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Hebdo and satire

Dawn Wheeler Rosella Family edited

Dawn Wheeler, (Hermannsburg Potters), Rosella Family, 2010, painted ceramic pot, courtesy Peter Pinson.

There is an episode in the second book of Gargantua and Pantagruel in which Panurge, clad in a long, eye-catching and no doubt confidence-boosting embroidered codpiece, propositions a fine lady of Paris, informing her in no uncertain terms that, should she accede to his frank request for a vigorous bout of the ‘brangle buttock-game’, the inhabitant of his lurid codpiece, one ‘Master John Thursday’,

will play you such an Antick, that you shall feel the sweetnesse thereof even to the very marrow of your bones: He is a gallant, and doth well know how to finde out all the corridors, creeks and ingrained inmates in your carnal trap, that after him there needs no broom, he’ll sweep so well before and leave nothing to his followers to work upon.

She declines this offer. Unambiguously, and rather impolitely.

Not to be deterred, Panurge praises her in lavish terms, invites her to ‘thrust out [her] gamons’, and then tries to embrace her – at which point she leans to the window as if to call for help and Panurge runs away.

Still, he is undeterred. The next day he approaches her in church, interrupting her prayers to plead piteously that he ‘can neither pisse nor dung for love’, before making off with her ‘patenotres’ (rosaries). He then approaches her a third time, refusing her request to return her patenostres (she is now worried her husband will ask her where they are), while tempting her with riches. When she again holds firm – ‘No, I thank you, I will have nothing of you’ – his manner becomes threatening:

By G⎯, said he, but I will have somewhat of you; yet shall it be that which shall cost you nothing, neither shall you have a jot the lesse, when you have given it, hold, (shewing his long Codpiece) this is Master John Goodfellow, that asks for lodging, and with that would have embraced her; but she began to cry out, yet not very loud. Then Panurge put off his counterfeit garb, changed his false visage, and said unto her, You will not then otherwayes let me do a little, a turd for you, you do not deserve so much good, nor so much honour: but by G⎯, I will make the dogs ride you, and with this he ran away as fast as he could, for feare of blowes, whereof he was naturally fearful.

The coda to this brief episode occurs in the following chapter, in which Panurge carries out his departing threat. He finds a female dog that is in heat and extracts a scent from its glands, which he surreptitiously sprinkles on the lady’s clothes. This attracts all the male dogs of Paris (over 600 000 of them, we are informed), which follow her through the streets and harass her by jumping on her and pissing copiously on her clothes.

I was reminded of this episode back in January  after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France, which naturally prompted an outpouring of argument not simply about the limits of free speech but, more specifically, of satire. I was unhappily reminded again earlier this week when another gunman killed two people in Copenhagen, again targeting a cartoonist who had drawn a caricature of the prophet Mohammad.

I will to come to the specific reasons why these appalling events made me think of François Rabelais’s comic masterpiece in a moment, but it seems to me that these murders did have the effect of exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of those (such as the Pope) who would argue that religious faith has some inherent right to be treated respectfully. No it doesn’t. The idea that an ultimately unverifiable doctrine should be exempt from criticism (which is the essence of the claim) is not only absurd, it slides sleazily into the reprehensible victim-blaming notion that those targeted by the killers for ‘insulting’ religious belief were in some sense asking for it, as if the acts of drawing a silly picture and murdering someone in cold blood somehow balance each other out. The ability to argue and disagree respectfully is, of course, an ideal worth striving for; and we are probably all somewhat cracked about the head in matters of belief, as Ishmael observes in Moby-Dick. But the notion that adherents of one set of religious beliefs should be able to set limits on the behaviour or expression of people who do not share those beliefs is unaccountable and illogical, not to mention utterly unrealistic. There was a kind of emblematic example of the incoherence of those claiming to be offended by Charlie Hebdo in the protester who waved a retaliatory cartoon depicting a dog pissing on the graves of the murder victims. One can only conclude that this particular protester was either (confusingly) in favour of the right to draw offensive cartoons, or else he was indicating that he would have no philosophical objection if an affronted relative of one of the victims turned up on his doorstep and shot him.

In the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Sydney Morning Herald published a letter that asked what was the point of drawing a man kneeling at prayer whose backside and genitals were visible, implicitly rebuking the victims for being unnecessarily insulting. At the risk of answering a rhetorical question, the reason seems obvious: it makes the same basic point that satirists have been making forever – namely, that human beings are two-ended creatures. A man who bows before someone or something (whatever that may be) is mooning the rest of us. No amount of piety at one end will efface the rudeness at the other.

Satire has, in this sense, always been the enemy of abstraction, pretension, hierarchy and privilege. Satirists from Jonathan Swift to Philip Roth have sought to level humanity by insisting upon the priority and commonality of our physical being. This is the fact that unites us: we all eat, drink, shit, piss, lust, fuck, sweat, sneeze, burp and fart. We sprout ugly hairs, have bad breath and runny noses. We contrive religions and philosophies and elaborate justifying ideologies to make ourselves seem noble and important; we invent social conventions that conceal or repress the unsavoury aspects of our bodily existence. The service satire provides is to remind us that we nevertheless remain essentially ridiculous creatures, and that we are never more ridiculous than when we pretend to be principled and dignified. This is precisely the point that the murderers in Paris and Copenhagan, and indeed the unhinged Man Haron Monis in Sydney, failed to grasp. They may have believed they were upholding some kind of lofty principle or divine ideal; they forgot to remind themselves that, in fact, they were really just a bunch of arseholes.

