Heracles, Theseus and Moses founded new laws and new orders; Heracles cleaned the Augean Stables with the current from two rivers, Theseus defeated the Minotaur, and Moses punished the worship of the Golden Calf as sacrilege. The Argonauts, who had taken the Golden Fleece as booty and yoked the bull to the plow, are primordial Aries—Alexander was the last, and with his death the mythical world disappears.
Swamps still exist, but even in the Amazon basin highways have been built. Malaria still claims its victims, and its somber toll cannot even be calculated. However, it is possible to halt its spread, as is also the case with the other great epidemics. The microscope, and also advances in the fields of chemistry, pharmacology and zoology, as well as in trade and administration, offer their help to medicine. The doubling of the European population in the 19th century is explained above all by the decrease in the infant mortality rate, to which the anti-malarial fight also made its contribution.
Disease not only generates symptoms, but it also adopts a figure. It not only has causes and occasions, but also a domain and a system. It can remain totally or temporarily latent, without manifesting any symptoms. It only merits the name of disease when the sick person responds. There is an infinite number of protozoa; many are harmless, others are dangerous or very dangerous, while others are indispensable and beneficial. But even the very dangerous ones only become active when the physis accepts them and responds to them. It is on the basis of this observation that some methods and prescriptions are based, above all on the margins of mainstream medicine. But regardless of the remedies that might be adopted, whether tactical or strategic, against the disease—it is the sick person who is still its servant or its master. Success, that is, a cure, is the authentic fruit of sovereign activity, which the sick person is capable of opposing to his suffering.
The great epidemics of the past were viewed as personifications; they threatened like clouds of locusts, old crones, pale horsemen; earthquakes and comets announced their arrival. The little man of the plague brought the Black Death from the forest in his hat.
Not only do diseases, as such, constitute a whole, but so does illness as an evil that spans the ages. Only the type and arena of the attacks vary. In the world of labor they are strictly associated with the tempo that exhausts the heart and the nerves and increases the number of heart attacks. And poisoning must also be taken into account. Now that the plague has been vanquished, infestation is on the rise. It is impossible to completely safeguard oneself from it—the poison is concealed in the air and in the water, it rises from the earth and gets into our food. It comes in the form of radiation, drugs and medicine, and is not restricted to material things.
Armin Müller, himself one of those doctors who, like Goethe, observed diseases in the sense of the intuitive contemplation of nature, speaks of the “demonic character” of syphilis. This affects the person who has had bad luck in the lottery we all play.
Demonic power is concealed in every illness; in this sense, one cannot but agree that the primitive peoples were right. This trait is particularly evident in afflictions like rabies, to which Armin Müller also devoted an enlightening study. What is peculiar in syphilis is the moral effect, from which not even educated doctors have been immune; the treatment began with a sermon. The causal nexus between blame and pain, divine punishment “even to the third and fourth generation”, is in this case an example of methods of pedagogical intimidation.
This was the center of gravity of Walter’s anxiety. Back then, I told him: “Desert to the front, go to the first line trenches, do not have the least doubt that Oppen—who was the colonel—will not make you go home.”
To which he responded: “I thought about it. But to fall in combat, it is necessary to have been purified.”
Every illness can be viewed in the light of morality, and therefore it can be related to a sin or, at least, to a fault—this is something that was accepted as true in the times of our first fathers. “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” Thus, in Job 4, and then in Chapter 24: “Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth the grave those which have sinned. The womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.”
Disease is an evil and is also contagious. The more serious it is, the more the sick person is viewed with mistrust. In his account of the plague in London, Defoe provides examples of such attitudes. The horror, and even the repugnance, have been preserved in tasteless expressions: “That kind of person has the plague in his body.”
The sick person is bothersome, and often dangerous; he has to be isolated. However, the triumphant entry of the disease cannot be prevented—King Pest, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, describes this triumph that ridicules all preparations.
The “sandalwood captains”, adventurers who in the last century sailed the southern seas in search of that valuable wood, often rid themselves of their sick crewmen in a particularly brutal way. Usually, the natives, when they found them on the beach, were more humane and tried to help them. The natives were themselves, however, decimated by the contagion; sometimes, even the most resistant elements were exterminated.
Elsewhere, I have already mentioned an experience that my father had when he was a young man, in 1892. I am referring to it again here because it is a useful illustration. One morning he was walking past the central train station in Hannover when a traveler left the station and walked across the Ernst-August Square. He had only just noticed this stranger when he heard an apprentice shout, “He is from Hamburg!”. I must also point out that, at the time, in 1892, Germany underwent its last wave of cholera in the city of Hamburg.
