top of page

Ernst Jünger: The Anarch at Large

Ernst Jünger isn’t a name on many English speakers’ lips, although in his home country of Germany he is recognised as one of that nation’s greatest literary figures, if not one of Europe’s. Evidence of this esteem is the Goethe prize Jünger was awarded in 1982 by the city of Frankfurt, which caused something of an uproar, for reasons that will become clear. For English speakers, this would be rather like receiving a Shakespeare prize, if there was an equivalent.[1] The one area of English language literature in which Jünger’s name might not be entirely unfamiliar is in the annals of psychedelia. In the 1950s and 60s, Jünger tripped a few times with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss discoverer of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Hofmann was a fan of Jünger’s writing; his unclassifiable work The Adventurous Heart, first published in 1929 and then in a heavily revised edition in 1938, literally changed Hofmann’s life. Every page of Jünger’s jewelled and gnomic prose in that unusual work made the “miracle of creation” evident to Hofmann, well before his celebrated psychedelic bicycle ride in 1943, which is generally acknowledged as the first consciously taken “acid trip.”[2] In Jünger’s kaleidoscopic collection of observations, dreams, descriptions of flowers, meditations on colour, ruminations on chance, and other seemingly disconnected jottings, Hofmann believed that “the uniqueness and imperishable in every human being was touched upon.” “No other writer has thus opened my eyes.”[3]

In 1951, Hofmann had the opportunity to return the favour, opening Jünger’s eyes to the effects of LSD. Jünger later transmuted his experience with Hofmann into literary expression in the elliptic and allusive Visit to Godenholm (1958), which, I suspect, is unique in drug literature in being a fictional account of a psychedelic experience in which no mention of drugs or intoxication appears.[4] In 1970, Jünger’s non-fiction account of his own drug experiences, collected over many years and with many substances, Approaches: Drugs and Intoxication,was published. Like much of Jünger’s huge body of work, it is still awaiting translation into English. Something else that Jünger shared with Hofmann was a long life. Jünger died in 1998 at the age of 102, having been, among other rare distinctions, among the few who could say they saw Halley’s comet twice, a fact he enshrined in his book Twice Halley (1987). Ten years later, Hofmann died at the same age, passing away in 2008.

The Adventurous Heart introduced two of Jünger’s central themes, which he was to refine and deepen throughout his later work. These were what he called, borrowing from the French, désinvolture, which does not have an exact English translation, and “stereoscopy.” Dictionaries give “disinterest,” “casualness,” and “offhand manner,” as English equivalents of désinvolture, all of which suggest something of what Jünger means. It is for him a detached, disinterested – but not uninterested; the distinction is crucial – perception of phenomena, rather in the way that the philosophical method known as phenomenology approaches its subjects. Fundamentally, it is a way of getting the “self” or ego out of the way, with all its biases and subjectivity, and perceiving things as they appear, in all their complexity, and not simply as agents of our desires. Such an attitude leads, Jünger claims, to a perception of things that is dual, revealing surface and depth, the outer skin and inner heart, simultaneously, hence stereoscopically. [5]

One element of stereoscopy is an experience of synaesthesia, when the senses seem to trade places, and one hears colours and sees sounds. Arthur Rimbaud, a poet whose work influenced Jünger, was prone to this, as evidenced in his poem “Vowels,” in which A is black, E white, I red, O blue, and U green. Not to be outdone, Jünger developed his own colour scheme for vowels, spelled out in his essay “In Praise of the Vowels,” where he argues for a primal correspondence between language and the world, a kind of ur-sprache at the heart of Being.[6]

Another central theme to emerge from Jünger’s désinvolture, but in a more political – or really apolitical – sense, was his notion of “the anarch.” This is an individual who, while ostensibly accommodating the demands of society, in essence follows his own laws and values and aims. Unlike the anarchist, who openly fights against authority – and hence is still in an “enabling” relationship with it – the anarch works invisibly, under cover, making the minimal surface obeisance, while secretly preparing, if necessary, his escape, a tactic that Jünger portrayed in his major fictional work, Eumeswil (1977). In this admittedly at times obscure dystopian fable – like his contemporary and friend the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Jünger does not make things easy for his readers, although Jünger’s style is nothing like Heidegger’s – Jünger’s protagonist, a historian, observes the currents of power under a future benevolent dictatorship following the collapse of a world state. The kind of cool, detached but engaged observation characteristic of désinvolture is here brought to bear on the machinations of tyrants and the revolutionaries opposed to them. Neither receives Martin Venator’s - Jünger’s protagonist - assent, but he recognizes that until things change, they are realities through which he must manoeuvre.

