The Problem Of Language In “All Quiet On The Western Front” Essay, Research Paper
German Literature The Problem of Language in “All Quiet on the Western Front” For it is no easy undertaking, I say, to describe the bottom of the Universe; nor is it for tongues that only babble child’s play. (The Inferno, XXXII, 7-9.) Erich Maria Remarque’s 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 to himself, 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 coloured 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. WORK CITED Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
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