“Their stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow—a vast, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires—but they return not. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us,” (121). What have Paul and his friends lost? Innocence? Love? The ability to remember their prior lives? Their sense of humanity? What is the overall significance of this quote?
One of Remarque's central themes is that the real casualties of the war were those who survived it. It is absolutely the case that the men have lost their innocence, their youth, their faith in the future, and that they have lost the desire to seek joy in life. They have also lost their humanity- this is one of the reasons why Paul's descriptions of the deaths of his friends are usually so terse. But again, we see at the end of the book, as Paul's face is peaceful in death, that in many ways the people who survived the war suffered more than the dead.
This quote excellently describes the loss of innocence and of youth that was experienced by young teenagers who had never really lived life before they were sent to the front. There, they died a kind of death as they were faced with the grim realities of war. This is something that this quote explores as Paul tries to voice how precisely he and his fellow soldiers changed as a result of the war.
The context of the original passage suggests strongly that they have indeed lost their innocence, but they have also lost their ability to feel and respond to "normal" life as they would have responded when they were still fresh recruits. Now, however, they have been hardened by life at the front, and they feel, to a great degree, simply numb -- cut off the from the past, no longer able to appreciate or even participate in "normal" civilian life.
The loss of innocence leads to the knowledge that even your own happy youth was filled with discontent; you were simply incapable of accepting it. On the one hand, you cannot continue in life in naivety; on the other, the more you know of human fallibility and nature's uncaring brutality -- not to mention the machinations of cruel fate -- the more your "nostalgia" is filtered through a cynical glass.
While he and his fellow soldiers are on the front, Paul's ponderings reflect his days at school, especially the lofty, philosophical ideals he and his classmates learned from their professors who encouraged them in the noble cause of Germany. Once in battle, however, Paul's disillusionment comes as he witnesses one man whose feet have been blown off hurry on their stumps to the trench, another crawls, holding his intensines with one hand. others have no jaw, no hand.
The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end.
The old life of Paul and his companions is "at an end." He and the others can never return to their ingenuous youth.
I believe they have lost innocence, certainly. There is such a difference between the safety a young person feels before he/she is introduced to the pain, suffering and evil in the world. I would also believe it refers to the loss of dreams that disappear with the sadness, glimpses of death and ensuing melancholy. War changes people as nothing else can. People kill other people, and they are told to somehow believe it is justified. Killing does not come naturally, and taking lives cannot help but change a person forever.
It is often said that people who go to war lose their past lives because they become very different from the people who do not experience war. In this way, they lose the chance to ever return to normal. Even if they survive the war physically, they will never be the same as the people who didn't go to war. Thus, their past lives are being irrevocably lost.
Innocence, yes, and more. Though they have not completely lost the ability to remember their private lives, they have certainly lost the perspective they once had. Imagine, coming into the war as young men with their entire future ahead of them ("such desires" above), only to be exposed immediately to death. Gruesome death, at that. If these boys leave the war, they will never be able to reclaim the innocent sense of hope for some great life ahead of them. Many will feel like everything is hopeless, not just the result of losing so many comrades, but coming so close to death (regularly) themselves.