Insouciance

Gordon A. Craig

  • Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss, 1914-45 by Thomas Nevin
    Constable, 280 pp, £20.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 09 474560 9

Martin Venator, the narrator of Ernst Jünger’s 1970 novel Eumeswil, is chief steward to the reigning Tyrant of the small city state of that name. He also serves as a reference librarian to the Tyrant’s chief of staff. In neither capacity is he overworked, and he has plenty of time to indulge his own historical interests and to ruminate on the character and problems of power, on the rise and fall of demagogues and dictators, on nihilism and anarchism, and on nature and its mysteries. He has all but broken with his father and brother, who, as old liberals and supporters of the elective monarchy overthrown by the Tyrant, disapprove of his choice of career. This does not greatly concern him. He does not believe in the possibility of a return to the past and as a fatalist has no expectation of an indefinite perpetuation of the present regime. Meanwhile, he is happy to serve the Tyrant, although with no deep commitment to him. Referring to himself as an anarch, he says: ‘I am in the service neither of the political present nor of tradition; I am a blank page. I am open and potent in every direction.’

Readers who came to the novel with a prejudice against jünger for his anti-republican politics during the Weimar period and his service under Hitler may have seen in Venator a defiant self-portrait. Thomas Nevin, in what might be an oblique reference to the passage, reminds them that there is a difference between literature and politics and that ‘the Autor, the anarch, is a Rousseauist construct, safeguard of an egoism that takes itself as the only possible society.’ And in any case, he adds, ‘to a degree ... Jünger’s extraordinary personality, his dazzling acuity of perception, the range of his life’s experience as a soldier, world traveller, and (not least) as a reader, seem to warrant the Olympian self-removal.’

Nevin’s book is essentially a study of Jünger’s writing rather than of his politics, although it by no means diminishes the importance of the latter and is acute in its analysis and criticism of it. But the Jünger who interests him chiefly is the writer whose primary themes are ‘that warfaring is an ineradicable part of our psyche, that technology’s gifts to us are sinister, and that beauty in nature’s order is our stay against confusion and despair’. He makes clear at the outset his conviction that

Jünger has carried out a mission far more arduous than his death-dealing in enemy trenches; he affirms an intelligible cosmos of constantly unfolding mystery and beauty, and he affirms the human mind as its worthy celebrant. That is so from his first writing to the present, and the more remarkably since he has experienced the terror and tyranny that could justify a negative verdict on humanity and its future.

This will clearly not satisfy those who are troubled by other aspects of Jünger’s career.

Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895, the son of a pharmacist, who early awakened in him an interest in biology and entomology, and encouraged his reading. A romantic interest in Africa led him in 1913 to run away from home and enlist in the French Foreign Legion, but his father was able to abort this enterprise, and Jünger returned and finished gymnasium before the outbreak of war in 1914. He immediately enlisted in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers, was advanced to lieutenant of a company of storm troops, fought with distinction on the Somme, at Cambrai and in Ludendorff’s Offensive in 1918, was wounded seven times, and in 1918 was awarded the order Pour le Mérite, the Army’s highest decoration. After the end of hostilities, he served in the Reichswehr until 1923, briefly studied marine biology in Naples, and then turned to literature.

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