Ernst Junger's Thematic Use of the Orient and Asia

By Pekar, Thomas | Journal of European Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Ernst Junger's Thematic Use of the Orient and Asia


Pekar, Thomas, Journal of European Studies


Even a cursory historical examination reveals the overwhelming extent and intensity of the relations between the Orient, including Asia,(1) and German literature.(2) Since the Middle Ages, occidental literature has been absorbing subject matter and styles from the Orient. For example, traces of Oriental influence can be detected in the lyrics of the minnesingers, in legends and in Grimm's fairy tales.

The period from the twelth to the sixteenth centuries was characterized primarily by armed conflicts between the West and the East, such as the Crusades and the Ottoman siege of Vienna.(3) However, in the seventeenth century, encouraged by the Age of Enlightenment, a favourable reception of Eastern thought began,(4) which led to a marked appreciation of the Orient in the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. In this period, the German-speaking world saw the development of an extensive body of literature in an 'Oriental' style, which drew on Oriental subject matter, themes and styles. Herder's Nachdichtungen aus der morgenlandischen Literatur (from 1787 on), in which he utilized, among other things, Indian Brahmanistic thought,(5) Friedrich Schlegel's text Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808)(6) and of course, Goethe's poetry collection West-ostlicher Divan (1819)(7) are only a few outstanding examples of this literary interest in the East.

The beginning of the twentieth century was another intensive phase in the use of Eastern themes by German writers. In novels, essays or travel literature, authors such as Max Dauthendey, Hermann Hesse, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Holitscher, Graf Hermann Keyserling and Bernhard Kellermann attribute to the East, as compared to Europe, a happier and more eventful world.(8)

Ernst Junger's interest in the East, which began in his childhood, a few years into the twentieth century, must initially be seen in this historical and literary context. Later it extended well beyond these origins to lead into current questions. The thematic use of the Orient is an integral part of his works, a fact which so far has mostly been overlooked. The formation, continuity and variation of his ideas about the Orient and Asia will be briefly presented in this paper. Junger's special significance in the discussion of the Orient in twentieth-century German literature is surely the fact that his work, which spans nearly an entire century, stands in a relationship to the East which was and is also characteristic of the general and literary consciousness typical of the times.

One of the first books Junger read was also the most important to his understanding of the East: the Oriental tales collected as the Arabian Nights:

I began to read Arabian Nights - this immortal gift of the magical world to the West - in June of 1904, when I was nine years old. That was the month I found the book among my mother's birthday presents. It was the translation in four volumes by Gustav Weil in which I took refuge as to an oasis in the desert, until I proceeded to Littmann's twelve-volume edition. The tales engraved themselves deeply in my memory, as did the pictures in the richly-illustrated edition ... Arabian Nights: the model of an authorship at once collective and anonymous. The work could have been invented by a demon, built overnight like one of the phantom castles. One could also think of the mother-of-pearl in a sea shell - a cerebral trace that hardens into iridescence.

(Tausend trod eine Nacht - dieses unvergangliche Geschenk der magischen Welt an den Westen - begann ich als Neunjahriger zu lesen, im Juni des Jahres 1904; das war der Monat, in dem ich das Buch auf dem Geburtstagstisch der Mutter fand. Es war die vierbandige Ubersetzung von Gustav Weil, zu der ich immer wieder wie zu einer Oase in der Wuste Zuflucht nahm, bis ich zu der zwolfbandigen von Littmann uberging. Die Marchen gruben sich tier ins Gedachtnis ein und ebenso die Bilder der reich illustrierten Ausgabe. …

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