Ernst Jünger’s “On the Marble Cliffs” as a parable of staying true to yourself

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From Politosophia, a Russian website I stumbled upon, a nice English summary of “On the Marble Cliffs”, with an original and excellent take on one important message of the book in its title – how to stay true to yourself. Thank you, Olena!

15 квітня 2012 15:03

Olena Semenyaka

National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”

“There are periods of decline when the
pattern fades to which our inmost life must conform. When we enter upon
them we sway and lose our balance. From hollow joy we sink to leaden
sorrow, and past and future acquire a new charm from our sense of loss.
So we wander aimlessly in the irretrievable past or in distant Utopias;
but the fleeting moment we cannot grasp.”

“So I swear to myself in the future to fall alone in freedom rather than to accompany the servants on the path to triumph.”

– Ernst Jünger “Auf den Marmorklippen” (“On the Marble Cliffs,” 1939)

In the “Afterword” (notes) to his novel
written in 1972 Ernst Jünger remarked that the book was noticed far
beyond Germany and was re-published in Riga and Paris at Army’s expense
(the German publishers, naturally, had problems with Goebbels’
censorship). He also mentioned rumors about pirate editions in Ukraine
and Latvia, which spread soon after the end of war, although the first
official translation beyond the Iron Curtain appeared in 1971 in
Bucharest.

In France Jünger served as a captain in headquarters of the German Army Commander for France, General Otto von Stülpnagel,
and was responsible for the “Operation Sealion,” which was the name for
planned invasion of Great Britain, as well as censoring letters and
controlling communication between the Army and the Party. Besides, he
was responsible for French-German cooperation in matters of culture. In
1942 Jünger published his diaries “Gärten und Strassen,” which,
translated in French, made him popular among foremost French
intellectuals, including that of Resistance (Sacha Guitry, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, Paul Léautaud, Céline, Gaston Gallimard, Paul Morand, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Montherlant, and Florence Gould).

After Jünger was banned from publishing
due to refusal to exclude the critical reference to the 73rd Psalm, the
Army published his “Myrdun: Briefe aus Norwegen” in 1943. In spite of
having close relations with many activists of Resistance and even
members of the failed plot aimed at assassination of Hitler (Otto von Stülpnagel and Otto Speidel),
which was attempted on July 20, 1944, Jünger did not participate
directly in the conspiracy, although his tract “Peace, an Appeal to the
Youth of Europe and to the Youth of the World” (1943) was very popular
in this and other circles. His only punishment, as opposed to the fate
of the executed, was dismissal from the Wehrmacht as “unfit for
service.” Hitler, who admired Jünger’s war prose, as usual, forbid
Goebbels and Goering disturb him.

In 1944 his Jünger’s son Ernst
was sent to a punishment battalion for subversive conversations in his
unit. It was told that young Ernst said his fellow soldiers “If we win,
we’ll have to hang Kniebolo” (it is said that Jünger described Hitler
under this codename as a combination of words “knien” (kneel) and
“Diablo” in his French diaries). Young Ernst was killed near Marble
cliffs of Carrara in Italy on 29 November.

“On the Marble Cliffs” is often viewed
as an allegory of Nazi regime; however, in the same notes to the novel
Jünger wrote that it became clear even in the occupied France that this
was the “shoe that fits various feet.” In later interviews he repeated
that such allegories might be viewed as exposition of Stalin‘s
regime. As a matter of fact, in the notes Jünger expressed his
discontent regarding the very political interpretation of the novel
which definitely goes beyond the current and the episodic in human life.

Moreover, Jünger pointed out at his
growing allergy on the word “resistance,” because the main thing is to
stay true to oneself, not opposition or collaboration with the regime
(this idea will be developed in his futuristic novel “Eumeswil” (1977),
where he discusses Anarch’s relation to power and law in particular).
Jünger reminded of the fact that man should be able to show his guts
(reveal his will physically, spiritually and morally) anytime,
especially when there is danger, and this is what the most important.

A noteworthy excerpt from Christian Bourgois’ essay “ERNST JÜNGER: AN AESTHETE AT WAR” (Diaries, Volumes I-III by Ernst Jünger) (1981):

“‘On the Marble Cliffs’ is an
allegorical tale, written in a frozen, humourless, yet brilliantly
coloured style that owes something to the nineteenth-century Decadents
and something to the Scandinavian sagas. The result is a prose
equivalent of an art nouveau object in glass, and the plot is much less
silly than it sounds in précis:

Two men – the narrator and Brother Otho (not to be distinguished from Jünger himself and his own brother, the poet Friedrich Georg)
are aesthetes, scientists, and soldiers who have retired from war to a
remote cliffside hermitage, where they work on a Linnaean classification
of the region’s flora, and harbour a lot of pet snakes. Far below lies
the Grand Marina, a limpid lake surrounded by the farms, the vineyards,
and cities of a venerable civilization. To the north there stretches an
expanse of steppe – land where pastoral nomads drive their herds. Beyond
that are the black forests of Mauretania, the sinister realm of the
Chief Ranger (Oberförster) with his pack of bloodhounds and gang of
disciplined freebooters in whose ranks the brothers once served.

