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Jünger & Drieu La Rochelle

Alain de Benoist

3,655 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

In his Pariser Tagebücher [Paris Diaries], Ernst Jünger refers to his meetings in German-occupied Paris with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (for example on October 11th, 1941 and on April 7th, 1942). Drieu was then the editor in chief of La Nouvelle Revue française, published by Gallimard. Thursdays, Jünger often attended the literary salon of Florence Gould, to which Gerhard Heller introduced him, and where he became acquainted with Paul Léautaud, Henry de Montherlant, Marcel Jouhandeau, Alfred Fabre-Luce, Jean Schlumberger, Jean Cocteau, Paul Morand, Jean Giraudoux, and many others. Later, Jouhandeau would remember of him as a “very simple man, very young looking, with a delicate face, and who wore civilian clothing, a bow tie.”[1]

On November 16th, 1943, Jünger noted in his journal that he had again seen Drieu La Rochelle at the German Institute of Paris, then directed by Karl Epting. He told him that they had “exchanged fire in 1915. It was near Godat, the village where Hermann Löns fell. Drieu also remembered the bell that sounded the hours there: we both heard it.” Many years later, in his discussions with Antonio Gnoli and Franco Volpi, Jünger, now 100 years old, recalled this memory again: “When we met, we often spoke about our experiences of the First World War: we had fought in the same zone of the front, he on the French side, I on the German side, and we heard, on opposite sides, the sound of the bells of the same church.”[2]

It should be no surprise that the two men were drawn together at the start by their memories of the Great War. It had marked them deeper than anything else, like so many men of their generation. But between Jünger and Drieu La Rochelle, there were many other points in common. Deeply impressed by the reading of Nietzsche, both aspired to a African adventure in their youth: Jünger enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, while in 1914 Drieu requested to be assigned to the Moroccan riflemen (in both cases, the experience was brief). Above all, both men were political theorists as well as writers—simultaneously in the case of Drieu, successively in that of Jünger. Both justifiably could be described, at one point of their lives or another as “national revolutionaries.” Both, finally, incontestably were revolutionary conservatives, eager to safeguard values that they considered eternal, but at the same time conscious that the advent of the modern world created chasms across which one cannot return. Yet, despite all that, many things separated them.

Jünger described the First World War almost under fire, while Drieu waited twenty years to write La comédie de Charleroi.[3] (Moreover, having been discharged in 1939, he did not take part in the Second World War). In the first of the six short stories of this book, which is certainly one of his masterpieces, he recalls an assault against the Germans in 1914 in the area of Charleroi. This description is done within the framework of a visit of the battlefield made five years later by the narrator in the company of a rich bourgeois who lost his son in this battle. One notes that 20 years later, beyond any ideological justification, Jünger and Drieu perceived war as a law inherent in human nature, even as a rehabilitation of “natural man” in the totality of his instincts. “It is life in the most terrible form that the creator ever gave it,” Jünger wrote.[4] For Drieu as for Jünger, war is first of all what frees us from the bourgeois world and reveals man in his truth.

However, both also assessed how much the Great War, which started in 1914 as a traditional war, was transformed little by little into a war of a completely new type: a deployment of gigantically impersonal forces, a “duel of machines so formidable that beside them man no longer exists, so to speak.”[5] But the advent of “technical war” particularly horrified Drieu, who saw it as a “malevolent revolt of matter against human control,” a true “industrial butchery,” whereas for Jünger it gave birth to the intuition of a new human type, completely opposed to the bourgeois:  that of the bourgeois man: the Worker, whose “heroic realism” would be able to ensure the mobilization (Mobilmachung) of the world. For Jünger, the “armies of machines” herald the “battalions of workmen,” the experience of the war having conferred on man a disposition (Bereitschaft) to “total mobilization,” i.e., a will to domination (Herrschaft) expressed by means of Technology.

