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 novelset in World War I, centers around the changes wrought by the war on oneyoung German soldier.
During his time in the war, Remarque’s protagonist,Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent Romantic to a hardened andsomewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during the course of thismetamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from those societalicons–parents, elders, school, religion–that had been the foundation ofhis pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as a result ofBaumer’s realization that the pre-enlistment society simply does notunderstand the reality of the Great War. His new society, then, becomesthe Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that is a group which doesunderstand the truth as Baumer has experienced it.
Remarque demonstrates Baumer’s disaffiliation from thetraditional by emphasizing the language of Baumer’s pre- andpost-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses not to,communicate truthfully with those representatives of his pre-enlistment andinnocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banal and meaninglesslanguage that is used by members of that society. As he becomes alienatedfrom his former, traditional, society, Baumer simultaneously is able tocommunicate effectively only with his military comrades.
Since the novelis told from the first person point of view, the reader can see how thewords Baumer speaks are at variance with his true feelings. In his prefaceto the novel, Remarque maintains that “a generation of men . . . weredestroyed by the war” (Remarque, All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quieton 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 facilewith words prior to his enlistment. Specifically, teachers and parents hadused words, passionately at times, to persuade him and other young men toenlist in the war effort. After relating the tale of a teacher whoexhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that “teachers always carrytheir feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by thehour” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15).
Baumer admits that he, and others, werefooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents, too, were not averse to usingwords to shame their sons into enlisting. “At that time even one’s parentswere ready with the word ‘coward'” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days, Baumer asserts that, as a result of his warexperiences, he has learned how shallow the use of these words was. Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that although authorityfigurestaught that duty to one’s country is the greatestthing, 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 wentcourageously into every action; but also wedistinguished the false from true, we had suddenlylearned to see. (Remarque, All Quiet I. 17)What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words and expressionsused by the pillars of society do not reflect the reality of war and ofone’s participation in it.
As the novel progresses, Baumer himself useswords in a similarly false fashion. A number of instances of Baumer’s own misuse of language occurduring an important episode in the novel–a period of leave when he visitshis home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because he realizesthat he can not communicate with the people on the home front because ofhis military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent, understandingof the war. When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer isoverwhelmed at being home.
His joy and relief are such that he cannotspeak; he can only weep (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 140). When he and hismother greet each other, he realizes immediately that he has nothing to sayto 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 andasks, “‘Was it very bad out there, Paul?'” (Remarque, All Quiet VII.
143). Here, when he answers, he lies, ostensibly to protect her from hearing ofthe chaotic conditions from which he has just returned. He thinks tohimself,Mother, what should I answer to that! You wouldnot understand, you could never realize it. And younever shall realize it. Was it bad, you ask.
–You,Mother,–I shake my head and say: “No, Mother, notso very. There are always a lot of us together so itisn’t so bad. “(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143)Even in trying to protect her, by using words that are false, Baumercreates a separation between his mother and himself. Clearly, as Baumersees it, such knowledge is not for the uninitiated.
On another level,however, Baumer cannot respond to his mother’s question: he understandsthat 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 isimpossible, Baumer realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt at telling thetruth 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 orno words at all) shows Baumer’s movement away from the traditionalinstitution of the family. Baumer reports that his father “is curiousabout the war in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no longerhave any real contact with him” (Remarque, All Quiet VII.
146). Inconsidering the demands of his father to discuss the war, Baumer, onceagain, realizes the impossibility, and, in this case, even the danger, oftrying to relate the reality of the war via language. There is nothing he likes more than just hearingabout it. I realize he does not know that a mancannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly,but it is too dangerous for me to put these thingsinto words.
I am afraid they might then becomegigantic and I be no longer able to master them. (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146)Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the experience of warmeaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the wordsdescribing it would have to be correspondingly immense and, with theirsymbolic size, might become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless. While with his father, Baumer meets other men who are certainthat they know how to fight and win the war. Ultimately, Baumer says ofhis father and of these men that “they talk too much for me .
