Scars Etched in History Itself I: Figuring Out Ernst Jünger, Composing, 25/05/2015

What I’m about to write over the next two or three entries is going to get a little weird. But it’s also going to make a lot of sense. While also being weird. 

Let me explain. 

One of the purposes of this blog, when it comes to my philosophy writing projects, is taking a first, exploratory, crack at making sense of some idea I’ve come across in my research. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel is a seminal book in understanding the cultural legacy of the First World War: the mechanization of humanity. This is the vision of what humanity is that drives true totalitarianism. 

Yes, those are people in the distance. The cause of this
devastation was constant artillery bombardment. The
First World War was absolutely horrifying.
Storm of Steel is the diary of a veteran. A veteran who served four years on the front line of a war so cataclysmic that it fundamentally transformed European culture forever. I’ve described before how difficult I find it simply understanding the full power of these images – artillery bombardments so powerful that they’ve literally churned the earth over so that the shattered body parts of dead soldiers will stick through the walls of freshly dug trenches.

Jünger experienced these images every day. They were part of his ordinary existence for the same length of time that a lot of folks today spend in full time university. And it was at the same time in his own life that we’d spend in class, volunteering on campus, working part-time jobs, and partying. Jünger enlisted right at the start of the war in 1914. He was born in 1896.

He writes about, for example, seeing comrades from his unit lying dead in a field hospital with each of their mouths bloodily shot off. Even when his unit was out of combat duty and resting in a nearby French village, they’d live in constant fear of warheads flatting their houses and killing them while they slept, because the British artillery were constantly bombing the village to kill German soldiers while they slept. 

As I’ve said before, he uses the same kind of casual tone that we’d use to talk about a class we went to in college, or a story about playing pool in a bar with your old friend. Emotions are absent from a narrative describing four years of sustained horror. On the face of it, it seems incomprehensible.

Of course, I say things like “on the face of it” purely rhetorically, because it’s perfectly clear that Storm of Steel is an expression of soul-shattering trauma. In adapting his war diary into an autobiographical book within two years of the war’s end, Jünger is articulating the trauma of himself, all the veterans and other survivors of the war, his country, and the whole of Western civilization. 

People of my generation, those who are younger, and the fuzzy boundary of my own generation’s upper limit, have a deeper understanding of what trauma is and how it works than any older demographic. The generation that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s discovered the core concepts of trauma through the popularization of psychology and the political engagements of Vietnam veterans in the United States. 

Ernst Jünger
Deutsches Heer
Class of 1918
But my generation was immersed in the popular understanding of trauma as part of our social environment. This was Jeet Heer's point about what trigger warnings in educational environments really are. They aren't a resurgence of the political correctness driven by identity politics.* They’re an institutional way to take trauma seriously.

* This always bugged me about talk of trigger warnings, because no one was advocating that triggering classics be taken off the list. Reading Storm of Steel, I think the book should be taught to middle school children. Jünger's descriptions of life in the First World War is much more affecting and informative than any of the drier descriptions I ever got at school. The trigger warning is like a film rating, only with enough detail to identify what individuals might find the content especially disturbing.

The experience of severe trauma is when emotional torture and horrifying thoughts occur to someone with the most innocuous stimulus because a past event was so unsettling to her in deep and complex ways. In the popular knowledge of psychology, we know that this is a matter for individuals and small groups like families.

Even though my earlier comment about Jünger expressing the trauma of his entire community of veterans, Germany, and Western civilization was metaphorical, that metaphor also expressed a real aspect of how enormous events like the First World War affect a whole culture. It occurred to me that an account of civilizational trauma could be an element in understanding the political drive to perfect the world in a single vision that’s at the heart of my Utopias project.

Of course, I would never simply upscale talk of trauma at the individual level as functioning exactly the same as at the civilizational. These are incredibly different systems, even though one is an aggregate of millions of the other system. That's how aggregates work. But it could definitely help inform the overall narrative of the philosophy. . . . To be Continued.

No comments:

Post a Comment