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The Unforeseen, the Chinese, & the Favorable Moment

The Trojan Horse: Detail of the neck relief on an early 7th century BCE earthenware amphora from Mykonos

743 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Current events sometimes offer striking examples of the unforeseen. Last spring, we were all shocked by images of one of the great and powerful looking despondent, his wrists shackled, having suddenly fallen from his perch of impunity. By means of the media, spectators felt that they were following much more than a single news event. In a second, one of the princes of our age, by the unforeseen revelation of a sordid escapade, was brought down to earth, and with him the hopes of an arrogant coterie.

We could conclude from this that the unexpected is king, not only in petty politics, but also in history. Suddenly, human weakness triumphed over power. But on other occasions, the acting power can find instruments to bring down an obstacle condensed in a person, as the colored revolutions of our time show. We know that history is the realm of the unexpected.

War offers brutal demonstrations. It is surprising enough that in Europe a serious reflection on the subject had to wait until shortly after the Napoleonic adventure. Then Clausewitz reported that Europe had failed to ponder war. Paradoxically, he said, Europe failed insofar as she always wanted to predict and model war. She wanted to understand it in reference to a “model” that one never encounters in reality. The distinctive mark of war, he says, it is that its reality never coincides with the “model.” This is often said of the French Army, but it also goes for the others. In 1914, France prepared for the war of 1870, and in 1940, for that of 1914. . . . The Americans have not done differently. In Iraq and in Afghanistan, they wished to avoid the errors of Vietnam, but things turned out differently.

Ultimately, one awaits a great political or military strategist, if not a “stroke of genius” which consists in leaving aside all models, to seize the “decisive factors” in flight, to trust his sense of smell and his perspicacity, which the Ancients called metis, of which Ulysses, in the Odyssey is the very incarnation.

Unlike Europeans, the ancient Chinese had developed a true understanding of war at the time of the Warring States in the 5th and 4th centuries before our era. China was then divided into rival principalities that made continual war in order to restore, to their advantage, the unity of the Empire. At this point in time, the treatises of Sun Tzu and various others were written, of which one finds no equivalent in Europe, aside from the patience and wiles of Ulysses revealed in the Odyssey.

Ulysses did not model in advance a plan of survival or victory. But, with an innate talent, he observed situations, saw how they evolved and could be turned to his profit, then reacted like lightning (to blind the Cyclops Polyphemus or to neutralize the sorceress Circe), but sometimes also arming himself with patience (“patience, my heart”), during his long captivity with Calypso or in preparing his revenge after his return to Ithaca.

To detect the “decisive” factors means being able to await the occasion, the turn of “fortune.” As in bridge or poker, there are times when it is necessary to “pass” for lack of “play.” In the Odyssey, this strategic concept is constantly present. Ulysses is unfailingly patient in awaiting the favorable moment. Then, he strikes like lightning (the liquidation of the “suitors”).

But the very notion of metis (cunning, wile) disappeared from Greek thought and even from the language in the classical era with the rise of philosophical reasoning (Plato). The notion of the Platonic essences, by disqualifying the empirical method in favor of abstract construction, founded an enduring era of modeling. This became the strength but also the weakness of Europe.

What to do when “fortune” is concealed, when the “decisive” factor is absent? One can, of course, in a very European way, hurl oneself into futile but heroic action. Indeed, there are moments when one must know when to withdraw oneself and wait for the situation to change. And it always changes. It was, for example, a political strategy used by De Gaulle. During his “crossing of the desert,” for lack of “play” in the Chinese sense of the word, he wrote his War Memoirs. It was a way of waiting and preparing for the future.




  1. T.E.L.
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Dear Greg,

    Many thanks for your new translation of Dominique Venner !

  2. mpresley
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    From an unsigned (by design) essay found in a 1978 issue of the erstwhile journal, Instauration:

    Leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill and their cohorts engineered the present state of affairs in the white world. Now the Orientals wait patiently for the white man to eliminate himself and leave the world to them. According to the Japanese, nature tends to balance one thing with another. The white race produced creative and imaginative geniuses who invented most of what is known as modern technology, thereby demonstrating an obvious superiority over other races. But nature tends to compensate for this scientific aptitude with a type of stupidity almost incredible in its naiveté, particularly in the racial relations department.

