Suicide at Notre Dame a Warning to the West

The mainstream American right has remained almost entirely silent about the recent suicide of the French historian, Dominique Venner. The reasons for this, I do not know—perhaps it is a squeamishness about the symbolism of his final act, or a lack of understanding of it. Perhaps it is a refusal to see what the people of France already see, and are rising up against.

Venner shot himself on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on May 21st, 2013. The image of this act ought to make us pause in awe. The American left immediately dismissed him as a discontented right-wing Catholic crank, simply angry at the recent legalization of gay marriage in his country. None of them examined his last article, or his suicide note, which tell a different story: and one which ought to be heeded by the rest of the West.

The Christian mind has long rejected the possibility of suicide as a good, ever since Augustine’s prominent discussion of it in the first book of The City of God.  In Chapter 22 of that discussion, Augustine denies that men who commit suicide can ever be admired for their greatness of soul. Given that Augustine’s prime task was to write “against the pagans,” this line of argument is understandable; he wants to discourage any admiration of individual pagans. I would like to suggest that this restriction be revisited. A Christian may admire the heights of pagan virtue without condoning its sinful aspects. After all, Augustine’s firm condemnation of all things pagan cannot be entirely reconciled with the Thomistic embrace of pre-Christian Greek philosophy in the High Middle Ages. Admiring Venner’s cause is not the same as condoning his self-annihilation.

Just maybe, there is something we can learn from the spirit of his deed, if not from the deed itself. It certainly seems clear that Venner did not mean for men of the West to follow his example and commit mass suicide; he meant for it to shake them out of their malaise. It was a cri-du-cœur against the modern age.

 

Dominique Venner was, from my understanding, neither Catholic nor formally pagan: his spiritual life was found in a kind of reverence for the heritage of Europe; that heritage includes both pagan and Christian religion, and so he admired both. His suicide in the cathedral was a final act of respect, as well as a powerful setting for the message he intended to convey. He saw the cathedrals of Europe as artistic manifestations of the genius of his people. In his suicide note, “Reasons for a Voluntary Death,” he explained,

I am healthy in body and 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. [Emphasis mine.]

Venner sees himself as the founder of something new, in defense of something old. This calls to mind another founding, born out of rape. That is the founding of the Roman Republic, which was inspired in large part by the suicide of a Roman woman, Lucretia. As recounted by Livy, the chaste and honorable Lucretia was forcibly raped, after much protestation, by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king. After her rapist left, she immediately sent messages to her father and husband, begging them to come to her along with their close friends. When they arrived, they came to her chamber and found her weeping for her lost honor. She said to them,

“There are the marks of another man in your bed, Conlatinus. My body is greatly soiled, though my heart is still pure, as my death will prove. But give me your right hand in faith that you will not allow the guilty to escape. It was Sextus Tarquinius who returned our hospitality with enmity last night. With his sword in his hand, he came to take his pleasure for my unhappiness, but it will also be his sorrow if you are real men.” They promised her that they would pursue him, and they tried to appease her sorrow, saying that it was the soul that did wrong, and not the body, and because she had had no bad intention, she did no wrong. “It is your responsibility to see that he gets what he deserves,” she said, “I will absolve myself of blame, and I will not free myself from punishment. No woman shall use Lucretia as her example in dishonor.” Then she took up a knife which she had hidden beneath her robe, and plunged it into her heart, collapsing from her wound; she died there amid the cries of her husband and father.

This act inspired the revolution that overthrew the monarchy of Rome. It may be worth noting that it was this revolution and founding that also inspired the founders of the American regime. But the Roman founding was born out of suicide and shame—not the shame of Lucretia, but the shaming of her husband and father by the horrible acts done to her. So too, Dominique Venner’s suicide mirrors of the suicide of the West, and is meant to shame us.

The final piece that he wrote on his personal blog, “The May 26 Protests and Heidegger,” gives a clearer explanation of his death than does his suicide letter. It contains a warning and a call to arms. He addresses this warning to the French anti-gay marriage protesters, who, in his opinion, have addressed their rightful indignation at the wrong thing. Venner himself expressed horror at the notion of “gay marriage,” but his objection to the culture of relativism goes deeper than that. He relates the words of an Algerian blogger,

“In any case,” he said, “in 15 years the Islamists will be in power in France and will remove this law.” Not to please us, we suspect, but because it is contrary to Sharia (Islamic law).

This is the only superficially common point between the European tradition (that respects women) and Islam (which does not respect them). But the bald assertion of the Algerian is chilling. These consequences will be far greater and more catastrophic then the detestable Taubira law.

Ultimately, the objections of the May 26th protesters will be moot. Gay marriage is a smaller symptom of the disease. In the end, the suicide of Europe will result in conquest by Islam. He continues, “The May 26 protestors cannot ignore this reality. Their struggle cannot be limited to the rejection of gay marriage. The ‘great replacement’ of the population of France and Europe, denounced by the writer Renaud Camus, is a far more catastrophic danger for the future.”

“Polite street protests,” as he puts it, are not enough. He calls for “real intellectual and moral reform,” which ought to begin as quickly as possible. And it is here that Dominique Venner tells us (what he hopes will be) the meaning of his death:

It certainly will require new, spectacular, and symbolic gestures to stir our somnolence, shake our anesthetized consciousness, and awaken the memory of our origins. We are entering a time when words must be authenticated by deeds.

What does Venner’s revolt mean for Americans? We are not as far down the suicidal road as is Europe. We have more time, but just a little. His warning should be a source of reflection for us, just as much as it is for France and for Europe.

His final published words were these:

We should also remember, as brilliantly formulated by Heidegger in Being and Time, that the essence of man is in his existence and not in “another world.” It is here and now that our destiny is played out until the last second. And this final second is as important as the rest of a lifetime. That is why you must be yourself until the last moment. It is by deciding, truly willing one’s destiny, that one conquers nothingness. And there is no escape from this requirement, because we only have this life, in which it is our duty to be fully ourselves—or to be nothing.

Of course, this is not what Christians believe. Our home is not this world. But that does not mean we can renounce our duty to care for the good, the true, and the beautiful in this world. Those of us who do not join monasteries are called to care for the political and the highest civilizational things. Dominique Venner, historian and former soldier, sought to found a new resistance to the collapse of European civilization. Whatever civilizational Christians think of his means, we ought to admire his end.

Marjorie Jeffrey

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Marjorie Jeffrey is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at Baylor University, and currently a summer intern at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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