Review: Ernst Jünger’s “On the Marble Cliffs”

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Ernst Jünger’s short novel On the Marble Cliffs, published in 2023 by the New York Review of Books, translated by Tess Lewis, and I must say, it is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Jünger’s prose really shines in this novel; his worldbuilding and scene creation is as vivid as Tolkien’s, and his characterization is masterful.

Just as a warning, this review will include spoilers.

First, it was striking to me just how much care Jünger puts into painting a portrait of the physical world his characters inhabit. He does so through vivid descriptions of their environment, their home, their country. It is one of sprawling vineyards, small towns, mountains, glaciers, taverns, market squares, gardens, marble cliffs, beautiful bays, rolling pastures, fields of flowers, bogs, and a dark and foreboding forest. The amount of detail that he includes about every part of this world is truly mesmerizing and it is a real treat for the imagination.

Much of the book is dedicated to what we would call “world-building.” Though there is a story unfolding, it unfolds as a memory, and this memory is especially fixated on the “good times” which precede the later events of the book, so it is no surprise that our protagonist spends so much time reminiscing about the times of peace, tranquility, and pleasure. The narrator, who is unnamed, lives with his brother Ortho, his son Erio, and Erio’s grandmother and the cook of the house, Lampusa, in an expansive ancient house called the “Rue-Herb Retreat, which is carved into the cliffs and overlooks the Marina, a huge lake. There, he and his brother Ortho, both veterans of the Alta Plana war, spend their time away from the world studying botany. It is important to note that Jünger himself had an interest in botany and zoology.

Early on we learn of a mysterious figure known as the “Head Forester” who is revealed to be a looming threat to the narrator’s world. Gradually, we discover that the Head Forester used to be a governor of Mauretania, which is described as being a powerful and warlike nation, and that Ortho and the narrator used to regularly spend time with him and other powerful people around the world when they were younger. More and more the reader gets the sense that the Head Forester and his minions are a force to be reckoned with, a threat that begins in some distant and faraway region but inches closer and closer to the harmonious lands of the narrator. Terror is said to be the main weapon of the Head Forester, and his plan of domination is simple: he creates chaos to correct it. He creates disorder to establish tyranny. He spreads terror so that he can swoop in and establish order, for a terrorized people always look for someone to pacify their fears. Therefore, the Head Forester is both the source and the solution of the problems which plague the region. But, at first, the narrator and his companions only hear distant reports of killings and attacks and continue on with life as normal. Two of their friends include a Christian friar who runs a shrine, and an old man who owns a large property.

A real shift occurs when, one day, the narrator and brother Ortho set out to find a certain red flower called the ‘red helleborine’ (it is interesting to note that Jünger wrote of the color red: “it glows wherever there are tensions”). Eventually they enter the forest, and they stumble upon a truly horrifying sight: a torture camp where humans have been, we can infer, flayed alive and tortured by various other means. This is the moment when the Head Forester and his rabble (how Jünger describes the underlings of the Head Forester multiple times) are revealed to be a truly demonic and evil force. They leave, and the situation begins to spiral out of control following this episode.

Things come to a head when a young prince and a Mauretanian named Braquemart visit the two brothers. They reveal that they are setting out to fight the Head Forester, but clearly it is fated to be a doomed expedition. As the two depart the Retreat, a cuckoo can be heard, the cuckoo traditionally symbolizing foolishness. Finally, the two brothers join forces with an old man and his family, servants, and dogs to go fight the Head Forester themselves. They venture into the forest at first with some success but are eventually routed by the superior numbers of the Head Forester’s forces. The narrator narrowly escapes death, only to again find the torture camp. Much to his horror, the young prince and Braquemart have each been beheaded, their heads atop a spear. He places the head of the young noble in his sack and flees. As he flees, he sees the farm of the old man burning, then sees the Christian shrine burning and watches as the rubble crushes the priest, sees all the neighboring villages in flames, and even the main city. They are all being reduced to rubble by the Head Forester and his troops. The story ends with the narrator, Ortho, Erio, and Lampusa escaping from the Retreat and leaving on a ship as the Head Forester’s troops finally reach the Marble Cliffs and destroy the retreat.

This summary does not at all do the book justice, but I have tried to give the overall plot and the important details.

