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The Forest is Everywhere

“It is essential to know that every man is immortal and that there is eternal life in him, an unexplored yet inhabited land, which, though he himself may deny its existence, no timely power can ever take from him.” Ernst Jünger

The German conservative writer Ernst Jünger is often mistakenly tarred with the same brush as the Nazis, so let me start this review with some reconstruction work. Jünger was never a member of the NSDAP and he twice turned down a seat in the Reichstag. He was courted by Himmler and Goebbels but snubbed both and declined an invitation to join the Deutsche Akademie der Dichtung – the German Writer’s Academy – which was led briefly by Jünger’s equally nationalistic but less fastidious colleague Gottfried Benn. (Early on Benn, another conservative, broke bread with the Nazis but was soon disgusted.) He was a WWI hero – Jünger was wounded fourteen times in the trenches and was the youngest recipient of the pour le Mérite – and unfortunately it is his Dionysian appreciation of the perils of battle – vividly described in his first book Storm of Steel – that informs most English speaking opinions of him today. I say 'informs' but this is a misnomer, as most English readers and critics avoid him because of his unwarranted bad reputation, and so are hardly informed. Yet Jünger was something more than a celebrant of Heraclitus’ dictum that ‘war is the father of all things.’ His allegorical poetic novel On The Marble Cliffs was a thinly veiled and beautifully written critique of totalitarianism in general and the Nazis in particular, but Jünger was so prestigious a national hero that they couldn't ban it. Eventually, he did fall foul of the Reich; he was a conservative thinker who considered Hitler and Co. political thugs and his very visible refusal to collaborate with them was as pointed a criticism as he could make and still survive. He was suspected of involvement in the July 20 1944 attempt on Hitler's life – he was actually on the fringes of it – and one of his sons was imprisoned for 'subversive conversations' regarding the Fuehrer and died soon after. Jünger was a nationalist writer who loved Germany but hated the Nazis and would have nothing to do with them, just as one could, say, love America during the Bush years but have nothing to do with the Neocons.  But because in his early career he extolled the virtues of traditional battle – questionable virtues indeed, but he was not alone in this (Homer, anyone?) – his stock among English readers remains low. This is unfortunate. Jünger is one of the most stimulating (and long lived: he died in 1998 at 102) poetic thinkers of the last century, anticipating a number of themes common to our times: altered states, surveillance societies, the unchecked rise of technology and diminishment of nature, and the need to preserve individual freedom in an increasingly mechanized and managed global world.

The quotation above is from The Forest Passage, Jünger's post-WWII essay on how to maintain inner freedom in a society increasingly bent on instituting conformity. First published in 1951, it was aimed at Germany’s recent Nazi past, its possible Soviet future, and the cultural leveling and consumer consciousness sadly associated with western democracies. Its first English translation (by Thomas Friese) is published by the Telos Press, who should be applauded for making more of Jünger available to English readers; their previous efforts include Jünger’s Nietzschean essay On Pain and the unclassifiable The Adventurous Heart, a collection of short prose pieces on a wide variety of subjects, displaying Jünger’s enviable ability to ‘read’ the surfaces of things in order to extract their inner meaning. (My review of it can be found here: http://realitysandwich.com/165435/rs_review_2/)

Like many in the post-war years, Jünger was concerned with the rising anonymity and pervasiveness of the State and it is against its seemingly unstoppable encroachment into our personal lives that The Forest Passage is aimed. The ‘unexplored yet inhabited land’ that lies within us is Jünger’s ‘forest’, an inner (yet sometimes outer) ‘temporary autonomous zone’ ( in Peter Lamborn Wilson’s phrase) that one can enter, provided one has the courage, determination, and will to take on the challenges of being an ‘internal exile’. Readers of Jünger will know that the figure of the ‘forest rebel’ is a kind of prototype of Jünger’s more realized character of the ‘anarch’, the central theme of his late novel Eumeswil. Jünger’s ‘anarch’, however, is not the same as an anarchist. The anarchist needs society, if only as something to tear down, while the anarch seeks a way to maintain his or her freedom within it, while avoiding its dehumanizing effects. The anarch’s resistance can be invisible, unlike the anarchist’s, and his ‘state’ is the one that lies within him, not the one in which he is forced to live. In a way, The Forest Passage aims at providing the reader with a guide to preserving his or her ‘self’ while subjected to the unavoidable pressures of modern government, much as Jünger’s more belligerent and cantankerous English contemporary Wyndham Lewis did in his early work The Art of Being Ruled. (Lewis too served in WWI and his account of his experience – very different from Jünger’s – can be found in his memoir Blasting and Bombardiering.)

“To have a destiny, or to be classified as a number – this decision is forced upon all of us today,” Jünger tells us, “and each of us must face it alone.” This may smack of idealistic elitism yet Jünger is not selling us reserved seats in an ivory tower. As a captain during the occupation of Paris, Jünger knew too well the results of political violence – he risked his own safety more than once by helping some escape it – and he informs his readers that “we cannot limit ourselves to knowing what is good and true on the top floors while fellow human beings are being flayed alive in the cellar.” (Readers of On the Marble Cliffs will recall that ‘flaying’ is the Head Ranger’s chief means of torture.) Nor does Jünger shy from offering images of very visceral resistance, remarking that in olden times the ‘inviolability of the home’ was ensured by the ‘family father who, sons at his sides, fills the doorway with an axe in his hand.” Yet such muscular defense may be less appropriate to our own time, and can too easily be used to support undesirable aims, such as the ‘right’ to bear arms, even if, as Jünger surmises, one such ‘father’ per street in Berlin circa 1933 would have led to a very different result.

More relevant for us, I believe, is Jünger’s emphasis on the encounter with the self, that is at the heart of the ‘forest passage’. Against the forest, that symbol of ‘supra-temporal being’, whose teaching is ‘as ancient as human history’, Jünger posits ‘the Titanic’, a symbol of technological might heading for disaster. Although many today take the idea of a ‘forest passage’ literally, and in different ways, try to be ‘off the grid’ and ‘self-sufficient’, that option is not open to all. Can we, Jünger asks, remain on board our careering ocean liner, and retain our autonomy, by strengthening our roots in the ‘primal ground’ of Being which we find by discovering our self? The means Jünger suggests for achieving this are myth, religion, the imagination, intuition, and even esotericism; Jünger has a surprisingly early mention of Gurdjieff. All of these are ways of contacting and drawing on the deep, primal forces that lie within us and which our increasingly standardized existence seeks to obscure. It is only through our ‘victory over fear’ – engendered by daily doses of ‘the news’ – that the threat of catastrophe diminishes, and we best achieve this by entering the forest’s path and following it to its end. It is then that we can determine whether freedom is more important to us than mere existence, can decide whether how we are is more important than that  we are. As Jünger writes ‘the edge of the abyss is a good place to seek your own counsel’ – he is nothing if not quotable – and these days its seems the abyss is everywhere. But, as Jünger tells us, so is the forest, that ‘harbour’ and ‘homeland’ we all carry within us. Read this book. By entering the forest we may yet find our way out of the woods.

The Forest Passage

Ernst Jünger

Telos Press

ISBN 9780914386490

December 2013