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Between Order and Disorder: Ernst Jünger on the Marble Cliffs

There are several examples that help us grasping that particular zeitgeist lived in the first half of the 20th century. A book such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain gives us a description of the moral and spiritual decomposition of the then bourgeois society. At this time, in the bashed and defeated post-war Germany, nihilism had turned to be a dominant moral disposition. Oswald Spengler announced the decline of the West amidst the hubris of the Great War; Nietzsche’s will to power was convincing posthumously a younger generation of German intellectuals; and Heidegger was caught exasperating at the end of philosophy. This aura of decadence marked the period, and to that faith in the inevitable progress of humanity so specific and characteristic of the 19th century there followed an intellectual and existential despair. Ever since the moment when the idea of progress was contested by the destruction caused by the war, that a sense of moral disorientation had necessarily to follow.

It is this crisis of the idea of progress that we can feel all over Ernst Jünger’s oeuvre, from his famous diaries of his experience in the Great War (In Stahlgewittern), to his “prophetic” work Der Arbeiter and his late novels. But one book of his in particular allows us to penetrate in the nihilistic zeitgeist of the inter-war period: his Auf den Marmorklippen, published at the zenith of Hitler’s power, in 1939. This little book – On the Marble Cliffs, in English –, forgotten in the same way which its author is neglected by the intelligentsia, tells us more about our own times – which are also times of crisis – than several of the “scientific” works that are widespread today, and which denounce a supposedly evident return of fascism. In this jüngerian tale, the despotic figure of the tyrant appears in its most violent essence, as the result of a cosmological disorder that hits society in all of its foundations. On the Marble Cliffs is a book that needs to be remembered, the meaning of which seems today almost as intelligible – and appropriate – as when it was first published.

It is still unnecessary to state that over Jünger’s name there still hangs over a certain idea of complicity in relation to the German drama: if not of direct participation in the Nazi regime, at least of timid collaborationism. Pierre Manent said that it was curious that someone like Jünger which contributed so vigorously to promote the nihilist zeitgeist that destroyed Weimar Germany had written the most famous critique of the Nazi regime.[1] Was the publication of the Marble Cliffs an exercise in apology or, even more, a clear enough rejection of national-socialism by such a reputable figure in the German nationalist milieu? Thomas Mann had hoped so. The German Nobel-prize winner wrote that the Nazi Party had lost its “only talent” after the publication of Jünger’s little book.[2] The truth is that the fast success of this book – which sold 14 thousand copies in two weeks – caused some discomfort within the Nazi hierarchy; it was actually the Führer himself that spared Jünger from troubles related to the publishing of the Marble Cliffs. Many years later Jünger recognized his luck on this episode: if he happened to be someone else other that the Pour le Mérite war hero, this story would have been certainly different.[3]

But the Marble Cliffs are more than circumstantial criticism. In the midst of the phantasmagoria that ornaments the narrative, in between all the symbols that cross the reader’s eye in this little book, there is hidden an essential drama of human existence which makes its appearance in the most violent way – as total destruction – in the final moments of the book, through the terrific flames that consume the old Marina and the involving landscape that had become so much familiarized to the reader. The book’s essential problem can be seen as the problem of order and disorder, i.e. how the logic of chaos is always found hidden underneath the mantle of an orderly society. The aesthetics of destruction consume the book’s final pages in ways such as if Behemoth, the biblical monster treated by Hobbes as a symbol of disorder, violently jumped out of its cave in order to subjugate civilization.

This had been the problem of the 20th century. Two dreadful wars took place in a world in which the most fundamental intellectual and moral premise was inexorable progress. It is in this spirit of decomposition witnessed in Jünger’s text that we are taken, from paragraph to paragraph, to its logical conclusions: from the idyllic life lived by the narrator in his hermitage, between the library and the garden, to the complete disorder that hits the once orderly city that is destroyed by the flames of destruction. We cannot dissociate the autobiographical elements that we are able to find in the course of the narrative: those elements point clearly to the author’s own experience, not only as a dedicated entomologist, but also as an “old warrior” who had fought in “failed raids.” This last element is important as an historical mark: the narrator of the Marble Cliffs will explain that the war in which he had himself participated against the “free peoples” produced devastating consequences, similar to the corrosive effect of the frost that harms the tree. Such an effect can only make explicit and visible its consequences many years after. That was also the result of the nihilistic mindset in post-war Germany, which culminated in Hitler’s consolidation in power.

Being a story that has as its background the decline of society, Jünger makes an effort to uncover the reasons of the decline – the narrator’s story follows a descending line similar to the platonic vision of the degeneration of political regimes. The bucolic scenery at the Marina and the orderly and organized life dedicated to discreet studying in the comfort of the hermitage on the marble cliffs is recalled by the narrator with that melancholy characteristic of the remembrance of good times past; and it is opposed to the progressive advent of evil personified by the Oberförster. It is a gradual advent of evil, almost correspondent to a cosmological rupture which breaks the good order of the cosmos, causing effects that become clear through time.

