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Christianity Regained: Ernst Jünger’s Idea of Europe and of the New European Man in The Peace

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014.

In a paragraph of Daybreak, Nietzsche spoke of Romanticism’s “great reaction”[1] to the Enlightenment. Zeev Sternhell has brought out two distinctive elements of this centuries-long European revolt against the “rationalist modernity”:[2] the rejection of the claim to “mold people’s lives” by means of enlightened reason, and the reevaluation of faith as “an essential foundation of society”[3] accompanied by the idealization of the spiritually united medieval civilization as contrasted with the atomized modern society in the grip of decadence. This current of thought was the symptom of the crisis of the pre-Enlightenment traditional societies, described by Professor Pellicani as closed, static, rigidly prescriptive cultural universes in which, to cite Jaspers, “everything is under the control of symbols of being, held fast in unquestioned orders.”[4] The anti-Enlightenment movement aimed precisely at refounding these collapsed civilizations. One thinks of Novalis’s picture of medieval Europe pacified by the all-binding force of Christendom embodied by the clergy exercising a pastoral power in order to reshape men into salvation-worthy subjects. Moreover, the German poet heralded the advent of a messianic age characterized by the rebirth of the Christian religion as well as of the Jesuit order, and by the dethronement of the illusory idols of reason, since “where are no gods, ghosts reign.”[5] On the contrary, Saint Simon developed the theory, according to which the moral and political crisis undergone by European society, shaken to its religious foundations by the Enlightenment, was nothing but the painful transition from the feudal-theological system to the scientific-industrial one.[6] This new order was to be established by placing at its center an all-pervasive doctrine as its cornerstone, thus creating a new kind of traditional civilization akin to the medieval one. Hence, the necessity to call upon the scientists to create and to inculcate a code of positive ethics, and thereby to exercise a secularized form of pastoral power in order to refashion men into morally disciplined subjects.[7] Therefore, Saint Simon’s remarks on the European crisis can be examined in the light of Foucault’s theory, whereby the new nation-state around the eighteenth century became “a modern matrix of individualization.”[8] In fact, the pastorate, which over centuries “had been linked to a defined religious institution, suddenly spread out into the whole social body.”[9]

In 1924 Berdyaev witnessed this phenomenon and saw his time of “spiritual decadence”[10] as the outcome of the secularization process brought about by man’s breaking-away from the religious center of the medieval civilization.[11] As a result, there had arisen compensatory vital centers such as “the wolves of primary impulse and instinct”[12] and the deceptive “phantasms”[13] deified by modern totalitarian “imitation churches” in order to make “counterfeits of spiritual communion and spiritual ties.”[14] Accordingly, he defined the Soviet Union as an “inverted theocracy,”[15] whose purpose consisted in “drilling souls in platoons,”[16] so that Bolshevism was to be overcome from within. To this end, wrote Berdyaev, “we must first pass through a process of great penitence”[17] paving the way for the fulfillment of the Russian messianic mission and thereby for the attainment of the reunification of Christianity.[18] In stating this, he drew on Dostoevsky’s thesis, according to which “to be a true Russian does . . . mean . . . to pronounce the final Word . . . of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the Gospel.”[19] In addition to that, Berdyaev advocated the renaissance of a medieval society marked by “a renewal of religious asceticism”[20] and by the restoration of the Christian pastorate.[21] These ideas were taken up by Walter Schubart, who maintained that the October Revolution had foreshadowed the European “soul crisis”[22] by showing that a life bereft of religious and moral foundations was bound to degenerate into a beast-like one.[23] Thus, Russia had to follow in Raskolnikov’s footsteps in order to purify herself, to convert Europe back to Christendom, and thereby to give birth to the agape-oriented “omni-humanity”[24] envisioned by Dostoevsky. Interestingly, Schubart also hinted at the necessity of an alliance between the Russian soul and the Catholic direction of souls[25] and observed that the Russian people conceived of books as “means to self-knowledge.”[26]

Ernst Jünger put forward similar thoughts in The Peace, written between 1942 and 1943. Over this period, he witnessed the nihilistic malaise affecting war-ravaged Europe in the wake of the clash between the two totalitarian ideologies arisen in Germany and in the Soviet Union.[27] Hence, the disintegration of Christendom, the ensuing eruption of “naked bestiality,”[28] the animalization of soldiers into bloodthirsty “lost souls”[29] and the desacralization of men, reduced to “vermin.”[30] Jünger drew therefrom the following conclusions:

Man must never forget that the images which now terrify him are drawn from his heart. The world aflame, the burnt-out houses, the ruined towns, the trails of destruction are like leprosy whose germs had long multiplied within before it broke out on the surface. . . . It is the innermost stuff of man’s being which is reflected in the world around us. . . . Therefore spiritual salvation must come first, and only that peace can bring a blessing which has been preceded by the taming of the passions in these hearts and minds of men.[31]