Drieu shares nothing of this optimistic and voluntarist vision. In the inter-war period, he opposed a right that continued to preach the old “warlike values” without realizing that these values have no worse enemy than modern war. “Modern military war is in every way an abomination,” he wrote in 1934 in Socialisme fasciste (Fascist Socialism).[6] According to Drieu, the reign of Technology, far from heralding the advent of a new man, implies on the contrary a degradation of man. As is well-known, it is was only later, under the double influence of Heidegger and his brother, Friedrich Georg Jünger, that Jünger began to reflect critically on Technology and its “titanic” nature, extending and deepening the purely instinctive reaction of Drieu.

After having served on the front, which brought a kind of mystical experience, both writers believed it possible to retain what they gained on the battlefield in civilian life. “We will be able to establish peace as we carried out the war,” Drieu wrote in its first book, a collection of poems entitled Interrogation.[7] At the same time, Jünger also resolved to transform military defeat into civilian victory. This resolution explains his political commitment.

Their relationship to politics, however, is not the same. In the 1920s, Jünger joined the ranks of the nationalists out of deep and fiery convictions. Drieu, however, plunged in to ward off his own hesitations. The author of Le Feu follet (The Will o’ the Wisp)[8] belongs to those men who came to politics starting from philosophy, with the need to find concrete incarnations of ideas corresponding to their vision of the world. More than an actor, he wanted to be an observer. During the Great War, moreover, whereas Jünger was completely engaged in the “storms of steel,” Drieu was in combat only intermittently, although that did not prevent him from being wounded three times.

In many respects, Drieu was a dilettante. Regarding his Journal of the years 1939–1945, which was published only in 1992, one can even speak about his “indifference to any deep ideological conviction,” of his “fickleness” (Julien Hervier). This is not inaccurate, but one absolutely should not see the least trace of opportunism in this attitude. Germanophile but Anglomaniac, haunted by decadence but conscious that his own work fits a certain definition of it, Drieu is a man of doubts, about-face changes, and oscillations—perhaps manifesting his bourgeois origins.

Ernst Jünger, 1895 – 1998

One sees this clearly in his relations with women. The author of a beautiful novel entitled L’homme couvert de femmes (The Man Covered with Women) (1925),[9] which may be largely autobiographical, Drieu loved women, but not for themselves. His Don Juanism, of quasi-Platonic inspiration, is articulated around the desire to seduce and of the “insane idea of beauty”: “Impossible for me to attach to a woman, impossible for me to abandon her. I found none of them beautiful enough. Beautiful enough internally or externally.”[10] This is why this man “covered with women” was always lonely. The same applied to politics: no political regime could attract him completely, just as no woman was sufficiently “beautiful” for him.

But it is precisely because he is attracted by an unattainable ideal and perpetually divided between contradictory impulses that Pierre Drieu La Rochelle did not cease fighting against what he regarded as false alternatives. Interrogation contains the poem “And Dreams and Action.” The juxtaposition of these two words translates quite precisely what he sought to reconcile all his life. Drieu wanted to reconcile dream and action, as he wanted to reconcile soul and body, the world of war and that of the spirit.

He interpreted the history of Europe as the slow rise of the bourgeois ideology which led to the rupture of equilibrium between soul and body and subjected man to the noxious influence of life in the big cities. His great task was the reconciliation of the soul and the body. In his Notes pour comprendre le siècle (Notes to Comprehend the Century) (1941),[11] he writes: “The new man participates in the body, he knows that the body is the articulation of the soul and that the soul cannot be expressed, cannot deploy itself, except though the body.”