The figure of the Oberförster symbolizes disorder. It is perfectly clear why the forester won: the conditions that lead to the final destruction took its form gradually, in a process of moral, intellectual and cultural decomposition that allowed for the assault by the forces of disorder. As the narrator explained, the Oberförster could only act when things had started to crumble by its own. Through the various manifestations of society’s decline, the decline of traditions and customs appeared with sum relevance: in a determined moment, disorder hits the traditional tributes to the death; these reverenced tributes were vulgarized, and the secular posthumous tributes paid to the city’s heroes profaned.

Disorder appears in the book through the symbol of the forest. The forest appears in the Marble Cliffs as the last hiding spot for the “scoundrel” and the crooks, for the rejected and desperate men. These foresters seemed to multiply every time the foundations of civilization appeared to be crumbling. Their leader, the head forester, is almost the archetype of the anti-human, an enemy of freedom and human dignity – he is the man that hates nature, pure air, human joy, and any intellectual pursuits. Several interpretations have connected the figure of the Oberförster to Hitler, and the character certainly counts with some traits similar to the führer; however, underneath this jüngerian figure we cannot escape identifying the many traits of Plato’s tyrant, the worst and most disgraceful of men. The Oberförster is described as opposed to the good and the beautiful, as an enemy of civilization and as the personification of disorder – a disorder that culminates in the destructive moment of the exception, but its essence is more profound than the extreme violence of war. This man’s victory is especially due to disorder in the soul. Disorder’s force, in the Oberförster, is exercised against order; nevertheless this force of disorder against order is only successful when society’s decomposition corrupts its foundations to such a degree where any return to the previous ordered state reveals to be impossible.

The Great Marina’s moral transformation affected, as we saw above, the respect for the death; and it also affected the role of the youngsters in the city – who gradually become a disturbing factor that foments social agitation; that social polarization created a state where factions multiply and battle each other, and is going to strengthen some “primitive beliefs” that replace the old gods of the city. The Oberförster takes advantage of this polarized environment created by progressive moral and cultural decline and, as in a striking analogy to Plato’s Good City, emerges in the way a tyrant always emerges – in a society where the disorder of the soul is the rough reality. This tyrant, as a symbol, is similar to the form of the Oberförster in its cosmological proportions and in his particular psychological traits: Jünger’s book attempts to be a story of decline and degeneration, aligned with Plato’s degeneration of the polis; the slaughter witnessed in the last pages of the book emerges with the dreadful act of the tyrant who makes a provocative evil smile when challenged, only to show that there are no moral limits when it comes to reducing an adversary to ashes – an adversary must be always an existential enemy, because the tyrant lives in profound and systematic terror in front of any trace of authentic freedom. Similarly to Plato’s tyrant, the forester can be characterized as the man that no longer distinguishes between dreams and real life; for him there is no longer any distinction between necessary desires and unnecessary desires; the will for destruction is to him of equal value in relation to the edification of order – indeed, when he sees the opportunity of conquering the idyllic scenery of Marina’s bay, the Oberförster inverts the meaning and the form of moral language, subjugating order to disorder, the tranquility of the hermitage to the devastation caused by the flames, freedom and aristocratic courage to the servility of the slave, beauty to brute force. He is the man that lives with the worst men, who transforms citizens, or free-men, into slaves: he is the tyrant that will create the worst state of servility, a state of slavery made by slaves. The disorder of the platonic soul is treated here in a deep and concrete way – culminating in the destruction caused by the spread of the flames.

We said above that the forest appears in this book as symbol and space of disorder. If the degeneration of the human soul – treated in the Marble Cliffs as a gradual decomposition of traditions, habits and customs – corresponds to moral degradation and to the advent of the tyrant as symbol, the atmosphere in which he prospers must be seen as the status naturalis that replaces civilization. The forest, propriety of the tyrant, is similar in its meaning to the Behemoth that emerges, in Hobbes, in the face of civil society’s disintegration and that must then be defeated and subjugated by the greatest power ever seen, the Leviathan. Behemoth, just like the forest, is the symbol of disorderly instincts that are not subject to the hierarchical superiority of morals and reason. In this sense, the forest can be seen as that natural condition of man that is always present underneath the surface – as nature in its brutal and anarchical state, as Hobbes had conceived. This is the essence of the problem of order – guaranteeing that the state of nature is effectively surpassed –, a problem Hobbes solved through the edification of the modern State. The 20th century, with its two world wars, reflects the contours of this problem; similarly, the status naturalis appeared to erupt in the face of liberal society’s tiresome state of debility.

