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Arts and Letters

No Hands

On the Marble Cliffs

Ernst Jünger
trans. Tess Lewis, New York Review Books, pp. 144, $14.95

Approaches: Drugs and Altered States

Ernst Jünger
trans. Thomas Friese, ed. Russell A. Berman, Telos, pp. 406, $29.95


Ernst Jünger suffered the misfortune of becoming renowned as a major literary figure in his mid-twenties, and spent the better part of three-quarters of a century doing little other than reading, writing, and thinking, even when he was an army officer in Paris during the Second World War. Jünger’s work bears not a few unmistakeable characteristics of second-rate literature. As a writer of prose, Jünger tends to be humorless, self-absorbed, and derivative; his books often seem to have been made out of other books; he expects his readers to have read all his previous work, and know it well; in general he makes outrageous demands on the time, patience, and attention spans of his audience. Worst of all are certain of the mannered “artistic” effects and “literary” flourishes and a pretentiously “intellectual” air. He is a terrible showoff, yet seems reticent to reveal anything of his personal life or emotional experience: he is too concerned with presenting a carefully constructed image of himself.

Despite all this, Jünger managed, against the odds, to write a few first-rate books; at least two may justly be considered masterpieces. Even his worst prose can be perceptive, insightful, and fiercely intelligent. True, he did not always know how to digest his literary or philosophical influences. But he understood how to combine them in unpredictable ways, and generate interesting discussions that others could pick up and run with; his work is unusually provocative in this respect. Jünger lived many lives: he was a war hero, adventurer ,and world-traveler who was also comfortable as a sedentary café intellectual. As he aged he developed self-consciously into a sort of warrior-mystic who flirted with religion as well as psychedelic drugs. His enthusiasts have never quite known what to make of his half-century-long dance with Christianity, which ended with his being received into the Catholic Church at the age of one hundred and one, a little under a year and a half before his death.

There is no English writer quite like Jünger, who seems in some ways like a cross between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Cyril Connolly, combining Fermor’s soldierly bravado and panache with Connolly’s Francophilia and self-absorption. Also, both writers’ lack of formal discipline in organizing their material has something in common with Jünger’s anti-classical approach to literary structure. But Jünger is far deeper a thinker than either; his oeuvre is serious and often solemn as no good English writer’s could hope to be. Perhaps only the German literary tradition can accommodate Jünger’s peculiar combination of poetic aspiration and philosophical ambition, which have begun to attract increasing interest, thanks in no small part to Telos Press and now the New York Review Books Classics series.

For almost a century, Jünger’s name has been associated with fascism and related political movements. Perhaps the best exploration of Jünger’s relationship with these matters in general is Elliot Neaman’s study A Dubious Past: Ernst Jünger and the Politics of Literature after Nazism. His precise views are difficult to discern: Jünger was a slippery character, to say the least. He certainly seemed like a fascist, and was close to a number of openly fascist intellectuals; yet he also cultivated friendships with communist intellectuals and other such figures who ought to have been his enemies, most famously Brecht. For the most part, Jünger studiously kept his distance from day-to-day political issues; he preferred to live in an atmosphere where poetry, philosophy, and myth become indistinguishable from spiritual matters. Of course, to have your head in those particular clouds is often the mark of a fascist. There were few obvious liberals among his friends.

Jünger stayed aloof from Nazi leaders, who in any case tended to view him with suspicion, from the late 1920s onwards. He returned the favor, and regarded National Socialism with fastidious disdain, partly on doctrinal and philosophical grounds, but mainly out of aesthetic distaste: he thought the Nazis coarse, vulgar, and brutal. Yet Hitler is known to have admired him, and even protected him from other Nazis. Jünger did not reciprocate, and indeed was implicated in the famous Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. But the authorities could pin nothing on him. Nobody ever could. Jünger’s friend Jean Cocteau, who was himself never free of suspicion with respect to his conduct in German-occupied Paris, famously remarked: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

Jünger was born in Heidelberg on March 29, 1895, the eldest of six children. An indifferent student, he was at once dreamy and rebellious. In 1911 he joined the Wandervogel, a nationalist youth movement devoted to traditional folk songs and long hikes through ancient forests. It would be misleading to compare this group to the Boy Scouts: the Wandervogel was inspired more by the legendary “wandering scholars” of the Middle Ages, or by Romantic-era perceptions of them. Amid the camaraderie of the group, Jünger developed a taste for a more independent sort of adventure; at seventeen he ran away from boarding school to join the French Foreign Legion. His adventures in northern Africa were anticlimactic: he tried to desert from training camp, was captured, and narrowly avoided being raped by a group of mercenaries. In the end he was discharged through the intervention of his father and the German Foreign Ministry. His secretly proud father insisted that he be photographed in uniform before coming home, and promised to send him on a mountaineering expedition in Tanzania if he finished school. But then the Great War broke out.

