Ernst Junger’s Der Arbeiter – SF Novel in Disguise
By Lennart Svensson (An Extract from Ernst Jünger – A Portrait)
Jünger’s essay Der Arbeiter lives in a grey area between being a social science treatise, a warning, a prophecy – and a novel. Now, it isn’t in any way a story or a narrative, but it’s open for speculation how the text would have fared had it been conceived as fiction instead of, as now, a dissertation. What form of text is the most efficient when dealing with matters like these, controversial things like industrialisation and technological mobilization? I’d say that Jünger, when choosing his seemingly objective stance as essay writer, at the same time seems to place himself at the wheel of the modernist steamroller he’s writing about. Had he written a novel he would have been freer.
The Jünger essay Der Arbeiter – why didn’t he make a novel of it?
Given the theme he should have taken greater liberties, inventing a plot and characters and having them act out The Worker Drama on a grand scale. How about an SF story with the Modern Titan, the worker, homo faber, as the main protagonist, with lots of milieu, mimesis and characterization of the men and machines, the lands and environments where it all takes place. A symbolic vision living its own life, thus being more beyond criticism than a formal treatise tends to be. As it is we are given a lot of visions and symbols but not enough. The chosen form – the essay – offers the possibility of lecturing, of putting things to order, of commanding this complex subject, making it seem plausible and feasible from some angles and from some other angles not. I here think about the ideas of a ruling elite, of armies of workers and work as war, these controversial ideas having been better suited for a novel where the writer could have exposed them and shown them for what they were instead of making it all seem practical and an optimal way of ordering society as it is.
In this matter I agree with Thomas Nevin. In Ernst Jünger And Germany – Into The Abyss (1997) he notes that Jünger’s Heliopolis and The Glass Bees being novels have become timeless, independent of the historical contexts that engendered them. But Der Arbeiter, being an essay with factual, IRL leanings, has been stuck in the “controversial” file. That’s the crux. But someone might say that Jünger in those days didn’t write novels. He wrote real life monographs on war and exotic travels, and essays on diverse subjects. Then I say, true, but he did write the short novel Sturm in 1923. And in The Adventurous Heart (first version, 1928) he had some short stories. So he could write fiction. And – as intimated – if writing Der Arbeiter as a novel it would have reached another level of artistry, maybe having it become another Brave New World, We or Kallocain.
Magic Zero Point
Now of course there’s a time for everything. There’s a time for writing essays, and there’s a time for writing novels. I don’t blame Jünger for having made Der Arbeiter into what it is. I’m just speculating on the nature of texts, on the nature of textual forms. So then, Jünger had a feeling for images, for symbols and visions. You find them in all his works and you find them in Der Arbeiter. So what do we find in this respect in the essay at hand, what are the novelist elements of it?
To begin with we have the plot of a development going towards a magic zero point, a defining moment, a crisis spelling the end of the archaic era: away with castles and churches, away with wells in the squares and the pétit bourgeois lifestyle, all giving place to a heroic style overwhelming in its proportions. Skyscrapers is one way, the vertical way to build; another is the horisontally outstretched way, the tendency to cover whole landscapes with industries, store houses, shopping malls and offices. Everything thus becomes, as Jünger says, a landscape of factories, a Werkstattlandschaft. And for sure we can see them realized today in and around every major city, and in giant scale in mega cities like Tokyo-Nagasaki, Ruhr-Benelux-Northern France and the New York-Washington area, to mention but a few of these urban creations stretching for miles and miles with almost no greenery in between.
In the Jüngerian Worker’s world you work, not as a slave but as a duty fulfilled, dedicated and heroically as during a pitched battle. In the obedience there’s a freedom. Leaders of it all is a cadre of rock-hard individuals, commanders of the working armies. No single dictator exists but truly this order of warrior-engineers, cold men who know how to steer and govern vessels, factories and armadas of machines.
Its about dedication and duty, working and conquering, but there’s no room for joy. No, here “even the coitus has been reduced to a working process…” The sexes themselves are transformed into “the third sex”.
How fascinating this would be in a SF context. A cosy nightmare like Zamjatin’s We or Huxley’s Brave New World. Zamjatin showed the way with his Chief Engineer, the hero of his novel, the true Worker come real on the pages of a novel.
Zamjatin did it, reaching deathlessness by envisioning a grand if chilling future. Jünger then, the Jünger who never wrote this Worker novel – he fared as good since he had more strings to his bow, moving away from the cainitic landscapes of the Worker and eventually settling on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, like some latter day Wu Ch’eng-en. That is to say, he left the stale, sterile Worker’s world and went up On the Marble Cliffs. More on that in chapter ten.
That said there still is a time for everything. There’s a time for studying flowers and there’s a time for organizing industrial armies. At least artistically the authoritarian, steely visions of Boye, von Harbou, Zamjatin and Huxley will never die and they had a brother in spirit in Jünger.