Why We Fight

Before continuing my now-continuously delayed exploration of The Failure of Technology, I wanted to take a moment to delve into the quote from Ernst Jünger I cited in the last post:

During World War I we confronted the question of whether man was more powerful than machines.

In the meantime, things have gotten more complex. We are now concerned with the problem of whether humans or automatons will dominate the earth.

Ernst Jünger, A German Officer in Occupied Paris

Jünger tended to see war in terms of cosmic struggle, with the sides in that struggle not necessarily in alignment with the nations involved.  In other words, all war or at least all modern war is spiritual warfare. The religious aspect is always present in Jünger though often veiled or only mentioned in passing. 

The first sentence of the passage is, I think, the easiest to grasp.  The First World War was the great industrial war.  How can the individual stand against the titanic forces and impersonal destruction technology had unleashed?  Could he stand at all?  Could his courage, his spirit rise above industrial slaughter and the machine?  Or were men just ants, numbers on a spreadsheet to be thrown at other numbers, to be crunched?*

He consistently asserts the value of man’s spirit contra technological destruction in his own accounts of the war, most notably in Storm of Steel, but we might wonder how much that assertion is itself an engagement in the spiritual war.  Does he assert it because the war remains undecided, his assertion as a challenge of the machine?  Perhaps a desperate rear guard action.  When I read, I have the image of a knight amidst the desolation of trenches, lonely and anachronistic, but somehow noble in all that. Quixote maybe.**

 As the war, speaking here of Germany’s war, is lost and the awareness of that loss presses in, his struggle against the machine becomes more desperate culminating in the near suicidal exertion of will in his final battle, in which, confronted with a hopeless situation–surrounded, grievously wounded–he refuses to surrender, blasts his way through enemy lines and is dragged to the rear, with those giving doing the dragging slaughtered underneath him.  It is the culmination of his supreme assertion of will and spirit destructive and terrible (note the deaths of those who try to rescue him).  An ambiguous triumph in service of what is perhaps a doomed cause. 

What of the Second War and the struggle against automation?  Not the struggle against the machine, for that war had already been fought.  His diary continues:

Concerning marionettes and automatons—the decline in that direction is preceded by loss. This hardening is well depicted in the folktale about the glass heart.

The vice that has become commonplace leads to automatism, as it did so terribly in the case of the old prostitutes who became pure sex machines. Something similar is emanating from the stingy old men. They have sold their souls to material things and a life of metal. Sometimes a particular decision precedes the transition; man rejects his salvation. A widespread vice must be the basis for the general transition to automatism and its threat to us. It would be the task of the theologians to explain this to us, but they are silent.

The automaton is not the machine, but, man transformed into the machine, fused with it (Cronenberg inevitably comes to mind). Jünger talks about “the vice that has become commonplace” (does he mean all vice or a specific one?) leading to automatism.

Vice, we sell our souls to material things and descend into a life of metal. “Sometimes a particular decision precedes the transition, man rejects his salvation.” We subordinate ourselves to machines, which act only according to clockwork. 

But, as Guardini pointed out, “There is no being without a master…When man fails in his responsibility toward the being which he has taken from nature, that being becomes the possession of something anonymous.”  Clocks don’t wind themselves. And I think now of the death of Frost in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength whose determinism leads him to relinquish control of his self to that anonymous something:

Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

What have we, in our turn to automatism, unleashed upon the world?  Throughout his World War II diaries, we glimpse Jünger’s foreboding of what is being unleashed in the forests of the east.  He refers to the lemures, the restless and malicious dead.  And here we circle back to his brother, technology as demonic.  But this too requires further elaboration.

edit: a brief clarification


* Jünger consistently uses insect imagery here and was amateur entomologist.  See also, his novel The Glass Bees

** An association:

When Don Quixote lay dying, sadly cured of his splendid illusion, ultimately divested of his dream, Sancho found that he had inherited his master’s faith; he had acquired it simply as one would catch a disease-through the contagion of fidelity and love.

Because he converted Sancho, Don Quixote will never die.

Thus, in the madness of Don Quixote, Unamuno reads a perfect illustration of the power and wisdom of faith.  Don Quixote pursued immortal fame and a glory that would never fade.  For this purpose, he chose to follow what would appear to be the most absurd and impractical path: he followed the way of a knight errant in a world where chivalry had disappeared ages ago.  Therefore clever wits all laughed at his folly.  But in this long fight, which pitted the lonely knight and his faithful squire against the world, which side was finally befogged in illusion? The world that mocked them has turned to dust, whereas Don Quixote and Sancho live forever.

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness

One response to “Why We Fight”

  1. […] got a bit lost in my explorations in the previous post and feel like I didn’t fully explain what Jünger was getting at with his talk of […]

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