“Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine guns, hand-grenades – words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.“
~ Erich Maria Marque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I finished my first war novel yesterday, All Quiet on the Western Front, for one of my history classes… Had I read it, I might have been tempted to breeze through the story too quickly, or gotten distracted by the number of commas and somewhat run-on sentences (which I suspect partly results from it being a translation from German; then again, that’s how I write sometimes too). But with a good audiobook recording, there is no such option… Mere marks of punctuation become gasps, human pauses and tones rife with expression; the human reality becomes manifest in a way that can’t be escaped by skimming ink on a page.
I’m not advertising for audiobooks or discrediting reading out of a physical book in any way. All I mean to say is I had no way out. The grey world Remarque fashioned enveloped me, engulfed my soul as I listened. The battlefields of the Great War (aka World War I) in all their awfulness, desperation and numbing deadness, became real to me; as real as they could have been, short of my being there in person. I heard nothing but words, words; but I felt the horror of the world in them.
One of the greatest points of emphasis in our class has been how prior to WWI, the West was at the height of optimism. Progress was inevitable, Western superiority unassailable, confidence unshakable. Then came the war.
It was more terrible than anything anyone had ever known. It shattered the tower of optimism the West had been erecting for at least a century. The delusion strained and broke under the weight of millions upon millions of corpses, strewing the battlefields of Europe. The wonderful technological advances of mankind became deadly: artillery that decimated entire regiments, gas that dissolved one’s lungs from the inside, machine guns that could mow down dozens or even hundreds in a single battle. And this was progress?
No longer did the world seem orderly, rational, and always improving. Now, it seemed senseless, violent, chaotic and void of meaning. And so, the castle of modernity crumbled, and the ghostly form of post-modernity began to rise from the ashes. Nihilism and hedonism became respectable – what else was left? When the order of the universe seems to go to pieces at your feet, what else can you do but numbingly conclude that nothing truly matters? That the opiate of pleasure is all that remains?
The cry of Ecclesiastes became widespread: “Meaningless! All is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Therefore, eat, drink and squeeze what little pleasure out of this rotten life you can, before it all comes to an abysmal end…
“Yesterday we were under fire, to-day we act the fool and go foraging through the countryside, to-morrow we go up to the trenches again. We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed long ago…
“Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us though safely, so we turn into wags and loafers when we are resting. We can do nothing else, it is a sheer necessity. We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here. Kemmerich is dead, Haie Westhus is dying… Martens has no legs anymore. Meyer is dead, Max is dead, Beyer is dead, Hämmerling is dead, there are a hundred and twenty wounded men lying somewhere or other; it is a damnable business, but what has it to do with us now – we live… We will make ourselves comfortable and sleep, and eat as much as we can stuff into our bellies, and drink and smoke so that the hours are not wasted. Life is short.”
Remarque could have merely described the numbing effect of the war on the main character and the other young soldiers in his novel. But he did more than that… he made you live it with them. He made you experience the sheer weight of the agonizing horror, the desperate purposelessness, and (eventually) the stoic indifference that these soldiers felt – that they had to make themselves feel to stay alive enough to function one more day. I felt nihilism creeping into my own soul as I listened; how can one believe in purpose, in meaning, in any sort of goodness in life apart from carnal pleasure, after experiencing what these men experienced on a daily basis for nearly four years? Each man was like a card in a deck, randomly shuffled and left open for the wind to whip about in any direction it pleased; some straight into the fire, some only to be singed, some to be seared so badly that it would have been better if the whole card had been burnt, damned at once to the flames rather than this agonizing half-existence of torment. All at the whim of the breezes.
Little wonder that they became indifferent. How can life have meaning after a living Hell like this? What purpose or ultimate value is there in an empty, heartless existence of Russian roulette? A game without thrill, without order, without plan or purpose… only death for the randomly selected and emptiness for the survivor. A game so vicious that the only way to survive is to let it all sink down, down like a stone, into the recesses of one’s being… The sting is too much. Indifference becomes the only way to cope. It all must be… must be meaningless.