This brings me back to Rabelais. The tenor of the abovementioned episode is very much in keeping with the lewd, outlandish and thoroughly irreverent humour for which Gargantua and Pantagruel is famous. But when I first read it many years ago (and this is why recent events brought it to mind), I didn’t find it funny; it struck me as a point at which Rabelais’ humour reveals itself to be problematic. In the twentieth century, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin used Rabelais’ work as the foundation for his influential concept of the ‘carnivalesque’, which he saw as a liberating upending of social hierarchy and convention, a form of comical affirmation that was distinct from ‘satire’ in the narrow sense of the word (i.e. mockery as expression of moral disapproval with a remediative intent), in that its grotesquerie expressed a humane, inclusive, non-judgemental and generative vitality. The revelry and levelling humour in Rabelais, argues Bakhtin, with its emphasis on the primacy of bodily or ‘lower’ functions – eating and drinking, pissing and shitting, copulating and procreating – is earthy and universal. It is vulgar in the truest and most positive sense: Rabelais exemplifies the unpretentious celebratory comedy of the common people.

Yet in this instance, or at least from the perspective of my contemporary assumptions, Panurge’s behaviour toward the lady of Paris seems to cut against that very principle. It is a point at which the humane affirmation of the carnivalesque bumps up against the pointed lowering of satire, revealing in the process that the distinction is unstable, that satire can be nasty. It is true that Panurge, with his ridiculous codpiece, is a comical figure, that his brash concupiscence is matched by his cowardice, and that his louche behaviour rather undermines his claims to honour or gallantry. It is also true that the lady attracts his unwanted attentions because she is respectable and virtuous and a bit of a snob. Purely from the perspective of social class, she is a high target to be laid low. At the same time, however, this seems like an open-and-shut case of sexual harassment. Bakhtin points out that Panurge’s outrageous womanising is the result of a desire to marry combined with a fear that all the ladies of Paris are cheap and promiscuous and that whomever he marries will cuckold him. In this case, however, Panurge encounters a married woman who is not cheap and not promiscuous, who does not succumb to his crass and disingenuous overtures, who does not cuckold her husband. Her punishment for this is to be subjected to a mean trick and publicly humiliated.

To be able to laugh at someone who is being humiliated, it is necessary to feel that they are getting their comeuppance, that their pretensions are ridiculous enough for them to deserve mockery. This  is why satire is an edgy business. There is always the risk that it might miss its target, misread the social context and its power relations, and thus appear cruel or unwarranted; there is always the risk that it will be interpreted entirely differently by someone from a different background. It would be nice to think that no one need feel humiliated when an idea is being attacked. In reality, however, ideas and people are not always easy to separate. What seems particularly unnerving about recent events and some of the indignant reactions they have generated is the spectacle of people acting as if ideas – religion, freedom of speech – were indivisible and absolute, that they are self-justifying principles and somehow separate from the material context in which they must operate. And that never ends well.

This week Sydney Review of Books features essays by Julieanne Lamond and Justin Clemens. Lamond’s ‘Nothing Too Serious’ looks at the latest novel from one of Australia’s most successful literary exports, Peter Carey, which concerns the efforts of a dissolute old leftist to make sense of a very contemporary crime: a cyber-attack on the Australian and US prison systems. In Amnesia, Lamond argues, Carey

takes a risk that I always admire a writer taking. This is the risk of being up-to-date, which comes with the concomitant and often speedily-realised risk of becoming out of date.

Lamond nevertheless finds Amnesia to be a work with some noticeable shortcomings, and one that is perhaps less concerned with contemporary politics than first appears.

Our second essay, ‘Eternity is Coming’, is a reflection on the long and productive career of Alain Badiou, one of the most influential French thinkers of recent decades. Central to Badiou’s thought, argues Clemens, is his understanding of poetry and the challenge it represents to its ancient antagonist, philosophy:

What is philosophy, then, for Badiou? It is the attempt to hold these antagonists together by founding ‘a peace of the discontinuous’, by constructing a general system that formalises their junctures and disjunctions, their differing forms of expertise and their injunctions for thinking.

From the Archives this week continues the poetry theme with Gig Ryan’s review of Jennifer Maiden’s widely celebrated collection Liquid Nitrogen, while our second archival work picks up the online theme of Carey’s novel: in ‘Clouds vs Crowds’, Joshua Mostafa takes a long and enlightening look at the way Facebook collects and uses personal information.

Our feature image this week is a painted ceramic pot by Hermannsburg Potter Dawn Wheeler. Titled ‘Rosella Family’, Wheeler’s work is representative of a style that has become synonymous with the Hermannsburg Potters, a collective of Aboriginal women who work out of Ntaria (Hermannsburg, Northern Territory). Established in 1990, the group celebrates 25 years of practice this year.

Read the Hebdo and Satire correspondence.