What is most discussed about On the Marble Cliffs, however, is not the plot, but the book’s meaning. The description of this copy describes it as “an allegory of the advent of fascism” and this seems to be the predominant opinion on what the book means. Nevertheless, I think this is a huge oversimplification. The introduction of the book does a good job of providing some nuance, but I want to go further. Jünger himself said, in the author’s note, that “this shoe fits several feet” (pg. 117).

Now, there is no doubt that this is an allegory which applies to the rise of National Socialism in Weimar Germany, and the establishment of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler. This I do not contest. But it is not meant to be an allegory which only or even primarily applies to the Nazis. I would posit that the story of On the Marble Cliffs is rather a heavily anti-democratic, anti-populist, anti-collectivist, and anti-modern novel. Jünger intentionally created a world which exists in a limbo between modernity and antiquity. This world has wars of a more modern sort, guns, cars, and a medieval flavor of Christianity. But it also has devout pagans, swords, and nobles, and the war between the Head Forester and the band organized by the brothers is one fought primarily by hunting dogs and men with blunt weapons and shotguns. This is to give the reader a sense of the old passing away and giving way to the new, just as the old world was disappearing in the aftermath of World War One. Jünger describes the Head Forester as having recruited criminals and vagabonds, rough men, ultimately summed up as “rabble.” On the other hand, he speaks very favorably of the old order, including the nobles and the aristocracy. I believe the following lines are perhaps the most revealing of the whole novel and its meaning: “When the sense of justice and tradition wanes and when terror clouds the mind, then the strength of the man in the street soon runs dry. Yet within the ancient aristocracy, the sense of what is true and legitimate abides and from these families new shoots of righteousness emerge. This is why noble blood is granted preeminence in all peoples” (pg. 75).

This is an incredibly Nietzschean statement. Like Nietzsche, Jünger values what is noble, what is aristocratic, and in a very literal and biological sense, mind you. It is clear that Jünger sees the aristocrat as being superior to the ‘man on the street’ and considers the old order to be a laudable one, while the populism, collectivism, and democracy of modernity causes disorder and destruction of what is good and orderly. We should also note how Jünger writes fondly and extensively of symbolism, ancient traditions, myths, legends, and superstitions. He sees the universe as having an ultimate transcendent meaning, with each little detail and object having some higher symbolic meaning, whereas the Head Forester is concerned only with the destruction of the old order in favor of the new, grotesque order of the lowest men, with its death camps and disregard for civilization properly understood. He wants only power. He is neither a thinking man nor a moral one.

Jünger also writes repeatedly of how the Head Forester incites terror and fear into the hearts and minds of those living around the Marina, and that this is his tactic to subvert and eventually destroy it. Consider what Jünger says in this passage from The Forest Rebel: “The great solitude of the individual is a hallmark of our times. He is surrounded, encircled by fear, which pushes walls in against him on all sides” (pg. 54). Fear is the tool of the machine, of the Total State, and it is the tool of the Head Forester. Standing against this fear are our main characters and their companions.

In the introduction to the book there is one quote I especially like from Jessi Stevens. She says, “On the Marble Cliffs serves as a key to the cosmology Jünger develops in these later years. All the major motifs of this novel—serpents, language, nihilism, chivalry, dreams, Spenglerian theories of history as cyclical—return throughout his major wartime and immediate postwar works” (pg. xiii). This is totally true. On the Marble Cliffs is a kind of distillation of Jünger’s metaphysics and his ideology into a short novel. The narrator is clearly a stand in for Jünger himself and every word, every thought should be interpreted as Jünger’s own. What does that tell us, then? It tells us that Jünger knew the old world was destined to burn, destined to die in a war (it did, twice). It tells us that he knew that the aristocracy, the old order, and the old religions would all be destroyed. It tells us that he viewed the modern state as intent on inciting terror only to exercise control over the now-terrorized population (sounds a lot like our modern state. Think 9/11 and COVID). It tells us that he did, actually, believe in fighting against all this, but that he had little hope for success against the trends. Above all, it tells us that Jünger refused to give into nihilism, that he refused to abandon what he believed to be good and true, and that he was willing to fight even a losing war.

