East & West–The Gordian Knot:
Ernst Jünger’s Der gordische Knoten
The name of Ernst Jünger has achieved an almost European notoriety. However the importance of this writer as a philosopher concerns above all the early period of his activities. An ex-serviceman in the First World War, he appeared as a spokesman of what in his day was already known as the “burnt out generation.” His ideas were drawn not from abstract writing-desk speculations, but from a heroic experience which he had lived through, whence they gradually extended to the problem of the meaning of the human person in an epoch of nihilism and of the all-powerful machine. His watchwords were those of “heroic realism” and of the ethics of the “absolute person.”
Unfortunately Jünger’s later production, while it registered an apparent progress from the point of view of pure literature and style, showed a visible decline of level and of tension from the point of view of world outlook. The tendency of somewhat suspect humanism, associated with myths which by reaction have become fashionable in certain circles even of Central Europe after the late break-down, has somehow influenced his later writing.
We have had occasion to peruse a recently-published book of Jünger’s entitled The Gordian Knot (Der gordische Knoten, Frankfurt a.M., 1953). It professes to deal with relations between East and West, regarded as a basic historical theme, with the encounters which have taken place between Europe and Asia from the days of the Persian wars to the present time.
It is not easy to circumscribe the domain considered by Jünger. It hovers essentially between politics and ethics, while the religious and purely intellectual element is almost overlooked, a fact which proves prejudicial to the whole work, because, if we do not consider this element as the fundamental background of traditional Oriental civilizations, the whole problem appears badly presented. In this book we find a number of interesting observations, but they are scattered about here and there as if in a conversation, and there is a lack of systematic unity.
But the fundamental defect of the book is that it presents in terms of historical antitheses and of antithetical civilizations what are instead antitheses of universal spiritual categories, having no compulsory relations with particular peoples, civilizations or continents. Jünger often finds himself forced to admit it, as when he speaks of East and West, of Europe and Asia, not as of two historical and geographical concepts, but as of two possibilities which every man in every age carries within himself. Every people would indeed possess them, because, for instance, the typical features of Asiatic incursions into Europe and of the “Oriental” manner of warfare would reappear in civil wars in their opposition to regular wars.
But how can we then fail to notice that the greater part of the author’s considerations, which resort to historical and geographical references, whereas they should limit themselves to the domain of a morphology or a typology of civilizations and of world outlooks, and which claim actually to conclude with a diagnosis of the present situation, are compromised by a fundamental one-sidedness and ambiguity?
That this is the case can be easily proved if we examine some of the main motifs of the book, in the first place, that whence its very title, i.e. the Gordian knot, is drawn. The Gordian knot should represent the problem which always arises with every encounter between Asia and Europe when domination over the world is in question.
The Gordian knot should represent Asia, the sword of Alexander Europe. The former should be the symbol of destiny of an existence bound by elementary or divine forces, of a world characterized by a lack of limits, of a political society essentially despotic and arbitrary. The sword of Alexander should instead represent the luminous element, spiritual power, and be the symbol of a world acknowledging freedom, law, human respect, a greatness which cannot be reduced to mere power.
At one point of the book the antithesis is even made equivalent to that between the Titanic powers, vast and shapeless, and the Olympic powers eternally fighting against them, because the former also represent the substratum of elementary forces ever re-emerging from the depths and offering possibilities for new triumphs and further progress.
We need only bear this formulation in mind to realize the absurdity of talking about East and West. In fact that antagonistic myth is invested with an universal character, it is found in the mythologies and sagas of all civilizations, and in the East it has been formulated not less distinctly than in Hellenic civilization (we need only remember the dualism of Mazdaism, the Hindu themes about the struggle between deva and asûra, or the exploits of Indra, etc.); it reflects therefore a vision of life by no means specifically European.
Moreover, if we refer to a metaphysical plan, it is quite absurd to associate the East with an existence subject to the powers of destiny and of the earth. If there is a civilization which has not only formulated the notion of an absolute freedom, of a freedom so high that even the realm of the heaven and the realm of the pure Being appear as a form of bondage, but which has furthermore known a definite technical tradition to realize that ideal, such a civilization is definitely that of the East.
But Jünger seems to wish to keep to a more conditioned plan, closer also to that of political forces. But here too the argument does not hold water. The antithesis of the Western ideal of political freedom as against Asian despotism is an old story, which may have been a “myth” dear to certain Hellenic historians, but which is devoid of all serious foundation.
To justify it we should limit ourselves to considering certain inferior by-products of a degenerating and barbarous East, with local sartraps and despots, with hordes of Tartars, Huns and Mongols, and some aspects of the latest Arabo-Iranian and Arabo-Persian cycles. At the same time we should overlook the recurrent phenomena of the same kind in the West, including the methods of those tyrants and princes who were devoid all human respect in the age of the Italian Renaissance.
