The Forest Passage

The Forest Passage is a strange book, a fusion of literature and political theory. Ernst Jünger, a conservative critic of Nazism, is popular in France and Germany but not well-known in the English-speaking world. One reason may be that his most famous book, Storm of Steel, is a celebration of war much-admired by the Nazis. Although Jünger himself saw the baseness of Nazi thuggery, he shares something of their aesthetic.

Another reason Jünger may go unnoticed in the Anglophone world is his style. In The Forest Passage he announces a “new science” (à la Vico) that promises to draw upon art, philosophy, and theology. But the anti-liberal individualism he evokes is obscure, a zilbadone of “primal centers of power”, individuals who have “touched being”, a “life force”, and so on.  Jünger denigrates the philosopher who puts knowledge through the “pulverizing mill of epistemology” (50). But for his own part, Jünger verges on obscuritanism.

Gary Lachman reviews The Forest Passage over on The Daily Grail. He may be introducing many readers to Ernst Jünger:

Like many in the post-war years, Jünger was concerned with the rising anonymity and pervasiveness of the State and it is against its seemingly unstoppable encroachment into our personal lives that The Forest Passage is aimed. The ‘unexplored yet inhabited land’ that lies within us is Jünger’s ‘forest’… Readers of Jünger will know that the figure of the ‘forest rebel’ is a kind of prototype of Jünger’s more realized character of the ‘anarch’, the central theme of his late novel Eumeswil. Jünger’s ‘anarch’, however, is not the same as an anarchist. The anarchist needs society, if only as something to tear down, while the anarch seeks a way to maintain his or her freedom within it, while avoiding its dehumanizing effects. The anarch’s resistance can be invisible, unlike the anarchist’s, and his ‘state’ is the one that lies within him, not the one in which he is forced to live. In a way, The Forest Passage aims at providing the reader with a guide to preserving his or her ‘self’ while subjected to the unavoidable pressures of modern government.

A more critical introduction comes from Ian Buruma’s 1993 article in the New York Review of Books, “The Anarch at Twilight”. (Also read the stident Jüngerian response.) In 1939, Hitler told Nazi officials to “Leave Jünger alone.” In 1945, Berthold Brecht told German communists to “Leave Jünger alone.” Neither Nazis nor Stalinists were known for leaving people alone. Why was Ernst Jünger untouchable?

It may be helpful to compare Jünger’s project to George Kateb’s more academic Inner Ocean (1992). While Kateb selects a different biome, Jünger’s inner forest and Kateb’s inner ocean are reserves and resevoirs, respectively, of individuality. Both draw upon Nietzsche and Heidegger (Alain de Benoist has drawn out the Jünger-Heidegger correspondence), although Kateb supplements this with Whitman and Emerson. Inner Ocean has ample resources for respect and solidarity, lest the brooding Anglo-Saxon who returns to his inner Gothic forest becomes an unpleasant and pliable roughneck.

Is this a book for our times? To what extent is the contemporary United States an authoritarian pseudo-democracy? We may lack a no totalitarian government with rigged elections, but we have the “artificial cities”, the “technological expediences” and — in the recent amplification of terrorism — the “vortex of fear”. Jünger writes something resonant, although I am still not quite sure what he’s saying.



One response to “The Forest Passage

  1. And then there is Tomas Halik’s use of the forest metaphor in *Night of the Confessor*:

    Indeed, during these days of reflection in the solitude of a forest, I am attracted to the image of the forest or woods as an apt metaphor for religious mystery–a forest that is broad and deep, with its fascinating multiplicity of life forms; a multilayered ecosystem; an unfinished symphony of nature; a spontaneously intricate space–such a contrast to planned and premeditated human settlements with their streets and parks–a place in which one can get lost over and over again, but also discover to one surprise still more of its aspects and gifts. (19)

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