The Pagan Ordeal of Dominique Venner

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[Note: This essay appeared some few years ago in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, shortly after the death by suicide of its subject. The work of Venner remaining relevant, I re-post the essay here, with a few small changes.]

Dominique Venner (born 16 April 1935) ended his life publicly and dramatically by shooting himself in the mouth before the altar of Our Lady of Notre Dame in Paris six years ago on 21 May 2013. The bullet passed through Venner’s brain and exited the back of his head. In the opening paragraph of a suicide note that he sent to his publisher, Venner sought to justify his action:

I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children.  I love life and expect nothing beyond, if not the perpetuation of my race and my mind.   However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength.  I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found.  I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: She was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.

A reader cannot avoid remarking the contradictions in Venner’s testament.  A professed love of life comports itself awkwardly with a gesture of self-annihilation.  One could argue that Venner meant by “life,” not his own, but the collective, trans-personal vitality of his children and their descendants; he refers after all to “the perpetuation of [his] race and [his] mind.”  Seen in that way, his suicide might rise to being a Stoical demonstration, like those of Petronius and Seneca in the time of Nero.  Even so, no few problems remain; not least the dis-relation between Venner’s professed respect and admiration for the “highly symbolic place” of the Lady Church and his having blemished its consecrated precincts with his effluvia.  How moreover would such an act “break the lethargy that plagues us”?  More likely – even patently, looking back on the event – it would merely add to the pernicious confusion of the times.  The explanation of these contradictions is undoubtedly linked to the fact that while Venner acknowledged his belonging to a specifically Christian civilization in its late phase, he never himself identified as an adherent of that faith.  Like his countrymen-contemporaries Guillaume Faye (b. 1949) and Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), Venner espoused Friedrich Nietzsche’s Neo-Pagan view of Christianity as “slave morality,” a religion of defeat and death, and the cause of rather than the antidote to the malaise of modernity unleashed.  Like Nietzsche, whom Venner admired, and who signed his last letters as “The Crucified One,” the suicide might well have been experiencing a revilement of Christ which was, at the same time, a desire to rival and replace Him.  That would account for Venner’s characterization of his act as an instance of “self-sacrifice” and for his references to “cults still more ancient” than the Cult of the Virgin on the Ile de la Cité, with whose pre-Christian religiosity he would have identified in opposition to Christianity.

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The Later Thought of Rene Girard

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Rene Girard (1923 – 2015)

History, and increasingly the mere daily record of events, are together apocalyptic.  They lay bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly the sparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “Postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, Modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals with dizzying speed to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked along with the lunatics into the maelstrom of psychosis.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. So perverse has Modernity become that people eagerly seek victim-status although of course they can only do so by indicting other people as their persecutors. The old gesture of designating the victim has therefore been turned inside out and the nomenclature along with it. Objects of collective passion, those who are about to die at the hands of the mob, are now called victimizers, not victims.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition. In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns. Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “Progress” – wretched regress. And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective. No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern age as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (1923 – 2015), who remained intellectually active right up to his death. Two late books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End (2010), demand attention from those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity.

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The Acid Eating at Tradition is Not Capitalism, But Cheap Information

Reactionaries often blame capitalism for eviscerating tradition and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. But capitalism – i.e., free exchange – is not a recent phenomenon. It was not invented by the Franciscans, forsooth, but rather discovered by them as a subject amenable to moral, theological and philosophical analysis, and so to discourse, development and elaboration. Capitalism has been around since the beginning of human society. It is no more than a fancy word for exchange that develops surplus, after all; for mere trade, and commerce. For almost all of human history, capitalism supported and indeed mediated local tradition – or, at least, did not vitiate it.

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An Hypothesis about the Origins of the Modern Sacrificial Cult

Rhetocrates commented:

I had an unoriginal thought worked out this morning that I wanted to share. Mostly it’s already well-established, but it does go in a slightly novel direction in explaining the ‘holiness’ spiral of modern society.

Modern progressive liberalism (viz. WW2 and after) is a specific negative type of Christianity. That much is obvious. Where our once-for-all and yet repeated-daily Eucharist (Malachi) is the navel and foundation of our religion, the Holocaust is the navel and foundation of modern progressive liberalism (hereafter MPL to save keystrokes).

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Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt

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Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté [Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world.  In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective.  Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers.  Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip.  Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896).  Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view.  Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title.  Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde [The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit.  Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.

Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory.  The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard.  But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively.  The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example.  The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century.  In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility.  Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism.  In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists.  No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved.  Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world.  Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.

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Gottschalk’s Banjo Fantasy & Other Items of Americana

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869) was the American musical superstar of the mid-Nineteenth Century.  The issue of a German-Jewish father and a Creole mother, he early demonstrated executive prodigality at the keyboard and his knack for effective composition. During the Civil War, Gottschalk proclaimed his loyalty to the Union and toured the North playing his patriotic fantasias to wildly receptive audiences.  A longtime resident of Oswego, New York, I feel compelled to report that Gottschalk visited that fair city no less than three times between 1858 and 1864, professing his belief that its young women were the fairest in all the States!  “The Banjo,” described in French as a “fantaisie grotesque,” takes inspiration from what in Gottschalk’s day went by the name of “Negro Music.”  It develops an original, largely rhythmic motif, and quotes Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” in its finale.  There is more by Gottschalk below, as well as songs by Henry Clay Work. A New Yorker, Work was Foster’s equal by any measure, but, because his fondness for “Slave Dialect” offends PC, he is today little known.

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Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

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Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

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The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.  One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.
  — Herbert Butterfield,   The Whig Interpretation of History

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Of Possible Interest

Wyst

My essay on the late Jack Vance’s 1978 dystopian Novel Wyst: Alastor 1716 appears at The Gates of Vienna, by the courtesy of its webmaster “Baron Bodissey.”  Wyst, the third installment of Vance’s “Alastor” trilogy is a carefully plotted thriller-satire that takes on the cliches of socialism and egalitarianism.  I give the first two paragraphs below. —

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.
The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plot-line, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.