Reviewed by: Richard Fitch (Independent Scholar)
Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), was a problematic polymath whose life and work continue to discreetly haunt both German and European intellectual life. He was first a soldier, highly decorated and often wounded in the First World War. The Second War he spent as a staff officer occupying Paris where he mingled with the likes of Picasso. Both experiences were transmuted into literature, most famously in his 1920 memoir of the trenches, Storm of Steel, which made his literary name. He went on to excel in many literary genres, such as those of memoir, diary, novel, essay, science fiction, allegory, theoretical tract and in the forms of literary expression usually associated with the name of Friedrich Nietzsche. He stands alone, amongst German writers, with Goethe, Klopstock and Wieland in having had two editions of his collected works published in his lifetime. As if this were insufficient for a life well lived, he was also an entomologist of some distinction. So far, so wiki – he appears a figure of some note; but is he, or was he, of philosophical note?
There is a paucity of English-language secondary literature on Jünger, and little of that literature is of direct philosophical interest. Does this matter? Was Jünger more than a warrior littérateur entranced by beetles – if being philosophical would make more of that? In this book Vincent Blok sets out to provide an affirmative answer to this question. He proceeds in two keys: in that of the history of philosophy and in that of philosophical argument.
With regard to history, Blok’s strategy is to entwine Jünger with Martin Heidegger. This is no facile ‘x & y’ project. They corresponded, and Heidegger was a careful reader of Jünger, and more than a careful critic. Volume 90 of his Gesamtausgabe carries the title Zu Ernst Jünger ‘Der Arbeiter’. And in his celebrated essay collection Pathmarks the essay ‘On the Question of Being’ is a direct response to Jünger’s essay ‘Across the Line’. But even more than this Heidegger saw Jünger as the figure that stood between himself and Nietzsche. This in itself would seem to suffice to establish Jünger’s place, howsoever minor, in the history of thinking in the twentieth century. However, Blok desires even more than this. More than showing the influence of Jünger on Heidegger, and exploring Heidegger’s critical response to Jünger, Blok ventures to assert that Jünger goes beyond Heidegger. To ground this startling proposition a change of key is required, to that of philosophical argument.
With regard to philosophical argument, Blok initially uses the entwining with Heidegger to make an intervention in the philosophical questions of, not only, as the title suggests, technology, but also those of nihilism and language. And Blok entwines these questions as he entwines his leading men. And it is with regard to the question of language that Blok argues that Jünger goes beyond Heidegger.
The book consists of an argument in three interlinked movements. First, Jünger’s concept of the worker is explored as it is presented in his text with the most direct philosophical import: The Worker of 1932. Then Heidegger’s engagement with this concept takes the stage. Finally, Blok suggests how Jünger’s work might be understood to elude the critique that issues from Heidegger’s engagement, and thus be of continuing philosophical import. This book is an argument first. Readers after an introduction to Jünger’s life and work need to look elsewhere. In addition, at least a basic appreciation of the full range of Heidegger’s mature thought is probably a prerequisite for a fruitful engagement with Blok’s argument. The three movements will be tracked in turn.
Part One ‘The Age of Technicity and the Gestalt of the Worker’: The Worker: Dominion and Form, to give its full title, is a work written in the twilight of the Weimar Republic that seeks to explore how one can reorientate oneself in the wake of the shattering of the brittle maps of nineteenth century bourgeois liberalism by the brutal hammer of the First World War. Without much need for the gifts of prophecy, the implication is that the Weimar Republic sought to carry on as if nothing had happened and that is the secret of its coming disaster. Jünger with the form, or gestalt, of the worker seeks to articulate a more robust response to a world whose contours are formed by the ice and fire of technology and not by the ethereal legal fictions, then practically dispelled, of contracts and rights. Central to The Worker is a slippery conception of gestalt, and it is here that Blok’s focus falls. As Blok argues, for Jünger gestalt indicates that power that gives fundamental ontological form, and thus unity, to a particular epoch of human existence. Blok describes gestalt as “a summarising unity or measure within which the world appears as ordered.” (13) Gestalts can differ, so the world can appear as ordered in different ways. It seemed clear that the appearance of the order of the world changed in Germany, and in Europe, between the springs of 1914 and 1919. Reflecting on his experience of the trenches Jünger intuits a shift in fundamental measure from that of the Enlightenment to that of the worker. Evidence of this is that the War makes no sense in a world as ordered by the Enlightenment. It makes no sense, yet it is, thus something must have changed. But the shift is hard to discern, so for those without the eyes to see it is experienced as the nihilistic dissolution of bourgeois values and meaning-giving. It is hard to discern because, for Jünger, a gestalt cannot be perceived directly, but only through its effect on its world. The gestalt is not a product of history as even ‘the characteristic of time changes through the influence of the gestalt.’ (16). Blok argues that Jünger sees his task first to draw out the contours of the forms of life as work imposed by the new gestalt of the Worker, and then strive to find ways of being that might productively respond to this new fundamental ordering. In the gestalt of the worker, the world appears ordered as work, to the extent that even leisure is understood as a form of work. And the world is waiting for the task. Blok quotes Jünger to the effect that “The working world expects, hopes to be given meaning.” (12).