Drieu’s attitude is that of a dandy. Yet many authors also Jünger as a rather typical representative of dandyism. Nicolas Sombart writes:

The dandy represents the type of man who stylizes himself. . . . He has sublimated the will to power into a will to style. . . . Endeavoring to stylize himself, he stylizes the world and accomplishes this mission when he captures a situation in an elegant formulation. . . . For that, he must subject himself to discipline, abnegation, and rigorous asceticism.[12]

“Distance, beauty, impassibility, such are the elements of Jüngerian dandyism,” writes Julien Hervier for his part.[13] One thinks here of the ideal of “active impersonality” preached by another theorist of dandyism, the Italian Julius Evola. However, Drieu is more of a dandy than Jünger, because the former preaches “engagement for engagement’s sake,” as of others might speak of “art for art’s sake.”

Drieu gives history the same impassioned attention that Jünger gives botany or entomology. But for him, history is essentially in flux, governed by chance, whereas Jünger strives to read, behind surface appearances and movement, the “harmonious permanence of a stable order” (Julien Hervier). In Jünger, history is never a purely human phenomenon. Instead, it traces back to an invisible necessity, a kind of metaphysics of destiny, of forces that exceed it. This is why Jünger is not interested so much in history as in what lies beyond history. That is why he is interested in myth.

Drieu, who had dreamed of becoming a priest or monk, and who, in the Foreword of one of his more famous novels, Gilles (1939),[14] wrote that if he could re-live his life, he would devote it to the history of religion, was also passionately interested in myth. Like Jünger, he refers constantly to the sacred, but never tries to relate it to a particular religion. For him, the sacred is synonymous with the divine, and the divine is more immanent that transcendent.

He was already using religious terms to describe the brutal reality of the Great War. When the bombs burst, he exclaimed: “These are not men, it is the Good god, the Good god himself, the Hard one, the Brutal one!” (La comédie de Charleroi). For him, the war was just like religion: a sacred kind of test. Everywhere in his work, the bond between the soldier’s life and asceticism, the bond between action and religion, is manifest.

Finally, Drieu, like Jünger—who says that the cosmos for him has a divine and sacred dimension—holds that “nature is animated, speaking, innumerably prodigious.” Jünger seldom employs the word “God,” unlike Drieu, who uses it frequently. But, from Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead,” he draws the conviction that “God must be conceived in a new way.”

Jünger definitively moved away from politics in the early 1930s, while Drieu was never detached. As Julien Hervier notes, the need for engagement leads Drieu to an ethics of action for action’s sake. Under the Occupation, it is this concern with engagement on principle that led him to continue to write political articles although politics hardly interested him anymore. Reading his journal, one sees that his true interests inclined him toward Eastern spirituality.

It amounts to saying that for Drieu, politics was never more than “a reason for curiosity and the object of distant speculation” which never exercised more than a “fitful” attraction.[15] Rejecting the bourgeois and democratic world, he certainly never creased believing in the possibility of a non-Marxist socialism. But in his fashion, i.e., “by fits and starts,” and not without a certain blindness to the reality of things.

Jünger withdrew from politics because he took the full measure of the “Mauritanian” spirit, whereas Drieu, on the contrary, continued his engagement because he thought that in life, one is obliged to get one’s hands dirty. By adopting this attitude, the dandy saves himself relative to the collapse he observes all around him. When the battle is lost, there remains only the beauty of the gesture.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle

At the end of the Second World War, Drieu felt he was watching the end of a world, the end of an era: “France is finished. . . . But all the fatherlands are finished.” One should, however, recall that he constantly pled for Europe. In 1931, he published a book entitled L’Europe contre les patries (Europe against the Fatherlands).[16] In 1934, in La comédie de Charleroi, he wrote: “Today, France or Germany, it is too small.”

Jünger—who was always a Francophile, as Drieu was a Germanophile—also knew how to step back from narrow national memberships: Der Arbeiter already poses the problem of globalism that after the war he discussed in his essay on the universal state.

