MT White is a novelist and essayist whose forthcoming novel, Content, is excerpted in The PunchRiot Magazine. His novel, Down to Sheol, can be found on Amazon and he can be found on Twitter @MattheWrite. — Ed.
The fall of 1939 saw the publication of Ernst Junger’s “On the Marble Cliffs” by German soldier turned philosopher Ernst Junger, a novella he finished just a fortnight before the start of World War II. Junger, famous in his native Germany (considered an equal to Goethe by some) and greater Europe is lesser known in the English-speaking world and this novella may be one reason why (though it has been published in English).
Set in some alternative land of the Great Marina, the narrator and his brother live a somewhat idyllic life as botanists while also being part of an esoteric fraternity called “The Order of the Maurentanians”. The Marina comes under great threat by the Chief Ranger who leads a barbaric horde, slaying people in the outlying woods in a brutal manner. The brothers venture out with two others to explore some ancient ruins and find themselves pursued by the Chief Ranger but get assistance from an old crusty forest hand named Belovar and his pack of hounds. Belovar and the dogs help fight off the advance of the Ranger but find themselves killed while the brothers, the only survivors of the expedition, escape to the Marina only to see it get destroyed—but not before their snakes in a temple strangle the dogs of the Ranger—where they make a daring escape by boat, seeing their beloved way of life destroyed in flames. But the narrator seems philosophical about it all: “No house is built, no plan laid, of which decay is not the corner stone, and what lives eternally does not lie in our works. This we perceived in the flames, and yet there was a joy in their radiance.” A cleansing fire, indeed.
Given its publication date, Junger’s novella is naturally subject to controversy. Even in Nazi Germany, the publication was contested at highest levels (Goebbels hated the “defeatist” nature of the book and wanted Junger punished, but Hitler, a huge admirer, directly intervened and approved its publication). But Junger’s post-war writings has generally led many to believe the novel, with the Ranger being a cut-out for Hitler himself, a warning against the brutal nature of dictatorships. Others, like scholar Guido Giacomo Preparata, see it as a clear pro-Nazi allegory (the Maurentanian order being the Nazi precursor “Thule Society”) with Stalin as the Chief Ranger and Hitler represented as Belovar, whose dogs (the Wehrmacht and SS) valiantly fight (the snakes strangling the Ranger’s dogs) but ultimately lose with Germany being represented in the burning Marina.
Junger said it’s just a story.
Regardless of intent, “On the Marble Cliffs” thematically fits in to the corpus of Junger’s work: The world may be burning, despots rising, but it’s the individual’s duty to maintain history and culture, and carry it with them in their spirit because everything else is just subject to flame.
Junger’s writing has a graceful elegance that transcends all clunky translations and ideological bromides, a sign he followed his own advice and carried the old Prussian traditions in his pen and passed it on to us, transcending history, controversy and flame.