It was obvious to him that he had discovered a new insult. The shouted warning made my father think. It was a milestone in his development, which despite his benevolence towards the individual, was distinguished by a scepticism towards the species. Observations, experiences and disappointments had condensed in his person until they formed an anti-Rousseauian system; to him the human being was suspect right from the start. He was therefore only doing what many other people commonly did; what was peculiar about him was only the fact that he did not try to hide it. In the stranger whom we meet on an island, in a desert or even in the forest, on the outskirts of a big city, what is manifested to us, in the first place, is the species—we feel mistrust. Even as children we were warned not to trust strangers.
I would like to explain the word, Aussatz (“leprosy”), as a term that causes an Ausschlag (“rash”) to be pendant—something that precipitates (sich niederschlagen) or crystallizes (sich ansetzen). First of all, strange spots or discolorations are found on the skin. Etymologists trace the word back to aussetzen (“to expose [oneself] to a danger, to stick one’s neck out, to give up”). This is illuminating, but language does not generally work in such a roundabout way. Lepis is the scale, lepra the disease that makes the skin squamous.
Lepers were effectively abandoned to the elements. They lived in special leper colonies to keep them away from the populated areas, and in these colonies they had their own chapels and cemeteries. Before they passed on to a better life, they were thrown out by the community as if they were already dead. It was thought that the very blood of lepers poisoned wells; in their travels they had to announce their presence with a bell or a rattle. When they bought something at the market, they had to put their coins in a bowl full of vinegar, as was customary during plagues.
The unnerving sound of the rattles of the lepers was familiar, and almost proverbial, in medieval cities. “There is a grating sound, as if the lepers were shaking their rattles all at once” (Ulrich Kraft in one of his sermons, Ulm, 1503). Even in Wilde we hear him speak of the “lepers who lived in the marshes”.
Leprosy, one of the horrors of the Middle Ages, only survives today in the peripheries, and will soon only exist in the history of medicine. The great diseases follow their courses, like cultures; they are born, they flourish, they reign for a long time and finally they are extinguished. Their disappearance is almost as strange as their first appearance—a gigantic fish that submerges again after having brought misfortune.
Fear does not go under along with the disease, however. It spreads to other fields, it changes its object. It is not very highly developed in cases of paralysis, it is somewhat developed with tuberculosis, and it is very highly developed with cancer and heart disease. Heart disease is accompanied by intense stress. They are variations on the true melody, of “The Winds of Death Are Blowing”, as it says in the song.
The terrors of the “Neapolitan Evil” have also passed into history; it was a long road from the malady of Ulrich von Hutten, who succumbed to the disease after eleven mercury treatments, to Maupassant, in whose Horla the oncoming footsteps of madness and the horror it evokes resound.
This is very remote from the solid beginnings of a Rabelais and his “Venereal Venus”. In general, when we read Goncourt’s diaries, we get the impression that the literary coterie that was then making its debut had been transformed precisely into a sumptuous dessert for this evil, whose voracity has since declined. It then moves to the nerves, and emits will-o’-the-wisps throughout the fin de siècle, whose consciousness and artistic delicacy confer a sinister phosphorescence on the disease. The horror is encountered in Verlaine and his followers, in Rops and Murger, and also in Dehmel: “We are the plague of lust and death.” The horrors of leprosy have been lost, in their place we have this anxiety with its nervous complications. In a restaurant, Edmond de Goncourt saw how the gastronomical habits of his brother had become vulgar; he pointed it out. Jules broke into tears. Then Edmond could not contain his tears, either.
Research is not unanimous with respect to the case of Nietzsche; the only thing that is certain is that Overbeck, after the attack, found certain medicines in the apartment of his friend in Turin.
If we fail to contemplate illness as a power, and, certainly, as an autonomous magnitude with its own course and, perhaps, also with its own purposes in the overall framework, then we will never understand it in its totality, but only in its details, from the perspective of our time. Not only does it show itself in diverse forms depending on the legion of illnesses and the populations it afflicts, but it is also revealed in the era itself. This is just as applicable to illness as it is to the response of the sick person. It is not by chance that we use the word “afflict(ion)” to mean either a state of affairs, or an activity.
Thus, for example, Walter’s states of anxiety were typical of the epoch. A few years before, they could not possibly have taken that form, for anxieties of that kind had to be preceded by the application of light into a dark domain in microscopic technique. We get an incomplete view of it, if we interpret it only as a relation of cause and effect. The entry into a new state of consciousness not only modifies optics—it would then be necessary to understand the concept in a more comprehensive way.
Undoubtedly, fear must grow as our optical instruments are perfected by way of selection. This involves correspondences; with such technical equipment we are capable of seeing at a greater distance, even what is hidden in a drop of water. Bloy attributes the invention of means of high speed transport to fear. Back then no one was talking about rockets. Human ingenuity must have a premonition of situations where life depends on the possibility of reaching a distant continent within a few hours.
