Ragnarök on the Seine

Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.
Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.

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I am at the Paris Correctional Tribunal in the Boulevard du Palais, on the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine just across from Notre Dame. Today, October 17, 2013, is a big day. The convicted Norwegian murderer and black metal icon, Kristian ‘Varg’ Vikernes, is to appear at a hearing before the public prosecutor, having been charged with one count of public provocation of racial hatred, and one of glorifying crimes of war and crimes against humanity.

After serving out his sentence for murder in a Norwegian prison, in 2009 Vikernes installed himself in the rural French district of Corrèze, hoping to start a new life with his French wife and their children. He had wished to retreat into a quiet and bucolic existence, yet he could not refrain from broadcasting his opinions, via the Internet, concerning the unique excellence of the white race, and the deplorable condition of contemporary multicultural Europe. On his blog he developed a theory of the primordial unity of all European peoples, and he promoted a return to the true old-time religion of the continent: the worship of nature, and strength, and bravery. He denounced the Jews, and claimed that Christianity was itself nothing but Judaism. He had nothing kind to say about Muslims either. His softest words were for his family, and for the new and beautiful region he had come to call home. He saw Corrèze as quintessentially European, as connected in an unbroken lineage to the world of the cave-bear worshippers. Vikernes was happy to finally be settling down. But historical coincidence, not least the Oslo massacre carried out by his countryman Anders Behring Breivik in the summer of 2011, would bring Vikernes’s opinions to the attention of the French interior minister. Soon enough, the Norwegian immigrant would be called to Paris to defend himself.

 

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What is Europe? Where are its cracks? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently argued that a ‘Latin Union’ should be carved out of the crumbling EU, on the basis of shared linguistic and cultural heritage. ((Giorgio Agamben, “Que l’Empire latin contre-attaque!,” Libération, 24 March, 2013.)) Agamben would like to include France in this breakaway federation, yet there is in fact some ancient and medieval basis for the belief that French identity, unlike Italian, is not simply descended from the Romans, but indeed is forged out of a significant encounter with the Germanic and Celtic worlds.

For one thing, the very ethnonym, français, denotes in the first instance Frankish people, speakers of the Germanic Old Franconian language, who also left their name to a certain fort that would grow into a city later distinguished as the birthplace of Goethe and the home of the German stock exchange. Students in traditional programs of Romance philology were required to master the non-Romance languages of influential neighbors; those specializing in Spanish also took Arabic, while those focused on France had to prove mastery of German. But here in fact the neighboring relation does not do justice to the nature of the influence in question. The two cultural spheres are co-generated, and share much of the same stock of treasures. Before there was Tristan und Isolde there was Tristan et Yseult. La Fontaine and the Brothers Grimm tell many of the same tales, gathered from the French and German countrysides like mushrooms. The German word for ‘France’, Frankreich, hits us like Thor’s hammer, even as it accurately describes the thing in question. France is the Reich of the Franks.

There were also the Norman (i.e., north-man) raids, which would give us the name of Normandy and would make the French composer Erik Satie’s theory of his own Viking origins, which motivated him to change the spelling of his first name, at least plausible if not confirmed by any real evidence. And there is, finally, a very real linguistic and geographic line dividing France into roughly two halves, the so-called Midi or South of France, where the langues d’oc are spoken, which overlap considerably with other Romance languages in the Mediterranean region, some national, some regional, and some only villageois; and the North, where the langues d’oïl have their home, overlapping with the worlds of the Bretons, the Flemish, and even, on the islands of La Manche, with the Anglophone cultural sphere.

This division has led many French thinkers to feel compelled to take sides, to prefer one half to the other, and to account for French identity as either fundamentally northern or, by contrast, essentially Mediterranean. The deep strain of what can rightly be called ‘Nordicism’ running through French history has its plainly harmless instances, as in Satie’s insistence on his own Viking ancestry. But there is also something serious at stake, something that has to do with generally unspoken convictions about the spiritual dimensions of civilizations in history. The protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel, À rebours (inadequately translated as Against Nature), is the decadent Catholic medievalist Pierre Des Esseintes. He specializes in Latin texts, yet he hates the official Catholic philosophy whose appearance marks the beginning of the high Middle Ages, whose substantives “breath of incense,” whose adjectives “are coarsely carved from gold.” He prefers the Gothic, the Anglo-Saxon, the fragmentary, poetry that comes forth without specious argument; he longs to visit Holland and England, and drinks Danzig Brandwein rather than Cognac. The geography of Des Esseinte’s imagination is northern, even when the language of his revered authors is Latin.

Perhaps no French author has taken this Nordicism further than Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose most characteristic and lasting work of fiction describes nothing more than an attempt on the part of a semi-fictionalized Célinean hero to flee France for Denmark. Céline is ideologically pro-German, and his odyssey unfolds in the chaos surrounding the fall of the Third Reich. But nothing about his political orientation in itself could explain why, in his derangement, the author would have considered Denmark the most fitting place to seek sanctuary. He had sent his stash of gold there before the war, and intended to go there to recover it in the war’s final days, with his wife Lucette and his cat Bébert in tow. He was arrested by the Danish police for treason against France, on a warrant delivered from Paris.  Céline would end up in a Danish prison for a year and a half, and, from 1947, would live in exile in a small home near the Baltic sea, until his pardon was arranged and he returned to France in 1951. Throughout his exile, he maintained a long correspondence with his editor, the dean of French publishing, Gaston Gallimard. His letters are a jumble of hatred, paranoia, and declarations of undying love for Lucette. Unlike the fascist Ezra Pound, who around the same time was enduring a nervous breakdown in a US army cage somewhere in Italy, there was no breakdown, no repentance, no realization akin to the American poet’s: “Tard, très tard, je t’ai connue, la Tristesse / I have been hard as youth sixty years.” Just more hardness. Just more blame for the Jews. 