Drieu dreamt only of regeneration. Like Nietzsche, he thinks one should not seek to save what is crumbling but instead accelerate its collapse. In his journal, he declares that he desires the destruction of the West and calls for a barbarian invasion that will sweep away this dying civilization: “It is with joy that I greet the rise of Russia and Communism. It will be atrocious, atrociously destructive.”[17]

At the same time, he also wrote: “I regarded Fascism only as a step towards Communism.” The ease with which Drieu praised Stalinist Communism as well as Fascism or National Socialism, placing on the former the quickly disappointed hopes inspired by the latter, will surprise only those who are entirely ignorant of National Bolshevism, incarnated for example by Ernst Niekisch, who was a very close friend of Jünger’s in the 1920s.

In his youth, under Niekisch’s influence, Jünger also saw the Communists as the best preparers of the “revolution without qualifications”[18] that it would celebrate in Der Arbeiter. Later, but from an entirely different viewpoint, he would emphasize the extent to which Communism and National Socialism paralleled each other in the introduction of Technology into political life, thus expressing a common adhesion to modernity, under the horizon of a will to power that Heidegger had unmasked as a mere “will to will.” One finds similar reflections in Genève ou Moscou (Geneva or Moscow) (1928),[19] where Drieu stresses that capitalism and Communism are the twin heirs of the Machine: “Both are the dark and burning children of industry.”[20]

However, Drieu was at the same time tempted by retreat, by retiring to the sidelines. One of his last novels L’homme à cheval (The Man on Horseback),[21] published in 1943, tells the story of a South American dictator, Jaime Torrijos, who, after having seized power in Bolivia, tried to create an empire. Unable to attain this goal, he retires from politics to resuscitate the Inca rites.

Like hero of L’homme à cheval, Drieu dreamed “of something deeper than politics, or rather that deep and rare politics that fuses with poetry, music and, who knows, perhaps high religion.” But he did not know how to proceed in that direction. Perhaps he did not have in him the resources that would have enabled him to become a Waldgänger or Anarch.

Jünger also had the feeling that an epoch in world history was completed. It was completed with the appearance of the Worker, who inaugurated the global reign of “the elemental.” The old gods died or fled; the new gods are yet to be born. We have entered the era of the Titans. To step back, Jünger successively created the Figure (Gestalt) of the Waldgänger, who takes a distance, then that of the Anarch, who takes height.

The attitude of the Anarch is similar in some respects to the “apoliteia” preached by Julius Evola. But this Figure, like that of the Waldgänger, clearly poses the problem of the place of the individual in relation to the great historical processes that affect the world. Jünger evokes in this respect “the individual taken separately, the great Solitary, able to resist the spiritual challenges of that which is heralded and will become a new ‘Iron Age.’”[22]

One could speak here of a Jüngerian “individualism.” Jünger’s individualism of is certainly not hedonistic individualism, which reflects the selfishness and the utilitarianism of the bourgeois world, but rather the assertion of the prerogatives of the isolated individual (der Einzelne) who can spontaneously recognize others of his kind.

In Drieu La Rochelle, on the other hand, there are unquestionable traces of this bourgeois individualism, which he energetically condemns from the historical point of view, but which he does not always manage to escape himself. The majority of his novels are nothing more than stories about individuals, and his characters are quite often mere expressions of himself. Also, both writers give different roles to individuals and elites. While Drieu aspires to a new political aristocracy, Jünger is situated on a higher plane: the spiritual accord that can be established between men able to spiritually dominate their time.

Just like Henry de Montherlant, just like Yukio Mishima and so many others, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle finally committed suicide. But one would be wrong to explain his suicide merely as a political defeat, even if he himself encouraged this by saying, in substance: “I played, I lost, I claim death.” In fact, Drieu had been tempted by suicide since childhood. He had written: “When I was an adolescent, I promised myself to remain faithful to youth: one day, I tried to keep my word.” In dying, like the hero of his novel Le feu follet (The Will o’ the Wisp),[23] Drieu remained faithful to this temptation from his childhood. Previously, he had written in his journal: “The beauty of death consoles a life badly lived. God, what was my life? Some women, the charge of Charleroi, some words, viewing some landscapes, statues, tableaux, and that’s it.”[24]

Jünger and friend

Ernst Jünger wrote that “suicide belongs to the capital of humanity,” and it is a maxim that Montherlant had noted in his notebooks when he himself decided to commit suicide in September 1972. Jünger also saw many close friends commit suicide, particularly at the time of the July 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler (Hans von Kluge, Henrich von Stülpnagel) and at the end of the Second World War. But for him suicide remained an abstract possibility, negative in its essence, while for Drieu, for whom death was “the secret of life,” the suicide had a mystical value.