The heart of time and of the times resists vision, but there are always surprises with respect to the simultaneity of phenomena separated by enormous distances. Shortly before the French Revolution, Herschel discovered Uranus. Without that planet, no horoscope is complete—just as no political prediction is fully meaningful without knowledge of the French Revolution. Even the name of this planet is food for thought. The same thing happened with the latest planet, Pluto, which in 1930 was more the object of calculations than observations. Are they nothing more than names, suggestions, random events?
It is worthwhile watching how a seed develops its particular image when it grows: a canker sore, a tumor of the pituitary gland, certain forms of megalomania. An infection that destroys one organism, can compensate for a defect in another. A bout of fever unveils worlds of unusual images. Then, an illness of the spirit produces never before suspected fluorescence, a brilliant eruption. But of what then happens we perceive only crude symptoms. Sight hardly goes beyond the cross-section cut of the microtome.
This is the way of plant colonies. A seed or a spore has approached and develops a flower or one of the colored images from the dermatology manual, a lupus in the form of a butterfly. A virus, in the form of a cold, goes almost unnoticed in one child, while in his brother it causes lifelong paralysis.
However much our knowledge of diseases grows, the sick person asks, correctly, what precisely does all of this have to do with him. That is a whole different matter. John F. Kennedy, who had suffered much, said: “Life is unfair. Some people are sick and others are well.” This is just as correct as the assertion that not everyone becomes the President of the United States. And once again, the question arises: how many chance, almost unbelievable, events had to converge for the bullet that was fired at him to hit the target with such fateful necessity? “No!”, his wife shouted when he fell on her—it is the first word that is imposed on us when we are faced with such misfortune.
Furthermore, a death of this kind shakes the foundation of consciousness, and not only in the field of political power. It also summons into the arena all those spirits who are interested in astrology and numerology or who know how to recognize patterns and strange coincidences in certain historical periods. They suspect hidden connections, but they do not penetrate into the authentic deep meaning of the magical conjurations. Spilled blood harbors a power that is not susceptible to representation. The fact that some murders, such as, for example, the one that took place at Sarajevo, entail unforeseeable consequences, is neither more nor less surprising than the fact that a child can set fire to a city with a match. But the ardent power of blood offered in sacrifice has always been known. Then it becomes beneficial to feed the fire.
One must add to illness something typical, something hidden in the heart of nature. Hence the interpretation of the signs poses questions that touch upon both fate and responsibility. In hygiene this is secularized. Krause went to Calcutta and brought smallpox with him. He had not been vaccinated. A criminal case.
1 Concerning the temptations of Saint Anthony and their relation to ecstatic intoxication, the visionary faculty, abstinence and the desert, see the interesting discussion in [Ernst Jünger’s] La Tijera [Die Schere: The Scissors], translated by Andrés Sánchez Pascual, Tusquets Editores (Ensayo 18), Barcelona, 1993, pp. 40-42. [This and all the following footnotes were added to the text by the Spanish translator, except text in brackets and where otherwise noted—American translator’s note.]
2 Antonio Peri, one of the protagonists of the utopian novel, Heliopolis (1948), the uncle of the heroine Budur Peri, who, in the chapter entitled, “The Night of the Laurel”, would initiate the commander Lucius de Geer into the secrets of a highly psychoactive substance. See the Spanish translation by Marciano Villanueva: Heliópolis, Seix Barral, Barcelona, 1981.
3Symbolschwund: “erosion of symbols”. The concepts of erosion (Schwund) or reduction (Reduktion) are fundamental for the understanding of the Jüngerian reflection on nihilism and technics. Reduktion designates the active side of the process of the extension of nihilism on a planetary scale, of the process of “bleaching” or “whitening”, while Schwund refers to the result, i.e.: personal states of existential vacuity, states of ontological extinction that affect the essential and symbolic reserves of tradition as well as the reserves of nature, which threaten to annihilate meaning (and) life [the “forest” and the “jungle”] under the power of nothingness [the “desert”]. This semantic constellation explicitly evokes Über die Linie [Over the Line]; but it is also present in Der Waldgang [The Forest Rebel] [in English: Ernst Jünger, The Forest Passage, tr. Thomas Friese, Telos Press, Candor, N.Y., 2013] and At the Wall of Time.
4An der Zeitmauer [At the Wall of Time] (1959) is one of the most relevant essays of the post-war era in which Jünger offers a diagnosis of the era from a metahistorical perspective. On the concept of “bleaching” or “whitening” (Weissung), see note 3 above.
