Cabu: Doubts are Essential, I Hate Them Who Claim to Know Everything
“Cartoonists make a living out of people’s stupidity, a trait that only seems to be on the increase with the passing of the years.”
By Theodore Zeldin
‘WHAT DO YOU want to do when you grow up?’ asks the harassed father of his little boy with a vacant face. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Don’t know! Don’t know! That is no answer: Think. At your age, you must know what you want to do.’ So the little boy promises to think. He goes and asks his little girlfriend, but she does not know what she wants to do either. He goes and asks his doddering grandfather what he wants to do in the future, but he does not know. He goes to the kitchen and asks the cook. ‘If the pigs don’t eat me, I’ll get my pension and retire,’ says she. ‘That’s not so silly,’ thinks the little boy. He goes back to his father, who is sitting at a desk, by a telephone, with graphs on the wall and glum despair on his face, and tells him: ‘When I grow up, I shall retire, and raise pigs, but I’ll take care not to let them eat me.’ This boy could serve as a mascot for the third category of French people: those who are involved neither in the rat race, nor in traditional working-class protest, those who do not want power over others. What will there be to distinguish him, in due course, from the international fraternity of drop-outs?
Jean Cabut, who drew the strip cartoon containing this story, is now forty-four, and he does not know what he will do when he grows up either. The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has called him ‘the best journalist in France’: he is certainly being a faithful reporter when he presents the dilemmas of his countrymen in pithy moral tales of this sort. But it is not surprising that he can give no better answer himself than the little boy did. The basis of his view of life is that he does not like people who know the answers. He considers them dangerous: they never ask themselves questions; they never know doubt and Cabu (which is how he signs his cartoons) insists that it is essential to have at least some doubts. He has created a famous character, Mon Beauf (my brother-in-law) who incarnates all the complacency of provincial France. This only half-fictitious person is partly based on Cabu’s real brother-in-law, who is an insurance man in the Vosges (Cabu’s sister is a gym mistress), though the face has some resemblance to the Mayor of Nice, Médecin, who once sued Cabu for libel and whom Graham Greene is now annoying in a different way. Cabu is a journalist as well as a cartoonist, because he does not deal in imaginary stereotypes, but always bases himself on real people around him; he is an eavesdropper who has no need to resort to fiction. Every time he goes to see his brother-in-law he comes back with a bag of gems. It was while still at school that he came to hate that type: he started a magazine called Le Petit Fum, short for fumiste (meaning those who do nothing seriously and on whom one cannot count); that was the label the scientists gave the classicists, on the ground that they did not work much. Cabu hated the scientists because they were always fascinated by how things worked, but never asked themselves the questions, what good does it do? What purpose does it serve? He is one of those who always calls into doubt every aspect of civilization, and he does not spare himself.
He is not sure whether he is a utopian with his head in the clouds or a prematurely senile old fogey worshipping nostalgia. He regards adolescence as the best years of life, because everything seems possible then, because the adolescent lives in a world of dreams, imagining all sorts of wonderful situations, and everything he encounters in the real world has the unspoilt taste of novelty. The first girl Cabu took in his arms, the first cartoon he sold to a newspaper, are memories of ecstasy he has not repeated. Le Grand Duduche, Cabu’s most famous cartoon character, is about seventeen, but he is not just a representative of the young generation. Duduche provides one of the most accurate histories of the young over the last two decades, because Cabu has observed them very precisely through his own son and the four children of his wife, but Duduche is much more than an heir of Billy Bunter. He is not a greedy, naughty child, but a naive observer of the law of the jungle that school life is, and through his adventures at school, shows life outside school to be a similar kind of jungle. Duduche is in many ways Cabu himself, still marvelling at the inexplicable imbecilities of those who pretend to be adults. The events of 1968 were the great moment in Cabu’s life: ‘that was my Great War of 1914’; adolescence he describes as a permanent revolution of 1968 that constantly repeats itself. He would like to keep that spirit alive. But of course he has his doubts. Why is it that 1968 did not usher in a new world? Here Cabu shows that both he and Duduche, while having an irrepressible faith in man, are also disappointed with him. The rebels of 1968 made the same mistake as their fathers; they used violence, and that is self-defeating; they became greedy for power, and that corrupts; and above all they did not realize that they were really just like their parents, and they have now in middle age developed all the awful vices of their parents. Duduche is in love with his headmaster’s daughter, and she is a silly girl he has nothing in common with: Cabu himself as a young man always fell in love with prim, Catholic girls: ‘we are all like that, our ideas and our behaviour don’t coincide.’ When Duduche goes to the first communion party of his young cousin, he watches all the relatives pile their expensive gifts on a table – radios, walkie-talkies and toy cars; the cousin accepts politely, and then paints his revolutionary slogan of protest on the wall: Down with the Consumer Society. The pleasures of adolescence are, of course, all to be obtained outside the school syllabus: Duduche is a marginal who does not like syllabuses or systems and so is Cabu: ‘it is very important for me that each one of us can have solitude when he wants it – as Sartre said, hell is other people; solitude is necessary for reflection; but solitude only works if you feel comfortable with yourself.’
