Once against I find myself turning to Beowulf in the wake of a mass shooting. I don’t much to say that I haven’t said before, but the points are still worth repeating.
I have described how the Grendel rage that we saw in the Charlie Hebdo killers also showed up in Anders Breivik (the Norwegian killer), Jared Loughner (the Tucson killer), Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood killer), and James Eagan Holmes (the Aurora killer). I first wrote a post applying Beowulf to mass killings five and a half years ago, and I am struck but how many more people have died since then.
Beowulf is always relevant because the poet understands well how violence can tear apart a society from within. Medieval Anglo-Saxon England was a fractious culture, and, then as now, Grendelian resentment ate away at certain discontents. The Beowulf poet memorably captured this phenomenon through cannibalistic trolls. The impact of such violence was greater then as the society was smaller and more fragile, which is why the depictions are so vivid. The dynamics are the same, however.
The Beowulf poet also knew, probably from personal experience, what didn’t work in handling such rage. While his society, like our own, indulged in revenge fantasies following a killing, the poet knew that lashing out only unleashed blood feuds. No sooner has Beowulf killed Grendel than Grendel’s mother makes an appearance, and the second half of the epic is filled with an interminable string of revenge killings.
But if heavy-handed retaliation wasn’t a solution, neither was naïve conciliation. Queen Wealhtheow thinks that she can use placating words to win over her discontented nephew Hrothulf, but no sooner has King Hrothgar died than Hrothulf kills one of her sons and takes over the kingdom.
Put in modern terms, neither the forceful response favored by the right nor the conciliatory response favored by the left proves entirely effective. No wonder Hrothgar has his head in his hands following the attacks.
Beowulf tries to strike a balance. His response to Grendel is forceful (a strong grip) but measured (he doesn’t lose his cool the way that Unferth, killer of kinsmen, does). While Beowulf has no illusions about diplomatic marriages and we see their failure in the case of Finn and the Heatho-Bards, he deals sensitively with the explosive situation he encounters in Hrothgar’s court. Similar sensitivity—a strong but measured response—is called for in the current situation.
Whether we will get a smart response is another matter.
In addition to the killings, I thought about their target. I realized, after reading this fine article by Max Fisher in Vox, that Charlie Hebdo engages in more sophisticated satire than I originally thought. It is misunderstood in the same way that Daniel Defoe’s “Shortest Way with Dissenters” was misunderstood in 1702.
Defoe, trying to expose the ruthlessness with which people wanted to put down Puritan dissenters, wrote an article that appeared to advocate severe measures against dissenters. He hoped thereby to wake people up. Likewise, Charlie Hebdo often pens racist stereotypes to capture how the rightwing sees minorities. Unfortunately for the artists, both Defoe’s satire and Charlie Hebdo’s have been read straight, and Defoe was even praised by some anti-Puritans. (Then they found the essay was a satire and put him in the pillory.) Likewise, Charlie Hebdo has been seen as racist in its depictions of minorities. That’s always a danger in people missing the point.
Incidentally, Fisher doesn’t altogether absolve Charlie Hebdo of racism, noting that it “punches down,” treating vulnerable minorities the same as it treats those that are privileged. A great satirist like Jonathan Swift never makes that mistake: you don’t satirize those who are vulnerable. (Swift notes that one doesn’t satirize a cripple for walking funny.) As Lucille Clifton (no satirist) used to say, her job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. One has no business afflicting the afflicted.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker is less concerned about differential treatment of satiric targets and just sees Charlie Hebdo as operating in the Rabelaisian tradition:
Wolinski and his confederates represented the true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization, in their acceptance of human appetite and their contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear. The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally…The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear…
Gopnik calls this “the joy of ignobility” and says it is what the cartoonists were killed for: they refused to honor the sacred. Whether we praise or criticize the satire, however, we must stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to engage in it.