Blok understands this meaning-giving in Nietzschean terms, specifically those of the will to power as art. And before proceeding Blok offers an intermezzo on Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism. The Nietzsche presented is a Nietzsche of the will to power. While this Nietzsche is currently interpretatively unfashionable, this is the Nietzsche that Heidegger sees Jünger as embodying, so it is contextually apposite. More problematic is Blok’s rather narrow understanding of nihilism which he takes to consist in the erasure of the “Platonic horizon of the transcendental idea.” (21).
Returning to Jünger, Blok now explores how the gestalt of the worker leads to the type of the worker, where the type is the way of life that fits best with the gestalt. One is already in the gestalt of the worker so, “Our transition to the type of the worker thus consists of a becoming who you are.” (32). Blok’s reading here is informed by Jünger’s 1930 essay ‘Total Mobilisation’. Being a worker-type is not a matter of personal industriousness or wage-slavery. It is an attunement to the situation that the new gestalt of work leaves one in. “In the epoch of the worker, ‘work’ would form the metaphysical measure of the world and men, in whose light the technological world appears as technological order and man finds his destination as the type of worker.” (35). Again, it is not a matter of a traditional work-ethic, or a class based analysis calling the workers of the world to unite. It is a recognition of the metaphysical ordering that currently dominates. It is a strange metaphysics which appears necessary while it dominates, but which can dissolve, and with it its necessity, in the blink of an eye. This shift to the worker means that what appears as nihilism is not the collapse of all value, or the highest values devaluing themselves, but the misrecognition of a shift in the metaphysical order of the values that themselves give order to the appearance of our world – a shift here from Enlightenment to Work. And to consciously create oneself as a worker is to most fittingly respond to the manner in which the world appears to be ordered when it is ordered by the gestalt of the worker. The analysis of the gestalt of the worker thus does not aspire to the utopian or normatively prescriptive but tries to be realistic and phenomenological. It is a response to the world, and one’s most fitting place in it, as they appear given. The ‘heroic realist recognises himself as the type of the worker’ (36). One may not like this world of work, but it is the world that appears.
How does the worker work? This work is, somewhat surprisingly, a poetic task guided by the gestalt: “The will to power is led as though by a magnet by the gestalt, which is not and only is in the will to power as art.” (36). It is a poetic task, bringing forth a language that allows the dominion of its gestalt ‘to emerge from its anonymous character’ (35). What then is the worker to work at? “The worker’s task is to transform the work-world of total mobilisation into a world in which the gestalt guarantees a new security and order of life.” (39). The task of the worker is to be bring to light how the world appears to be ordered in the epoch of the worker, where this bringing to light is guided by the source of that ordering, and results in the practical ordering of life. There is a suspicion that here Blok’s Jünger is too close to Nietzsche, but then that is where Heidegger also finds him so he is in good company.
Part Two: Heidegger’s Reception of Jünger – Work, Gestalt and Poetry: Blok identifies Heidegger’s key problem with Jünger as his apparent claim that nihilism can be overcome. Where Jünger sees two gestalt: Enlightenment and then Work, Heidegger only sees one nihilism. The gestalt of the worker is yet another occasion of the forgetting of the question of being. Furthermore the gestalt itself is platonic, still concerned with the search for certainty and security. And from this symptom Heidegger diagnoses that Jünger remains within the orbit of Nietzsche’s metaphysics. But Jünger is not minor satellite, but ‘the only real follower of Nietzsche’ (54). As ever there is the question of the trustworthiness of Heidegger’s interpretation, whatever its stimulating novelty. Blok notes that the likes of Günter Figal and Michael Zimmermann argue that it is Jünger that first provokes Heidegger to find his own response to the question of technology and to the modern world in general. A response that would lead to Heidegger grasping for both National Socialism and then Hölderlin.