5 An allusion to a famous verse from the second part of Faust. After waking up from a good night’s sleep in the fresh air of nature, Faust observes the iridescent reflections of a foaming waterfall and interprets it symbolically: “There the efforts of mankind they mirror. / Reflect on it, you’ll understand precisely: / We live our life amongst refracted colour.” [English translation from: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIIActIScenesItoVII.htm—American translator’s note].
6 “Einmal lebt ich wei Götter”: Hölderlin’s words, which Jünger repeatedly quotes in this and in other works, when he meditates on ecstasy and the limits of all approaches. See Ernst Jünger, Die Schere [The Scissors].
7 See Ernst Jünger, “Drugs and Ecstasy”, in Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1969 [American translator’s note].
8 “Whether it is gathered ‘for good’ or ‘for evil’, the mandrake is an object of fear and respect as a miraculous plant…. Extraordinary powers are concealed within it, which can intensify life or give death. Thus, the mandrake is in a way ‘the plant of life and death’.”
9 As on other occasions, Jünger is playing with the double meaning of zugrunde gehen, that is, “to perish” or “to go to the bottom”.
10 Jonathan Ott’s dictionary includes the entry, “odylic”, which he defines as follows: “Pertaining to what is known as ‘animal magnetism’ or the spirit. Derivations: Odyl, Odyle, Odylically, Odylism, Odylization, Odylize.” See Jonathan Ott, The Age of Entheogens & The Angel’s Dictionary, Natural Products Co., Kennewick, 1995, p. 117.
11 In English in the original [American translator’s note].
12 A term coined by the German pharmacologist Lewin to classify the visionary substances. Jünger also includes under this rubric the psychedelic vehicles synthesized by Albert Hofmann, especially LSD and psilocybin, which were unknown to Lewin. The classification proposed by Louis Lewin in his book, Phantastica (1924) includes five sub-categories: 1) Euphorica (means to pacify the soul) such as opium, its derivatives (morphine, codeine and heroin) and cocaine; 2) Phantastica (hallucinogens): peyote, cannabis, amanita muscaria, nightshades, ayahuasca and others; 3) Inebriantia (substances based on ethyl groups) such as alcohol, chloroform and ether; 4) Hypnotica (soporifics): especially chloral hydrate and the kava plant; 5) Excitantia (stimulants): especially caffeine, tea, betel, khat, tobacco, cacao, mate and camphor. See Louis Lewin, Phantastica. Die betäubenden und erregenden Genussmittel, Georg Stilke, Berlin, 1924.
13 This passage contains a persistent and repeated pattern of alliteration between
Rausch (inebriation or intoxication), berauschen (to become inebriated or ecstatic), rauschen (the babbling of a brook, rustling of papers, flapping of wings, murmuring of the wind or being in heat), Geräusch (noise or muttering), rauschig (rutting) and schwärmen (which also means to swarm, to fly while making a whirring noise, which is said not only of a flock of birds or a swarm of insects, but also of crowds, mobs and hordes).
14 See footnote 12 above.
15 The entire passage is as follows: “… Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death.” Jean Cocteau, Opium: The Diary of a Cure, translated by Margaret Crosland and Sinclair Road, Grove Press, New York, 1958.
16 An allusion to the Hymns to the Night, probably to the following verses: [“Precious balm drips from thy hand out of its bundle of poppies. Thou upliftest the heavy-laden wings of the soul. Darkly and inexpressibly are we moved—joy-startled, I see a grave face that, tender and worshipful, inclines toward me, and, amid manifold entangled locks, reveals the youthful loveliness of the Mother. How poor and childish a thing seems to me now the Light—how joyous and welcome the departure of the day—because the Night turns away from thee thy servants, you now strew in the gulfs of space those flashing globes, to proclaim thy omnipotence—thy return—in seasons of thy absence”—from the prose translation by George MacDonald (American translator’s supplementary note)]. “A precious balm / dripping from your hand, / from the bouquet of poppies. / With sweet intoxication you spread/the tired wings of the spirit / and you give us happiness / dark and unspeakable / secrets, like you / happinesses that allow one to/dare to navigate the heavens. / How paltry the light appears, your colored things”. Novalis, Escritos escogidos, tr. Jenaro Talens and E.-E. Keil, Visor, Madrid, 1984, p. 17.
17 This word, eintreten, and its derivative (Eintretendes), appear frequently throughout this essay. Along with the metaphor of approach, they play a crucial role in Jünger’s reflections on intoxication and other anomalous states of consciousness. Its etymology is rich in meanings: “to enter, to happen, to realize, to give, to be present, to supervene”. Jünger is referring to an out-of-the-ordinary event that erupts into consciousness in a kind of epiphany or revelation, facilitated both by certain drugs as well as by various ascetic disciplines. Depending on the context, we shall substitute the phrase “that which supervenes” for “the supervening”.