Essay, Research Paper: All Quiet On The Western Front

World Literature

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All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel set in World War I, centers around the
changes wrought by the war on one young German soldier. During his time in the
war, Remarque’s protagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent
Romantic to a hardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during
the course of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from those
societal icons—parents, elders, school, religion—that had been the
foundation of his pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as a result of
Baumer’s realization that the pre-enlistment society simply does not
understand the reality of the Great War. His new society, then, becomes the
Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that is a group which does
understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it. Remarque demonstrates
Baumer’s disaffiliation from the traditional by emphasizing the language of
Baumer’s pre- and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses
not to, communicate truthfully with those representatives of his pre-enlistment
and innocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banal and meaningless language
that is used by members of that society. As he becomes alienated from his
former, traditional, society, Baumer simultaneously is able to communicate
effectively only with his military comrades. Since the novel is told from the
first person point of view, the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are
at variance with his true feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque
maintains that "a generation of men ... were destroyed by the war" (Remarque,
All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the meaning of
language itself is, to a great extent, destroyed. Early in the novel, Baumer
notes how his elders had been facile with words prior to his enlistment.
Specifically, teachers and parents had used words, passionately at times, to
persuade him and other young men to enlist in the war effort. After relating the
tale of a teacher who exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that
"teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and
trot them out by the hour" (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Baumer admits that
he, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents, too, were not
averse to using words to shame their sons into enlisting. "At that time
even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward’" (Remarque, All
Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days, Baumer asserts that, as a result of his
war experiences, he has learned how shallow the use of these words was. Indeed,
early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that although authority figures
taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that
death-throes are stronger. But for all that, we were no mutineers, no deserters,
no cowards—they were very free with these expressions. We loved our country as
much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished
the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. (Remarque, All Quiet I. 17)
What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words and expressions used
by the pillars of society do not reflect the reality of war and of one’s
participation in it. As the novel progresses, Baumer himself uses words in a
similarly false fashion. A number of instances of Baumer’s own misuse of
language occur during an important episode in the novel—a period of leave when
he visits his home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because he realizes
that he can not communicate with the people on the home front because of his
military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent, understanding of the
war. When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer is overwhelmed at being
home. His joy and relief are such that he cannot speak; he can only weep (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 140). When he and his mother greet each other, he realizes
immediately that he has nothing to say to her: "We say very little and I am
thankful that she asks nothing" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 141). But finally
she does speak to him and asks, "’Was it very bad out there,
Paul?’" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143). Here, when he answers, he lies,
ostensibly to protect her from hearing of the chaotic conditions from which he
has just returned. He thinks tohimself, Mother, what should I answer to that!
You would not understand, you could never realize it. And you never shall
realize it. Was it bad, you ask.—You, Mother,--I shake my head and say:
"No, Mother, not so very. There are always a lot of us together so it
isn’t so bad." (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143) Even in trying to protect
her, by using words that are false, Baumer creates a separation between his
mother and himself. Clearly, as Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for the
uninitiated. On another level, however, Baumer cannot respond to his mother’s
question: he understands that the experiences he has had are so overwhelming
that a "civilian" language, or any language at all, would be
ineffective in describing them. Trying to replicate the experience and horrors
of the war via words is impossible, Baumer realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt
at telling the truth would, in fact, trivialize its reality. During the course
of his leave, Baumer also sees his father. The fact that he does not wish to
speak with his parent (i.e., use few or no words at all) shows Baumer’s
movement away from the traditional institution of the family. Baumer reports
that his father "is curious [about the war] in a way that I find stupid and
distressing; I no longer have any real contact with him" (Remarque, All
Quiet VII. 146). In considering the demands of his father to discuss the war,
Baumer, once again, realizes the impossibility, and, in this case, even the
danger, of trying to relate the reality of the war via language. There is
nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realize he does not know
that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too
dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then
become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. (Remarque, All Quiet
VII. 146) Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the experience of war
meaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the words describing it
would have to be correspondingly immense and, with their symbolic size, might
become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless. While with his father, Baumer
meets other men who are certain that they know how to fight and win the war.
Ultimately, Baumer says of his father and of these men that "they talk too
much for me ... They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so
too, but only with words, only with words" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).