On the Marble Cliffs is so much more than an anti-fascist allegory, and while it certainly does have anti-fascist elements to it, it is moreso because Jünger is a Right-wing traditionalist of sorts who dislikes totalitarianism, collectivism, and modern ideology (and he would not hesitate to place democracy in those categories, by the way). Julius Evola was famously against fascism, but only because it was not traditionalist or Right-wing enough for him. I think Jünger is basically the same in this regard; he saw Nazism as being a perversion of what was good and noble, and believed it to be too modern. He is truly an enigma to modern minds because he represents a world and a way of thinking which, frankly, no longer exists. He was not a man of this age, and thus he perplexes critics who cannot understand his way of thinking. Stevens believes his politics were incoherent and that his ideology contradicted itself. She says he used metaphysics “as an escape” and that, “Ever aristocratic, his critiques of Hitler could appear to be rooted as rooted in intellectual snobbery as in moral outrage. He once complained that the Nazis ‘lacked metaphysics.’ They waged war like technicians” (pg. xi). To those confused why Jünger would be so concerned about the metaphysical, I suggest they read G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. In it they will find the answer. Whatever you think of Chesterton, he makes some excellent points in this work. Allow me to share an excerpt from it to illustrate why exactly Jünger would be so concerned about the lack of metaphysics within modern ideologies. Chesterton writes:

Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it used to occupy. General ideals used to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry of “art for art’s sake.” General ideals used to dominate politics. They have been driven out by the cry of “efficiency,” which may roughly be translated as “politics for politics’ sake.” Persistently for the last twenty years the ideals of order or liberty have dwindled in our books; the ambitions of wit and eloquence have dwindled in our parliaments. Literature has purposely become less political; politics have purposely become less literary. General theories of the relation of things have thus been extruded from both; and we are in a position to ask, “What have we gained or lost by this extrusion? Is literature better, is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?”

When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. There cannot be any better proof of the physical efficiency of a man than that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world. And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiency of a nation than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem. There can be no stronger sign of a coarse material health than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals; it is in the first exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon. None of the strong men in the strong ages would have understood what you meant by working for efficiency.

G.K. Chesterton, “Heretics”

Jünger’s description of the man Braquemart is interesting and hints at what Jünger sees as being deficient and dangerous. He is described as being a “crude theoretician” and is described as being a “zealot of power and supremacy” whose “wildest dreams were reserved to utopian realms” (pg. 74). “He was of that breed of men who dream concretely, a very dangerous sort” (pg. 75). We can also see the lack of metaphysics in the Head Forester, who only wants power and control, and who has no regard for the old order, religion, or anything beyond his own material success. Both these men, coincidentally, are Mauretanians, who are said to believe that power ought to be wielded in a “dispassionate, godlike manner” and that “for them, the world was reduced to a map like those that are engraved for amateurs using little compasses and polished instruments that are pleasing to hold” (pg. 22-23).

The modern totalitarian state concerned only with efficiency and technics is also described in The Forest Passage. Jünger writes, “The masses will follow the propaganda, which shifts them into a purely technical relationship with law and morality” and “man restricts his own power of decision in favor of technological expediencies. This brings all manner of conveniences—but an increasing loss of freedom must necessarily also result.”

This is what Jünger is against. This is what the novel is about. It is about the death of the old world of symbols, traditions, myths, legends, morals, nobility, freedom, and individuality. It is about the advent of a new order, or rather a new disorder, one led by charismatic politicians and strongmen with the masses behind them, emptied of meaning, striving only for greater technological progress, increased efficiency, and ever more concentrated power. This is why Jünger is so concerned with faulty metaphysics or the lack of a metaphysics to begin with. Once good metaphysics and a sense of understanding of the world has been discarded, all is threatened and nothing is sacred, not even the human person. To say, then, that the novel is an allegory about Nazism is too simplistic and reductive. Rather, the novel’s themes fit the Nazis because the Nazis, like most other modern political ideologies, happens to be the right size for the shoe that Jünger constructed. They represent the advent of a weak and hollow age.

I shall end with Jünger’s final statement in his author’s note. He says, “A man can harmonize with the powers of his time or he can stand against them. This is secondary. At every point he has the opportunity to show how he has grown. That is how he can manifest his freedom—physical, spiritual, moral—especially in the face of danger. How will he remain true to himself: that is his problem. It is also the touchstone of the poem” (pg. 117).

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