The publishing house founded by Gallimard in 1911, and bearing his name, is an institution that matters to French literary life in a way for which it is difficult to find equivalencies in other countries. Farrar Straus and Giroux? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? The New Yorker? All of these together do not begin to approach the importance of Gallimard as an arbiter of literary taste, and therefore also, as the French see things, as a guardian of French culture and history. Gallimard is principally responsible for the literary careers, besides Céline, of Gide, Malraux, Queneau, Simenon, Aragon, Breton, Sartre, and Ionèsco, to mention just a few names from the canon. To be among the editors at Gallimard is thus to serve as a high priest and a kingmaker, even as a god who keeps the world going by what René Descartes (who died of pneumonia in Stockholm in 1650) called ‘continuous creation’. By ‘the world’ here, we should of course understand le monde, a fascinating French invention which reduces everything—the planets and stars, the comets, the earth with its core and mantle, and all the plant and animal and human life crawling upon its surface—to the experience of a certain class of people in a certain smallish country. Gallimard sits atop this world.

 

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On July 22, 2011, a thirty-two-year-old man, committed, in Oslo, the worst atrocity in Western Europe since the end of World War II. He murdered seventy-seven people, most of them teenagers and young adults attending a summer camp organized by the Norwegian Labour party on the nearby island of Utøya. Anders Breivik’s goal was to initiate a war against multiculturalism in Europe, which he saw as inevitably leading to a loss of authentic European existence, a mongrelization at best, and a total Saracenization at worst. He is currently serving a twenty-one-year prison sentence, the maximum allowable under Norwegian law. This comes out to a little over three months for each person dead.

A year or so after the attack, an editor at Gallimard, the well-known French novelist and essayist Richard Millet—having been most recently in the news for his discovery of the young Francophone American author Jonathan Littel’s monde-shattering Holocaust novel, Les bienveillantes (Gallimard, 2006 ((Published in English as The Kindly Ones, New York, Harper Collins, 2009.)))—would publish what he called an Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik: a literary elogy to the Norwegian murderer. ((Richard Millet, La langue fantôme: essai sur la paupérisation de la littérature, suivi de Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, Pierre-Guillaume de Roux Éditions, 2012.)) The author distinguishes between the literary quality of Breivik’s mass slaughter, on the one hand, and the political and moral dimensions of it on the other. He stresses repeatedly that he has only come to praise the first of these. It is only the liberal multiculturalist herd, which for him is the same thing as the uncultured, illiterate, un-literary herd, that is incapable of making this distinction.

Millet was born in 1953 in Corrèze, in south-central France, but would spend much of his youth in Lebanon. He grew up speaking Arabic as if natively, and would later complain of not feeling entirely French upon returning to his home country. In the mid-1970s Millet would join up with the Christian Phalangists in the Lebanese civil war, a right-wing and ultranationalist organization founded by the Lebanese Maronite leader Pierre Gamayel in 1936. He would later write in his 2009 Confession négative, “I had to kill men back then, and women too, and elderly people, maybe children,” ((Richard Millet, La confession négative, Gallimard, 2009.)) though according to the newspaper Libération he only spent a few months in the phalanges, and at most had an occasion to fire his Kalashnikov into some sacks of sand. ((Édouard Launet, “Richard Millet. Soldat perdu,” Libération, September 5, 2012.)) Here, then, perhaps, we have a first glimpse of an explanation for why Millet is impressed with Breivik: the one’s tall tale is the other’s deed.

The French author, moreover, is particularly impressed with the Norwegian’s choice of targets. He bemoans the process currently taking place throughout Europe, of “the conversion of the individual into a mongrelized, globalized, uncultivated, social-democratic petit-bourgeois,” and he adds, in case it were not clear where he was going with this: “thus the sort of people Breivik killed.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 109.)) But again, Millet insists that it is only in the realm of the tale, of literature, that Breivik’s act may be lauded. “I would like for it to be kept in mind,” Millet writes, “that I do not approve of the acts committed by Breivik, on July 22, 2011, in Norway.” And again, a few pages later: “I repeat, I condemn the acts.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 109.))

To the extent possible Millet would like to “separate them from their political, indeed criminal, context, through their literary dimension.” But if we suppose that the political and criminal context of these acts consists in the fact that they were carried out at all, then the same act’s literary dimension can only be supposed to reside in a parallel world in which the acts were not carried out, but only imagined (as for example Millet’s own massacre of Lebanese civilians, or a massacre described in a novel selected by Millet for publication at Gallimard). Insertion of an evil act into reality would seem to cancel whatever literary quality it may have had when it remained suspended in the imagination.

Millet believes that evil, like literature, is preoccupied with ‘perfection’, but it is not clear in what respect he believes Breivik’s deed approached perfection. Clearly, when Millet says that Breivik’s deed has a literary quality, that it is ‘perfect’ like literature, he does not mean that Breivik is himself a littéraire. In fact, Millet goes to great lengths to denigrate Breivik’s own writing ability and class-inflected habitus.  For example, he describes Breivik’s 1500-page treatise on European civilization and its destiny as “a sort of manifesto, of which the naïvetés, the composite character, the ‘Wikipedia culture’, are not hard to discern.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 107.)) We are told twice that Breivik is a child of divorced parents (his father Jens David Breivik, a former Norwegian diplomat, lives in retirement in the South of France), and we are treated to a mocking diatribe on the young man’s tastes and fashion sense (one that, indeed, will seem as irrelevant to any non-French reader as Pierre Bourdieu’s graphic plotting of the class determination of musical and gastronomical sensibilities in 1960s Paris):

            He is heterosexual; he likes snowboarding, Budweiser, Chanel perfumes, Lacoste shirts (the
            company… swiftly protested against the photos in which Breivik, being arrested, sports, with
            a strange smile, a polo shirt featuring that horrible little crocodile, one of the emblems of con-
            temporary infantilism). ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 107-108.))

Budweiser and Chanel belong to two different symbolic registers where I come from, but mutatis mutandis we can all understand Millet’s point: that Anders Breivik is a trashy yokel, and if he has any ‘literary’ talent this will be of the spontaneous variety, art brut, and not a cultivated skill. This trashiness seems to rank, for Millet, somewhat ahead of the seventy-seven murders as a reason for consternation.

