By the time of his death in 1998 at the age of 101, the German author and veteran soldier Ernst Jünger had written enough to fill eighteen volumes with his collected works. The most famous of these (at least in the English-speaking world) remains Storm of Steel (originally In Stahlgewittern), which is Jünger’s visceral account of his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War. Less well known, though no less relevant in our age of growing tyranny, is Jünger’s early novel, On the Marble Cliffs (originally Auf den Marmorklippen), a new translation of which has recently been published by the New York Review of Books.
Set in a quasi-historical Europe that blends elements of fact and fantasy, On the Marble Cliffs tells the story of two war-weary brothers, a nameless narrator and Otho, who have left worldly concerns behind and taken up residence in the Grand Marina, an idyllic Mediterranean country dotted with pagan temples, flourishing vineyards, and Christian monasteries. From their stately retreat carved out of the steep cliffs overlooking the Marina, the brothers spend their days philosophizing in their library, looking after the narrator’s young son, and cataloging the native flora collected in their ever-expanding herbarium.
Unfortunately, not all is well in the deceptively tranquil Marina. From the vast forests located far to the north, the malefic Head Forester and his restive bands of outlaws and warlocks have begun to stir, sowing chaos and discord wherever they rear their heads. “Initially,” our narrator tells us, “we heard only rumors, like dark reports of a pestilence raging in distant ports.” Eventually, however, the rumors become reality as attacks and other acts of violence are committed openly.
Critics have been quick to find an allegory for Hitler and the Nazis in the figure of the Head Forester. Such a reading is not without foundation. After all, On the Marble Cliffs was written against the backdrop of the Nazi transformation of the German state and was finally published in 1939, the year Hitler would lead Europe into war. Moreover, the Head Forester sows turmoil from his fortress hidden away deep within the northern forests, an evocative motif that recalls the symbolism of Germanic mythology and its clever co-opting by Nazi propagandists. The narrator also informs us that the Head Forester, much like Hitler himself, is a master of deceit capable of holding the masses spellbound: “And yet, as soon as a free spirit establishes his hold, the native inhabitants flock to him the way snakes are drawn to an open fire.”
But we should be careful of reducing On the Marble Cliffs to a straightforward allegory. As Jünger himself maintained, this novel is a “shoe that fits various feet.” Comparisons might also be made with Stalin and the Soviet Union and arguably even Napoleon and Revolutionary France. What united these regimes and the tyrants who dominated them for Jünger was the nihilism permeating their core, which revealed itself in their overt hostility to anything oriented toward the past and rooted in the soil of tradition or religious faith.
For the plow and the vine, those antique symbols of civilized order, the Head Forester has no regard: “With his hatred of the plow, grain, grape, and domesticated animals and his revulsion for spacious estates and life lived openly in the light of day, he had no interest in reigning over such abundance. His heart warmed only when moss and ivy turned ruined cities green and when bats fluttered in the moonlight around the Cathedral’s broken cross vaults.” It follows that the Head Forester is less a metaphor for a particular dictator or regime than he is an embodiment of the spirit of negation itself—a chthonic, elementary force opposed to the formative work of culture and civilization. Read together, Jünger’s principal literary and philosophical works can be understood as an extended meditation on the ways the individual, increasingly uprooted and adrift, might grapple with this daemonic spirit, which Jünger identified with the dynamic, totalizing forces driving modernity itself.
It is telling in this regard that the spread of the Head Forester’s pernicious influence coincides with significant moral decline among the ancient society of the Grand Marina. As is so often the case, the source of this decline is veiled in obscurity. The narrator only informs us that upon his and his brother’s return to the Marina from their years at war, they found the merest semblance of the customs that had reigned there since time immemorial: “It was the old life, and yet it was somehow not the same. Occasionally, when we stood on the terrace and looked out over the encircling wreath of gardens in bloom, we caught a whiff of hidden weariness and anarchy.”
Whatever the source of the decline, the weakening of the ancient customs of the Marina provides the Head Forester with the inroads he needs to sow the seeds of his nascent tyranny. “He could only act when things had already begun to falter,” the narrator observes. Here, Jünger touches on a theme well known to the ancients but all too often lost on us moderns. That is, society is not only at risk of succumbing to tyranny imposed by force from without. A society is also at risk of succumbing to tyranny when it loses sight of the inherited customs and traditions that have long served to anchor and safeguard its liberty.
As Friedrich Hayek deftly put it, “Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.” Jünger’s ability to recall this timeless insight in elegant prose makes re-publication of On the Marble Cliffs particularly timely. For in the Western world today, our collective understanding of liberty has increasingly come to mean liberation from all bonds and ties not freely chosen by the individual, often at the expense of traditional norms and institutions.
