In the short epilogue “Historical Background to the year of grace A.D. 499” to his novel Porius (1951), John Cowper Powys lays out a remarkable prophetic evaluation of a world fallen into a permanent catastrophic condition. Powys’ return to the sixth century in his novel departed from the fascinating fact that during the mid-fifth century there appears to be “an absolute blank” page about the history and culture of its people. And the only historical record proves that the central element was the Arthur’s commanding political dominion over the English territories. In these blank pages of history there are no tormented voices or traces of everyday existence, but the most absolute compacted pressure of barbarism and grandiose “crafty personal diplomacy” oriented by political rule. For Powys, this is the movement of abstract historical force that raises up the mirror of civilization and barbarism in the West.
However , this mirror is completely alien to any notion of happiness, imagination, and sensibility between the surviving human species. A world war had just concluded and atomic menace was the strange tune of daily life. But, in contrast to the triumphalist and historical narrative of postwar diplomatic theaters, Cowper Powys directs his vision (like Hölderlin and Pound before him with Greece and the Latin Mediterranean poets) to a prehistoric strata where language and sensation still had a chance against the civilizational collapse of the West. Againstboth civilization and barbarism, Powys prepares himself to drift away from something major, perhaps more even more catastrophic, which he never names directly in the Porious prologue, although he can unravel its essence in the last paragraph:
“As we contemplate the historic background to the autumn of the last year of the fifth century, it is impossible not to think of the background of human life from which we watch the first half of the twentieth century dissolve into the second half. As the old gods were departing then, so the old gods are departing now. And as the future was dark with the terrifying possibilities of human disaster then, so, today, are we confronted by the possibility of catastrophic world events compared with which those that Arthur and his Counsellor and his Horsemen contented against seem, as the Hebrew poet said, a “very little thing” ”.
It is thanks to the genius of Cowper Powys that the coming of catastrophe is understood not as another phase in world-history, but rather, as the opening of endless catastrophic world-events. Even before Martin Heidegger would define the essence of cybernetics as the consummation of the calculation of world events, Powys had already suspected that a stealth rationality towards calculation of events was the catastrophe that crossed the very line of the polarity of barbarism and civilization. The catastrophe of world-event consummation was hinged upon the total convergence of machine and humanity that would liquidate the free relation of the living in the world. As Powys had written in The Meaning of Culture (1930) decades prior: “Money and machines between them dominate the civilized world. Between them, the power of money and the power of the machine have distracted the minds of our western nations from those eternal aspects of life and nature, the contemplation of which engenders all noble and subtle thoughts” .
The ascent of atomic existence and the absolute dependency on administrative infrastructure to contain the world, will validate Powys’ astute observation about the ongoing catastrophe at a moment when its development was barely beginning to gain traction. And against futile political fictions, Powys was aware that in a civilization of collapse, political chatter becomes the only legible foul discourse: “Among other aspects of our destiny in this modern regime, the rumor of politics makes itself only too audible” . The seriousness of this rumor has only deepened almost a century after.
1. John Cowper Powys. “Historical Background to the year of grace A.D. 499”, Porius (1952), xi.
2. John Cowper Powys. The Meaning of Culture (Jonathan Cape, 1932), 150.
There is something insufficient and risible in the attempt to isolate notions like “revolution” or “emancipation” from the total collapse of the grammar of politics. This insufficiency speaks to a rhetorical inflation which already at the turn of the twentieth century Carlo Michaelsteader identified with the attempt at securing the social bond at all costs. The rhetoric of “saving” (the revolution, emancipation, liberation: saving the subject) at bottom, only shows the simulacra of a redemptive movement of value at the heart of social exchange. And we also know that modern political revolutions were experiments in general socialization. Whether it is Saint-Just appealing to the laws of nature against the positive social contract in the wake of the French Revolution; or Lenin and the Bolsheviks more than a century later in their efforts to stage a utopia of production and classless society, the revolutionary horizon was ultimately about the production of the social bond and little else.
The dialectization between subject and the totality of the modes of production was realized in its reverse: the passage to a new temporal domination unto all sensual activities of life. This was expected given the premise: at the center of the genesis of political organization of the West is not the state, but rather the rhetorical structures of civility. That the last theoretical project of politics hinges on the so-called “rhetorical foundations” of society now comes full circle: the development of civilization in the open.
Of course, revolutionary and emancipatory imagination, except in rare occasions, has always been oblivious to the problem of civilization. And this is why Fordism and high Stalinism were perceived as civilizational projects that mirrored and competed against each other. In this sense, the civilizational rise never escaped the duality between politics and nihilism that is proper to the anxiety over order in the genesis of modern European public powers. This is also why early in revolutionary moments of triumph the excess of barbarism was never left behind, but rather it emerged as its siamese twin of the humanist enterprise. As Merleau-Ponty hinted in his old book Humanism and Terror (1947): “Even though our political life creates a civilization we can never renounce, does it not also cointan a fundamental disease?” . This was Ponty in 1947, where the debris of the war was still in full display in major European cities. To some extent one could imagine not wanting to renounce civilization of such barbarism in the face of atomic disaster. But is this our predicament today? Obviously not, since, precisely the collapse of politics (and its main institutional forms such as positive law and political parties) also amounts to an ongoing crisis that is civilizational in nature.
