Ernst Jünger (second from right), via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Some people live more history than others: born in Heidelberg in 1895, the German literary giant Ernst Jünger survived a stint in the French Foreign Legion, the rise of the Third Reich, two world wars, fourteen flesh wounds, the death of his son (likely executed for treason by the SS), the partition of Germany, and its reunification, before his death at the remarkable age of 102. Perhaps no historical rupture had a greater influence on his thinking, however, than the rise of industrialized warfare across both world wars. A soldier as much as a writer, Jünger memorably declared in his diaries in 1943 that “ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians.” Articulating the consequences of this transformation became the central obsession of his work.
Jünger’s fascination with the ways in which technologically driven projections of power would reshape traditional civilian life and geopolitics has secured his legacy as an unignorable diagnostician of the modern epoch. He is today to industrialized warfare what his contemporaries Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer were to the rise of mass-produced culture: all three drew connections between technology’s assault on the inner life of the individual and fascism’s weaponization of the mob. Yet while Kracauer and Benjamin, prominent voices of the Weimar socialist left, denounced fascism from the start, Jünger was very much a man of the right. Though he continues to be widely read, his significant literary achievements can be contemplated only with ambivalence. He remains one of Germany’s most celebrated and controversial writers—by far the most interesting ever to have emerged from the interwar right.
On The Marble Cliffs, the most famous of Jünger’s novels, was published in Nazi Germany in 1939 and censored by the Gestapo in 1942. It was thanks to Hitler’s admiration of Jünger’s earlier work that it was published at all. When other party officials pushed for its immediate suppression (“He has gone too far!”), the führer reportedly replied: “Leave Jünger be!”
It’s not hard to see why the novel attracted the attention of the censors: On the Marble Cliffs charts the slow infiltration and eventual destruction of a sophisticated, Elysian society by a barbaric forest tribe whose ruthless leader sows anarchy and terror. Set, like all fables, in a distant time of its own, the story centers on two battle-hardened brothers who’ve renounced war, politics, and worldly concerns for a monkish existence as botanists. They live apart from the simmering chaos, high up on the Marble Cliffs.
The novel was immediately received as an allegory for the rise of the Third Reich, but as Jünger points out in a postscript, “People understood, even in occupied France, that ‘this shoe fit several feet.’” In other words, what happened in Germany wasn’t historically unique. Echoes were soon to be found in Axis Italy, Vichy France, and the Soviet Union, not to mention in the nascent authoritarianism stirring within Western democracies today. As Jünger saw it, Hitler’s nihilism was part of a more general crisis threatening modern civilization.
Whatever the politics of the book—and they are nothing if not equivocal (Jünger claimed elsewhere that the novel was “above all that”)—there’s no denying its icy polish. The novel is defined by its fantastical Mediterranean landscape, and we spend much of our time admiring the view. To one side of the cliffs lies the Marina, with its lush vineyards and islands that “float on the blue tides like bright flower petals”; to the other, the Campagna, populated by rough but noble cattle herders, and bordered by the “dark fringe” of the forest, where the forces of anarchy lie in wait. There is much to lose: jeweled lizards, red vipers slithering as if in a single “glowing web,” astonishing orchids, magical mirrors, abundant vineyards, rarefied libraries. This symbology flickers throughout the novel like reflections on a lake, captivating yet shifting, and ultimately eluding fixed interpretation. The imaginary world is at once classical and modern; perhaps this ancient-seeming realm isn’t quite so distant as we thought. There are both automobiles and ballads dedicated to a “gluttonous Hercules,” shotguns as well as Roman stone.
The most striking quality of On the Marble Cliffs is, to me, its stillness. If fiction is the art of lending time to concepts and truths that seem to exist outside of time, On the Marble Cliffs aims for just the opposite. It is an exercise in “draining time,” to borrow the phrase the brothers use to describe the study of botany. Until the frenzy of the final battle scene, the book distills itself to a single suspended moment. The narration hovers over the landscape like a charge in the air. It’s the quiet before the storm, or, in our botanists’ case, before they “fall into the abyss.”
Throughout his oeuvre, Jünger remained preoccupied with this idea of stopping time. One of the few hopeful symbols to appear in the novel is the mythical mirror of Nigromontanus, designed to concentrate sunlight into a magical flame that transforms all it devours into an “imperishable” state, a process of “pure distillation” that takes place beyond the reach of either the narrative or the historical durée. One can imagine that Jünger—who after the Second World War experimented with LSD—viewed On the Marble Cliffs as just such a temporal transcendence, a way of preserving those values that Nazism perverted: chivalry, dignity, knowledge, beauty. It is not a protest novel but, like the mirror of Nigromontanus, a kind of “security in the void.”
This framing of On the Marble Cliffs—the author’s own—complicates the invitation by Jünger’s hagiographers to read it as a political critique, thereby exonerating him of his own far-right leanings. I tend to agree with Jünger that On the Marble Cliffs is not merely an allegory for the rise of the Third Reich. In fact, it’s difficult to extract a sustained political allegory from any of his works.