    The yellow race, the Japanese will reluctantly admit, tends to lack some of this creative imagination, but makes up for it by being endowed with a high aesthetic sense, together with a shrewd insight into human nature, including the nature of the white man. They count on the latter advantage to give them the edge in the final showdown between the races.

  3. White Republican
    Posted November 3, 2011 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Dominique Venner would undoubtedly agree with the following observation James C. Scott made in Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 390, n. 37:

    “It is exceptionally rare to find any historical account that stresses the contingencies. The very exercise of producing an account of a past event virtually requires an often counterfactual neatness and coherence. Anyone who has ever read a newspaper account of an event in which he or she participated will recognize this phenomenon. Consider, too, the fact that a person who commits murder, say, or who takes his own life by jumping off a bridge will thereafter be known as the person who shot so-and-so or the person who jumped off such-and-such bridge. The events of that person’s life will be reread in light of that ending, with an air of inevitability being given to an act that may have been highly contingent.”

    Many people seem to forget that the past was just as fluid, unpredictable, and illegible as the present.

  4. White Republican
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m quite pleased to see this translation, for I’ve thought for some time that the concept of metis ought to be more widely known, developed, and applied.

    The best treatment of metis that I know of is chapter 9 of James C. Scott’s brilliant work, Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Metis is also the subject of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne’s book, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). I have browsed through this book but did not get far with it.

    What exactly is metis? It is hard to define, for it consists of many things, it takes many shapes, and it exists in various degrees. Metis is much more than mere cunning. Scott writes:

    “Metis is typically translated into English as ‘cunning’ or ‘cunning intelligence.’ While not wrong, this translation fails to do justice to the range of knowledge and skills represented by metis. Broadly understood, metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Odysseus’s metis was in evidence, not only in his deceiving of Circe, the Cyclops, and Polyphemus and in binding himself to the mast to avoid the Sirens, but also in holding his men together, in repairing his ship, and in improvising tactics to get his men out of one tight spot after another. The emphasis is both on Odysseus’ ability to adapt successfully to a constantly shifting situation and on his capacity to understand, and hence outwit, his human and divine adversaries.”

    For their part, Vernant and Detienne write:

    “There is no doubt that metis is a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resource­fulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic.”

    “During the struggle, the man of metis — compared with his opponent — displays at the same time a greater grip of the present where nothing escapes him, more awareness of the future, several aspects of which he has already manipulated, and richer experience accumulated from the past. This state of vigilant premeditation, of continuous concentration on activity that is in progress, is expressed by the Greeks in images of watchfulness, of lying in wait, when a man who is on the alert keeps watch on his adversary in order to strike at the chosen moment. . . .

    “The man of metis is always ready to pounce. He acts faster than lightning. This is not to say that he gives way to a sudden impulse, as do most Homeric heroes. On the contrary his metis knows how to wait patiently for the calculated moment to arrive. Even when it originates from a sudden burst of action, the operation of metis is diametrically opposed to that of impulsiveness. Metis is swift, as prompt as the opportunity that it must seize on the wing, not allowing it to pass. But in no way does it act lightly (lepte). With all the weight of acquired experience that it carries, it involves thought that is dense, rich and compressed (pukine). Instead of floating hither and thither, at the whim of circumstance, it anchors the mind securely in the project which it has devised in advance thanks to its ability to look beyond the immediate present and foresee a more or less wide slice of the future.”

    Andrei Kievsky’s term “mind weaponization” captures the essence of metis in the above contexts.

    Something I intend to consider — and write about if I can — is how organizations can best cultivate and use metis among their members. It is possible for organizations to deliberately cultivate metis among their members and to promote those with a high degree of metis to positions of authority. The general staff system of the Prussian army shows that this can be done.

    I intend to examine the relationship between metis, organizational discipline, and practical disciplines. It is often easier to follow orders or to do things by the book than to actually do the job. Without metis, organizational discipline and practical disciplines risk becoming blind, stagnant, and sterile. As Scott notes: “Formal order . . . is always to some degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.” Plans are inherently thin, schematic, and unable to generate a functioning social order. And it is impossible to plan for “situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous.” One can prepare for such situations by being “in form” for them, but one cannot predict such situations in such a manner that one can establish concrete plans for them.

    I think that we should constantly ask ourselves Scott’s question: “To any planned, built, or legislated form of social life, one may apply a . . . test: to what degree does it promise to enhance the skills, knowledge, and responsibility of those who are a part of it?”

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