Ernst Jünger's Strahlungen

  • Terence Woodland

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The study and interpretation of a literary work will always be, for the sincere critic, an exercise in 'approximation’. He can never presume to understand completely either the author's intentions when he first came to plan his work or the precise meaning of the message he intends to convey to the reader, unless, of course, the critic's work is done for him in advance by the helpful author in an introduction or a preface.

And even when such help is provided the critic will still endeavour to decide whether the author's intentions and his message are, in fact, what he claims the• to be and , if so, how successful he has been in conveying them to his readers. Moreover, there are times when the accuracy, if not the sincerity, of the author's introduction Lust be called in question. Obstacles placed in the writer's way during certain periods of history by religious or political authorities have often been such as to tempt, if not force him1to conceal his true intentions in order to ensure that his work would pass through the hands of the censor into those of the printer.

This possibility must certainly be borne in mind when we come to consider the introduction to Strahlungen, the work around which this essay is centred; for Ernst Junger enjoyed for a time the unusual distinction of being equally unacceptable to the authorities in Nation al Socialist Germany and later to the censors of all four occupying powers.

But if the problems confronting the literary critic are indeed formidable, there remains always the consoling thought that all literary criticism is based on value judgements, and that these re by nature largely subjective. Consequently, if the results of critical analysis cannot be offered as scientifically accurate facts, but at best as opinions based upon careful observation and backed by considerable experience, at least the critic knows that any objections to his views will be equally subjective and unscientific, however strongly they may be put forward.

No work of art is without riddles and apparent contradictions, and the author himself is often at loss to explain his creation to his own satisfaction; indeed, he may object to any attempt at reducing his novel or his play to abstract ideas which supposedly lie hidden beneath the surface. Discussing this difficulty with Eck ermann one day Goethe was to say as much h of Faust :
Da kommen sie und fragen : welche Idee ich in meinem Faust zu verkorpern gesucht? - Als ob ich das selber wusste und aussprechen konnte!

And finally, whatever message the author may think he has, the sincere critic will be inclined Miguel de Unamuno when he writes of Don Quixote that all great works enjoy a separate life of their own once they have been completed and published. Henceforth they exist in their own right, and it may fairly be said that they have a different message for each new reader. He will interpret them in the light of his own experience and background; very often he may read into them hopes and aspirations quite remote from those which inspired the author. And these 'embelli shments' which result from the meeting between a literary work and the mind of the reader only serve to stress the value of the work concerned. For surely one of the generally accepted criteria by which a book is judged is the presence of that quality to stimulate and inspire each succeeding generation of readers in such a way as to ensure for the classics a popularity long outlasting the lifetime of their authors.

The continued survival of a work any years, if not generations, after it first appeared secures for it a place in histories of literature, and provides ample justification for those who feel the urge to publish their thoughts on it. They can and do invariably claim to be offering their contemporaries material which might well assist them to derive greater profit and pleasure from their reading than might have been possible by their own unaided efforts.

It is at this point that yet another snag becomes apparent to the literary critic. How can he be sure of the value of a work until it has proved its worth by standing up to the test of time? Looking back over the last two centuries of European literature it can often be seen how greatly the views of contemporaries on books and their authors have differed from those of later generations. The popular works of the moment have only rarely retained their fascination for readers who took them up thirty or forty years later, whilst by no means all the authors now held to be important enjoyed such a considerable reputation during their lifetime. Even Goethe himself was esteemed by his contemporaries for works which now seem only a prelude to his truly great contribution to world literature.

It is thus hardly surprising that the subject for a literary thesis is normally chosen from a period which seems safe from all points of view. Either it will deal with a writer of whom it can be said that he made a significant contribution towards the development of a literary movement or at least with a minor figure who can be shown to have exercised a decisive influence on the work of other writers now held to be of importance. In both cases it is considered safer to select one's subject from amongst the ranks of the dead.

The choice of Ernst Junger as the subject of this essay would seem hard to justify from either of the standpoints mentioned above. The literary historian might argue that his works written during and after the Second World War were published too recently to qualify as yet for more than a passing mention. Indeed, he might justifiably say that it is too soon to estimate the importance\ of Ernst Junger as a writer, let alone to hazard a guess as to the influence he might have on future generations. One recent student of his work has claimed that he no longer arouses the interest of younger readers as he did in the twenties, thirties and forties. But alongside this opinion must be placed the fact that another critic, whose study was published in East Germany at about the same time, set out to deal with what he considered to be the vitally important task of undermining the influence of the two most dangerous and influential supporters of West German 'imperialism’ in the cultural field: Gottfried Benn and Ernst Junger.

A review of this second work which appeared in the official Soviet journal Voprosy Literatury in July, 1963, showed clearly that the authorities in that country fully shared the author's views, and suggested that he might well have gone further than he did in his attack, so great did the danger appear to the reviewer.

These recent examples taken from amongst the respectable number of books and the mass of articles which have so far been devoted to the work of Ernst Junger will serve, it is hoped, to illustrate the unreliability of contemporary assessments, and also to justify our choice of subject. For whatever place Ernst Junger may occupy in histories of German literature written fifty years hence, at least it can be seen already that no student of twentieth century German life and letters will be able to ignore his contribution. This will remain true if only because of the influence his works undoubtedly exercised on the minds of so many young Germans between 1920 and 1950 . As Karl Paetel wrote in his study published in 1949:
"Und hier muss ein fur allemal ausgesprochen werden, dass es neben Stefan George keinen anderen deutsche.... E- Dichter gibt, der ein so einzigartiges Ausstrahlungsphanomern war, wie es Ernst Junger war - und irnmer noch ist."

Date of Award1966
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorH. E. Hinderks (Supervisor)

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