The idea that he could not have lived and wrote sends chills down the spine. There are few figures in the history of the 20th century German literature to whom this affirmation could apply. Ernst Jünger is one of them.
Born in 1895, the year of the discovery of X rays by Röntgen, Ernst Jünger is indeed the writer – thinker of Strahlungen [German: Radiations]. This doesn’t solely apply to the biographical writings that bear this title either. One couldn’t better qualify the impression produced by his immense body of work, which spans more than 60 years, than through a concept of modern physics, precisely the concept of radiance (Strahlung). On such heights, matter, light, and knowledge are one. Spiritual and chthonic elements, Antaeus and Plotinus, meet in a perfect “union of opposites” (coincidentia oppositorum). Poetry and the spirit of precision, mysticism and science lose their antithetical character there:
“Thus we tirelessly strive to give direction and harmony to floods of light, to radiant sheaves, to raise them to the rank of images. In all honestly, to live is nothing else. In the supreme order, cosmic and terrestrial radiations are so inextricably linked that they reveal significant motifs.”
In these lines, Jünger condensed his spiritual itinerary into a revelatory formula.
Jünger is the great loner of German literature – at least in Germany. He is as isolated as Nietzsche was during the Wilhelmine era, when they esteemed Dühring and Eduard von Hartmann as great thinkers, and Rudolf Baumbach and Emanuel Geibel as great writers. But unlike Nietzsche, create period of Jünger lasted longer than Goethe’s. He started as the chronicler of the First World War, wrote of essays like “On Pain,” narratives like “African Games” of “Visit to Godenholm,” novels with autobiographical connotations like “The Slingshot”, works with Utopian orientations like “Heliopolis,” “The Glass Bees,” and “Eumeswil.” He composed “figures and cappriccios” – to re-use his own expression – that one can salute as first rank contributions to the surrealist poetry of our century. He surprised the public through his works discussing the philosophy of history and pronouncing a diagnosis on the contemporary era, as well as by his visionary and premonitory sketches: “The Peace,” “Uber die Linie,” “Treatise on the Rebel,” “The Wall of Time,” and “The Universal State.” He noted lived experiences with countries, insects, drugs, adventures, impressions and reflections of his numerous journeys which lead him to France to Norway, from the Mediterranean isles to Africa, from Brazil to Singapore. These autobiographical writings and essays take up the most space in his body of work.
A Work With Multiple Faces
Ernst Jünger wrote a great deal, even at an advanced age. Those who know how to read him often interpret him in strongly divergent ways, depending on the book that firstly seduced them in the deepest manner. The reason why it is so difficult to come to an agreement on Jünger comes from the fact that every one of his readers prefers a different work, a different period. There is the combatant and the militarist, the pacifist and the humanist, the observer and the visionary, the physiognomist and the allegorist, and finally: the aesthete, the dandy, the existentialist, the morphologist, the skeptic, and the Homo religiosus, the hobbyist who meditates on minerals, plants, and insects, the man who delight in s seeking treasures and collecting the customs and traditions of faraway countries, the lucid critic of civilization, the magisterial experimenter and explorer of the most varied forms of life and cultural models, the player and the maker of myths. The judgments of certain admirers of Jünger, this exceptional author – who say he is the greatest since the death of Gottfried Benn and Rudolf Pannwitz -often differ to the point where one could ask if they’re addressing one and the same author. But these disagreements find their justification in the polymorphy of the Jüngerian body of work and in the subjectivity – inescapable, shaped by the era, the generation and the historic kairos [the crucial instance] – of he who encounters Jünger through his books and what he extracts from them.
For those who lived through Hitler, National Socialist totalitarianism, and the Second World War with open eyes, the impression that the little book “On the Marble Cliffs” produced remains ineffable. Karl Korn confided in 1974: “We were trapped, it must not be forgotten. Suddenly this grand poem surged forth like a light in our prisons. Certainly, this vision of the apocalypse confirmed the horror of our situation, but it was a message coming from a another universe at the same time. What courage the first lines of the book gave to us:
“You all know this intractable melancholy that seizes us when we remember happy times and free this emotional capacity that drives away the oppressive feeling of our imprisonment in the belly of the Leviathan! The sorrowful elegiac tone bound to the interludes where the erasmic ambiance of the herbarium and library of the hermitage imposes itself, all that annihilates the despair and anguish that oppresses us. Ancient fascination transports us.”
