An Alternate History of War Stories, Research Time, 19/05/2015

I thought I’d try one more time to get a coherent post about Ernst Jünger onto the blog. If the blog is the pilot testing zone for the core ideas of works that I want to develop in officially published projects, then tackling the greatest diarist of the First World War is necessary.

The story was ridiculous, but Flyboys looked fantastic.
What stands in the way of truly appreciating Jünger’s writing, because you are instead shocked into mute terror, is the ordinary, casual tone he takes with such events as artillery barrages so dense and terrifying that they churn the battlefields of the Somme into a melange, or perhaps a kugel, of dirt, rocks, plants, the fragmented body parts and flesh of soldiers, and unexploded munitions.

Jünger’s style has its advantages, aside from his understated ability to leave his readers frozen with trauma. One is that he overcomes cliché with ease, and this was well before most of those clichés were ever invented. Reading Storm of Steel reminded me of Flyboys, a film that I saw when it came out ten years ago as part of my work on a movie review radio show.

The film, an early James Franco starring vehicle, perhaps an attempt by his agent to turn him into a conventional thinking-folk’s movie star before his artistic projects, scholarly work, and Apatow franchise comedy, has a plot assembled from the most hackneyed war movie stereotypes. 

Of course, this wouldn’t have been stereotypes in Jünger’s day. The square-jawed American war hero, the band of mismatched enlistees who become brothers-in-arms through the alternating battle sequences, the grizzled veteran who meets a heroic end, the climactic battle avenging the inspiring hero’s death, the handsome lead’s romance with a generic brunette actress. 

Wings was the first Hollywood war movie, a film you
watch today to respect its historical innovations, not
for the VERY 1920s morality in the story.
All these are the creations of the American film industry, the earnest dramatic plots of professional mythmakers created in an era before widespread advanced media literacy killed our bright-eyed capacity for inspiration at such stories. It’s just as true of early examples like Wings, patriotic John Wayne vehicles like The Longest Day, and even the acid-headed cynicism of Apocalypse Now. The drama of war is a tale of heroes, where the war is the backdrop for the inspiring play of these figures who are more icons than characters. The war movie is our epic poetry.

Jünger doesn’t give us epic, and he doesn’t give us drama. There’s a story of a sort, or at least a narrative, the succession of event after event and the slow accumulation of a transformation in the narrator. 

But only that kind of war story, the accumulation of bomb after bomb, death after death, horror after horror, the pounding repetition of the same hammer blows over and over again, actually approaches what is it to experience the First World War. The daily reality of the war has no conventional Aristotelian plot, as all life never does. 

The story structure of the small cast undergoing a clear plot whose intensity rises and falls at a set pace within the narrative’s duration, from beginning to end credits, has long been a feature of the mythical stories we tell ourselves. It’s part of the fundamental fabric of our culture, a core template for the entertaining story.

The Big Red One is a film I'd say captures the slogging
ordinariness of a soldier's life with a similar power as
Jünger did with his book.
I wonder if this is why we’re so tempted by the Great Man conception of history, to understand the entire past of the human race as if we only needed to know the highlight reel, that the power of one or a few people is really all we need to shape a civilization’s historical narrative. 

When you read Jünger, it’s clearly not the story of a Great Man who determined the historical path of the world, even though Storm of Steel would itself be so influential as to contribute to the national consciousness of a society. Its power is that it is the story of an ordinary man, and the extraordinary, unspeakable terrors he was lucky enough to live through.

There's one moment where the barest seed of a Great Man concept appears in the narrative. Jünger is walking down a road while the town is under bombardment,* when a friend from another unit calls out hello. As he walks over to his friend at the roadside, a shell lands in the middle of the intersection that he would otherwise have walked right into.

* The town is always under bombardment. 

At this one moment, he allows a brief belief that he’s somehow special in all of this. Well, he is special. None of those seven wounds he got in the war, and some were pretty severe, ever killed him. He lived.

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