When Millet says that there is ‘something that goes beyond what is justifiable’ in Breivik’s massacre, his understatement is meant to keep attention focused on what he takes to be Breivik’s “perfection of writing by means of an assault rifle.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 117.)) Millet praises Breivik for being something more than a “Warhol of anti-multiculturalism,” who is after nothing more than his 15-minutes of glory, or notoriety, in the news cycle. No indeed, Millet insists, Breivik is something more exalted than this. “[H]e is a writer by default.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 117.))

On what grounds, now? I mean, how on earth? Could it be that I’ve mistranslated Millet’s French?  

No. I go back over the syntax and vocabulary, and the meaning is as clear as day. Millet believes that literature’s principal function is to preserve language, and along with it “memory, blood, identity.” These are what pay the price when extra-European populations become “installed on our soil,” and when “multicultural nihilism” fails to react. ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 117.)) Thus, Breivik’s work is a work of literature to the extent that it seeks to preserve the purity of language and culture.

Breivik is doing a far better job of this, Millet thinks, than the Scandinavian writers who have declined to take up arms and have determined to work instead with strings of words. The editor denounces the Norwegian crime novelist Kjell Ola Dahl, for example, who in his Kvinnen i plast of 2010 describes an Oslo policewoman who likes to wander around the immigrant neighborhood of Grobarlandslein:

         Lena loved to melt into the crowd that teemed between the colorful buildings, with the
         borrowings of foreign architecture, like the minaret in the Akerbergersvein. The only thing
         that was missing, to complete this exotic touch, were the calls to prayer of the muezzin. ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 118.))

“In this decadence,” Millet responds, “Breivik is without a doubt what Norway deserved, and what is awaiting all our societies, which continue to blind themselves in order better to deny themselves, particularly France and England.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 118-19.))

He goes on to express his preference, among Norwegian authors, for a certain Gunnar Staalesen. This one is the author of a novel called At Night All Wolves Are Grey. Millet takes this title as an indication that Staalesen understands nuance, subtlety, and therefore that he is “more of a writer” than the others. ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 119.)) It is implied that Staalesen thus has something in common with Breivik, since both are writerly, and since, when you think about it, Breivik is a sort of “lone, grey wolf.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 119.))  Breivik, Millet concludes, ‘has something grey about him. It is in this sense that he could have been a writer.’ For a critic who sets himself up as a connoisseur of subtlety, Millet does not seem to be making much of an effort to deploy it here.

Most lovers of literature are willing to concede that Norway has yielded up at least one right-wing extremist who was also a great author in the traditional sense: Knut Hamsun. Yet Millet recoils from the opportunity to compare Breivik to Hamsun, the author of the epoch-defining 1890 novel, Hunger, and of the protofascist, yet lyrically beautiful 1917 Growth of the Soil, “who,” Millet tells us, “as is known, was openly a Nazi.” ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 119.)) Rather than making the comparison himself, he lets an unnamed journalist for the Nouvel Observateur do it for him, ((The article to which Millet refers is David Caviglioli, “Que nous disent les polars scandinaves sur le massacre d’Utoya?,” Nouvel Observateur, 28 July, 2011. Online at: http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/polar/20110727.OBS7708/que-nous-disent-les-polars-scandinaves-sur-le-massacre-d-utoya.html)) only to pretend afterwards to refute it. These are the final sentences of his elogy, and they provide a useful clavis for understanding the whole.  

In these last lines, we are presented with an ostensible plea to separate ‘literature’, understood here as nothing less than language itself in its purest expression, from fascism. The same journalist for the Nouvel Observateur, Millet writes,

            goes so far as to take aim at the Edda, that is to say at the foundations of Scandinavian
            culture, which would make of Breivik the derisory reincarnation of the wolf Fendrir, the
            son of the áss god Loki and the killer of the god Odin, whom Snorri Sturluson describes
            as having ‘a hairy face, the lower jaw against the earth, the upper jaw against the heavens’. ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 120.))

Millet accuses the journalist of a delirium, one typical of the ‘New World Order’, which

            tends to call ‘fascist’ any reflection on purity, identity, origins, and which, having run out
            of arguments, ends up challenging our very being: our culture, for example the Chanson
            de Roland
, soon to be erased from our heritage, having been deemed politically incorrect

            and racist, like the Edda of the Nordic peoples, and along with it that which still makes it
            possible for us to name, and which the moral New Order is in the process of eradicating:
            literature. ((Millet, Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, 120.))

‘Literature’ is the last word of the essay. It is with literature that Millet has associated the name of Anders Breivik at numerous points, while also, at numerous points, seeking to assure his reader that he disapproves of the mass murder, and, finally, again and again, seeking to deny that either the mass murder or his particular conception of literature has anything to do with fascism. Fascism is common and trashy, like snowboarding, or polo shirts by Lacoste. Millet is talking about literature here, which is not trashy, but exalted, and evidently, as the familiar phrase goes, beyond good and evil.

There is a deeply engrained idea in French intellectual culture that language can function as a weapon of structural or systematic violence. But when Michel Foucault called our attention to this, he was, however pessimistically, focused on the eventual remediation of this ‘violence’ through systematic transformations in the way we speak. Millet identifies the connection between language and violence too, but seems to suppose the former has run its course, and now gives us nothing but trashy Scandinavian pageturners about tattooed detectives (who are oblivious to the Muslim menace, etc.). He seems to think therefore that at this point real violence will do better what language has ceased to do.

