essays - julien gracq
The Work of Ernst Jünger in France
I encountered Jünger's work in one of the darkest periods of the last war. Though In Stahlgewittern had already been translated into French (Orages d'Acier), to me his name was quite unknown at the time -- and during those years when publishing in France had become a subdivision of propaganda, an understandable defense reaction caused a French reader, encountering a German author's name in a bookstore window, quite naturally, to pass. And yet, having three hours to kill in Angers during those famine-gray days when train-connections were few and far between (just the title of certain books sends certain mysterious recognition-signals to their intended public), I bought in the station book-stall Sur les falaises de marbre ("On the Marble Cliffs"), which had nothing, if not its cover, to recommend it to me.
Reading on a boulevard bench, and in December, was hardly comfortable, but gasoline restrictions had reduced the din of traffic, and once I opened the book I read it straight through without stopping: the Marble Cliffs left me at the station door, in Hemingway's words, 'as empty, transformed, and melancholy as all high feeling do.'
That the reading of just one book can produce the magic sense of free communication between minds despite all the worst proscriptions of the moment -- that would suffice to make it unforgettable. But through the current of poetry which suddenly disclosed, like a veritable Shield of Achilleus in our ravaged world, that Mediterranean rimmed with phantom glaciers, I gained access, I am convinced, to one of the exemplary works of our time. Not easy to approach, initially protected against over-familiarity by several of those magical and emblematic figures Jünger is so fond of -- like the kind the ancients would encrust in their thresholds -- as well as by the interposition of a certain rather chilly distance, his oeuvre sometimes reminds me of a sealed ark, unwaveringly navigating against our contemporary tides, yet bearing, for the shores where it will anchor, some of the essential values with which tomorrow's world must be resown.
The readership this oeuvre has won for itself in France is, in this regard, significant: it is the very public which has assured the survival and the glory, after long hibernation and concealment, of several of our greatest names; a limited but powerfully radioactive public of initiates likely to congregate around the one link of their shared admiration, immured within their solitary taste for a writer's work as in a tiny fortress which will never surrender. It seems to me that for these readers -- in this age which makes anything into literature, when written works themselves have the grayish and undifferentiated texture of reinforced concrete, when prose gives the impression of being poured pell-mell into ready-made casings -- Jünger represents first of all the writer who sifts his raw materials and admits only noble elements -- a work of the highest caste, which refuses any collaboration with the untouchable. There are certain books today which make your heart leap with pleasure at the thought of all the readers they are going to reject. Not because such works are difficult to scale -- the rocks of Fountainbleau are that -- but because their summit rises into a zone where you begin to feel a delirium of the heights -- le mal des montagnes. These books (which have nothing in common with the monkey islands so prized by those of our contemporary critics who promulgate their teachings there) simply say, by their way of rarefying the atmosphere around them: 'No Bandar-Log here!' Doubtless too -- the matter in this instance perfectly warranting the manner -- such readers are sensitive to the fact that Jünger's entire oeuvre sounds an utterly original note in an age which has based its efficacy on the culture of mass passions: it appeals, after all, to a still-disincarnate aristocracy which would hereafter bear values as the previous one bore arms, an aristocracy of which we lack even the notion of its possibility, though its presentiment haunts our age crippled by having seen entombed, with no hope of reincarnation, such calm, lofty, bounteous figures as the Saint of the Middle Ages, the Philosopher of the Enlightenment, or closer to us, before he turned into a sorceror's apprentice, the Scientist of Modern Times.
French literature since World War II -- and even earlier -- has lived in a state of virtually irremediable secession from the external world, upon which the most thriving of recent literary movements, existentialism, had cast a sort of anathema; when, not long since, literature once again began to concern itself with that world, it was to establish the frigid and detached acknowledgment of a complete incommunicability. Nothing could at first glance seem more disconcerting -- nothing can be more stimulating for the French reader -- than contact with Jünger's oeuvre which frequently and preponderantly strikes me as a Goethean effort -- grave, balanced, vigilant, and rejecting none of the resources of tradition -- to read, and sometimes to decipher, the universe. Fundamentally -- and today's French reader will on occasion regard the fact as a virtual provocation -- this oeuvre is non-urban. The elective bond it restores with the powers of a world still fraternal, still legible, is almost aggressively accompanied by a very marked, very bewildering desensitization of the affective relations man sustains with his kind. A strange world -- studded, one might say, rather than populated by human beings -- in which erotic couples, the powers of friendship, and an inveterate and abundant human society proliferating like a weedy thicket are all eclipsed, giving way to some perfect egregoria which appear to crystallize of their own accord out of the human clay, and which strew Heliopolis, as earlier the Marble Cliffs, with singular human clusters which seem less the precarious combinations of random life than strange and fixed constellations! In the eternal contest between man and the world which bears him, I know no work of our time more powerfully, more tellurically polarized -- no work which, in its momentary isolation (so many hands overwhelm today's world, and so few eyes contemplate it!), is thus polarized for us in a more irreplaceable fashion.
Such contumelious wisdom, such dauntless lucidity in which we are most affected by a sense of distance taken, such sidereal readings of the world as it turns, may also strike us as particularly valuable because achieved during some of the worst moments of our history: the hard, smooth enamel which seems to protect this prose against too familiar a palpation might appear somewhat glacial if we did not know, and were never to forget as we read, that it has been achieved during an ordeal by fire. Like the painter's glaze, the interior reflexion colouring these images borrowed, one sometimes imagines, from a stained-glass window, appears because the war books never cease to show through what I shall call the books of wisdom -- as if, to the engraver's infallible arabesque, the still-audible sound of the anvil lent a secret coruscation. Beyond Goethe's sagesse looms the perspective and the guarantee of an entirely fulfilled life, though fulfilled in an almost decorative fashion: here we detect more uneasily than would a nineteenth-century reader the absence of transition to certain limit-situations; let us say it outright, we tend to miss precisely the sentiment that such wisdom has undergone a trial by fire. Behind Jünger's more focussed and narrower uvre, which has its very glamours to recommend it, we perceive the warranty of a life profoundly tried and tested -- an integrity analogous to that of the pure matter, an ore which rings true beneath the hammer. This uvre, at once so cold nd so intense, has earned its unique place among us, for through it all the moments of a life -- and some of them, we realize, shake that life to its roots -- are saved: at once transcended and preserved; here the writer's congenital make-believe is reduced to a minimum, and the work is thereby entrusted to time as solid and impervious as a seaworthy ship. These are some of the merits which I believe chiefly recommend Ernst Jünger's uvre to the French public -- as for myself, ever since I opened that first book of his, I have not ceased to live in its enriching and stimulating familiarity as one lives among hidden treasures.
translated from the French for The Curfew Press by Richard Howard (originally published in a special "Jünger issue" of the magazine Antaios in 1965).
© John King, 2017. Last updated Thu, 20th May 2010.