The Darkness Show

Disclaimer: I was not shot at. I did not see anybody killed. That’s not what I saw.

I don't know if other people are admitting this, but at first we made jokes. Other people were laughing, too—I could see them in the café, waving it away—but I don’t suppose we’re to speak of that now, for the dead are sacred, and sacred isn’t funny. Which is another one of terrorism’s many little victories since November 13: We’re all one step further away from funny. Not real wit—there’s always room for that—but dumb, deflecting humor. I can’t even remember what our jokes were, the jokes my friend Tanja and I made with our waiter when we received a text. It was from a flack for the event we were covering for another magazine. “Just wanted to let you know there’s been a shooting in Paris . . . ”

A shooting! Who did she think we were? We were journalists, for Chrissake! We weren’t going to let a shooting get in the way of our tartare. Ha-ha. C’est la vie.

Then our waiter returned. Explosions, he said. We made more jokes. He was scheduled to go to Burgundy for a wine festival the next day. Nice timing! We talked about ride-sharing. He brought us a bottle of rosé. On the sidewalk beside us, a couple stopped and stared at their phones. Another group stopped, studied, looked up, hailed a taxi. The street began to drain. A group of three linked arms and changed course. Others followed suit, arms laced, like little ships tacking. Tables cleared. Some paused, thumbs scrolling, eyes scanning. Others simply disappeared. “There is news,” our waiter said, “of eighteen.” Eighteen. Just the number. “Perhaps you want to move to a table inside?”

Even then we joked. “Ah, yes,” we said. “The terrorists will never see us through these giant windows!” We joked about bullets and glass.

Another text. From a student of mine at Dartmouth College, Sarah, who I knew was in Paris. “Hey! You OK? I’m OK.”

This wasn’t funny. Fuck. None of it was.

Another text from Sarah before I could respond: “I don’t even know if you’re in Paris now. But just letting you know. And asking.”

And asking. “She’s a tough cookie,” I told Tanja.

“Nobody’s a tough cookie,” she replied. We called Sarah. She texted her location. The waiter studied the phone map. Pulled out his phone. On his, my memory insists, little red explosion emoji marked the attacks, Sarah in the middle. (Of course, I’ve checked since and learned that there’s no such function on Google Maps.) “Stay put,” I told Sarah. “We’re coming.”

But not yet! No way would we let the terrorists win. We ducked into a market, picked up a couple bottles of wine. We felt prepared. We had a mile walk, which we, strangers to the city, would make into a mile and a half. No cabs, no Uber, no Lyft. People walking fast, some running, mostly in the opposite direction. We were swimming upstream. The city was shuttering. Steel curtains. At a restaurant not far from us, our friend Mati was being led with two others by the owner down through a trapdoor into a cellar. It was underground time, but up above we banged along, swinging our plastic bag of bottles. Clank, clank. Hello! We’re here!

A little cluster bomb of skinheads, French-flag-patched bombers, boots, and stubble skulls. Race bros. I’d say, perhaps, it was just fashion, were it not for the evidence of their emotion: They were like electrons bouncing, chest, shoulder, bonk. I want to say they banged their heads, but that can’t be; it was just that they looked so fucking full of joy. It was on. The fight was on. You could see it in their necks.

But that’s all we saw like that as we walked as fast as we could the wrong way, bottles clanging. A few people locking arms, yes. Many more raced along alone together, heads down, faces blue-lit by phones. News. Eighteen. Three sites, six sites, hostages, one hundred. That’s what we saw. And what we heard were sirens. You know those European sirens? They sound so compassionate and urgent and resigned. Over there. Over here. A lot of that. Rising and falling. Turn left, turn right: sirens that way; let’s try this street instead.

We found Sarah. The other diners had fled, but four kindly waiters had shuttered the windows and turned out the lights, and with Sarah, who speaks no more French than I do, they gathered around the big-screen TV, the biggest blue glow. The shutters were high-water, they didn’t quite reach the sidewalk. She remembers the blue siren light slashing across the floor. She’s nineteen, in Paris for a week on her own, a great time, three days at the Louvre, making sketches, Notre Dame, the winding walk up Montmartre to Sacré-Cœur. She’s the kind of kid for whom people buy meals. Not hitting on her; because she looks so open. One night, a family picked up her tab; another restaurant comped her. That evening, before the attack, she’d crouched on the floor with a little boy, playing with his dog.

