Ernst Jünger was 20th-century Germany’s most prolific writer. Throughout his long life—he lived to age 102—he chronicled the upheavals of that most violent century. Despite his talent and output, Jünger remains virtually unknown in America. One reason is language; the other, politics. Jünger was an unrepentant man of the right. Yet no less of a liberal icon than Susan Sontag once wrote that he deserves to be read in America. And so he does.
Telos Press has made admirable strides toward this end with the recent reprint of Jünger’s extended essay On Pain (first published in 1934) and now The Adventurous Heart (1938), which is the best introduction to Jünger’s work. Here he fully develops his hallmark style, which he terms stereoscopy, the aim of which is to perceive an object with one sense organ while simultaneously obtaining two sense qualities from it. Superficial and often fragmented observations can thus be transcended to discover hidden patterns and meanings.
The Adventurous Heart was an important departure from Jünger’s earlier work, the beginning of what the author called a “New Testament” of introspective writings, philosophical and aesthetic, as opposed to his “Old Testament,” notable for its fiery political polemics. The political writings had made him famous but attracted harsh criticism, creating an image of Jünger as a militarist and fascist, an image that dogged him the rest of his life.
He did indeed have a military reputation. Jünger was a highly decorated soldier in World War I and had made his literary debut writing about his combat experiences. He was also a harsh critic of the liberal Weimar regime who aligned himself with its military and nationalist opposition. In 1932 Jünger wrote Der Arbeiter (The Worker), offering a German nationalist alternative to bourgeois ideas of work, technology, and society. He believed only nationalism was compatible with a technological age, an age that signaled the end of liberalism.
But Jünger’s real vision was not political or economic: Ultimately it was metaphysical. Ernst Jünger understood World War I as a seismic event in which technology violently entered the world as not a mere tool but the master of human existence. Moreover, Jünger recognized that all modern political ideologies depend on harnessing and controlling technology. All use technological methods as the basis for political rule. As a result, all modern societies tend toward standardization, mechanization, and ultimately totalitarianism.
For this reason, Jünger eventually rejected all political ideologies. No mass movement—right or left—could deal with, let alone comprehend, the enormous metaphysical shifts under way. None could uphold the order and continuity of a traditional aristocratic society. But Jünger realized there was no return. As a result, he called himself an anarch, one who remains politically uncommitted and aloof, and thus preserves his freedom. Jünger’s writing followed this solitary trajectory. His favorite genre became the memoir, which could be written in fragments, the style he felt best reflected the dynamism and destructiveness of the modern world.
The Adventurous Heart comprises 63 of these fragments, or what Jünger termed “figures” and “capriccios” (after Goya’s dreamlike aquatints from the 1790’s). They are personalized accounts of nature, politics, culture, and technology, and also of spiritual matters. Using his stereoscopic approach, Jünger juxtaposes these themes to create powerful aesthetic effects. His social critiques remain as sharp as ever. But they are now subtle, often masked by natural and historical imagery that gives his fragments a mythic, almost magical quality. (Jünger was a forerunner of the magical realist genre.)
In “The Black Knight” and “The Cloister” he employs medieval imagery to show the terror innate in “progressive” modern ideologies. In “The Song of Machines” and “In the Utility Rooms” he uses mundane objects to reveal the hidden violence of technology. “In the Museums” demonstrates how secular societies retain their sacred places (museums). They are filled with human relics and natural objects, now protected by the scientist and his research. “The most distant and bygone things,” Jünger notes, “allow us no peace.” Why? Because they are still moved by the question of whether “the divine power that also moves us can likewise be detected.”
Seeing nature as an opening into another dimension, Jünger uses natural imagery as a backdrop, or analogy, for human behavior. Its welter of forms reveals the mystery and power of life and is thus an antidote to industrial mass production. Jünger believed modernity had severed the continuity between society and nature, and strove to rediscover these intimate connections.
