Happiness is a Matter of Prioritizing: Erich Maria Remarque and the Art of Living

A rumination on Remarque’s lasting legacy on the power of finding happiness in the midst of hardship and an ever-changing landscape.

Time to read: 5 min.

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts, professed Karl De Schweinitz in his insightful 1924 study “The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble.” As a key component to mastering the art of living, De Schweinitz identified the ability to gracefully adjust oneself to life’s unpredictable events and circumstances which “one after another come towards us.” (Almost half a century later flexibility and adaptability would be officially identified among the principle  21st Century Skills just as imperative for one’s success as, say, critical thinking and financial literacy.)

Man, asserted De Schweinitz, is not born into a world made to fit him like a custom tailored suit of clothes, or a house built to order. He enters a universe that was eons old before his appearance…[an] eternally changing universe that evolves its processes unmindful of his presence. It sets the conditions. It is man who must do the fitting.

Learning to nimbly navigate the bumpy roads life inevitably presents has been an overarching theme of another astute mind and contemporary of De Schweinitz—that of German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970). Echoing in his works voices from his own personal experiences, the renowned author and pacifist created a compelling case for one’s ability to remain flexible in an ever-morphing, ever-threatening world without losing one’s astonishment for its ephemeral beauty. In fact, it is precisely this painful realization that each and every one of our human experiences come with an expiration date, that makes Remarque’s writing one of the most unconventional invitations of being alive. 

“Regret is the most useless thing in the world. One cannot recall anything. And one cannot rectify anything. Otherwise we would all be saints. Life did not intend to make us perfect. Whoever is perfect belongs in a museum.”
Arch of Triumph

It’s been roughly fourteen months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. One year later, the world is still grappling with this uniquely problematic virus and its many unknowns. I myself—a rather good swimmer—eventually got swept by the third wave of coronavirus; double pneumonia, hospitalization, and all. Here I was—quarantined in our beautiful Bulgarian cottage with my mother and four cats (and an ocean away from the rest of my family whom I missed terribly), with nothing to do but practice gratitude while admiring the blooming trees in the garden, and reading whatever our home library has to offer. I chose Remarque.

In recalling some of his major works I fell in love with in my early twenties (ah, the psychologically complex characters swept by events they have little to no power over, the ever-doomed romance, the insightful gloom and reflections on life, almost always accompanied by excessive consumption of calvados or whiskey or brandy or wine, and, of course, the bitter-sweet melancholy evoked by the passage of time!), I could not overlook his acute relevance in the context of our time’s obsessive need to find lasting happiness and achieve perfection—which are but self-deceptions, as this pandemic has reminded us once again.

What I realized with full clarity early enough in my life, is that I am an imperfect being operating in a rather imperfect world. Let me try to explain it like this: We fall. We fight. We rise. We inevitably fall again. We rise and fight back. And so it goes, on and on. I can’t help but think (keeping in mind the imperfect creatures we humans are): struggling as we do to find balance in an imperfect world, perhaps we should cease trying to be lastingly happy altogether, and aim to just be

Perhaps, happiness means to dance above the abyss.
Heaven Has no Favorites 

This clash between man’s expectations and experience was beautifully expressed just a few years ago by one of the most exciting characters in television’s recent history, the mythological Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. Echoing voices from all of Remarque’s leading men and women, Travis Fimmel’s character articulates the essential difference between chasing happiness by existing in the conditional what if and tackling life with all its complexities by being present in the now; a distinction we often miss, fixated as we are on the semantics of life rather than its syntax.

What does happiness mean, anyway? Is there any strict definition that we can apply to this convoluted life of ours? Perhaps some mathematical formula we can use to quantify happiness? Or, should we just concur that in real life, unlike in theory, two plus two always equals five? 

With his infallible ability to capture and chronicle life’s nuances, Erich Maria Remarque would map the uneven terrain of men’s arduous quest for meaning. The author himself was a man of not a few contrasts in his own storied life, marked and accentuated as it was by an impoverished childhood, the loss of loved ones, two devastating world wars (he was badly wounded in the first one and prosecuted during the second), extravagant habits, a plethora of affairs and heartbreaks, all mixed with sudden bouts of deep depression. And yet, Remarque would manage to retain his integrity and appreciation of life; a living testament to his own wisdom that leads us to believe “the miracle is always waiting for us somewhere around the corner of despair.”

Read the full article in Argent’s Fall 2021 Infected issue.