To say that Jünger’s name isn’t known outside of odd eccentric circles is, of course, an exaggeration. The problem, at least in the English speaking world, is that the reputation he does have among English critics is based on his earliest work. Jünger’s first book, The Storm of Steel, self-published in 1920, and subsequently released to wide acclaim by a Berlin publisher, is a blistering, gripping, aptly explosive and disturbingly graphic account of his experiences in WWI. It made Jünger famous at twenty-four and became a best-seller and is the work he is still most known for today.[7] Jünger emerged from the war a highly decorated hero, receiving the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite, the prized “Blue Max.” He was wounded seven times, and can be seen as a German Sgt York, the American infantryman who was equally honoured in the Great War.

Yet while most literature to emerge from the “war to end war” focused on its absurdity, loss of life, pain and suffering – think of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) Henri Barbusses’ Under Fire (1916), and the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, who died in 1918, just before the armistice – Jünger’s account was a celebration of it. Not, as one might think, as a militarist or a nationalist, although to be sure, Jünger took a professional interest in military strategy and was indeed a nationalist, with a great love of Germany. Jünger’s perspective on war was epic, Homeric, and what a reader finds in his still riveting account is how combat brings out the heroic virtues and intensifies consciousness. It is an account of how, as Ernest Hemingway, another war writer, expresses it, the war made Jünger “feel cool and clear inside,” “when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally…”[8] Combat, like other “limit conditions,” can free man from, in Colin Wilson’s term, “the robot,” that mechanical part of us that has us live life automatically. Danger, threat, crisis, can loosen the robot’s grip. This is why someone like Jean-Paul Sartre, as ideologically opposed to Jünger as one could get, confessed that he never felt as free as when he was in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo – oddly, he and Jünger were in Paris at the same time. It is also why many Londoners remembered the Blitz as the happiest time of their lives. A paradox, perhaps, but true. Crisis can make us feel more alive – hence the predilection of Wilson’s Outsiders to, in Nietzsche’s words, “live dangerously.”

“Living dangerously,” we can say, is something Jünger did, in different ways. It was a way of embracing “adventure,” something Jünger wanted to do from early on. In his early teens, he joined the Wandervogel, “wandering birds,” a German youth movement that rejected urban life and headed to the country, getting back to nature and off the grid a century before today’s eco-warriors, who are among his readers. More than one historian has noted the similarities between the “wandering birds” and the hippies of the 1960s.[9] Before enlisting at the start of WWI, in 1913, at the age of eighteen, Jünger ran away from his affluent middle-class family to join the Foreign Legion. Travel to exotic lands always excited him – again Rimbaud – and his plan was to abandon the Legion and head for equatorial Africa. He made it to North Africa but was found by legionnaires soon after he went AWOL. Remarkably, his father, a successful chemist, was understanding, and promised him a proper “African diversion” – the title of Jünger’s fictional account of his exotic jaunt – upon completion of his studies.[10] Jünger’s youthful excursion set the tone for much of his later life; adult journeys took him around the globe. Yet before his father’s promise could be kept, the adventure of Jünger’s life began. In 1914 the guns of August blazed and Europe was at war.

After the war the now famous and heavily decorated Lieutenant Jünger studied zoology at Leipzig and Naples and continued his lifelong fascination with entomology; an amateur in the best sense, there are, in fact, more than one species of beetle named after him; his collection later numbered some 40,000 specimens, some of them gathered from the trenches. Around the same time Jünger began writing political journalism, mostly for right wing, conservative and military journals, among them the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi daily newspaper; he later accused it’s editor of plagiarism, when they published an excerpt from his work without permission or credit. Jünger was a stern critic of the Weimar Republic and of democracy in general – too susceptible to demagogues - and was a part of what was known as the Conservative Revolution, which included the jurist Carl Schmitt and the historian Oswald Spengler (Schmitt was a Nazi; Spengler poked fun at Hitler). The mechanization of war he had experienced convinced Jünger that a new age had begun, that of the technological Titans.

These were twentieth century upgrades of dark archaic forces which, like the genie of Aladdin’s lamp, would soon get out of control – a metaphor Jünger unpacked in his disturbing funereal parable Aladdin’s Problem (1983). This meant the end of any cosy bourgeois dream of liberalism and progress. Jünger’s The Worker (1932) envisions a mechanised, technologically driven coming totalitarian state, something along the lines of the dystopian dictatorship of his contemporary Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927).

The dictatorship that did come to power had its eye on Jünger. But although he was approached twice by the Nazis and offered a seat on the Reichstag and membership in the gleichgeschaltet (“conformed”) German Academy of Writers, Jünger declined. His political sympathies were on the right, but they did not include thugs and rabble like the Nazis, whom the aristocratic Jünger saw as little more than criminals.

