Your Book Review: On the Marble Cliffs
Finalist #11 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]
What kind of fiction could be remarkable enough for an Astral Codex Ten review?
How about the drug-fueled fantasies of a serial killer? Or perhaps the innovative, sophisticated prose of the first novel of a brilliant polymath? Or would you prefer a book written in such fantastically lucid language it feels more like a dream than a story? Possibly you’d be more interested in a book so unbelievably dangerous that the attempt to publish it was literally suicidal. Or maybe an unusual political book, such as an ultraconservative indictment of democracy by Adolf Hitler's favorite author? Or rather an indictment of both Hitler and Bolshevism, written by someone who was among the first to recognize Hitler as a true enemy of humanity?
I picked On the Marble Cliffs, because it is all of that at the same time.
This review has three aims.
To persuade you that On the Marble Cliffs is so unique, so beautiful and so absurdly courageous that you should at least know about it.
To contextualize it in such a way as to enhance your appreciation in case you actually read it.
To expose what in my opinion is the actual point of this book, but which (no doubt due to its many other attractions) all reviews of it I have read have missed entirely.
The German Catastrophe
The obvious frame for this book is what has been fittingly termed the German Catastrophe: the fate of Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century, as viewed from the perspective of German nationalists who were not Nazis — the perspective of people like Ernst Jünger.
Germany had entered modernity without democracy. The Kaiserreich (German Empire) had united the many small German states, aggressively worked to catch up with industrialization, built a state to rival France and Great Britain, and remained authoritarian throughout. Commoners had negligible political influence. They did get social insurance, but not through their own political power but granted top-down, as an appeasement to undermine socialist movements. Civil marriage, secularized state education, prospering state universities and a long series of modernizing laws kept increasing state power. And that meant executive power. There were parties, a parliament and a newly homogenized judiciary, but they had little power to check the executive.
And this entire development was accompanied by a lot of theorizing about this new German nation. Much of this theorizing ended up justifying authoritarianism, by making quickly-spreading myths about how obedience to authority, respect for aristocracy and love for tradition were uniquely German traits that set Germans apart from the French and the Jews and other dubious foreigners. Such myths, and opposition to them, colored the German population’s hard work to get accustomed to industrialization, urbanization, education, rapid population growth, militarization, national media and various culture wars.
This had seemed to work okay-ish while Bismarck, wielding both enormous ruthlessness and enormous political acumen, had navigated Germany through the trials and tribulations of the late 19th century, largely at the expense of France. But in 1890, Emperor Wilhelm II had taken over authority with less ruthlessness and much less political acumen. While his populace remained nearly unable to influence politics, Wilhelm II made critical political mistakes, especially in dealing with other European powers.
These mistakes culminated in the first World War. You know how that one went.
Germany’s defeat led into Germany’s first real democracy. Everyone was very obviously new to this. The right attacked the new state, falsely claiming it had needlessly capitulated. The left also attacked the new state, because it wasn’t Soviet-Union-like enough. There was a lot of political violence. The massive damage incurred in the war, and the restrictions and reparations Germany had accepted in the peace settlement, put massive strains on an already fragile political system. Elections were tumultuous and frequent. Hyperinflation caused a huge crisis in 1923, and the Great Depression of 1929 was another huge disaster for Germany. Overall, the abolition of authoritarianism was widely felt to be a mistake.
This seeming mistake was fixed when Hitler stepped in. And you know how that one went.
The author in his time
One remarkable witness to this entire catastrophe was Ernst Jünger. In 1938, when he picked up the pen to write Auf den Marmor-Klippen (On the Marble Cliffs), he was 43 years old and a complicated man in a complicated situation. He was first and foremost a highly renowned soldier. He had the Pour le Mérite, the equivalent of the Medal of Honor in the Kaiserreich, which would entitle him to a decent stipend if the Kaiserreich hadn't been gone for twenty years. He was clearly brilliant, especially as a writer, very well connected and exchanged many letters with important men on the political right. He made a living as an author, mostly because his first book, the World War I memoir “Storm of Steel”, was a great success and continually got reprinted. He had followed it up with a string of books, all nonfiction — almost all memoirs, about the war, or both. And he had written a flurry of political articles, mostly in ultraconservative and nationalist magazines. On the Marble Cliffs is his very first fiction novel. Or he claimed it was fiction — but he was fooling nobody.
