Aladdin's Problem
Erns Jünger
Marsilio Publishers, New York (USA), 1992 (1983)
136 pages
ISBN: 0-941419-58-4

I have been coming across the name of Ernst Jünger pretty much since my mid- to late-teens, when I spent hours on end reading the cultural pull-out sections of the main Spanish newspapers (El País, Diario 16, ABC...). His name was frequently referenced in awe, or least in admiration for his work. The fact that Jünger was an old-style national conservative (a traditionalist with some nostalgia for the aristocratic past) who, apparently, did not sympathize much with the Nazis, had a profound dislike of contemporary society and its quasi-religious approach to technology, and was admired by people on the opposite side of the political spectrum, of course, increased his halo of mystery in my eyes. And yet, I never read any of his books, even though some close friends fervently recommended Storm of Steel, On the Marble Cliffs and The Worker. This oversight has now been corrected. However, since I could not find any of those books in the local library, I ended up reading Aladdin's Problem which, I am afraid, may not be more than a very minor book in his bibliography.

The novel tells the story of an East German former army officer, Friedrich Baroh, who defects to the West. There, he spends a few years as a poor college student, marries, and ends up working for his uncle, who owns a funeral business. There, he slowly climbs up what today we would call the "corporate ladder" until, quite accidentally, comes up with a new and innovative idea that will shake the business: an eternal resting ground built in some strange ancient caves somewhere in Turkey. The idea makes him a lot of money, but he loses his appetite for life until he has an encounter with Phares (a mythical figure that also shows up in other of Jünger's stories), who teaches him how everything is interconnected. The reference to Aladdin in the title is quite symbolic, since the hero of the folk tale chose to enjoy his riches with his princess bride, Budur al-Badr. By contrast, Baroh, Jünger's character (and perhaps his alter-ego) is unable to live happily just enjoying with near-infinite wealth.

The book is full of references to our current predicament in this post-nietzschean era of ours (i.e., after the "death of God"):

The problem is indivisible: man is alone. Ultimately, one cannot rely on society. Although society usually wreaks harm, indeed often havoc, it can also help, although not more than a good physician —up to the inevitable limit where his skill fails.

Above all, no melancholy. The individual can comfort himself by recognizing his situation. Earlier, the religions contributed to this. Their close link to art is no coincidence, for they are its most sublime inventions.

Now that the gods have abandoned us, we must fall back on their origin: art. We have to gain an idea of what or whom we represent. There has to be a workshop somewhere. A potter throws vases, pitchers, ordinary tableware. His material is clay; everything emerges in the ebb and flow of tides, then crumbles into dust, and becomes new material for us.

Our social or moral position makes no difference in this regard. You may be a prince or a wage earner, a shepher, a prostitute, or a pickpocket —but usually you are like me, an ordinary person.

(Ernst Jünger: Aladdin's Problem, Marsilio Publishers, 1992, p. 11)

A spirit of nihilism (perhaps even just plain indifference) that pervades it all, including the modern military:

I was soon cured of my misapprehension that a special sense of brotherhood prevails in these armies. Harsh discipline does not usually affect the camaraderie if everyting else is in order. Lord Nelson said that Sunday is as good a day as any to hang a deserter; after all, the man knew he was risking his neck. Such aphorisms could not shake Nelson's popularity among the blue-jackets; on the other hand, he considered it cruel to deprive a prisoner of tobacco.

People's armies are different: there is no esprit de corp, there is only conformism; they have no history, they have an idea. Everyone observes everyone else, lying in wait for the slightest infraction. Even a smile can arouse suspicion. However, unlike monarchies, the idea is not bound to the person; it is as abstract as it is unclear, a sort of collective feeling which produces fashions and trends that probably ought to be heeded. The commanders are also subject to that feeling; personal popularity is frowned upon.

I do not wish to describe the concrete assault on individuals, because the topic repels me. This attack takes place secretly, behind the walls of prisons, behind the barbed wire of camps. Nevertheless, it is in the interest of the leaders to have some of it leak out.

(Ernst Jünger: ídem., pp. 18-19)

Baroh does meet kindred spirits here and there:

Encountering a man with a literary and historical background was a godsend in those surroundings. One timidly touches a key and hears something that one scarcely hoped to hear: the sound. This is followed by an —almost impercetible— smile of collusion. That was how it began, and it evolved into almost perfect harmony. We played through problems —such as: "Was Raskolnikov right when he thought of himself as Napoleon?" And: "To wgat degree does Napoleon exist in each of us?"

(Ernst Jünger: ídem., p. 34)

However, overall, he does not have much good to say in favor of our modern civilization and its obsession with technology as a escape door (in that sense, Jünger and his fans connect with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger):

A nebulous yearning for other worlds is as ancient as man himsekf. Today it has technological features: our expectations of alien guests and their landing have been haunting our imagination for some time now. We must take this seriously, firstly as a symptom.

Bizarre aircraft are depicted, challenged, exposed as mirages. They serve as a bait and a mechanism for the imagination; on the other hand, they indicate wishful thinking. The automatic apparatus is consistent with the spirit of the times. The end of the world, a vision at every millenium, likewise presents itself as technological catastrophe.

How bizarre that alien guests are expect now of all times, when astronomical investigations seem to have demonstrated that the stars not only are not, but cannot be, inhabited. This simply indicates the depth of our yearning. People feel more and more strongly that pure power and the enjoyment of technology leave them unsatisfied. They miss what used to be angels and what angels gave them.

(Ernst Jünger: ídem., p. 119)

In conclusion, to Jünger, our civilization is profoundly sick and, in the end, it seems as if the only solution he proposes is similar to Nietzsche's übermensch, an overcoming of our defeatist nihilism symbolically represented in the figure of Phares:

Why did he address me of all people? Were there contacts? I recall the Liegnitz park and my basic nihilistic mood. Nihilism must not be followed by any new idealism —it would be doomed from the very outset or it would lead, at best, into a romantic cul-de-sac. The break must be radical.

(Ernst Jünger: ídem., p. 121)

This edition of the book closes with an afterword, written by Martin Meyer, and titled The Parable of "Aladdin's Problem", where we are presented with a brief explanation of the story.

To be honest, the book was quite easy to read, but I'm not sure it was worth the time. As a work of fiction, it lacks real characters and, above all, a real story. Instead, the characters are quite lifeless and rigid. They feel more like ideal representations of intellectual attitudes, almost like walking (and talking) symbols. On the other hand, as an essay, the book lacks originality (both Nietzsche and Heidegger covered some of the topics in a much better way) and depth. Even worse, its non-fiction content could be easily summarized in a single paragraph. I'd imagine that some other books written by Jünger (especially those that gave him fame, some of which are mentioned above) are more worthy of our time, but it looks as if Jünger is not a very popular author here in the United States and I cannot find those other volumes in the local library or in digital format, which is the way I read a good amount of books these days. Perhaps I may give Jünger another try some other day in the future. We'll see.

Entertainment: 5/10
Content: 6/10