Jünger volunteered for the army as soon as he could. He was wounded in battle fourteen times, and earned decorations including the Pour le Mérite, the German Army’s highest honor. He was not merely courageous, but completely unflappable under fire. And the war was the making of Jünger as a writer. He kept extensive diaries and found time for amateur entomological studies as well as extensive unsystematic reading. In addition to the usual Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, he immersed himself in Lord Byron’s hilariously anti-heroic Don Juan, and the comical epic poetry of Ludovico Ariosto. After the war ended, Jünger continued to serve as a soldier while working on his first book, Storm of Steel, a vivid memoir of his experiences in battle. It made him nationally famous.

Storm of Steel may be the finest literary memoir of the Great War in any language. Throughout there are grim, shocking depictions, not merely of battlefield death and maimed bodies, but the sheer exhaustion, monotony, and discomfort of trench warfare. Soldiers console themselves with little pleasures: hot coffee, good food, cigarettes, card games, alcohol, jokes, bizarre pranks, newspapers, letters to and from home, the occasional flirtation or brothel visit, and (above all) sleep—where they can find it. But their greatest single pleasure turns out to be the exhilaration of war itself.

Unlike the most prominent English war poets and memoirists, Jünger was neither disillusioned by his experiences nor transformed into a pacificist. He found battle thrilling, even in its anti-chivalrous modern form. To him, war was an inescapable condition of life. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz conceived of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” or “merely the continuation of policy with other means.” Jünger’s vision was darker: he saw war, like death, as an inescapable reality of life.

Jünger developed his ideas on modern warfare and military problems in a series of technical articles and treatises, as well as philosophical essays and short books. Indeed, he spent most of the 1920s and 1930s trying to make sense of his experience. After leaving the army, he tried studying biology, zoology, botany, and philosophy, but was too intellectually restless for university life. He was developing greater ambitions.

It was these ambitions and the literary gifts with which he pursued them that would make Jünger one of the key figures in the so-called “Conservative Revolution,” a movement that began in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the First World War and collapsed after Hitler’s rise to power. His work makes little sense outside of this peculiar context, which itself makes little sense except to those who have studied it for a long time. Received opinion suggests that the “Conservative Revolutionaries” were far-right intellectuals who cynically tried to exploit the Nazis for their own ends, but underestimated them catastrophically and were wiped out as a result. There is some truth to this; but the movement is (like Jünger’s own views) difficult to define or elucidate, and might best be thought of as a loose, vague, generally ill-coordinated nationalist intellectual movement united (more or less) by opposition to communism, socialism, liberalism, and democracy, as well as a vague sympathy with Nietzsche. Implicitly or explicitly, Conservative Revolutionaries tended to turn their back on Christianity, except insofar as the institutional Church retained some practical or expedient value in their eyes.

The best introduction to this milieu is Thomas Mann’s Reflections of a NonPolitical Man, published in 1918, though it is undoubtedly Mann’s worst book. It reveals the inability even of a great writer to orient himself in the chaos that emerged from the First World War. Mann did not participate in any fighting, yet seems to have composed his Reflections amidst the “fog of war.” As this book makes clear, he thought of himself as a “Conservative Revolutionary” for some time, without having a coherent idea of what the description entailed, beyond a potentially amusing superficial paradox. Reflections is an attempt at political philosophy by a man who could not write a straightforward expository essay if his life depended on it. But the tangle of reactionary romanticism, monarchist nostalgia, confused sentiments, hysterical melancholy, and intellectual vanity that resulted in this inchoate mass of ill-digested, poorly organised ideas is the same emotionally charged mixture that led Mann to compose his greatest novel The Magic Mountain, as well as “Mario and the Magician,” which remains the single most brilliant exercise in anti-fascist propaganda of the twentieth century.

Mann wrestled for almost a decade with one of the central dilemmas of the Conservative Revolution: how can you maintain reactionary aesthetic tastes and a generally conservative disposition in a world where these make no sense as a survival strategy, either for yourself or civilization? Mann wanted to preserve the stability, hierarchy, and comfort of the liberal-bourgeois society in which he was raised, but was unwilling to get his hands dirty fighting for it: he understood that this would involve compromising his fundamentally liberal principles. In the end he settled grudgingly for American-style liberal democracy as a vision of society that enabled him to live more or less guiltlessly with himself.

