“What is freedom?”
“I don’t know either. I only know that it is neither irresponsibility nor aimlessness. It’s easier to say what it is not than what it is.”
This exchange goes to the thematic heart of the novel Heaven Has No Favourites by Erich Maria Remarque, a story of doomed love set in the immediate post-WWII period in Europe. Its protagonists are a racing driver named Clerfayt, and a young woman, Lillian Dunkerque, both of whom are seeking freedom from a sense of the inevitable collapse of dreams and hopes and ideas in the face of time and death.
Time and death are stark realities for Clerfayt and Lillian. He lives from race to race, knowing that his life-span as a driver is running out, that he must endure either a long, empty retirement forgotten by the world, or horrible death or disfigurement in an accident. She is dying from tuberculosis, her alternatives being a short, bright spurt of living life to the full, or the drawn-out accumulation of days and weeks and years imprisoned in a remote Swiss sanitarium.
Both have been traumatised by their experiences in the war – he as a POW, she as a frightened fugitive on the run from the Nazis – and these experiences have coloured their perception of life. Knowing what they know of the human capacity for evil, and of the random arbitrariness of death, they regard the rituals of modern life as empty, meaningless, irrelevant. And yet they also long for meaning, for substance, for freedom from their sense of inevitable decay and entropy. They long for life, for innocence, for a time when they did not know what they know, and did not feel as they feel. They fear death, but also regard life as irrelevant.
Heaven Has No Favourites is the story of their attempt to escape their ennui, their attempt to try and find some meaning in life through the agency of all the things they regard as meaningless; it is the story of their – ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to escape back into meaning from the wasteland of alienation.
It is hard not to see Remarque’s own life projected through this novel – as, indeed, it was projected through all his novels. Remarque’s first and most famous novel – All Quiet on the Western Front – and its sequels – The Road Back and Three Comrades – depict the alienation and dislocation which young men returning from the horrors of the First World War experienced. And it is an experience made all the more poignant because they were enlisted in 1916 – that is, they weren’t old enough to enlist at the war’s beginning, and thus weren’t old enough to have jobs or families or careers, conditions which could anchor them in the pre-war world and to which they could return if they survived. On the other hand, they were just old enough to have all their illusions and naivety destroyed by the experience of war, to have their expectation of, and faith in, all the things older men took for granted fatally undermined. And so when they returned from the fighting they had nothing – no hopes, no dreams, no plans or ambitions, no sense of place or belonging. Just cynicism, and grief, and anger, and guilt for having survived the conflict that claimed not only the lives of their friends, but also the world into which they had expected to grow up and become citizens.
Part of what makes adolescence a difficult period is that we are able, for the first time, to critically examine the world around us; and yet we also lack the life experience to resist the shock-value of our discoveries. Remarque and his peers went through a greatly magnified process; the shock value not of life, but of mass slaughter. And so they were confronted with the “Big Questions” of being without the luxury of first coming to terms with who they were as individuals, and working out for themselves their own ground on which to stand, and from which to answer such questions.
The result was an alienation – not only an emptiness, a hollowness, but a sense of aloneness and insignificance – which haunted Remarque his whole life. After the war, he struggled to make ends meet variously as a teacher, a funeral ornament salesman (depicted in his novel The Black Obelisk), a theatre critic, and a sports journalist. When All Quiet on the Western Front was published in 1929, he found fame and fortune – but not peace. The rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s resulted in him being condemned as a “defeatist” writer, eventuating in his exile, first to Switzerland, then the United States. His sister suffered a terrible fate at the Nazis’ hands because of him, and his personal life was a shambles, marked by a self-conscious, alcohol-fuelled hedonism, and destructive intimate relationships.
Remarque’s sense of rootlessness is depicted in his “emigre” novels: Flotsam, Arch of Triumph, A Night in Lisbon. All the old certainties have been destroyed; but there is nothing to replace them, except grief for what has been overturned, and a vague, unsatisfying hope for what might be. You get a real sense that the emigre people of the between-the-wars years understood that they were doomed: what they had once been, or might have been, had been swept away by the destruction of war and the upheaval of its aftermath; and they could also sense the forthcoming conflagration, and understood that its impact would be even greater than that of the “Great War”. The in-between time was, at best, a brief respite.
And this impression comes across in the experience of Remarque’s own life. Despite the fact that he lived in many “exotic” locations – Monte Carlo, Paris, Milan, New York – he never discovered a sense of home until later in life when he settled in Porto Ronco, Switzerland. Even so, the fact that he was forced into exile from Germany, and felt too alienated to re-settle there after the war, accentuated his feelings of rootlessness. Likewise, despite the fact that he had affairs with some of the most beautiful women of his day – Dolores del Rio, Lupe Valez, Maureen O’Sullivan, Luise Rainer, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo – these were almost always unsatisfying and frequently turbulent, characterised by emotional neediness and recriminations born of insecurity. His first marriage was marred by mutual infidelity and jealousy, and it was again only later in life that his second marriage, to Paulette Goddard, provided any sense of stability and comfort. And just at the point when his life seemed to have found depth and meaning, his being was undermined by terminal ill-health.
Many people find Remarque’s work too cloying, too full of sadness and despair. But a careful reading also indicates an undercurrent of heroism and hope; the very fact that people struggle against their despair and feelings of futility instead of surrendering to apathy is itself a cause for celebration. Weltschmerz, the sense of the terrible sadness of being, may be the theme of Remarque’s novels; but so, too, is the terrible beauty of existence. There is a glory amidst the sadness, a glimpse of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in spite – and despite – itself.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.