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A year before the end of his long life (1895–1998), the German author Ernst Jünger converted to Catholicism, a late change on a tumultuous path of searching and adventures that were far from exclusively spiritual. Born into a Protestant family, he attended conventional boarding schools, but at the age of eighteen ran away to France to join the Foreign Legion. Stationed in Algeria, he soon deserted, only to be captured after making his way to Morocco. Fortunately for him, the German Foreign Office was able to arrange for his release.

When the First World War broke out, a patriotic enthusiasm swept over Germany, and Jünger enlisted quickly, as did many of his generation. Repeatedly wounded, he received several awards, including the prestigious Pour le Mérite. His memoir of his experiences on the front, Storm of Steel, has become a classic of the literature of the Great War, remarkably devoid of parochial German nationalism but nonetheless often criticized for its aestheticization of the battlefield experience: War becomes a visual spectacle, seemingly beyond the good and evil of standard moral judgment. Yet no one can read Jünger’s accounts of violence and death and judge the text a glorification of the carnage. Instead, the narrative grapples with the challenge of maintaining composure in the face of destruction: how to live in a ­shattered world.

After the collapse of the German military in the autumn of 1918, ­Kaiser ­Wilhelm’s abdication quickly followed and with it the end of his Empire. The 1920s brought the short-lived ­Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic regime. Democracy has always faced skeptics and critics, and during this period of political and cultural turmoil, Jünger was drawn toward intellectual and political circles organized around the notion of a “Conservative Revolution.” The term itself has been attributed to the Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von ­Hofmannsthal, who used it in a speech in 1927. The self-evident oxymoron combines a modernizing, anti-traditionalist impulse, a sense of the need for an abrupt disruption of the status quo, with various conservative values, sometimes distinctly illiberal and anti-bourgeois, sometimes even “workerist” with a focus on technological innovation, close to the spirit of Italian futurism. Given that proximity—Mussolini came to power in 1922, a decade before Hitler—one may speak of variants of a fascist modernism: modernist in the insistence on the necessity of innovation, especially innovation driven by technology, but fascist in the valorization of hierarchy and the contempt for liberal individualism. Nonetheless, the German conservative revolutionaries often, if not always, kept their distance from the Nazis. Jünger certainly did, and the Nazis indicated their regret that they could not count this distinguished war hero as one of theirs. His writings in this period were undoubtedly martial and critical of the liberalism of bourgeois life, but they lacked the shrill anti-Semitism and consistent biological racism which were the necessary preconditions for Nazi affiliation.

After the Nazis’ accession to power in 1933, Jünger retreated from the emphatic politics of the previous decade. Some of his subsequent writing, such as The Adventurous Heart (1938), draws close to surrealism through a search for cognitive experiences outside the constraints of normal rationality, a tendency that anticipated his postwar experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. Strahlungen (1949), the record of his experiences in the Second World War, especially in occupied France but also in the Caucusus, hardly provides grounds to cast Jünger as part of some organized resistance to the regime, of which there has never been very much in German culture in any case. One can view him more as a witness who attempts to maintain a distance from complicity and degradation through a stance he described in a 1934 letter to his brother as die Nichtbeteiligung am Niedrigen, “not participating in the lowly”—a phrase that conveys an elitist, perhaps even aristocratic disdain for the Nazi mob.

Jünger would eventually carve out a space for a nonconformist independence, becoming a “conservative anarchist,” as one critic has called him. In his luminous essay The Forest Passage (1951) and later in the novel Eumeswil (1977)—part post-apocalyptic narrative, part science fiction—he spells out the difference between the anarchist and the anarch. Those ideologues who glibly dub themselves “anarchists” act precisely as ideologues, committed to a political “-ism,” and they therefore unavoidably recreate the structures of domination associated with the state structures they pretend to oppose. His alternative is the “anarch,” the character of integrity, true to himself, willing to venture metaphysically into an adventurous realm, “off the grid,” as one might say today, or to find sufficient internal strength to resist the temptations of participating in the extortions, distortions, and self-mutilations that make up political life. Anarchists cluster around the pressure of forced community participation in “autonomous zones,” while the anarch pursues independent thought and action in the pursuit of autonomy. Nazis participated in mass demonstrations and wrapped themselves in sloganeering language. Jünger chose to stand alone, against tyranny. And for this reason, he remains an author for our time.