Jünger took a different path. His first attempt at fiction, Sturm, was published in April 1923. This novella is manifestly the work of a talented writer; but it lacks focus and artistic confidence. The main narrative conflict in Sturm is really the author’s struggle to discover a means of recording his emotional experience of battle, and insert it in some sort of broader context where it has more than a merely personal significance. There is even a scene where the protagonist reads out his own writing to other literary-minded soldiers.

When he wrote Sturm, Jünger did not yet understand how to select or organize his insights; many of his ruminations in this novella resist being transformed into literary art. Also, like so many autodidacts, he lacked critical and emotional distance from the books he enjoyed reading, and could not always decide whether to discuss them at length or simply get on with telling his own story. Or was he even meant to be telling stories in the first place? Jünger was unable to discern whether he was an essayist, a novelist, a philosopher, or a prose-poet, and searched tirelessly for a suitable literary form.

Prose-poetry turned out to be another false start. The Adventurous Heart amounts to one of Jünger’s bolder artistic errors. Although he was friendly with many German Expressionists, and adopted some of their techniques in Storm of Steel, he was more deeply influenced by French writers, not least Charles Baudelaire, particularly his prose poems. But he felt closer spiritually to the much wilder Arthur Rimbaud, who abandoned poetry at the age of twenty to become an arms dealer in Ethiopia. He was also interested in the eccentric “décadent” writers of the late nineteenth century, not least Joris-Karl Huysmans, the bachelor aesthete who flirted with Satanism before embracing ascetic Catholicism, and Léon Bloy, whose sincere devotion to the Church was often overshadowed by colorful temper tantrums.

What led Jünger astray in The Adventurous Heart was his interest in the Surrealists, particularly Louis Aragon, whose bizarre Paysan de Paris inspired Walter Benjamin to devote most of the last dozen years of his life to an insanely ambitious cultural history of nineteenth-century Parisian shopping malls. The Adventurous Heart is a series of seemingly unconnected short fragments, some of which are scientific in origin, but most of which feel like attempts to record memories of dreams, or half-conscious thoughts at dawn. Amid all the memories, perceptions, fantasies, and enigmatic anecdotes are gnomic utterances and hard-to-interpret allegories; the enigmas are generally impenetrable. Some of the imagery is arrestingly violent; yet Jünger’s language is never less than cool, matter-of-fact, and emotionally disengaged. But what is the point of all this?

Jünger’s personality and talents were unsuited to Surrealism, which is rooted not merely in zany randomness but in a rigidly materialist metaphysical position that could not accommodate Jünger’s mysticism. Surrealist theory of the 1920s is often far more interesting than Surrealist art or literature because its basic premises are impossible to reconcile with one another. Also, Jünger’s hierarchical, elitist, aristocratic vision of humanity could never be made to cohere with the egalitarian assumptions behind the Surrealist view of creativity and imagination.

The prose poems of The Adventurous Heart have their admirers, including the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesised the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (L.S.D.), and befriended Jünger in 1947 with a fan letter. Otherwise, Jünger was more successful as a philosophical essayist. His pamphlet On Pain was published in English by Telos Press in 2008; this is as good an introduction as any to this facet of his oeuvre.

Jünger’s approach to philosophy is unsystematic. His work is often perceptive, and sometimes brilliantly insightful, but always erratic and undisciplined, and is best treated as a series of starting points to longer discussions. It takes some effort to transform Jünger’s instinctive, sensitive meditations into something like a coherent set of propositions. Martin Heidegger thought that Jünger’s ambitious volume The Worker: Dominion and Form was worthy of close study and annotation; he even held seminars on it at the University of Freiburg during the 1930s. But Jünger was better suited to writing about his own experience, and transforming it into mythological symbols.

Jünger’s experiments with journal-writing were better suited to his temperament: this literary form allowed him to combine guarded notes on his personal impressions with reflections on his reading, and meditations on his intellectual and social life, interspersed with random fragments of dream-images, and gnomic utterances that could be dropped in passing from time to time like bons mots at a dinner party. Jünger reveals less of himself in his journals than any other writer of his stature.

