation than a symbol-reliant cartoon.
As Adam Gopnik writes in the foreword, the book “takes apart all of the noxious myths that had circulated about ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in the past and that have accumulated in the year since the killings.” Here Charb’s arguments “have a simple distinction at their core — that criticizing an ideology, including a religious ideology, however vociferously, is different from inducing hatred of a people or persons. There is a huge space between an insult and a threat.”
So what does Charb believe, exactly? He is an intellectually passionate Frenchman who believes in his nation’s long history of employing taste-eschewing visual satire to make a point, an authority-thumbing tradition that dates back to Daumier in the mid-19th century. He is also proudly an atheist and a linguist and journalist, and so has faith in the precision of the printed word as a crucial force against powerful institutions and movements that, he thinks, delude, seduce and corrupt the vulnerable mind.
Charb had a talent for walking through the crossroads of philosophies and ideologies and for calling out hypocrisy. He is both appalled by and seems to delight in the height of philosophical absurdities. His badge is the power of a free press, and his whistle is the power of humor to engage.
And what Charb most often does in Open Letter, a version of which was published in April, is wield a self-assigned moral authority as he “calls out” those he sees as guilty and complicit: the “racists” who view Muslims more as symbols than as citizens, the journalists who irresponsibly use terms such as “Islamophobia” to sell papers and generate online clicks, the unmoored politicians who blow with the winds of cultural change, and all critics who willfully misstate what Charlie Hebdo means and says. Many self-interested parties benefit by peddling fear, hate, misunderstanding and mistrust, he writes, and he thinks that Hebdo’s humor shines a light on these dark forces.
What is glaring, too, is that Charb sees little fault in anything Hebdo has ever published over the decades. In the days before his death, Charb’s professional conscience seems to have been as clean as a new sheet from his sketch pad. And so Open Letter might make the reader mourn not just for Charb the man but also for Charb the thinker. Agree or disagree with his ideas, or his intentionally offensive or provocative modes for conveying them, but Charb brought sharp insights to France’s national conversation.
As the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre approaches, Charb’s final words will have to stand in for him. They do so, ably.
Michael Cavna reviewed this book for The Washington Post.