Friday, 9 August 2013

DOMINIQUE VENNER: HERO OR "COWARD"?


My faith teaches, or rather holds it as self-evident, as an outgrowth of natural law, that suicide is a sin. I understand and fully accept this tenet, and wouldn’t dream of dissenting from it, or from any other legitimate, duly-held Church doctrine.

That said, I will never understand the reflexive priggishness of many, if not most anti-suicide scolds these days, be they religious or secular in orientation. Worse than the outright condemnation (the “cowardly act” canard; in truth, no so-called “coward” flings himself willingly into death) is the treacly condescension. Those who would kill themselves are emphatically requested to refrain, because, in summary:
  1. You are loved! Really! (As lisping therapist Stuart Smally would say, "Doggonit, people love you!")
  2. Your death will grieve your loved ones, who really need you around, no matter what you may think to the contrary.
  3. Life, in any case, is a precious and worthwhile thing, which must be embraced, rather than rejected.
The first two reasons given are conspicuously tendentious in what they presume. Much as we would like to think that everyone on God’s green earth is loved and will be sorely mourned and terribly missed if they off themselves, this is surely not the case. One thinks of “all the lonely people” whose sad fate Paul McCartney famously—if a trifle pompously—rhapsodized in the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby.

Friendless loners like the titular “Eleanor” exist in abundance in our world, a fact which lends the song its forlornly haunting power, however much McCartney’s expressed pity for his subject ultimately rings somewhat hollow. (Nor, for that matter, do I suspect that John Lennon ever really gave a fig for his depressed layabout Nowhere Man, nor Katy Perry for the pathetic sap she disingenuously called a Firework, nor—to bring things full circle—did Billy Joel give a windy blast of flatus for all of the ugly, spotty, mopey kids he encouraged to wait for their “Second Wind” rather than slash their doughy wrists, but then rhetorical posturing and phony compassion for the down and out, like the down and out themselves, we will always have with us.) The third reason given—the insistence that “life is worth living”—meanwhile, is sheer assertion, which one suspects is often the result of mushy sentimentalism or mere wishful thinking than of reasoned analysis.

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Self-extinguishment may be a sin, but it is a complicated phenomenon just the same, and the question of the extent of the suicide’s moral culpability must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Recently, Marjorie Jeffery composed an extremely thoughtful article for Crisis magazine concerning the bloody, brain-spattered mess left by Dominque Venner at the altar of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France earlier this year, when the French nationalist activist shot himself in the head at that historic site in order to protest mass immigration, and with it, the active push to de-Europeanize Europe. (Writers for Alternative Right have also commented on this event: see here and here.) Crisis is an American Catholic journal which in the past has toed a rather neocon line, politically-speaking, so it was surprising to find such a nuanced take on a far-right figure like Venner, whose dramatic final exit generally went ignored in the American conservative media.

Jeffrey’s point wasn’t to celebrate Venner (who of course wasn’t Catholic, or even Christian, himself), or to condone his choice to self-snuff in a cathedral, but rather to see the context for the act (namely, the ominous Islamization of Europe) and to admire the boldness and consuming conviction that it showed on his part, as well as remarking the incredibly resonant impact of the bloody gesture itself, however one might feel about the moral acceptability of suicide.

Jeffrey’s article could be described as” edgy,” particularly for a publication like Crisis. But it is in no sense blasphemous or theologically unsound from a Catholic perspective. Her central point is that, both for the life that he led, and the death he freely chose, Venner can be argued to have achieved a certain “greatness of soul,” even if Church doctrine demands we must disapprove of how he ended his life. From that perspective, Jeffrey argues for a reevaluation of a long-revered, but not infallibly-endowed, Catholic text:
"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."
Remarkably gutsy though such analysis was, particularly within its milieu, Jeffrey’s arguments went generally unchallenged for several weeks. Recently, however, Jeffrey’s piece has come under fire by one Mark Shea, a prominent neo-Catholic blogger with an infamous penchant for bluster, snark and sanctimony. (Full disclosure: he and I have tangled before.)

Writing in the National Catholic Register, Shea showed his all-too typical flair for the obnoxious. He dismissed Venner’s suicide as “narcissistic,” an act of “petulance,” a “hissy fit about the new neighbors.” To Shea, Venner’s concern about the tragic demographic erosion of European Christendom is simply a bigot’s lament, the result of a whipping up of “culture war hysteria” regarding the growing number of Muslim immigrants (legal and illegal) crowding into Europe, a trend to which presumably only an intolerant ignoramus could object.

True to insufferable form, Shea insulted Venner—a man who, during his lifetime, displayed erudition, insight, and uncommon courage—as “cowardly” and “pathetic.” One suspects that Shea in fact knows and cares very little about this man at whose corpse he is directing his vituperative spittle, since the real source of his bilious outburst is Crisis magazine itself, and Jeffrey’s article is only the occasion he seized upon to vent his super-sized spleen.

Oddly enough, as Jeffrey has pointed out in a rebuttal piece, Shea’s stated reason for despising Crisis is its tendency in the recent past, particularly under former editor Michael Novack, to endorse American militaristic imperialism and neoconservative policy-crafting. Jeffrey herself intimates that she shares these views with Shea, making her targeting by Shea all the more ironic. In fact, it is Shea--with his shallow construal of the cultural infestation of Islam and the demographic displacement of Westerners as merely the harmless shuffling of populations, an adjustment to having apparently utterly benign “new neighbors”—who displays a proclivity towards trendy-left multicultural groupthink and an arrogant disregard for the complexity the truth.

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Shea’s crassly dismissive rhetoric aside, it is in fact perfectly possible for a Catholic to admire, and even, pace Jeffrey, to “stand in awe” of Venner’s lifelong boldness and resolution, including and reflected in his final act. One recalls that memorable scene in Hamlet in which Laertes, heartbroken over his beloved sister Ophelia’s death, begs that she be given the full ceremony afforded to “peace-parted souls.” When the officiating priest rigidly refuses to bestow “sage requiem” upon Ophelia, a girl who—in the throes of insanity—drowned herself and thus committed a mortal sin, Laertes turns on the man, enraged: “I tell thee, churlish priest,” he cries. “A ministering angel shall my sister be,/ When thou liest howling!”

Unlike the fiery Laertes, I do not wish to see anyone in eternal torment, nor do I presume to comment on the present or future state of any human soul. But I will say that Dominque Venner, even considering all of his faults and acknowledging the dubious nature of his death, was more of a man than sneering detractors like Mark Shea will ever be.

Like Jeffrey and unlike Shea, I look upon Venner with great humility and respect. I pray, in fact, that one day I will meet him in Heaven and have the honor of getting to shake his hand. May his sins be forgiven and may he rest in peace.

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