Correspondence 1949-1975: Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger (2016) presents an intimate portrait of two influential German philosophers. The letters provide significant insight into Heidegger and Jünger’s philosophical minds, as well as the eras from post-WWII to the Cold War. The letters are an important collection, and while the correspondence can be found elsewhere, this version benefits from a fluid and intelligible translation. In addition, translator Timothy Sean Quinn, Philosophy Department Chair at Xavier University, has included Jünger’s essay “Über de Linie” or “Across the Line” at the end of the correspondence. This inclusion fits well, as mention of the essay appears in the early letters, written as a gift for Heidegger on his 60th birthday. “Across the Line” functions as bookends to the letters and provides the reader with a perspective of time, place, and philosophical theory that, perhaps, the letters alone could not perform.
As Quinn states in the “Translator’s Introduction,” Jünger never attained the level of popularity as Heidegger. However, he made a name for himself in Europe as a prolific novelist and also published numerous philosophical and critical texts. In 1930 and 1932, he published his well-known works “Total Mobilization” and The Worker, respectively. These texts attracted Heidegger’s attention, and would be the connection that brought the two together. Heidegger stated, “[It was] how they express an essential understanding of Nietzsche’s metaphysics, insofar as the history and the present of the Western world are seen and foreseen within the horizon of this metaphysics” (xii). Discussion of Nietzsche appears throughout the letters and the concluding essay, and his theory of nihilism inspired much debate between the two admirers. According to Quinn, “the core of their friendship . . . turns on their shared attitude toward modernity, and to the growing nihilism of the age” (xiii). The theme circulates in and out of the letters, and is most prominent in “Across the Line” where Jünger explores his own unease about the growth of nihilism in Europe and the loss of Christian values.
It is apparent in the letters that Jünger and Heidegger find companionship through the written word. They develop a strong friendship and admiration for each other’s views and writings. Though, at times, the correspondence feels like a one-sided intellectual love affair, as Jünger reveres Heidegger, often seeking guidance, understandably so, because of Heidegger’s popularity; however, the admiration went both ways. Heidegger was very much impressed with Jünger’s intellect and ideas. The two found camaraderie via their similar situation and philosophical interests.
Heidegger and Jünger both suffered through periods of discrimination as post-WWII Germans. In 1933, Heidegger was briefly a member of the Nazi Party, and, even though he often wrote against the party later in life, he was always criticised for this affiliation. In addition, in the years leading up to the Third Reich, the Nazi Party sought to recruit Jünger, but he rejected their advances. However, this did not clear him of suspicion of Nazi involvement. In a 1974 letter, Jünger expresses his feelings to Heidegger, “Today, there is nothing more shameful than honors. After being sent to the dogs, one ends up on a postage stamp” (58). Despite the prestige the two philosophers earned, undergoing such criticism created lasting anguish. In the letters, there is clearly a general tiresomeness of pervasive judgment, over which the two commiserated.
Most often, collections of correspondence run rampant with the quotidian and mundane, but these letters are ripe with philosophical discourse, as the pair critically contemplate the world around them. Heidegger and Jünger often discuss other philosophers and their work. Such as in December 1955 and January 1956, when Jünger mentions in a postscript, “I have now completed a work concerning [Antoine de] Rivarol. His maxims are in general crystal clear, although in places a bit orphic” (18). At the end of the postscript, he asks Heidegger for his opinion. Heidegger responds with a multi-page exegesis. He writes, “The consideration of the weaver, the back-and-forth between of the weaver’s shuttle, shows that Rivarol sees motion not as an emptying of the future into the past (“time passes”), but as the transition that moves back and forth between two things at rest” (20). The two traded opinions and ideas such as these many times over the years. These brief discussions are an enormous benefit to the reader or scholar interested in the inner workings of a philosopher’s mind.
Not every letter can be a philosophical tete-à-tete, and while there are letters that represent the daily or mundane, the majority of the them offer something of value. When the two aging but extremely busy men often wish or request a meeting with the other, they are regularly too busy with speaking events or previous engagements. Though not in person, they still find meaningful ways to share their lives with each other. Heidegger and Jünger find time to send books. Near the end of Heidegger’s life, he often only communicated through the gift of books. From December 1970 to March 1972, there are only two letters, both from Jünger, and in each, he thanks his older friend for Phenomenology and Theology and Schelling’s Treastise, respectively. At other times, they share the attributes and failures of other texts. Even in this seemingly quotidian act, Jünger and Heidegger offer the reader intelligent insight into their patterns of thought.
On May 26, 1976, Heidegger died, and after all the intimate letters the reader feels the pain of the loss, and the pain that Jünger surely experienced at the death of his influential and dear friend is palpable in the terseness of his words. He only writes one more letter: a brief response to Heidegger’s son Herman. Perhaps the most emotive moment comes in reading the letter from Heidegger’s wife to Jünger, which includes a Friedrich Hölderlin poem found in a bedside book that was addressed to family and close friends upon Heidegger’s death. To quote the poem here would debase the experience, but after finishing the letters, it is easy to imagine the tears that wet Jünger’s cheeks.
“Across the Line”
The inclusion of the essay at the end punctuates the impactful letters. “Across the Line” is written in short chapters, vignettes of thought that expound upon the state of nihilism in the world, and how Christian values are the key for emerging from the darkness. The loss of Christian values is a great blow to Jünger, and he believes strongly in the salvation of the church, but he admits that it cannot win against nihilism: “We must then establish that theology by no means finds itself in a condition capable of confronting nihilism” (92). Jünger spends many pages discussing Nietzsche’s description of nihilism, which he admits is difficult to define. He does mention that nihilism is corrosive to society and values, and that nihilism must be left behind in order to attain spiritual heights and purity. Jünger writes, “It is the theme of our age” (88). To him, nihilism has become omnipotent, used by the powerful so that they may invoke fear, which is remarkably more poignant considering that this essay was written in the years following the Third Reich.
In many ways Jünger appears to be caught in the very state of pessimism that he decries against; however, he offers a few ways that the individual can overcome this. He argues that love, art and poetry can liberate the mind and body from the pessimistic state. Jünger states, “The meaning of art cannot be to ignore the world in which we live—-and thus it has little serenity. Spiritual overcoming and command over the age will not reveal itself in the fact that perfect machines crown progress, but rather that the age gains a form in the work of art. In this way, the age is redeemed” (98). Art will set people free.
While the essay lacks a bit of coherence, the message is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. Quinn’s publication comes at an interesting time in the world, a time that reflects the era in which Jünger and Heidegger were composing. Quinn’s translation reads smoothly, is intellectually stimulating, and poetically intriguing. Without a doubt this collection is a valuable addition to the canon of research for both Heidegger and Jünger.