It is essential to underline that the idea of the forest would be explored by Jünger in later works as a space for freedom, as that last refuge of the “solitary”, the free-man, vis-à-vis the total State, in which are shown explicitly and violently the logical consequences of the development of technique and the technicization of human life. In his Der Arbeiter we can already see the way Jünger treats technology as a totalizing phenomenon: the forest appears as a romantic and free space – the amazon rainforests appear in the essay as one of those truly free spaces in the world that will disappear – that is condemned to disappear due to the inexorable dissemination of technology. The modern world has created a completely interdependent globe, a giant intercontinental supply chain, where any differences between men become less and less clear with time. Geographical and cultural particularities and differences are stamped with a sort of “expiry date”, from which they no longer exist as effective realities; any opposition to this process must only be seen as a romantic rebellion against this new technicized world – a romantic rebellion that, by its own nature, is short-lived. Not even the will to power – which for Jünger, as a nietzschean, had universal validity – can be of any worth in the world of technique. Any sort of disdain for death shown by an aristocratic and warrior-like spirit is not enough to surpass the fascination caused by “mechanical death.”[4]

Freedom in the world of technique – and in face of a giant bureaucratic state apparatus – became for Jünger the essential theme for the postmodern epoch, explored in such works as Der Waldgang. In such a world of technocrats, the forest appears as a refuge for the free-man, and the Anarch as the necessary figure of this last man that still breaths the spirit of freedom. The forest is thus explored by Jünger as the space where man can relate directly with freedom; against the interconnected and interdependent “globalized world” the forest is a symbol of resistance, just like freedom is essentially the freedom of the solitary. A sole man is capable of proof that freedom is still alive: in this sense freedom finds an aristocratic essence. Even if in the Marble Cliffs it is not technique being represented through the figure of the tyrant, we witness this aristocratic freedom in several passages on the book – being especially illustrative that resistance demonstrated by the prince that was killed by the Oberförster. In the midst of the suffering caused by death, the noble traits of that young aristocrat had become so salient that the prince’s facial traits turned to be sublime; the way this young prince conquered fear in that decisive moment of death was particularly touching to the narrator: there still were men capable of recognizing a “superior order.” Thus, freedom emerges also an essential issue in the Marble Cliffs – as resistance and last refuge against the tyrant and a world consumed by its own destruction.

Jünger maybe is seeking, as the fundamental lesson of this little book, to persuade the reader to revisit that classical sense of historical evolution and movement as degeneration and regeneration. Like the process of the degeneration of the polis, the city’s decomposition fits the logic of cosmological decomposition – all the events, voluntary or involuntarily, seem to accelerate or enhance the decline of the city. As Jünger explains, this process is actually a necessity. To make human order flourish again one needs to sink into flames.[5] It is in that sense that the narrative of the Marble Cliffs finishes: pointing to a future of renewal. The tough and sad abandonment of the hermitage was actually the necessary endpoint that would lead from anarchy to a future reign of order.

The author does not share the idiosyncratically modern premises that substantiated the belief in progress as an irreversible historical movement. Jünger is the thinker that writes in the exact and fundamental moment of the crisis of that idea of progress. Underneath civilization and its comforts and blessings, there is always the figure of the Oberförster, the symbol of disorder, ready to unleash destruction in the moment that moral decomposition makes society incapable of distinguishing between the just and the unjust. As in the Hobbesian scheme, the natural condition of man can be found always under the surface of civilization. The slightest blow can mean an opportunity to the forester. We have no doubts about the reasons that led the Nazi hierarchy and its lackeys to worry about this book – such a regime cannot ever allow and bear the existence of free men. In times such as these we live in – times characterized by ever-growing social and political polarization –, reading this little book can be a lesson for many that seek to understand the corrosive effects and destructive consequences of nihilism.



[1] Pierre Manent, “The Return of Political Philosophy”, First Things (May 2000).

[2] Helmuth Kiesel, “Ernst Jüngers Marmor-Klippen”, Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur, Vol. 14  1 (October 2009).

[3] Julien Hervier, Entretiens avec Ernst Jünger, (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), 91.

[4] Ernst Jünger, O Trabalhador: Domínio e Figura, trans. Alexandre Franco de Sá (Lisbon: Hugin, 2000) 121.

[5] Jünger, Sobre as Falésias de Mármore, trans. Rafael Gomes Filipe (Lisbon: Vega, 1988), 74.

Francisco Carmo GarciaFrancisco Carmo Garcia

Francisco Carmo Garcia

Francisco Carmo Garcia is a master’s candidate at the Catholic University of Portugal, where he is grantee of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. He also writes for the Portuguese journal O Diabo.”

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