Dominique Venner, a 78-year-old French historian known for his right-wing views, shot himself at the altar of the Notre Dame cathedral today. His manifesto states that he was protesting the legalization of same-sex marriage, which he believes will make Europeans too dissolute to face up to radical Islam:
New actions, both spectacular and symbolic, are needed to shake us from our sleep-like stupor and reawaken our sense of tradition. We are entering into a time when talk must be supported by actions
This is one of those news stories I wish were a novel, because I want to sit by my window on a rainy afternoon and tease out the motivations, rationalizations, and secret miseries of the people involved. Venner was an old man, not exactly an idiot, living in a culture he felt had left him behind. Gay marriage was the straw that broke the camel’s back – but why? I remember the monk who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam war, and I can easily imagine a very intense Catholic doing the same to protest abortion (which very intense Catholics believe to be a form of genocide), but there is something so pathetic, so neurotic, so wretched about killing oneself over gay marriage. There had to be some deep unhappiness spurring him on. I wonder if this was a case of a man too educated and intelligent to realize that he was suffering from clinical depression, or if he was secretly gay, or if he was so terrified of dying an average, meaningless death that he decided to take the nearest shortcut to martyrdom.
It reminds me of the suicide of Yukio Mishima. Yukio Mishima was the brilliant author of such works as The Sea of Tranquility, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and The Sound of the Waves. In 1970, he attempted to overthrow the democratic Japanese government and reinstall the emperor as the unquestioned god-ruler of Japan, and he committed ritual seppuku when the coup failed.
Mishima was a reactionary dreamer who struggled to live by the code of the samurai in the modern world. His grand, philosophical novels, even those written years before the failed coup, dwell on themes of suicide and the value of violent, seemingly irrational public gestures. His private life was bizarre; he was clearly gay even though he married and had two children, and he founded a militia (filled with attractive young men) based on traditional Japanese values. His suicide begs the question of whether smart, politically engaged people have more complex reasons for destroying themselves than the average person, or if they give that impression because they provide wordy, obfuscating explanations for their simple fears, numbnesses, and griefs.
Will France be overcome by nationalism and religiosity after bearing witness to Venner’s spectacular, symbolic act? Probably no more than Japan was after Mishima’s death. A headline already frames it as a waste: “Suicide Closes Notre Dame in Paris, Saddening Many Tourists”