A dog. Getting sentimental here. Can’t have that. That’s not what this is about. It’s about the jokes we told so we wouldn’t have to see the blue light slashing across the floor. The nervous giggles of the complicit. Heavy word, I know, but that’s what it felt like—we were complicit not in the attack but in the war, the last battle of which, in Paris, was over a cartoon, the chief ideologue of which, in Paris, is Michel Houellebecq, whose best-selling hate novel of a France ruled by radical Islam, Submission, is described as “satire.” So walk as fast as you like and stop to buy wine, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re not a target, too. A target not because you’re free but because you’re there. You don’t have it coming, but it’s coming anyway. Consider Looney Tunes, Road Runner and Coyote; consider the anvil. Power and rebellion, empire and fringe, drone and suicide—it’s a closed circuit, and we’re in it. In on the job, by virtue of being there. Oops! There’s a term for this: situation comedy. Sitcom.

Like later, the second time Tanja—who is, in fact, not a journalist but a portrait and landscape photographer—asked me, because she figured journalists should know such things, what you’re supposed to do if there’s shooting. “There’s a plan for fire—stop, drop, and roll—there’s a plan for earthquakes, for tornadoes, for floods, right?”

“I’ve heard you should hide beneath a body,” Sarah said. Tough cookie.

I said, “That was the journalism secret I didn’t want to tell you, Tanja. The plan was to hide behind you.” Hee-hee.

Here’s another one.

After we found Sarah and started walking alongside a blue stream of sirens—not thinking the obvious, which is Don’t follow the sirens, mainly because our faces were blue-lit, too, checking our phones, Google Maps, Twitter, text, looking down, preparing for our pratfall—a gaunt-cheeked dude with a smattering of black facial hair sprinted straight at us. Screeched to a stop. Beep, beep! “Are you French?” he asked. I looked at his scraggly boy beard and fuck me if my mind didn’t make a joke, a stupid one. “Hipster? Or jihadi?” Ha-ha, I thought. “American,” I said. Because the best jokes are the true ones.

Hipster? Or jihadi? Neither. Just a brave young man who turned around when he was running away, who came back because he saw us following the sirens, because he realized we did not see. “Seven men,” he said. “With.” He did not have the word, so he mimed: two hands a foot apart, one gripping above, one below. Rhymes with “pun.” Oh! The international gesture for assault rifle.

It was just rumor; at that time, we did not know how many shooters there were. But he didn’t know that, and we didn’t know that, and we turned around.

Later, Sarah shared with me something she wrote about that night. She’d called it “Nothing Important.” “That’s how it happened,” she wrote. The moment with the bearded boy, “seven men,” turn around. “Paris disappeared from my mind. I’d spent the week walking it, learning it, and now it was gone, dark, sheltering only the sporadic light at the end of a firing barrel, the casual violence of a drive-by, windows shattering from a blast.”

Then she wrote, “Sirens poured past again.” That sounds right: They poured.

“WHAT’S THIS ESSAY about again?” Julie, my wife, asks.

“Well, it starts out with something about joking,” I say. I read some of it to her, and, of course, it’s not really funny. Funny’s not the point. The point is—something about the jokes we tell, not just as frightened people, but as a certain kind of frightened people. Citizens of empire, or of a very rich and stylish former empire that still has an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle; frightened people who think the question after a terror attack is whether France will “endure” or “succumb” to xenophobia, whether France will “win” through defiant café-ing or “lose,” mostly by the traditional methods—martial law, bombing, “acknowledging” the hate-wisdom of some curmudgeonly would-be prophet such as Houellebecq. Check, check, check. But that’s not the whole story, not the half or the quarter. Because, of course, France will endure. That’s just the law of physics—inertia, a thing in motion will stay in motion. And, of course, France will succumb—xenophobia is in its DNA. But a lot of other great things are in there, too, including the complex and not-yet-fully-realized mixed blessing and promise of secularism. Will France abandon secularism for its own holy crusade? Sure. Probably. That’s what we do with secularism: We abandon it, over and over. What good is a god if you can’t not believe in it sometimes?