Likewise, Dolf Sternberger:
“This is the boldest literature produced in the era of the Third Reich in Germany. It was like a beacon that suddenly illuminated the shadows and cleared the country. It was the coded verdict condemning our miserable rulers. We rubbed our eyes: we could hardly conceive that such a thing was possible.”
On the other hand, for others, the two – very different – versions of the essay “The Adventurous Heart” constitute the most exciting, intense, and fascinating writings of Jünger.
The Reign of Titans
In my opinion, Ernst Jünger is primarily and above all the author of the book “Der Arbeiter: Figure and Domination.” It’s one of these rare works makes you grasp reality with a new look upon reading it. I do not know a single work, except maybe that of his brother Friedrich Georg on technology (Maschine und Eigentum), that makes all that the Marxists offer on the subject look like pure and simple verbiage, a mixture of prolix humanitarianism and doctrinaire economism. All these socialisms that incense and flatter the worker as a social factor seem terribly insipid, wordy, conformist, and sectarian compared to what Ernst Jünger says, for whom the worker is firstly a titan, not an exploited being deserving pity, but a planetary exploiter, not an economic agent but a power on the metaphysical level.
What book is as stimulating, immense, and full of fury as Der Arbeiter! The grand lucid diagnostic of his epoch, putting it into perspective in the framework of the history of philosophy, and at the same time, an apocalyptic evocation of events to come, it’s an assemblage of extremes, composed of ice and fire, a work whose ambition, radicalism, and expressive power can only be compared to the late writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
At the time Der Arbeiter’s publication, Jünger was 37 years old. He held neither a university degree nor an official post, and hadn’t earned literary prizes; but he had received the highest military distinction in Germany, the “Pour le Mérite” medal, created by Frederick the Great. Adventurer, front line soldier, nationalist and writer, anti-bourgeois and bellicose even after his de-mobilization, a loner, an original, whose war books “Storms of Steel,” “Copse 125,” and “Fire and Blood,” accurately expressed the experience of an entire generation in a cold and brutal, but also excitable and impassioned, language. This Jünger was neither a democrat nor a liberal, he was never one thereafter; but he was no longer a monarchist, nor a national-conservative, nor a reactionary whose ambition was to re-establish the old regime. In his book published in 1929, “The Adventurous Heart,” one finds on the other hand, a reference to “the Prussian anarchist” who “armed with sole categorical imperative of the heart and referring only to it, searches the chaos of unleashed forces seeking the foundations of new orders.”
As Nietzsche remarked, Cataline was the figure that prefigured Ceasar. The Prussian anarchist is the adolescent form of the post-bourgeois modern conservative, who is no longer preoccupied with preserving existing situations bequeathed by tradition. Armin Mohler, who was once Jünger’s secretary, referred to “the crucial conservative period.” Once this latter period was crossed, conservatism radically transformed. If until then it had turned towards the past, sacrificing itself to traditionalism and restorationism, it henceforth looked towards the future – it became revolutionary. It became so at the moment where it discovers that its commitment no longer applies to a faith defined by its content (“God, Emperor, Country,”), but by a formal attitude: “The essential thing is not knowing why, but knowing how we fight.” The essential thing is henceforth fundamentally formal values, aesthetic in the limited sense of the word – even if that mean a merciless aesthetic of technocratic samurai. Opinions, ideologies, programs are only hollow concepts: form and attitude, that’s what counts.