But that’s just it though… If there was no meaning in it all, if life had no purpose, if all of existence truly was nothing but chasing after the wind, a random game where it doesn’t matter who dies and who survives to emptiness… why would death matter? Why should we fear it so? Indeed, if life had no meaning, death wouldn’t either; it would have no sting. If there were no meaning or purpose in life, there would be no terror in dying, no horror at the atrocities of this world, no agony in war. Remove absolute goodness and you have an amoral world; and no longer can you be touched by the grasp of evil and suffering, because all is meaningless. The young men of Remarque’s novel let their feeling sink down into them, make their hearts stony, because they realize this. If they continue believing in purpose and meaning, they shall be torn to pieces by the horror before them. But if they are indifferent… if all becomes meaningless, then the terror of seeing death and unspeakable pain all around them is numbed. “Fear we do not know much about — terror of death, yes; but that is a different matter, that is physical.” The real suffering, the heart-pain one finds in seeing one’s comrades fall and writhe in agony… that can be muffled away if all is devoid of meaning. They cut themselves off from the feeling of death by cutting themselves off from life.
They are unable to handle the reality of death; not because it doesn’t matter but because it matters too much. And the only way they can bear the piercing, terrifying gaze of death is to make nothing matter. Only keep yourself busy doing nothing; pursuing empty pleasures that have no substance but distract for a time so that you don’t have to remember the emptiness within you. It can’t be filled, but it can be ignored. So let it sink down… it’s the only way to keep living.
Thus far, I have lead a stain-free existence. Even for a fairly well-off, middle-class citizen of a ridiculously privileged nation, my life has been remarkably free from pain. And when compared to the daily, crushing suffering of millions across the globe, it almost makes me sick. Certainly it makes we wonder… why should I be spared? I’m no better, I know that for a fact. And whenever I catch the smallest glimpse of the suffering others have experienced in this world, down through the years and to this day, my words fail me… but still, I must ask: Why so much pain, so much agony? Why the seemingly pointless suffering, the endless groaning, the futile pleas for relief? Why does death reign so strong?
I know nothing of the suffering of those soldiers in that Great War; I might imagine it pretty well on the receiving end of an audiobook through the mastery of a writer like Remarque and an actor like the one I opened my ears to. But even when I do suffer truly one day, I know that I will never know a fraction of the pain that they or other millions of inhabitants of this world and its history knew daily in their bones and hearts. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, and I don’t even have the true experience of pain to back up the little I do know. But what I do know is this:
There is another way. There is a solution, and it is not to turn one’s heart to stone, appealing as that is. It is not indifference, it is not meaninglessness or vainly chasing pleasure to make the pain go away. And it is not embracing the death.
It is life itself swallowing death up.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In our human frailty, we could not dream of speaking such bold words. Death is too mighty, immeasurably too awful for us to taunt… Yet when we serve a Lord who triumphed over the grave, who became the victim of death – and won anyway – only then can the victory be sounded. Only then is the sting of death removed – not by removing life as well, but by Life overcoming all the force that Death can boast. It is only by the triumph of Life over Death.
Today, I celebrate that triumph. I have no victory to boast of in myself; but I boast in my Lord who overcame all, who is Life Himself, who died and now lives forevermore. And because I am in Him, I do not fear the power of death.
One day – perhaps through war, perhaps through another medium of evil – one day, I will suffer, and this time not merely through my vicarious imagination. It will be real to me as it never has been before. Will my neat ideological categories hold then? Will I be able to keep myself from allowing a heart of stone to sink deep into me, to harden with indifference, as my only means of survival? If all my words were merely a theory, I doubt it. Better men than I have cracked under far less.
But because I stand in a reality, because my confidence comes not in an optimism in mankind or a philosophy in myself, I can say with full confidence that, by the grace of God, it will be possible to stand fast, with a heart of flesh that is willing to be broken again and again, and made new each morning by new life. It can be done; it has been before. I know not if I will be adequate for the trail – I probably won’t be – but I serve a God who is faithful. And no matter how weak I am, no matter how powerfully Death rears its head and crushes me beneath its load, the One who is called Life is greater yet.
I learned the sting of death from Remarque in a way I have never known before. I felt a fearful indifference bent on survival rise up in me as never before. But just maybe, I understand my Lord’s triumph over Death in His everlasting Life a little bit better this day because of it.
Wishing you a Resurrection Sunday filled with the true knowledge of His power,
Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes, and death finally dies
~ Petra, “Grave Robber”