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, one year to the day 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 Charlie Hedbo editor and artist who went by the nom-de-toon “Charb.”
The sheer act of publishing “Open Letter” naturally takes on the weight of its horrific context: Two days after completing the slim, 82-page 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 very name reportedly was shouted by the attackers. And what the murderers most objected to were the French satirical weekly’s cartoons about Islam and the prophet Muhammad. The Hebdo offices had been firebombed a few years earlier, after a cartoon Muhammad was declared “editor” of one issue.
In light of that, one agonizing irony hanging over every page of “Open Letter” like a long shadow is that if Charb had been known only by his patient prose — and not by the cartoons he drew, edited and published — he might very well be alive today. That is because visuals have the visceral power to provoke what generally is somewhat muted over the course of long prose; the jolt of a sharp cartoon is generated because it’s as quick and immediate as a lightning strike. Then there’s the fact that at length, over a handful of chapters, Charb is able to lay out some of his beliefs in a manner that is far less susceptible to misinterpretation than a symbol-reliant statement of art.
So what does Charb believe, exactly? Well, within “Open Letter,” he is an intellectually passionate Frenchman who believes in his nation’s long history of taste-eschewing graphical satire to make a point — an authority-thumbing tradition that dates back in its power at least to Daumier in the mid-19th century. Charb is also proudly an atheist and a linguist and a journalist, and so believes in the precision of the printed word and thought as a crucial force against powerful institutions and movements that he thinks delude and seduce and corrupt the vulnerable mind.
Fueled by that, what Charb most has a talent for here is walking through the intersections of crossing philosophies and ideologies and, like Camus as some whistle-blowing traffic cop, calling out hypocrisy after passing hypocrisy. He is appalled by, and yet seems to delight in, the height of man’s 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,” 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 like “Islamophobia” to sell papers and stir up clicks; the unmoored politicians who blow with the winds of cultural change and hate; and all critics who willfully misstate what Charlie Hebdo means and says. Many self-interested parties benefit by peddling fear and hate and misunderstanding and mistrust, he writes — and he believes that Hebdo’s humor shines a light on these dark forces.
What is glaring, too, is that Charb sees nary a sin — or at least admits little fault — in anything Hebdo has ever published over the decades. All is fair game, and his professional conscience before dying rings as clean as a new sheet from his sketchpad. Hebdo’s is an intellectual hero’s journey, and villains potentially lie in wait at every turn.
And so “Open Letter” might make the reader mourn for not just the man, but also the thinker he was. Agree or disagree with his ideas, or his intentionally offensive/provocative modes for getting them across, but Charb brought sharp insights to France’s national conversation — beliefs on which he preferred to stand rather than live on his knees.
As the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre arrives next month — fresh off new Paris attacks and new cries of Islamophobia and new debates over Muslim immigration — Charb’s final words will have to stand in for him. Fortunately, they do so ably.
[This post has been updated.]