The conservative metamorphoses into a “heroic realist” subjected to the dynamic of technical – industrial processes. He doesn’t consider himself as a brake on it in any way. In full cognizance, body and soul, he pushes himself to fuse with it. The dynamic of universal technical revolution cannot nor should not be decelerated, all the more reason to ask: does that posit a reactionary romanticism, a sterile and powerless nostalgia. Moreover, the anarchy that results from the emergence of modern technological processes and which has opposed, victoriously, every attempt by the conservatives to bring it to heel or domesticate it, should radically grow to reach an extreme stage and spread the new order that already pre-exists in itself, now hidden there: “There is no escape, in any direction, rather it acts to reinforce the efficiency and the speed of the processes we are enmeshed in. It is good, however, to sense a stable nucleus behind the excesses of the dynamism of our times.”
A New Cosmic Order
In the exacerbated – to fullest brightness – dynamism of the technical process which has henceforth been unleashed, stupefying progressive humanists, a new cosmic order reveals itself. We are lead to a new advent of extinct religions. Thanks to a limitless zeal in the service of technological processes (an attraction nothing can resist), thanks to an attitude of fatalism, aggressive so to speak, the new Nomos of the earth will be revealed. The ancient thought of a divine magic constraint appears again in the age of the total disenchantment of the world. The Arbeiter is the one who realizes a theurgic transubstantiation, a phenomenon which has a cosmogonic character in the strict sense of the world: he creates a universe. The work he accomplishes does not belong to an economic category, nor is it the object of sociological observation or socio-political measures: it’s a “new principle” which “mightily surpasses the economic in all its forms.” Labor becomes a cosmological category, indeed ontological. In the new era which is now opening, being itself reveals itself as work: all is one. It is not Divine love that puts the sun and stars in motion, as Dante sang, but work. The anonymous and universal demiurge. There is nothing that could not be conceived as work:
“Work is the rhythm of the hand, thoughts, heart, life, day and night, science, love, art, faith, religion, war; work is the vibration of the atom and the energy which sets the stars and solar systems in motion.”
Work is the totalizing principle par excellence, it experiences no contradictions beyond itself. There is no Sabbath where God and men rest; the workplace is limitless – and likewise, the workday is 24 hours. Even rest, play, distractions, festivals demonstrate, in Jünger’s piercing look, a character that fully integrates this new fully principle, and he presents striking documentation and the results of inquiries which evidently illustrate the increasing absurdity, not only of the old system and Sundays and holidays, but also of bourgeois culture as a whole, whose practice is separated from the universe of work in an artificial fashion.
The Jüngerian Arbeiter no long carries the odor of proletarian misery, of slave uprisings, of the appeal to social emancipatory pity. He no longer is part of the humiliations and outrages of the dispossessed and exploited. He personifies the elite of the technological era. He’s an aristocrat, a lord, and a “Super-Prussian.” He rules by serving and exercising his function. Representative of the technical universe, he implements a mobilization of telluric dimensions, just as he entertains a particularly intimate relation with the sphere of the elementary, unlike the bourgeois. The Arbeiter is a metaphysical figure, or, to reprise Kant, the transcendental schema according to which Jünger experiences a new age of the world: the eon of planetary technological revolution. Technology is “the mode under the which the figure of the Arbeiter mobilizes and revolutionizes the world.”
Mobilization and Revolution signify the disappearance of the individual; he dies like the old rambler or drawing room. The Arbeiter is a uniformed soldier of enterprise, the Prussian exercising a function as a part of a machine. This role tailor made for the German, more than the representatives of other nations, “because he lacks, deep within himself, any form of relation to individual liberty and thus to bourgeois society.” Nevertheless, Jünger didn’t intend to say that the Arbeiter is a specifically German figure: he is an imperial figure, who ignores national consciousness and dissolves all patriotic bonds.
In this context, it is important to underline the concept of “organic construction,” which comprises many levels of meaning. The term “organic construction” firstly integrates the idea that metaphysical power, which mobilizes the material world under the form of technology, subjects not only inanimate matter, but also organic units. The organic world and mechanical universe become elements of a globalizing ensemble that Jünger, if he had written his book fifteen year later, would have probably christened “cybernetic.”