. . Theyunderstand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but onlywith words, only with words” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).
Baumer isdriven away from the older men because he understands that the words of hisfather’s generation are meaningless in that they do not reflect therealities of the world and of the war as Baumer has come to understandthem. Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallencomrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he lies, this time inan attempt to shield her from the details of her son’s lingering death. Moreover, in this conversation, we see Baumer rejecting yet another one ofthe traditional society’s foundations: religious orthodoxy.
He assuresKemmerich’s mother that her son “‘died immediately. He felt absolutelynothing 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 askshim to swear “by everything that is sacred to” him (that is, to God, as faras 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 tocommunicate honestly with a member of the home front and his rejection ofthe God of that society. Thus, another break with an aspect of hispre-enlistment society is effected through Baumer’s conscious misuse oflanguage. During his leave, perhaps Baumer’s most striking realization ofthe vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is alone in hisold room in his parents’ house.
After being unsuccessful in feeling a partof his old society by speaking with his mother and his father and hisfather’s friends, Baumer attempts to reaffiliate with his past by onceagain becoming a resident of the place. Here, among his mementos, thepictures and postcards on the wall, the familiar and comfortable brownleather sofa, Baumer waits for something that will allow him to feel a partof his pre-enlistment world. It is his old schoolbooks that symbolize thatolder, more contemplative, less military world and which Baumer hopes willbring him back to his younger innocent ways. I want that quiet rapture again.
I want to feelthe same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feelwhen I turned to my books. The breath of desire thatthen arose from the coloured backs of the books,shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump oflead that lies somewhere in me and waken again theimpatience of the future, the quick joy in theworld of thought, it shall bring back again thelost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait. (Remarque, All Quiet VII.
151)But Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not come; thequiet rapture does not occur. The room itself, and the pre-enlistmentworld it represents, become alien to him. “A sudden feeling of foreignnesssuddenly 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 areworthless 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 withtraditional society, Baumer perverts language, that which separates thehuman from the beast, to the point where it has no meaning. Baumer showshis rejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or being unableto, use the standards of its language.
Contrasted with Baumer’s experiences during his visit home arehis dealings with his fellow trench soldiers. Unlike Baumer’s feelings athome where he chooses not to speak with his father and makes an empty vowto Frau Kemmerich, Baumer is able to effect true communication, of both averbal and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench soldiers. Indeed, withinthis group, words can have a meaningful, soothing, even rejuvenating,effect. Not long after his return from leave, Baumer and some of hiscomrades go out on patrol to ascertain the enemy’s strength.
During thispatrol, Baumer is pinned down in a shell hole, becomes disoriented, andsuffers a panic attack. He states: “Tormented, terrified, in myimagination, I see the grey, implacable muzzle of a rifle which movesnoiselessly before me whichever way I try to turn my head” (Remarque, AllQuiet IX. 184-85). He is unable to regain his equanimity until he hearsvoices behind him.
He recognizes the voices and realizes that he is closeto 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’sfriends’ empty words have on him. At once a new warmth flows through me. Thesevoices, these quiet words .
. . behind me recallme at a bound from the terrible loneliness andfear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life these voices, theyare more than motherliness and more than fear; theyare the strongest, most comforting thing thereis 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 thesame fear and the same life, we are nearer thanlovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could burymy face in them, in these voices, these words thathave 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 ofBaumer’s comrades actually go beyond their literal meanings.
That is,whereas Baumer notices that the words of the traditional world have nomeaning, the words of his comrades have more meaning than even they areaware of. In fact, true communication can exist in the world of the warwith few or no words said at all. This phenomenon is perhaps bestdemonstrated in the novel during a scene involving Baumer and his SecondCompany mate, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene, with its Eucharisticovertones, can be counterpoised to Baumer’s meeting with Kemmerich’smother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich insisted on some kind ofverbal attestation of Baumer’s spiritual disposition. As noted above, heis quite willing to give her such an asseveration because the words he usesin doing so mean nothing to him.
