Ernst Jünger as Cultural “Anarch”

I have been working my way through a rare, and very rewarding, series of conversations with Ernst Jünger, the First World War hero and author. The volume, The Details of Time (1995), was published toward the end of the writer’s life. Jünger was very much a nonconformist of the “right” just as Orwell was of the “left,” though both men defied ideological stereotypes. For example, the German writer asks

Just what is a democracy? People claim to have democracy everywhere, even in countries where it is absolutely non-existent in practice.

Speaking of villains as depicted in his anti-totalitarian novel On the Marble Cliffs (1939), he notes that such characters were alternately interpreted by contemporaries as Hermann Goering and Josef Stalin. But these types are not unique to any specific time or place. For him, they could exist “in either the East or the West.”

In a dream one encounters the type. Then, in reality, one encounters the incarnation of that type in a weakened guise…. People talk about diabolatries and black masses, whereas all they have to do is go and see the corner grocer.

The point is that evil is not something to be considered merely in its exceptional forms, otherwise we trivialize it by the very act of sensationalizing it, and overlook its more mundane (but also more pervasive) manifestations in everyday life.

Then there is the example of spiritual objectivity in Jünger’s “anarch”—a man who is morally involved with people around him yet at the same time aloof from mass society—as seen in the novel Eumeswil (1977). He describes his main character as one whose “will is not touched by historical events…. That is why he has chosen the role of bartender: it gives him the leisure to observe and even slightly despise the whole society of power-wielders. He can recall that the same thing happened under [Roman emperor] Tiberius, and he enjoys this.” It is undoubtedly a reflection of the author’s metahistorical objectivity in a life which spanned the reign of the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, Nazism and the postwar German republic.

“I have never felt any identity with any regime,” Jünger proclaims. But his aid to Jews and anti-Nazis during the German occupation of France belies any notion of opportunism or apathy. Whatever one may think of his idiosyncratic outlook, there is something to be said for an intellectual vocation which stubbornly insists on transmitting “eternal values… that bestow true permanence” amid the transient fads and crimes of a world where “culture is in decline.” This also highlights the difference between the anarch, as Jünger understands it, and the anarchist who desperately seeks to transform society (often by terroristic means) rather than to transcend it. The irony he repeatedly touches on is that the path of the ideologue often makes the world worse instead of better. By contrast, Jünger’s vision can be described as a principled “pragmatism.”

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