Moreover, the term “organic construction” signifies that “technology attains the same ultimate degree of autonomy that one finds among plants and animals.” Pushing his logic to its conclusion, “organic construction” aims, via technology, to abolish the dichotomy between nature and civilization. It’s a profound mutation, indeed a global recreation of the earth which realizes the fusion of the elementary and the sublime, of instinct and intellect, of reflection and vision. This recalls Kleist’s motif of dialogue in the marionette theater. There is no longer a possible return to the vitality, security, and grace of the time before technology: we only have the choice of tracing our route across the infinity of modern technology in order to reach a new innocence, an intimate fusion, freed from all contradiction, of life with its tools and artifacts.
But what guarantees the success of this “organic construction?” Could the telluric process of the global revolution also fail? Jünger doesn’t have an explicit response to this question. The latter question, nevertheless, would it not only be a new expression of the “bourgeois” point of view, which always and everywhere desires “results” from an enterprise? In Jünger’s eyes, Marxism is still a bourgeois ideology in this regard. The supreme good for man doesn’t consist of the realization of such or such utopia, but in the “sacrifice of one’s self.” At least it’s the attitude proper to the iron race of the Arbeiter, “who knows the offensive as much as the lost position, but for whom it matters little to know if the situation is improving or deteriorating.”
The only appropriate attitude is the refusal of compromise and once one adopts it, there is no longer any “lost post.” In this context Jünger speaks of “heroic realism,” which doesn’t allow itself to be shaken by the prospect of total annihilation and the knowledge of the uselessness of one’s efforts. The “Arbeiter represents heroic realism” and is capable of choosing death with pleasure and furthermore seeing in this act a confirmation of order. The privilege of rediscovering, after the disappearance of the old beliefs, the essential truth according to which “life and cult are identical” is reserved to him. Ernst Jünger’s book ends with these lines: “One is seized by emotion when one beholds man, in the midst of chaotic zones, occupied with the forging of weapons and hearts, and when one sees how he renounces the expedient of happiness. To take part and to serve: that is the task that is expected of us.”
Ernst Niekisch interpreted the spirit in which this book was written as a type of “German Bolshevism” and the Jesuit Friedrich Muckermann, editor of the magazine Der Gral, famous at the time, wrote an open letter to the author: “You know I haven’t stopped seeing the face of Lenin between your lines?” The Völkischer Beobachter published a critique which lambasted the book: they reproached it for abstract intellectualism, of being distant from life, and blind to the primitive forces of “blood and soil.” The era that was supposed to begin was not the era of the Arbeiter, but the era of People and Race …
In October 1932, just after the publication of the book, the first 5,000 copies were sold out in a few days. There would be three new editions in the same year; the fourth, 15 to 20,000, was present in libraries until the war, to the moment where the dreamlike work, “On the Marble Cliffs,” read as a coded condemnation of the Hitlerian Reich, made its mark in Germany. Martin Heidegger commented on the book in a small group during the winter of 1939-1940; this attempt to interpret the present situation in the light of Jünger’s Arbeiter was secretly monitored by the Nazis, and ultimately forbidden. Heidegger was not surprised, “as it is in the very nature of the will to power to forbid the real to which it subjects itself to from appearing in reality.” Later after the war, Heidegger encouraged Jünger to re-edit The Arbeiter. After having hesitated, Jünger followed the advice of the philosopher from Freiburg and reissued the text from 1932 in the sixth volume of his works, with Klett publishing, in Stuttgart.
Victim and Sacrificial Priest
In the era where The Arbeiter was written, he was fascinated by the experience of collectivist planning in Russia. The eastern empire where Lenin lead his revolution seemed to be “one of the great destinations for travelers in our time.” At the time where the millenarian Ernst Bloch had the impression to assist with the beginnings of the celestial Jerusalem on earth, the old combatant Ernst Jünger wrote, not without a ferocious satisfaction: “There are countries where you can be shot for sabotage in the workplace like a soldier who abandons his post and where foodstuffs have been rationed for fifteen years like in a besieged city – and these are the countries where socialism was been implemented in the most undeniable fashion.”