It is not surprising that what emerges in front of us is a different typology than the one that Merleau-Ponty witnessed in 1947: it is no longer the piling of rubbish, but the rise of metropolitan paradises that organize the infrastructural regime of a contactless world. A decade later, written in the 1950s, Amadeo Bordiga will redefine the stakes of civilization: “…the vigorous coarseness of the barbarian peoples was less dire than the decadence of the masses in the capitalist epoch, the epoch that our enemies name as civilization – a word used well here, and in its proper sense, because it means the urban way of life, the way of life proper to the great amalgamated monsters of the bourgeois metropolises” . Bordiga’s lucidity was capable of grasping that Fordismas the triumph of the utopia of capital now meant that civilization (now reduced as the allocation of exchange and distribution) became the central figure of nihilism. Perhaps Bordiga was too imprudent to call for the shadow of the civilized – that is, the barbarian – but his problem, I take it, is still ours to reflect upon.
1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Humanism and Terror (Beacon Press, 1969), xxxviii.
2. Amadeo Bordiga, “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, in Drammi gialli e sinistre della moderna decadenza sociale (Iskra, 1978), 95. My translation.
On the Marble Cliffs (1939), which appeared for the first time in Nazi Germany in 1939 (the new NYRB has just been published) offered a narrative of a thorough civilizational collapse of the West. I will side with many of the commentators that have reminded the readers that this novel doesn’t simply amount to an allegory of the rise of National Socialism or the reemergence of indirect powers of civil war in the European interwar years. By underlining “just”, I also mean to say that it is also very much about its epoch. Jünger was an insider of the German elite, and one of the most astute interpreters of his time as his theses on the dominion of the worker and the force of total mobilization were fully realized. It happens that On the Marble Cliffs introduces the civilizational collapse not through the allegorical reduction of the narrative procedure, but rather through a weaving, never truly resolved (much to Jünger’s own intentions), of temporalities that do not land in historical form. Circumventing the meanderings of a dreamlike stage and that of a thick and sensorial description, the novel diachronous movement resembles the stage of a vigil that retrospectively looks from page one at the advent of the disaster: “Only then do we recognize how fortunate we humans are to live from day to day in our small communities, under peaceful roofs, engaged in please conversation, and with the effective greetings morning and night. Alas, we always recognize too late that these simple things offered us a cornucopia of riches” (Jünger, 3). Granted, the vigil is an incomplete assessment of how (not so much as to why, which speaks to Jünger’s separation between his critico-politico essays and his narrative universe) the luminous community of brothers at Grand Marina entered the stage of destruction. During their peaceful time at Grand Marina, the brothers dedicate themselves to studying plants: a contemplative activity through an herbarium that becomes an exercise in clearing the mind and “draining time”. Botany has always stood as a minor activity to escape the realization of death, even if inevitable the cycle of temporal caducity.
But the ruinous time begins with the dominion of the Head Forester, an old governor of Mauretania region whose territorial ambitions are rooted in the domination of world affairs, and the willful defense of its doctrine Semper Vitrix (Jünger, 23). For those familiar with the worldview of Jünger, it is not surprising to find that domination does not begging at the original act of taking, but rather in the scheme of disposition that prepares the liquidation of the originary depth of the world’s opacity. Hence, imperii vitrix is always cartographical, and thus concerned with the the procedure of legible reduction: “For them [Mauretaninas] the world was reduced to a map like those thare engraved for amateour using little compasses and polished insutrmentions that are pleasing to hold. And so it seemed odd to come upon figures like the Head Forester in these clear, perfectly abstract realms freed of any shadows” (Jünger, 23). To dominate the world, one must first dominate over the ideals and images that unify a world. This is why Jünger, just a few years earlier in The Worker, had ended his treatise pointing at the passage from the classical social contract theories of social cohesion to the efficiency of planning of production in order to weaken any possible resistance . This is another reason why On the Marble Cliffs fails at any allegorical instantiation, since allegory hinges upon the unfulfilled stage of historical consciousness, whereas Jünger levels his narrative with the metaphysical disposition that is accomplished in modernity. One could call this the triumph of nihilism and anarchy; the never-ending triumph of ‘barbarism and religion’ of the West since at least the Roman Empire to put in the terms of historian J.G.A. Pocock. This is the “line” of modernity, but it is also the line that is breached at the collapse of modernity staged Onthe Marble Cliffs.