This metanoia demanded of men that they followed a path of purification comparable to the one described in Crime and Punishment, as noted a few years later in Beyond the Line (1950), and requiring the help of the restored pastoral power of the Christian Churches. In view of this, The Peace championed the reunification of Christianity[32] and the birth of a spiritually and politically united Europe[33] under the aegis of a rechristianized man. Most importantly, Jünger himself tried to create this new man by structuring his text after the pattern of one of the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises which he had studied in 1920.[34] This is the reason why he defined The Peace as an “exercise in justice.”[35] The Exercitia spiritualia of Ignatius de Loyola thematize the ascetic technology of the self of the composition of place (compositio loci), by means of which the meditators are asked to visualize through their imagination all the episodes of Christ’s story. In so doing, they are also enabled to imagine themselves as “an abscess from whence have come forth so many sins”[36] and to experience purifying feelings. Correspondingly, Jünger assumed the role of a director of souls, who confronted his readers with “images from a world of terror”[37] meant to ‘shock’ them into self-awareness of their inward condition originating the conflict in order to constitute them as reensouled inner-directed men. This explains why the Ignatian vision of Christ’s crucifixion is replaced by this picture of the murder of Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp:

If ever new pride fills us at the length and boldness of our flight, at our intellectual wings, our pinions of steel, it should suffice to cure us for a glance to be cast on the hordes driven like cattle to the graveyards and cremation ovens where the executioners waited. There they were stripped of their rags and slaughtered like shorn sheep.[38]

Notes

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak. Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 198.

2. Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 1.

3. Ibid., p. 8.

4. Karl Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1960), p. 71 (my translation).

5. Novalis, “Christendom or Europe,” in Philosophical Writings, trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 148.

6. Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, “Il sistema industriale,” in Opere, trans. Maria Teresa Bovetti Pichetto (Torino: UTET, 1975), p. 587.

7. Ibid., p. 757.

8. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus, Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 215.

9. Ibid.

10. Nicolas Berdyaev, The End of Our Time, trans. Donald Attwater (San Rafael: Semantron Press, 2009), p. 15.

11. Ibid., p. 16.

12. Ibid., p. 62.

13. Ibid., p. 33.

14. Ibid., p. 36.

15. Ibid., p. 191.

16. Ibid., p. 189.

17. Ibid., p. 65.

18. “The Russian people is by nature the most universalist of all the peoples of the world, …and their calling ought to be to work for world-unification and the formation of a single spiritual cosmos …In that sense, communist internationalism is a phenomenon of that age rather than of the old ‘modern history,’ and to the same age must be referred the desire for religious unity (the reunion of the separated parts in Christianity)” (ibid., p. 100).

19. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Pushkin” in Pages from the Journal of an Author, trans. S. Koteliansky (Boston: John W. Luce and Co., 1916), p. 67.

20. Berdyaev, The End of Our Time, p. 33.

21. “The spiritual centre in the near future will be, as in the old middle ages, the Church alone …The crisis of culture means that …it …must inevitably become either an atheist and anti-Christian civilization or else a sacred culture animated by the Church …Modern religion has become merely a department of culture …It must again become all, the force which transfigures and irradiates the whole of life from within” (ibid., pp. 108–9).

22. Walter Schubart, Europa und die Seele des Ostens (Zürich: Vita Nova Verlag Luzern, 1938), p. 47 (my translation).

23. Ibid., pp. 166–67.

24. Ibid., p. 32 (my translation).

25. Ibid., p. 182.

26. Ibid., p. 144 (my translation).

27. “It is no mere chance that nihilism was depicted philosophically by Nietzsche and in the novel by Dostoievsky; for if it has been to school in all countries it was in Germany and Russia that it took up its abode. Therefore it was here that the changes were most far-reaching. And therefore it was between these two peoples that the war assumed its purest form” (Ernst Jünger, The Peace, trans. Stuart O. Hood (Hinsdale: Henry Regnery Company, 1948), p. 62.

28. Ibid., p. 28.

29. Ibid., p. 30.

30. Ibid., p. 24.

31. Ibid., p. 52.

32. “The unity of the West, realized for the first time since the empire of Charlemagne, must not be confined to the assimilation of countries, peoples and cults, but must come to life again in the church. The reformation has need of the church as the church has of reformation. Streams which have flowed in separate channels must be again united” (ibid., p. 73).

33. “To set up a European state means, therefore, to give geographical and political unity to territory which historical development was already shaping. The great difficulty lies in the long tradition, the peculiar ways of life which have grown up in its nations. This is what Goethe meant when he said in his day that America was more fortunate than our continent. The time has come, however, when the forms have become fluid and ready for recasting” (ibid., p. 59).

34. Cf. Heimo Schwilk, Ernst Jünger. Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1988), p. 92.

35. Ernst Jünger, Tagebücher II, in Sämtliche Werke, Bd. II (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1962), p. 18 (my translation).

36. Antonio T. De Nicolas, Powers of Imagining. Ignatius de Loyola: A Philosophical Hermeneutic of Imagining through the Collected Works of Ignatius de Loyola (New York: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 118.

37. Jünger, The Peace, p. 23.

38. Ibid., p. 30.

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