War Novels and Postmodernism


by Philip Damico

Several anti-war novels, particularly those written in reaction to the First World War, present a mindset that is shockingly similar to that found in the postmodern individual. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo are examples of the sort of anti-war prose that unintentionally refute postmodernism and support metamodernism–though only the former will be discussed in this article. Paul Baumer, protagonist of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, finds his zeal for life and reality crushed by the horrors of war. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.” From a metamodernist perspective, this directly refutes postmodernism. Like the overwhelming effects of war depicted in All Quiet, postmodern thought strips its thinkers of their optimism, sense of purpose, and reason for living.

This isn’t to say that postmodern thought kills, but it can. Modes of thought are filters through which we experience reality. Like the mental aftereffects of being in a war, postmodernity is a mode of thought which overwhelms one’s thought processes, perspectives, and perceptions, leaving room for little else. By teaching that knowledge and truth are constructed products of social and political interaction throughout history, postmodern thought can easily become a trap for an individual who is unable to shake its detrimental effects.

A postmodernist might lose their enthusiasm for life because they find continuing too much trouble when they believe that all of their worldly efforts are pointless. They reduce the value of their own life and accomplishments because of a newfound perspective that devalues humanity’s importance. Like Paul Baumer who finds life valueless because of its fragility, the postmodernist finds life valueless because their very idea of value has been deconstructed. They also find worldly causes to lose their importance due to a hyperaware perspective or moral relativism. For example, an individual who begins to consider the theory of moral relativism, believing that moral codes are relative to cultural and social circumstances, may find themselves victims of inaction. They do not abandon their morality completely and begin committing violent crime left and right, they rather begin to doubt all of the truths that they previously took for granted since their most fundamental beliefs have been deconstructed. Their personal relationships may deteriorate as they lose faith in the institutions of romantic love and friendship. Before they know it, the postmodernist is lost within the narrative of their own life, the grand narratives of their reality having disintegrated. They are unable to move forward or backwards, their previous reality having been reduced to one of many.

This relates to the war novels in that both the aftermath of war on the psyche portrayed in All Quiet and the aftermath of postmodernism on the psyche look shockingly similar. Paul Baumer is an excited young man whose excitement for the future is stolen from him. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.” This quote could aptly describe a the experience of a young adult whose passions have been stolen by postmodernism. Postmodernism denies and crushes all truths, endlessly diagnosing problems with our beliefs and systems but offering no cure. There is no grand narrative, postmodernism slams into a wall over and over again.

In addition to the soldiers who fought World War I having similar mental states to postmodernists, it may be the case that the world wars are largely responsible for postmodernism. The post-war period generally refers to a period of relative peace in the west after World War 2 that has continued unbroken on a large scale to this day. Wars have occurred but no conflict on a large scale has broken out between any major powers. Thanks to this, people who live in rich countries have lots of free time. They have time to examine themselves and their surroundings and think. No one philosophises while fighting for their life in a trench or running from a draft. In peacetime there is room for education and more importantly, introspection.

It didn’t help that many grand narratives had been broken down by the failure of rationalism and human decency when millions of Jews had died at the hands of Hitler. The horrors of World War 2 influenced the rise of postmodernism. The confidence in human progress and human nature that had been building for some time was shattered by gulags and gas chambers. The wars caused a reevaluation of values that spurred on the development of postmodernism. Additionally, from a postmodernist perspective, things like the holocaust might not be looked at as critically because egalitarian ideals are “modernist” in that they state a “universal truth”.

Across the western world, there was new room for intellectual growth in the wake of the wars. The philosophies and cultural movements that emerged were guided by the violations of all previous moral codes. Not only did postmodernism find itself manifesting in the individuals who took part in the greatest conflicts mankind has ever seen, but humanity as a whole took a postmodernist stance in reaction to the wars.

Postmodernism is a deconstruction of truth and knowledge. The men who fought in World War 1 and 2, according to literary depiction written by someone who experienced the first world war firsthand, experienced a similar deconstruction when faced with the horrors of war. Not only is this the case but the cultural aftereffects of the war were a catalyst in the development of postmodernism as a philosophy. And so we have found ourselves without truth, without knowledge and without a direction to head in. Our societies have become increasingly disillusioned as the decades continue to pass and we must make change our fundamental perception of reality before we no longer can. Metamodernism is the cure for the diagnoses that have permeated our culture. We may be spinning through an endless, chaotic universe devoid of meaning, truth and morality may be a result of culture and historical happenstance, but that is not the end of the story. Certain things are undeniable. It is better to live with access to food than to live in starvation. It is better to not be painfully murdered than to be painfully murdered. Certain aspects of postmodernism do have value, but deconstructionism and nihilism have run their course. That being said, metamodernism is a progression from postmodernism, not a rejection. Metamodernism acknowledges that many human systems are essentially constructed but embraces that idea in new ways. It’s time to look forward and see how best we can secure our futures and the future of our civilization in these turbulent times. This involves taking an optimistic approach and once again creating meaningful narratives in art and our lives.

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