I too love the Edda, and runestones, and the Chanson de Roland, and all that is as if charged  with that ancient authenticity that seems so incompatible with life in the modern world; and I’ve struggled to articulate, mostly for the sake of my own conscience, how this love can coexist in a single individual with the commitment to the values of a global citizen, to equality, fraternity, and justice. But they do coexist. As the great German Romantic author Novalis wrote in his collection of aphorisms published in 1799 under the title Pollen, it is this very coexistence that grounds the lively, productive imagination. Why not move back and forth between uprooted worldliness and organic communitarianism? Why not see these as modes of engagement with the world, rather than as mutually exclusive claims about how the world must be? Millet never even considers the possibility. This is because, at bottom, he is not in possession of a particularly lively imagination (occasionally his work rises to the level of an inspired blog post, as when in the essay Langue fantôme, which accompanies the elogy to Breivik, Millet interprets the fluctuating length of Umberto Eco’s facial hair as an index of the state of European letters).

Millet is a dullard, and one who had no trouble reaching the very summit of French high-browdom. That is where he would have stayed, if he had not made one small faux pas, and admitted that the world of letters and the world of murder are all the same to him.

 

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It is not hard to imagine what sort of scornful things Millet might have to say were he to turn his attention to the Scandinavian metal scene. Its partisans have at least this much in common with the former Gallimard editor and Phalangist, that they value raw experience, authenticity, and so on. But just look at them with their long hair and piercings and black clothes! Plainly, they come from broken homes, without bookshelves.

Yet Norwegian black metal plays a more important role in the present story than our Gallimard editor might have preferred. The most notorious murderer in recent Norwegian history prior to Anders Breivik was none other than Varg Vikernes, to whom we have already been introduced. And it would be Vikernes’s strange fate, in his post-prison life in Corrèze—which just happens to be the childhood home and constant point de repère of Richard Millet himself—to be taken for another Breivik.

But evildoers come in many varieties, even if we restrict ourselves to Norwegians, and even the most cursory comparison of Breivik and Vikernes ought to reveal a significant difference of species. In the early 1990s, Vikernes had been the leader of a black metal band called ‘Burzum’ (Millet could derive easy mockery from the source of this name in the Lord of the Rings franchise). In 1993, at the age of twenty, Vikernes stabbed his bandmate Øystein Aarseth (alias ‘Euronymus’), apparently following a period of disagreements over artistic control of the band (Vikernes claims to this day that he acted in self-defense). At the time of the murder, Vikernes had already been in and out of prison for suspected involvement in a series of church arsons, which were motivated, so the Norwegian press reported, by Satanism. For his one murder, Vikernes would receive the same maximum sentence Breivik later had handed down to him for his seventy-seven.

Vikernes makes music in two genres. The first is black metal, whose effect is generated by violent manipulation of drums and guitars, and by tortured, shouted lyrics. Writing in the establishment-left newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, Evelyne Pieiller sharply describes the music as a sort of “cathedral rock,” ((Evelyne Pieiller, “Les rêves obscurs de l’extrême droite norvégienne,” Le Monde Diplomatique, July, 2012.)) which, one might add, appears to have moved in to compensate for the disappearance in Northern Europe of all the over-the-top ritual and dark candle-lit silliness that followed the Protestant Reformation. I am by no means a connoisseur, but some of Burzum’s music is truly remarkable, and one can tell, even without tremendous familiarity with the other metal acts to which it is to be compared, that there is a spark of originality and real artistic inspiration. I take the song “Jesu død” [“Jesus’s Death”], off the 1993 album Filosofem, as an expression of the very height of Burzum’s artistic accomplishment. Somehow, the song has a surface of fast, driving, metal, while underneath there is a slow, momentous swelling that gives the listener a feeling of strange repose. The music is pared down, minimal, repetitive, and patient. It is a mature expression of a genre one might expect, from the outside, to be by definition immature. It is exhilarating and elevating rather than simply cathartic.

Burzum’s other genre is electronic ambient, which he began making in prison with a single synthesizer. Many fans distinguish between the innovative, exceptional character of the early metal productions, and the negligible, derivative quality of the later electronic ambient. The Finnish music journalist Mervi Vuorela tells me that it’s easy to separate the ideology from the music when listening to Vikernes’s youthful output, since “Burzum’s early records are so powerful and extraordinaire that you don’t need the ideology to support the music.” Vuorela draws a comparison that would seem to resolve the issue: “You don’t need to be gay to listen to Queen.”

The pattern seems to be the same among many fans throughout the world. Speaking with a couple of devoted members of the extreme left, one Italian and one Taiwanese, who are also, for reasons both aesthetic and political, serious devotees of metal, I faced what can only be described as stonewalling when I tried to address the problem of, let us say, the extra-musical awareness that necessarily accompanies any experience of a Burzum song.

“Burzum rocks,” my Taiwanese friend said as an opening gambit to the conversation.

Then I went and got all serious. I told them I admit that the early black metal output has incredible raw power, but I find it really very implausible to suggest that a listener could isolate the intrinsic properties of the music from the inaudible background knowledge we all have about who is making the music and why. Which means, I added, that getting into it, aesthetically, is also a weighty thing morally.

“Oh,” the Italian leftist said, unmoved. “Burzum fucking rocks.”

Few fans, evidently, even bother with the electronic ambient output, which proves, in the opinion of many fans, the ease of separation between the music and the ideology—if it were about agreeing with Vikernes, fans would eat it all up indiscriminately. For a listener like me, Burzum’s ambient productions sound all too schlocky and sincere, like late Tangerine Dream, or the ‘space music’ one often hears at the 2 AM slot on college radio.  Anyone who thinks for a moment that there is a bit of irony in Burzum’s most recent electronic album, the 2013 Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, will perhaps be disappointed to learn that this title, which translates from the Old Norse as ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, makes no reference to the 1935 popular hit by Brooks Bowman, first sung a capella at the Princeton Triangle Club, and later recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and Frank Sinatra, but reaches straight back to the traditional Norwegian folk tale of the same name. 

