The Americanist Problem
Braquemart and the Prince von Sunmyra are certainly not household names for Traditionalist Catholics, especially in conjunction with the subject of Americanism. Nevertheless, the lesson to be learned from the men who bear these appellations in Ernst Jünger’s novel, On the Marble Cliffs (1939), seemed useful to me with respect to Americanism from the moment I first read this powerful work—so much so that I ended my chief study of Church History by calling attention to it. That lesson has been on my mind still more this year as the global socio-political situation has worsened, and concerned and frustrated American Catholics have pondered what they should do properly to respond to it.
The protagonists of On the Marble Cliffs are two siblings—the unnamed Narrator and Brother Otho. Living lives of study on the edge of a city called the Marina, both of them are horrified by the growing threat presented to the civilized order of their environment by the barbaric will of a tyrant identified as the Oberförster and his brutal, primitive, slavish minions.
Part of the reason why the brothers understand the mounting danger is because they realize that they themselves were once “part of the problem” that gave rise to the malevolent forces now nearing the Marina. They—like Jünger in his real life involvement with what he later came to believe to be all too parochial-minded nationalist organizations—had once “ridden with the Mauretanians”: one of the unruly bands of warriors fighting in the confused wake of the disastrous “war of the Alta Plana” that seem to have aided the Oberförster’s cause. But they had decided that it was necessary for them to change their ways in order to prevent falling into the abyss.
Change, in their case, meant making a clear break with the mindless, militant activism that at first had captivated them—though without succumbing either to the rapidly degenerating ethos of the once fully cultivated Marina or even mere pursuit of decent but ultimately directionless personal goals. This break, at least to begin with, involved the inner man. On the one hand, it required courageous resistance to the charge of “defeatism” that the militant would inevitably level against them for “retiring from the fight.” On the other, it demanded rigid commitment to the painstaking, systematic, intellectual and spiritual labor of deepening their understanding of the basic pillars of civilization and the central problems bringing about its current collapse.
Return to the Sources
It was this return ad fontes, to the sources—which, in the brothers’ case, signified a literal reexamination of natural plant life from a cloister-like setting near the Marina by the marble cliffs giving the novel its name. Still, living an atomistic existence in pure tranquility was not the ultimate goal of their project. It was this “quiet time” that would prepare them to reconnect with reality so as to reenter the fight against the Oberförster more effectively.
Moreover, there was no question in their mind of neglecting their former militant friends during their temporary “leave.” For confused though these former comrades-in-arms still might seriously be, all of them nevertheless had an instinctive sense of the evil brewing in their troubled environment and its dire consequences. The ultimate duty of the Narrator and Brother Otho was to renew a stronger and more solid alliance with their militant friends through their personal study and spiritual reinvigoration. This and this alone would guarantee that the coming battle with the tyrant would lead to a better world, and not simply the replacement of one present monster with a different but similar beast. Describing the entire internal and external character of the struggle at hand, the Narrator tells us:
Now battle had to be joined, and therefore men were needed to restore a new order, and new theologians as well, to whom the evil was manifest from its outward phenomena down to its most subtle roots; then the time would come for the first stroke of the consecrated sword, piercing the darkness like a lightning flash. For this reason individuals had the duty of living in alliance with others, gathering the treasure of a new rule of law. But the alliance had to be stronger than before, and they more conscious of it. (Chapter XX)
Just as the threat to the Marina from the Oberförster is about to burst into the open, the brothers receive a visit to the marble cliffs from two representatives of the world they once frequented; men of the sort they expected would come to the fore once the situation worsened: Braquemart and the Prince von Sunmyra, both of them from the high nobility of a land called New Burgundy.
Braquemart has an open contempt for the tyrant and the primitive forest rabble that the evil one has gathered up to do his bidding. That contempt probably extended to the decadent Marina rabble that the Narrator tells us had begun to serve as a fifth column for the Oberförster in the city itself. Braquemart is courageous to the point of foolhardiness, but his greater problem is that he possesses a badly flawed understanding of the nature of things and a disdain for correction. Due to his arrogant refusal to look deeper questions in the eye, he will not listen to the brothers’ deeper knowledge of the basic difficulties facing all of them. What this does, ironically, is to render the supposed “man of action” incapable of judging things properly on the pragmatic and prudential level as well as on the theoretical plane. Hence, his refusal to take seriously their “hands on” experience of the reality of the brutal new order of things, which the brothers’ recent visit to a human slaughterhouse at a clearing in the woods called Köppelsbeck has shockingly revealed to them.
The Prince von Sunymara has other ultimately rather pathetic troubles. Weak and sickly, he seems barely able to lift himself up, much less deal a deadly blow to a vicious enemy. And yet, while saying almost absolutely nothing himself, and leaving discussion of strategy to Braquemart, the Prince’s whole demeanor nevertheless demonstrates that he is clearly aware of the deep spiritual and intellectual dimension of the threat posed by the Oberförster. The humble aristocrat is all powerless and ineffective brain and spirit; his arrogant though ignorant colleague is all mindless brawn.
