Barbarians at the Gate
- By Nil Santiáñez
A Review of Ernst Jünger, On the Marble Cliffs. Translated by Tess Lewis, Introduction by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, Afterword by Maurice Blanchot. New York Review Books, 2023.
An elegant, refined, somewhat aloof writer whose oeuvre spans eight decades, Ernst Jünger is a towering figure of modern German letters. In addition to his correspondence with some of the most prominent luminaries of his time (e.g., Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Gottfried Benn), he authored numerous thought-provoking, idiosyncratic essays, such as The Worker, The Forest Passage, and The World-State, impressive narratives and journals reflecting on his experiences in the two world wars, as well as eleven novels and novellas. Storm of Steel is a true classic of war writing, while Radiations remains as one of the most memorable contributions to the genre of diarism in the twentieth century.
On the Marble Cliffs stands as the most prominent of all the fictional works ever written by Jünger. Published in the fateful year of 1939, this novel has been recently rendered into English by Tess Lewis in a superb translation that accurately captures the novel’s rich, nuanced, evocative, and at times symbolic and esoteric language. A complex, multi-dimensional text, On the Marble Cliffs recounts the scholarly life led by the narrator and his brother Otho on the fictional Marble Cliffs; it also records the slow process of decay of the equally imaginary coastal region of the Marina – a civilized, urban world upon which the barbarians from the northern high forest have set their eyes. Ruled by the violent, tyrannical, and charismatic Head Forester, by the end of the novel, these vandals invade and devastate, presumably tyrannizing, the Marina and its people.
Not an easy read, On the Marble Cliffs is nonetheless a literary achievement of the highest order. Thomas Mann called it “the renowned book of the twelve years,” and rightly so, for unlike most of the works published during the Third Reich, which are now as good as forgotten, Jünger’s novel has been valued by several generations of readers after the Second World War, and it has merited numerous critical approaches. The different levels of its writing – aesthetic, political, and philosophical – intersect in different ways, shaping On the Marble Cliffs as a novel that defies any easy interpretation.
On the Marble Cliffs may be characterized as a “well wrought urn.” The novel’s prose, rendered with precision in this English translation, is polished, intricate, and sensual, despite the detached tone chosen by the narrator. Jünger’s penchant for aestheticism, present in varying degrees throughout his other works, in this novel reaches new heights. The author gives long, delicate descriptions of imaginary landscapes (the vineyards on the outskirts of the Marina, the vegetation and fauna of the Marble Cliffs, the meadow belt of the neighboring Campagna, the marshland located farther north, and the intricacies of the ominous high forest). The two brothers seclude themselves on the Marble Cliffs after fighting alongside the Mauritanians against the free people of Alta Plana. Before the destruction of the Marina by the Head Forester’s hordes, the two conducted a scholarly life dedicated to the study of natural sciences, collecting plants, reflecting on the philosophy of history, and producing short philosophical pieces. Their intellectual activities allow for digressions on philosophical matters as well as lengthy depictions of the country and its wildlife.
Jünger’s novel has often been read as a critical parable of the Third Reich. Indeed, the Head Forester may certainly be viewed as a refraction of Hermann Göring or Adolf Hitler, for he too is bent on territorial expansion, violence, dictatorial dominance over other people, and the resentful destruction of culture and civilization. After the war, however, Jünger distanced himself from such a reading: he claimed that the novel had little to do with German history. While one may agree that the novel cannot be reduced to a political allegory, it is hard to deny that On the Marble Cliffs contains an indictment of National Socialism. Led by the Head Forester, the barbarians from the high forest torture people in a place reminiscent of a concentration camp; some of them infiltrate into Marina society in order to accelerate a decadence that followed the unsuccessful war of conquest against Alta Plana several years before, and they end up setting ablaze the entire region.
From 1939 on, any informed reader could hardly fail to see such correspondences between fiction and reality, including most prominently one imagines, the Nazi censors and administrators. Despite their desire to do so, the censors did not forbid the publication of the novel, nor did they persecute its author for daring to present National Socialism under such an unfavorable light. Hitler’s fondness for Ernst Jünger was well known: a veteran of the Great War, like the “Führer” himself, Jünger – in addition to writing his masterful Storm of Steel, a novel much appreciated by Hitler – produced in the 1920s essays glorifying warfare, like Combat as an Inner Experience, and he viewed veterans as the right people to regenerate Germany, an idea also espoused by the National Socialists.
Jünger does debunk and denounce the territorial ambitions as well as the politics of violence of the Head Forester. On the other hand, though, in the novel’s final chapters the implied author also seems to revel in the narration of combat scenes, massacres, and the almost apocalyptic destruction brought about by the Head Forester’s hordes on the Marina. Narrated with cold aestheticism, these scenes centered on sheer violence and destruction foreground a tension in the political dimension of the novel. There is certainly sharp criticism of the barbarians from the high forest. At the same time, there is also a clear fascination for the beauty contained in warfare and for apocalyptic destruction, aspects which are difficult to reconcile with an authorial stand against barbarism. Jünger’s writing of cruelty and his view of wholesale destruction as an aesthetic experience would clearly be enjoyed and likely shared by any fascist. Such inconsistencies make it difficult to describe the novel as a clear-cut critique of the Nazi regime. A highly-decorated soldier himself, Jünger does not criticize, in his novel, military activity, nor does he disapprove warfare and its most obvious outcomes—the killing or wounding of other human beings.
While On the Marble Cliffs does warrant it, any reading of the novel as a political parable should also be set against a wider context. The narrative also clearly builds upon a philosophy of history according to which, at some point in their history, highly developed civilizations undergo a process of decadence, and where their destruction is believed to be necessary for their regeneration. Such a cyclical view of civilizations, much indebted to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, provides the novel with a deeper significance. In this light, the Head Forester’s barbarians are considered with ambiguity: their ruthlessness and disrespect for civilization is condemned, and yet their violent actions are taken as unavoidable and even necessary given the Marina’s state of moral decay.
Moreover, given this philosophy of history, the novel’s political dimension could be projected not only on the Third Reich, but also onto other historical periods in which there has been an attempt, successful or not, at destroying a highly advanced civilization. On the Marble Cliffs, thus, speaks to us today precisely because of the philosophy of history that underpins its narrative. Jünger’s novel can be read perfectly vis-à-vis the assault on the US Congress on January 6, 2021, when hordes of far-right citizens encouraged by President Trump aimed to overturn the result of the November 2020 presidential election. Or, for that matter, in relation to the attack by Bolsonaro supporters in the fall of 2022 on the buildings holding Brazil’s main political institutions. Today, fascism threatens democracies across the world.
In sum, the recent publication by New York Review Books of a new, modern English translation of On the Marble Cliffs could hardly be timelier. Another remarkable coincidence (or perhaps not so): this outstanding translation by Tess Lewis reached the shelves of American bookstores just before January 30, 2023, the ninetieth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power – and about three weeks after the second anniversary of President Trump’s attempted coup d’état. A literary gem that deserves to be read on its own right, On the Marble Cliffs warns us about the serious menace posed to democratic polities by the barbarians who live in the high forest, anxiously awaiting the marching orders of their Head Forester.
Nil Santiáñez is Professor of Literature and International Studies at Saint Louis University. His most recent books are The Literature of Absolute War: Transnationalism and World War II, Wittgenstein's Ethics and Modern Warfare, and Spanish Fascist Writing, with Justin Crumbaugh as co-editor and co-translator, and Maria Soledad Barbón as co-translator.