Written in the shadow of the Second World War, Ernst Jünger’s “The Forest Passage” reimagines the forest as a symbol of freedom in an age where the “Leviathan,” or all-encompassing totalitarian state, threatens to encroach on liberty and free space. Yet as long as the “forest rebel” has access to the domains of art, philosophy, and theology, the Leviathan can never permanently triumph.
A recurring symbol in Western literature is the realm of the forest. Home to ensorcelling witches and monstrous trolls, penitent knights and roving hermits clothed in hide, the forest is a dangerous, yet enchanting, repository of secrets and hidden powers that have the capacity to restore and regenerate.
In the ancient imagination, the forest and wild places were the abode of all manner of lesser gods and spirits: Pan, the nymphs, centaurs, satyrs and the like. Encountering these denizens of the sylvan realms was always a risky venture, for the mortal traveler could rarely glimpse that beguiling world of supernatural beings without undergoing a transformation of some form or other.
Combining this transformative power with the imagery of Christ in the wilderness, the medieval imagination conceived of the forest as a place of penance wherein one might find solace, rebirth, or spiritual rejuvenation. Yvain, the Arthurian “Knight of the Lion,” comes to mind, or Dante—lost in the labyrinthine “dark forest” that must be traversed before his journey through the infernal and heavenly realms can be embarked on.
By the time of the Renaissance and early modern period, the forest has become the antithesis of civilization, in both positive and negative iterations. Here we recall Shakespeare’s edenic Forest of Arden, which in the play As You Like It functions as a foil to the perilous and corrupt court of the usurping Duke Ferdinand. Here too, the forest is the setting wherein the principal characters are destined to undergo their respective transformations.
In the political philosophy of this period, Shakespeare’s conception of Arden finds a parallel in the thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who advanced an idealistic picture of the individual in the so-called state of nature. Opposite this is of course Thomas Hobbes, for whom the state, with its laws and sovereigns, was the one thing that stood between man and a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
This long history of interpretation and reinterpretation raises the question: what is the continuing relevance of the forest for the Western imagination today? The extent to which the Western mind has demythologized itself since the enlightenment has long been a point of consternation in conservative thought—can it come as any great surprise if we find that the disenchantment that pervades our communities and institutions has coincided with the loss of reciprocity between man and nature? Is the meaning of the forest still accessible to us?
In his 1951 work The Forest Passage (der Waldgang, in the original German), the celebrated German writer Ernst Jünger takes on this theme. Written in the shadow of the Second World War in a Germany marred by the wreckage of the Nazi era and torn between a democratic west and a communist east, The Forest Passage reimagines the forest as a symbol of freedom in an age where the “Leviathan,” or all-encompassing totalitarian state, looms large and threatens to encroach on what remains of liberty and free space.
Read straightforwardly, Jünger’s tract is a practical guide that can be put to use by the so-called “forest rebel”—a kind of partisan who rejects the unrestrained deployment of raw power against the individual, and who seeks to strike back against tyranny. In a metaphorical sense, The Forest Passage is an interpretive meditation on the need to maintain the integrity of one’s inner condition in a world hell-bent on compromising it. Inviting the reader to go beyond the “blazed trails” and the “limits of his considerations,” Jünger lays bare his thesis:
In the forest passage we consider the freedom of the individual in the world. An account must… be given of the difficulty—indeed of the merit—of managing to be an individual in this world.
Yet to be an individual in the shadow of the Leviathan is no easy task. “Admittedly,” Jünger writes, “asserting one’s freedom today has become especially difficult. Resistance demands great sacrifices, which explains why the majority prefer to accept the coercion.”
As Jünger realizes, to raise a distinctive voice in the face of the “mass plebiscite” may well lead to the destruction of its owner, for ours is a world where no trifle goes unpunished or unscrutinized. Remaining silent is similarly dangerous, for silence too is a kind of answer:
They ask us why we kept quiet at just that place and time, and present us the bill for our response. These are the quandaries of our times, which none can escape.
Jünger’s musings on this point recall the contemporary experience of social media and “cancel culture,” where any who dares question whatever the current consensus happens to be runs the risk of being “cancelled,” or subjected to torrents of abuse and baseless accusation worthy of little beyond a lawsuit for libel. So too the refusal to join in the cacophony of outrage and popular demonstrations of “solidarity” that dominate our civil space. Non-participation quickly renders one ideologically suspect, for “Non-participation is one of the attitudes that unsettles the Leviathan.” Indeed, in such a world of enforced consensus and Orwellian distortions of truth, Jünger asserts that “it is only through reflection that we gain new security.”
The journey through the forest passage is thus not only a physical act of resistance that one might take part in, such as resolving to vote one’s conscience in a rigged election, but also the rediscovery of an internal state. Just as one might retreat to the forest in a literal sense when confronted with wide-scale oppressions (as did the Baltic Forest Brothers during the Second World War, for example), so too the individual can take refuge in the recesses of his innermost being, wherein it may be hoped that some semblance of sovereign thought and true personality has been nurtured. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who finds solace from tyranny in soliloquy, so too the forest rebel is one who understands that the struggle for outer freedom depends first on the struggle for the inner freedom of mind and spirit.
