“I breathe deeply and say over to myself: "You are at home; you are at home." But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I can find nothing of myself in all these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there is my case of butterflies, and there is the mahogany piano – but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.” (160)
Where does this veil come from? If Paul were able to spend more time at home, do you think this strangeness would ever leave him? Or do you think he will forever be lost?
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Paul Baumer is part of a lost generation. Young and idealistic, Paul marches off to a dehumanizing war of battles in which the soldiers cannot even see their enemy. Terrorized by shell warfare, crawling on his stomach like an animal, Paul loses his youth and idealism in the dirt and blood of war. He can never "go home again" in the sense of recapturing the spirit of his soul before he has witnessed the horrors of war. The veil that separates him from his loved ones is the experiences Paul has incurred that have made him run on animal instinct. For, he has dulled his emotions and rational mind in order to survive.
Paul no longer feels that his family is his "real" family any longer. The soldiers are now his family.
His previous life is no longer "real" to him. That's what the veil represents. His family still believes in that life, but that life is built upon the belief that our existence is essentially good, and that our day to day activities are important. After taking part in battle, Paul can no longer believe in that goodness and the importance of living that daily life.
He does not, however, say that life is meaningless. The meaning lies at the front with his friends. It is a life he abhors and cannot do without. His family will never be able to understand that, so there is a "veil" of misunderstanding between them.
If Paul is able to look past his trauma and accept that he became a different person to survive, he may be able to live a "normal" life in the future. However, it is far more important that he come to these conclusions himself; although therapy is always a good idea, it is meaningless if the person refuses or is incapable of accepting their own responsibilities and decisions.
The veil, obviously, is Paul's experience in the war. They have separated him (in his mind, at least) from his experiences at home, a world that his mother and sister still inhabit. Whether the strangeness would have ever left him is a question that is difficult to answer. Reading this quote in context with the rest of the book, in which Remarque frequently has Paul claim that his innocence, youth, past, etc. are lost, seems to suggest that he doesn't believe that he will ever return to normal.
Normal has become very different for Paul. What he knew to be normal is no longer normal for him. He lives a different normal. While I believe that he will be able to return to "normal," it will take him a while given what he has lived through.
The veil seems to symbolize his sense of alienation and separation from his family and friends at home. He has endured experiences that they will probably never have to face, and these experiences will give him a broader and deeper insight into life than they will ever possess. Ironically, the "veil" allows him to see more clearly than they can.
I think perhaps eventually he would be able to rip down that veil, but only after many years of living a normal life. The problem is that Paul, in order to survive war, has had to forget about "normal" life and civlisation and become almost like a robot in order to live. Being suddenly plunged back into this normal life is something that he finds extremely alienating.
It depends on what you mean by "lost." He will surely never be the same because he has seen such horrors. But it is entirely possible that he will be able to re-acclimate enough to become a relatively normal member of society again. After all, there were hundreds of thousands of people who saw horrors in WWII and who were able to become normal members of society again.
The viel is necessary to survive in war. It's a shell formed by the psyche to protect it. Whether or not he will ever be the same is hard to tell. Time can heal many wounds. It really depends on his personality, but not completely. It also depends on what circumstances he comes home to. More time may help, and it may not. It depends partly on how the time is spent.
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