Two Against Time:
Julien Hervier’s Deux individus contre l’histoire
Translated by Michael O’Meara
Deux individus contre l’histoire:
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Ernst Jünger
Paris: Éds. Euredit, 2010
This book is a revised and corrected re-edition, with a new afterword, of a text originally published in 1978 (itself an abridgment of a doctoral thesis submitted to the Sorbonne).
Professor emeritus of the University of Poitiers, the author, Julien Hervier, is the principal French translator of Ernst Jünger, the editor of Jünger’s War Journals for Pléiade, as well as the translator of various works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Herman Hesse; he’s also edited numerous texts of Drieu, most notably his Journal 1939–1945.
As Hervier emphasizes in his new afterword, the content of Deux individus contre l’histoire would have been quite different if it had been written today, particularly in its treatment of Jünger. For in the three decades separating its first and second editions, the political-ideological context has profoundly changed, and the text needs, as a consequence, to be read without losing sight of the period in which it was initially written.
In 1978, the author set out to study two individualistic and aristocratic authors — Ernst Jünger and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle — who accorded a large place, in their literary works, “to the problems of the philosophy of history.”
His study revolves around four great themes — War, the Political, the Individual and History, and Religion — approached in ways specific to each author.
For Jünger, as for Drieu, war is the “natural law” of things and the First World War was “the fundamental experience of their youth.” Consider these titles by Jünger: Storms of Steel, Combat as an Inner Experience, Copse 125, the War Journals (1939–1948) . . . and this sentence: “There’s always something holy about combat.” As for Drieu, there are his poems Interrogation (1917), Fond de cantine (1920), and above all his novel La comédie de Charleroi (1934) and his notion that men “are born for nothing but war.”
Jünger conceived of war as a “technique” and wrote: “The machine represents the intelligence of a people cast in steel,” while Drieu thought “modern war was an insidious revolt of matter subjugated by man.”
Jünger’s early work reflects the nationalist ideology, with its exaltation of supreme sacrifice, that reigned in defeated Germany prior to 1933. In the same period, Drieu was similarly imbued with the spirit of patriotic sacrifice, though with the onset of the Second World War his nationalism turned to pacifism.
2. The Political
As to politics, the nationalism of both Jünger and Drieu evolved into an understanding that nationalism had become obsolete and that, for one a universal state was needed and for the other a united Europe. Both, however, appealed to revolution — a conservative one for Jünger, a fascist one for Drieu.
The political engagements of these two intellectuals are well known. For Drieu, the true intellectual is “always an exiled partisan, always a man of faith, but always a heretic.” For the author of Gilles, engagement is necessary, though difficult and ambiguous.
For Jünger, engagement is something paradoxical: “My way of participating in contemporary history . . . is as a man who, despite himself, is engaged less in a world war than in a civil war waged at the world level. I am consequently linked to all these conflicts in ways that differ from those of the warring national states.”
Both writers considered themselves “engaged spectators,” but Jünger ultimately preferred to refuse all engagement . . . while Drieu saw his own engagement “in terms of heartbreak and bad conscience.”
3. The Individual and History
Individualism is an essential characteristic of Drieu’s personality (“I can conceive of life only in its individual form”), while for Jünger “the individual is the real tribunal of this world.”
Their individualism is both similar and different. For Drieu, the developed individual is “by temperament and education condemned to an individualism that is a remnant of the past, being unable to escape his own personal psychological reactions.” For Jünger, whose individualism was no less pronounced, individualism is condemned by history, but he nevertheless tries to transcend its bourgeois manifestation “by affirming the individual as freedom’s ultimate reference.”
As to history, Jünger and Drieu had attitudes that sometimes approached, sometimes opposed one another. Jünger conceived of it like Spengler, as being essentially cyclical: with civilizations being born, flowering, maturing, and dying. Indeed, he consciously opposed the conception of history inherited from the Enlightenment (like the Marxist conception). He envisaged, however, the probable disappearance of historical man.
Drieu’s notion is strongly marked by the idea of decadence — a hyperbolic and metaphysical pessimism more bleak than Spengler’s. For him, though, there also existed a “powerful current” that moves the world in the same way — and that “nothing could stop it.” This makes Drieu’s understanding something like that of the Marxists, who see History (with the magistral) as a force of Providence — of God.
“In their Utopian novels, Jünger (On the Marble Cliffs, Heliopolis) and Drieu (Beloukia, L’homme à cheval), proceed in radically different ways. The first departs from present history in order to abolish the timeless universe of Utopia,” while “the second departs from the historical past in order to abolish the present.” Both despair of the present, but Jünger substitutes a mythic world for it, while Drieu “invents it in the past.”