We are living through an era of the infinite politicization of all things; every discussion, every news story, and nearly every social media post is caught in the ellipse defined by the killing of George Floyd and the upcoming November election. One might recall the macabre quip that under Stalin, even chess became political; that certainly holds for the National Football League. The political overdetermination of life must have been worse in Germany, when Jünger finished the manuscript for his novel On the Marble Cliffs in August 1939, just weeks before the invasion of Poland. Next to Storm of Steel, it is his most famous book, the fulcrum at the middle of his career, and one that gives some answers, still pertinent today, to his ongoing search for the possibility of integrity and character amid an entropic cosmos. Without wanting to overstate the connection, one may speculate that On the Marble Cliffs points ahead to his reception into the Catholic Church nearly six decades later: finding faith as the alternative to the sinfulness of the age.

Initially hailed as an attack on the Hitler regime, the novel found a wide readership. Nazi authorities quickly attempted to censor it. Yet On the Marble Cliffs has also been charged with being insufficiently critical of the regime. It certainly does not scrutinize the anatomy of Nazi rule itself, nor is it a roman à clef like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. None of the characters in On the Marble Cliffs maps one-to-one onto Hitler and his clique. There is, to be sure, a central figure of evil, the Chief Ranger, but neither his personal background nor the features of his character has much in common with Hitler himself. What the Chief Ranger and Hitler do share are their essential evil and their roles as tyrants. It is therefore less compelling to think of the novel as a period piece about the Nazis, than to consider it a reflection on the substance of evil and the destruction of culture, the lessons of which apply historically to the Germany of the 1930s but not only there. On the Marble Cliffs has much wider relevance, and one can benefit from reading it today. It provides lucid observations on the consequences of the erosion of social order and the concomitant rise of lawless viciousness, but also—and this may be Jünger’s vital legacy—an inspiring inquiry into how to retain a moral compass and a secure internal life despite rampant barbarization.

Before we turn to the novel itself, it is worth revisiting that 1934 letter to his brother, Friedrich Georg Jünger (himself a literary figure of considerable accomplishment and whose Failure of Technology, now out of print, is well worth knowing), which sets out what might be regarded as his core credo. Remember the context: Hitler had been in power for just short of two years; the intra-Nazi conflict with the SA around Ernst Röhm, the “night of long knives,” had recently transpired; and Germany was sliding toward a totalitarian radicalism as familiar points of moral orientation slipped away. How to live in the midst of moral collapse? Jünger offers an answer:

The revolutionary stage that we have now entered can only be met with deeper powers than rhetorical, literary or ideological responses—we are being tested at our core. Now is the time to show your cards so we can see who you are. In this state of evil illusions and deceit, thought itself becomes dangerous simply when it is right, and spirits who have the proper measure, act like mirrors that reveal the emptiness of this shadow world. A logical thought, a pure verse of poetry, a noble deed, even just not participating in the lowly—these are things that arise like threatening weapons that are all the more powerful the less one makes reference to our times.

The letter’s imagery of weaponry draws on the agonistic worldview central to Jünger’s writing since Storm of Steel, but the conflict no longer involves a foreign adversary; we are not in the midst of a Clausewitzian drama of opposing military wills. Instead, Jünger observes the social chaos encroaching from all sides, the culture war against culture itself, and he points us toward the firm ground on which we may take a stand and stake out a position of serene integrity against the mob.

The story unfolds against a stunning backdrop, a montage of heterogeneous landscapes—the borderlands of France and Switzerland, Italy, Argentina—and on the shores of an inland sea at the “­Marina.” The autobiographical element is evident; the Jünger brothers were living in southern Germany near Lake Constance. It is a bucolic countryside, replete with rich vineyards and peasants preserving their folkways, while the two brothers, veterans of a past war, share the “hermitage,” where they pursue their scholarly projects, especially a fascination with botany. Their dedication to their work leads them to live in the “great seclusion” afforded by the character of the location:

The Hermitage stood at the edge of the Marble Cliffs in the middle of one of those rock islands which here and there one sees breaking through the grape land. Its garden had been won from the rock in narrow terraces, and on the sides of its drystone walls wild herbs had settled such as thrive in the fertile vine-growing country. Thus in the early year the blue pearl clusters of the grape hyacinth bloomed, and in autumn the geans rejoiced us with the red Chinese lantern gleam of their fruit.