Although taking the forest passage is presented in terms of a retreat, we mustn’t mistake ourselves: Braving the forest passage is fundamentally heroic. It requires the training of a strong will in a time of great compromises, a commitment to one’s principles in a world obsessed with the eradication of all true difference—political, philosophical, or otherwise. While Jünger is candid in admitting that the one who opts to take the forest passage may fail to undo the Leviathan in the end (ultimately, the Forest Brothers did not topple the Soviet Union), this matters less than the fact that the act itself will “change the person who has decided to go through with it,” for the forest passage is a fully initiatory path. It calls to those who are ready to be made unfit for an inhuman world increasingly defined by fear and coercion; to those who can muster the strength of will required to be that one out of a hundred who says “no” and thereby follows his conscience—even if doing so seals his fate. Here is a space beyond what is conditioned by time; beyond the tired dichotomy of “left and right,” or “liberal and conservative,” the forest passage knows no all-encompassing ideology. It offers only the sublime purity of free thought and action:
There can be no disputing that the world has changed and continues to change, and that by necessity; yet freedom thereby also changes, not in its essence but in its form. The forest passage establishes the movement within this order that differentiates it from zoological formations.
“Here and now.” This is the motto of the forest rebel.
But how does one find his way through to the forest passage, obscured as it is by dense foliage, barbed brambles, and overgrown footpaths? Jünger suggests that the humanities—art, theology, and philosophy—remain the essential guides that can show us the way through to these depths.
A gamble of this kind can only hope to succeed if the three great powers of art, philosophy, and theology come to its aid and break fresh ground in the dead-end situation.
By engaging with the vast repositories of human thought, we cultivate an “evaluating consciousness” that hones our ability to judge and contemplate—an essential skill set in a time marked by pervasive propaganda and crisis where “neither law or custom will remain standing.” Indeed, it is with this gloss on the inherent power of creative works that we can make sense of the mania for iconoclasm that characterizes various ideological movements, both present and historic. Whether we speak of mass book-burnings or the compulsive need to “deconstruct” art and literature, the hatred of culture rears its head whenever the Leviathan draws near. Should man’s access to these higher modes of activity be severed, he can quickly be rendered docile and easy to manipulate.
Antithetical to the saving power of the humanities is the ensorcelling power of technology, which facilitates the titanic reach of the Leviathan by abrogating law and corrupting the idea of the state. Jünger’s writing resounds with references to the growing “automatism” of our time and to the expansive technological apparatus that “encircles” man and foments his destruction—both physically, on the modern battlefields where none are spared the designation of combatant, and spiritually, through the ossification of man’s internal powers by the myriad technical theories that “strive for logical and seamless explanation of the world.” So too man must contend with the modern technological metropolis, where invasive means of surveillance record his every move, and endless rows of metallic skyscrapers stretch ever upwards—dominating the heavens like mass-produced towers of Babel. In one particularly striking passage, Jünger evokes the famous sinking of the Titanic to illustrate the double-edged nature of technological progress:
Here light and shadow collide starkly: the hubris of progress with panic, the highest comfort with destruction, and automatism with a catastrophe manifested as a traffic accident.
Yet even aided by technology, the Leviathan can never permanently triumph in the tug-of-war for the soul of man, at least not so long as he has access to the currents that gave rise to the former domains of art, philosophy, and theology; for these are rooted in imagination, which carries within it the germ of the “new freedom” that our age requires:
Holding out against this force requires a new conception of freedom, one that can have nothing to do with the washed-out ideas associated with this world today.
No mere platitude or campaign slogan, the freedom of which Jünger conceives is one that the individual must gradually rediscover and reconstruct within himself through a re-kindling of his imaginative powers. This is a freedom borne of heart, marrow, and soul. No government or political party can ever truly quash it, try as it might. It is a force that arises from within, rather than a positive right bestowed from without. In this sense, the forest passage is open to all, and is thus even ‘democratic,’ though it remains a path tread by individuals. Here there are no abstract or formulaic conceptions of an anonymous, sentimental ‘humanity’:
In speaking of the individual here, we mean the human being, but without the overtones that have accrued to the word over the past two centuries. We mean the free human being, as God created him. This person is not an exception, he represents no elite. Far more, he is concealed in each of us, and differences only arise from the varying degrees that individuals are able to effectuate the freedom that has been bestowed on them. In this he needs help—the help of thinkers, knowers, friends, lovers.
It is in these frequent homages to what remains organic in us—to the need for “thinkers, knowers, friends, and lovers,”—that Jünger continually strikes a chord. For history suggests that in those times and places where the Leviathan looms large, it is invariably our shared humanity and mutual recognition of the essential in one another that goes some way in keeping an escape-route open.
