onsdag 14 maj 2014

On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger

Edit, November 2014: The Australian imprint Manticore Press has published an Ernst Jünger biography that I've written. "Ernst Jünger -- A Portrait" is the name of the book. This post from earlier this year is a chapter of that book, a look at Jünger's classic "On the Marble Cliffs" from 1939.

”On the Marble Cliffs” is a complex work, existing on many levels. To be precise I don’t hold it above the rest of Jünger’s books. But of course it’s among the top five, if I should express it like that. First of all the title is very apt, combining as it does beauty with danger. Jünger himself had that ambition with the title and I must say he succeeded. As for novel titles in general ”On the Marble Cliffs” is especially rich in connotations, the marble part symbolizing tradition and beauty, the cliff part symbolizing danger and then some.

Why Did They Withhold This Book?

I’d like to start this chapter on a personal note. I’m a Swede, born in 1965. I had a mostly OK schooling in the bosom of the leftist liberal Swedish system of those times. Moreover I read the papers, I searched around for gurus and leaders, for spiritual fathers showing you the way. As for books and authors nothing really turned me on. Of course you had some English and American science fiction to lighten you up, there was a modicum of meaning and inspiration in the fantasy, crime and thriller books of the day, but the officially OK:d writers and novels all seemed to be of the doom and gloom kind.

In school and in mainstream media they told us to read Kafka, Orwell, Harry Martinson and Karin Boye. This and their contemporary epigons was considered serious, edifying fiction in those days, a monstrous monoculture of skepticism, materialism and – to add insult to injury – a spate of irony to top it off.

Now then, to put it short: what a relief it was to eventually find the books of Ernst Jünger in all this waste land of nihilism and angst. My teachers and the media had kept silent about him but I found out about him nontheless. He was after all published in Sweden in those days, in the 70’s by a certain Cavefors’ förlag.

So the Swedish versions of ”Eumeswil” and ”On the Marble Cliffs” became a watering place for me, magically conjuring up totally different lands compared to the standard fare of fiction, intimated above. Not that ”On the Marble Cliffs” for its part was a simple idyl; instead it was danger and beauty combined, it was melancholy over the corruption of a virgin land, and a fatalistic struggle ending in retreat and exile. But the overall mood of it all, the atmosphere and tenor of the book was totally different from anything I hitherto had encountered, excepting maybe Tolkien.

And of course I don’t despise Kafka and the rest. It’s just that they’re missing out on so much of reality. The kitchen sink authors lauded by the teachers of my generation were unable to even write words like ”beauty”, ”meaning”, ”essence”, ”value”, ”wonder” and ”abundance”. But Jünger had them in his vocabulary. To read them in his prose was like a revelation. That’s what makes Jünger into such a unique and unparalleled voice of our times.

What It Means To Live

The narrator and his brother are standing on The Marble Cliffs looking out over the Great Marina, a lake lined with small burgs, farmland and vineyards. To see this is what it means to live, he says:
In the early morning the fullness of the sounds penetrated up here, delicate and pregnant like things seen in a reversed binocular. We heard the bells in the cities and the guns saluting the wreathed ships sailing into the harbours, as we did the song from the pious companies going on pilgrimage to the saint statues and the flute music from a wedding procession. We heard the jackdaws croaking around the weathercocks, the crow of the rooster and the call of the cuckoo, the sound of the horns blown by the squires when the hunting pack went through the gate of the castle. How wonderful it all sounded hearing it all the way up here, how roguish, as if the world was sewn like a many-coloured fool’s cap – but also inebriating like wine in the morning.
Jünger sometimes has a tendency of making his heroes into Heroes with capital H, characters a bit too perfect, a fault that Robert Heinlein also has been accused of (in for example ”Stranger in a Strange Land”). It often becomes a bit too monumental, too rigid. However, in ”On the Marble Cliffs” Jünger made room for the common man or woman to play along in the drama, she could also have her say, like the maid Lampusa who laughs at the plant collecting of the brothers, and at their putting up little porcelain signs in the garden for every flower. She herself sows haphazardly and gets a triple harvest compared to what her tenants get, the narrator and his brother. The story gains a lot by letting the hero in this fashion seem a bit too punctilious, giving him human proportions in the process.

