Reading Ernst Jünger’s biography of the First World War, Storm of Steel, is oddly bracing. His language is very straightforward and ordinary, but its precisely his ordinariness that makes what happens to him all the more terrifying. This is a book that chronicles the day to day life of a man who’s constantly surrounded by violent death on a casual basis.
|Artillery warped the land into the surface of an alien
world on which humanity as it was could not survive.
I mean, this is the First World War we’re talking about here. But like I’ve said before, the First World War seems very distant to us today. We learn the most in school, and even just in popular culture, about the Second World War, and depending on how much time the curriculum allots you, discussion of the First World War is pretty cursory. The prelude to the Second, if anything.
Because Jünger seriously impresses me. I’ve been watching the Netflix years of Trailer Park Boys lately, so I’ll say it like this. Jünger impresses the fuck out of me.
He writes Storm of Steel without a genuine narrative or argument. It’s a series of incidents, events that punctuate his memory when he thinks back to the war. Each event takes place over a period of time, but that’s what the book is: an assemblage of durations. You let them stack one on top of the other, and see what affects they produce.*
* Pretentiousness break. One other piece of writing that this aspect of Jünger’s work reminded me of: Gilles Deleuze’s description of the style of the Marquis de Sade. He describes how Sade’s work impacts you through a constant barrage of repetition, slamming into you again and again until you’re pulverized. Almost like artillery shells.
So here are a few impressions for now, arranged in the order I remember them.
I love Jünger’s phrase “strenuous monotony.” This is how he describes life in the trenches in the first year or so of the war, before the mass offensives start. Ammunition is casually lobbed back and forth across trenches as people notice an opportunity. There is the occasional skirmish or battle.
The ground is slowly worn away to mud. The mud walls of your trench erode away after the winter to reveal the remains of a soldier from your regiment, who had sunk deep underground through the churning of the land itself under artillery shells.
Trauma makes people mechanistic. Maybe I should say instead that we should think of trauma as making people mechanistic, so that we can get some insight about how we should treat each other. A helpful metaphor to illustrate a moral and ethical point. That would be philosophy.
|The trenches have been worn down into hills, tourist
attractions as ordinary as a field of grass. We forget
our collective trauma, even though we are all scarred.
Some of the greatest poets were working professionals who wrote in their spare time. Wallace Stevens composed verse in his head during his walk to work. It makes me wonder why no commuter has dictated an epic the length of Paradise Lost into her phone in a traffic jam on the way home to Burlington from her office near Warden Station in Scarborough.
I’m getting self-consciously Torontonian. It’s obnoxious; I should stop. Forgive me.
This is what I do when I find myself unable to express the kind of weird horror that Jünger describes with such ordinary language. He speaks with a tone as workaday as you would describing running into a friend at the grocery store. This is what happens to a person when the daily horrors of the First World War are your daily life for nearly four years.
Ernst Jünger impresses the fuck out of me. I don’t know how anyone to whom that kind of horror became ordinary could let himself live another year after it was over. He died in 1998 of being 102 years old. I was 15 that year. That’s how close the First World War is, although it gets farther away ever day.
That’s part of what the Utopias project will address. The First World War as an event in history, those four terrible years, and the shadow it still casts over our civilizations.