Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, Molière, and Carl Jung: where does a fearless – heedless – sense of vocation originate?



Still finding it hard to put the Charlie Hebdo victims out of mind, to get work done – because so many of them look like writer, journalist and artist friends of post-Gutenberg’s, over the years – we have a question. Where does a sense of vocation come from?

There is no doubt that it is an irresistible, mysterious-bordering-on-mystical compulsion. It was described penetratingly in the last century by Carl Jung, though without an explanation grasped as easily as, say, a definition of a table – or, for that matter, a layman’s guide to particle physics. He saw a vocation as a sort of daimon. In an essay on the subject, an unidentified Jungian blogger has attempted a down-to-earth summary of the psychology pioneer’s conception of it:

The word “daimon” is Greek, deriving from daiw, “to divide or distribute destinies.” [… “D]aimon” is not the negative thing we associate with “demons.”

Being well versed in the classics, Jung brought many ancient concepts into modern usage in psychology … The “daimon” became a central part of his thinking about vocation, motivation, creativity and the individual’s potential for achieving fulfillment in life.

[… ]

As “… autonomous psychic content,” the daimon is a “force as real as hunger and the fear of death.” Because it is autonomous, it behaves within us like a god, making demands of us and acting with authority. The poet and potter M.C. Richards describes the experience of the daimon well when she says, “There lives a creative being inside all of us and we must get out of its way for it will give us no peace unless we do.” Beside Jung, multiple figures in history have acknowledged being in the grip of a daimon, e.g. the Greek philosopher Socrates, the German poet Goethe, and the French ruler Napoleon.

Inclusive, democratic media of this post-Gutenberg age are making it easier than ever before for the ‘creative being inside all of us’ to get out and do something. What effect is that going to have on this world?

We suspect that no matter how many millions are freed by digital tools and the net to let their daimon out for a run, the class of people who have anything critically important to tell us — who are gifted enough to excel in exercising their talent for communicating, and in exploring new avenues — will always be small. Those who put themselves at risk will be an even tinier, vanishingly small minority.

Last week we quoted one slain Charlie Hebdo artist and caricaturist, Jean Cabut – who signed his work ‘Cabu’ – saying that art should never be constrained. Artists who honour their vocation resist re-routing into less imaginative and risky occupations, and attempts to constrain what they express.

Writing on the New York Review of Books blog two days after the bloodbath at the French magazine’s offices, Robert Darnton, a historian of French satire, said that Charlie Hebdo is carrying on a tradition of fearlessly lampooning ‘power and bigotry’ that, in France, goes back at least as far as the reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s. He mentions Rabelais, Bussy-Rabutin, Beaumarchais, Chamfort ‘…and above all, Voltaire’ as practitioners of this art.

Somehow, he (or perhaps his editor) omits Molière, who died in 1673 at the age of fifty-one as one of the greatest satirical playwrights and actors of all time – and whose short lifespan was arguably part of the price he paid for giving up life at the heart of secure, bourgeois Paris to wander in search of audiences and patrons with a band of fellow thespians.

We are guessing that the NYRB was needlessly bowing to the frenzied pace of internet news analysis when it posted the Darnton contribution – because with his expertise, given a little more time, he could have shown us how some of those 17th-century French satirists were punished almost as severely as members of the Charlie Hebdo crew.

In a sparkling, dancing, marvellously imagined biography of Molière presented as part-fact, part-fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov – the Russian novelist and satirist – tells us how he died. The Wikipedia supports his version as mostly true; not too far removed from the actual events.

The medical profession and the priesthood were two of Molière’s favourite targets. He eviscerated arrogant, all-knowing doctors and their habit, in that era, of killing off patients with bleeding by leeches — because they had neither the tools nor understanding to effect a cure. He did this in one play after another with titles translated as The Flying Doctor; The Doctor in Love; Love, the Doctor; and The Doctor in Spite of Himself (in which the writer of this post actually had a leading, non-speaking part as a mute, at the age of fourteen).

In Mira Ginsburg’s quick-stepping, compulsively readable translation of the Bulgakov biography, there is this passage:

As regards the purely external characteristics which distinguished doctors at the time, we may safely say that these men, riding through Paris on mules, wearing long, gloomy mantles and beards, and speaking a mysterious jargon, simply begged to be set on the stage in a comedy. And in his Love, the Doctor Molière brought four of them on stage upon the stage. … The first doctor was called Des Fonandrès, which means ‘murderer of people’; the second, Bahys, ‘one who barks’; the third, Macroton, ‘slow of speech’; and, finally, the fourth, Tomès, or ‘bloodletter’.

What followed was a major scandal, for the audience easily recognized in the four quacks four of the Court physicians, Sieur de Forgerais, Jean Esprit, Guénaut, and Vallot, the latter being not merely a Court doctor, but the King’s chief physician. … [I]t is small wonder that hatred of Molière among the physicians reached unprecedented proportions.

After he collapsed on stage, acting a part in his latest play, The Imaginary Invalid –— then died coughing and spitting up blood a few hours afterwards — old friends and family were obliged to cope, without his help, with the consequences of his years spent savaging mediators between the realms of matter and spirit:

[E]arth refused to receive Monsieur Molière’s body.

Jean Aubry had vainly pleaded with the priests of the Saint Eustache parish to visit the dying man. Both of them flatly refused to come. A third, taking pity on the desperate Aubry, came to the comedian’s home, but it was too late. Molière was dead, and the priest hastened away. Burying Molière without proper Church rites was out of the question. The sinful comedian died without a last confession and without repudiating his profession [acting], which was condemned by the Church. Nor had he made a written promise never again to play on the stage again in the event that the Lord, in his infinite mercy, restored him to health.

This formula had not been signed, and no priest in Paris would undertake to escort Monsieur de Molière to the cemetery. Besides, no cemetery would accept him. …

Back to the Jung blog post quoted above:

[ The daimon ] … pulls us out of conventions and social norms. Because it is archetypal, the daimon exists outside of time and cultural contexts. It doesn’t follow fads or fashions, or feel any need to measure up to social niceties and expectations.

Fair enough — and well said. But what explains the existence of daimons, and what or whose purpose do they serve? We have never read a completely satisfactory answer.

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