On the Marble Cliffs
What the Earth Wants
Let us say this is an article around a book rather than on it, an attempt to comprehend an aspect of a writer's place in the world of war and peace, someone negotiating in good faith a certain ethos, even if the writer's position can appear to promote fighting and a war-like spirit.
George Steiner, introducing Ernst Junger's On The Marble Cliffs, describes him as a man who "maintains a fastidious, quietly observant discipline of feeling...watching a raid on the Renault works in March 1942, the chevalier of the marble cliffs comments that several hundred are reported slain and over a thousand gravely hurt: 'but seen from my quarter, the affair looked rather like stage-lighting in a shadow theatre.'" It might bring to mind an anecdote Bruce Chatwin tells in What am I Doing Here about Junger and Henry de Montherlant (whom Steiner invokes in the introduction). Talking to Chatwin, Junger produces a piece of paper; a photocopy of Montherlant's suicide note that found its way into Junger's hands. Junger admires it with glee - it even has the splotches of blood after Montherlant blew his brains out.
By way of contrast we might briefly think of another moment in Renault's history; not the famous workers' strike of May 1968, but the religious philosopher Simone Weil's period of time working there as she attempted to side with the afflicted, the suffering working classes. The work was so arduous her weak constitution couldn't tolerate it and she was forced to admit defeat. But while there she could say: "As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul." (Waiting for God)
Steiner describes Junger thus, after mentioning the Renault incident, "this is the focus of the dandy. I mean the word in its strong, condotierre sense, as comprehending asceticism and cool courage." Wounded seven times in WWI, Junger was awarded Germany's highest military award in September 1918, and yet what would seem to interest Junger is not valour (which would at least take militaristic action and bravery seriously), but the capacity for aloofness. This can seem like a failure of humanity or its apotheosis according to taste, but what can't be denied is that Junger's approach to existence is quite different from Weil's. While Weil wanted to take on the suffering of the world and allow it to be manifest in what she calls affliction, Junger seeks instead distance. Weil allows her nervous system to be affected by the suffering of others; Junger resists this specific mode of feeling for mankind, seeking instead a combination of Nietzsche and entomology. Like Nietzsche he would be very suspicious of the sort of Christian compassion Weil insists upon, and finds instead a removed fascination with all living things. Seen from a certain point of view, we are all just creatures scurring around, caught in nature's plan and crediting ourselves with agency we only very partially possess. As Steiner says: "Junger regards zoology and botany as a school for precise feeling..."
On The Marble Cliffs is so descriptively precise a book we might sometimes wonder whether the story gets lost in the detail. Junger would be unlikely to see this as a criticism; more a description of his aims. This is a story about a veteran of war living the quiet life with his brother in a hermitage by the marble cliffs. Hoping to devote themselves to botany and contemplation, their lives are once again interrupted by tensions below, between various warring factions. "We had arrived with the plan of studying plant life intensively, and had therefore begun in accordance with old and well-tried methodology with their breathing and nourishment". Before the end of the book, however, "looting was in full swing; they had already cut open the beds and filled them like sacks of booty...the murderers were at the height of their debauch..." Yet much of the violent action seems secondary to natural description. Junger's world is a parade of colour. "the blue surface of the stream", "the body of the lance head-viper is metallic red, patterned with scales like burnished brass. But this griffon was cast in pure and faultless golden brilliance, changing at the head to jewel-like green and gaining in lustre." "It was still light enough to see the flame-shaped streak of gold and the brown tiger markings, too, which imposed their splendour on the white bloom."
There is a risk here that the writing serves its own end to the detriment of the story, but Junger would be inclined to see such descriptive precision as a means by which to put what we would see as the story into a context beyond the human. Is the notion of storytelling a human activity? Even if the story focuses on animals, as in many a Disney cartoon, are the animals not given qualities that indicate the human: cunning, wit, greed, ambition, pride and so on? We give agency and purpose to events all the better to understand them on human terms. Junger of course doesn't ignore these aspects of the human condition, but he contrasts them with elements that downplays the humanly destructive. Even when he talks of someone, Braquemart, who wishes to confront the Ranger that controls the area, he says "and yet we felt slightly attracted to Braquemart - not so much because he had a stout heart, for the more stone-like a man becomes merit based on courage diminishes. What was attractive in him was rather a subtle air of suffering, the bitterness of a man who is sick at heart. He sought to wreak vengeance for it on the world, like a child laying waste a carpet of flowers in futile rage."
