Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sunday in St Brieuc

The rendition of the Marseillaise was lacklustre to say the least. I don't really know the words beyond the first few lines, though my mother, about as conservative and Conservative, monarchist and a little-England a woman as one might find, used often to sing it too me as a child. I rather liked and always joined in with the 'Marchons, marchons!' bit, which seemed to be the most enthusiastically sung part on Sunday in St Brieuc too.

So we shuffled our feet and looked embarrassed, but then so did most of the people round us; I think perhaps, even leaving out all the obscure verses like the one the little children are supposed to pipe up about preferring to die in the struggle and share their fathers' coffins than outlive them, even the most unreflecting person gets a bit queasy these days about the notion of watering the furrows with impure blood. But then the British national anthem, when not intoning drearily about saving the monarch, contains a barely veiled subtext and omitted verse about stomping on the Scots, and the German one seems still to hold elements of desire for world domination... it's hard to escape the feeling we really do need a rethink in Europe if we are to shake off the chains of our history. But it's in fact quite difficult to gather in this way without some kind of focus or shared outward expression, so I suppose people reach around for something they all know.

Despite the prior statement that there would be no slogans and no speeches, someone or other from an august body or the administration did get up and deliver some words most of which I couldn't catch, but including 'une laïcité sans adjectifs'. I've been reading more French in the last few days than I must confess I usually read in a year, and find myself wondering and smiling at linguistic comparisons: where a short hard English monosyllable 'kick' needs to be rendered by a long descriptive 'donner un coup de pied', but abstract and metaphorical  intellectual concept words which would solicit puzzlement in anglos are readily found, taken up and used freely and ubiquitously in quite ordinary contexts. So the association to  commemorate and promote a local novelist, Louis Guilloux, administered by the wife of the couple who ran a much loved hardware store in the town, a formidable woman of letters and big in public life (also my boss for a time), awards a literary prize in his name, the remit of which includes the necessity to reject all forms of Manichaism. Eh? I mean I know my Gnosticism, better than many, but I can't quite get my head round that one... More to the point though, the word amalgame is being used frequently to describe the kind of lumping together indiscriminately, tarring with the same brush, of all Muslims which must be avoided at all costs.

Another person, a cartoonist I think, mumbled in an ill at ease tone, some people in the crowd called out 'plus fort!' but to no avail, the PA was buggered and the chap seemed disinclined to his task anyway. There were large sheets of paper on the prefecture railings which people could and did write and draw on, and there were some creative hair styles involving pencils and pens, and some reproductions of the less contentious cartoons on sticks, but generally the stipulation was adhered to. Yet I did perceive a kind of process of apotheosis of the murdered cartoonists and journalists, or of the idea of Charlie Hebdo as a kind of single symbolic entity, the creation almost of a cult of secular sainthood, quite different from the initial, immediate shock and sadness and solidarity we felt at the early vigil in Lamballe, and, it seems to me, deeply ironic in many ways.

Later I saw this, from the Belgian cartoonist Jean Bourgignon, which pleased, in a necessarily wry kind of way:

However, I don't want to fall into a kind of glib false sophistication and cynicism about this. I have been reading and reading obsessively, and thinking, and writing and talking too. Expressions such as 'bandwagon', 'groupthink' and 'secular religion', have quite made me defensive and, rightly, questioning about my responses and actions and those of other people. I am not in the habit of claiming to be someone, or something, I'm not, even symbolically (an avatar on Ravelry caught my eye and made me think too, which said 'I'm not Charlie, I'm not brave enough'). If the amalgame is to be abhorred, then we must be quite careful about voluntarily creating and joining one of our own. I find myself saying things, aloud, in e-mails and elsewhere on the web, which very soon after I want to qualify or retract. No one likes to be seen to be supporting racism, and I am leery of defences which claim that cultural context gives the unacceptable exemption. The civil discourse, good manners, anything for a quiet life, this is how I mostly live and want to go on living. I have already said more than I meant to here, since I had already concluded, so I thought, that I really hadn't anything useful to add to the mountain of debate and comment, and argument and vitriol, still being generated. But to quote a leader in The Economist 'If the proper first response to the slaughter was outrage, after considering the argument that Charlie Hebdo made about free speech, the second response should be outrage, too.'  

So, to come back to what is really rather more within the scope of my talents and this blog: What I Did at the Weekend, we made our excuses and slipped away after the initial rally, filer à l'anglaise, as is our wont, and we were impressed by the good nature, the patience, the cheerful politeness everyone showed, the accommodation and ease with which we moved against the current, the lack of crush so that kids at foot or in pushchairs or on shoulders, the occasional dog - big enough to hold their own or small enough to be carried - weren't distressed or fractious, and 30,000 people were able to move in a comfortable way through a really very small town centre. There's a post on a French blog with some lovely photos here. Coming home, we watched the coverage in Paris on the television, and were even more amazed at the patient, civil behaviour of the crowds, and their diversity, frequent eloquence and goodwill. 

