September 11, 2013

Ernst Jünger On The "Prevailing Power of Pain"

Ernst Jünger - On Pain.
Ernst Jünger (29 March 1895 – 17 February 1998) was a German writer and philosopher. In addition to his political essays, novels and diaries, he is well known for Storm of Steel, an account of his experience during World War I.

Jünger was among the forerunners of magical realism. His vision in The Glass Bees (1957, German title: Gläserne Bienen), of a future in which an overmechanized world threatens individualism, could be seen as science fiction. A sensitive poet with training in botany and zoology, as well as a soldier, his works in general are infused with tremendous details of the natural world.

Throughout his life he had experimented with drugs such as ether, cocaine, and hashish; and later in life he used mescaline and LSD. These experiments were recorded comprehensively in Annäherungen (1970, Approaches). The novel Besuch auf Godenholm (1952, Visit to Godenholm) is clearly influenced by his early experiments with mescaline and LSD.
Below is an excerpt from Ernst Jünger's 1934 essay titled "On Pain." Source: Telos Press Publishing: New York. 2008. Translated by David C. Durst. Pg. 4-9.
"Pain's disregard for our system of values greatly increases its hold on life. The emperor who, when urged to remove himself from the line of fire, responded by asking whether one had ever heard of an emperor falling in battle, exposed himself to one of those errors to which we all too willingly succumb. No human situation is secure against pain. Our children's tales close with passages about heroes who, after having overcome many dangers, live out their lives in peace and happiness. We hear such assurances with pleasure, for it is comforting for us to learn about a place removed from pain. Yet, in truth, life is without any such satisfying end, as is evidenced by the fragmentary character of most great novels, which are either incomplete or crowned by an artificial conclusion. Even Faust closes with this sort of contrived literary device.

The fact that pain repudiates our values is easily hidden in times of peace. Yet we already begin to reel when a joyful, wealthy, or powerful man is stricken by the most ordinary afflictions. The sickness of Friedrich III, who died of routine throat cancer, evoked an almost incredible sense of astonishment. A very similar sentiment can seize us when, observing a dissection, we encounter human organs indiscriminately perforated or covered with malignant tumors, indicating a long, individual path of suffering. The seeds of destruction are indifferent to whether they destroy the mind of a numskull or a genius. The scurrilous, yet significant, verse of Shakespeare speaks to this sentiment:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

Schiller, too, elaborates on this fundamental idea in his "Stroll under the Linden Trees."

During times we are apt to call unusual, the indiscriminate nature of this threat is even more apparent. In war, when shells fly past our bodies at high speeds, we sense clearly that no level of intelligence, virtue, or fortitude is strong enough to deflect them, not even by a hair. To the extent this threat increases, doubt concerning the validity of our values forces itself upon us. The mind tends toward a catastrophic interpretation of things wherever it sees everything called into question. Among the questions of eternal debate is the great clash between the Neptunists and Vulcanists---while the past century, in which the idea of progress predominated, can be characterized as a Neptunistic age, we tend increasingly toward Vulcanic views.

Such a tendency can be seen best in the particular predilections of the mind; a predisposition to a sense of ruin has its proper place here. It has not only conquered broad domains of science, but it also explains the lure of countless sects. Apocalyptic visions spread. Historical analysis begins to investigate the potential for a complete collapse to take place internally through deadly cultural diseases or externally. . . In this connection the mind feels itself drawn toward the image of powerful empires perishing in their prime. The rapid destruction of the South American cultures forces us to admit that even the greatest civilizations we know are not assured safe development. In such times, the primordial memory of the lost Atlantis recurs. Archeology is actually a science dedicated to pain; in the layers of the earth, it uncovers empire after empire, of which we no longer even know the names. The mourning that takes hold of us at such sites is extraordinary, and it is perhaps in no account of the world portrayed more vividly than in the powerful and mysterious tale about the City of Brass. In this desolate city surrounded by deserts, the Emir of Musa reads the words on a tablet made of iron of China: "For I possessed four thousand bay horses in a stable; and I married a thousand damsels, of the daughters of Kings, high-bosomed virgins, like moons; and I was blessed with a thousand children, like stern lions; and I lived a thousand years, happy in mind and heart; and I amassed riches such as the Kings of the regions of the earth were unable to procure, and I imagined that my enjoyments would continue without failure. But I was not aware when there alighted among us the terminator of delights and the separator of companions, the desolator of abodes and the ravager of inhabited mansions, the destroyer of the great and the small and the infants and the children and the mothers. We had resided in this palace in security until the event decreed by the Lord of all creatures, the Lord of the heavens and the Lord of the earths, befell us." Further, on a table of yellow onyx were graven the words: "Upon this table have eaten a thousand one-eyed Kings, and a thousand Kings each sound in both eyes. All of them have quitted the world, and taken up their abode in the burial-grounds and the graves."

Astronomy vies with the pessimistic view of history, which projects the mark of destruction onto planetary spaces. News reports about the "red spot" on Jupiter stir in us a peculiar sense of anxiety. The cognitive eye is clouded by our most secret desires and fears. In the sciences one sees this best in the sect-like character that one of its branches, such as the "Cosmic Ice Theory," suddenly attains. The recent attention to the enormous craters, which apparently resulted from the impact of meteoric projectiles on our earth's crust, is also typical.

Finally, war, which has from time immemorial formed a part of apocalyptic visions, also offers imagination a wealth of material. Depictions of future clashes were popular well before the World War; and they again today make up a voluminous literature. The peculiar nature of this literature is rooted in the focus on total destruction; man grows accustomed to the sight of future expanses of ruin, where wholesale slaughter triumphs in endless domination. We are dealing here with something more than literary moods. This can be seen in the actual preventive measures already in full gear. A dark foreboding danger overshadows life, which is reflected in the way all the civilized states are currently taking precautionary steps against chemical warfare. In his noteworthy history of the plague in London, Defoe describes how before the actual outbreak of the Black Death, alongside the renowned plague doctors, an army of magicians, quacks, sectarians, and statisticians poured into the city as a vanguard of the infernal wind. Situations of this kind repeat themselves over and over again, for the eye of man naturally searches for spaces of shelter and safety at the sight of pain so inescapable and antithetical to his values. In sensing the uncertainty and vulnerability of life as a whole, man increasingly needs to turn his sights to a space removed from the unlimited rule and prevailing power of pain."