The network of wine references points as much to the sensuous pleasures of life as to the extensive presence of sanctity; the precise flower descriptions testify to a constant attention to the beauty of creation, despite the approaching catastrophe.

For despite this “great seclusion,” the vita contemplativa in the midst of a sheltering nature, iridescent and bountiful, the society around the Hermitage betrays signs of decay. The distant cause, the rapacious ambitions of the Chief Ranger, is at first nearly invisible, but its corrosive effect spreads inexorably. One might remember the paths of illness in Albert Camus’s The Plague or of cholera in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice:

It was the old life, and yet something had changed in it. Sometimes when we stood on the terrace and looked out on to the encircling gardens we seemed to catch a breath of hidden listlessness and anarchy. It was then that the beauty of the land touched our hearts with pain. Thus the colors of life stand out in final splendor before the sun sinks.

Society is losing its vigor; it is decadent in its fatigue, lacking the vitality to withstand the tug of entropy, “as lassitude set in and reality dissolved.” Long before the arrival of the Chief Ranger and his thugs, there is a corruption at the core, a loss of tradition and the strength of character it once conveyed: “The wholesome spirit of our ancestors had abandoned the Marina.” The internal decline prepares the community for conquest by the external adversary.

Yet more is at stake than an inner process of cultural decline. Soon enough, the external enemy, evil incarnate, will arrive, but he is foreshadowed by the subversive activists he sends out in advance. His goal is less a matter of domination, ruling a subjugated population, than of destruction, the canceling of civilizational accomplishment. To reach that goal, the Chief Ranger initiates decay and stagnation, and then he proceeds through infiltration, the dissemination of agents and activists, to fray the fabric of society:

Then the Foresters too made their appearance, and were often to be seen at work on the vineyard slopes and hills. They seemed to be surveying the land anew, for they had holes dug in the ground and set up rods with runic signs and animal totems. . . . They traversed old tilth as if it were moorland, heeding neither bridle path nor boundary. Nor did they salute the holy images. Thus one saw them cross and recross the rich farmland as if it were desert, uninhabited and barren.

The old culture of the Marina had deep roots in the landscape. Its erosion therefore requires the erasure of the bridle path, the boundaries, and images, all those historical layers of inherited human labor that once shaped the space. For evil to reign, the past must be buried in ignorance, as if it were only “moorland,” where no one had ever resided. This canceling of tradition is not undertaken to make way for a new culture or some alternative substance: The goal is only to tear down, never to build up. The Chief Ranger,

who hated the plough, the corn, the vine and the animals tamed by man, who looked with distaste on spacious dwellings and a free and open life, set little store by lordship over such plenty. Only then did his heart stir when moss and ivy grew green on the ruins of the towns, and under the broken tracery of vaulted cathedrals the bats fluttered in the moon.

Such is the goal of the movement that Jünger faces: not a better order but no order at all, not a better polis but no polis. The strategies to pursue this negativism as such, with no other purpose than elimination and amnesia, begin with cultural subversion, by suppressing the knowledge of tradition, and extend to systematic violence, the cessation of any rule of law.

This pessimistic assessment is distinctly Jüngerian but recognizably cut from the same cloth as other modern discourses of cultural decline. Modernity threatens traditions, destabilizes order, and contributes to a generalized confusion. Yet, it is not only the diagnosis that marks Jünger’s accomplishment in On the Marble Cliffs, but his prescription for how to withstand the evil. The goodness in the world has always faced adversaries. Where can one find the strength of the katechon—the one who restrains evil as spoken of in 2 Thessalonians—to withstand the destructiveness inherent in the cosmos?