Indeed Jünger himself goes counter to his own thesis when he points out that in the evolution of Roman history, especially during the Imperial period, both forms were present. He fully realizes that it is not possible here to bring forward an eventual Asiatic racial contribution as the only capable of giving an explanation, so that he has to resort, as we have pointed out, not to a historic Asia, but rather to an Asia as a permanent possibility latent in everyone.
In any case, coming down to modern times, the impossibility of sensibly utilizing that antithesis in any way, appears ever more obvious to Jünger himself. Here then his antithesis on the one hand almost identifies itself with that proper to the political terminology of today, in which the “West” is identified with the Euro-American democratic world and the “East” with Bolshevik Russia; in addition with regard to certain features drawn by him from the “Asiatic” style, concerning the manner of waging war, of estimating the individual, of despotism, of exploiting vanquished peoples and prisoners of war, of wholesale slaughter, etc. he tends to perceive them, in a rather one-sided manner, actually in Hitler’s Germany. What can all this mean?
In any case even in this connection things are not quite right, and it is odd that Jünger has not noticed it. Leaving Asia and Europe aside, and considering instead these conceptions in themselves, the true synthesis does not lie between freedom and tyranny, but rather between individualism and the principle of authority. Of a system based on the principle of authority everything like tyranny, despotism, Bonapartism, the dictatorship of tribunes of the people, is nothing more than a degeneration or an inverted falsification.
By reverting to the domain of historical civilizations it would be easy indeed to show to what extent the traditional East, as far as concerns the doctrine of the Regnum, admitted ideals very different from individual despotism. We need only refer to the Far Eastern Imperial conception, with its theory of the “mandate from Heaven” and the strict political ethic of Kong-tse. In the Nitisara we are asked to explain how he who cannot dominate himself (his own manas) can dominate other men, and in the Arthaçâstra the exercise of royal functions is conceived as tapas, i.e. ascetism, ascetism of power. We might easily multiply references of this kind.
There is no doubt that the East has had a characteristic tendency toward the Unconditional, which has been the case only merely sporadically with the West, by no means to its advantage. This might shed a different light even on what Jünger calls the Willkürakt, and which in him seems almost to play the part of an anguish complex. As a matter of fact a world outlook, wherein the extreme point of reference is the Unconditional, law in actual practice or in the abstract, can never constitute the extreme instance on any plane, neither on the human nor on the divine plane.
We do not wish to dwell here on an evident contradiction into which Jünger falls: how can he conciliate the idea of the East as a world subject to the bonds of destiny and of necessity with that other idea, according to which the absolute act, the Willkürakt, is alleged to be an Eastern category? Furthermore, although it is a case of horizons already different, by such implications we had to recognize Asia in its purity, well, in Nietzsche and in Stirner.
But it is more important to consider another aspect of the question. Jünger tells of a visit by the Count of Champagne to the head of the Order of the Ishmaelites at the time of the Crusades. At a sign from his host some knights threw themselves down from the top of a wall. Asked if his own knights were capable of similar obedience and fealty, the Count replied in the negative.
We have here, Jünger declares – something which a European mind cannot grasp, because it borders on the absurd, on folly, because it offends all human values. We have the sentiments before the Japanese airmen devoting themselves to death. In the late war, he adds, in Italy and Germany exploits were conceived and actually carried out which involved extreme risks, but not a previous acceptance of irrevocable sacrifices by the individual.
Now these considerations are in part one-sided, in part due to misunderstanding. With regard to the first point we shall mention a single instance. Ancient Rome, which certainly did not belong to “Asia,” knew the ritual of the so-called devotio: a military commander volunteered to die as a victim of the infernal powers in order to promote an outbreak of them, and thus to bring about the defeat of the enemy.
The second point, however, is more important. Jünger should have known that the Ishmaelites were not merely a military Order, but also an Order of initiates. Within the orbit of initiation all ethics of a merely human nature, however elevated, cease to have any validity. Even on the level of mere religion we find the sacrifice of Isaac as a trial and a disciple of absolute “corpse-like” obedience – perinde ac cadaver according to the formula of the Jesuits– in the domain of monastic ascetism. Calvin went so far as to consider the possibility of renouncing eternal salvation for the sake of love of God.
As for the Order of the Ishmaelites, there is a specific point which should be born in mind: absolute obedience to the extreme limit, as illustrated in the above-mentioned episode, had also the value of discipline and was limited to the lower ranks of the initiatic hierarchy; once the individual will is eliminated, above the fourth degree an absolutely contrary principle reigns, that of absolute freedom, so much so that some one referred to the Order of the Ishmaelites the principle that “Nothing exists, everything is permitted.”
