Sunday, 25 January 2015

Pens, pencils and tide of symbolism

By Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani (b.1973)

This was the Hour of the Pen. It started spontaneously on the wake of the Paris shootings of January 7th 2015 when the first people holding Je Suis Charlie signs appeared at the makeshift altars to the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Who was the first to hold a pen remains a mystery. As evening fell in London's Trafalgar Square, it felt like the start of a secular religion. People of all ages standing in a circle in silence holding pens and pencils as you do candles in church, staring at the flickering flames of tealights, flowers and Je Suis Charlie A4 printouts piled in their midst. Soon, the pens started piling up too as those who left the circle laid their pen or pencil down in tribute. The following day the tide of symbolism swelled.

Pens and pencils, relegated to the drawer, to the recesses of the handbag, to the back of the bookshelf, pencils unsharpened and collecting dust in the office tray, pens with their ink half depleted or dry, writing instruments hardly ever used albeit to doodle mundane shopping lists or post-it notes, neglected and set aside and humbly bowing to the power of the tablet and the keyboard, were rediscovered. They were raised in tribute, anger and defiance. Pens and pencils were drawn in hundreds of cartoons as weapons of free speech in front of which terrorists quiver. The old "pen is mightier than the sword" adage is retold and retweeted endlessly.

The writing tool is exalted as a symbol of its user's right to use it regardless of the purpose. The pencil does not stand for the cartoonist but for what the work of the cartoonist is taken to stand for. It is a concept that the pointy cylindrical tool is burdened with to represent and its very shape is ideal to carry it out. No tablet or keyboard could rise up to the task. The pen is an instrument par excellence, it can be grasped in its entirety, it can be directed at will, it is impregnated with potential and its mark making is immediately material. Upright and with a sharp point the writing tool is not unlike a weapon. The fingers embrace it. To write, to draw, to attack - it only takes a change of grip. 

"A huge symbolic weight, that doesn't exist in our cartoons and is somewhat beyond us, has been put on our shoulders," said Luz, a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo for 20 years, and among the "survivors" of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine. Luz was late for work that day. He arrived to see his colleagues - these "joyful unbelievers" as he calls them - in a pool of blood and Charlie's cartoons - the "merry little men" - elevated to national symbols. "The media made a mountain out of our cartoons, when on a worldwide scale we were merely a damn teenage fanzine. This fanzine has become a national and international symbol... we are being made to carry a symbolic responsibility that doesn't figure in Charlie's cartoons". 

It was perhaps the unintentional consequence of the extremists that a "mere fanzine" would be honoured by the prime ministers and presidents many of whom probably abhorred Charlie's "merry little men". Or maybe not. Maybe the idea was to reinforce the man-made dichotomy of us-and-them and deepen the crevice created by oppositional and victim narratives from both sides. But symbols thrive in the presence of death. They become tidal waves which everyone - everyone - can ride for their own purposes.

Luz said: "Charb believed we could continue to overcome taboos and symbols. But, today, we are the symbol. How can you destroy a symbol when it is yourself?"

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Raise your pens up high for Charlie Hebdo

When pens become symbols

Vigil in Trafalgar Square, London, in the evening of 7 January 2015
following the murders of cartoonists and policemen at Charlie Hebdo, Paris.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Namiki Falcon review

Happy New Year to all! I'm starting 2015 with my Namiki Falcon in hand, a pen I've always lusted after. I'm finally the proud owner of one and I have written a review which appeared on the fourth day of Christmas On Fountain Pens! Read all about it on the good blog.