In preparation for a reread of Ernst Junger’s Eumeswil I’ve gone back to his Waldgang / Traité du rebelle /The Forest Passage (though, unhelpfully, I only have the French and English versions at home). It’s a curious essay that in its repetition and (for me) frequent incoherence in the back half feels now most interesting for capturing the author’s personal groundlessness at the time of writing (around 1950). The Europe he came of age in is unquestionably dead, his notion of the dignity of the warrior profession is twice pummeled, the resurrected Germany he fought for without agreeing with has fallen, and a new world order headed by American and Russia of all people is in place and already threatening another war. And that summary leaves out the question of the guilt-to-innocence ratio of the German people at large and himself in particular in relation to the brutalities of the Nazis. His tumbling efforts to mold all this into a philosophy and way forward are better illustrated than described:
Fear is symptomatic of our times—and it is all the more disturbing as it comes on the heels of an epoch of great individual freedom, in which hardships of the kind portrayed by Dickens were already virtually forgotten.
How did such a shift come about? If we want to pick out a turning point none could be more appropriate than the day the Titanic went down. Here light and shadow collide starkly: the hubris of progress with panic, the highest comfort with destruction, and automatism with a catastrophe manifested as a traffic accident.
In fact, the growing automatism is closely connected with the fear, in the sense that man restricts his own power of decision in favor of technological expediencies. This brings all manner of conveniences—but an increasing loss of freedom must necessarily also result. The individual no longer stands in society like a tree in the forest; instead, he resembles a passenger on a fast-moving vessel, which could be called Titanic, or also Leviathan. While the weather holds and the outlook remains pleasant, he will hardly perceive the state of reduced freedom that he has fallen into. On the contrary, an optimism arises, a sense of power produced by the high speed. All this will change when fire-spitting islands and icebergs loom on the horizon. Then, not only does technology step over from the field of comfort into very different domains, but the lack of freedom simultaneously becomes apparent—be it in a triumph of elemental powers, or in the fact that any individuals who have remained strong command an absolute authority.
The details are well known and well described; they belong to our own-most experiences. It may be objected here that other times of fear, of apocalyptic panic, have existed that were not accompanied and orchestrated by this automatic character. We leave the question open here, since the automatism only takes on a frightening aspect when it reveals itself as one of the forms, as the style, of the cataclysm—as Hieronymus Bosch so unsurpassably depicted it. Whether our modern instance represents a very unusual kind of fear or whether it is simply the return of one and the same cosmic anxiety in the style of the times—we will not pause on this but will rather raise the opposite question, which we think of crucial importance: Might it be possible to lessen the fear even as the automatism progresses or, as can be foreseen, approaches perfection? Would it not be possible to both remain on the ship and retain one’s autonomy of decision—that is, not only to preserve but even to strengthen the roots that are still fixed in the primal ground? This is the real question of our existence.
It is this same question that is concealed behind all the fears of our times: man wants to know how he can escape destruction. These days, when we sit down with acquaintances or strangers anywhere in Europe, the conversation soon turns to general concerns—and then the whole misery emerges. It becomes apparent that practically all of these men and women are in the grip of the kind of panic that has been unknown here since the early Middle Ages. We observe them plunging obsessively into their fears, whose symptoms are revealed openly and without embarrassment. We are witness to a contest of minds arguing about whether it would be better to flee, hide, or commit suicide, and who, in the possession of full liberty, are already considering the means and wiles they will employ to win the favor of the base when it comes to power. With horror we also sense that there is no infamy they will not consent to if it is demanded of them. Among them will be healthy, strapping men, built like athletes. The question must be asked: why do they bother with sports?
However, these same men are not just fearful—they are also fearsome. The sentiment changes from fear to open hate the moment they notice a weakening in those they feared only a moment before. It is not only in Europe that one comes across such congregations. Where the automatism increases to the point of approaching perfection—such as in America—the panic is even further intensified. There it finds its best feeding grounds; and it is propagated through networks that operate at the speed of light. The need to hear the news several times a day is already a sign of fear; the imagination grows and paralyzes itself in a rising vortex. The myriad antennae rising above our megacities resemble hairs standing on end—they provoke demonic contacts.