The Arbeiter whose outline he traces is a secularized crusader and monk. He is the victim, sacrificial priest, and even the Moloch to whom one offers sacrifices, at the same time: “The more the style of life is cynical, Spartan, Prussian, or Bolshevik, the better.” Nevertheless, “the warrior skepticism” that Jünger proclaims, like Sorel, the admirer of Lenin, before him, is not a leftist ideology. Alfred Andersch aroused false expectations when he affirmed in 1973 that the reader capable of really deciphering The Arbeiter could discover anything else than a man of the right there. In a very precise sense, the book is right wing, just like Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope” represents a left wing gnosis. The Arbeiter who renounces the frivolity of happiness is another race than the proletarian of the class struggle, as the theorists of emancipation on the left present him to us.
Jünger’s master isn’t Marx, but Nietzsche. The iron age of the Arbeiter that he prophesizes is not the unconstrained reign of freedom, but a profane and technocratic empire of planetary dimensions. It is probably without classes – if only because the aforementioned is a phenomenon inherited from bourgeois society. But it is neither egalitarian nor liberal. Freedoms exclusively present themselves under the form of the right to work: it’s the organization of work that takes the place of the social contract. The State of Labor (Arbeitsstaat) is super state of the technocratic and collectivist type, which presents a militarist – elitist structure.
Assuming that, we will not disagree, adherence to the idea of hierarchical power, attachment to authority, discipline and constraint, the primacy of the imperial virtues of heroism and elitism, are part of the essential constants of the thought and attitude of “the right,” then The Arbeiter of Jünger is a right wing book, and to a very high degree. We’ll immediately add that chasms separate it from all the right wing movements of the clerical, feudal, corporatist, völkisch, or racist type. It has nothing in common with old style conservatism, agrarian romanticism, or Kulturpessimismus. However, the absence of any retrograde, restorationist, or nostalgic ingredient, changes nothing regarding the fact that the institution announced by Jünger’s imperial figure of Der Arbeiter – ascetic, technician, and soldier at once – would signify a redeployment of conservatism on the planetary scale.
The Creator of Myths
The Arbeiter has lost none of its provocative power. One cannot throw it into oblivion by considering it only as an illustration of philosophy and thought in the era of the Weimar Republic’s last spasms. It contains a mass of observations, reflections, and disturbing hypotheses that are only not outdated, but are stronger than ever after 50 years. The author, we recall, considered himself as a seismograph; anyone who has read The Arbeiter would accord Ernst Jünger the right to affirm it: “Concerning historical realities, I’m in the position of a lookout, in the sense that I perceive things in advance, before they present themselves.”
Jünger did not content himself with coldly registering what he observed: he also represented what we could call a “mythic existence.” One could give to his book, in a more appropriate manner than the prolix and pathetic work of the same title, the name of “The Myth of the 20th Century” – as one cannot deny that it is. One can contrast another myth to it, which would have its roots in the absolute without appeal to a sentiment of life differing in essence. What fundamental disposition could be further opposed to the thunderous universe of the factory than the melancholic memory of idyllic life “in our little communities, under a peaceful roof, with benign discussions and friendly greetings day and night?” The singular certitude that there still exists gardens “inaccessible to the Leviathan” in our days? If Ernst Jünger predicted the irresistible irruption of the Arbeiter, his own existence and life style were ultimately in contradiction with this globalizing technocratic vision. He did not disown his myth of the Arbeiter, but he re-imagined it, like the myth of the Rebel and the Anarch (which is nearly the opposite of the anarchist). In 1978, at the age of 83, placed in the role of “Mexican” (in the sense that Alexander von Humboldt gave to the term), he confessed in an interview with Jean-Louis de Rambures that he preferred “what Germans called Heimat or what is the island for those who live there.” to the global technocratic state. Thus in his manner, he confirmed the words of Eugen Gottlob Winkler: “Jünger cannot be refuted, he can only be surpassed.” He devoted his whole life to this principle.