As to “the problem of technology,” Jünger and Drieu both thought it had destroyed an ancient civilization without ever having replaced it with another.
They both believed the solution to this problem of technology lay not in any simple return to the past, but in the creation of something that could no longer be called civilization, something which arises from philosophy, from the exercise of knowledge and the cult of wisdom” (Drieu).
After treating the themes of war, the political, the individual and history, the last part of Hervier’s book is consecrated to the relation Jünger and Drieu had to religion — and for those who don’t know the works of these two authors, this will come as the most surprising part of the book.
A long chapter is devoted to “the religious thought of Drieu.” As he got older, and less interested in women, he rejected political action, turning increasingly to religion. He passed, in effect, from the “warrior order” of his youth to a “sacerdotal order,” when he began, during his fifties, to write “theological novels.”
Drieu admired Catholicism as “a system of complex thought” and a religion that “represented for European civilization the arc of its covenant” — the travel chest “packed with the treasures of its experience and wisdom.”
But if he venerated Christianity sub specie æternitatis, he detested what it had become — a religion devoid of substance, a museum relic, representing nothing more than a languishing sect, symptomatic of the general decline of the West — just another bourgeois institution linked to Big Capital.
To this degenerate Christianity, Drieu opposed the virile Christianity of the Middle Ages, the Christianity of the Gothic cathedrals, the Christianity of the white, virile God” — this Christian God who ceded nothing in virility and health to the Olympian and Germanic gods.
For Drieu there was no real antagonism between Christianity and paganism, only different ways of interpreting Nature. In his eyes, orthodox Catholicism had best conserved the pagan heritage. But beyond paganism and Christianity, Drieu believed there existed a sort of universal syncretism — a “secret, profound religion linking all religions expressive of Man” — unique, yet everywhere the same.”
Like Drieu, religion for Jünger was the most fundamental dimension of human existence and transcended all the others. But unlike Drieu, the word “God” appears very infrequently in his work — though his work is infused with a spiritual vision of the world. In fact, Jünger seems to have imagined a “new theology,” without any connection to the idea of a personal God — a theology that would be a universal religion, in the sense of a Universal State. The common enemy of his new theologians, like that of the traditional Church, remained the various forms of “atheistic nihilism.”
Jünger’s general sympathy for the world religions reveals more about his philosophy of history than his religiosity — though this didn’t prevent him from pursuing certain Christian preoccupations during the Second World War. His War Journal, for instance, contains numerous biblical references, whose “prodigious symbolic power” he drew on.
He claimed that in times of deep suffering, Christianity alone was capable of animating that invisible temple of the wise men and poets.
Above all, Christianity for him embodied the perennial religious values of European civilization. Christianity, as such, represented a humanism with a very high conception of man. He fully accepted Nietzsche’s dictum that “God is dead” (the root of the universal catastrophe besetting the world), but he also thought God’s death was a possible requisite to man’s re-empowerment. The death of God was only the death of the personal gods. To Nietzsche’s dictum, he would invoke Léon Bloy’s “God is retired,” which announced the advent of the Third Reign, that of the Spirit which succeeds the Reign of the Father and the Son.
On religious matters, Drieu and Jünger are “strangely close and profoundly different.” Both defended religion against an omnipotent Rationalism, both were convinced of the evidence of the personal God’s death, and thus both believed in the need to reconstruct a new way of apprehending the divine.
An Explosive Melange
Whoever broaches this comparative study of Jünger and Drieu will come away with a sense of what an explosive melange the reactionary spirit and the revolutionary will makes. At times, Jünger is more a National-Bolshevik and Drieu a fascist revolutionary, but when faced with the prevailing middle class spirit, both are unambivalently revolutionary.
Julien Hervier titled his work Deux individus contre l’histoire (“two individuals against history”). In finishing the book, it’s apparent to the reader that the word “individual” here is to be understood in terms of Jünger and Drieu’s fascination for the individual’s “singularity.”
Jünger personified a metaphysical individualism the very opposite of bourgeois individualism, which Drieu, in his bad conscience, believed he himself represented. Both looked to the advent of a new aristocracy, but Drieu’s aspiration was essentially political, while Jünger’s was for “a small spiritual elite.”
In his afterword, the author of this magisterial study explains his title by referring to Kafka’s belief that: “Nothing is more decisive than the individual who struggles against the current.”
French Original: “Deux individus contre l’histoire” (June 24, 2010) [http://www.polemia.com/article.php?id=2967]
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What a perfect piece to translate for this site—how it ties in with the concept of counter-currents!
I’ll definitely look into this revised edition.
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