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Ernst Jünger’s ‘Forest Passage’

Discovering a proto-Benedict Option from a celebrated German writer
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After I gave my speech last week in Rome, someone came up to me and said, “You have to read The Forest Passage by Ernst Jünger.” I wish I could remember who told me that, but I do remember that they were emphatic. So I ordered it on my Kindle that night from my hotel room, and read it on the flight home.

It’s pretty great. Jünger is one of those writers I’ve heard a lot about, but never read. He died in 1998, at the age of 102. The German fought for the Kaiser in World War I, wrote a celebrated memoir about it, and was wooed by Hitler, though he kept his distance, and even wrote a novel that was widely interpreted as anti-Nazi. Yet he fought for his country in World War II. He was a conservative, but not a Nazi. He wrote a number of books, and became well-loved throughout Europe, especially in France. He came from an unbelieving family, but converted to Catholicism two years before his death.

The Forest Passage, first published in 1951, is a book about resistance to the material age, and authoritarian government. It’s kind of mystical, in a very German Romantic way, which is a bit too much Schlag on the strudel, but this is a minor criticism. This passage by Russell Berman from the introduction to the 2013 Telos Press edition gives you a good idea of where Jünger is coming from:

Religion is important for Jünger because it taps into dimensions of irrationality and myth, the deep wisdom at home in the forest. It is not that Jünger proselytizes or engages in theological speculation, but he recognizes how irrational contents nourish the capacity for independence. No wonder the regimes of power celebrate the cult of reason instead. “How is man to be prepared for paths that lead into darkness and the unknown? The fulfillment of this task belongs chiefly to the churches, and in many known, and many more unknown, cases, it has effectively been accomplished. It has been confirmed that greater force can be preserved in churches and sects than in what are today called worldviews—which usually means natural science raised to the level of philosophical conviction. It is for this reason that we see tyrannical regimes so rabidly persecuting such harmless creatures as the Jehovah’s Witnesses—the same tyrannies that reserve seats of honor for their nuclear physicists.” It is worth noting how the two twin totalitarianisms of the twentieth century each posed as the carrier of a scientific mission: the biological racism of Nazism and the economic “science of Marxism- Leninism” in Communism. From our contemporary point of view, of course, neither is a science, but Jünger’s point is that modes of scientistic thinking are fully compatible with reigns of terror, while the integrity of faith may preserve a space of freedom, a leap of faith into the forest passage.

After hearing me talk about St. Benedict, Father Tomislav Kolakovic, and the need to build a Christian resistance to the coming soft totalitarianism, I see why the person recommended The Forest Passage to me. What Jünger calls the “forest passage” is the symbolic fleeing into the woods to become a guerrilla fighter against the social and political order that crushes humanity. Jünger makes it clear that he’s not talking about mystical renunciation of the world — or, as my Benedict Option critics have framed it, “heading for the hills”:

Although we will not deny that it is imagination which leads the spirit to victory, the issue cannot be reduced to the founding of yoga schools. This is the vision not only of countless sects but also of a form of Christian nihilism that oversimplifies the matter for its own convenience. For we cannot limit ourselves to knowing what is good and true on the top floors while fellow human beings are being flayed alive in the cellar. This would also be unacceptable if our position were not merely spiritually secure but also spiritually superior—because the unheard suffering of the enslaved millions cries out to the heavens. The vapors of the flayers’ huts still hang in the air today; on such things there must be no deceiving ourselves.

He’s talking about Auschwitz. He’s saying that the virtuous forest rebel cannot be content to save himself, but must struggle for the common good. Here’s what he means specifically by “forest passage”:

Let us call this turn the Forest Passage, and the person who accomplishes it the Forest Rebel. Like Worker, this word also encompasses a spectrum of meaning, since it can designate not only very divergent forms and fields but also different levels of a single deportment. Although we will further refine the expression here, it is helpful that it already has a history in old Icelandic vocabulary. A forest passage followed a banishment; through this action a man declared his will to self-affirmation from his own resources. This was considered honorable, and it still is today, despite all the platitudes. In those times, the banishment was usually the consequence of a homicide, whereas today it happens to a man automatically, like the turning of a roulette wheel. None of us can know today if tomorrow morning we will not be counted as part of a group considered outside the law. In that moment the civilized veneer of life changes, as the stage props of well-being disappear and are transformed into omens of destruction. The luxury liner becomes a battleship, or the black jolly roger and the red executioner’s flag are hoisted on it.