Blok begins his defence of Jünger by examining the development of Heidegger’s ontology of work in Being and Time and beyond. He argues that this development is provoked by his reception of Jünger’s work, but that, between 1930 and 1934, Heidegger was following Jünger rather than reacting against him, so that, for example, ‘following Jünger, Heidegger rejects economic conceptualizations of work and worker’ (70). For Blok it is only in 1934 that Heidegger develops his own response, and it only then that he turns his guns on Jünger. Only then does Jünger become captive to the unquestioning of Being, and becomes one who indicates but does not question. Where Blok sees Jünger as engaged in a poetic task, Heidegger sees him all ‘bound up with the will to power of representation’ (80). Jünger fails to enact the ‘new’ languaging of Being that is required. For his own part Heidegger begins to move away from the trope of work towards those of exposure and Gelassenheit. As Blok notes “According to Heidegger, our questioning is only really philosophical when this questioning recoils back from what is asked, back upon itself.” (88). One might speculate that Gelassenheit et al, the whole post-conceptual rhetorical apparatus of the mature Heidegger, with its negative and mystic overtones, be a recoiling back from not only Jünger’s world of work, but also from the world of the trenches (and perhaps even from their successors as the locus of extreme horror – the camps, though that is certainly too charitable to Heidegger) that was the midlife to the expression of this world? Blok examines Heidegger’s use of a conception of gestalt in his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1935-6) with an eye on Heidegger’s emerging idea of the poetic tasks of language. Blok’s response is, by now, as expected. Whatever Heidegger’s idea of the poetic task, Blok argues that Jünger is up to it. Jünger’s is not the old language of will to representation or of the bad old subject. Blok quotes Jünger “It has far more to do with a new language that is suddenly spoken and man answers, or he remains silent – and this decides his reality… The clatter of looms from Manchester, the rattle of machine guns from Langemarck – they are signs, words and sentences of a prose that wants to be interpreted and mastered by us.” (104). Whence then this new language? From Engels’ Manchester or Jünger’s trenches, or indeed from their contemporary equivalents, or from sojourns at Todtnauberg? Jünger may lack Heidegger’s philosophical sophistication but perhaps he is not without judgement here. And howsoever Blok may overstate Jünger’s case, it is perhaps, against Heidegger of all thinkers, a case worth overstating. For Heidegger, the man of the university-machine, we are exposed off the beaten tracks of the Black Forest. For Jünger, the stormtrooper insect-fancier, we are exposed on the battlefield or the factory floor (it is all too easy to think of contemporary equivalents here). Wherever they both are, Blok asserts that Jünger is “on his way to an understanding of the essence of language that is no longer metaphysical.” (106). And that, all over the place, is the philosophical goal.
Part Three: The Essence of Language and the Poetics of the Anthropocene: In this final act Blok makes a case for Jünger as a properly post-Heideggerian poetic language-worker and thus not a pre-Heideggerian epigone of Nietzsche. It is the weakest part of the book, but that might be no bad thing. Why? Because of the structure of his argument and book, Blok has to connect this act to the preceding two, in particular the first act on the worker. In order to achieve this he examines texts such as Jünger’s 1963 essay ‘Type, Name, Gestalt’ where the link, via gestalt, is obvious. However, much as Heidegger did, in his later years Jünger moved far from some of his earlier work, and especially from anything that reeked of political engagement. This retreat might be seen, in print, as early as On the Marble Cliffs (1939), a thinly but artfully veiled allegory of the Germany of the time and its horror. By 1951’s The Forest Passage, Jünger is a ‘forest fleer’ or rebel, alone in the same German forests where Heidegger sought a different sort of solace. Jünger seeks a quiet but firm freedom, not the main event. And by his 1977 allegorical novel Eumeswil, there is the figure of the Anarch, not to be mistaken for the anarchist, who survives the world dominated by work not by embracing the fate of the worker but by cultivating a resolute scepticism and a careful if still quiet freedom. “The difference is that the forest fleer has been expelled from society, while the anarch has expelled society from himself.” (Jünger 1995, 147). This seems far from the trope of work, and Blok is aware of all this, he notes that ‘the poet must stand in opposition and not engage in the workshop landscape.” (113). But he also appears constrained by the logic of the argument he has already made. But when, at the close of a chapter that touches on The Forest Passage, Blok asserts that “In general, we can conclude therefore that Jünger’s later essays are in line with his early work on the gestalt of the worker.” (116) the effect is not altogether convincing as to whether Blok himself believes his own case. That said, there is much of interest in the case that he does make. And even if he is constrained by his earlier positions, this reader senses that, ultimately, fidelity to Jünger’s text wins out, hence the weakness of his argument might not be a weakness when it comes to exposing Jünger’s work.
