A Requiem for the Slumbering Hyperboreans: Un Samouraï d'Occident Review
It is the last book of the French historian Dominique Venner, and for this, Un samouraï d'Occident is both a fascinating work in of itself for its look into ideas and philosophy, and also the examination of a world view of an influential French thinker belonging to the French far-right, in many ways his last testament and a note upon his ideas. Perhaps it his ideological position which has attracted too much of my attention in looking upon and reading this book, preconditioning me to fit it into models and to prepare oneself for it to excess rather than looking at it with new eyes, but I believe that the look which I had gave it to it was one which was loyal to its thoughts and contents. Placing this tome into its ideological context to better understand it is a valuable tool, and one which with this volume, both serves as a fascinating way to understand from whence it hails and also an intriguing examination in of itself into its intellectual milieu. And I believe, that it does no disservice to the pen from whence it hails: for Venner, this book was written with a reason, an intense and burning reason, and not simply as an idle historical reflection. We must always strive to understand, if not to agree, and it is with this mentality that I approached this book clad with the image of the Western knight, and titled with the rank of the Eastern warrior.
What exactly is Un samouraï d'Occident about? In this, the writing wanders and weaves for a period near the debut, about the problems facing European civilization, what exactly is a civilization, establishing the plague which Venner views as threatening the old continent, mixed with a list of reasons for why they are so threatening and dangerous - the decline of virility, the end of the rarefying threat of war, the threat of unrestrained capitalism, which imperil and endanger the ideals and the people of Europe. From this, those societies which are not so threatened by their imminent dissolution appear consequently as signs that it need not be so: even the greatest threat to European civilization, the United States, compared by him to a parasite and plague, is itself immune to some extent from the catastrophic consequences which it instills in the rest of the world in its wild and frenzied capitalism to excess, protected by its preserved virility and warlike spirit, so different from the eroded edifice of Europe. But more interesting to Venner is not so much the reason why his perceived parasite is itself safe from the dangers which threaten and consume them all, but rather how certain civilizations are themselves kept intact amidst the sea of dangers : and in this we arrive at the spirit of the Samurai, in Japan, to which he turns an eye of such inspection, to proclaim that Japan, unlike the West, had been able to establish the triumph of the victorious warrior mentality based upon honor, courage, and dignity, in stark contrast to what he lays out as the contradiction in the West between the two great civilization influences present in the West: that of Judeo-Christian thought, and the pagan traditions of the Greeks and Romans. For Venner, it is the corrupting influence of Christianity which has laid low much of the ancestral wisdom of the Greeks: thus for example, the strange and unnatural submission of nature to man that stems from the desert religion of shepherds, or the degradation of dignity, transformed into a futile humility. Only the marriage of Christianity to the old pagan traditions in Europe kept it from entirely destroying the European spirit, preserving the wisdom of what was the traditional European civilization. Now with the threats that crash upon it, for him, the return to old traditions and the reawakening of the European spirit is needed to save it.
And it is to here that we must return, as declares the tome, if we are to find ourselves liberated from the desuetude and the collapse of current society. The triumph of the will and of the ideal over the material and the physical: this emerges again and again throughout the book. Fundamentally, society's ills and woes are ones which are caused by a spiritual decline, by a lack of energy, will, and virility, and the woes, grievances, difficulties, are only the results of this deeper crisis. It is the lack of virility on the part of European society which allows the problems of things such as immigration to proceed - conversely, despite the United States being itself the harbinger of the destructive forces of neo-liberalism, it itself is more guarded against its effects by its own virility, given impulsion by its own spirit of war. It makes for a fascinating link to a long tradition of a European conservative, right wing desire to reestablish society along lines which are at the same time both conservative and revolutionary - revolutionary, for what else could it be but to dramatically change around the mentalities and the beliefs of a society into the line of what the ancient thinkers had said some 3000 years ago, but at the same time with the firm evidence that one is not marching towards the future, but rather finding one's stability and presence in the past. Venner's ideal society is not one which is based upon the future, but rather one which finds comfort in knowing that it celebrates the same traditions and the same rites as in the past and also that in the future it will celebrate the same ceremonies and the same thoughts as those which occur in the present. Throughout all time the same cycles will continue, without changing, just like the Greeks of his favored society lived in contented happiness, because they know their place in the great stream of history, that it was one without an end and without a beginning. Perhaps he could have cited the famous quote "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in", but then, perhaps it is not as much of a celebrated term in French as it is in the language of Shakespeare. But nevertheless, the spirit is one which reverberates throughout the work, in the belief that through restoring, revalorisation, and solidifying traditions, a society both in connection to its roots and in firm assurance that the future will hold more of the same, can stability, happiness, and continuity be hence restored.