This book has it all: there’s a balance between milieu descriptions and reflections, between background and action, between nature and people. For instance all the minor characters feel alive, from Father Lampros and the nihilist Braquemart to Count Sunmyra and the mercenary Biedenhorn. ”On the Marble Cliffs” as a novel may have led a somewhat obsucure existence from its inception but there’s a renewed interest for it these days, as in all of Jünger’s oeuvre. There’s something timeless in its message of learnig to see a wonder in every flower and an optimate in every fellow human being, as brother Otho puts it once.

- - -

Jünger is different. There are other ways of ending a story than having the protagonist changed into a cockroach – than having a damaged spaceship steer out into nothingness – than having him say that he loves Big Brother. Instead you can give it all the human touch. At least you can try. ”Il faut essayer de vivre” as Paul Valéry said: try to live, at least try...! Voilà a fine ideal – and this without at the same time having it sounding like a Sunday school lesson, without avoiding the difficulties. With this in mind you still have to give the reader some hope.

OK, some plots may demand that all goes astray, and of course you shouldn’t bowdlerize classics like ”1984” and having them end happily. That’s not my point. But I’m fascinated by ”On the Marble Cliffs” for having such a structure that allows for anything to happen, for a piece of hope in all the darkness. That’s its forte, for instance visible in the end game with the backwoods people gaining ground as forerunners of the Forester General’s advance, the narrator’s siding with the mercenaries seeming to be a losing proposition – and the battle seeming to be lost with the Marble Cliff habitat abandoned, but not until the child has it’s say, the young Erio with his ladle hitting the kettle and calling the snakes to battle against the invading lemurs.

This is some mythical tour de force, unique in 20th century literature. It is, to quote Jünger from another context, an image of the kind that you otherwise only see in your dreams. And with the additional support of Shakespeare I’d say that ”On the Marble Cliffs” is ”the stuff that dreams are made of”, both happy dreams and nightmares. Therefore you can’t praise this novel enough.


Back in the day when Jünger was asked about the meaning of ”On the Marble Cliffs”, if it for example was about Nazism, he abjectly refused all such interpretations. The novel was a timeless comment on Power versus Spirit, on the struggle between clarity and culture versus occultism and raw brute force. That was Jünger’s constant position when asked about the underlying pattern of his novel. However, at the same time he admitted that the character prince Sunmyra anticipated count Stauffenberg. Sunmyra in the novel becomes the victim of the Forest Ranger and his shadowy forces but the narrator in the end treasures Sunmyra’s severed head, keeps it stored in a certain pot with preserving herbs and finally lays it as a cornerstone under at newbuilt church.

Sunmyra isn’t literally Stauffenberg. But the character invites to such an interpreation and Jünger himself did it, as in the war diary entry of May 1, 1945. In a wider sense he was on the track of something with having Sunmyra in the novel: an old aristocrat taking up arms against tyranny. That’s what Stauffenberg represented and Jünger knew that something like that was about – not that he knew Stauffenberg, but he did in fact meet with another dissident aristocrat before the war, a certain Adam von Trott zu Solz. In an appendix to a modern edition of ”Auf den Marmorklippen” (the appendix is dated December 10, 1972, the Ullstein edition in question is from 2006) Jünger tells us a bit vaguely about this, not naming either names, places or dates, but it seems to have been in Goslar sometime before the Second World War. Visiting his brother Fritz who lived in the same town by the Bodensee Jünger had already gone to bed when some late visitors arrived so he stayed between the sheets, letting Fritz entertain the visitors.

So Jünger himself didn’t participate in this fateful meeting but he remembered the name Adam von Trott zu Solz (he doesn’t expressly mention him in this adnote but says ”the one who later got executed”, the aristocrat in question meeting this fate in 1944) and he remembered the atmosphere that somehow could be sensed even by the half asleep author: an atmosphere of wordless consensus as he says in the appendix. And he had seen the car of the visitors approach up the wine hill, the headlights dimmed. And these dimmed vehicle lights and then some we get in the book version of the meeting, the novelized transformation of it all into ”the visit by Sunmyra”.