Jünger wrote for an audience that was very familiar with Storm of Steel and, because of the autobiographical nature of all of his preceding work, with him as a person. His books revealed him to be a highly perceptive, highly but coldly intelligent, very erudite, sensation seeking… sociopath. He has masterful eloquence and a keen interest in nature. Even in the trenches of the World War, where he enjoyed “hunting down” enemy soldiers with sniper shots, he seemed more interested in the dealings between the insects that bumbled through this hellscape than in how his fellow soldiers inwardly felt about what was going on. And his protagonist in the Marble Cliffs is both the first-person narrator and almost exactly the same guy! All of the following points are true both for the protagonist of this novel, and the author at the time of writing.
He lives with his brother on the edge of a small town in a fairly rural area with an old Christian culture and strong traditional crafts of wine making and fishing, overlooking a large body of water, across which is a mountainous foreign country: Alta Plana in the book, Switzerland in reality.
They are veterans of a great war, which their side lost, and have only recently distanced themselves from their organized veteran community, because that community is being corrupted by the influence of a charismatic demagogue who initially impressed the narrator/author but whom he has since recognized as purely evil.
Their society, and all the traditional values they hold dear, are crumbling under the violent, terrorizing infiltration of this charismatic demagogue’s thuggish, murderous followers.
The brothers are highly educated in philosophy and classical literature, and have strong metaphysical leanings, but are not equipped with much historical or sociological, or any economic, understanding of what is happening.
They deeply appreciate and carefully study nature. To be fair, Jünger at least makes his protagonist more interested in botany than in his own favorite field of entomology. But the plants the narrator studies are almost all native to the area where Jünger lived when he wrote this.
The narrator/author is an astonishingly intense aesthete, but towards his fellow humans (except his brother) quite cold-blooded and distant.
He has next to no sense of humor or irony.
He basically doesn't “get” people. He notices what they pay attention to and which philosophies they espouse, but his models of their motivations rarely go beyond basic drives towards safety and power. Just like almost all of Jünger’s memoirs, On the Marble Cliffs does not contain any dialogue, nor any other evidence of complexity in the characters.
His emotional range spans only from a kind of tired nostalgia to the reckless joy of intoxication, punctuated by his most prized feeling by far, the gleefully murderous “bloodthirst” of mortal combat.
So everyone who had read some Jünger, which at the time of publication would likely include most of the German population and definitely most of the Nazis, could see right through the facade of fiction. It is an obvious conceit that made the book just barely publishable, in a time and place where saying outright that the Nazis were disgusting savages would have gotten everyone involved a headshot. After 1945, Jünger did admit that the book was (also) a commentary on the political reality of its time. And that he knew perfectly well that in publishing this “fiction” he was playing with his life. And still he got it published, uncensored, in Germany in 1939, just before Hitler started the second World War.
Today the most widely accepted history of the subject is that Jünger was only saved from a grisly fate by the personal intervention of Hitler himself, who loved “Storm of Steel” and presumably wouldn't have liked to admit that his favorite author utterly despised him. And it would have been very tempting to just not admit that, because before the Nazis came to power, Jünger had sympathized with them, although he never counted himself among them. Hitler had sent Jünger fan letters; the responses have unfortunately been lost. Jünger’s many political rants in the 1920s do contain several explicit endorsements of the strength of the Nazis and of their value as allies to Jünger’s vague and contradictory nationalist cause. By the time he wrote the Marble Cliffs, he had stopped endorsing them. But this history made it easy for the Nazis to publicly pretend he had just written a fictional novella, or maybe he was talking about Bolshevism or something, but surely he didn’t mean them. It was an Emperor’s New Clothes situation, where nobody dared to say out loud what everyone could see. Although additional reprints were verboten in 1942, the excuse of a lack of paper due to the war was perfectly plausible and didn’t betray the discomfort with the content that nevertheless is well-documented to have been present among the Nazi ranks.
