I picked up this book on the recommendation of Judge Richard Posner. (It wasn’t a personal recommendation. I heard him mention the book when he was in a panel discussion.) Posner’s recommendation came from his idea that literature had a lot to tell us about the law. And Arch of Triumph had a lot to say about the plight of asylum-seekers in a new country. At the time, I was preparing for oral argument in an asylum case, and thought it would be an interesting read.

The entire book focuses on Ravic, a displaced and well-accomplished German surgeon who is living in Paris during the Second World War. He makes a living—underground, of course—by performing surgeries for two French surgeons who are less qualified and without enough scruples to care that Ravic is unable to work legally. Ravic is a superior surgeon and they give him a small percentage of their fees to do the work.

Despite being able to pursue his livelihood, Ravic lives in constant fear of being found out and deported to Germany. Indeed, he had gone through that process a few times before we come upon him in the novel. During the novel, he is sent to Switzerland after helping an accident victim on the street and being found out by the police. But he always returned, eager to pick up the pieces of a shattered life without any clear direction or foundation.

Ravic is a deep and often enigmatic character. His life is a vicious cycle of late nights, drunken stupors, mid-morning surgeries, and evenings at the club. It is in the midst of this life—if one can call it that—that Ravic encounters another person, perhaps for the first time. The love affair that results is one that makes Ravic question his own life and his whole prior sense of reality. Ravic appears to us as a lost, broken soul. Yet there is a bit of Ravic in all of us, I think. We too are lost along the way and need an encounter with Another to bring us back to reality.

Eventually Ravic realizes he cannot have love on his own terms and cannot give love in his current state of life. He is lost in a country whose government does not acknowledge him but whose citizens rely on him. He lives under constant threat of deportation while trying to make a living and find some temporary relief.

Beyond the love story Remarque presents, there are themes in this book that appeal to every generation and situation. We too are lost in a world that cannot be the end of our love. We too are mere passers-by in this life and must seek what is beyond us. There is an open invitation to Love, and we must accept Love as He comes and on His terms. The Marian “Yes” is no more appropriate than at times like those described in this book, when we must place all our hopes and fears in God and trust that His love will carry us through.

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2 thoughts on “Arch of Triumph (Erich Maria Remarque)

  1. Christ’s words inspire us to lift consciousness and render love into action to the greatest extent possible, but do not require us to abolish our rights to our own bodies and selves. Put another way, someone else’s suffering does not entitle them to drain away your life; compassion should not be self-immolation.

    Luckily for humanity, the founding fathers of the United States set up a system of government and economy that would promote something better than such a zero-sum game. And they succeeded in spectacular fashion, as their institutions and philosophy as rooted in the English Enlightenment period created the fertile ground for the richest, free-est, and most powerful nation on Earth to rise up and defend free peoples everywhere from tyranny.

    It is this beacon of freedom, our government of, by, and for the people, and our culture of opportunity based on self-reliance and anglo-saxon ethics, that attracts people from all over the world to come and make a life here.

    For most of the nation’s history, the myth of ethnic diversity has been just that: a myth. Assimilation has been ruthless and effective, and has preserved the unique brand of culture and philosophy that buttresses our great success. Though there are ethnic flavors in the tapestry of America, they are transmogrified into trace elements of mild potency.

    In this way, our nation renews itself, without losing itself.

    No nation – not even the United States of America – can survive a balkanization of its people. Without a unifying philosophy, a unifying language, a unifying set of principles and ideals, a nation will depart the renaissance, enter the baroque, and then finally lose all form as its fissures and fractures are left untended by a population unable to even know whether its body is blighted.

    Which brings us to the present moment in America. The accommodation, for myriad reasons, first of three million illegals from Mexico granted amnesty in 1986, and now 12 – 20 million illegals of the same provenance, has been an abandonment of American heritage and an abandonment of the American ideal.

    This non-assimilating population came here through illegal means and without regard to our sovereignty and with no intention whatsoever of being anglicized as have all previous (legal) immigrant groups. Therefore their presence here must be resisted and ultimately ended, and any notion that this is not possible is a lie.

    Our nation has been and remains the last best hope of Earth, and we must preserve and defend it so that free peoples the world over may always live in the secure knowledge that the greatest nation to ever grace the face of the Earth will remain the sword and shield of freedom down through the ages of man.

  2. I understand what you are saying, and perhaps we agree more than we disagree, though I am not sure.

    My point is a simple one, which is that we cannot allow individual stories of suffering, stories that evoke compassion in heart-felt people, myself included, to be extrapolated into national policy without a simultaneous macro view of the consequences of such policies. If twelve million acts of compassion cumulatively destroy our nation, then we will have achieved worse than nothing: we will have destroyed the beacon of freedom the world-over and condemned billions of people to oppression, misery, and death. Not a good tradeoff.

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