For one example, consider the growing push for legalization of physician-assisted suicide (the so-called “right to die”) across Europe and North America. While supporters of such a right often make emotional appeals to respect for individual autonomy, such arguments overlook the fact that legal euthanasia has implications that go well beyond the concerns of the individual seeking to end their life. As others have argued in this magazine (see Canada’s Orwellian Euthanasia Regime), practical application of legal euthanasia compromises the integrity not only of physicians sworn to “do no harm,” but also government institutions traditionally charged with protecting life, to say nothing of the families who must deal with the emotional consequences of the death of their loved ones. Indeed, however much we may value the principle of individual autonomy, Jünger warns us that the triumph of an abstract understanding of liberty that pays no heed to the needs of society as a whole is slowly but surely paving the way for the Head Foresters of our time.
In light of the rapidly encroaching chaos brought on by the Head Forester and his minions, the two brothers redouble their efforts to catalog and record the native flora in their herbarium. At one point, they even venture headlong into danger in search of the red helleborine, a rare orchid that occasionally blooms in the midst of forests and thickets. In fact, significant portions of the novel are devoted to the narrator’s lucid descriptions of such flowers and the landscapes in which they grow. Often, these passages are strikingly beautiful. Consider the following:
I followed this aroma and saw that a tall goldband lily from Zipangu had bloomed in the gloaming. There was still enough light to discern the flaming golden stripe and the brown speckles that magnificently adorned the petals. The pistil emerged from its white setting like the clapper of a bell in a circle of six slender stamens. They were dusted with brown powder like the finest opium extract and because they were still untouched by the moths, the delicate sheath in the center of the blossom glowed. I bent over the stamens and saw that their filaments trembled like a musical instrument of nature’s devising, like a carillon which emitted not a stream of notes but a musky essence. It will forever remain a source of wonder how these delicate life-forms are animated by such passion.
In her introduction to the NYRB edition of the novel, Jessi Jezewska Stevens suggests that such passages are reflective of a tendency on Jünger’s part to retreat into aestheticism when faced with circumstances that demand moral decisions. Admittedly, the critique carries some weight. Although disdainful of the Nazis, Jünger spent the Second World War back in uniform, serving as an army captain in occupied Paris, where he spent most of his time socializing at the Georges V Hotel with such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Jean Cocteau. The latter of these would later say of Jünger that “Some people had dirty hands, some people had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.” Yet Jünger consistently rejected all official overtures made to him by the Nazis (including refusing a seat in the Reichstag) and even appears to have been peripherally involved in the Stauffenberg conspiracy against Hitler. Because his involvement was only de minimis however, Jünger managed to avoid the dismal fate of his aristocratic colleagues, suffering only cursory dismissal from the Wehrmacht in August of 1944.
Whatever conclusion one draws regarding Jünger’s wartime conduct, it would be a mistake to conclude that On the Marble Cliffs is primarily or even partly an exercise in shallow aestheticism. On the contrary, by repeatedly emphasizing the sublime beauty of flowers and plants, Jünger directs our attention away from the carnage wrought by the Head Forester and towards that which transcends it—to the “eternal element locked behind the screen of appearances.” Locked as they are in a recurring cycle of germination, blooming, and wilting, the careful study of flowers, like all civilized pursuits, allows us to intimate something of the hidden order embedded in what often seems to be an anarchic natural world. Even if a completed picture of the mosaic ultimately remains elusive, the timeless endeavor to glean something of its contours serves as a riposte to the chaos represented by the Head Forester and his followers. Indeed, “Such is beauty’s effect on power.”
At the same time, there is a sense in which the Head Forester, harbinger of chaos, destruction, and upheaval, is a necessary part of the very order he subverts. After all, every flower that blooms must eventually wilt so that it might bloom again the following season. History suggests that the same is true of civilization, which as the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila reminds us is akin to the “summer noise of insects between two winters.” In the end, one is left with the impression that the bloody triumph of the Head Forester at the novel’s conclusion is something inevitable, as inevitable as the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth, or the eventual implosion of the sun. The tragedy of On the Marble Cliffs is thus no less than the tragedy of civilization itself, which despite its myriad splendors is ultimately doomed to senescence and decline. This explains why the setting of the novel appears like a place unbounded by historical time—the same story of rise and fall, of birth and decay, plays itself out in all times and epochs.
The story of civilization, Jünger tells us, is ultimately a tragic story. Time and again, we are reminded that what is difficult to build is all too easily reduced to so much rubble and dust. But we need not resign ourselves to the fact. On the contrary, there is something fundamentally heroic in the resolve to carry on with the sacred task of recovery and preservation with which we are entrusted, even when the forces of entropy are arrayed against us. Perhaps especially then. As our narrator soberly observes while watching the work to which he and his brother have devoted their lives burn down around them: “We cannot count on seeing our work completed here below, and happy is the man whose will is not too painfully invested in his efforts. No house is built, no plan created, in which ruin is not the cornerstone, and what lives imperishably in us does not reside in our works. We perceived this truth in the flame, and its glow was not devoid of joy.”