All of that is to say we can safely dispense with the charade entirely and accept that this book is about the Nazis. It makes general points on the nature and fate of tyranny that do apply to Bolshevism, but the Nazis are the immediate and obvious instance of tyranny to which this book clearly reacts. And it is written by someone who had walked among the Nazis, had previously been friends with some of them, exchanged letters with many of the best-informed men especially in the military, and was perceptive enough for his opinions to deserve much of the confidence he states them with.
Besides this conceit, the other concession to the political realities Jünger makes is that the book makes no mention of Jews. The world he is describing is fictional, but it is an amalgamation of European cultures that all had some Jews, so this absence is conspicuous. Obviously Jünger couldn't possibly have seen this book published if it depicted Jews in any way that wasn’t extremely negative. I guess he was unwilling to do that. In the 1920s, Jünger had ranted against “globalist” liberal Jews several times, and once even argued that one couldn't be both a Jew and a German. But he saw nothing wrong with being an orthodox Jew, openly admired Zionism, expressed in letters complete revulsion with Nazi antisemitism and had even publicly spoken out against the pseudoscientific racial theories of the Nazis. After writing this book, when serving as an officer again in France, Jünger went on to save a couple of French Jews from deportation and death, at moderate risk to his own life. Later he’d discuss the Kabbalah with Gershom Sholem, the brother of his childhood friend Werner Sholem. For these reasons, I imagine he did not see Jews negatively enough for the Nazis, and was too uncompromising to pretend that even his narrator did. I think this dilemma fully explains why there are no Jews in this book.
In 1935, when Winston Churchill for example still publicly admired “the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force” of Adolf Hitler, Jünger claims to have already understood the bottomlessness of Hitler's depravity by noticing he was using the word “Vernichtung” (annihilation) way too much. He was remarkably right, years before most could see it, but even more remarkably his method of understanding was a poet's acute sense of word choice! And from then, even though he agreed with nationalist dictatorship as a goal and method, he distanced himself from National Socialism because he was disgusted with the vile character of the leader of this particular nationalist dictatorship. If that doesn't show you the peculiar kind of man Ernst Jünger was, I don't know what to tell you.
The craft and the poetry
You all know the wild grief that besets us when we remember times of happiness. How far beyond recall they are, and we are severed from them by something more pitiless than leagues and miles.
The “marble cliffs” in the title of this short novella unite senses of beauty, majesty and danger, which is programmatic for this entire book. It begins with a visionary description of life in the traditional society of “the Marina” in an overwhelmingly beautiful state of paradise. The narrator lives on the edge of this society in a “hermitage” with his brother, his housekeeper and his son. The latter has a strange power over the local population of poisonous snakes. This opening act is without question the most elaborate celebration of poetic beauty I have ever read. Superficially it could be dismissed as purple prose. But due to Jünger’s clever use of poetic techniques in what at first appears to be prose text, there’s a rhythm, a density and a lucidity to it that makes it pretty much a very long poem, and gives it an intoxicating quality which is most apparent when you read it out loud.
In the autumn we feasted like sages and did honour to the exquisite wines in which the southern slopes of the Marina abound. When in the vineyards between red foliage and dark grape clusters we caught the jocund calls of the vintagers, when in the little towns and villages the wine-presses began to creak, and the odour of the pressed grape skins drew its heady veils round the farms, we would go down to the innkeepers, coopers and wine-growers, and drink with them from the full-bellied jug. And there we would always meet with gay companions, for the land is rich and fair, so that in it flourishes untroubled leisure, and wit and humour are its unquestioned coin.
I know this works, because I did an experiment. I read this book aloud, to a room full of people who were smoking pot. The book is short and the plan was to read all of it over the evening. I have read to pot smokers occasionally, but with this book it was different. They were enjoying it very much for the first couple of chapters, and exclaimed many times it was “perfect” for pot. But some hours, chapters and joints in, when the narrator goes on an expedition into a fantastically beautiful forest, they were so utterly overwhelmed by the intensity of the descriptions of nature they asked me to stop. I and the only other sober person in the room were the only ones who were willing to continue. We all had very intense dreams that night.
