Translated from the German by Stuart Hood
New Directions, 1947
Original publication in German in 1939
From The American Scholar, July 20, 2015:
In 1970, the Scholar’s editors polled the literary lights of the day for their opinion on that book published in the past quarter of a century that they believed to have been the most undeservedly neglected.
W. S. Merwin
I’m not anything like well enough read to do justice to your question, and I should probably take some time to ponder it. But the first book that leaps to mind—since I think it’s a great book and virtually no one I’ve ever mentioned it to has read it—is Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs (New Directions, 1947). I’d certainly put it high in any such list, anyway. I should say that it’s been a few years since I last read it, myself—too long for me to venture to say much about it just like that.
I ran across Merwin's quote recently when I was looking for ideas on what to read, and since I had never heard of On the Marble Cliffs, much less read it, I thought I would give it a try. I'm glad I did, even though (and maybe because) it's the strangest thing I have ever read. The more I dig into the book and the author, the more intrigued I become.
German author Ernst Jünger presents troubling questions on the role authors play in totalitarian regimes. Jünger was part of the so-called "inner emigrates" during Adolph Hitler's reign, intellectuals staying in Germany during his dictatorship but passively resisting the regime. Some of his between-World Wars works complicates things. In 1943, Thomas Mann in 1943 described those works as "saber rattling," his militant activism contributing to the rise of Nazism. Jünger didn't try to deny or recreate his past once the war was over. I'm going to avoid saying much more on that topic (as best as I can), instead looking at this weird and marvelous book.
On the Marble Cliffs is an allegorical tale of two brothers living on an island who witness and are involved in a battle between islanders and forces allied with a character called the Chief Ranger. The book has a dream-like quality, which seems to be fitting since Jünger stated the idea for the story came to him in a dream. The book is mostly a mosaic of impressions and observations, with a gothic feel at times.
The brothers, former soldiers, have retired to an hermitage overlooking a lake/marina in order to work on classifying the flora. (I'm not convinced they are truly brothers, as the narrator refers to "Brother Otho," which seems more a title or honorific.) The area around the hermitage seems idyllic, a charming place, with splendid views of a marina, where the two men live austerely and immerse themselves in their work studying and categorizing the island's plant life. The people of the island all have different characteristics tied to their geographic location, whether living in the forest, the fields, or the marina city.
The opening lines of the book provides the reader with an idea of the strangeness that will follow:
You all know the wild grief that besets us when we remember times of happiness. How far beyond recall they are, and we are severed from them by something more pitiless than leagues and miles. In the afterlight, too, the images stand out more enticing than before; we think of them as we do of the body of a dead loved one who rests deep in the earth, and who now in his enhanced and spiritual splendour is like a mirage of the desert before which we must tremble.
Nostalgia for happy times is a grief? Akin to remembering a now-dead body? I would think the "wild grief" when thinking of happy times only comes into play during unhappy times, so the narrator and Jünger seem to be telegraphing their feelings about the current situation. That doesn't stop the retelling of such happier times for the narrator, a taste of which follows:
To understand what is meant by living one had to look down to the Marina on one of these gay holidays. Early in the morning the whole gamut of noises rose up to us, fine and distinct, like objects seen through a reversed spy-glass. We heard the bells of the towns and the petards saluting the flag-dressed ships in the harbours, or it would be the hymns of pious processions going on pilgrimage to miraculous images, or the music of the flutes in a bridal train. We heard the chatter of the daws around the weathercocks, the crowing of cocks, the call of cuckoos, the horns of hunters riding out from the town gate to hawk the heron. All mounted up to us in harmonies so quaint that the whole world seemed to be merely a brilliant patchwork; the effect was as heady as wine drunk fasting. (page 31—all references are to the 1947 edition referenced at top)
This and other descriptions portray an idyllic place, but the image of bad things looming arises in the figure of the Chief Ranger, introduced on the first page, on whom the brothers "were on their guard against." A few other descriptions paint him as a ridiculous figure, but one who is still considered a grand master who leaves an imprint on one's memory. The Chief Ranger's power over those that the narrator knew started as rumors heard, "like the first obscure heralds of a pest raging in distant harbors," while a cloud of fear preceded" him "like the mountain mist that presages the storm." (29). Rumors of disturbances related to blood feuds surfaced, but they were "more bitter, ... obscured by new and unusual traits." (35) Violence was rampant and demands for payoffs became unbearable. What made things more menacing "was the fact that all these crimes, which set the land in an uproar and cried for justice, went almost entirely unavenged." (36) There were many signs that signaled a downfall in order and spirit. These signs started small but had a clear, ulterior motive: "the Chief Ranger administering fear in small doses which he gradually increased, and which aimed at crippling resistance." (41)
While on a search for an elusive orchid specimen, the two brothers stumble across what they call the Flayer's Copse. Permit me an extended quote:
They [two large bushes that looked like laurels] grew on either side of an old barn with yawning doors which stood in the clearing. The light which played upon it was unlike any light of the sun, but was hard and shadowless, so that the whitewashed building stood out sharply defined. At intervals the walls were divided off by black beams with tripod bases, and over them rose to a point a grey shingle-roof. Against them, too, leaned stakes and hooks.