In 2009, Vikernes, now in his late thirties, finished his sentence and was released from prison. He promptly moved to the French countryside to join his wife of two years, the French film director Marie Cachet, whose body of artistic output gives an insight into the ideological world she inhabits with her husband, as well as a key to understanding their shared pretension to the intellectual integrity of the European white supremacy movement. Cachet is a promoter of the ‘Neanderthal theory’, which has it that the particular essence of ‘European man’ was forged through hybridizations with homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The evidence for such hybridity is indeed strong (as is the evidence that in Neanderthals and modern humans we are looking at a difference only of subspecies, and thus a difference that does not really warrant talk of hybridity in cases of successful mating). There is at least one case of skeletal remains, from Romania, determined to be from a child of ‘mixed-subspecies’ heritage. Cachet’s most significant work to date is her straight-to-DVD feature, ForeBears, whose title is evidently a play on words meant to suggest that the ancestors of modern Europeans worshipped the cave bear. The film features low-budget reenactments of what such worship rituals may have looked like, as well as a soundtrack featuring Varg Vikernes himself, growling, ursine, in Old Norse.

The apparent contrast between the two cultural spheres, the rustic French and the distant Nordic, will by now not seem nearly so discordant to those familiar with French Nordicism. The Gallimard editor returns, in his essays, back to Corrèze, the region of his mother, like Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County. And Vikernes, too, loves Corrèze, though he belongs there only by affinity. He photographs the trees in the region and posts them on his blog; in the same space he often overflows with thankfulness at his good fortune to arrive, in the ‘evening of life’ (he is forty), with a loving wife and four young children (and even a doting French mother-in-law) in such an idyllic place. He places the département within a much broader cultural-historical sphere than Millet would ordinarily think to do. For Vikernes, namely, Corrèze is at the heart of the Neanderthal-European homeland that gave rise to the cave-bear clans so lovingly if thriftily depicted by his wife.

Corrèze, whose traditional dialect is a variant of Occitan, is for Vikernes consummately European, and if the French Nordicists themselves have tended to turn away from the Midi, from the Mediterranean, and from the Pyrenees (no dividing line in the French far right is clearer than that between the Germanophile Aryanists on the one hand and the Franco-supporting Catho fascists on the other), this Norwegian by contrast believes that the South of France holds just as rightful a place in the rebirth of post-Christian European paganism as does Scandinavia. Vikernes is convinced that it has been one of the great distortions of the church to portray pre-Christian paganism as if it consisted in several national traditions, with the consequence that today no pan-European awakening is able to take place, as each pagan subculture remains blindly loyal to the divisions between nation-states that indeed only date back a few centuries.

On his blog, Thulean Perspective, Vikernes spells out his system of Ôðalism, deriving from a Norse word meaning, roughly, ‘heritage’, and combining pagan religion, nativist ideology, spirituality, environmentalism, and militancy into a singly, all-encompassing Weltbild. ((All quotations from Vikernes that follow are taken from his blog, www.thuleanperspective.com. )) It is a doctrine that advocates the repatriation of all peoples to their ancestral homelands (except in the case of the Americas, where the relatively recent arrival of the Natives from Asia justifies continued sharing, as far as that goes, with European settlers). Ôðalism is able to style itself as peace-loving and egalitarian, to the extent that it wishes for the thriving of every human group—in its own place. It supposes that there is a simple, one-to-one correlation between populations and territories, that these can be uncontroversially determined. If only these correlations are respected, then humanity can live in peace.

Vikernes insists upon his own egalitarianism in the sense described, but does not hide his infinitely greater concern for the wellbeing of Europeans and for the future of Europe. This entity, ‘Europe’, is for him clearly defined, stable, even eternal. Vikernes’s Europe has no cracks. He thus patiently and obligingly answers questions from commenters on his blog, like some advice columnist, or like some local sheikh dispensing information concerning what is clean and unclean to eat. Thus a reader wants to know whether Spain and Portugal are to be included within the spiritual unity of Europe? Yes of course, Vikernes replies. Another wishes to learn whether the Golden Verses of Pythagoras represent European pagan values, or whether they were influenced by ‘Far East philosophy’? “Most of it seems European, but there are a few bits here and there that don’t… the core is definately European.”

Vikernes’s blog-based historiography is not rigorous, yet it does reveal an amateur love of history and antiquity that might have placed him, in another era and another life, in the gasping audience at the slide show from a Machu Picchu expedition. Thus for example he supposes that, when the Romans used the names from their own national pantheon to refer to the Germanic gods, this was not an instance of translation or assimilation, but the assertion that the Roman and German deities were one and the same. Europe was unified, the story goes, until it was fractured by ‘Judeo-Christianity’. As he explains on his site: “The traditions were the same all over Europe, the rites, the high festivals, the customs, the habits: everything was the same all over Europe. There is only one single Pagan religion in Europe!” Here Vikernes’s enthusiasm seems to be as derivative of the rhetoric of European unification, beginning with the Council of Europe in 1949 and extending to the increasingly desperate Eurospeak of Brussels, as it is the result of an idiosyncratic reading of ancient history.

Vikernes unwittingly borrows many familiar tropes from the paranoid wing of the anti-American European left, about the ‘real story’ behind American support for the various revolutions of the Arab Spring, for example, while also deploying an unmistakably American survivalist rhetoric about his intentions in Corrèze. He wishes to be left alone, to collect weapons, and to live out his life as his conscience dictates. Vikernes is not only a convicted murderer and a white-supremacist neopagan in the South of France; he is also a homesteader there, bringing a mentality more commonly associated with the precarious settlement of frontierland in Idaho or Kansas, that supposedly empty space the filling of which created the American libertarian spirit, than with European rhetoric about primordial roots in the soil, about blood and belonging. It is in connection with this strange mingling of American and European histories that we must understand the next and most recent chapter of Vikernes’s saga. Under constant surveillance since his arrival three years prior, in the summer of 2013, one year after Millet’s broadside and two years after Breivik’s massacre, Marie Cachet went to a local gun store, and legally bought four rifles.

