Arts & Letters Daily
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Volume 11, No. 1February 2001
WHEN THE GERMAN NOVELIST, DIARIST, AND right-wing ruminator Ernst Jünger turned one hundred years old in 1995, French president François Mitterrand addressed a banquet held in Germany in honor of the occasion. "No one has better grasped than he the advent of the world of technology, its benefits and catastrophes," Mitterrand said. This might have seemed unusual praise to bestow on an author whose early writings on technology, war, and death had earned him the admiration of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and who had commanded a firing squad during the German occupation of France.
No doubt Mitterrand was thinking less of Jünger's ties to fascism than of his later, skeptical ideas about modern technology, especially as they were captured in his futuristic postwar novels. One of these startling works, the recently rereleased The Glass Bees (New York Review Books), depicts a barbarous near future in which "human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible." In today's heady atmosphere of technological enthusiasm, a revival of interest in Jünger's work is under way. Two new biographies of Jünger have appeared in the United States since 1996. In 1999, his correspondence with the right-wing legal theorist Carl Schmitt was published in Germany. And the long-awaited English translation of his diaries of the German occupation of Paris is expected from Columbia University Press in 2002.
Elliot Neaman, a historian at the University of San Francisco and the author of A Dubious Past: Ernst Jünger and the Politics of Literature After Nazism (California), suggests that in his allegorical novels, Jünger presaged the Internet and the rootless, networked culture of Silicon Valley. If so, it was an ironic act of foresight for a man who disdained even the most widespread modern inventionsincluding cars, which he refused to drive.
In the course of his long life (he died at the age of 102 in 1998), Jünger shifted restlessly from one intellectual phase to the next: from aristocratic-minded foe of the Weimar Republic to "national Bolshevik" reactionary, from "inner emigrant" during World War II to science-fiction novelist, from psychedelic-drug enthusiast to nonagenarian diaristall the while conducting research as an amateur entomologist. In nearly all these incarnations, Jünger's defining experience was his tenure as a commander of shock troops during World War I. According to Thomas Nevin, a professor of Greek and Latin at John Carroll University, in Ohio, and the author of Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss, 1914-1945 (Duke), in his early years Jünger had a "chivalric perspective on war, almost an anachronistic position." He was, Nevin explains, "not directly a part of the Prussian tradition, but he represents the Old Germany, the old martial values. Schoolboys in his day looked to the military as we look to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs." But Jünger, who was wounded thirteen times in the war and earned Germany's highest honor for bravery, came to feel that preserving premodern codes of soldierly conduct was impossible in the face of the mechanization and mass mobilization used to carry out the war's carnage.
In 1920, Jünger published what many still consider his finest book, the brutal war memoir The Storm of Steel. Unlike his British contemporaries or his fellow countryman Erich Maria Remarque, Jünger did not see the atrocities of the Great War as an indication of war's meaninglessness. Battle was a worthwhile "inner experience" in his eyes, a genuine and even thrilling proving ground. Still, the extremes of modern warfare suggested to Jünger that the factory model had finally caught up with the front lines, with devastating effects on men and the true warrior ethic. According to Neaman, Jünger saw "the coming technologies and how important they would be." Neaman adds: "Jünger was deeply reactionary, but he's the kind of reactionary who really wants to understand what he's up against." The airplane, mustard gas, mass mobilizationthe very scale and sophistication of the killingthreatened the old-fashioned heroism, authority, and individuality that Jünger valued. Technology's leveling effect might even carry over into civilian life, he worriedand once set in motion, it could not be stopped.
After World War I, writing in newspapers published by Nazis, veterans, and independent fascists, Jünger argued that Germany should be governed by a dictatorship that would "substitute deed for word, blood for ink, sacrifice for phrase, and sword for pen." The Storm of Steel, admired by Hitler and Goebbels, was later included as recommended reading in the Third Reich's school curriculum. Yet for all his seeming support of the Nazi Party, Jünger never joined it. In 1939, he published the novel On the Marble Cliffs, which many readers interpreted as a thinly veiled indictment of the vulgar direction totalitarianism was taking in Germanyand as a mocking caricature of Hermann Göring and Goebbels in particular. Jünger "understood democracy as a totalitarian phenomenon," Nevin argues, and "he interpreted the Third Reich in the same terms." Cultivating a deeply antimodern aristocratic elitism, he felt superior to mass movements on the left and the right.
Because of his good standing with Hitler, Jünger was not punished for writing On the Marble Cliffsdespite the urging of some of Hitler's henchmen. And though he later served as a captain in occupied Franceallowing him to move freely in sophisticated artistic circles, where he met Georges Braque, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose "dirty fingernails" repulsed himJünger continued to have reservations about the Nazis, in part because he began to comprehend what he called "the decimation of the Jews."
After the war, Jünger was "gray-listed" by fellow Germans as a suspect author. For many postwar Germans, Nevin explains, "Jünger's Dionysian views of the First World War were unsettling, because they thought it led to Hitler's warfare state." It was during the postwar period that Jünger began to write science fiction to address his long-standing concerns about technology. The Glass Bees, originally published in 1957, is an example of this approach, an allegorical novel that can be readdepending on one's perspectiveeither as a remorseful meditation on Jünger's role in developing Nazi culture or as a surreptitious plea to resist technological barbarism by returning to the goals and methods of the old German right.
The novel is narrated by an unemployed veteran, Captain Richard, a former cavalryman and tank inspector raised in the glorious traditions of an unnamed but distinctly Prussian army. Captain Richard has since fallen on hard times, because his honor-based ethic deviates from the generally accepted codes of modern life. So he is receptive when a fellow veteran offers to help get him a security job working for the inventor Zapparoni. (In his introduction to the new edition of The Glass Bees, the cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling suggests that the inventor can be read as "a hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney.") Captain Richard interviews for the job at Zapparoni's home, a former monastery turned tech wonderland where, among other inventions, Zapparoni keeps a collection of mobile glass bees. The bees exemplify his technical gift for miniaturization, which plays a key role in his worldwide dominance of movies, household gadgets, and military secrets.
After an inconclusive conversation with his prospective employer, Captain Richard is sent to meet the bees. Soon after, he happens across a water hole filled with dozens of floating red ears. One of Zapparoni's unhappy inventors, a marionette maker, has mutilated his own puppets as a result of an intellectual property dispute with Zapparoni. Confused and enraged by the ears, which bring back battlefield memories, Captain Richard lashes out violently with a golf club, disqualifying himself from consideration for the security job. Zapparoni decides instead to offer him a position as arbitrator, which he accepts. Captain Richard is assigned to administer an extrajudicial court in which disputes such as this between the marionette maker and Zapparoni are resolved. The captain ends up a bureaucratic lackey.
What do we make of this story? Nevin contends that the way Captain Richard is "brought in and co-opted by power is interesting for anyone going through the Third Reich," and so The Glass Bees becomes a cautionary tale in which Zapparoni stands for totalitarianism and Captain Richard stands for the dupe. Neaman, on the other hand, sees Jünger's later novels as "the most popular version of messages to the faithful," bagatelles for reactionariesperhaps even signals to hibernate and wait for the technological and emotional self-destruction of the modern world. In this interpretation, Zapparoni represents not fascism but decadent corporatist democracy, and Captain Richard, as one of the faithful, does whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means he might become corrupted in the meantime.
Whether his technological explorations were a sound response to Germany's awful history or an invitation to repeat it is, perhaps, a question that Jünger himself could not have answered. When Nevin met him, he asked why evil had been at the heart of his work. "Because it is so often hidden," Jünger replied.
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