On September 7th, 1944, when he was in Kirchhorst, Jünger learned that Drieu had committed suicide in Paris. “It seems,” he wrote, “that under the terms of some law, those who had noble reasons to cultivate friendship between peoples fall without mercy, while the low profiteers wriggle away.” In his conversations with Julien Hervier, he later said that he was “deeply distressed” that Drieu “committed suicide in a moment of despair.” “His death,” he added, “truly pained me. He was a man who had suffered much. Thus there are people who feel friendship for a certain nation, as many Frenchmen came to feel for us, which brought them no luck.”[25] On September 6th, 1992, he wrote to Julien Hervier: “Gallimard sent me your edition of Drieu’s diaries; reading them was moving. The critics have, so far as I know, not grasped the significance of his work. I have made some notes on it for Siebzig verweht IV. A copy is enclosed.”

Words to remember. Between these two men, there was brotherhood.

Notes

[1] Marcel Jouhandeau, “Mon ami Ernst Jünger” [“My friend Ernst Jünger”], in Hommage à Ernst Jünger [Homage to Ernst Jünger], ed. Georges Laffly, special issue of La Table ronde, Paris, Winter 1976, p. 9.

[2] Ernst Jünger, Les prochains Titans [The Coming Titans] (Paris: Grasset, 1998), 99.

[3] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, The Comedy of Charleroi and Other Stories, trans. Douglas Gallagher (Cambridge: Rivers Press, 1973)—Ed.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Le combat comme expérience intérieure, trans. François Poncet (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1997), 244.

[5] Le combat comme experience intérieure, 243.

[6] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Socialisme fasciste (Paris: Gallimard, 1934)—Ed.

[7] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Interrogation (Paris: Gallimard, 1917)—Ed.

[8] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Le Feu Follet (Paris: Gallimard, 1931)—Ed.

[9] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’homme couvert de femmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1935)—Ed.

[10] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Journal (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 512.

[11] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Notes pour comprendre le siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1941)—Ed.

[12] Nicolas Sombart, “Le dandy dans sa maison forestière: remarques sur le cas Ernst Jünger” [“The dandy in his Forest House: Remarks on the Case of Ernst Jünger”], in Ernst Jünger, ed. Philippe Barthelet (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 2000), 396.

[13] Julien Hervier, Deux individus contre l’histoire : Drieu La Rochelle, Ernst Jünger [Two Individuals against History: Drieu La Rochelle, Ernst Jünger] (Paris: Klincksieck, 1978), 86.

[14] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Gilles (Paris: Gallimard, 1939)—Ed.

[15] Journal, 437 and 309.

[16] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’Europe contre les patries (Paris: Gallimard, 1931)—Ed.

[17] Journal, 379.

[18] Die Standarte, November 23, 1925.

[19] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Genève ou Moscou (Paris: Gallimard, 1928)—Ed.

[20] Genève ou Moscou, 131.

[21] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’homme à cheval (Paris: Gallimard, 1943).

[22] Les prochains Titans, 102.

[23] Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, The Will o’ the Wisp, trans. Robinson Martin (London: Calder and Boyars, 1966)—Ed.

[24] Journal, 304.

[25] Julien Hervier, Entretiens avec Ernst Jünger (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), 127. In English: Julien Hervier, The Details of Time: Conversations with Ernst Jünger, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Marsilio, 1995), 106.

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