The worst experience of Cabu’s life was therefore, not surprisingly, his period of military service. He could not bear that the army should tell him what to do and dress him from top to toe. (He has printed a marvellous, deadly serious, long army report on the relative merits of different kinds of underpants for conscripts.) He was given no responsibility: he felt diminished in the army, as though forced to acknowledge his weakness before the powers that be. Such an admission is all the more painful for him, since he is very conscious of man’s fragility: another of his cartoon characters is a mongol boy – he had one for a neighbour – who symbolizes the narrow line that separates success from failure: that is so frightening that he has to laugh. It was the callousness of the army that turned him into an anti-militarist. He was sent to fight in Algeria: he and his mates had been on duty for two weeks, day and night, and were dying of thirst in the boiling heat: a helicopter came to give them water, but it landed half a mile away from them, and they had to bring the water up in jerry cans on their backs. Then they saw another helicopter land on the doorstep of the commander’s post: a general emerged from the plane bearing a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket: he presented it to their colonel and flew off. ‘That day, I understood that the military really constitute a caste apart.’ Cabu has been a relentless champion of non-violence ever since: he believes one solution for the world’s ills that has not been tried is passive resistance; he has demonstrated for unilateral disarmament; his book of cartoons, Down With All Armies, has sold 75,000 copies. He has not hesitated to descend to vitriolic insult of soldiers and strident caricature, but he has also published conversations with real soldiers who are perfectly decent people, who claim to be left-wing, who can even quote Mao, and who say they are only doing a job like any other, that offers security and a pension. That only makes it worse from his point of view, that they should spend their lives collecting medals ‘for having destroyed a battalion of flies on a dung heap with no thought for the danger involved’. Cabu protests also against nuclear power. He protests against the pollution of the environment. He resents modern concrete architecture, and protests that his home town, Châlons-sur-Marne, should have had all its character destroyed by expansion and rebuilding. He sees no need for supermarkets: ‘the little old shops were perfectly adequate.’ He knows life in the past was awful for most people, but he regrets something in it all the same. He prefers jazz to rock, and Charles Trenet to any modern singer. He prefers cars made in the 1920s. He contradicts everything he says about his love of youth by complaining that France’s old civilization should stoop to borrow from America, which is a mere 200 years old.