On July 16, 2013, the French Ministry of Internal Affairs alleged that the couple “had been capable of carrying out a major terrorist act” [un acte terroriste d’envergure]. Cachet and Vikernes, who has sought to legally change his name to ‘Louis Cachet’, were both detained and interrogated, evidently without charges. The news shot out around the world (I saw it on the CNN ticker at a gym in Montreal) that a Norwegian neo-Nazi had been caught in the final stages of planning for a massacre somewhere in France. Paris was the presumed target, and Breivik the presumed inspiration. For now, at least, there would be no Ragnarök on the Seine.

The arrest and subsequent inquest were spearheaded by President François Hollande’s interior minister, the Spanish-born Manuel Valls, who has been in the news most recently for his vigorous campaign to deport thousands of nomadic Roma people from France, most of whom, coming from Romania and Bulgaria, are EU citizens and thus technically as welcome in France as are, say, migrants from Luxembourg. ((The interior minister’s views on the status of Roma migrants in France became the focus of public attention after his appearance on a radio talk show, on France Inter, on September 24, 2013, on the topic, “La question Rom dans le débat politique.” The program has been archived at http://www.franceinter.fr/emission-le-79-la-question-rom-dans-le-debat-politique.)) In his own way, the interior minister desires purity, too. But he draws the lines differently, not around a well-defined unity called ‘Europe’, but rather one called ‘France’, and here both poor Balkan migrants as well as the occasional problematic Scandinavian fall into the same category.

Valls admitted from the outset that he could pinpoint “neither a target, nor an identified project” in Vikernes’s weapon-collecting, but insisted that it is best to nip these things in the bud. Vikernes relates on his blog that the French police

            confiscated books, ammo and 5 spare rifle magazines, PCs, USB pens, hard-discs, a 222
            Remington CZ 527 bolt-action rifle, a 22 LR CZ 457 bolt-action rifle, a 22 LR Browning
            lever-action rifle and a side-by-side 12 gauge Bajkal shotgun, an air rifle, two air-soft rifles,
            hunting knives, survival knives, three crossbows with bolts, a gladius, a seax and two spears. 

This is a substantial cache indeed, though it is hard to imagine a serious, concerted terrorist attack being carried out with such a haphazard assemblage of arms.

At his blog, Vikernes identifies Valls as “‘the guy on top’, a politician of course.” He despairs that the controversial interior minister wanted to “get me for something,” Vikernes complains, and when the collection of air rifles and crossbows proved inadequate, the French police turned their attention to domestic matters. “I was asked questions about my sons’ camo clothes, archery and my daughter’s use of a sword on one of the photos on my blog.” Vikernes would eventually be held by the police for forty-eight hours, his pregnant wife for twenty-four. They were able to find “no evil nazi indoctrination of children,” let alone a plot against the French state, and they were eventually forced to release the pair, having long since passed the legally permissible limit on detention without charges. Valls for his part held firm in his defense of the measures taken, even using the opportunity to give an impromptu civics lesson: “The duty of the State and of its services,” he explained, “is to protect the French people against all intents, and here, incontestably, this person, this couple, represented a danger. Now, evidently, we will have to await the results of the inquiry being carried out under the authority of the public prosecutor in Paris.” ((Cited in “Un néo-nazi norvégien et son épouse française arrêtés en Corrèze,” Libération, 16 July, 2013.))

On September 10, 2013, Vikernes appeared before a commission at Brive-la-Gaillarde in the department of Corrèze, composed of three magistrates, aimed at determining the validity of the case made by the departmental police in favor of the Norwegian’s expulsion from France. At the hearing, the officials attempted to tie Vikernes to Breivik, insisting that the musician had received a copy of the terrorist’s magnum opus prior to the Utøya massacre. In truth, Vikernes had only downloaded the work after the fact, like so many other people intent on understanding Breivik’s motivations (including me).

It was the French website RTL.fr that first reported on July 16, 2013, that Breivik had included Vikernes among the select 530 pre-attack recipients of the manifesto. ((Julien Dumond, “Un néo-nazi norvégien interpellé en Corrèze,” RTL.fr, 16 July, 2013.)) Soon after, the French paper of record, Le Monde, repeated the same information, citing RTL, and placing it in an article entitled “Valls Defends the Preventive Arrest of the Norwegian Vikernes” under the subheading, “A Breivik Sympathizer” [“Un sympathisant de Breivik”]. ((“Valls justifie l’arrestation préventive du Norvégien Vikernes,” Le Monde, 16 July, 2013.)) But how exactly one can be deemed a sympathizer after having been passively selected by a mass murderer as the recipient of a mass mailing is not at all clear, and one is left wondering whether the remaining 529 addressees could be similarly described.

One need not be terribly interested in the microtaxonomy of right-wing extremism in order to understand what the quick-reflexed French media could not this past July: that, nationality aside, Breivik and Vikernes have next to nothing in common. For one thing, Vikernes would hate Breivik’s stupid Izod shirt as much as Millet did, if for very different reasons. The black metal icon and the mass murderer of Utøya belong to plainly different worlds. If they had been in high school together, the relevant distinction would have been between the preppy dork and the fuck-it-all rebel, and in this case, notwithstanding all that transpired and all the years that passed, the subcultural difference would have been great enough and visible enough well into adulthood as to forestall, even at a distance, any perception of likemindedness.

Another difference has to do with strategy. A real nationalist does not kill the children of his own nation, Vikernes writes on his own blog. Breivik killed more Norwegians in one day, he notes, than Muslims have managed to do in the past forty years. And there is, finally, the so-called Jewish question. For Vikernes, the great problem with Breivik is not that he is a mass murderer, but that he has moved on to a new and softer version of European fascism that has moved past the era of unfashionable Judeophobia, indeed that has discovered common cause with the Jews, and especially with Israel, to the extent that Christianity and Judaism both face an existential threat in Islam.