Now as the narrator talks about the importance of feeling when it comes to admiring courage, and sees there is no point in admiring it if there is no suffering within that heart, this suggests that we cannot agree with Steiner when he quotes Junger saying "I lack the capacity for hatred", and Steiner adds "there have been too many moments in our savage time when the absence of hatred is the same as the absence of love." Or when Steiner says earlier that there is in Junger "the temptation to despise human beings. Now I suspect that this attitude is more current among highly cultured men than one supposes. But Junger makes a virtue of what is, essentially, an atrophy at the vital centre." The narrator's remark about Braquemart indicates the opposite: it isn't the atrophied but pain which allows for admiration. In this sense there wouldn't be quite the enormous a gap between Weil and Junger as one might think. It is the difference perhaps of a compassionate nervous system and a compassionate heart. Weil insists that one shares in the misery of others, feels their pain and even tries to find ways to share it. Junger is more interested in a compassion that doesn't try to share the pain of others but looks to find a position by which one can accommodate it within a settled mind, within a heart that feels pain but isn't quite destroyed by it.
How to achieve this state, and is this what the narrator and his brother Otho seek; these retired warriors who are looking for peace and equanimity? Speaking of life in the marina, the narrator says: "there lived no one so poor that the first and best fruits of his garden did not go to the cabin of the thinker and the hermitage of the poet. Thus whoever felt called upon to serve the world in things spiritual could live at leisure - in poverty perhaps but not in need." Junger seeks to illustrate this wish in aesthetic form as he focuses centrally on nature's presence. While Weil would demand an acknowledgement of suffering; Junger is someone who tries to find a place beyond it. While the French Weil was a wealthy Jew who wanted to show solidarity with the poor, as if aware of the devastating misery awaiting the Jewish people, Junger was the Aryan German soldier who had no time for Nazism but felt an obligation towards his country. Weil and Junger were contemporaries; Steiner, a post-war Jewish writer fascinated and continually troubled by the Holocaust and those he felt didn't exclaim strongly enough against it, or too actively promoted it, seems more sympathetic to a position like Weil's rather Junger's. As Steiner says in 'Heidegger's Silence': "the spate of articles and speeches of 1933-4 cries out against Martin Heidegger. For here he goes so crassly beyond the official obligation, let alone a provisional endorsement." Junger and Heidegger might not be tarred with quite the same brush, but they are seen as of a similar hue. Weil's position would seem quite different and closer to Steiner's own.
However, by suggesting that these are two very different approaches to the problem of suffering, we don't predicate one over the other, we choose merely to differentiate: do we try and take on the pain of the world, or do we try to alleviate its presence by our own retreat? Yet aren't there moments when retreat can seem like indifference; that we are refusing to confront the social world and that disappearing into nature serves as a means by which to deny acknowledging the socio-politically catastrophic? Some have seen allegory in Junger's novel, and resistance to the Nazi regime. The book was published in 1939, and Steiner notes that "it has been widely asserted that this arcane fable is the only major act of resistance, of inner sabotage, carried out by German literature under Hitler." Steiner sees how this could be valid on occasion, noting analogies with the "concentration camps about which Junger had heard and intimated a good deal as early as 1939", but also sees that much of the work shares similarities with "Wagner's Mime or to the malignant trolls of Scandinavian saga."
One could thus see this as a work of allegorical flinching, as Junger can't face writing a work that so obviously attacks a regime indirectly but unequivocally. A book likeAnimal Farm should be read not only as a fable about the atrocities of Communism, but this is a very understandable first port of call for anyone who wants to read it beyond the literal. One would hardly accuse Orwell of fighting shy with the allegorical. Yet this is both Animal Farm's strength and its weakness: that it doesn't pull punches but throws them; aiming big blows rather than subtler jabs. What works for politics can sometimes detract from literature. The politically active work has an urgency, an appeal to the moment, and of course Orwell's novella is much more than that, but it doesn't possess the slippery force of Kafka, whose work seems to hint at so many more possibilities than the English writer's. Reading Orwell's letters we notice assertiveness and irritation with others; in Kafka's hesitancy and self-abnegation.
