Trois mots – three words

At the close of this day, the three words that have echoed around the planet in the shock wave of outrage and sadness after the attacks of last week, have come full circle. There they are, held up by a bonhomme who might be a prophet, signing the resilience of Charlie Hebdo, printed once more several million times and snatched up in minutes. The incredible curve of their amplification looks set to drop as fast as it rose, and who could imagine a better form of testimony to a team, to friends, to a project and a posture, than stopping short the increasingly muddled noise with one simple drawing? Luz seems to me to have done that, with the kind of light, deft jab that leaves you wondering where exactly it hurts, and feeling the possibilities ricochet off one another, not nasty, but never quite settling into one clear wound. Hard to diagnose, and in that respect very different to the tragic multiplication of sources of suffering that people in their hundreds of thousands felt moved to take on and into themselves in solidarity this weekend: ‘je suis Charlie, je suis flic, je suis juif, je suis musulman…” Not obvious how to diagnose that condition either, but fortunately these were all just epidermal manifestations of the heart of the matter: ‘et surtout républicain,’ read the declarations, which of course contains its capacity to heal within itself.

But does it?

Like many people living in France, I’ve been struck and moved by the numbers of people in other countries who have felt the need to share in the expressions of grief. I don’t doubt this has to do with compassion, and fear. But I think it also has something to do with those three words, with the easy inclusiveness of that diminutive and its cheerful Charlie Brown overtones. Everyone, or at least a lot of people, can wear that comfortably enough. Very different from Charles: ‘je suis Charles – de Gaulle to you.’ And ironic that the Americanized taunt adopted by the hebdo when its predecessor Hara Kiri was closed down for its scandalous headline after the death of France’s erstwhile and upright bearer of manifest destiny, should also come full circle as the catch-all for our collective moment of horror, compassion and anxiety. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s what happens when words are loosened from their mooring. They eventually get caught in new currents.

Unmooring was partly what Etienne Balibar’s words were about in Friday last’s issue of Libération, written before the terrible final escalation of the tragedy. He offered three different words from those being brandished at large, balancing his sense of ‘professional obligation’ as public intellectual to speak out with the modesty of the idiom: he had ‘trois mots à dire.’ They were ‘communauté,’ ‘imprudence’ and ‘jihad.’ What he said about them can be read (link below), and the read is well worth the while. He doesn’t define them as words adrift, but I think they are, and that is part of the reason for his choice. Part of the reason too why he offers them as singular substantives, bereft of their articles that would ease them back readily into speech. ‘Communauté’ is particularly striking in this respect, today being so often pluralized as a sign of the danger lurking in that word and its cousin, ‘le communautarisme,’ with its Anglo-American inflection. ‘Imprudence’ seems more firmly anchored, and perhaps a prudent choice in itself for broaching the question of how to think about the risks that Charlie Hebdo ran and will no doubt continue to run, just one day after the brutal decimation of its team. But ‘imprudence’ is heavily freighted too by its derivation, carrying the old mother of all virtues, Prudentia, into the zone of freewheeling individualism. And Balibar reminds us that we might need, tomorrow in all likelihood, to reactivate some of that older sense of prudence, not fearful caution but intelligence of consequences. Then ‘jihad,’ the most unassimilated, perhaps the most urgent to articulate with other words, if we’re not going to let language escape us. I don’t have much idea what happens when ‘jihad’ gets wrested from the habitual syntaxes that hold it, in a whole range of languages today, but I know that words can always flow in new currents, and that the health of the Republic depends on it.