Twentieth Century Literature: Erich Maria Remarque

Today we had the fabulous experience of opening our hearts and minds to this wonderful, astonishing book by Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front or, in German Im Westen Nichts Neues (literarily: In the West Nothing New). What is so amazing about this book is the way it presents its central character/ narrator Paul Bäumer as someone who, through his direct experience of the horrors of war is now enlightened enough to be able to see how the way the world at large is so out of touch with reality. Obsessed with their own thoughts, preoccupations, people in general are just not in touch with Life. This is how Remarque wonderfully presents this moment of insight and awareness:

Sometimes I sit with one of them in the little garden of the pub and try to get the point across that this is everything – just sitting in the quiet. Of course they understand, they agree, they think the same way, but it’s only talk, only talk, that’s the point– they do feel it, but always only with half of their being, a part of them is always thinking of something else. They are so fragmented, no one feels it with his whole life…

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This is one of the central moments in the book, the moment where we experience Paul Bäumer’s frustration at the way humanity at large is half asleep most of the time, unaware of what is going on around them, drowned in their own preoccupations, only half alive. And this of course is one of the deep ironies of the book. Here is Paul who has narrowly escaped death himself, has been witnessing for months the horrific, tragic dismemberment of many of his friends and he is here almost like a prophet speaking of what is needed to live a truly, whole life, one that is connected to something that is truly real and not full of fragmentation: this is everything- just sitting in the quiet. 

I was sharing with one of the tutorial groups the parallel experience of a world-famous golfer interviewed by Caroline Jones in her program Search for Meaning. The golfer walked into the moving propellor of an aircraft and lost an arm and other horrific injuries. In his interview with Caroline Jones he said how this seemingly tragic event had opened his eyes to a quality of life that he had never known before. Now he experienced fellowship with others and felt a deep care and concern for others who had difficulties in their life. He had never had this experience whilst being on the world stage.

So here are some blog topics for All Quiet on the Western Front

1/ Write a letter to Erich Remarque telling him what you appreciate most about his novel.

2/ Write the letter to the wife of the dead Frenchman that Paul so desperately wants to write.

3/ Write a short prose passage that expresses what Kemmerich is thinking as he approaches his own death as a 19 year old.

4/ Write a letter to a politician explaining why it is so important that this book be circulated widely.

5/ Research your own family’s connection with war in the Twentieth Century. Do you have Grandparents or Greatgrandparents who were in any way touched by the impact of war?

6/ As usual make up your own topic focussing, if you can, on your experience of the novel and its impact on your own life.

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