Ernst J?nger's early writings on technology, war, and death earned him the admiration of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and the command of a firing squad in WWII. His later, sceptical ideas about modern technology found expression in his futuristic post-war novels. One of these startling works, The Glass Bees (New York Review Books), depicts a barbarous near-future in which "human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible." In today's heady atmosphere of technological enthusiasm, a revival of interest in J?nger's work is underway.
Elliot Neaman, a historian at the University of San Francisco and the author of A Dubious Past: Ernst J?nger and the Politics of Literature After Nazism (California), suggests that in his allegorical novels, J?nger presaged the Internet and the rootless, networked culture of Silicon Valley. If so, it was an ironic act of foresight for a man who disdained even the most widespread modern inventions, including cars, which he refused to drive.
In the course of his long life (he died at the age of 102 in 1998), J?nger shifted restlessly from one intellectual phase to the next: from aristocratic-minded foe of the Weimar Republic to "national Bolshevik" reactionary, from "inner emigrant" during World War II to science-fiction novelist, from psychedelic-drug enthusiast to nonagenarian diarist, all the while working as an amateur entomologist.
According to Thomas Nevin, author of Ernst J?nger and Germany: Into the Abyss, 1914-1945, in his early years J?nger had a "chivalric perspective on war, almost an anachronistic position." Nevin explains, "Schoolboys in his day looked to the military as we look to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs." But J?nger, who was wounded thirteen times in the war and earned Germany's highest honour for bravery, came to feel that preserving pre-modern codes of soldierly conduct was impossible in the face of the mechanisation and mass mobilisation used to carry out war's carnage.
In 1920, J?nger published one of his finest books, the brutal war memoir The Storm of Steel. Battle here was a worthwhile "inner experience", a genuine and thrilling proving ground. Still, the extremes of modern warfare suggested to J?nger that the factory model had finally caught up with the front lines, with devastating effects on men and the true warrior ethic. According to Neaman, J?nger saw "the coming technologies and how important they would be." He adds: "J?nger was deeply reactionary, but he's the kind of reactionary who really wants to understand what he's up against." The airplane, mustard gas, mass mobilisation-the very scale and sophistication of the killing-threatened the old-fashioned heroism, authority, and individuality that J?nger valued. Technology's levelling effect might even carry over into civilian life, he worried-and once set in motion, it could not be stopped.
After World War I, writing in newspapers published by Nazis, veterans, and independent fascists, J?nger argued that Germany should be governed by a dictatorship that would "substitute deed for word, blood for ink, sacrifice for phrase, and sword for pen". The Storm of Steel, admired by Hitler and Goebbels, was included as recommended reading in the Third Reich's school curriculum. Yet for all his seeming support of the Nazi Party, J?nger never joined it. In 1939, he published the novel On the Marble Cliffs, which many interpreted as a thinly veiled indictment of the vulgar direction totalitarianism was taking in Germany-and as a mocking caricature of Hermann G?ring and Goebbels. J?nger "understood democracy as a totalitarian phenomenon," Nevin argues, and "he interpreted the Third Reich in the same terms." Cultivating a deeply anti-modern aristocratic elitism, he felt superior to mass movements on the left and the right.
Because of his good standing with Hitler, J?nger was not punished for writing On the Marble Cliffs, and continued to have reservations about the Nazis, in part because he began to comprehend what he called "the decimation of the Jews". After the war, J?nger began to write science fiction to address his long-standing concerns about technology. The Glass Bees, originally published in 1957, is an example of this approach, an allegorical novel that can be read-depending on one's perspective-either as a remorseful meditation on J?nger's role in developing Nazi culture or as a surreptitious plea to resist technological barbarism by returning to the goals and methods of the old German right.
The novel's narrator is an unemployed veteran, Captain Richard, raised in the glorious traditions of a distinctly Prussian army. Captain Richard has fallen on hard times because of his honour-bound code of ethics is out of tune with modern ways, so he is receptive when a fellow veteran offers to help get him a security job working for the inventor Zapparoni. (In his introduction to The Glass Bees, the cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling suggests that the inventor can be read as "a hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney.") Captain Richard interviews for the job at Zapparoni's home, a former monastery turned tech wonderland where, among other inventions, Zapparoni keeps a collection of mobile glass bees. The bees exemplify his technical gift for miniaturisation, which plays a key role in his worldwide dominance of movies, household gadgets, and military secrets. The captain ends up a bureaucratic lackey.
What do we make of this story? Nevin contends that the way Captain Richard is "brought in and co-opted by power is interesting for anyone going through the Third Reich," and so The Glass Bees becomes a cautionary tale. Neaman, on the other hand, sees J?nger's later novels as "the most popular version of messages to the faithful," bagatelles for reactionaries-perhaps even signals to hibernate and wait for the technological and emotional self-destruction of the modern world. Here, Zapparoni represents not fascism but decadent corporatist democracy, and Captain Richard, one of the faithful, does whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means being corrupted.
Whether his technological explorations were a sound response to Germany's awful history or an invitation to repeat it is, perhaps, a question that J?nger himself could not have answered. When Nevin met him, he asked why evil had been at the heart of his work. "Because it is so often hidden," J?nger replied. t (Lingua Franca)