Once we had broken through the thick hedge of dogwood and blackthorn we entered the high forest, territory where the blow of an axe had never resounded. The ancient trunks, the pride of the Chief Ranger, stood gleaming damp like pillars with their capitals hidden by the mist. We walked among them as if through a spacious hall, and, like the magic setting of a stage, festoons of ivy and clematis blooms hung down towards us out of the void. The ground was piled high with mould and rotting branches, in the bark of which fiery red mushrooms had sprung up, so that we felt for a moment like divers wandering among coral gardens. Wherever one of the mighty trunks had fallen from age or struck by lightning, we stepped out on to a little clearing on which the yellow foxglove grew in thick clumps. On the rotting ground the deadly nightshade bloomed in profusion; on its stalk the dark purple calices shook like funeral bells.
It comes as no surprise that Jünger had much practice writing that way, from putting into his diaries a lot of his dreams and his numerous drug experiences. Jünger had long been inclined to deeply poetic descriptions of the real events he described, but this intensity at this length is genuinely new to his writing. Wherever he can use plurals he prefers them over the singular, wherever he can use more melodic and beautiful verbs (like when the characters “step out on” rather than “walk into” clearings) he does. Maybe the pretense of the narrator not being himself allowed Jünger to wallow in his characteristic aestheticism, take it to an extreme and arguably to the point of self-parody.
Skip to the next heading if you don’t care about translation
The extreme language of this book made me doubt there would be any translation into English that could do it justice. After all, if you throw this last excerpt into DeepL you get:
After breaking through a dense fringe of blackthorn and cornets, we entered the high forest, in the grounds of which the blow of the axe had never sounded. The old trunks, which formed the pride of the head forester, stood in the damp glow like columns whose capitals were hidden by the haze. We walked among them as through wide vestibules, and like the magic work on a stage, ivy vines and clematis blossoms hung down on us from the invisible. The ground was covered high with mulm and decaying branches on whose bark mushrooms, burning red cup fungi, had settled, so that a feeling of divers walking through coral gardens crept over us. Where one of these giant trunks was tossed by age or lightning, we stepped out into small clearings where yellow foxglove stood in dense clumps. Belladonna bushes also proliferated on the rotten ground, on whose branches the flower calyxes in brown violet swayed like death bells.
It’s still pretty, and it works on a matter-of-fact level. None of it is just wrong. But can you see how it has a lot less of the dreamlike quality? A “fringe” is a geographical feature, while the “hedge” emphasizes its role as an obstacle in a journey. Those “old” trunks are less poetic than “ancient” ones. A “head forester” is a job description, while a “Chief Ranger” is a seminal figure. The “vestibules” are a literal translation of the original, but the English word is used a lot less than German “Vestibüle” was back then. So that’s a word you may need to work to understand, which gets you out of the story’s flow, so “spacious hall” is better. There are even more such nitpicks to be made even in this short paragraph, but my point is these difficulties pervade every single paragraph of the book. ChatGPT very similarly fails to overcome them.
Since January, there is a new translation by Tess Lewis, which has the advantage of being available on Kindle. I’ll spare you another repeat of the same paragraph and just say I think DeepL did most of this translation. But Tess Lewis did improve on many of its word choices and I’ll grudgingly concede this translation is good enough. It still sounds too modern for me, too much like prose and too little like poetry.
Therefore, all previous and following excerpts are from the Stuart Hood translation, published in 1947, which I was astonished to find does pull it off! Let me assure anyone who doesn’t speak German, or doesn’t study translation, that this one is absolutely exemplary and surely represents years of painstaking work. Stuart Hood was a Scot who knew German very well. Like Jünger he was a veteran officer, and he needed German for his intelligence missions in World War 2. This is his very first published translation of an entire book. It harnesses a considerable talent, which is also evidenced by how Stuart Hood went on to become an accomplished writer himself, a BBC executive, a professor and several other notable things. And it is clearly a labor of intense love — right after the war, while working on it, Hood corresponded with Jünger and even went to visit him at least twice and they talked at length about the art of translation and how to translate specific points of the Marble Cliffs.
