Psychedelic Anarch: The Drug Writings of Ernst Jünger (Part 1)
By Henrik Dahl
This article by Henrik Dahl is part one in a two-part series on German writer Ernst Jünger’s experimentation with drugs. It first appeared in Psychedelic Press XXXVII. Subscribe to the final three issues of our print journal here.
It has been said that Ernst Jünger got high on two things: war and drugs. In his youth, Jünger sought out adventure on the battlefield. There, he came to regard war as a transcendental, inner experience. Jünger also had a lifelong interest in drugs and their multitude of effects. And like any true psychonaut—a word he himself coined—he put his drug experiences into writing. His elaborate work on his self-experiments with psychoactive substances, however, remains largely ignored.
Anyone who takes an interest in the life and work of Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann will at one point or another also come across German writer and drug explorer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998). For instance, Hofmann’s seminal autobiography LSD: My Problem Child contains a whole chapter about Jünger’s literary accomplishments, as well as their friendship and explorations in the psychedelic realm. Jünger clearly made a lasting impact on Hofmann. In the chapter, which carries the title ‘Radiance from Ernst Jünger’, the discoverer of LSD speaks of Jünger in a tone of deep admiration. ‘Never has any other writer so opened my eyes’, he confesses. And, in turn, Hofmann made quite an impression on Jünger too, for the psychedelic experiences they shared came to have a direct influence on his writing, most notably his LSD-inspired short novel Visit to Godenholm (1952), which at long last has become recognised as a pioneering work in psychedelic literature.
This is not to say that Jünger is a household name in psychedelia. On the contrary, very few historians of mind-expanding drugs have paid any substantial attention to Jünger, and none of the major comprehensive books on psychedelic culture discuss him at length. If he gets a mention, it is typically as Hofmann’s peculiar and, some would argue, dubious tripping buddy; by and large, Jünger is a footnote in the cultural history of psychedelics.
Yet outside the psychedelic movement, he is considered by many to be an esteemed—albeit controversial—writer and thinker. And for good reason. During his remarkably long and eventful life, he wrote a number of acclaimed books, several of which have become classics. Jünger is by far best known for his 1920 debut, the First World War memoir Storm of Steel. Pieced together from his diary, the book is a key work in 20th century war literature. Jünger also wrote several novels, including the allegorical story On the Marble Cliffs (1939). A common favourite among Jünger fans, the book has been interpreted as a parable on the tyranny of national socialism as well as Stalinism. Hofmann loved the book. In his aforementioned autobiography, the Swiss scientist calls it ‘a masterpiece of German prose’.
Jünger was a prolific writer and today most of his works are available in a number of different languages. There is, however, one Jünger book that remains largely ignored by the English-speaking world: Annäherungen: Drogen und Rausch, in English known as Approaches: Drugs and Intoxication. This elaborate and finely crafted 450-page work on psychoactive drugs, a subject he took a deep and lifelong interest in, has yet to be published in an authorised English translation.
Originally published in 1970, Approaches is part drug memoir, part aphoristic essay. The book was written when Jünger was in his mid-seventies and contains descriptions of his self-experiments with various mind-altering substances, as well as reflections on their historical and cultural significance. Although the chapters are short, the book is not always an easy read. Jünger was one of those 20th century intellectuals who displayed impressive knowledge in a number of areas and subjects. Naturally, this wealth of knowledge is evident throughout the text, something which gives it a certain density. Drugs that are covered in the book include alcohol, ether, cocaine, laudanum, hashish, mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin. Jünger continued to experiment with drugs as an elder.
In Approaches he discusses an LSD session with Hofmann that took place in 1970, the very same year the book came out. As for his many experiments over the course of his life, dose and frequency of use varied greatly. Some of the drugs were used a number of times, while others were used only once or on a handful of occasions. Given Jünger’s adventurous persona, journalists and historians might be tempted to portray him as an extravagant user who took drugs in excessive amounts. But that would be a false portrayal. In fact, quite the opposite holds true. Apart from one notable exception, he seems to have been a rather mindful user. This one exception—which led to a classic case of a hellish drug experience—is most likely what made him tread carefully when carrying out subsequent self-experiments.