A mere Crusading knight could hardly attain such horizons: a Knight Templar might perhaps done so, for the Order of the Templars also had an initiatic background. Were Jünger to realize all this he might begin to understand what was the right place even for what he calls the Willkürakt and the limitations of the validity for ethics of personality and for an ideal of purely human civic greatness.
Here indeed higher existential dimensions come into play, and not only in the case of an organization of initiates. For instance, when it comes to those “absolute sacrifices” of a heroic nature, we should not forget that it is, in a general way, a question of civilizations, in which the human earthly existence is not considered, as it is with us, unique and incapable of repetition. Even on the level of popular religion and of the normal outlook of life in those civilizations the individual has the feeling or foreboding that his existence does not begin with birth nor end with death on earth; thus we find potentially present that consciousness and that higher dimension, to which only in exceptional case the religious views which have to come to prevail in the West offers a suitable atmosphere.
The most important result of these latter considerations is probably the following. Putting aside East and West, Asia and Europe as civilizations and as historic realities, we may place our consideration on the plane to which Jünger has in his book been more than once forced to shift himself, i.e. on the plane of a morphological determination of the various layers and possibilities of the human beings.
We should then have three levels. On the lowest we should place all those possibilities which Jünger has associated with the “Gordian knot,” with elementary and savage forces, with everything that is limitless, with the daemonism of destruction, with that which is ruthless, with an absence of all human respect, with affirmation devoid of all law.
In an intermediate zone we should place the sum total of possibilities contained within the framework of a civilization which recognizes the value of humanitas, of law, of individual and civil freedom, of culture in the ordinary meaning of the word.
The higher level is here represented by that spirituality which Jünger associates with the symbols of Alexander’s sword, while the lower level is made up of the values which have provided the foundations of the latest bourgeois and liberal civilization.
But we must recognize as the highest zone that of possibilities which through the formal analogies which two opposite poles ever present reflect certain features of the first zone, because here it is a domain wherein the human tie is surpassed, where neither the mere human individual nor the current criterion of human greatness any longer represents the limit, because within it the Unconditional and the absolutely transcendental asserts itself. Some of the culminating points of Oriental spirituality refer in fact to this zone. If only a limit as slender as a razor’s edge at times separates this domain from the former, yet the difference between the two is abysmal, whereas opposition to what is merely human is common to both.
Now it is important to point out that wherever forces belonging to the first of the three domains emerge and break forth, only the possibilities of the third domain can really face them. Any attempt to stem on the basis of forces and values of the intermediate zone can only be precarious, provisional and relative.
To conclude, we may associate with this a remark concerning that diagnosis of the present situation, to which Jünger’s book claims to have contributed. In the first phase of his activities, and above all in his books Feuer und Blut (1926) and Der Arbeiter (1932), he had rightly perceived that the age beginning in the West with the advent of mechanical civilization and of the first “total” wars is characterized by the emergence of “elementary” forces operating in a destructive manner, not only materially, but also spiritually, not only in the vicissitude of warfare, but also in cosmopolitan mechanized life.
The merit of Jünger in that first phase of his thought is that he had recognized the fatal error of those who think that everything may be brought back to order, that this new menacing world, ever advancing, may be subdued or held on the basis of the vision of life of the values of the preceding age, that is to say of bourgeois civilization.
If a spiritual catastrophe is to be averted modern man must make himself capable of developing his own being in a higher dimension – and it is in this connexion that Jünger had announced the above-mentioned watchword of “heroic realism” and pointed out the ideal of the “absolute person,” capable of measuring himself with elementary forces, capable of seizing the highest meaning of existence in the most destructive experiences, in those actions wherein the human individual no longer counts: of a man acclimatized to the most extreme temperatures and having behind the “zero point of every value.” It is obvious that in all this Jünger had a presentiment of the metaphysical level of life in the third of the domains which we have mentioned.
But in this new book we see that he confuses this domain with the first, and that the chief points of reference for everything which Jünger associates with the symbol of the West are drawn to a great extent from the intermediate zone – still far enough from the “zero point of every value” and not wholly incompatible with the ideas beloved in the preceding bourgeois period, even if raised to a dignified form and integrated with some of the values of the good European tradition.
This leads to a dangerous confusion of horizons, and at all events marks a retrogression from the positions already achieved by Jünger in his first period. His more recent works, including the one which we have been discussing, while they are rich in interesting suggestions, offer us nothing which has a real basic value.
We have moreover seen that in this book on the Gordian knot the East is an one-sided and partly arbitrary notion which has nothing to do with the actual reality of the higher traditional Oriental civilizations, while throughout the whole work we perceive with sufficient clarity the reactions of those who, without having any adequate sense of distance, draw conclusions from the most recent political vicissitudes and who would reduce the conflict between East and West merely to that between the world of the democratic Euro-American nations, with their own outworn ideals which are trying to present themselves in terms of a new European humanism, and the world of Soviet Communism.
East and West, vol. 5, no. 2, July 1954