Friday, April 1, 2011

A Re-Read of Ernst Jünger's "Aladdin's Problem"

Aladdin's Problem appeared in 1983 when Jünger was eighty-eight years old. After it, he would live fourteen more years and write four more books.

I have entitled this review a re-read because the novel demands to be read over and over again, to be savored and studied. Because, as soon as you complete the novel, which is relatively short, you realize the ending, which is oddly consistent and logical within the magic realism of the book, has undermined your initial understanding and requires a return to the first paragraph. You also quickly understand that the novel is constructed like a poem or a series of aphorisms that must be savored and pondered. Jünger, who admired Nietzsche, calling him Old Gunpowder Head and carrying Thus Spake Zarathustra through the trenches of the Western front, is the master of the aphorism. And just like Nietzsche (maybe because of Nietzsche), Jünger employs aphorisms to carry his meaning, his themes, his exquisite metaphors and images.

The narrative is standard Jünger. A young man, Freidrich Baroh (read baron), born in Poland, joins the army, climbs within its ranks, and then defects to the West, settling in Berlin, where he attends university to study advertising, statistics, computer technology, insurance and journalism. These studies complement the age and fit within the Titanic revolution which ultimately overcomes Baroh, just as it did Prometheus. We are to understand Baroh as a very modern man, an individual, like Prometheus, who ultimately favors mankind over the Titans. As an aside, the theme of titanism runs throughout Jünger's novels and it is important to understand it as theme; just as it is equally important to understand his concepts of the Anarch,Waldgänger and Arbeiter.

Once Baroh finishes university he finds work with his Uncle Fridolin, who owns and operates Pietas Funerals. As he informs us early in the novel, Baroh is a climber. Just as he climbed through the ranks in the army, he puts his very modern skills to work in the funeral business. It is at the point that the novel "slips," to modify Bruce Sterling's term and leads us through several logical steps into the fantastic. But as the business of death grows, becoming a world onto its self, Baroh becomes aware of his problem, the same problem that he alerted us to in the first paragraph when he says: "It is time I focused on my problem." His problem is one of meaning or, more precisely, a disconnection between modern life and meaning. On a Jungian level, Baroh spends his early life enhancing his career and dealing with the material. As he ages, death becomes a reality and he becomes interested in depth, in meaning. His building of the necropolis Terrestra is the exciting force (Jünger believes the ritualization of death is the beginning of culture); the moment he realizes that "man is alone" and that modern Titanic society has destroyed all of those institutions that once presented illusions of solace, madness descends upon Baroh and he becomes nihilistic. Soon, he is visited by a spirit, by Phares, the bearer of light, who instigates an inward journey toward meaning.

Ultimately, what is Baroh's problem? He says:"madness is only part of my problem . . . . .A loss of individuality may be an additional factor." Madness arises from a split between his dream world and reality, while his role in the modern Titanic (nuclear) society is the cause of his disconnectedness. To achieve individualization he must leave and become a Waldgänger, one who walks away, a Zarathustra.

"Aladdin's Problem" presents us with a poetic statement of the modern problem and proposes a method to achieve an individual solution. But it is not didactic. It a well-constructed novel that stands firmly on all four legs of fiction, while at the same time promulgating Jünger's philosophy and obsessions.


  1. Thank you so much for this review Keith. I have recently discovered Junger and am ever more intrigued by his depth. The narrative format utilized in this review was very helpful.

  2. He is not born in "Poland". He is born in Silesia which was German until Germany lost World War 2, and Truman, Churchill and Stalin gave Silesia to Poland. Friedrich Baroh is of German origin. It is stated very clearly in the book. He even mentions that the Polish barracks bore the coats of arms of his own German noble family "but probably none of the Poles recognized it".