I found this passage about the courage of martyrs to be stirring:

To overcome the fear of death is at once to overcome every other terror, for they all have meaning only in relation to this fundamental problem. The forest passage is, therefore, above all a passage through death. The path leads to the brink of death itself—indeed, if necessary, it passes through it. When the line is successfully crossed, the forest as a place of life is revealed in all its preternatural fullness. The superabundance of the world lies before us. Every authentic spiritual guidance is related to this truth—it knows how to bring man to the point where he recognizes the reality. This is most evident where the teaching and the example are united: when the conqueror of fear enters the kingdom of death, as we see Christ, the highest benefactor, doing. With its death, the grain of wheat brought forth not a thousand fruits, but fruits without number. The superabundance of the world was touched, which every generative act is related to as a symbol of time, and of time’s defeat. In its train followed not only the martyrs, who were stronger than the stoics, stronger than the caesars, stronger than the hundred thousand spectators surrounding them in the arena—there also followed the innumerable others who died with their faith intact.

To this day this is a far more compelling force than it at first seems. Even when the cathedrals crumble, a patrimony of knowledge remains that undermines the palaces of the oppressors like catacombs. Already on these grounds we may be sure that the pure use of force, exercised in the old manner, cannot prevail in the long term. With this blood, substance was infused into history, and it is with good reason that we still number our years from this epochal turning point. The full fertility of theogony reigns here, the mythical generative power. The sacrifice is replayed on countless altars.

Jünger says the “forest” is everywhere — it’s a spiritual and mental state of being. It’s what we carry in our heads and in our hearts. If we are forest rebels, then we are moving undetected in the world, laying sabotage for the enemy, provoking its unrest. I like these lines about not relying on the institutional church:

When all institutions have become equivocal or even disreputable, and when open prayers are heard even in churches not for the persecuted but for the persecutors, at this point moral responsibility passes into the hands of individuals, or, more accurately, into the hands of any still unbroken individuals.

I thought of Father Kolakovic preparing the Slovak laity for the resistance to come. It wasn’t because he was anti-clerical — he was a priest! — but because he knew that when they seized power, the communists were going to target the Catholic clergy, on the plausible theory that if they controlled the clergy, they could suppress religious resistance. In our time, it is unfortunately the case that many churches and religious institutions are “equivocal or even disreputable,” and that it falls, and will fall, to the laity to resist.

These are beautiful lines too, about the need to cultivate detachment from material possessions to stay faithful to the truth:

Preserving one’s true nature is arduous—and the more so when one is weighed down with goods. There is the danger that threatened Cortez’s Spaniards—they were dragged to the ground in that “mournful night” by the burden of gold that they were loath to part with.

Jünger was not a Christian when he wrote this book, and it is not a Christian book — though it can be read through Christian eyes, and adapted easily to a Christian framework. This is not a long book, and it can be frustratingly opaque. Jünger doesn’t offer any kind of political program, or endorse a particular political order. He is generally opposed to mass society, though thinking of him as an American-style libertarian is a superficial and inaccurate reading. Jünger is very much an individualist — he says this himself — but he by no means comes across as an egoist. Rather, he seems to be a spiritual aristocrat in the very best sense of the word. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure from one reading of the book what Jünger was for, but his poetic description of resistance to modernity, to leveling, to materialism — and the necessary religious roots of that resistance — helped me in thinking about where we Christians go from here. I rewrote the final chapter of my upcoming book to include some of Jünger’s thinking from The Forest Passage.

Have any of you read Ernst Jünger? What do you think?