After a deeply frustrating conversation, Braquemart and the Prince leave to fight the evil in the heart of the darkness over which the tyrant already rules. The “cloistered” siblings have a final glimpse of the two nobles on the marble cliffs, seeing them in a Tabor-like “transformed” state: in their best light, with the good that is in each of them shining through. They wish that Braquemart, the arrogant “technician of power,” and the childish Prince, wandering both enlightened as well as impotent “into the woods where the wolves howl,” could unite their obvious specific merits. This they are incapable of doing. And that means that under their present conditions they are nothing but helpless lambs offering themselves up voluntarily for inevitable slaughter.
Who and what Ernst Jünger exactly had in mind when writing On the Marble Cliffs has been a subject of literary debate from the date of its publication. There is no wonder that it has often been seen as an anti-Hitler novel, and the author—a Catholic convert at the end of his life—unquestionably had his quarrel with National Socialism. Still, Jünger had many other modern socio-political enemies on his plate, with Americanism and all that this signified among them. And both Braquemart and the Prince seem to me to provide an apt guide to two of the many ills our national heresy inflicts upon men whose potential good the Narrator and Brother Otho saw clearly in their “transfiguration” on the marble cliffs: 1) its arrogant closing of the mind to the spiritual and intellectual problems that are crucial to the life of individuals and the societies in which they are taught and formed; and, 2) its emasculation of the action of an otherwise awakened intelligence and its reduction to the character of a pathetic “head-banging” of no danger to the existing anti-Catholic regime.
Americanism, along with that “Pluralism” under whose name it has extended its influence throughout the globe, claims that it is mankind’s “last and best hope” for defending “freedom” against tyrants such as the Oberförster. It insists that it needs no further instruction due to its already exceptional command of all of the knowledge required for giving men life, liberty, and happiness. It has nothing but a mixture of contempt and pity for those insisting upon the importance of examining first principles, whether these be Catholic religious doctrines or those philosophical concerns troubling Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their progeny. It “gets things done,” while others simply engage in a divisive and “fruitless” speculation; a quibbling displeasing to the sternly anti-dogmatic Deist God of both the bulk of the Founding Fathers as well as the mindless contemporary American politician still icing his speeches with reference to an utterly vapid divinity.
But this closure of mind and spirit in the name of unexamined pragmatic action makes every Americanist a mere “technician of power,” incapable of defining what “life,” “liberty,” happiness,” and “tyranny” really are, and what the “practical” itself actually means and entails. Like Braquemart, it leaves the Americanist with a hollow definition of these words only with reference to what “works best for him.” And this, as the Narrator tells us, reduces to an arrogant willfulness distinguishable from that of the Oberförster simply in that the unredeemed Brauqemart ultimately wants to thwart the tyrant’s nihilist destruction for destruction’s sake so as to continue to manipulate the weak to slave productively on the strong man’s behalf. Americanism, in short, gives free rein to the willful to maintain a world of productive soullessness under the guise of fighting for a good that it refuses to define, and any Catholic looking to defend the reign of Christ the King with the weapons that it provides is shooting himself in the foot.
Alas, many Catholics still do believe that they can—indeed that they are morally bound to— fight “the Oberförster” precisely with the arguments and weapons provided by the Americanist and Pluralist armory. Awakened in their Faith, they are aware of its demands and eager to do battle for the Lord. But insofar as they march “into the woods where the wolves howl”, not merely together with but under the very banners of the “technicians of power,” they are lambs headed for the slaughter. For Americanism turns every noble soul who takes it seriously into replicas of Prince von Sunmyra, incapable, as the Narrator laments, of even standing up straight, much less aiming a shot at anything else than his own heart.
Yes, Americanism allows its victims to mumble their doctrines to themselves and dream that they are fighting for the victory of a good cause as much as they want—at least for now. But it can never permit the triumph of a cause like that of Christ as King, whose goal has more substance to it than simply praising “what works,” lest the “divisiveness” that emerges from questioning the morality of such “pragmatism” block “the last and best hope for mankind” from defending a “freedom for all” that amounts to nothing other than carte blanche for willfulness.
A Prince von Sunmyra who wishes to stand up straight under the banner of Americanism can only do so if he becomes a Braquemart who refuses to think straight, or even think at all. A Braquemart who wishes to think straight under the banner of Americanism can only do so if he becomes a Prince von Sunmyra who wanders foolishly “into the woods where the wolves howl,” straight to his own destruction. Only that “transformation in Christ” suggested by the Narrator can obtain a different result. And that happy result, in 2017, still, first and foremost, requires our inner and much more total break with each and every aspect of the national heresy, whose character I have only briefly touched upon here. I fear that we are not yet sufficiently weaned of the influence of the threat represented by the evil of Americanism to do effective battle for Christ the King. We need more Truth and nothing but the Truth to fight that glorious combat, and the way to assure access to it is to kill Americanism stone dead in our own souls now.
John Rao, Ph.D., is a professor of history at St. John’s University in New York, New York. He is the author of Removing the Blindfold, in addition to articles written for The Angelus, The Remnant, and other periodicals.