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On Translating Ernst Jünger’s The Adventurous Heart: An Interview with Thomas Friese

Ernst Jünger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios is now available for the first time in English translation from Telos Press. Maxwell Woods spoke with the book’s translator, Thomas Friese, about the challenges of translating Jünger into English as well as the increasing relevance of the author’s writings to our current social and political landscape. Purchase your copy of The Adventurous Heart here.

Maxwell Woods: In your preface to The Adventurous Heart, by Ernst Jünger, you write that “this book hooked me on the author for life.” What is it about this particular book that you found so captivating? Do you find yourself returning to this book in your studies of Jünger? Of Jünger’s work does this book hold a special place for you?

Thomas Friese: First impressions obviously have special value, and The Adventurous Heart was my first encounter with Jünger. It was an ideal start, since this book is a concise introduction to the worldview of the mature author. Ideally, all new readers would come to Jünger via this book—there are certainly worse ways, which are unfortunately also more common—i.e., through Der Arbeiter or Storms of Steel, or, worse still, through clichéd second-hand opinions.

I was also lucky enough to have encountered Jünger in an open, non-partisan context, among a group of people, the Association Eumeswil of Florence, who had already discovered the author’s value and had no political agenda behind that interest. (In fact, my first reading of the book was in Quirino Principe’s excellent Italian translation.) Unfortunately many encounter Jünger in a heavily ideological milieu, discolored by political stereotypes, which, whether left or right, equally detract from the true value of the author.

But, yes, I still return to this book—even now that I know many passages by heart!

Above all, I appreciate its unflinchingly honest yet essentially optimistic tone. It is a wonderful revelation of the deeper reality of the everyday world, which, despite the suffering, fear, and decay it uncovers there (and is courageous enough to face and describe), still maintains a fundamentally hopeful outlook. Although a number of pieces are shocking descriptions of the terrifying or degenerate sides of life, they are balanced in at least as many others by beauty, hope, and wonder at the miraculous universe. And even the dark pieces often contain a yet deeper, optimistic layer. For example, “At the Customs Station,” a speculative piece on the passage from life to death, “Beach Passages (2),” also regarding the two sides of this single coin, or “Intuitive Skepticism,” which, after a terrifying description of trench warfare, ends with: “And so it seemed to me that a deeper reality than that of victory had momentarily seized our hearts, even as the muzzles of death took aim at them anew from the second line.” I love this objectivity, and absence of sentimentality. Jünger aims at objective descriptions, not idealistic ones, and so tries to present both sides of the story: ” . . . of both, of light and darkness, are our lives woven” (“The Redstart”).

Maxwell Woods: You briefly mention Jünger’s association, fair or not, with National Socialism in your preface. Did choosing this particular work function as a means to counter, even if only in one small way, “the simplistic and extremely incomplete stereotypes” surrounding Jünger? Did you translate in a manner that would function to go against the grain of many the ideologically motivated criticisms of Jünger? That is, were certain choices made in order to avoid unwanted political associations (I am thinking here, in a less political manifestation, of Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as “overman” to avoid the association “superman” had with the comic book character) or form new ones? Or were such matters insignificant in your translating of the work?

Thomas Friese: To be clear, I do not make this association; if it still survives somewhere, then it is only as a worn-out idée fixe in some ideologically biased and basically uninformed streams in the media and academia. Jünger himself in no manner “associated” with the Nazis; on the contrary, he actively disassociated himself from them and their advances—while maintaining his honor as an officer and a human being in the heart of the demon, not taking the arguably less courageous and certainly safer option of fleeing—a good example of the balancing act of an anarch.

No, the choice of this translation was serendipitous—I was working on it personally for an English Jünger reading group in Vienna, when I happened across Telos Press’s plans to do the same. A happy coincidence.

I see little to be gained in reacting to ideological criticisms of Jünger. “Nur wenige sind es wert, dass man ihnen widerspricht”—a Jünger aphorism, which may smack of elitism to some, but in my opinion reflects a practical strategy. One simply has insufficient time and energy to involve oneself in things that are fundamentally distractions from one’s own independent goals and initiatives. Reaction allows the other to set the agenda and the level of the argument.

In any case, time itself is eroding the veracity of any critics’ claims; strong reaction would only give such ideological constructs artificial support. I ignore all this and simply try to translate what I believe Jünger intended. There is anyway little in this work that can be interpreted, even if read at the simplest level, as ideological.

Maxwell Woods: What were the particular difficulties of translating Jünger that you faced? It seems as if in The Adventurous Heart the author sits right on the border between “literature” and “theory”; did this borderline location affect your translation or pose any additional problems?