Baumer is driven away from the older men because he understands that the words
of his father’s generation are meaningless in that they do not reflect the
realities of the world and of the war as Baumer has come to understand them.
Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallen comrade, Kemmerich.
As he did with his own mother, he lies, this time in an attempt to shield her
from the details of her son’s lingering death. Moreover, in this conversation,
we see Baumer rejecting yet another one of the traditional society’s
foundations: religious orthodoxy. He assures Kemmerich’s mother that her son
"’died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite
calm’" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesn’t believe
him, or, at least, chooses not to. She asks him to swear "by everything
that is sacred to" him (that is, to God, as far as she is concerned) that
what he says is true (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). He does so easily because
he realizes that nothing is sacred to him. By perverting this oath, Baumer shows
both his unwillingness to communicate honestly with a member of the home front
and his rejection of the God of that society. Thus, another break with an aspect
of his pre-enlistment society is effected through Baumer’s conscious misuse of
language. During his leave, perhaps Baumer’s most striking realization of the
vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is alone in his old room
in his parents’ house. After being unsuccessful in feeling a part of his old
society by speaking with his mother and his father and his father’s friends,
Baumer attempts to reaffiliate with his past by once again becoming a resident
of the place. Here, among his mementos, the pictures and postcards on the wall,
the familiar and comfortable brown leather sofa, Baumer waits for something that
will allow him to feel a part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his old
schoolbooks that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less military world
and which Baumer hopes will bring him back to his younger innocent ways. I want
that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I
used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose
from the colored backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead
lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the
future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the
lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait. (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 151) But
Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not come; the quiet rapture does not
occur. The room itself, and the pre-enlistment world it represents, become alien
to him. "A sudden feeling of foreignness suddenly rises in me. I cannot
find my way back" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 152). Baumer understands that
he is irredeemably lost to the primitive, military, non-academic world of the
war. Ultimately, the books are worthless because the words in them are
meaningless. "Words, Words, Words—they do not reach me. Slowly I place
the books back in the shelves. Nevermore" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 153).
In his experiences with traditional society, Baumer perverts language, that
which separates the human from the beast, to the point where it has no meaning.
Baumer shows his rejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or being
unable to, use the standards of its language. Contrasted with Baumer’s
experiences during his visit home are his dealings with his fellow trench
soldiers. Unlike Baumer’s feelings at home where he chooses not to speak with
his father and makes an empty vow to Frau Kemmerich, Baumer is able to effect
true communication, of both a verbal and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench
soldiers. Indeed, within this group, words can have a meaningful, soothing, even
rejuvenating, effect. Not long after his return from leave, Baumer and some of
his comrades go out on patrol to ascertain the enemy’s strength. During this
patrol, Baumer is pinned down in a shell hole, becomes disoriented, and suffers
a panic attack. He states: "Tormented, terrified, in my imagination, I see
the grey, implacable muzzle of a rifle which moves noiselessly before me
whichever way I try to turn my head" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He
is unable to regain his equanimity until he hears voices behind him. He
recognizes the voices and realizes that he is close to his comrades in his own
trench. The effect of his fellow soldiers’ words on Baumer is antithetical to
the effect his father’s and his father’s friends’ empty words have on him.
At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words ...
behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by
which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life these voices,
they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most
comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades. I am no
longer ... alone in the darkness;-- I belong to them and they to me; we all
share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler,
a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that
have saved me and will stand by me. (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 186) Here, Baumer
understands the reviving effects of his comrades’ words. Strikingly, as
opposed to his town’s citizens’ empty words, the words of Baumer’s
comrades actually go beyond their literal meanings. That is, whereas Baumer
notices that the words of the traditional world have no meaning, the words of
his comrades have more meaning than even they are aware of. In fact, true
communication can exist in the world of the war with few or no words said at
all. This phenomenon is perhaps best demonstrated in the novel during a scene
involving Baumer and his Second Company mate, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene,
with its Eucharistic overtones, can be counterpoised to Baumer’s meeting with
Kemmerich’s mother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich insisted on some kind
of verbal attestation of Baumer’s spiritual disposition. As noted above, he is
quite willing to give her such an asseveration because the words he uses in
doing so mean nothing to him. With Katczinsky, though, the situation is
different because the spirituality of the event is such that words are not
necessary, in fact, would be hindrances to the communion Baumer and Katczinsky
attain. The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have stolen a
goose, in a small deserted lean-to they eat it together. We sit opposite one
another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle
of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete
communion with one another than even lovers have ... The grease drips from our
hands, in our hearts we are close to one another ... we sit with a goose between
us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak. (Remarque, All
Quiet V. 87) These elemental and primitive activities of getting and then eating
food bring about a communion, a feeling "in unison," between the two
men that clearly cannot be found in the word-heavy environment of Baumer’s
home town. Perhaps Remarque wants to make the point that true communication can
occur only in action, or in silence, or almost accidentally. At any rate, Baumer
demonstrates toward the end of his life that even he is not immune from verbal
duplicity of a kind that was used on him to get him to enlist. Soon after he
hears the comforting words of his comrades (see above), Baumer is caught in
another shell hole during the bombardment. Here, he is forced to kill a
Frenchman who jumps into it while attacking the German lines. Baumer is
horrified at his action. He notes, "This is the first time I have killed
with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing" (Remarque,
All Quiet IX. 193). That is, the war, and his part in it, have become much more
personalized because now he can actually see the face of his enemy. In his
grief, Baumer takes the dead man’s pocket-book from him so that he can find
out the deceased’s name and family situation. Realizing that the man he killed
is no monster, that, in fact, he had a family, and is evidently very much like
himself, Baumer begins to make promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will
write to his family and goes so far as to promise the corpse that he, Baumer,
will take his place on earth: "’I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval.
I must be a printer’" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197). More importantly,
Baumer renounces his status as soldier by apologizing to the corpse for killing
him. "Comrade, I did not want to kill you ... You were only an idea to me
before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate
response. It was that abstraction I stabbed ... Forgive me, comrade. We always
see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us,
that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of
death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could
you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my
brother just like Kat ..." (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 195) In addition to the
obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment that appears in Baumer’s eulogy, it
is interesting to note that Baumer sees that Duval could have been even
closer—like Katczinsky, a member of Baumer’s inner circle of Second Company.
All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumer articulates to Duval are
admirable, but they are absolutely false. As time passes, as he spends more time
with the corpse of Duval in the shell-hole, Baumer realizes that he will not
fulfill the various promises he has made. He cannot write to Duval’s family;
it would be beyond impropriety to do so. Moreover, Baumer renounces his
brotherhood sentiments: "Today you, tomorrow me" (Remarque, All Quiet
IX. 197). Soon, Baumer admits, "I think no more of the dead man, he is of
no consequence to me now" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). And later, to
hedge his bets in case there happens to be justice in the universe, Baumer
states, "Now merely to avert any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: ‘I will
fulfill everything, fulfill everything I have promised you—‘ but already I
know that I shall not do so" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). Remarque’s
point in this episode is clear: no one is exempt from the perversion of language
vis-a-vis the war. Even Paul Baumer, who had been disgusted by the
meaninglessness of language as demonstrated in his home town, himself uses words
and language that are meaningless. Once he is reunited with his comrades after
the shell hole episode, Baumer admits "it was mere drivelling nonsense that
I talked out there in the shell-hole" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 199). Why
does Baumer do it? Why does he employ the same types of vacuous words and
sentiments that his elders and teachers had used and for which he has no
respect? "It was only because I had to lie [One assumes that this double
meaning is apparent only in English.] there with him so long ... After all, war
is war" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 200). Ultimately, that is all that Paul
Baumer and the reader are left with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot
even be discussed with any accuracy. It has no sense and, in fact, is the
embodiment of a lack of any kind of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western Front,
Erich Maria Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. This disorder
affects such elemental societal institutions as the family, the schools, and the
church. Moreover, the war is so chaotic that it infects the basic abilities, not
the least of which is verbal, of humanity itself. By showing how the First World
War deleteriously affects the syntax of language, Remarque is able to
demonstrate how the war irreparably alters the order of the world itself.

Bibliography
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine
Books, 1984.

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