Jünger’s politics were complicated, if not incoherent. A decorated veteran of the First World War (he made his literary debut with a bellicose, best-selling diary from the trenches, Storm of Steel) who was praised by Hitler but who refused to join the Nazi Party; a self-taught conservative intellectual (Jünger never completed university) who won the admiration of Marxist writers like Bertolt Brecht; an incurable elitist sympathetic to communist centralization (he opposed liberalism above all)—the Weimar-era Jünger projected an aloof, aestheticizing, and ultimately paradoxical strain of fascism. Kracauer captured what feels most damning about Jünger’s political thinking during this time in a review of his controversial treatise The Worker (1932) for the Frankfurter Zeitung, in which he accused Jünger of having “metaphysicized” (metaphysiziert) politics: What about real, tangible action in our own historical moment? Metaphysics is an escape.
These ideological contradictions—or is it political ambivalence?—extended throughout the Second World War. The tendency to view the world through the metaphysical lens of cycles of power as opposed to “right and left” certainly seems to have granted Jünger, then an influential conservative voice, a great deal of moral latitude in distancing himself from the horrors emerging around him. Ever aristocratic, he wrote critiques of Hitler could appear to be as rooted in intellectual snobbery as in moral outrage. He once complained that the Nazis “lacked metaphysics.” They waged war like technicians.
Jünger spent the Second World War as a military censor in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he kept up his ironic circle of acquaintances. His closest companions during this time included the prominent legal scholar Carl Schmitt, a racist and an early supporter of the Nazi Party. Then again, his diaries reveal him to be just as close to the conspirators behind the von Stauffenberg plot on Hitler’s life in 1944. Jünger himself was investigated, but no concrete evidence could be found tying him to the attempted assassination; the main conspirators were executed. There is no doubt he considered Hitler a vulgar yet ultimately indomitable monster. The sheer nihilistic scale of the genocide in Nazi concentration and POW camps crystallized his despair as well as his conviction that more active resistance was pointless. “I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much,” he confessed during a brief tour of the eastern front. There’s a reason a quip by Jean Cocteau (not exactly exemplary in his own wartime behavior) regarding Jünger’s conduct during these years endures: “Some people had dirty hands, some people had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”
What did it really mean to be hands-on at such a time, when protest often amounted to nothing more than self-sacrifice? It isn’t a question I like to ask. Jünger’s son, briefly imprisoned for dissent, was later declared killed in action in Italy, though the two bullet holes found at the base of his skull suggested an execution by the SS.
The veterans and botanists in On the Marble Cliffs—much like Jünger himself, who studied zoology and spent long afternoons in occupied Paris collecting beetles—also delay intervention until it is too late. They are elegists more than dissidents, hunting for rare orchids as the Head Forester‘s campaign advances on the classical civilization below. Yet the novel contains enough recognizable allusions to the Third Reich that it no doubt took courage to publish it. A torture hut where the Head Forester’s enemies are flayed is modeled on Hitler’s concentration camps for political and social deviants, the first of which were established in 1933; Jünger is likely to have seen prisoners marched past his temporary residence in Lower Saxony. It has been noted that the Head Forester bears a resemblance to Hermann Göring, the notorious commander in chief of the Luftwaffe and himself an avid hunter. Nazism, furthermore, valorized forests and their connection to the German Romantic spirit. The novel’s highs come by way of Jünger’s gift for the chilling aphorism. Of the character Braquemart, modeled on the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels: “He was of that breed of men who dream concretely, a very dangerous sort.” Its lows follow slips into dour, elitist didacticism: “When the sense of justice and tradition wanes and when terror clouds the mind, then the strength of the man in the street soon runs dry…This is why noble blood is granted preeminence in all peoples.”
To my reading, On the Marble Cliffs is a daring but ultimately inward-looking achievement. It is as if Jünger built himself an ivory tower in which to wait out Germany’s darkest decades. He never left. Nor did he repent. Until his death, Jünger dismissed criticisms of his wartime behavior. As he aged, he appealed to the growing asymmetry between himself and his younger critics: you weren’t there.
On the Marble Cliffs serves as a key to the cosmology Jünger developed in these later years. All the major motifs of this novel—serpents, language, nihilism, chivalry, dreams, Spenglerian theories of history as cyclical—return throughout his wartime and immediate postwar works, most notably the war diaries and the techno-dystopia of The Glass Bees. In the most generous light, they present an argument for the preservation of beauty, refinement, and human dignity in the face of Armageddon; in the harshest, a justification for a retreat into aesthetics and abstraction in the face of all-too-real atrocities. I recommend reading On the Marble Cliffs at different times of day, with both approaches in mind.
And what would I send through the Mirror of Nigromontanus, I wonder? Surely there’s nothing so dangerous as an aphorism concrete enough to catch its own reflection. Anyway, here’s one for the void: an enduring sense of nobility, stripped of a politics, sets its own traps.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens is the author of the novels The Exhibition of Persephone Q and The Visitors. Her first short story collection is due out from And Other Stories in 2023. This essay is adapted from her forward to On The Marble Cliffs, which will be released by the New York Review of Books Classics in January 2023.
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