Jünger structured the book by theme rather than strict chronology. In the part named ‘Europa’, Jünger handles alcohol, ether and cocaine. ‘Der Orient’ deals with opium and hashish. And, finally, the part titled ‘Mexiko’ is about the classical psychedelics mescaline, LSD and psilocybin. Jünger’s journeys to these internal continents took place over a long stretch of time. The ‘European’ and ‘Oriental’ drugs were explored as a young man, while his experiments with the ‘Mexican’ varieties were carried out in his middle age and senior years. In the interconnected world that we live in today, discussing drugs using these geographical terms may seem antiquated. Also, if taken literally it is in some cases erroneous.
There is, for instance, nothing inherently ‘Mexican’ about psilocybin-containing mushrooms for the simple reason that they grow—sometimes abundantly—in many places all around the world, including Britain and Scandinavia. Yet this is how Jünger chose to discuss drugs when he wrote the book more than 50 years ago. Despite this, the general reader should have no problem understanding the thinking behind Jünger’s drug writings. Not least since many of us still associate drugs with certain physical—as well as figurative—continents. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to many psychedelic plants which continue to be strongly linked to Central and South America. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that Jünger never set out to write a catalogue of drugs. Instead, he himself saw the book—voluminous as it may be—as a sketch.
Approaches was not Jünger’s first extensive work on drugs and their psychoactive effects. Many years earlier, while in his younger years, he actually produced a manuscript on the subject. This text, however, was never published. Jünger clearly must have felt that the material was not up to scratch, because in a letter to Hofmann dated 3 March 1948, Jünger told him that he had burned the manuscript. If Jünger had decided to publish this early material, it would not have included any of the accounts of his personal use of psychedelics that one can read in Approaches. Today, these stand out as his most interesting when it comes to his drug writings. In the late 1940s when the letter was sent to Hofmann, Jünger had still not taken a hallucinogenic drug. His first ‘Séance’, as he himself put it, took place in January 1950 with Walter Frederking, a Hamburg based psychoanalyst who practised an early form of psychedelic therapy on his patients. Jünger’s experiments with psychedelics, first mescaline and soon LSD followed by psilocybin a decade later, were crucial additions to his understanding of drugs and their wide range of effects on human consciousness, and Approaches would be a less interesting read without these accounts.
His 1970 book on his self-experiments with psychoactive drugs was preceded by an essay on the same subject. Jünger wrote the piece for a Festschrift published in 1968 on the occasion of the 60th birthday of Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade. The title of the essay, ‘Drogen und Rausch’, is identical to the subtitle of Jünger’s drug memoir that came two years later. When it was translated into English, the translator chose the title ‘Drugs and Intoxication’. Jünger was not particularly happy with this title. Instead he felt that ‘Drugs and Ecstasy’ would have been more appropriate. Yet he also points out that his title does not refer to ecstasy, but to ‘the tearing open of the veil’ that has been woven by the senses. According to Jünger, this is closely related to anxiety or even to the sudden pain that is provoked by immersion in a state of intoxication. His way of looking at intoxication might possibly be linked to the indisputably ‘bad trip’ that he experienced in the 1920s. The experience, which will be discussed shortly, most likely led to a severe anxiety attack.
Jünger’s 1968 essay inspired him to write a whole book about his personal experiences of taking psychoactive substances, and unlike his first attempt in his younger years this work actually made it to a publisher. Finishing the book appears to have been a somewhat challenging task. In the opening pages of Approaches, Jünger says that the time he put aside for the book project has expired, perhaps even been exceeded. As he notes, the subject could be further expanded upon, but not indefinitely. This, he says, is implied by the book’s title.
In the years that he fought in the First World War, Jünger was injured multiple times, and many of his friends died on the battlefield. This fact did not make him leave the military, though; after the war he remained in the army, where he served as a lieutenant until 1923. It was during this early interwar period that Jünger, who was only 23 when the war was over, became interested in psychoactive substances. One day in 1918, when the would-be writer was staying in Hanover, he decided to buy ein wenig Äther, a little ether. Jünger had become curious about its intoxicating effects after reading a short story by French 19th century writer and ether user Guy de Maupassant while being treated at a military hospital. But, as Jünger admits in Approaches, he could not remember how Maupassant used the anaesthetic in order to become intoxicated. As he was about to take the drug, Jünger recalled reading about ether addicts and fatal overdoses in his father’s library. As a precaution, he therefore decided to inhale its fumes, rather than drink it. Jünger proceeded by soaking a handkerchief in the fluid, which he then placed over his face. The effect of the drug was immediate, yet it did not last long. For when the effect started to wear off he realised it was still some time before dinner. After his brief encounter with the drug, he concludes—in his typical ‘Jüngerian’ sense of humour—that ether clearly is a drug for people in a hurry.