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But hats off to the martyrs: Ernst Juenger’s On the Marble Cliffs

November 12, 2012 By: John Kindley Category: Uncategorized

I just finished reading Juenger’s novella On the Marble Cliffs (1939) yesterday. Published when he was 44 or so, it’s a great book, although unsurprisingly not as great as Eumeswil (1977), which was published when he was about 82. (He died more than 20 years later, in 1998, at the age of 102.) Next I plan to read the work for which he is still most famous, Storm of Steel (1920), published when he was about 25.

The copy of On the Marble Cliffs I read (which I bought from the seller in “fair condition,” for a more-than-fair price, compared to the alternatives) was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 1970, with an Introduction written by a George Steiner in 1969, the year of my birth. Assuming this Wikipedia article is about the same George Steiner, Steiner wrote the Introduction when he was about 40, and is 83 today. He would have been about 10 when On the Marble Cliffs was first published in Nazi Germany in 1939. According to Wikipedia:

Steiner’s first formal education took place at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris. In 1940, during World War II, Steiner’s father once again relocated his family, this time to New York City. Within a month of their move, the Nazis occupied Paris, and of the many Jewish children in Steiner’s class at school, he was one of only two who survived the war.

According to another article in Wikipedia:

[Jünger] served in World War II as an army captain. Assigned to an administrative position in Paris, he socialized with prominent artists of the day such as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. His early time in France is described in his diary Gärten und Straßen (1942, Gardens and Streets).

Jünger appears on the fringes of the Stauffenberg bomb plot. He was clearly an inspiration to anti-Nazi conservatives in the German Army, and while in Paris he was close to the old, mostly Prussian officers who carried out the assassination attempt against Hitler. He was only peripherally involved in the events however, and in the aftermath suffered only dismissal from the army in the summer of 1944, rather than execution.

His elder son Ernst Jr., then a Kriegsmarinecadet, was imprisoned that year for engaging in “subversive discussions” in his Wilhelmshaven Naval Academy. Transferred to Penal Unit999, he was killed near Carrara in occupied Italy on 29 November.

Steiner’s Introduction, borrowing from Jünger’s journals, is not flattering. He writes:

Admirers of Ernst Jünger, apologists for the right-wing elitism and nationalist mystique he advocated in the 1920s and 30s, have hailed [On the Marble Cliffs] as anti-Nazi. It has been widely asserted that this arcane fable is the only major act of resistance, of inner sabotage, carried out by German literature under Hitler. Jünger himself has been more circumspect, and rightly so. . . . Even the bestial image of the Flayer’s Copse is less trenchant or unambiguous than might appear. The analogy with the concentration camps about which Jünger had heard and intimated a good deal as early as 1939, but against which he never raised a public cry, is evident and graphic. . . .

. . . At the nadir of the Reich, Jünger still joined other Knights of the Order of Pour le merite in commemorative ceremonies in Berlin. . . .

. . . Watching a raid on the Renault works in March 1942, the chevalier of the marble cliffs comments that several hundred are reported slain and over a thousand gravely hurt: ‘but seen from my quarter, the affair looked rather like stage-lighting in a shadow-theatre.’ This is the focus of the dandy. I mean the word in its strong, condottiere sense, as comprehending asceticism and cool courage. The dandy confronts the sum of life but keeps it at gauntlet’s length. Like his counterparts in the dramas of Montherlant, there is one temptation only which Jünger finds it really difficult to resist: . . . the temptation to despise human beings. . . .

A ‘twentieth-century classic’? Perhaps so. And in an almost mathematical sense. On the Marble Cliffs is a theorem of limitation. It enacts the precise incommensurability between a certain cast of abstract humanism or high civilization and the realities of modern terror. In its ritual tranquillity, in its candid suggestion that flight into archaic utopia (the domain of privacy, of aesthetic and antiquarian cultivation) is the only way out, Jünger’s legend embodies a tragic failure of nerve. . . .

Steiner concludes:

The incapacity to feel lest feeling grow corrupt and banal is perhaps the paralyzing dilemma of a classic, necessarily elitist culture. [On the Marble Cliffs] has importance as a statement of this dilemma. The nocturnal word which Jünger himself applies to this condition is tristia. Through it blow the coldest winds from Limbo. Robbed of his only child, seeing Germany collapse into hideous abjection, Ernst Jünger attends a final, absurd meeting of local Nazi officials. He watches Hitler’s thugs scheming their last act of murder or getting ready to scurry for cover. Yet no cry, no leap of rage escapes him. He notes in his diary: ‘I lack the capacity for hatred’. There have been too many moments in our savage time when the absence of hatred is the same as the absence of love.

Thus Steiner’s Introduction is an indictment of both the book and the man. I know not how one can judge the man. The following excerpt will suffice to defend the book:

At the sight I felt tears start to my eyes, but they were such tears as fill us with wonderful exultation together with their sorrow. On this pale mask from which the scalped flesh hung in ribbons and which looked on the fires from the elevation of the torturer’s pike there played the shadow of a smile intensely sweet and joyful, and I knew that on this day the weaknesses had fallen from this noble man with each step of his martyrdom, like the rags of a king disguised in beggar’s weeds. Then a shudder ran through my inmost heart, for I realized that he had been worthy of his forefathers, the tamers of monsters; he had slain the dragon fear in his own breast. Then I was certain of something which I had often doubted — there were still noble beings amongst us in whose hearts lived unshakeable knowledge of a lofty ordered life. And since a high example leads us in its train, I took an oath before this head that from that day forth I would rather fall with the free men than go in triumph among the slaves.

3 Comments to “But hats off to the martyrs: Ernst Juenger’s On the Marble Cliffs”

  1. Well done – the contrast between what Steiner says of Juenger and the passage you chose could not be stronger!

    As you know, I also find Eumeswil unsurpassable among Juenger’s works; yet On the Marble Cliffs is certainly his most poetic and emotional – not to mention, of course, its truly prophetic foresight into the barbarism of WWII, on the German and Soviet sides.

    The English translation is also outstanding. It should also be mentioned that he published this hidden critique of the Nazis right before the war started, at the height of their power, and it almost cost him his life.

    • John Kindley says:

      I concur.

      It seems to me that the point of the anarch is that he is not without will or “political” preferences, and does not categorically renounce action, resistance, or even martyrdom. After all, the narrator of Eumeswil says that the anarch is “also dangerous.” But he also rightly compares the anarchist, in speaking of Benjamin Tucker, to Don Quixote, and to one who has heard the alarm but charges off in the wrong direction, because it appears that the anarchist qua anarchist wills and sets as his goal something that already is: namely, anarchy. The narrator illustrates the confusion in the same discussion of Tucker by cataloging all the different things which various people who have called themselves “anarchists” have willed and seen as the right path to anarchy.

  2. Hey John, you’ll be happy – I just found an ebook version of EUMESWIL. Actually it seems to available in most formats, including epub, pdf etc. Much better than the original pdf we found….


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