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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 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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