And some days later in Goslar, after a drinking bout with some other notables, Jünger dreamt of a string of lakeside cities on fire, the flames mirrored in the water, and this spurred the whole vision and mood of the novel eventually written in 1939: ”On the Marble Cliffs”.

So without reducing the novel into a ”roman à clef” there was some or other things, in dreams and IRL, that spilled over into the finished product. It wasn’t about Nazism but the Nazi and contemporary connections can’t be igonred. You could say: the novel is about tyranny as a phenomenon, including but not exclusively about Nazism.


”On the Marble Cliffs” displays a rich collection of characters. We have the abovementioned prince Sunmyra, pale and frail yet strong and belligerent, a romantic dreamer aroused from his sleep and ready to act against darkness, mirroring in a way the statue of the Bamberg Horseman (der Bamberger Reiter) in Bamberg cathedral: a heroic medieval knight, seemingly distraught but essentially a true rock of resistance. Mythologically he is in my book juxtaposed by the knight depicted by Dürer in his 16th century engraving ”The Knight, Death and the Devil”, a no-nonsense fighter with a literal devil-may-care attitude, a man of a hard mindset and yet no mere barbarian. And this character could be said to be represented by another ”Marble Cliff” figure: Biedenhorn, the commander of the mercenaries. The brothers at the centre of action get some help from him at the end, and before that he is lovingly depicted as the timeless solider, without higher ideals but reliable when it comes to battle and a jovial friend to his brothers in arms.

Then we have Braquemart, the nihilist and technical expert, a man without illusions but neither is he altogether a mindless barbarian. His likes were out and about in Nazi times, and they haven’t disappeared only because the Reich went down; on the contrary, the world of today seems to be goverend by Braquemarts, forming the middle management and apparatjik roles in the nihilist Empire having the westworld in its clutches. By my description Braquemart may seem like a boring acquaintance but what makes you endure the company of Braquemart and his brothers could be their sense of education and culture, their traits of ease and style. That’s what makes this man memorable, as a symbol for the mauretanian life form, this use of ”mauretanian” being a genuinely Jüngerian invention and recurring in other works such as ”Heliopolis”, the war diary and ”Eumeswil”. Mauretanians are a grey area people of educated nihilists and cunning operators, not expressly cruel but they can be that too, not altogether despicable but in all a breed of somewhat petrified souls, unable to inspire mirth, joy and happiness.

”On the Marble Cliffs” has more characters than that: the Forest Ranger, whom we never meet face to face but is said to be an archaic fellow, like an old Home Guard colonel arousing ridicule among the younger officers because of his old fashioned attire when he once a year attends the autumnal maneuvers. But who gets the last laugh in this respect, regarding the Realpolitik side of things? – The Forest Ranger more or less triumphs at the end, conquering the Great Marina. Then we have the more positive characters like father Lampros, a priest who has a small but significant role in all this, and then other supporting characters I’ve already mentioned like Erio and Lampusa. Everyone, high and low, are brought along to enact the human drama that is ”On the Marble Cliffs”.

On the Marble Cliffs (Auf den Marmorklippen, 1939). John Leman, London 1947 - - - This English edition was translated by the venerable Stuart Hood. In this blog post, of the one quote presented, I've made my own translation.

Ernst Jünger -- A Portrait
Jünger and the Craft of Science Fiction
Jünger: The Adventurous Heart
Jünger the Pious
Morpheus Tales: The Middle Zone
A Short Story
The picture shows a Penguin Pocket edition of "On the Marble Cliffs".

2 kommentarer:

James O'Meara sa...

Excellent post. You might enjoy my own take on what I call "cockroach literature" and the culture of irony, in essays published at Counter Currents blog and also in print, such as "Kafka, Our Folk Comerade" here: http://www.counter-currents.com/2014/07/kafka-our-folk-comrade/

Svensson sa...

Thanks for the praise, Mr O'Meara. Here's your link in clickable form.


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