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.
Edit after the fact: We went with Circe. Largely because I spent the first few nights sleeping on the floor with her to comfort her – an endpoint akin to the power of Circe’s wand to turn men to animals.
My wife and I adopted a Siamese kitten today and in the week before we take her home we have to find her a name. I’d long planned on Tristram or Toby Shandy (which would’ve nicely echoed Saki’s Tobermory) but my wife’s rigid gendering won’t permit it so I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon searching for alternatives. This led – as all things do – to books with cats and writers with cats and ultimately writers with Siamese cats. They were apparently very popular in the 1930s-1950s so quite a few writers of the period – Jean Cocteau especially, it seems – owned the breed.
I then remembered the above picture of Ernst Junger with a cat – and that I’d been curious in the past to figure out the name of his pet cats. I found it featured a Siamese and after a bit of creative German googling I dug out this lovely blog entry. The passage below – from Strahlungen II – unfortunately didn’t include a page citation and it would take me a few days to get the relevant volume anyway so here’s what I’ve got on his cat “Prinzessin Li-Ping:”
“The little thing is beige-coloured; head, tail, and legs are as if smoked with Chinese ink. There is a graceful exquisiteness in her, Far Eastern suppleness with suggestions of Bamboo, Silk, and Opium.”
Das Tierchen ist beigefarben; Kopf, Schwanz und Beine sind wie mit chinesischer Tusche angeraucht. Es steckt grazile Erlesenheit in ihr, fernöstliche Geschmeidigkeit mit Anklängen von Bambus, Seide, Opium
It’s a good description of ours as well but I doubt it will win me the name.
From Ernst Junger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios:
It often appears to us that the purpose of the depths is to generate the surface, that rainbow-colored skin of the world whose sight so intensely moves us. In other moments, this colorful patterns appears to be composed only of signs and letters by which the depths speak to us of their secrets. Consequently, whether we live within or without, we are gripped by the anguish of one who is always turning away from wonderful riches in whichever direction he goes. Anxiety seizes us during the austere enjoyment of solitude, just as at the festively decorated table of the world. (On Crystallography, pgs 3-4)
From Ernst Junger’s Aladdin’s Problem:
Kornfeld was a renowned sculptor, but he no longer practiced. He said: “We sculptors are like the butterfly collectors who hang up their nets because the butterflies are dying out. For us, it is heads that are growing rare …”
He added: “For me, a tyranny would be advantageous, though naturally, I can’t say that out loud.”
“But Herr Kornfeld – our experiences would tend to confirm the opposite.”
“My dear Baroh, you are confusing tyrants and demagogues – that is a common error in our time. The demagogue stirs one and the same dough; he is a pastry chef, at best a plasterer and painter. The tyrant supplies individual shapes. Down to his bodyguards. Think of the Renaissance: tyrants ruled everywhere, from every small town up to the Vatican. That was the great era for sculptors, for art in general.”
From Ernst Junger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios (pg. 8, Telos press edition), a further elaboration of the episode mentioned at the end of Storm of Steel
During the skirmishes near Bapaume, I had Tristram Shandy in a handy little volume in my map case, and it was still with me when we stood ready by Favreuil. Since we were kept waiting back at the artillery placements from morning until late afternoon, things soon got very boring, though our position was not without danger. So I began to turn its pages, and before long the entwined style, riddles with an assortment of lights, established itself as a secret accompanying voice in a chiaroscuro harmony with the outer circumstances. After having read a few chapters with many interruptions, we finally got the order to attack; I put the book away and by sunset I already lay wounded on the ground.
I picked up the thread again in the field hospital, as if all that lay between had been a dream or belonged to the content of the book itself, as the activation of some extraordinary mental power. I was given morphine, and I continued reading, at one moment awake, at the next in a half-twilight, so that a variety of different mental states chopped up and re-parceled the myriad layers of the text one more time. Fever attacks combated with Burgundy and codeine, artillery barrages, and bomb-droppings over our zone, through which a streaming retreat had already begun, during which we were sometimes completely forgotten – all this only increased the entanglements, so that today I am left with only a blurred memory of those days, of a half-sensitive, half-frenzied agitation in which even a volcanic eruption would not have astonished me, and during which poor old Yorick and honest Uncle Toby were the most trustworthy characters that presented themselves.
In these worthy circumstances, I entered the secret order of Shandeans, to which I have remained loyal to this day.
From Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel (pg 87-88 of the Penguin Classics edition). Dreams are – towards the back half of the work especially – one of his favored metaphors for battlefield experiences:
In quick time, we had crept up to the enemy barrier…. With a shout of ‘ You are
prisoners!’ we launched ourselves like tigers into the dense white
smoke. A desperate scene developed in fractions of seconds. I
held my pistol in the middle of a face that seemed to loom out of
the dark at me like a pale mask. A shadow slammed back against
the barbed wire with a grunt. There was a ghastly cry, a sort of ‘Wah!’ – of the kind that people only produce when they’ve seen a ghost….After one shot, the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger.
Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. Sounds
came from the trench in front of us. Shouts rang out, a machine·
gun clattered into life. We jumped away. Once more I stopped in
a crater and aimed my pistol at a shadowy form that was pursuing
me. This time, it was just as well it didn’t fire, because it was
Birkner, whom I had supposed to be safely back long ago.
An excerpt from Ernst Junger’s War Diaries, included in Martin Meyer’s afterword to Junger’s Aladdin’s Problem. War Diaries (or Paris Diaries, 1941-1944??) seems to have been translated into English and published by Columbia University press at some point, but I’ve never managed to find a copy and have yet to splurge on the French Pleiade edition of a few years ago.
While reading [Maurice Pillet’s Thebes, Palais et Necropoles], I again realized how thoroughly, albeit on a lower level, our museum-like existence corresponds to the cult of the dead among the Egyptians. Our mummy of culture parallels their mummy of the human image, and our anxiety about history matches their anxiety about metaphysics: we are driven by the fear that our magical expression could go under in the river of time. Our resting in the bosom of the pyramids and in the solitude of caverns amid artworks, writings, implements, icons of God, jewelry, and rich funeral goods is aimed at eternity, albeit in a more subtle fashion.
From Ernst Junger’s Alladin’s Problem:
I could tell from my very first visit to his library that he possessed an inner order. For literati, books are the costumes by which they judge one another. Hume, Machiavelli, Josephus Flavius, Ranke in long, brownish golden rows – there is a mood in which books directly radiate substance.
From Ernst Junger’s Eumeswil:
“The political trend is always to be observed, partly as a spectacle, partly for one’s own safety. The liberal is dissatisfied with regime; the anarch passes through their sequence – as inoffensively as possible – like a suite of rooms. This is the recipe for anyone who cares more about the substance of the world than its shadow – the philosopher, the artist, the believer.” (124)
The anarch is no individualist, either. He wishes to present himself neither as a Great Man nor as a Free Spirit. His own measure is enough for him; freedom is not his goal; it is his property. He does not come on as foe or reformer: one can get along nicely with him in shacks or in palaces. Life is too short and too beautiful to sacrifice for ideas, although contamination is not always avoidable. But hats off to the martyrs.” (280)