Of course, he is horrified by what he says; he cannot stand Arab music, that is one sign of his Frenchness, but he thinks it really is time he learnt to appreciate it. He feels French because he loves the countryside and the architecture, but he is ashamed that he has not travelled more. His friends think of him as quintessentially French, because of his passion for its old houses and its little shops, and because he makes a virtue out of his nostalgia, but it is not difficult to imagine him attending Aldermaston nuclear demonstrations in Britain, and living in a Suffolk village, for he is not only a vegetarian, but seldom drinks either, so the inevitable excuse of the Frenchman, that he cannot be separated from his wine or his mother’s cooking, does not apply. Cabu is puzzled by the behaviour of his son, who mocks him for having made no real difference to the world, despite all his endless protesting. He thinks that perhaps history goes in cycles, and that the young will one day return to the idealistic spirit of 1968. But he is well aware that he is not fulfilling his vision of adolescence, of being always open to new ideas. He admits he might be in a rut himself, that he may be guilty of precisely the same obstinacy for which he criticizes his brother-in-law. So what he does with the second half of his life will be the real test of his philosophy. Is it possible, or desirable, to go beyond passive resistance to the rat race and other forms of violence? There might well be interesting developments when Cabu is a grandfather: that will produce for the first time in history a combination of a sizable group of radical pensioners – in good health and with a long expectation of life, with plenty of frustrated energy for more experiment – and a new generation of precocious grandchildren who will have no grudge against them, as they might against their parents: together they might do more than engage in the traditional spoiling of grandchildren.
Dissatisfaction both with the consumer society and with traditional forms of protest against capitalism started when prosperity was at its peak. In 1968, in a profound revolution that has been played down with the modest title of the Events of May, many young people suddenly called the bluff of those in authority. Students rioted, workers occupied factories, life came to a temporary standstill. It resumed after a few months, but for a while the whole country was led to question its values, and it emerged that quite a few people did not accept them. The graffiti on the walls of Paris proclaimed: Pleasure not Power. I reject the Past. I want Dialogue. The Right to Enjoyment. Revolution is Orgasm. An End to Metro, Boulot, Dodo, i.e. to a life that consisted simply of travel, work and sleep. The search was now not for money, or promotion or material comforts, but for a more elusive sense of fulfilment, for a combination of security and excitement, for the Good Life, or as it was now called, the Quality of Life. This was not specifically French. The Americans had reacted against their greater prosperity even earlier, and the hippies were the predecessors of the new French marginaux, the people who opted into the margins of society. The magazine Actuel which kept these people in touch and enabled them to do things in common was partly modelled on New York’s Greenwich Village Voice. Since then the daily newspaper, Libération, and the magazine Autrement have sustained and co-ordinated the urge to experiment with new ways of life. But 1968 has cast graduated ripples far beyond the small groups who have actually withdrawn completely into rural or intellectual independence. Many of those who were in their twenties in 1968 have been permanently marked by their experiences; they are less dogmatic, less political, less brutal than they would otherwise have been. And in society at large, even among those who reacted in horror against the revolt, the sense of hierarchy is less pronounced, personal relations are less liable to be contemptuous; even the prefect of police speaks with a gentler voice. The ‘right to be different’ is respected more than it used to be, at least theoretically.
The generation of 1968, or more precisely the affinity of 1968, since it is less an age group than a tendency, are worried by their inability to fulfil their promise, in the sense of showing more practical, concretely identifiable results from their agitation and experiment. Cabu says there is something of the old schoolmaster in him (his father was one) wanting to make people happy despite themselves. That is the source of the dissatisfaction that gnaws at him and those like him. They cannot accept that they have achieved a lot simply by living their own lives with greater decency; they cannot measure the moral contagion that has introduced more gentleness into human relationships by the presence of people who are not willing to use violence, and are not inspired by greed for money or power. They cannot reconcile themselves to the thought that what distinguishes them from the rest of society is their acknowledgement that the same ideals cannot suit everyone, so that they would be unlikely to ‘make everyone happy’ if they did have more influence. They represent a temperament, not a solution. Is not Cabu worried by people who know what the solutions are?
His two-volume history, France 1848– 1945 (1973, 1977), received international acclaim: The Times called it “brilliant, original, entertaining and inexhaustible”; Paris Match said that it was “the most perspicacious, the most deeply researched, the liveliest and the most enthralling panorama of French passions”. His other books include the novel Happiness (1988). Theodore Zeldin has been awarded the Wolfson Prize and figures on Magazine Littéraire’s list of the hundred most important thinkers in the world today.
Excerpt from Theodore Zeldin’s Book ‘The French’ (1983)