The book’s opening figure is the tiger lily, with “Stamens of a narcotic tone of deep, red-brown velvet that has been ground to powder . . . The sight of which awakens an association with an Indian conjurerer’s tent, from within which a gentle prelude sounds.” About the colors of the zinnia he writes, “Such visions provoke a vibrant, almost painful joy, as the scalding contact reminds the heart of its relationship to the earth.” Elsewhere, “fragments” regarding plants reflect Jünger’s belief in their secret spiritual powers, an idea no doubt influenced by Oswald Spengler’s analogy of plant growth to civilizational growth. Plants are the most mysterious of living things. They are silent, without personality or animation, yet they sustain all life on earth. Jünger saw in the colors of flowers critical natural symbols, representing fertility and fruition and also influencing mood and atmosphere.
Writing of animals, he prefers fish, birds, and reptiles to large, charismatic species. Yet his passion was for insects. Jünger was an accomplished entomologist who discovered several beetle species, some of which were named after him. (Later in life he wrote Subtile Jagde (Subtle Hunts) chronicling his global insect-hunting adventures.) To Jünger, the colors, shapes, and habits of these “mundane” creatures were far more complex and interesting than those of the large mammals. And as symbols, they wielded far greater power.
The snake was a favorite of his. About a fictitious blue viper, a representation of the spiritual element against modern materialism, he writes,
a marvelous steel-gray and thistle-blue patterned viper slithered past . . . The event repeated itself, but with the snakes becoming increasingly dull, less attractive, and more colorless; the last ones even lay dead on the path, already quite covered in dust. Soon afterward I came across a pile of bank notes scattered in a puddle. I carefully picked each one up, cleaned off the muck, and tucked it into my pocket.
The blue viper reappears in “The Forest Ranger,” where the ranger represents totalitarian rule desiring to harness the snake’s spirit to attract the masses. The Chief Ranger is Adolf Hitler, standing for anarchism.
Jünger masks his critiques of the Nazi regime in several other pieces, often using the Nazi colors (red and black) as symbols of danger and death, respectively. Joseph Goebbels immediately recognized these instances as direct attacks on the regime, but Hitler allowed the publication of both The Adventurous Heart and On the Marble Cliffs (1939), no doubt because he greatly admired Jünger the soldier.
Jünger later described The Adventurous Heart as an act of “spiritual resistance”—resistance to technology and totalitarianism, and, more importantly, to the nihilism that was among its social consequences. The Adventurous Heart was the beginning of Jünger’s struggle against nihilism and his quest to rediscover transcendence and meaning in the modern world. This is why the book remains relevant today. His stereoscopic method was more than a literary device: It was an ontological challenge to the superficiality and narrowness of the scientific worldview—a worldview that now permeates every facet of life. Thus, Jünger’s great adventure was to search beyond this superficial world and unlock its secrets. In “The Master Key” he writes:
[I]ndividual room keys lose importance for someone with the master key of a house. It is the mark of minds of the first order that they possess a master key . . . they penetrate effortlessly into the single rooms, arousing the wrath of the specialists who watch their banks of files invalidated with a single stroke.
Jünger’s search for meaning became more urgent with the horrors of World War II, a catastrophe he anticipated. Jünger was stationed in France, where he failed to rise above the rank of captain, having no desire to distinguish himself for the Nazi cause. Here he came in contact with the Catholic writers Leon Bloy and Georges Bernanos and, for the first time, studied the Bible intensely. In 1943 he secretly published and distributed Der Friede (The Peace), which called for a new European peace predicated on making theology once again respectable in academic circles. Serious religion was vital to a serious peace.
After the war Jünger retreated from public life. He continued to pursue a generic Christian humanism, which, together with the anarch ideal, provided the major themes for his many postwar novels and memoirs. In the 1950’s Jünger experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and became friendly with Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD. The resort to drugs, he predicted, would become widespread in industrial societies as an attempt to discover meaning in a meaningless world.
Ernst Jünger’s lifelong search for such meaning ended upon his reception into the Catholic Church in 1996 at the age of 101. He died 18 months later, surrounded by the forested hills of his Swabian home.
[The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios, by Ernst Jünger, trans. by Thomas Friese (Candor, NY: Telos Press) 130 pp., $21.95]
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