In such conditions it should be considered a great merit if knowledge of the virtuous way is not entirely lost. Anyone who has escaped the clutches of catastrophe knows that he basically had the help of simple people to thank, people who were not overcome by the hate, the terror, the mechanizations of platitudes. These people withstood the propaganda and its plainly demonic insinuations.
In this sense, we might simply add that Theseus would never have found his way through to the heart of the Labyrinth without Ariadne’s golden thread.
Closely related to the imaginative capacity is the enduring power of myth, which I alluded to at the beginning of this essay and which for Jünger lies close to the “origins.” Rather than a dead theme relegated to the fog of prehistory, Jünger speaks of myth in terms of a “timeless reality,” ever present in the fluctuations of history and the contours of human consciousness. Could the individual only “wake up” to the power of myth in his own experience, he would tap into the inherent potentiality that flows through him like untapped veins of gold.
We might also say that man sleeps in the forest—and the moment he awakens to recognize his own power, order is restored. The higher rhythm present in history as a whole may even be reinterpreted as man’s rediscovery of himself. In all epochs there will be powers that seek to force a mask on him, at times totemic powers, at times magical or technical ones. Rigidity then increases, and with it fear. The arts petrify, dogma becomes absolute. Yet, since time immemorial, the spectacle also repeats of man removing the mask, and the happiness that follows is a reflection of the light of freedom.
As the lines above indicate, the Leviathan too is a recurring, mythic force in human history. In all times and places, it is the pervasive manifestation of fear that the individual must overcome. In doing so, immortal freedom is recreated anew. This is so regardless of whether we speak of Socrates or Christ, King David or Joan of Arc. All of these and more besides have blazed the trail for the forest rebel.
The arguments may change, but ignorance will eternally hold court. Man is charged for being contemptuous of the gods, then for not bending to a dogma, and later again for having repudiated a theory. There exists no great word and no noble thought for which blood has not flowed.
This is the stuff of legend and fable; it imparts a poetic sense for life that no scientific study can verify in terms of raw data. Here are the speculative, daresay even ‘irrational,’ elements from which all healthy imagination draws its succour. The forest passage contains within it the primordial source of inspiration—the mystical fountain of fairy-tale wherein we find the measure of our depth. This wellspring runs deep; it evokes the power of memory, of tradition, and all that is supratemporal. Should one succeed in gaining access to these “treasure chests of being,” even for a fleeting moment, “he will gain new security—the things of time will not only lose their threatening aspect but appear newly meaningful.”
As important as the interior layer is, Jünger maintains that one cannot simply stay there. It does not behoove the forest rebel to become hermit-like. Thus, we find the question of external experience—how one behaves “in the face of and within the catastrophe.” Concerning this point, Jünger is frustratingly evasive. Though he alludes to acts that a prospective forest rebel might take, such as adopting an ascetic detachment to material possessions, maintaining a vigorous bodily constitution, and cementing bonds with like-minded persons, he offers little in the way of a concrete, outwardly-directed schema of activity. In the end, one gets the impression that this is by design. After all, the mentor can only ever accompany the protagonist so far. We cannot be escorted through the forest passage. Rather, each must find his own creative ways of re-aligning his internal being with his external existence in the world. For many of a conservative disposition, this may take the form of rediscovering authentic traditions and consecrating one’s life to them. Others may find a different way. Although Jünger does not illustrate precisely how one ought to do this, we can certainly deduce how not to go about it. The text is clear that the need for worldly action is anything but a call to nihilistic violence and destruction. Although we cannot deny that the forest rebel is a “rebellious” archetype, the forest passage is not for those who merely seek an excuse to tear down and dismantle. However much one may be tempted to equate the contemporary rioter or looter with Jünger’s anti-totalitarian message, they would be mistaken.
In this regard a special danger lies in the infiltration of criminal elements. The forest rebel may not fight according to martial law, but neither does he fight like a bandit.
It is telling that Jünger distinguishes the forest rebel from the infamous Parisian mob here, as that body was often riled up and manipulated by pernicious, radical elements, and in the final estimation it served only to pave the way for a totalitarianism deeper and more extensive than any monarchy that had preceded it. Indeed, it is no stretch to assert that the criminal mob may in fact serve the interests of the Leviathan, for it breeds the kind of alarmism and fear that encourages sovereign persons to exchange their freedom for a false sense of security.
In the final estimation, a good conservative may well raise an eyebrow at the attempt to reconcile notions of rebellion and “forest flight” with conservative principle, but Jünger’s emphasis on what is essential in us, his elevation of practical reason over theoretical ideology, and his belief in a natural, self-evident morality that is woven into the fabric of human experience, all reflect a clear conservative affinity. Although Jünger himself has long since passed on, his life, as well as his substantial body of work, remains as a testament to the power of imaginative conservatism. Indeed, as individuals involved in the ongoing project of reimagining what conservatism is and what it can be in an age grown hostile to it, that “unexplored and yet inhabited land,”—the forest passage—remains open to us. We too are forest rebels.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.