The first answer is in the word, the logos, the essence of language, a source not only of communicative clarity but also of moral order and social stability. German or (more specifically) Austrian modernism unfolded through a recognition of a “language crisis,” especially in the early works of Hofmannsthal but also through his Viennese contemporary and competitor, Karl Kraus, who explored how the degradation of journalistic language accelerated the degradation of politics, above all in his magisterial account of the First World War as public madness in The Last Days of Mankind. This linguistic responsibility for political crime became pervasive in the past century. George Orwell excoriated it in his essays, and Victor Klemperer documented the instrumentalization of language in totalitarian regimes in his study, Language of the Third Reich.

Language is likewise central for Jünger. George Steiner praised the “lapidary” character of his sentences, their clarity and chiseled structure. Early in the novel, the narrator recounts his loss of a naive relationship to language, as “words and phenomena [sprang] apart like the cord from an over-taut bow”; “from that hour my tongue failed me,” but “a new awareness possessed me” as well. The solution involves efforts, on the part of both the narrator and his brother, to find the language adequate to describe creation, a mission they carry out through their botanical studies, an allegory of human intelligence seeking to know by naming the order inherent in the world. The narrator’s science is a spiritual exercise:

Soon we felt our energies increasing, and a new sureness possessed us. The word is both king and magician. Our high example we found in ­Linnaeus, who went out into the unruly world of plants and animals with the word as his sceptre of state. . . . Thus we, too, were driven on by the presentiment that order reigns among the elements; for man feels impelled to imitate creation with his feeble faculties. . . . And our labours were abundantly rewarded with the revelation that rule and measure are imbedded in the hazards and disorders of this earth.

The cliché that we fear the unknown is not sufficiently answered with an exhortation to give up caution, since the possibility of danger can hardly be precluded in a world beset by evil; rather, the appropriate response is to extend the sway of knowledge, study the unknown, and on that informed basis decide on the scope of the threat. Thus, the pursuit of knowledge, through the word, understood as both “king and magician,” a source of authority and of transformation, ranks first among the countering strategies with which evil must be met. “A logical thought, a pure measure of poetry”—such are noble deeds mentioned in the 1934 letter. Within the world of the novel, Jünger treats the pursuit of botanic categorization as an analogous effort to rejoin in language the sundered halves, human thought and cosmic phenomena.

This metaphysical agenda, inherent in the seeming simplicity of the naming of flowers, comes to a head in the central nineteenth chapter, a dance-of-death vision of horror and pain. We visit “the abode of tyranny in all its shame,” read by some critics as pointing toward the concentration camps and torture chambers of the Nazis. Whether or not that historically specific connection is warranted, the penetration by the narrator and his brother into the novel’s heart of darkness is strangely bound up with the botanical documentation of one rare flower. That trope points notably to a network of images in modern German poetry. In the same year, 1939, when On the Marble Cliffs appeared and Jünger was residing in southern Germany, the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht was living in exile in Scandinavia, having fled the Nazi regime. One of Brecht’s most famous poems appeared in that year, “An die Nachgeborenen,” or “To Posterity.” Its second stanza describes a moral complexity of the era, the suggestion that any interest in matters other than politics, any attention to topics other than the injustice of the world, should be judged nearly criminal in its callousness:

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
In trouble?

The verse captures the denunciation of every discourse other than social justice as effectively escapist or “a crime,” though the qualifier “almost” suggests at least some distance from the political disciplining. Whereas Brecht deploys the figure of an attention to trees, Jünger describes the study of flowers. The common denominator is the ­experience of nature, a topic of poetic or literary expression for centuries. Brecht describes how a “conversation about trees,” an appreciation of nature, might be judged a culpable distraction from the priority of the political work of condemning “injustice.” It is proposed as analogous to a strategy of avoiding friends who need help because supporting them might be risky: Does one have the courage to stand with colleagues facing political denunciation? The poem indicates no doubt as to the reality of “injustice,” but it places an absolute priority on political work, which is held to be the basis of culture. In truth, it produces an anti-culture that denies the variegated experiences of life, such as natural beauty or loyalty to friends. Is Jünger’s naturalism an escape from the horror? That is surely the wrong conclusion to draw from the stark juxtaposition of evil and beauty, placed in taut opposition to each other. Here, in fact, he diverges from the European decadent tradition of Baudelaire, who had judged poetic beauty a flower of evil. On the Marble Cliffs demonstrates the opposite: Beauty stands against evil.