During this time Jünger’s acquaintances included Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Toller, two left-wing playwrights, as well as figures on the right, like Schmitt. His friendship with the anarchist Erich Mühsam led to the Gestapo searching his rooms for correspondence. They found nothing – Jünger always covered his tracks – but Mühsam died in a concentration camp in 1934. Jünger’s internal opposition to Hitler took the form of his lapidary political fantasy, On the Marble Cliffs (1939), an exquisitely polished parable of how the serene, contemplative existence of two poetic botanists – Jünger and his brother Friedrich – is destroyed by the dark forces of the Chief Ranger – read Goering - and the tragedy of the ineffectual opposition’s inability to stop his rampage. Although Jünger dismissed the idea that the work was a strict allegory of Nazi Germany – rather of totalitarianism in general, he said - the parallels are too obvious to ignore. The book sold as well as The Storm of Steel and it is remarkable it was allowed to remain in print.

With the outbreak of WWII, Jünger was called back to service and promoted to captain. Aside from a gruelling visit to the Eastern Front, for the most part Jünger sat the war out as part of the general staff in Paris, where his duties as censor left him with much free time. (This was how he came to be there at the same time as Sartre. Interestingly, another inhabitant of Paris at the time was the Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, whom Jünger mentions more than once in his work.) Jünger became acquainted with many artists and writers living in the occupied city, figures like Picasso, Braque, Cocteau, the rabid anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Celine and the fascist writer Robert Brasillach, later executed as a collaborator. Jünger recorded his Parisian adventure in his extraordinary journals, where accounts of treasonous conversation share space with those of his erotic encounters, his dreams, his long solitary walks, and meetings with artists and literati, as well as his attempts to help Jews and others subject to Nazi terror.[11] This work alone confirms that Jünger was a born diarist; the short, aphoristic note or thought was his real metier, not the novel or even the essay.

Jünger also found himself orbiting close to the circle of high ranking military men who were opposed to Hitler and plotted the failed assassination attempt on 20 July, 1944. He kept his distance, sceptical of its success. His intuition proved right, and Jünger was supposedly saved from sharing the gruesome fate of the conspirators by Hitler himself, who reportedly said “Nothing happens to Jünger.” The war hero had exchanged books with the future führer years before, and Hitler respected him; the only other writer to stand up to Hitler, as it were, was the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, although Hamsun, unlike Jünger, was a fan of the Nazis. As we’ve seen, Jünger was also meticulous about evidence. As Jean Cocteau said of him, “Some had clean hands, some had dirty hands, but Jünger had no hands.” Nevertheless, Jünger was forced to retire from service and the death of his son, sent on a suicide mission in Italy, was felt as retaliation.

Toward the end of the war, Jünger circulated a curious utopian text, The Peace (1945), in which he argues for the need of a new Christian age to heal the world’s ills. Throughout WWII, Jünger read the Bible cover to cover, twice, and although it was not until shortly before his death that he converted to Catholicism, here a kind of millenarianism seems to enter his work. Alongside this was the figure of the anarch, whom he presages in the character of the “forest fleer,” the theme of The Forest Passage (1951). This is a philosophical excursion diametrically opposed to the ethos of The Worker, a volte-face that Jünger acknowledges divides his work into two periods, what he ironically calls the Old Testament and the New. No longer celebrating the advent of a highly efficient, automated technological dystopia, Jünger now looks to the self-sufficient, incorrigibly independent individual to claim the freedom that is his birth-right and which is quickly being absorbed by what Nietzsche, an influence on Jünger, called “the monster, the State.”

Like others troubled by the growing pervasiveness of technology into all aspects of life, Jünger turned to science fiction as an means of communicating his concerns; he was, in fact, a great reader of Aldous Huxley, and Brace New World especially. In Heliopolis (1949) – sadly yet to see an English translation – Jünger depicts the political gangsterism and feudal violence of rival powers battling over dominance in a future city of indefinite location. As the “forest fleer” does in The Forest Passage, Lucius de Greer, the protagonist, finally lights out for parts unknown, escaping the authoritarian state. Jünger’s distrust of technology doesn’t prevent him from predicting developments. The “phonophore” that appears in Eumeswil – a kind of sequel to Heliopolis – is a remarkably accurate anticipation of the iPhone. It is, like the iPhone, a multiple use device, and the possessors of its highest grades have access to functions the lower ones do not. The “luminar” seems a kind of combination internet, Wikipedia, and virtual reality machine, a device that allows its user to “replay” events in history in a kind of 3D, HD display, with which one can participate.

