Lessons on the 10th Anniversary of Dominique Venner’s Death
On the 21st of May 2013, historian, editor, and former OAS activist Dominique Venner walked into Notre Dame de Paris and shot himself in the head. He was 78, and was leaving a wife, children, and grandchildren behind. Initial reports described ‘a disturbed individual’ and over 1500 tourists were evacuated from the cathedral. A short while later, police announced the discovery of a note left on the high altar, and Venner’s name became public. This note has been widely translated, and pre-empts obvious criticisms of his mental state. “I am sound of body and mind, and surrounded by the love of my family,” Venner writes, but offers little detail on the context of his act.
This context would have been obvious at the time, but is now somewhat forgotten, taking place in a Paris swamped by a left-right clash over gay marriage. Throughout May 2013, Paris had hosted the largest demonstrations by the French Right since World War II, organized by mostly Catholic organizations opposing marriage for all. Despite attracting crowds of over a million, these protests failed to prevent the passage of the loi Taubira, named after the French-Guianese deputy Christine Taubira.
Although Venner’s magazine La Nouvelle Revue d’histoire was distributed widely in France, he was not a well-known figure. But his suicide, coinciding with heightened media interest in the Right, found fertile ground as an ‘event’. Comparisons were instantly made to the 1970 seppuku of the Japanese writer and Nationalist activist Yukio Mishima, a figure greatly admired by Venner and referred to obliquely in the title of his posthumous autobiography: Un samouraï d’occident.
In both cases, the act summarised the man – theatrical, tragicomic peacock for Mishima; pedantic and cranky self-absorption for Venner. Mishima’s suicide is a parody of bushido, a draft-dodging aesthete acting out a nostalgic imperial fantasy. Mishima telegraphed his intentions for decades: his death is prefigured in his 1960 novel and later 1966 short film Patriotism, starring himself. Venner’s death by contrast was discreet, almost prosaic; political suicide’s relative novelty in modern Europe as compared to Asia formed the chief source of public interest.
Despite sharing similar preoccupations to Mishima, there was little to foreshadow Venner’s dramatic last gesture. After imprisonment for his role in opposing the surrender of French Algeria in the 1960s, Venner had refocused on writing and publishing history, quietly establishing himself as an intellectual authority over many years without overt political content. Unless you share his minute particular interests – multi-volume histories of firearms, hunting, and so on – elements of Venner’s work are dull. The French, despite their own pretensions to the contrary, are Northern Europeans, and often fall into the model train collecting mode under stress.
Blessed with a restless frustration that abhorred arbitrary silos, Venner read and wrote widely, and formed a broad conception of European culture glorifying both medieval Europe, and above all, Homer. But his final remarks – by his standards especially – were brief and succinct. Like many nations with a substantial religious minority, France includes a broadly acceptable, slightly farcical right-wing organized around ancien régime totems. Venner opposed this tendency of retreat into religion, of placing the supreme values of life outside of life. His life and death make sense because they are bounded; he acts within the constraints of his time and capabilities, he acknowledges his own creation of any significance that exists in his actions. He works within his situation. Notably, Venner defended Marine Le Pen’s Front National to the end, a party sneered at by would-be aristocratic royalists for its secular, plebian orientation.
Venner’s death had a massive impact on the activist right in France, but no-one should delude themselves into thinking that his gesture was widely supported, even within the right itself. Less charitable readers compared him to a suicide bomber, or perhaps the ineffective student protests against V.P. Singh in India. Paris was yet to see the half-decade of Islamic terror that followed the loi Taubira, but precisely because he was an atheist, Venner’s act was of far greater moral seriousness than mass murder-suicide and of greater efficacy than Brahmin self-immolation; as Venner himself put it, he hoped for nothing au-delà. It is always the idea of reward that feeds false religion, and Catholic rightists then and now can learn from Venner’s message.
In the run-up to his death, Venner published La manif du 26 mai et Heidegger, an article on his website that offers a more sustained justification for his actions. Venner wrote:
The protestors assembling this May 26th have good reason for anger and frustration. But a wicked law, once passed, may always be repealed. I just heard from an Algerian blogger: ‘In any rate’ he said, ‘in fifteen years Islamists will be in power in France – and they will repeal this law’. Not to please us, you understand, but because it runs counter to the principles of sharia.
This is indeed the only superficial point in common between the European tradition (which respects women) and Islam (which does not). But the Algerian’s pre-emptive statement chilled me. Its consequences will be enormous, a catastrophe, far beyond Taubira’s unfortunate law. We must accept as a probability that France will fall to the Islamists. For 40 years, politicians and governments of all parties – excluding the Front National – have worked intensively, alongside corporate interests and the church, to increase by all possible means afro-maghrebian immigration.
For a long time, writers have sounded the alarm, beginning with Jean Raspail in his prophetic Camp of the Saints (1973), whose latest edition has seen record sales. The protesters cannot ignore this reality. Their fight must not be limited to rejecting gay marriage. The great replacement of the French population, and of all Europe, as denounced by Renaud Camus, is a far greater peril.
It will not suffice to organize respectable demonstrations in the street. Instead, an ‘intellectual and moral reform’, as Renan put it, is required to proceed. This must allow a reconquest of the identitarian memory of France and of Europe, a memory whose need is not yet clearly understood. There must be new acts, spectacular and symbolic, to shake open somnolence, break the anesthetized conscience, and reawaken the memory of our origins. We are entering into a period where words must be made real by actions.
We must also remember, as Heidegger so winningly puts it, that the essence of man is in his existence and not in ‘another world’. It is here and now that we play with our destiny, right up until the final second. And this final second has every bit as much importance as the life which precedes it. We must then be entirely ourselves just up to this last moment. And it is in deciding this, in wishing directly your own destiny, that you vanquish the abyss. We cannot escape the requirement: we have only this one life, a life in which it falls to us to be entirely ourselves, or be nothing.
Some of Venner’s prose is lost in translation – for example, his ultime seconde is a reference to Robert Brasillach’s last poem. Elements of his diagnoses also now seem outdated; for the moment at least, political Islam appears to have collapsed as a credible threat. Nonetheless, Venner’s core message is as true today as it was ten years ago. All other debates – abortion, euthanasia, transgenderism – are minor in comparison. Unless we believe, like Oliver Cromwell, that God intervenes directly in politics (and we feel very confident we know what he prefers…) to prioritize these positions over immigration is at best a waste of energy.
This Sunday in Paris, an event to commemorate Venner’s death was banned by the French interior ministry, citing public order concerns. The venue was a private, ticketed hall in the 17th arrondissement; the prospects of a riot were zero. Even so, the street hosting the venue was closed off with metal barriers guarded by armed policemen, a tousled-haired not policeman explaining everything to passing tourists. A little further back, undercover police ludicrously dressed in 1990s streetwear loitered on side streets. Meanwhile, bus stops around the venue displayed colorful posters celebrating ten years of mariage pour tous.
Ten years is almost a long time: but what has the last decade seen? A little more than 70,000 gay weddings have taken place in France since Venner’s death; 2.5 million legal immigrants have arrived over the same period. There is much we don’t know about the historical Jesus, but it’s clear that from the destruction of the temple downwards, acquiescence to authority, a negative obsession with sex, and unbridgeable tension between the demands of this world and the next have created a confusing mess. Whatever its personal value – up to and including salvation – in public life and politics it is clear the religious faction has failed as a political force. ‘Religion’ in France today means Islam. If you want to know what the French state fears, consider this: Venner’s ticketed lecture hall tribute was prohibited; but Action Française royalists were allowed to march the week before, free and unmolested. There’s a lesson there – if you will see it.