Thomas Friese: I did not perceive this difficulty, though your characterization of the work is good. The main difficulty is following his often seemingly disjointed trains of thought. Naturally they are not disjointed, merely connected at a hidden level. To borrow his own description, they are like archipelagos, which form organic wholes, though it is not immediately apparent how the islands above the surface (the sentences) are connected. The reader, and even more the translator, must make the leaps themselves—this makes it more interesting, more involving. A related challenge with Jünger is maintaining his deliberate ambiguities or multiple meanings, without also giving them away, making them easier for the reader to understand than he intended. Jünger wants his readers to think for themselves. The same applies to the underwater connections between the islands—the translation should not try to explain the meaning; that is the reader’s task.

Maxwell Woods: How do you see Jünger’s thought fitting into our current social, political, literary, and academic landscapes? How do you perceive the renewed task of translating Jünger both affecting and being affected by this current location?

Thomas Friese: I’m glad you put the question in a current context—because there are two Jüngers that can be spoken of, even if the second grew out of the first, its developmental prerequisite. The second, the mature author, is the “current” Jünger, the man who gradually evolved into an anarch, starting more or less with this book, after leaving behind early experiments in the world of action and politics. I find the first interesting only to the degree that it helps explain the second. Let’s not forget: his first phase covered from 22 to about 42 years of age, 9 works or so—the second from 42 to 102, with 47 or 48 works! By the way, only 11 of these 59 works have ever been translated into English—not the case for French, Italian, or Spanish, which are more or less complete. Odd, no?

Sticking with the current, relevant Jünger, let me give you two answers.

First, his thought only fits into the current landscape in the sense that an ecological niche can have its place and even thrive within a broader landscape fundamentally unfavorable to it. At its deepest level, Jünger’s thought is anarchic, intended for other anarchs and aspiring anarchs—and so its fit with society is secondary, as is its contribution to “improving” society. It naturally reckons with the outer world, with society, which it seeks to understand and adapt its survival strategy to accordingly, without compromising its essence—this is pragmatism, like watching a weather report to know how to dress. But social acceptance or veneration is more or less irrelevant to it.

On the other hand, this does not mean that an anarch like Jünger, while pursuing his own goals, has nothing to contribute to society. On the contrary, the radically independent thought of anarchs often brings the most fundamental changes to society, precisely because they lie outside of it, uninfluenced by it. Moreover, the anarch follows what Jünger calls the “fundamental law,” the dictates of one’s own conscience, and these may require him to contribute, even at his own risk. Jünger’s publication of On the Marble Cliffs and The Peace pre– and during World War II are two good examples.

But although there is much in his thought that academia could engage with and society benefit from, its main audience is the individual; it seeks not to improve the world in general, which Jünger saw as a vanity, but to help the individual discover and develop himself—and thereby gain a position to help others do the same for themselves.

As such—to come back to your question—while his thought may sometimes coincide with certain social, political, literary and academic streams, it is an organic whole that cannot be identified with any of these, though attempts are still made, on the left and right. Clearly even the mature Jünger was no liberal, but neither was he a conservative in a political sense; he was conservative by nature but apolitical. He was not an academic, though as intellectual as its highest representatives. And even as a writer, he cannot be placed satisfactorily into any literary stream or school.

This makes him a difficult case—and so critics make it easier for themselves and stick to the first few years, whose pattern was more conventional. As Jünger says, whenever anarchs interact with society, there will always be at least some friction, albeit usually perceived more by the anarch than the society. Earlier you mentioned Nietszche—his relationship with academia demonstrated this conflict, though he was not yet an anarch in Jünger’s sense. For Jünger too, the situation can at best improve only marginally—but that is not critical, important is only that his thought reaches a few more latent anarchs out there.

(By the way, since I have used the word so often, I should also caution your readers not to mistake Jünger’s anarch for an anarchist; the fundamental differences even define the anarch—a full exposition of the anarch can be found in Eumeswil, for any interested readers.)

Regarding the second answer. Beyond the address to the anarchic individual, there is much yet to be discovered in Jünger’s writing to help our society understand its present and future. His prophetic insights into the atrocities of World War II in On the Marble Cliffs are well known. But his later works contain so much that is only now materializing in the real world, and yet remains unknown to readers. For example, the remarkable insights into technology and morality, the internet, and intellectual property in The Glass Bees, or into the geo-political configurations of the future in Eumeswil, or the relationship of death and culture in Aladdin’s Problem, to touch on a few.

Fortunately good translations are available of these three. But many other works (almost 50 of them!) whose insights could help us understand, practically and theoretically, our remarkable and dangerous historical phase are still untranslated. I am currently working on translating An der Zeitmauer (At the Time Barrier), and the entire first section deals with climate change! Let me also add, at a far deeper level than anything popularly known, including TED speakers and the like. That book was written in 1959, but it is clear that Jünger’s messages are only becoming more timely and important to understand. His work therefore needs to be translated as soon as possible.

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