There is also the problem, for Blok, of trying to demonstrate how Jünger manages to squeeze past Heidegger on their tight forest path to post-metaphysical language, in only 33 pages including notes. His case simply does not have room to breathe. For example, Blok asserts that the inaccessibility of gestalt necessitates poetic naming, but does not explore how this echoes the withdrawal of Being that Heidegger associates with clearing and event. And while Blok asserts that the “Geheimnis [secret] of the gestalt makes clear that the new epoch of the worker is not a matter of observation but of poetry.” (141) it is not always clear quite how we got from work, and the trenches, to poetry. While Jünger clearly was an skilful, experimental and promiscuous stylist, the suspicion remains that this is inadequate to merit the mantle of a new post-metaphysical language fit for the time of the worker. All in all the third act reads as a draft of an argument to come, and when it comes it will be welcome.
A complicating of the actual relationship between Heidegger and Jünger would also be welcomed, as would, though it is clearly outwith the task Blok set for himself, a questioning of the relationship of each, personal and intellectual, with another German master of the dark arts, Carl Schmitt. In an interview on the occasion of his 90th birthday Jünger reflected on what he saw as Heidegger’s political stupidity: “He thought something new was coming [in 1933], but he was terribly mistaken. He did not have as clear a vision as I did.” (Hervier 55) How might Heidegger have responded? In the same interview Jünger relates one of his brother’s Heidegger anecdotes: “One day, Heidegger was stung on the back of the neck by a bee, and my brother told him that that was excellent for rheumatism. Heidegger didn’t know what to answer.” (Hervier 55). In his final letter found in the collection of their correspondence Heidegger, on the occasion of Jünger’s 80th birthday, wrote: “My particular wish for you on this day is brief: Remain with the proven, illuminating decision on your singular path of saying. That such saying is itself already an act that needs no supplement by a praxis, only few still (or yet?) understand today.” (Heidegger & Jünger 61). Blok does aid in that task of understanding.
A few scattered comments: as is not uncommonplace the index is lamentable; the book’s connection, as promised in its title, with the workplace concept of the Anthropocene is slight, gratuitous and unnecessary to the argument (138-9); the style is repetitive but repetition of one’s place in the argument can keep one on track, and it ameliorates the effect of the inevitable typos and occasional infelicities in sentence construction.
In conclusion: Blok benefits from the lack of a substantial body of existing English-language secondary literature, in that it is easier for a novel perspective to stand out when the field is not crowded. Though he might soon have company with the publication in late 2017 of an English translation of The Worker (Jünger 2017). Although details and arguments might be disputed, he clearly establishes Jünger as a significant interlocutor with Heidegger and thus as someone who cannot be philosophically ignored by readers of Heidegger. Likewise, much as Heidegger cannot be ignored by those engaged with the philosophical questions of technology, nihilism or language, neither now can Jünger. In short and to repeat: Blok succeeds in making sure that his Jünger can no longer be ignored by philosophers, especially by those who care about the same philosophical questions that propelled Martin Heidegger’s mature work.
Heidegger, Martin & Jünger, Ernst. Correspondence 1949-1975, translated by Timothy Sean Quinn (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Hervier, Julien. The Details of Time: Conversation with Jünger, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Marsilo Publishers, 1995).
Jünger, Ernst. Eumeswil, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (London: Quartet Books, 1995).
Jünger, Ernst. The Worker: Dominion and Form, translated by Bogdan Costea & Laurence Paul Hemming (Northwestern University Press, 2017).