The Dystopian Age of the Mask Reply

How Ernst Jünger predicted the ubiquity of masks.

By Thomas Crew

The Critic

Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) has Alphas, Betas, and Epsilon Semi-Morons – genetically engineered classes with uniform clothing and uniform opinions. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) has the Thought Police and Newspeak. While Zamyatin’s We (1921) has numbers instead of people – D-503, I-330, O-90: vowels for females, consonants for males.

If there is a single defining characteristic of dystopian literature, it is the eradication of all individuality. “Self-consciousness”, Zamyatin writes, “is just a disease”. For this reason, dystopias are invariably told by tormented outsiders: those who are well aware of the commodity-like standardisation of their fellow humans, yet either fear the consequences of speaking out or resent their own sense of self. After all, “no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour”, as Huxley writes.

Given their tyrannical preoccupation with uniformity, it is little wonder that, as a literary form, dystopias emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. The totalitarian regimes of Russia and Germany as well as their technocratic Western counterparts, inspired by the likes of F. W. Taylor and Henry Ford, were central sources of inspiration. For all their apparent differences, these competing ideologies are united by the utopian attempt to redraw not just society, but the human being himself. The increasing power of science and technology gave rise to the idea that nature itself, in all its messy complexity, could be finally put straight.

Besides these three canonical authors, however, this generation produced another equally impressive, if much less well known, dystopian writer: the enigmatic German, Ernst Jünger. Known primarily for his First World War diaries and steadfast opposition to Weimar liberalism, Jünger went on to live until the age of 103, writing on topics from entomology and psychedelics to nihilism and photography. In the second half of his career he produced three principal works of dystopian fiction: Heliopolis (1949), Eumeswil (1977), and, perhaps his finest, The Glass Bees (1957).

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