With Katczinsky, though, the situation isdifferent because the spirituality of the event is such that words are notnecessary, in fact, would be hindrances to the communion Baumer andKatczinsky attain. The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky havestolen 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 inthe middle of the night. We don’t talk much, butI believe we have a more complete communion withone another than even lovers have .
. . The greasedrips from our hands, in our hearts we are closeto one another . . .
we sit with a goose between usand feel in unison, are so intimate that we donot even speak. (Remarque, All Quiet V. 87)These elemental and primitive activities of getting and then eating foodbring about a communion, a feeling “in unison,” between the two men thatclearly cannot be found in theword-heavy environment of Baumer’s home town. Perhaps Remarque wants tomake the point that true communication can occur only in action, or insilence, or almost accidentally. At any rate, Baumer demonstrates towardthe end of his life that even he is not immune from verbal duplicity of akind that was used on him to get him to enlist.
Soon after he hears the comforting words of his comrades (seeabove), Baumer is caught in another shell hole during the bombardment. Here, he is forced to kill a Frenchman who jumps into it while attackingthe German lines. Baumer is horrified at his action. He notes, “This isthe 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 canactually see the face of his enemy.
In his grief, Baumer takes the deadman’s pocket-book from him so that he can find out the deceased’s name andfamily situation. Realizing that the man he killed is no monster, that, infact, he had a family, and is evidently very much like himself, Baumerbegins to make promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will write tohis family and goes so far as to promise the corpse that he, Baumer, willtake his place on earth: “‘I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval. Imust be a printer'” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197).
More importantly,Baumer renounces his status as soldier by apologizing to the corpse forkilling him. “Comrade, I did not want to kill you . . .
You wereonly an idea to me before, an abstraction that livedin 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 theynever tell us that you are poor devils like us, thatyour mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that wehave the same fear of death, and the same dying andthe same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could yoube my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and thisuniform you could be my brother just like Kat . . . “(Remarque, All Quiet IX.
195)In addition to the obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment that appears inBaumer’s eulogy, it is interesting to note that Baumer sees that Duvalcould have been even closer–like Katczinsky, a member of Baumer’s innercircle of Second Company. All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumerarticulates to Duval are admirable, but they are absolutely false. As time passes, as he spends more time with the corpse of Duvalin the shell-hole, Baumer realizes that he will not fulfill the variouspromises he has made. He cannot write to Duval’s family; it would bebeyond impropriety to do so. Moreover, Baumer renounces his brotherhoodsentiments: “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 tome now” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). And later, to hedge his bets incase there happens to be justice in the universe, Baumer states, “Nowmerely to avert any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: ‘I will fulfilleverything, fulfill everything I have promised you–‘ butalready I know that I shall not do so” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). Remarque’s point in this episode is clear: no one is exemptfrom the perversion of language vis-a-vis the war. Even Paul Baumer, whohad been disgusted by the meaninglessness of language as demonstrated inhis home town, himself uses words and language that are meaningless.
Oncehe is reunited with his comrades after the shell hole episode, Baumeradmits “it was mere drivelling nonsense that I talked out there in theshell-hole” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 199). Why does Baumer do it? Whydoes he employ the same types of vacuous words and sentiments that hiselders and teachers had used and for which he has no respect? “It was onlybecause I had to lie One assumes that this double meaning is apparent onlyin 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 areleft with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot even be discussedwith any accuracy. It has no sense and, in fact, is the embodiment of alack of any kind of meaning.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, ErichMaria Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. This disorderaffects such elemental societal institutions as the family, the schools,and the church. Moreover, the war is so chaotic that it infects the basicabilities, not the least of which is verbal, of humanity itself. Byshowing how the First World War deleteriously affects the syntax oflanguage, Remarque is able to demonstrate how the war irreparably altersthe order of the world itself. WORK CITEDRemarque, Erich Maria.
All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.Words/ Pages : 4,568 / 24