The end of this last quote, “on its stalk the dark purple calices shook like funeral bells.” exemplifies how precisely Hood has understood Jünger. Why “calices”, not “chalices”? Because that is the old-fashioned form of this word, and using it is unnecessarily peculiar, but it doesn’t make you stop and look into a dictionary. It isn’t even more precise than DeepL’s and ChatGPT’s and Tess Lewis’s “calyxes” for the word “Blumenkelche” in the Original. But it captures precisely how the author was using his German language.
This is because on every page of the original, there are choices of individual words that evoke subtleties of mood and allusion that are strictly impossible to translate, because English doesn’t have a similar-enough group of synonyms from which to make the equivalent choice. Some of that must inevitably get lost in translation. But these “calices” are an example of how Hood has the audacity to frequently insert his own new peculiar word choices — which restore exactly the same effect! It might take entire months until AI can do that!
Unfortunately the New Directions edition with this translation has been out of print for a while, although I heard from a regrettably less law-abiding friend that the PDF is easy to find. But a few years ago someone bought the UK rights to this translation and republished it. While this edition has several uncorrected OCR mistakes, one of which horrifyingly turns “Flayer’s Copse” into “Player’s Copse”, at least this makes the better translation available (legally) again.
What actually happens (spoilers)
After six chapters of descriptions of paradise, and of the botanical work the brothers do since they don’t need to make a living, the book continues with a gradual decline of this gorgeous world. This again is much more of a richly detailed description than a story plot.
It begins with the introduction of the Chief Ranger. The brothers know him from their military community, from before his takeover begins. There is some debate about whether the Chief Ranger stands for Hitler, Stalin or Hermann Göring. I think this debate is misguided. The character of the Chief Ranger, the antagonist of the narrator and all he holds dear, is never named but only ever referred to by his title. He does not appear to have staff or lieutenants at all, nor any personal history. And Jünger is profoundly uninterested in the personalities of all his characters beneath what they pay attention to (except the narrator’s brother) so even this important figure is roughly sketched at best. Therefore, I believe he is best understood as more of an archetype or role, The Tyrant, denuded of the individual traits or histories that make one tyrant a Führer, another a General Secretary and yet another a Great Leader. So, what makes a tyrant? According to Jünger, “wherever free spirits establish their sway these primeval powers will always join their company like a snake creeping to an open fire. They are the old connoisseurs of power who see a new day dawning in which to reestablish the tyranny that has lived in their hearts since the beginning of time.” The Chief Ranger is also “a master of feigning frankness that was full of snares for the unwary.” He has a reputation for wealth and a strong visual brand (a gold-embroidered green coat) that makes sure he always leaves “an imprint on one’s memory”. He exudes a “breath of primitive power” and has a strong charisma that gives an impression of “both cunning and unshakable power — yes, at times even majesty.” As he begins to usurp power, “reports spread from mouth to mouth of infringements of the law and of acts of violence in the neighbourhood, and finally such incidents occurred publicly and with no attempt to concealment. A cloud of fear preceded the Chief Ranger like the mountain mist that presages the storm. Fear enveloped him, and I am convinced that therein far more than in his own person lay his power.” From what I know about tyrants, that sounds about right.
For the next seven chapters, the vile followers of the Chief Ranger continually corrupt everything. The sophisticated culture of the Marina is surrounded by the rough herdsmen clans of the surrounding Campagna steppe, beyond which lies the Chief Ranger’s forest populated by lowlifes. The class metaphor is blindingly obvious, and Jünger’s theory of how these lowlifes overcome first the Campagna and then the Marina is not subtle either. After the Alta Plana war, and the defeat, the entire society has been weakened. “Thus in exhausted bodies corruption will set in by way of wounds which a sound man would scarcely notice. The first symptoms, therefore, were not recognized.” Very gradually, law gives way to lawlessness, spreading from and with the
lower classes foresters in many different ways. Violent crime grows, in descriptions very reminiscent of the many deadly street fights of the late Weimar republic. Various elements of traditional culture become corrupted. Those who would defend it are intimidated and attacked. The constitutional lawful reaction is too slow, so by the time it manages to convene and have democratic debates, it is already infiltrated. And there’s one paragraph worth quoting in full.
