.. ost 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.