A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals 1941–1945 is the only English-language volume currently available of Jünger’s journals. As an introduction to his work, it is far from ideal. Even as historical documents these journals are of limited value. Of course, Jünger was always concerned not merely with the judgement of posterity but also with the German censors of his time (he himself was working as a censor when he wrote these journals); but we are less interested in dry gossip about half-forgotten literary figures, or the fact that Jünger read the Bible cover to cover twice during the war, and more intrigued by the fact that he spent July 20, 1944, looking for butterflies in the woods around Saint-Cloud outside Paris, while his friend Colonel von Stauffenberg was carrying out his assassination attempt against Hitler.

With his 1939 novella On the Marble Cliffs, Jünger finally found a literary form that suited his talents. On the Marble Cliffs is a rich, poetic, allegorical dream-vision of the political turmoil of the 1930s that combines elements of self-mythologizing autobiography and Romantic fantasy. The narrator is a natural scientist who lives in seclusion with his brother, housekeeper, and illegitimate son in an idyllic cottage, the “Rue-Herb Retreat,” which is situated atop “the Marble Cliffs,” and overlooks an idyllic region known as “the Marina.”

The Rue-Herb Retreat is a little too luxurious to be a cottage: it has a library and a laboratory attached. Its surroundings are something out of a folk tale, or operetta; there are even quaintly merry villagers in the neighborhood. The land is haunted by benign ancestral spirits who can sometimes be glimpsed at night, when the narrator is walking home from a village festival after a few bowls of wine; his son has a magical friendship with the vipers and lizards that frequent the steps leading up to the Rue-Herb Retreat—these creatures were first attracted there by a bowl of milk that the housekeeper laid out for them.

Jünger’s ambivalent but friendly attitude towards Christianity is evident from the brothers’ neighbor, the wise, noble, formidably learned Father Lampros, who lives in the Maria Lunaris monastery, and shares the men’s passion for botany. He wears a signet ring adorned with a gryphon’s wing and the motto PATIENCE IS MINE. Christians and pagans alike revere him. There seem to be more of the latter than the former: Jünger has created a world in which the Marina borders on a wild region of quarrelsome farmers and bellicose tribesmen who are all primitive pagans given to clan rivalries, blood feuds, and the worship of deities ranging from “garden gods” to “gods of fat and butter” who fill the udders of cows.

The delicate balance of this little world is upset by the rise of a rich, buffoonish, charismatic leader known as “the Head Forester.” He has become popular through holding riotous feasts; but the narrator instantly notices “the archaic power that blew around him like a breeze from his forests.” The Head Forester is cunning, strong, and gaining strength. Violence soon seems inevitable, and coming ever closer to the brothers’ little paradise; but they carry on with their scientific work. Then one day, when they go out in search of a rare flower, they stumble across a barn decorated with human heads; there is a dwarf there who is busily occupied in flaying corpses. The brothers flee; thereafter they join the resistance against the Head Forester. But it is already too late to avert disaster.

The first two-thirds of On the Marble Cliffs amount to an artistic triumph: the blend of mythical, allegorical, autobiographical, and philosophical elements is perfectly judged. But the scene of the flayer’s hut seems to have shocked the writer at least as much as the reader: from that point onwards, the narrative’s tension grows slack. Jünger is curiously inept at writing action scenes: his imagination is static rather than dynamic, and he is better at evoking still pictures than conjuring images of rapid motion. He is so visual and cerebral that he often neglects other senses. Perhaps surprisingly, Jünger is bad at writing scenes of battle or fighting. He seems similarly impatient with depicting political discussions. Also, in the final third of On the Marble Cliffs, Jünger loses his grip on his own allegory.

A cynical, nihilistic politician named Braquemart seeks the brothers’ aid in resisting the Head Forester, who was once his ally. This appears to be an unflattering portrait of someone: Goebbels thought he recognized himself, and was not pleased. But at this point the novel begins to disintegrate because Jünger has not thought through the implications of his symbolism. On the Marble Cliffs caused consternation among the Nazis, who halted its publication in 1940, after forty thousand copies had already been sold; but to a modern reader it is not clear who or what Jünger is alluding to in this story. Is the Head Forester a version of Stalin, or Hitler, or something more distantly symbolic?

After the Second World War, Jünger settled in the village of Wilflingen, a ninety-minute drive away from Stuttgart. Here he began his half-century-long crawl towards the Catholic Church. At the same time, he also began regularly taking L.S.D.; he writes about these experiences in Approaches: Drugs and Altered States, which is not only his masterpiece but also the finest book ever written about drugs. Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell are weak and unilluminating by comparison. Jünger is in any case more influenced by Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises and Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and surpasses even these models.