Junger is resistant to the assertive, finding in a looser allegory a world bigger than the rejection of Nazism, but before going further into this question let us pause for a moment on that earlier issue of acknowledging suffering or retreating from it. Imagine for a moment Thoreau's Walden set not in the US countryside in the late nineteenth century, but the German forests not far from a concentration camp. The spiritual search involved in isolation would look a lot like an act of denial. It might not be fair to expect a writer to confront their times, but then it is an issue of what is involved in the refusal to do so. Steiner ends his introduction on the passage from Junger about his inability to feel hatred. This would be close to the blas attitude Georg Simmel explored when seeing in modern life an approach that resists feeling. "With urban existence, city living, people develop a defensiveness that resists feeling with their heart and instead judging with their head. The dweller needs to do this to avoid being overwhelmed by all the information they receive, and the interactions they have." (Enotes) How many people now in cities walk past the homeless as though they are heaps of rubbish left on the street; their presence not a crisis but a nuisance? People are heartless in the Simmel sense: they are thinking with their heads, negotiating urban space, rather than opening their hearts to the many around them. It would be wrong to say that these urban dwellers hate the homeless, yet they do not love them either. They have adopted indifference: the blas attitude.
Yet we offer the idea of Walden set in the German forests in the early forties as a means by which to comprehend the problem some might have with Junger's book. However, one way of looking at it would be to read the book as an answer to the notion of Waldenin politically turbulent times. The narrator and brother Otho seek the quiet life but cannot devote themselves entirely to the natural world when the human environment becomes chaotic. Should they hide away or join the rebels when the latter decide to take on the powerful Chief Ranger? "A cloud of fear preceded the Chief Ranger like the mountain mist that presages the storm. Fear enveloped him, and I am convinced that therein far more than in his own person." What should one do when others decide to rebel against this force: passivity can seem a lot like complicity in such circumstances?
We have noted however that Junger was very far from a pacifist, while neither a jingoist. He believed in bravery over cowardice, but this isn't the same thing as insisting on heroism, let alone the bellicose. He seemed to believe that there are occasions where one's responsibilities compete with one's individuality, and the conscience must make its choice between the needs of the former against the demands of the latter. The extreme nationalist of course will always sublimate self to state; just as the solitary figure might insist that they have no obligation towards their country as they retreat, as Thoreau did from its amenities and generated his own. To insist that Junger was a lover of his country doesn't make him a Nazi, but when many others are forced to fight for a cause they have reservations over, should someone with more power and status refuse to engage when others would be executed for taking a similar stance?
In On the Marble Cliffs, the narrator talks of Braquemart: "like all who hunger after power and mastery, he was led astray by his wild dreams into the realm of Utopias. It was his opinion that from the beginning of history there have been two races of men on this earth - the masters and the slaves - and that in the course of time the breeds had crossed." Junger offers a simplified Nietzscheanism here; the sort easily adopted by Hitler to be readily consumed by a mass audience. But we shouldn't take it for Junger's position, which is more interested in individual manifestation than social reformation: a complex question closer to the real Nietzsche's. This is one that concerns self-mastery over the mastering of others. It is an approach that must conquer the slave within oneself: to fulfil one's own destiny with a sense of one's own dignity. In The Details of Time, Junger quotes from Hassidic Tales. In one, about a rabbi, the rabbi says: "When I go to heaven, I won't be asked whether I lived like Moses, I'll be asked whether I lived like Rabbi Zousya." Junger adds: "I consider that essential: everyone has to fulfill what he received at birth; it's the only thing that I can say to those young people. You have to...develop your own capacities to an optimal degree. That's very dangerous of course...what is the law for someone who is a pickpocket? Nietzsche has an answer for that, naturally..." Junger here is talking about the self in relation to oneself, but also the self in relation to the world, and that the world constantly changes. "I am struck by the fact that each generation inherits the qualities it needs to cope with its time..."
If we can then see that Junger is interested in a notion of self in the world quite different from Weil's, and subtly different from Thoreau's, we can help explain it through seeing Junger's Nietzschean interest in a self that has to negotiate the values of a violent society with one's own attempt at equilibrium. Pacifism would not be Junger's answer here, one believes, because it would be an absolute position. Junger is more interested in negotiating the self with the societal. While Weil would seem ethically to insist on the society as a basis upon which one does good (hence her work in a Renault factory and so on), to the detriment of one's well-being, and Thoreau regards one's well-being to the detriment of the societal, Junger sees the issue of well-being as a negotiation between one's own need for solitude and the society's demand that we participate in a greater good. Earlier in his work Junger, according to The OccidentalObserver, was more given to the societal over the individual, that we should surrender our will to the collective. "While rejecting individual freedom as "suspect", he seized upon "total mobilization" as an ideal situation in which freedom would survive only insofar as it spelled total participation in society. He described an inherently self-contradictory (Hegelian identity) relationship between freedom and obedience: freedom was reduced to "freedom to obey"." This didn't make him a Nazi; he supposedly prefered National Bolshivism to National Socialism, but it made him societally inclined. By the time of On the Marble Cliffs, the rapid rise of Fascism would lead to a different perspective on self and society, and towards the parable as he tries to work through a position that can no longer predicate the latter over the former. Speaking of his relationship with the rise of Nazism he says: "At first, obviously, they had a whole series of right ideas." (The Details of Time) "But the way these ideas were implemented made me more and more uneasy and in fact I did distance myself after Crystal Night. These were things that deeply repelled me and that were, among other things, at the source of my conception of On The Marble Cliffs."