Similarly critical to the book's mindset is its disdain, reticence, caution, towards the Christian faith which has underlain the West and her civilization for the better part of the last two millennia: the difference that it underlines between say, Europe, viewed in the midst of its disparition and destruction, and Japan, held up as a country which borders on a civilization, of continuity with the past and its tradition, is one which is driven apart by the Christian element which Dominique Venner regards with wariness at best and deep suspicion at worst. Instead, for the perceived revival of European civilization and of its thoughts and principles, the preferred alternative of the author is not the Oriental, Middle Eastern, religion which imposed itself upon European civilization, one which is tolerable only because in the course of its implantation it by necessity was forced to marry itself with the tradition, pre-Christian European customs which made up the legacy of the Greeks and Romans in particular. As for myself, I am more reticent upon this matter: Japanese society from an outsider perspective seems to me to be plagued by just as many problems as those that Venner identifies, save perhaps, for now, for the risk of immigration.
At the same time as analyzing the political motives behind the book - although to say political is perhaps too narrow, for Venner does not place his faith into the actions of politicians, but rather in the regeneration of European society by the Europeans of the base of its structure, who will they themselves make the changes to their mentality that is needed according to him to save European civilization - it must also be said that his analysis and examination of the intellectual trends and the development of European civilization's ideological framework is a fascinating and intriguing one, one carried out with panache, sophistication, and wonderful detail and care. The pen which writes is one which is guided by a mind which has carefully examined, read, devoured, to examine point after point of how the famous founding poems of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have reverberated throughout the ages. So too, its examination of the relationship of Western civilization to nature and the differences between the Christian and the Greek ideology of this is one which can only be viewed as a brilliant remark upon these profound intellectual differences. Stoicism, the triumph of the bourgeois spirit over the warrior spirit in the West, particularly in the France of the 18th century, the continuing survival of paganist thought as part of Western civilization, even in seemingly Christian traditions: all of these are things which give rise to pensive reflection and are illuminating and revealing. It is married to a writing resplendant in its beauty, rich in its descriptive details, spectacular in the language used and the elegance of its prose. I have my doubts myself about whether Venner ignores those parts of antiquity which might have been contrary to his ideals - the Greeks and the Romans after all, contained a host of moral values which stand in stark contrast to many of the principles that he himself bases his perspective on - and this contributes to part of the reason for why I cannot feel justified in awarding to this tome a perfect score, but at the same time it must be admitted that the work and dedication which has gone into his writing is a stunning and admirable one.
Un samouraï d'Occident is a book which will not convert those who are not already of its opinion. Then again, few books are capable of such feat, to drag one forth from the comfortable berth of one's own ideas, kicking and screaming, forth into a different stream of thought and values. The human creature is naturally too stubborn for such a thing. But for those who have already converted to the principles which the book advances, it is a shibboleth which serves as a point of reflection, noting what the ills of society are, and observing what is required to change them. For those who have not themselves assembled in its spiritual purlieu, it makes a fascinating look, and a summary that is almost lapidary in nature - despite its length which exceeds some 300 pages - of what the New Right is in Europe. For the American to read it, presuming that they have navigated the difficult voyage of both learning French without also learning about the swirling currents of ideological thought which traverse French specifically and European society generally, it can be a book which would be almost unsettling - thoughts, even concerns, which appear similar to what one is used to and knows, but with utterly different reasoning, approaches, objectives, mentalities, which are alien to the ones which one knows. The tradition which Dominique Venner draws from is one which plants itself firmly, entrenches itself, in history - but not simply an American style history based upon charts of gdp, unchallenged rational, dry, dissection, of statistics and figures, and a cold and impersonal analysis of institutions, but a fundamental belief in both the unchallenged power of ideas and their immutable and organic existence at the heart of a discrete, European, civilization. It is from history that springs these ideas, rather than from these ideas springing forth history - the belief that certain things are unchangeable, unalterable, natural, organic, and utterly opposed to the American idea of the new man, sprung forth from the fire of 1776, clad in liberty, republicanism, and virtue much like his centuries-later successor, the homo sovieticus. In contrast, the man of Europe may degenerate, he may change, he may even be regenerated, but he is one who is always firmly grounded in his history, and he cannot escape it - for Dominique Venner, the present is the completion of the past, rather than the start of the future.
Dominique Venner did not simply write in admiration of the Romans, Greeks, and Japanese, and in particular his fascination, his fixation, with their focus upon dignity rather than humility, upon their contemplation of what it meant to be a man in a way which diverges dramatically from Christian morality. It was perhaps the most profound and final disagreement upon this part, which in the end would be for Dominique Venner the end of his life, when in emulation of the Romans, the Greeks, and as a samurai of the West as he saw himself, he committed suicide in the cathedral of Notre Dame on May 21st, 2013. For him, his death was a way to awaken European civilization from what he viewed as its stupor and sleep, in committing suicide in one of its cherished monuments and symbols of European genius and identity. In this, it reveals what the title after all meant: for Dominique Venner, he was the spirit of the Samurai in the West, in a spirit which hearkens back not to Jesus suffering upon the cross, but rather to his admired Cato the Younger: the man who committed suicide rather than face the triumph of Caesar and the fall of his cherished Republic.
For whatever else Dominique Venner was, he was in the end, loyal to his ideals.
© 2019 Ryan Thomas