Vikernes’s enemy is an abstraction: Christians are for him, after all, Jews too, and therefore what he sets himself up in opposition to is nothing less than the course of European history for the last few millennia. What he defends against this is a feeling that there was once something better, something more real. Yet it would be difficult to imagine how this something might be reestablished by the instigation of a race war. And so, unlike Breivik, Vikernes arrives, in the evening of his life, at a small bit of wisdom at least: that a man like him would do best to retreat, and to avoid trouble. “I am a survivalist,” he writes, “so if I want to keep staying out of their view I can do that—literally for years. They took my wife’s rifles, but not our food and water reserves.”

This is a familiar, disconsoling story, but it is not Anders Behring Breivik’s. His was an ugly mix of perverted political ends and frustrated high-schoolish explosiveness, while Vikernes sooner calls to mind a tale from the West (the American West, that is): a man who did bad things, things that both taint him and reinforce his stubbornness, preventing him from coming to terms with the world he inhabits, and leaving him with skewed ideas about how that world works. Nonetheless he aspires to a sort of integrity, and wanders, and settles, far from home, to live out his life, to be left alone. Until the sheriff and his men come and bust down the doors.

 

5

I’ve come to the Paris correctional tribunal on the Île de la Cité with my friend Vladislav Davidzon, a reporter for Tablet, the New York-based magazine of Jewish culture. We joked together the night before that we’d make an unbeatable team: he’s got press credentials, should we need to blend in as reporters, and if necessary I for my part can blend in as a neo-Nazi.

The hearing takes place at the 17th Chamber of the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, which specializes in cases of interest to the media. The 17th Chamber deals in particular with cases pertaining to the freedom of press. Freedom of the press was enshrined in the French legal system under the Third Republic, in 1881. Such freedom is considered a core Republican value, while the actual limits French law places on what may be said publicly are rather tight relative, say, to the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment in the United States. For one thing, defamation of a public figure remains broadly defined and easily proven, and many such figures spend their entire careers levelling defamation charges, and having them levelled back. Today, in one of the cases dealt with before Vikernes’s turn came, the judge heard from the attorneys for both sides in a case brought by none other than Marine Le Pen, the right-wing leader of the Front National, against the French online news source Mediapart. Moreover, in France, unlike the US, there are laws against Holocaust denial. After Le Pen’s case against Mediapart had been dispatched, the judge moved on to another case, against the French historian Robert Faurisson, in trouble, once again, for denying the veracity of reports of deportations under the Vichy regime. Thus before the case of the Norwegian white supremacist even came up, we’d already been treated, via their lawyers, to some theatrics from the Le Pen clan and to a tired huff from an old Holocaust denier. If today’s business is any reliable index, the far right would seem to occupy a very important place indeed in French public life.

There was one case having to do with defamation of the Quick fast-food chain, and another involving a poor, frightened soldier who had worn his uniform on an occasion when it is forbidden to do so, perhaps to impress women in a bar. He had shown up, but his lawyer had not, and he appeared a nervous wreck. “I’m just proud to be a soldier,” he whimpered to the judge. But the far right dominated the agenda, and it was for Vikernes that a large crowd had assembled today. Sixty or so people were admitted into the public seating area of Chamber 17 (Vladislav and I had both squeezed through to the press box on the strength of his Tablet press pass alone). Of these sixty, only half or so appeared plainly to be Vikernes supporters, and of these only five, perhaps, appeared like plausible recruits as shock troops for a coming race war: ominous, leering, shaved-headed lugs. The rest were simply Burzum fans, most of them scrawny and awkward. They looked like fantasy role-players, or comic book collectors. And then there was Vikernes himself, who mostly stood in the back of the chamber next to his lawyer. He was wearing sweatpants and an orange Fox-brand sweatshirt, the same clothes he has on in pictures from his blog of his idyllic rural life in Corrèze. He has a longish beard, blonde but now mostly gone white. He is a few months younger than I am, and indeed he looks like he could be a close relative of mine. I tell Vladislav I think Vikernes looks much older than I do. Vladislav says it’s just the beard, and anyhow the man is in remarkable shape for someone who has spent sixteen years in prison. No convicted murderer in the US would ever come out at the end of his sentence looking quite so fresh and whole.

Vikernes sits on a bench and waits as the other cases are handled. He perks up from time to time, has brief, smiling exchanges with the Burzum fans behind him, occasionally tries to listen in and figure out, with his limited French, what the judge and prosecutor and attorneys are talking about. The word ‘Quick’ triggers a flash of recognition, while ‘Le Pen’ seems not to register at all. After ninety minutes or so, the judge, Anne-Marie Sauteraud, an officious woman in her mid-fifties, announces l’affaire Kristian Vikernes. She says his name as if it were ‘Christian Viquèrne’. She invites him to come and stand at a microphone before her podium, along with his Norwegian interpreter, a dowdy thirty-ish woman wearing a knitted black shawl and her hair in a bun.  

The judge asks him, in French, if he speaks French. He says no. She asks him to state his name. “Louis Cachet,” he replies. The interpreter stands silently. There is muttering and confusion behind the podium. The judge points out that his name in the official court documents is not Louis Cachet, but “Kristian Vikernes, dit ‘Varg’.” She wishes to know whether he recognizes this as his name. “Oui.” She wishes for him to state whether he was born in Norway on February 11, 1973. “Oui.” She reads out the charges of incitement of racial hatred and apology for crimes of war and crimes against humanity. His attorney quickly interjects that he has received some important documents belatedly, and therefore that he would like to request a postponement. The judge says that this request will be considered during a break in a few moments, and she asks the interpreter whether le monsieur would like to say anything. Vikernes’s face turns indignant and deadly serious, and he begins to speak in Norwegian. His interpreter waits until he is finished, and then says, blankly, in French, “I know that I’ve been accused, but I haven’t seen any evidence and I really don’t understand what I’m accused of or why I’m here.” The judge acts as if this were a merely procedural matter, rather than an ideological one, and says to the interpreter: “But he received the citation, didn’t he?” “Oui,” Vikernes responds directly.