Much that is important in writing comes not from description, but from a contradiction that finds elucidation. In Junger's first and very famous novel, Storm of Steel, most accept that its brilliance rests on its simplicity. It is a diaristic account of war that Michael Hofman in his introduction to the book describes thus: "war is all - fighting is all - everything else is cropped away. And from first to last in the affirmative." Now we often hear how many writers have difficulties with the second novel, with the idea that in the first they can write more directly about their life, but perhaps by the second a development has to take place; that it isn't enough to write from one's own experiences. Some writers will resolve this by research, by writing a novel that no longer addresses their own immediate concerns, but focuses on a narrative that might be historically or socially oriented as a way of escaping from their inner lives. Alternatively, the writer might insist that the subject remains similar, but the approach to it be more nuanced, denser. There is a gap of nineteen years between Junger's Storm of Steel and On the Marble Cliffs, and there were numerous books in between. But our point should still hold, that Junger's purpose was to find another means by which to explore the question of war. He moves from the diaristic to the allegorical, and this incorporates the problems we have addressed in relation to Weil's and Thoreau's approach to the society and the self, and with the aid of a complex Nietzscheanism.
This needn't be conscious of course (though Nietzsche was an important influence on Junger generally); but if someone like Junger moves from a position of war to a position of ambivalence, how to register that shift in complex terms? After all, as Hofman says: Junger "was never an opportunist - if anything, rather the opposite." The reverse would have been more politically useful: from retreat to belligerence as Germany was moving in that direction. Yet Junger was clearly not an opportunist as his internal journey mattered much more than being part of Teutonic glory, with On The Marble Cliffs an inquiry into the nature of power, not an attempt to glorify it. The Nazis' will to power was not a value Junger could be in sympathy with, perhaps because it was of a second order. As the narrator says in On the Marble Cliffs, speaking of Braquemart: "His was a cold, rootless intelligence, and with it went a leaning to Utopias. Then, too, like all his kind, he conceived of life as the mechanism of a clock, and therefore in force and terror he saw the gears which drive the timepiece of life. At the same time he indulged in the idea of a second artificial natural order, intoxicated himself with the perfume of synthetic flowers and the pleasures of mimed sensuality." (The Details of Time) Speaking of Nazism and the book, Junger said: "I depicted the situation there - in a mythical fashion, of course, but very precisely, and the people who were aimed at certainly felt aimed at." An opportunist wouldn't have not only been inclined to support the powerful regime, but would have been very wary of antagonising it. Yet Junger was lucky: though people complained to Hitler about the book, the Fuhrer insisted that Junger be left alone. "That was luck! Thus I was in a very privileged position, which allowed me to do a lot of things that would have turned out very badly if other people had done them." (The Details of Time)
Here Junger took advantage of his position not to improve his own but to question the positions of others. He wanted to muse over the nature of power, not take advantage of it, but happened to be in a position of relative security so that he could thus interrogate its nature. This is the difference between the opportunistic and the fortunate: the former takes advantage of a situation to further their own interests; the latter uses their advantage to question the interests of others. Junger may always have been a problematic writer, someone who has appealed to the far right. Indeed people are still using Junger for their cause: right-wing activist Gotz Kubitschek, for example. "In 1997-1998, he took part in the German army's deployment to Bosnia, where as a reserve officer he organised a reading from the works of Ernst Junger on the occasion of his death. He was the spiritual leader of the "conservative-subversive action."(WorldSocialistWebSite) Yet we can see in On the Marble Cliffs a writer who wants to suggest in a complex allegorical form the means by which to question easy positions on power and privilege, one that obviously has little to do with Weil's compassion, but that isn't quite Thoreau's notion of retreat either. It is a novel perhaps Neitzsche might have written, and is certainly part of the same problematic of master/slave, self and society. "Nietszche", Junger says, believed "that the worst thing is to doubt what the earth wants: and the serpent knows exactly what the earth wants." To label Junger as a figure of the far right would be to miss the main point: the idea that to understand the world we must wonder what it wants, and what we can give it. On the Marble Cliffs shows that it is a question that isn't likely to go away, even if we might wish to retreat from the problem addressed.
© Tony McKibbin