Reminds me of a maybe-true story. Early-twentieth-century Jews, Yiddish anarchists, who every year would hold a Yom Kippur ball. Top of the menu: pig roast.

Get it? “See, G-d? See how much we don’t believe in you?”

But these jokes, now, are different. These are not the jokes of the oppressed; they’re the jokes of those of us who suddenly (or “suddenly”—so many words demand quotation marks after terror) find ourselves seen as the oppressors. We can argue about whether or not we are, in fact, oppressors, but not about the undeniable fact of how we are seen by Daesh, and how, on November 13, some of us—mostly, very unoppressive types, dudes and diners and stagehands, fans of comedy rock—were killed. These are the jokes we tell to hold at bay the knowledge that this isn’t the first time or the last, the knowledge that they don’t hate us because of our cafés but they will attack our cafés, the knowledge that we’re fucked as soon as we find ourselves saying “they,” and then, worse, the knowledge that we were fucked before we began, because we’ve never had any other word than “they.”

And what are the other options, anyway? The triumph of the human spirit that will scatter time and again in the days to come when a policeman slams his trunk too hard, when a lightbulb pops, when a rumor ripples and a crowd runs, tripping over one another and pushing into doors? Or hate, the three-year-old Syrian-refugee phantom menace haunting the boiling brainpans of American presidential contenders?

Dining for freedom or hating to make a point?

Hipster? Or jihadi?

These stupid little jokes. The jokes with which we citizens of empire smooth the sheets and tuck in the blankets of the beds we’ve made for ourselves.

“Imperial joking?” my wife says. “Is that like white privilege’s doofus cousin?”

Yes. Yes, it is. Or maybe there’s an answer in that cliché your improv friends are always trotting out, the root, they say, of real humor: Yes, you’re supposed to say to everything you want to turn out funny. Yes, and.

THERE WAS this guy Tanja and I saw Sunday morning. We were sitting on a bench not far from the Bataclan theater—eighty-nine—when he came walking along toward the memorial, carrying a tiger. A stuffed-toy one, of course. But almost life-size, and dirty, the way you’d think a real tiger, if it lived in Paris, might be, kind of grimy and worn-out. He carried the tiger under his left arm, his hand reaching around the tiger’s gray belly. He didn’t look like the type to be carrying a stuffy around. Beat-up brown leather jacket, brown jeans, boots. Big man with plank-like shoulders, the kind of man who doesn’t swagger but takes his space. The tiger was taking its space, too. Its big tiger paws, its long tiger tail, thickest at the end, flopping with each step. Very floppy. It looked like it might be dead. The guy wasn’t in such great shape himself. I said, “Pardon,” thinking to take his picture, because that’s what Tanja and I did in the days after. That’s what everybody at the memorials did, big cameras clicking, lighters lighting tea candles clicking, phone cameras silently snapping, all of us picturing grief. Picturing as a verb, something you do; grief as an object, something you make. The man with the tiger under his arm just looked at me with leaky red-rimmed eyes and walked on, weaving a little.

“Let’s follow,” I said. We wanted to know if he was taking the tiger to the memorial outside the Bataclan. We wanted him to be bringing the tiger there. Maybe it was his friend’s tiger? His childhood tiger?

Or maybe he was just a guy who carries a giant stuffed tiger. Maybe his eyes are always red, he always weaves through the city, the tiger’s head always bobs like it’s doped or dead.

We were a block away from one of the many pools of candles and flowers—“candle flowers,” Tanja called them. The tiger man angled himself toward the candle flowers. He stood, staring. Then he turned left, crossed the street. He was gone, and he took his tiger with him.

Tanja marveled. “Like he just said, ‘Fuck you.’” I think she found it kind of beautiful. A real “piece of light,” as photographers say. A real revelation. The parting of the veil that separates manners from perception. She didn’t mean he was an asshole. She meant we were. The drunk hauling a stuffed tiger around? He’s always in a state of grief. He’s what’s there. Waiting to be seen.

We didn’t follow. The joke was too much. Mourner? Or crazy man?

