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. (...) Tausend und eine Nacht: das Muster einer zugleich kollektiven und anonymen Autorschaft. Das Werk konnte von einem Damon erfunden sein - uber Nacht wie eines der Geisterschlosser erbaut. Man konnte auch an das Perlmutt einer Muschelschale denken - an eine Zerebralspur, die sich irisierend verhartet.) (11/439)(9)
We can find traces of an 'incessant reading' ('ununterbrochene Lekture') (5/227) of these tales again and again in Junger's texts, which is the reason why a closer look at this collection, especially its history, appears to be necessary, a look that raises significant questions regarding the ambiguity of the West's concept of the East in general.
When one examines the history of the West's adoption of Arabian Nights, then it is striking that it was actually the European fascination for this book that made it world-famous and the representative work of Arabian literature in general.(10) Indeed, one must say that this Western fascination was responsible for making of this collection of tales a work of literature, for until then it had never existed as a book, but only as various Arabian-Indian manuscripts which appeared over a period of a thousand years,(11) some of which found their way into the various editions of Arabian Nights in a very different way. As is the case with European myths and fairy tales, the establishment of a written version can only always be incomplete and inappropriate, since they stem from oral tradition and are created anew in the telling by the storyteller. In 1701, the French Orientalist and traveller Antoine Galland came across a manuscript of 'The story of Sinbad the Sailor', which he translated along with other tales and published in seven volumes between 1704 and 1706 as Les milles et une nuit. On the strength of the extraordinary success of this book in Europe, Galland translated further Arabian tales, some of which stemmed from entirely different sources. Later European translators even tended to ascribe and add virtually every Arabian tale they discovered to the famous collection.(12)
Without being able here to go into the complicated problems concerning the origin and translation of Arabian Nights, it must be noted that a significant reason for these stories becoming the representative work of the Arabian-Islamic world was the European intention to create an Orient as mysterious and fairy tale-like as possible. Arabian Nights was not regarded highly by Arabian scholars, for the Arabian manuscripts were not written in the correct, 'high' Arabic indispensable to Arabic literature. Furthermore, the very different translations, which conformed to the respective Zeitgeist, also contributed to a 'Europeanized' view of the Orient.
These distortions and certainly also projections which have led to the fairy tale-like Orient of Arabian Nights may, especially in view of the translations, have been unavoidable. However, difficulties arise when this fairy tale image is all too often considered authentic.
The first complete German translation appeared anonymously in Leipzig in 1711. In 1781-5, the edition translated by Johann Heinrich Voss was published in Bremen, and in 1838-41 the frequently reprinted translation of Gustav Weil appeared on the market. It is this edition to which Ernst Junger alludes. However, Weil's literal translation from the Arabic was so heavily revised by the then-fashionable author August Lewald, that Weil at first rejected it and only later agreed to the text.(13) The Weil edition still reposes in Junger's library.(14) A further translation, also mentioned by Junger, is that of Enno Littmann, who translated an edition published in Calcutta into German.
Further childhood reading which made an impression on Junger were adventure books, for example Stanley's Through the Dark …
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Publication information: Article title: Ernst Junger's Thematic Use of the Orient and Asia. Contributors: Pekar, Thomas - Author. Journal title: Journal of European Studies. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 1999. Page number: 27. © 1999 Alpha Academic. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.