Over the dark door on the gable-end a skull was nailed fast, showing its teeth and seeming to invite entry with its grin. Like a jewel in its chain, it was the central link of a narrow gable frieze which appeared to be formed of brown spiders. Suddenly we guessed that it was fashioned of human hands fastened to the wall. So clearly did we see this that we picked out the little peg driven through the palm of each one.
On the trees, too, which ringed the clearing bleached the death's-heads; many a one with eye sockets already mossgrown seemed to scan us with a dark smile. Except for the mad dance in which the cuckoo flitted round the whiteness of the skulls it was absolutely still. I heard Brother Otho whisper half in a dream: "Yes, this is Koppels-Bleek." The interior of the barn lay almost in darkness, and we could distinguish only, close to the entrance, a flaying bench on which a skin was stretched out. Behind it other pale fungoid shapes shimmered out of the dark background. Towards them, as if into a hive, we saw buzzing swarms of steel-coloured and golden flies. Then the shadow of a great bird fell over the spot. Its movements were those of a vulture which swooped down on the teasel field on jagged wings. Only when we saw it rooting with its beak and sinking its red neck into the upturned soil did we become aware that a dwarf was working there with a pick, and that the bird followed his handiwork like a raven behind the plough.
Now the dwarf laid down his pick and, whistling an air, walked over to the barn. He was clad in a grey jerkin, and we saw that he rubbed his hands as if after work well done. When he had entered the barn there began a pounding and scraping on the flaying bench; he whistled his air throughout in elfish merriment. Then we heard the wind rocking itself as if in accompaniment among the pines so that the pale skulls on the trees rattled in chorus. Into its lament was mixed the swaying of the hooks and the twitching of the withered hands on the barn wall. The noise was that of wood and bone, like a puppet show in the kingdom of the dead. At the same time there bore down upon the wind a clinging heavy and sweet smell of corruption, which made us shiver to the marrow of our bones. Within us we felt the melody of life touch its darkest and deepest chord. (73-4)
It may have been a melody of life, but it was being played like a dance of death. The narrator notes that those busy with their jobs, even after seeing sights like this, feel invulnerable as they block it out of their minds. Into this world comes a visiting prince and two noble lords, intent on stop the Chief Ranger but ill prepared for their task. And this is what leads to the strangest passages of the book—an armageddon, complete with spike-collared mastiffs ("legions of hell") fighting first bloodhounds, then native venomous vipers. Conflagrations abound, severed heads are displayed, and survivors have to wade through mutilated corpses of fighters and dogs. The narrator notes his condition was "under the spell of a dream," and it reads like something out of Revelations. The devastation of the countryside and the marina mirrors the destruction felt within the narrator's heart.
It's quite a lot to take in, both for him and for the reader. We watch an almost-comedic thug rise in power in the country, only to destroy it in his quest for control and power. Even though this was published in Germany in 1939 I wouldn't call it prophetic, although parts of it are eerie in their prescience. I'll take Jünger at his word when he said the book wasn't aimed specifically at Hitler but focused instead on how such evil comes to power anywhere in the world as well as what it does to people. The narrator, smitten with the mission and nobility of the prince and nobles determined to stop the Chief Ranger, sums up his worldview in such times: "I would rather fall with the free men than go in triumph among the slaves." (105)
I wanted to pass on my reading of this short book and my initial reactions to its strangeness. Even though I don't have W. S. Merwin's excuse of it being a while since I read it, I also find myself unable to venture much more about it. There are no easy answers given in the book, although the repetition of the importance of a well-ordered life and the impact of doing nothing give the reader plenty of clues as to what Jünger probably had in mind as a way to combat such tyranny. Whether or not he felt it was enough to make a difference is another matter.
In the opening quote, "The American Scholar" notes that the English translation is difficult to obtain. It was fairly easy for me to get a copy using WorldCat, but if you don't have access to that I just found that the 1947 New Directions' editions is online at archive.org. The 1970 Penguin Books edition uses the same translation by Stuart Hood and adds an introduction by George Steiner.
The NY Times obit for Ernst Jünger
Ernst Jünger's Wikipedia page