Herein, above all, lay a masterly trait of the Chief Ranger. He administered fear in small doses which he gradually increased, and which aimed at crippling resistance. The role he played in the disorders which were so finely spun in the heart of his woods was that of a power for order; for while his agents of lower rank, who had established themselves in the clans, fostered anarchy, the initiated penetrated into the civic offices and the magistracy, and there won the reputation of men of deeds who would bring the mob to its senses. Thus the Chief Ranger was like an evil doctor who first encourages the disease so that he may practise on the sufferer the surgery he has in mind.
Today this is a mainstream view in German history. In 1939, it could have been prosecuted as high treason and punished with death.
On the backdrop of ever escalating mayhem, two old men who are friends of the brothers are described: Belovar, a clan patriarch from the Campagna, and Father Lampros, an eminent Christian monk. In very different ways, they both are very helpful, each both in the botanical work and against the mounting threat. The brothers decide against meeting the violence with violence, delve deeper into their work, become increasingly pessimistic and develop a hope that they can rescue the results of their work into an imperishable afterlife by burning it with an ancient mystical crystal lens that they somehow inherited. The narrator describes continued excursions for rare plants, through the country that is becoming increasingly treacherous and foreboding, until finally, well after the middle point of the book, with one particular excursion for an extremely rare flower, the actual continual story begins.
Today we look at the Nazis with horror, but Jünger has dug too many trenches into hills of rotting corpses to be easily horrified. Instead of horror, his feelings towards the Nazis are mostly contempt, seasoned with disgust, and that has been pervading his description of the rise of the Chief Ranger’s henchmen over the last couple of chapters. But he does give one instance of pure horror and it is here, in the very heart of the book, when the two brothers on their excursion happen to discover, in the ill-reputed area of Flayer's Copse, the Chief Ranger’s remote “flaying-hut” of Koppels-Bleek.
The original Köppels-Bleek is a German wordplay, about as subtle as a drone base in a sci-fi novel that happens to be called Obamazliez. Koppels-Bleek is where the Chief Ranger has his enemies tortured to death. It has frequently been called a concentration camp, but that is imprecise. It is really a Vernichtungslager, a death camp, which unlike a “normal” concentration camp is built for the express purpose that no torture victim ever gets out alive. This is a prediction, because while Nazi concentration camps were set up starting in 1933, Vernichtungslager were only built three years after the “Marble Cliffs” were published. After an intensely gruesome description of the particulars of this place, the narrator assesses its importance as follows.
Such are the dungeons above which rise the proud castles of the tyrants, and from them is to be seen rising the curling savoury smoke of their banquets. They are terrible noisome pits in which a God-forsaken crew revels to all eternity in the degradation of human dignity and human freedom.
He is so certain he has captured the very essence of tyranny, “the abode of tyranny in all its shame”, that he puts this climax at the two thirds mark of the book and makes it exceedingly obvious this is where the third and final act begins, as the pace of the book changes entirely. Although the narrator still includes some retrospectives, he is now finally telling a real story.
Strikingly, the brothers return to botany — remember this, it will be important later — and then to their home, where they soon get two conspiring visitors. Braquemart is a competent, racist, nihilistic fellow veteran. The narrator despises him at length for his heartless theory-mindedness. Prince Smyrna is new, young, seems to the narrator to know “the nature of justice and order” but is too weak and inexperienced to shoulder the responsibility he is heroically taking on. The two visitors want to Do Something about the Chief Ranger — what exactly is never said, though a personal confrontation or assassination is implied. They leave for the Chief Ranger's territory. This entire chapter feels very much like a comment on some political acquaintances of Jünger who attempted to challenge the Nazis, and failed.
The next day, Father Lampros gives the narrator a mission to arm himself and look for these two men. He goes to old Belovar's farmstead, where he learns of commotion in the direction of Flayer's Copse, and the old clan patriarch goes to war. Before, the book was a dreamy soliloquy; now we see dramatic wartime action. Ernst Jünger has had a lot of practice with writing about that kind of thing, and it shows.