The tribunal breaks for deliberation, and Vikernes turns to make small-talk with his fans. The five neo-Nazi toughs in the crowd outnumber the gendarmes by one, and outweigh them by much. But everyone is on their best behavior. It is hard to square the generally convivial atmosphere in the chamber with what is in fact at stake. In the press box Vladislav wants to talk to a Norwegian journalist wearing a Ramones shirt. Implausibly, she makes as if she doesn’t speak English. Another reporter, Stian Eisenträger, from the Norwegian news service Verdens Gang, proves more friendly. He tells us that many ordinary Norwegians, who have known of Vikernes since the church arsons of the early 1990s, look at the recent events in France with perplexity. For them, the difference between Breivik, who tore a still-fresh wound into their society, and Vikernes, who committed crimes that have been dealt with according to the appropriate norms of that society, could not be clearer. It’s nothing but a mistake, Norwegians suppose, based on poor information-gathering on the part of the French officials, and a crude judgment of similarity between the two men based on nationality alone. The presumption is that the French interior minister fumbled. He believed he had caught the next Breivik when the police raided Vikernes’s home in July. When they found nothing but crossbows and air-rifles, Valls and his team changed their focus from terrorism to the more abstract crimes of belief and ideology, hoping nonetheless that the taint of concitoyenneté with Breivik would make the ideological case easier to press.

No one believes that Vikernes has been planning much of anything. He is being persecuted for his beliefs, and for the taint of murder that he carries with him: both the murder he himself committed, for which which he was punished, as well as the murders committed by his fellow Norwegian. Valls is the sheriff, vested with the power of the state, and he doesn’t want any of Vikernes’s kind around. As Vladislav put it, reductively yet pointedly: it’s state fascism versus individual fascism. We two Americans, the Californian of dustbowl-migrant heritage and the Soviet Uzbekistan-born child of Brighton Beach, at the tribunal together on a shared New York press pass, living in Paris for our own idiosyncratic and terribly individualistic reasons, did not even need to make explicit which side of this battle we were on. 

The judge and the magistrates returned, and announced that Vikernes would be called back to the 17th Chamber on June 3, 2014. The attorney’s stalling tactic had worked, and had bought Louis Cachet another seven-and-a-half months in his Corrèze idyll, with his family and his trees and his guns.

 

6

What is France? Where are its cracks?

In 1957 the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes wrote sharply of the illusions at work in the encounter between state justice and the individual:

            This official visit of justice to the world of the accused is made possible thanks to
            an intermediate myth which is always used abundantly by all official institutions,
            whether they are the Assizes or the periodicals of literary sects: the transparence
            and universality of language. The presiding judge of the Assizes, who reads Le
            Figaro
, has obviously no scruples in exchanging language with the old ‘uneducated’

            goatherd. Do they not have in common the same language, and the clearest there
            is, French? O wonderful self-assurance of classical education, in which shepherds,
            without embarrassment, converse with judges! ((Roland Barthes, “Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature,” in Mythologies, tr. and ed. Annette Lavers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972, 44. In 1952 Gaston Dominici was convicted of murdering Sir Jack Drummond, along with his family, who had been camping near his farm in Provence.))

France does not recognize its regional dialects, such as that spoken by Barthes’s Alpine goatherd, or even its regional languages such as Basque and Breton. The Revolution of 1789 made all French citizens culturally French, by ukase, and aimed to iron out regional differences in the name of greater Republican unity. But the revolutionary virtue of equality can only ever be equality among equals; if an individual comes forth, before the magistrates, and is so different in the way he speaks and holds himself as to evade any high-minded expression of equality that the magistrates, as representatives of the Republic, might wish to extend, then equality evaporates into a mere ideal.

In this setting, Vikernes is a peculiar sight. When is the last time Chamber 17 had need of a Norwegian interpreter? This is no Occitan peasant, but someone from altogether outside the universe of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Whatever Vikernes himself discovers, most likely on Wikipedia, about the ancient valor of the Parisii tribesmen, and thus about their primordial spiritual unity with his own tribe, he himself will never be anything more than an oddity in Paris, the blonde man with the camouflage hunting cap who had his day in the Palais de Justice.

Richard Millet had no such day. He was summarily executed by his peers, literarily speaking. He lost his editorial position at Gallimard (he was ‘deconfirmed’, as some reports put it). The French Nobel Prize winner J. M. G. Le Clézio called Millet’s elogy “a repugnant text,” an expression of Manicheanism “as stupid as it is naive.” ((See J. M. G. Le Clézio, “La lugubre élucubration de Richard Millet,” Nouvel Observateur, September 7, 2012. )) Millet no longer gets to hold forth, to have the public listen as if what he had to say mattered. But the appropriateness of this swift justice only shows the great difference between the literary and the real, between what Millet did and what Breivik did, for example. Breivik deserved his day in court, and got it, while Millet (and, I would add, Vikernes, at least in his incarnation as Louis Cachet) have done nothing to warrant that level of attention by the officials. What they warrant, and this exceedingly, is inattention.

Vikernes has, in the evening of his life, come to understand the difference between thought and action, between violence and—however Wikipedian—literature. If he were American, he would be left alone to live out his days as a cranky blogger with a cult following. Richard Millet, the oldest and most cultivated, the least Wikipedian and least American of our three characters, continues to muddle these categories, to suppose that well-executed violence can count as literature, and in turn that his own literary output can serve as an adequate ersatz to the acknowledged desire to spill blood. This delusion is in part a symptom of a distinctly French disease, the same one that led Jean Baudrillard to deny that the Gulf War took place, insofar as the Gulf War was (among other things) a media spectacle. This disease, like gout, tends disproportionately to affect the upper classes, or, more precisely, the educated elite. It takes the production of words to be far more significant a matter than it could possibly be. It takes le monde for the world. This same overvaluation of words now pits the state against Varg Vikernes.

France is sick with xenophobia: again, mostly a patrician malady. But history dies hard, and the history of French imaginings about the great wild North is no exception. Today, at the Palais de Justice on the Île de la Cité, France dragged its gouty feet into battle with an imaginary Norse berserker.

Paris, 17 October, 2013