And throughout, here and there, I've been struck by the goodness of the young people, the kind of kids I've known and tried to help with their English and seen grow up: the confident and the less happy in their skins, the conformist and the stroppy, the cool and the intense, the bright little would-be intellectuals who knew more about the English eighteenth century than I did and the trainee car mechanics creeping like snails unwillingly to their philosophy classes. From those who joined the chorus of support for their fellow lycéen Hamyd Mourad after the killers had used his car while he was in school, and he'd turned himself in, and it was immediately being assumed and stated elsewhere that he was the get-away driver and everything else besides, to the ones who spoke to Ouest-France about their views and feelings and posed for a photo-collage on the back page including the two muslim girls, bare-headed and open-faced, who expressed their unqualified support but said politley no, they would prefer not to hold up a 'Je suis Charlie' sign, but would rather have one saying 'Not in my name', on a day when the soldiers are on the streets and in the schools, and the possibilities of hateful opportunist hi-jacking is still very much with us, I prefer to think about them.

And this will be the last thing I post about this, then I'll be back to knitting and the domestic detail.


HKatz said...

Thank you for sharing this. After a tragedy there will always be a mix of spontaneous sincere emotions and people who posture or try to exploit the circumstances. It's good to sort these things out. Life is complex too - but some people search for perfect spotless victims or something similar to make the narrative more easy to digest.

I'm wary about slogans and large groups operating in sync, because of the potential vulnerabilities of losing yourself to the group and going along with it because of pressure rather than because you've thought things out. It's one thing to express solidarity or grief - but I've seen people demand that others say, "Je Suis Charlie" as the right way to express this (or the one appropriate way), and this I don't like.

Rouchswalwe said...

Thank you for telling us of the individuals you know and met in St. Brieuc. It's all for naught if we don't keep in our minds and hearts that people are affected by all this. Watching the live coverage from Paris, I also was struck by the eloquence of the individuals who responded to reporters pointing microphones their way. I sincerely hope the goodwill doesn't fade and that more and more, people will find it possible to talk to those different from themselves with courtesy and kindness.

Nimble said...

I'm also touched by all the people who are seeing this as a moment to reach out to be connected to others.
Thanks for your thoughts.

YourFireAnt said...

Yes, what Nimble said is true. After the planes hit on September 11th 2001, the people in my neighborhood bonded. For the first time ever. You never saw so many picnics and potlucks, and greeting each other in the street, and helping out with each other's raking, and lawnmowing, and snow shoveling, and .... you name it. Thanks, Nimble, for mentioning this.


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Am absolutely with your thoughts on this, Lucy, and it's why I didn't join the Je Suis Charlie chorus. The subject is complex and multi-faceted but the situation has made everyone sit up and think and some very good articles (like your piece here) have appeared in the press.
Thanks for your always thoughtful eye and ear.

Soize said...

Je vais récupérer ton dessin, je le trouve particulièrement bien vu ;-)
On entend et on voit tout et n'importe quoi ces jours-ci

Roderick Robinson said...

I'd say you fell into a reverie which I note for the first time must have its roots in rever. Much of my working life passed in this state, listening to others speak, playing with the words they uttered in the way I used to chew my bus-ticket en route to school, enhancing dull moments.

Having watched the post-assassination coverage on the BBC I was struck by detail after detail proving that these semi-formal events were taking place in France and nowhere else. The projection of the tricolore on to the plinth of that statue, the way the Je Suis Charlie cards were held (as identification rather than assertion), the complex sentences English-speakers came up with in the vox pops, the predominance of middle-class clothing.

Struck too by photos in the blog you recommended and the nature of the scribbled messages (Seule la fraternité nous rend VIVANTS; Pas peur: Quand les hommes virent d'AMOUR il n'y aura plus... Jamais PLUS!) with all the accents and the apostrophes carefully included.

Amalgam is or was used to fill teeth. Now I know why.

I know I'm just diddling, scattering hundreds and thousands, and you've been serious, done a good journalistic job: facts, reflections, valid detours, explanations. Chapeau

I said on my blog I was exhausted and I realise that wasn't sufficient. What tired me was my diminishing ability to add anything useful. For a time you may have reached a similar conclusion about yourself but happily you got your second wind. Thanks for the two-parter; it deserves wide exposure.

the polish chick said...

thank you for this post, lucy. thoughtful and quiet, as one expects from you.