Their small but experienced war party with a lot of dogs goes towards Koppels-Bleek and is soon met with two confused, horrific, riveting battles. The narrator stumbles through and finds at Koppels-Bleek the heads of Prince Smyrna and Braquemart. The former strikes him as a symbol of how nobility remains real, and he picks it up. With it, he retreats through mayhem and danger into the complete flaming destruction of the Marina. He marvels at the beauty of the flames — remember this too, it will also be important later — and, with his hunters in hot pursuit, runs to his house. There his son uses his strange power over the local population of poisonous snakes to make them defeat the nearest attackers. The brothers burn down the house, go find Father Lampros and see him die. From an old soldier comrade who owes them a favor they get room on a ship to flee across the water to Alta Plana, where an old enemy who owes them another favor takes them in.
There’s an implicit framing story of how the narrator lives to tell the tale of these memories to some unspecified audience, and as it ends it mentions in passing that sometime after these events, a new cathedral has been built on the ruins of the Marina and the head of Prince Smyrna went there as a relic. This small bit still stands out today, and would have stood out even more starkly to contemporary readers, because in the context of everything that happened before, this bit publicly, extremely boldly, and correctly, predicts the eventual fate of the Nazis.
Not once in this entire story has the narrator expressed surprise at this progression of events, or given any other indication it is in any way unlikely. The narrator, and the author through him, seems to be saying this is just the way it goes with tyranny, when a society has lost too much of its strength to fight off the bestial attacks of the lowly.
I have omitted not just many smaller elements of the story but also a huge number of allusions to ancient history, (German) literature and especially the Bible. I imagine Jünger put them there as prizes for the few who would find them. This is one of the ways that I think On the Marble Cliffs is Ernst Jünger’s Unsong: a vehicle that lets
a prolific nonfiction author
indulge in a fantastical narrative where things happen in accordance with philosophy,
compress some of his sincerely held views for the kind of reader that doesn’t read that much nonfiction,
and also allow distance from these views through the obviousness of the exaggeration.
The point everyone seems to be missing
Over the years, and especially while preparing this review, I have read a lot of reviews of this book, most of them in German, and found that much of what they find worth pointing out about it is anachronistic. Many of these reviews are quite similar to each other.
They describe the obvious allegorical nature of the book and Jünger's relationship to the Nazis, much like I did above. They vary in how much they emphasize his earlier sympathy with the Nazis or his later revulsion, and often omit one or the other.
Many point out that Jünger says that the Chief Ranger's hordes are eventually defeated, and thereby predicts that Hitler’s will be.
They also debate whether the Chief Ranger more closely resembles Adolf Hitler or Hermann Göring. Or they remark that Braquemart kills himself with a prepared poison capsule exactly like Hitler would six years later. If Jünger could see into his future, like these reviewers can, this would mean Braquemart is Hitler, so the Chief Ranger is actually Stalin.
And they point out Jünger’s involvement in the Stauffenberg plot, five years later, which he probably only survived because the conspiracy was otherwise entirely among the high command, so Jünger as a mere major on the general staff wasn’t suspected to have materially contributed.
But most dishearteningly, nearly all the reviews are confused by the combination of horror and beauty! Most of the written reception of the book has alleged that these passionately positive tones constitute either approval of, or at least insufficient distance from, the atrocities of Nazi rule. Even reviewers who don't allege this seem to think of this work as a primarily political book, an allegory “dressed up” in beauty.
I very firmly disagree. The allegory is nowhere near dressed up enough, it is far too obvious, to be the point of this work. And before Jünger wrote the Marble Cliffs, he had already resigned from political activism and started to describe it as a trap for writers in particular. His later books show he almost kept to that.
So, what else was he doing then?
I think he was publishing advice. Advice on how to survive the catastrophe of evil totalitarian dictatorship. And the beauty is the point.