Another disturbing anticipation is the kind of animatronics at the heart of The Glass Bees (1957). Here, Captain Richard, a former cavalry officer down on his luck – there is no place for him in the modern world – is forced to take a job at the Zapparoni Works, where a Walt Disney-like techno-savant outdoes nature by creating automated creatures that are superior to the “real thing.” The glass bees of the title extract nectar more efficiently than the originals, who, like many feeling the effect of automation, are put out business by them. Disney may seem too innocuous an allusion for this usurpation of the real by the simulation, so perhaps Dr Robert Ford of Westworld is more apt.

Jünger’s defence of personal liberty, nature and the environment, has gained him a younger readership in recent years, especially among the ecological minded generation, as well as among those fascinated by his fastidious articulation of the importance of dreams, myths, poetic and mystical experiences and other forms of an ancient wisdom sadly in need of a renaissance. He has acquired readers around the world and counted German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand among his fans. He is not to everyone’s taste. As mentioned, controversy broke out in democratic Germany over a right wing nationalist receiving the Goethe prize. The late literary scholar George Steiner, while calling for more English translations of Jünger’s work, also chides his lapidary sangfroid, his dandy-like aestheticizing of danger, and mandarin unconcern about messy humanity, such expressions of désinvolture serving, for Steiner, as evidence of “an atrophy at the vital centre.”[12] And the attitude of many remains that, however Jünger may have opposed Hitler “internally,” his disavowals do not dispel the received misperception that he was a Nazi fellow-traveller, or that his youthful celebration of “battle as inner experience,” the title of a version of The Storm of Steel, prepared a generation for war and inspired it to go to it. His later work, full of mystical significance, poetic insight and an advocacy of a free humanity participating in a living nature, is often conveniently forgotten, while the old accusations are dutifully trotted out, often by leftist critics, unconcerned about their own doubtful ideological heritage.

A short essay such as this can only introduce Jünger to readers unaware of him, and unless one reads German, a great deal of his writing – on travel, culture, philosophical and psychological questions, and unusual fauna and flora – will remain unavailable to them. What there is in English is limited, but the major works are there. And for readers interested in an unbuttoned Jünger, the series of dialogues he held with his French translator Julien Hervier are also in English. [13] They are a fascinating read, if only for getting a sense of the perspective of a man who survived two world wars, saw Halley’s comet twice, and has a prize in entomology named after him. No bad for an centenarian anarch.

[1] There is in fact a Shakespeare prize, but it leans more toward performance than writing; ironically, it was started in 1937 by the Hamburg merchant Alfred Toepfer, as an expression of his love for England and his advocacy of a united Europe, incidentally a dream of Jünger’s as well. WWII scotched that idea, and the next prize wasn’t awarded until 1967. [2] Oddly enough, I started writing this article on 16 April and put the finishing touches on it today, the 18th. Tomorrow, the 19th, is “Bicycle Day,” a world-wide celebration of Hoffman’s original wigged out ride. [3] Albert Hofmann LSD: My Problem Child (Los Angeles: Tarcher Books, 1983) pp. 145-46. [4] Ernst Jünger Visit to Godenholm (Stockholm, Sweden: Edda Publishing, 2015) translated by Annabel Moynihan. This edition contains remarkable illustrations by the artist Fredrik Söderberg. [5] I write about Jünger’s stereoscopy in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination (Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books, 2017). [6] For an interesting discussion of Jünger’s ideas about language, especially the alphabet, see Richard Firmage The Alphabet Abecedarium (London: Bloomsbury, 2000). [7] Although they are radically different books written by very different writers – who nonetheless share several common interests – Jünger’s first book shares with that of Colin Wilson, The Outsider, the status of being the one that superficial critics know and which coloured the subsequent reception of their later works. In both cases, negative assessments of their first and most well-known work led to most of their later work being misrepresented or ignored. [8] Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home,” quoted in Colin Wilson The Outsider (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016) p. 36. [9] The unorthodox Marxist-Kabbalist Walter Benjamin, Jünger’s contemporary and ideological opponent was also associated with the Wandervogel. [10] Ernst Jünger African Diversion (London: John Lehmann, 1954) translated by Stuart Hood. [11] Recently translated into English. Ernst Jünger A German Officer in Occupied Paris The War Journals 1941-1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019) translated by Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen. [12] George Steiner Introduction to Ernst Jünger On the Marble Cliffs (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Modern Classics, 1983, translated by Stuart Hood, p. 14. [13] Julien Hervier The Details of Time: Conversation with Jünge (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995).

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page