Anarchy and nihilism – for Jünger these are for two routes for prompting a relation with the epochal collapse. More than clearcut positions to endorse, these are unbreachable counters of the limitless epoch. Jünger distinguishes them well through the character of Braquemart: “Suffice it to say that there is a profound difference between fully formed nihilism and unchecked anarchy. The outcome of the struggle will determine whether human settlements will become wasteland or virgin forest. With regards to Braquemart, he was marked by all the traits of full-fledged nihilism. His was a cold, rootless intelligence with a penchant for utopias…On seeing him, one inevitably thought of his master’s profound saying: “The desert grows – woe to him who carries the deserts within!” (Jünger, 76-77). The nihilist suffers from a rather coldness of intelligence, and what Jünger qualifies as the ill-fated adventure of the theorist, always unmatched with that of the pragmatist (Jünger, 78). Granted, everything depends on the internal capacities to react against the growing systematic devastation. On the other side, the anarchist cloaks his accomplice condition within the corruption of the law, where nothing is sacred. This is why the anarchist transforms the forest into an enclosed land for hunting and predatory practice where “cadavers left to rot in the fields spread pestilence, wiping out the herds. The downfall of order brings good to none” (Jünger, 62). On the Marble Cliffs is at times too emphatic with the reiteration of the order in opposition to terror: ‘Terror establishes its reign behind a mask of order” (Jünger, 38). And this speaks to National Socialism antipositivist attitudes to the rule of law, which Jünger seemed to have perceived clearly.
However, it is also true that Jünger’s insistence on order is not just about conservation in the abyss, but rather about how the civilizational collapse is expressed in the puncturing of indirect powers that will ultimately unify the anarchy of domination. To insist on nihilism means to de-hegemonize the indirect powers and factional domination against the visceral hatred of the gratitude of language and the mystery of beauty that burns the inside of demonic spirits (Jünger 39). The luminosity of Jünger’s style and symbolic nakedness speaks, in turn, to an attempt at a mythologization of beauty that emerges in a language devoid of parody. In this sense, Jünger displaces Gianni Carchia’s important thesis about the narrativization of the parody of mystery into the form in the bourgeois novel. Jünger’s beauty is mysterious because it exceeds signification and conceptual closure of the novel conflict, as what language does (or seems to do) on the line of nihilism. For Jünger the revocation of anarchy implies taking a distance from the subsumption of prose into narrative order. Thus, Jünger’s order is a primary order, one of retaining the reserves of sacred and the unfathomable character in the face of barbarism and the destruction of the world.
“We take leave more easily when things are in order” (Jünger, 59). This is the primary order of a plain state of the world, which does not presuppose the obsession with organization and management; it is what allows for the flourishing of contemplative life and the possibility of retreating to the density of the forest. But we know that this is, precisely, what comes crashing down in the rise of anarchy and nihilism, both working in tandem in modernity. Attaching oneself to primary order amounts to “concrete dreaming” at best, as the narrator says early in the book. And it is at this point that On the Marble Cliffs solves this conundrum: the idea of order must not be reduced to a nomos of the world, but rather the possibility of an outside from thinking that there is a finite and finished work of the world. This is where Jünger’s genius shines with usual intensity. It is the moment, towards the end, when the narrator admits: “the beauty of this world now enveloped, I saw, in the purple mantle of destruction” (Jünger, 102). The conflagration of the world, however, only undoes a new capacity for seeing thatwhich had remained in the dense fog of consciousness and aesthetics. In other words, the total collapse brings forth the unperishable element between existence and the world. Jünger achieves the highest point of condensation in this elaboration:
“The harvest of many years of labor fell prey to the element and with the house, our work returned to dust. We cannot count on seeing our work completed here below, and happy is the man whose will is not too painfully invested in his efforts. No house is built, no plan created, in which ruin is not the cornerstone, and what lives imperishably in us does not reside in our works. We perceived this truth in the flame, and its glow was not devoid of joy” (Jünger, 108).
This is not joy or appetite for destruction, but more a joy about what remains unperishable in every destructive act that realizes itself just so that everything could be renewed more or less the same. At the narrative level the unperishable of every work is the mystery that cannot be fully captured either by the deployment of historical allegory or by the mimetic translation of the work of narrative. On the Marble Cliffs remains stubbornly an open novel, but in a very precise sense: it gestures to the divergence between life and the world is barely touched parabolically at a distance. This is why the character of On the Marble Cliffs reaches the end by stressing “the sight of it [an old oak grove] made us feel at home…”(Jünger, 113). Whereas sight is an index of landscape, of seeing beyond the abyss. This is a condition for living among the dead once again. Perhaps this is why Jünger felt the need to record in his French war diaries that Pablo Picasso had asked him if the novel was based on a real landscape .
Only a painter that had witness the crisis of modern space (beginning with the “Blue Room” of 1900) could directly engage with the trope of the ‘marble cliff’: it is here that the altar of a sacrificial history and political domination turns into the site of theoria. Now the faculty of seeing grows outside of itself, “to manifest freedom in the face of danger” (Jünger, 117). On the Marble Cliffs is an invitation to this interior unperishable landscape that removes us from idle fictions in the face of anguish if only we do not turn our back to it (in the name of science or technology or new idols). Given that the desert of nihilism can only grow, I wonder how many today could even stand on the cliff. I fear that the effort of raising the head and looking beyond is already too much to ask.
1. Ernst Jünger. The Worker: Dominion and Form (Northwestern University Press, 2017), 173-178.
2. Ernst Jünger. A German Office in Occupied Paris: The War Journal 1941-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2019), 78.