The Oberförster is planning to destroy the Grand Marina:

“He was one of those figures whom the
Mauritanians respect as great lords and yet find somewhat ridiculous –
rather as an old colonel is received in the regiment on occasional
visits from his estates. He left an imprint on one’s mind if only
because his green coat with its gold-embroidered ilexes drew all eyes to
him… (His own eyes), like those of hardened drinkers, were touched
with a red flame, but expressed both cunning and unshakeable power –
yes, at times, even majesty. Then we took pleasure in his company and
lived in arrogance at the table of the great…”

As evil spreads over the land “like
mushroom-spawn over rotten wood,” the two brothers plunge deeper and
deeper into the mystery of flowers. But on a botanical expedition to the
Mauritanian forest in a rare red orchid, they stumble on the
Oberförster’s charnel house, Köppels-Bleck, where a dwarf sings gaily as
he scrapes at a flaying bench:

“Over the dark door on the gable end a
skull was nailed fast, showing its teeth and seeming to invite entry
with its grin. Like a jewel in its chain, it was the central link of a
narrow gable frieze which appeared to be formed of brown spiders.
Suddenly we guessed that it was fashioned of human hands…”

The brothers’ discovery of the orchid
gives them a “strange feeling of invulnerability” and the strength to
continue their studies. But one day, just before the Oberförster
launches his attack on the Marina, they are visited by one of his
henchmen, Bracquemart, and the young Prince of Sunmyra.

Braquemart is a “small, dark, haggard
fellow, whom we found somewhat coarse-grained but, like all
Mauritanians, not without wit.” The Prince, on the other hand, is
“remote and absentminded” with an “air of deep suffering” and the “stamp
of decadence.” This pair, of course, is planning a coup d’état, which
fails when the Oberförster unleashes his blood hounds.

The leader of the pack is called Chiffon
Rouge, i.e. Red Flag, and, in a scene of appalling ferocity, everyone
gets mangled and killed except for the two brothers, who are saved by
the miraculous intervention of their own pet lance-head vipers. Later
(1), at Köppels-Bleck, they find the heads of the two conspirators on
poles, Bracquemart having killed himself first “with the capsule of
poison that ail Mauritanians carry.” But on the “pale mask of the Prince
from which the scalped flesh hung in ribbons… there played the shadow
of a smile intensely sweet and joyful, and I knew then that the
weaknesses had fallen from this noble man with each step of his
martyrdom…” – which description can be compared to the photo of Adam von Trott, as he heard the death sentence, in the People’s Court, five years after Jünger wrote his book.

“On the Marble Cliffs” sold 35,000
copies before it was suppressed early in 1940. How it suppressed through
the censor machine of Dr. Goebbels is less of a mystery when one
realizes that Braquemart was modeled on Dr. Goebbels himself who was
flattered and amused by it, and later alarmed by its popularity among
the officer caste. Jünger himself claimed then – as now – that the fable
is not specifically anti-Nazi, but “above all that.”

And I don’t doubt that he conceived it
as contemptuous, sweeping, Spenglerian statement on the destruction of
the old Mediterranean-based civilization of Europe: the Oberförster
could, at a pinch, stand for Stalin as well as Hitler.

At a meeting of the Nazi Party, Reichsleiter Boulher
is supposed to have said: “Mein Führer, this time Jünger has gone too
far!” but Hitler calmed him down and said: “Let Jünger be!” All the
same, the writer’s friends advised him to get into uniform; and so by
the fall of 1939 he found himself with the rank of Captain, posted to
the Siegfried Line, convinced, by now, that the private journal was the
only practical medium for literary expression in a totalitarian state.”

Notes:

1. The narrator found the heads of the
Prince and Bracquemart during the very battle and brought the head of
the Prince to his house. Later it was put into the foundation of the
renewed temple.

© 2012

8 comments

  • The 'essay' ERNST JÜNGER: AN AESTHETE AT WAR is actually a book review. The author is Bruce Chatwin, not Christian Bourgois, which is the name of Junger's publisher.

  • @anonymous: you are of course correct! It slipped my attention in reading the article. Thanks.

  • @ Reader: Thanks for the clarification and the tip!

    Simon

  • Glad that you enjoyed this short summary of maybe not so popular, but, undoubtedly, one of the most important Jünger's books. I'm also pleased to contribute to your wonderful blog; I often visit it and find your thoughts and updates very heuristic. The figure of the Anarch is of prime importance for my investigation (and, certainly, life), although I try to demonstrate the unity-in-transformation of the pre-war and post-war models of the conservative-revolutionary subject in Jünger's works (Warrior (Soldier), Worker, Waldgänger and Anarch). This is the main idea of the aforementioned essay "Transformation of Ernst Jünger's Alternative to the Bourgeois Individual," which is a preliminary sketch of my thesis.

    Thanks for the correction! Of course, Christian Bourgois is a French publisher of Jünger's books that were reviewed by Bruce Chatwin along with other books by and about Jünger. I have corrected the text and specified the books reviewed by Chatwin at "Politosophia" as well.

    The reader is also right, "Politosophia" is the Ukrainian web-site administrated by my colleague Sviatoslav Vyshynsky. Thanks for appreciation and the info about site!

  • Do you have a copy of On The Marble Cliffs in PDF or Epub? I can't find it anywhere where i live and the copies online are far to expensive for me to afford them.
    Thank you!

  • No, unfortunately, I don't have a PFF-copy of "On the Marble Cliffs" (I worked with its Ukrainian translation), but I have German originals (PDF-files as well) of "Der Waldgang," "An der Zeitmauer," "Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis" and "Eumeswil" (English translation).

  • This is one of the most ridiculous things I have read about Junger. But there is worse. Inspired by Decadents? Could well be Hitler or Stalin? What garbage. The value of Jungers works goes far over your heads.

By SiFr

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