Yes. Yes, and. Yes, and the brokenness of things, everyday things, the cracks that shatter in Raqqa or Budapest, Paris or Brussels. The fragmentation of our dumb humor, our imperial funny. I’m speaking here not of geopolitics—tiger stuffies know no ideology—but of the grief with which we see after some certain number of bodies, some certain number of sirens.

On Saturday, we tried to count the bodies coming out of the Bataclan. A siren, the gendarmes parting the metal cordons, an ambulance easing its way through the press, the mourners. Once, while we were there, the gendarmes cleared a path for a man coming from somewhere within, somewhere close to the Bataclan. A witness? A relation? Yes, and. A rocker. Denim and red, red eyes, like the man with the stuffed tiger, walking alone across the empty boulevard. What had he seen? Nobody asked. That was a grace: Nobody asked.

We tried to count, Sunday morning, when the bells of the church of Saint-Ambroise pealed for what seemed like an unbearably long spell. One hundred and twenty-eight? One hundred and thirty? We couldn’t say. We lost count and listened.

We kept count that afternoon, the afternoon of the “false alarms,” when the mourners became a panicking, trampling herd, and we opened the door to our courtyard, a couple of blocks from the Bataclan, and shouted, “Over here! Over here!” We kept count: One, two, three, this group is four; a woman alone; a couple. Seven hid with us before we closed the door. With each, I wondered, “Are you the one, the one whom we shouldn’t let in?” Seven times I wondered: Yes? No?

A WEEK AFTER the attacks, I took my six-year-old daughter, R., to a “concert for Paris” at
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. She’d been frightened while I was gone. We wouldn’t have been able to keep things from her if we’d tried. She likes what she calls “beautiful music,” her term for choirs and symphonies. I wanted her to associate her sorrow with that beauty, to understand them as linked. Some one thousand filled the church on what was, to date, the coldest night of the year. We kept our coats on. The program began with the French ambassador, proceeded with a quick, sad piece by Ravel, a short piece by Gabriel Fauré, and then Fauré’s Requiem, which is about forty minutes long—short for a requiem, but a long time for a six-year-old in a vast, dim, cold church after nine on a Friday evening. During the baritone’s first solo, R. popped out of her chair and let it screech across the stone floor. It screeched again a few minutes later. It was too sad, she’d say later. She called it “the darkness show.” We decided to tiptoe out after the sixth movement. But just as we reached the door the music turned—from the baritone to the sopranos, ascending, sparkling. Here, at last, was what she’d wanted: the shimmery sweetness R. adores from old Disney movies. A kindness of voices. Sentimental? Yes. Hope is sentimental, which is to say it’s imaginary. It’s imagination. “Do you want to stay?” I whispered. R. nodded.

Afterward, at home, she burst into tears. What it was she could not put into words. Would not have those words for years. I think that was her sorrow, and I know it was mine—the knowledge that she will need them. The feeling, in the cathedral, that this requiem was not just for what has happened but for what is to come. The slow realization that all that has happened has been in motion for a long time, as those we’ve made the butt of imperial humor—the abject comedy of “collateral damage” and “regime change” and “special relationships”—have found a voice, and now they’re telling their own awful jokes, fragmenting our—“our”—world to reshape it in the image of their—“their”—own utterly fragmented lives. The requiem felt sorrowful in a way different from that of a memorial, sorrowful for the greater fragmentation to come, the sense of the fragmenting of self that is the sane response to terror—“sane,” not in the sense of healthy, but simply in the sense of what the mind does. Like my student Sarah, who can’t think of Paris without thinking of a gun. She’s no drama queen. In fact, I’ve been encouraging her to acknowledge just how frightened she was. She feels she has no right. “No right.” A term that belongs in quotation marks, like “our,” and “their,” and “joke.”

Perhaps that’s the purpose of a requiem: not just to mourn but to acknowledge how frightened we are. Sad music and tired jokes: same old story, summoned up again for the sake of hope, yes, and imagination. Yes, and. Yes, hope, and the feeling that the cold, silent mood of those assembled for Paris at St. Patrick’s marked not just respect for the tragedy but also the chilly gray-light awareness that what had happened had begun long before that Friday, November 13.

Jeff Sharlet, associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author, most recently, of Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011).