The Problem of Language in “All Quiet on the Western Front” 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 l …