I Am (Not) Charlie
The Meaning of Human Existence
Posted Jan 30, 2015
My trip to Turkey was planned for mid-December, 2014. Serendipitously, I got a call from an old college friend who told me he was planning to take his daughter to Istanbul.
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘My children will also be with me. Let’s meet up and spend a day wandering around one of my very favorite cities.’
A week before departure, he called and said: ‘I cancelled my trip.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I got a tip there might be a terrorist action and that Jewish men will be targeted.’
‘A tip?’ I asked.
‘From a pretty knowledgeable source. I’m taking my daughter to Paris,’ he said, very relieved.
‘Whatever,’ I replied, really wanting to tell him he wimped out. ‘Paris,’ I thought, ‘How ordinary.’
Shortly after returning home in late January, I paused at the fountain in the center of Washington Square Park and sighed. I had been away too long, too much had happened, and the pleasure of return was palpable.
A familiar voice greeted me. It was my theatre colleague with whom I was preparing a new play. We were scheduled to meet later that day in the theatre.
‘Welcome home, Charlie,’ she said. ‘I suppose you were marching with the millions in Paris. You always seem to go where the drums are beating.’
“I wasn’t in Paris.’
‘Are you not Charlie?’ she quipped.
‘No, you are not Charlie?’
‘And yes, you are?’
‘Would you care to explain…’
‘Sure,’ I said, happy to be spared the burden of telling a linear tale. ‘I was in Turkey and arrived, as always, with my usual repertory of roles. You know—foreigner, American, senior, tourist. And then there were parts not so visible, like my Jewishness.’
‘Why were you there?’
‘Some work. A friend,’ I said.
‘In that order?’
‘Maybe reversed. Does it matter?’ I asked.
‘I like to know which comes first,’ she replied. ‘It gives me clarity.’
‘Right,’ I said, ‘the chicken and the egg.’
‘The chicken or the egg,’ she replied. ‘You know, the heart or the mind.’
‘OK,’ I said, ‘Friend first, work second.’
‘Heart trumps mind,’ she declared.
‘Right,’ she said, ‘Hmm.’
‘Alright, so I am a chicken.’
‘I would have said egg. But your remark brings us back to Charlie, doesn’t it?’ she said.
‘Yes. The night after the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris, I was in Taksim Square with my friend. It’s the place where mass demonstrations take place in Istanbul. The police were in riot gear. Thousands of people milled around, some giving speeches, others passing through.’
‘Why were they there?’ she asked.
‘Mostly in solidarity with free speech. They were Charlie. They were protesting terror as a method of protest. They were Muslims protesting radical Islam.’
‘What about the insults to Islam in the political cartoons? Do you think any university in the US would’ve printed that in their school newspaper? What about respect for somebody else’s religion? Anybody protesting that?’ she asked.
‘You mean besides the terrorists? Oh, yeah,’ I said, ‘Millions who are so threatened that…’
‘Whoa, Charlie,’ she replied, ‘Put yourself in their shoes.’
‘The ones who feel disrespected, humiliated. You’re the drama therapist. Can’t you go there?’
‘I can go there, but…’
‘Really,’ she said, ‘then why the but?’
‘I have a big problem with black and white thinking, with ideology,’ I responded.
‘Isn’t free speech an ideology? You think you are dogma-free?’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Yes-no. That’s your ideology. I believe there are billions of people in this world whose belief system is about yes or about no, not both. Are they wrong? And don’t answer Yes-No.’
‘Yes-No,’ I said. ‘What can I say?’
‘You said it,’ she replied.
‘The truth is that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo really shook me up. I felt vulnerable for all my otherness as a Jew, American, liberal, as ambivalent even. I needed to normalize my state of being. I brought along a book with a ridiculously pretentious title, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” by a biologist, Edward O. Wilson. It was anything but pretentious.’
‘So what is the meaning of human existence?’ she asked.
‘There is no meaning,’ I responded without thinking.
‘What do you mean?’ she countered.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘We are all accidents of evolution, tied instinctually to insect and animal life and one infinitesimal part of a massive universe where other organic life might well exist. Our needs and desires are hardwired in our brains and consciousness is itself an artifact of the brain. We have the capacity to create ourselves through language, culture, art. There is no God or gods, no central intelligence, despite all the creation myths that exist throughout the world. We are created through cosmic and biological events. Our myths and narratives are ways to create our creators. We are godlike in that we have the twin capacities to create and to destroy.’
‘What about Charlie?’ she asked.
‘Charlie is the intrepid journalist who has the free will to tell the story about brutal human behavior,’ I said.
She countered, ‘And Charlie is the insensitive, culturally-inflammatory provocateur who ridicules people who are profoundly attached to a god who gives meaning to their existence.’
‘Right, the satirist, the child. From my point of view, Charlie is the uninhibited voice of play. Charlie is the courage to speak without considering the consequences. Charlie is the part of me that dares to be politically incorrect, brazen, provocative, aggressive.’
‘And you, Robert, are Charlie?’ she asked rather provocatively.
‘Only when I am not chicken,’ I replied. ‘Really not very often. I spend most of my waking life tempering my feelings, measuring my words. I deny my reptilian instincts a thousand times a day.’
‘Sounds like you would like to be Charlie,’ she said.
‘Wouldn’t you?’ I replied.
‘As long as the terrorists stay away from my door,’ she responded.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We want to keep our heads.’
Later that evening, we would meet again at a rehearsal room. We had a play to devise, something touching on the meaning of human existence, but on a much, much smaller scale. On the stage, we would both play Charlie, hoping to inspire our viewers to do the same. Ours was a theatre of change.
And one other thing…My college friend who took his daughter to Paris missed the whole terrorist episode, deciding on a whim to divert to Amsterdam, a safe place.