Jünger understood the fundamentally religious nature of drug-taking, and its origin in the thirst for some form of transcendence. He spent much of his life seeking escape from a monstrous, nameless, all-encompassing, homogenizing global tyranny that most of us now think of as modern American culture. Politics was only one means of escaping this; drugs were another; Jünger was trying to figure out whether intoxication and religion were complementary or incompatible. Approaches is an attempt to arrive at an answer.

In three hundred fifteen short numbered sections, Jünger outlines his experiences with intoxicants, including tobacco, caffeine, beer, wine—and indeed books and works of art. He associates ideas freely, suggesting that sex and crime are themselves sources of ecstatic intoxication. But not everyone seeks ecstasy: some seek dreams, sleep, isolation, and self-abnegation. Jünger has tried them all, from alcohol to narcotics to cocaine to opium to modern hallucinogens; his autobiographical reminiscences are charming and even laugh-out-loud funny from time to time.

In Approaches Jünger found a subject ideally suited for his idiosyncratic range of abilities and expertise. His accounts of taking L.S.D. and mescaline are particularly absorbing, because for once he finds ways of breaking through his own façade and setting aside his usual manner of presenting himself without losing face. Jünger was not merely seeking wisdom with drugs: he was also looking for thrills, and was getting too old for other, more exciting forms of danger. Let it not be forgotten that he was seventy-five when he published Approaches.

Jünger was remarkably prolific in old age: his other major literary work of the 1970s is the philosophical novel Eumeswil, which is a companion piece to his long essay The Forest Passage. Both Eumeswil and The Forest Passage center round the question of how to resist totalitarian authority. These books are difficult to encapsulate succinctly; not all readers will warm to them. This is not merely on account of their deeply illiberal, anti-egalitarian political standpoint: Jünger deliberately develops his ideas in a manner that makes them difficult to spell out, or transform into a series of proposals or policies.

Some readers cannot see the attraction in this elliptical sort of writing, which admittedly can seem a little pretentious to readers who are used to a more direct approach, and a lighter touch. Why could Jünger not set out his ideas straightforwardly in a conventional essay? Because his mind simply did not work that way. Also, conventional essays do not allow for plausible deniability: Jünger had spent so long evading censors and looking over his shoulder while writing that the poetic, symbolic, mystical approach to making potentially seditious statements became second nature to him. For some, this approach to communication is simply frustrating. But by refusing to be blunt about what he really thought, or wanted to say, Jünger was not necessarily playing a game of chicken with the reader. Instead he was trying to provoke and inspire, not instruct. There may have been a genuine humility behind all of this. On the other hand, why bother writing at all, when you are merely sparking conversations for other people?

Jünger’s output is unquestionably uneven. In his fiction, he could not create characters that were not barely disguised versions of Ernst Jünger, or his beloved younger brother, or others among the very small circle of people whom he seems to have cared about; his sense of narrative was also lacking—the only story he was interested in telling was his own life story. Yet he could create haunting, resonant images, and come up with piercing insights that escaped every other thinker of his time. Ultimately, Jünger was not a mere writer, but a seer. Admittedly an erratic, unreliable one who was often a bore; even so, his gifts in this respect were very real. Yet for all his well-attested physical courage, he can sometimes seem less intellectually fearless than his admirers tend to claim. This is particularly true when it comes to what he said about God—a subject on which he seemed afraid to think aloud.

Throughout the second half of his life, Jünger began openly to disdain atheism without ever quite spelling out what his own conception of God might be, or whether it had anything to do with the Holy Trinity. For all his apparent attraction to elements of the Catholic tradition, he seems to have been more strongly attached to liberal Protestant theology. His ruminations in interviews from the 1980s and 1990s are not those of a traditionalist Catholic; he sometimes sounds more like an esoteric “Traditionalist,” or a member of the “Perennial School” in the vein of René Guénon. Yet in September 1996 he was received into the Church.

Ernst Jünger died on February 17, 1998, and was buried in a Catholic funeral four days later. Some commentators, particularly those who are sympathetic to esoteric Perennialism, maintain that Jünger’s conversion was a mere practical convenience to enable him to be buried on consecrated ground: he wanted his body to be honured in an appropriately dignified manner when he died, and there was no Protestant parish nearby. If the Perennialist reading is true, then why did Jünger wait so long to convert? And why did he bother regularly to receive the sacraments during the last year of his life? It seems pointless, and perhaps even disrespectful, for Christians and others to litigate these mysteries, in the absence of decisive evidence that would support a satisfactory conclusion. All this side of Jünger’s life must now remain his secret, and God’s.

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