Ernst Junger on the Cultic vs the Sensitive Civilization

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Daniel Pinchbeck:

"In an effort to find philosophical context for current events, I turned to a strange essay by the German war hero Ernst Junger, On Pain, written in 1934, a year after Hitler’s rise to power. Junger was a fascinating character — elitist and authoritarian, yet a brilliant intellectual who illuminated many of the same themes as left-wing philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno, from a different angle.

In 1951, a few years after World War II, he took LSD with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered it. Hofmann was a huge fan of Junger’s literary work, celebrating him in LSD: My Problem Child: “In the light of his perspective, which stereoscopically comprises the surfaces and depths of things, the world I knew took on a new, translucent splendor.” Junger later wrote a book, Approximations: Drugs and Intoxication (1970), on his exploration of substances ranging from nicotine and cocaine to LSD and mescaline.

Junger viewed suffering as not only inevitable as part of life, but invaluable for what it revealed about the individual: “Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being as well as the world,” he wrote in On Pain (1934). “Whenever one approaches the points where man proves himself to be equal or superior to pain, one gains access to the source of his power and the secret hidden behind his dominion.” He considered heroic death — the ultimate self-sacrifice, generally made in war — as a kind of consummation, the logical answer to the problem of existence: “He who feels secure in immediate proximity to death finds himself in the highest state of security.”

What surprised me in reading Junger’s essay was that I could appreciate the philosophical coherence of his stance. It reminded me of what I know of Meso-American cultures like the Aztec and Maya who possessed a totally different view from ours on life, death, spirituality, discipline, and sacrifice. Junger called this the “heroic and cultic world” which he contrasted with our world, “the world of sensitivity.” In our world of sensitivity, we seek to marginalize pain and shelter life from it. The cultic world, instead, sought “to integrate pain and and organize life so that one is always armed against it,” psychologically and spiritually.

In our society, we focus on the alleviation of pain and suffering as something that is automatically good. We seek the indefinite extension of a type of lifestyle that is comfortable but oddly passive, almost meaningless and, in a metaphysical sense, weightless. Most people live as if suspended over this abyss. Floating, they do everything in their power to not look down.

We believe in materialist and technological progress. This faith has supplanted the religious beliefs of our ancestors. As with religious dogma, faith in progress is not meant to be questioned too closely. From this technological worldview, it is difficult to envision any kind of meaningful future. The best that Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens, can offer is entombment in ever-more immersive video games: “Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside.” This seems too sad a fate to linger on. From a Fascistic viewpoint, Junger looked toward the total integration of man into weaponry as a positive development. Anticipating the kamikaze pilots of World War Two, he described, appreciatively, how the Japanese were developing a torpedo “guided mechanically by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment, regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.” In such circumstance, the soldier’s death is not based on luck or skill, but assured. He found the Japanese soldier’s readiness to sacrifice his life in this hopeless manner a sign of superiority.

Junger’s view is an inversion of the philosophy of our “world of sensitivity,” with its horror of death and its belief that extending the life span and alleviating pain are the proper goals of civilization. Instead, Junger put the focus on death — preferably, heroic death on the battlefield — as the moment that proved the value, strength, and disciplined will of the individual.