Jünger never admitted even a shred of mental weakness, even privately. But objectively, everything he passionately believed in had been falling apart for years. When Jünger wrote this book, the German Catastrophe was in full swing and he was very aware it would all end in tears. He had retreated from his nationalist political work and almost all of his nationalist friends. He had refused bids of friendship from Hitler personally, from the National Socialist party (which repeatedly offered him a mandate in their token parliament) and from various Nazi organizations. A poem where he had bemoaned “the reign of the lowly” had gotten his home raided repeatedly. He and his brother expected a “typhoon” to ravage the country soon and they were hoping to weather it in their refuge in the small town by the Bodensee, where On the Marble Cliffs was written. He knew enough about the military strength of the various European powers, and was distant enough from the Nazi enthusiasm for war, to know that the putrid state of Germany that surrounded him was headed for catastrophic defeat and collapse. For many years, he had strived mightily to guide his beloved country to what he believed was a better path - and had evidently failed completely. How could he possibly have coped with all this?
I believe this book is his answer. And the answer is: look at beauty. Once you realize this, the entire book turns around. When the brothers see the extermination camp and distract themselves with botany, it isn't minimizing the horror, it is advice on how to remain functional in the face of catastrophe. Jünger says that quite explicitly:
We men when we are busied about our appointed tasks fulfil an office; and it is strange how immediately we are possessed by a stronger feeling of invulnerability. We had experienced this already on the field of battle where the soldier, when the proximity of the enemy threatens to sap his courage, turns with a will to duties which his rank prescribes. There is great strength in the sight of the eyes when in full consciousness and unshaded by obscurities it is turned upon the things around us. In particular it draws nourishment from created things, and herein alone lies the power of science. Therefore we felt that even the tender flower in its imperishable pattern and living form strengthened us to withstand the breath of corruption.
Similarly, the narrator's enraptured description of how beautifully the towns burn isn’t callous disregard for the suffering of the inhabitants. It is hard-earned advice for how to cope with seeing such a thing. His repeated celebration of treasured memories isn’t merely reactionary, it points out there is beneficial comfort available there. And perhaps most importantly of all, the boundless intensity of his descriptions repeatedly insists that if you go deeper and deeper into beauty you can enter sublime, mystical, incomparable moments of awestruck glory that can save your soul. Jünger said this book constitutes “an attack on reality from out of the world of dreams” and once you get past the martial, typical Jüngerian metaphor, you can translate that into “an overcoming of reality through visionary strength”. Jünger keeps doing this. Even in his later World War 2 diaries, his descriptions of awful atrocities keep being interrupted with deep appreciations of art and nature.
In struggling with my own severe depression, I have found this to be good advice. I appreciate exactly how the shades of green change when a blade of grass moves in the wind… and it really does actually help me get away from catastrophizing thoughts. If you saturate the full bandwidth of your attention with observation, no space remains for looping thoughts, mourning and rumination. And the easiest way to fill your mind with observation is to find beauty in all the little details.
This is similar to, but not the same as, mindfulness meditation. But I doubt this was directly taken from the Yogic and Buddhist traditions, although as a very well read man, Ernst Jünger would have been at least passingly familiar with their concepts. His beloved Dostoevsky's “Beauty will save the world” seems more likely to have helped him come up with this coping strategy.
In the beginning of this review, I wrote that the attempt to publish this book was literally suicidal. I don’t know this for a fact. But Jünger appreciated suicide as “part of the capital of humanity” and the callous disregard for his own safety that he demonstrated many times is at least parasuicidal. He appears to see fear of death as a mechanical problem to which he is proud to have found a solution. Because somewhere in that first World War that traumatized him into the author he became, sometime between his many close brushes with death, perhaps when he saw the frontline ahead of him at night as a glowing line of continual explosions and quoting Dante’s “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” went in anyway, Jünger discovered the saving power of beauty. I believe he went to the publishing house with this manuscript much like he’d go over the top in the war, acutely aware of the mortal danger, but so fortified with his duty to beauty that he’d do it anyway.
In base hearts there lies deep-seated a burning hatred of beauty.
He couldn’t know at the time that despite his repeated tempting of death, he’d go on to survive his much younger wife and both of his sons, and keep publishing books until he was 102 years old, although he never learned to fit in. This seems like strong evidence that at least for him, beauty worked. It kept him going forward, despite everything, despite even his openness to suicide. And he wrote this book to point out: it can work for you too.