Brecht’s problem with conversations about trees elicited a range of responses from German poets. One in particular deserves consideration. Paul Celan retorted with cutting irony in “Ein Blatt, baumlos”:

A Leaf, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?

Brecht and Celan had very personal ex­periences of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, as of course did Jünger. Yet it was only Brecht who intentionally chose dictatorship by returning from exile in California to communist East Germany, where he would become the most prominent artistic star of the regime. Celan’s lines accuse Brecht of condoning the suppression of conversations, whether over trees or anything else, in the name of communist political correctness. Jünger carves out a third path, the amplification of language (in this, he is not unlike Celan) as a path toward reconciling word and world or, in the terms of the novel, “to resist with spiritual forces alone.” The integrity of thought and the clarity of language, rather than the linguistic violence of propaganda, are strategies Jünger proposes to resist barbarism:

While evil flourished like mushroom spawn in rotten wood, we plunged deeper into the mystery of flowers, and their chalices seemed larger and more brilliant than before. But, above all, we continued our study of language, for in the word we recognised the gleaming magic blade before which tyrants pale. There is a trinity of word, liberty and spirit.

Such phrasing gives expression to an existential confidence, humanism without the often mandatory secularism. One surely might read it as an anticipation of Jünger’s later conversion. While the protagonist brothers of On the Marble Cliffs in no way identify with the Church or any other religion, a key experience is their encounter with the figure of Father Lampros, whom the narrator introduces as “a Christian monk.” They visit him because of their botanical interests; Lampros is a renowned authority. The novel therefore draws on the image of the cleric scholar as an embodiment of the mission of the Church to preserve knowledge in an age of ­chaos. Yet Lampros has more than botany to offer. He models the spiritual peace of equanimity and eschews polemic, including the petty sniping that can quickly sour conventional academic life: “He took no part in the squabbles of the schools.” Far from timidity, his reticence is anchored in a conviction of the affinity between knowledge and world, between human curiosity and the objectivity of creation, for “it was his firm belief that each theory in natural history represents a contribution towards genesis, for the human spirit in every age conceives the creation anew; in each interpretation lives no more truth than in a leaf that unfolds to fade.” Creation seems a paradox: a site of perpetual innovation (a very different thinker, Hannah Arendt, would define the human condition in terms of natality, the capacity for creative newness) and a covenant of durability. The narrator adopts the same view, standing atop the marble cliffs and surveying the landscape:

We looked long upon the land and sought out some sign of its salvation in every ridge and fold. . . . It was with joy that we felt the certainty come over us that destruction finds no place in the elements, and that its seeming power moves on the surface of life like a swirling ghostly mist which cannot withstand the sun.

This promise wards off despair. Anarchy and destruction will not triumph. Yet this confidence must not blind one to the spread of evil, the ravages of the Chief Ranger, and the very real violence the narrator witnesses. The threat is objective: “There were at stake life in its highest form, liberty and the dignity of man.” Jünger was unmistakably a critic of the Nazi regime but also, more broadly, a proponent of a complex hybrid, the combination of an emancipatory project of liberty—if you will, a liberal legacy—with the very different claim of dignity, the insistence on the values and qualities that humans deserve. It is this ­simultaneous pursuit of freedom and values that resonates when the narrator swears that he “would rather fall with the free men than go in triumph among the slaves.”

The oath poses a challenge that resonates beyond the apocalyptic setting of the novel and the specific catastrophe of Nazi Germany. It is a rejection of obligatory mindsets and efforts to extort solidarity, of conformism and public madness, whether in witch trials, lynch mobs, or cancel culture. Ernst Jünger reminds us that, as we face the agents of chaos and destruction, creation retains the upper hand. Logical thinking and clarity of mind are the strongest defenses. Liberty and dignity are the indisputable goals. 

Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

Photo by WvBayreuth via Creative Commons. Image cropped.