Reflections on Reading Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy, #1


When I was three years old I broke my leg.  I had to be hospitalized for ten days, flat on my back, with my leg raised, in traction.  Then I had a hip-high cast till the bones mended.  Sometime after that, I began to have, for a time, what my memory says was a recurrent nightmare.  In the dream, an axe-murderer was loose in our house, going from room to room, hacking to bloody bits whomever he found there.  I saw and heard him go  into my parents’ bedroom, and knew that next he would be coming to the bedroom I shared with my brother, three years older than I, and my sister, nine years my senior.  Trembling, I hid, in my nightmare, under the covers, filled with the guilty hope the axe-murderer would not see me–“guilty” hope, because in seeking to  protect myself I was relinquishing my brother and my sister to their horrible fate under the murderer’s axe, already dripping with  the blood of my parents.  I always woke up before the axe-murderer finished in my parent’s bedroom, and started for ours.

Decades later, when I  was forty-one, something in the concrete life I was living at the time brought the recollection of that old nightmare back to  me.  It was not  that I had the  nightmare again.  Rather, I  just thought of  it, remembered it, found my mind returning to it repeatedly.  One day during that period in my life, I was driving my wife to the airport for a brief business trip she had to take, and I  happened to tell her about how that nightmare from many years ago had been repeatedly returning to my mind lately.  Suddenly, as I was telling my wife about the old dream, and came to the point of remarking that I was hiding under the covers in the nightmare in accordance with the old, infantile notion that, if I could not see, I could not  be seen–as I was making that remark to my wife, something suddenly flashed on me, an insight into myself and the mechanism of that nightmare in my own psychic life.

What flashed on me was, quite simply, that I was the axe-murderer.  And, in the same flash, I  understood that the real psychic purpose of  the dream in my own childhood life–and, in fact, up till that moment of insight when I was forty-one–was precisely not to let it be seen, most especially to myself, that I was indeed the axe-murderer.  That is, the point of the nightmare had been, in effect, to allow me to suppress all the confusion and rage and indignation at what had been happening to  me with my broken leg, suppress it by externalizing it, in my dream, in the figure of the axe-murderer as a distinct, separate entity.

That insight was crucial to my own continued “recovery” at that time, in my forties, from the traumas of my own life, traumatizing as they were to me, regardless of how mild they might appear when considered “objectively” by a “disinterested observer.”  (And so considered, to be sure, there is little that might appear to such an observer as all that traumatic about my childhood.  Nor would I wish to suggest anything to the contrary:  I had a “happy enough” childhood, with “good enough,” loving parents, by any “objective,” “disinterested” standard.)  My sudden insight  also, another twenty years later, helped me to appreciate British novelist Pat Barker’s wonderful trilogy of novels–her Regeneration trilogy, so called after the title of the first novel of the three–about trauma and recovery among British trench-line soldiers and their caregivers in World War I. 

I first read Barker’s novel Regeneration itself in 1997, after seeing the movie version, and finding it moving–and troubling.  Shortly before that, I had also been moved and troubled by Steven Spielberg’s graphic rendition of the Allied D-Day landings on the beaches of  Normandy in World War II, in the opening seens of Saving Private Ryan, which came out about the same time.  At that time, my interest in the connections between philosophy and trauma had not yet clearly crystallized.  As I look back now, I can see in my own response to those two films the important beginning of that crystallization process. 

However, it was not until more than a decade later, when I reread Barker’s original novel along with the other two novels in the Regeneration trilogy that I fully appreciated her achievement.  In the long entry below, first written my philosophical journal last summer, and in a series of entries to follow, I share the most important reflections to which the reading of her work invited me.


Monday, July 7, 2008

I’m reading Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door, her sequel to Regeneration and the second volume in her World War I trilogy that ends with The Ghost Road.  One of her continuing characters is W. H. R. Rivers, the British psychiatrist whose work on WW I “shell shock” victims was crucial  in the formation of the modern sense of trauma with which I’m concerned.  Her presentation of Rivers on pages 140-149, interacting first with her fictional character Billy Prior, who undergoes a “fugue” state à la Jekyll and Hyde, then with Rivers’ colleague, another “historical” character, Henry Head, captures wonderfully much of whit is conceptually of interest to me in the whole business of “trauma.”

At this point in the novel, Rivers lets Prior “change places” for a moment, and be analyst to Rivers’s patient.  Rivers has “visual memory,” in the sense of any such memory.  In the exchange of places with Prior, this loss of visual  memory is read back to Rivers as itself founded on an early experience Rivers had “in Brighton,” and which Prior right away interprets as itself traumatic, jut as his (Prior’s) own “neurasthenia” is something traced back, in Rivers’s earlier work with Prior, to the traumatic experience in the French trenches of coming out of a shelling and finding one of his comrade’s eyeballs in his hand (which becomes in Prior’s nightmares at the time of this novel “the eye in the door” of the prison cell where he has recently visited a pacifist inmate, a woman who took care of him in his childhood and with whose family story his own becomes intertwined–an “eye in the door” representative of the general surveillance obsession of British society in 1918, and reminiscent before its time of America post-9/11, even though  Barker’s novel appeared eight years before, in 1993).

In Prior’s reading of Rivers’s lack of all capacity for visual memory, Rivers has “blinded himself” so as not to have to see whatever that episode in Brighton involved (pp. 140-141):  “Whatever it was, you blinded yourself so you wouldn’t have to go on seeing it. . . . You put your mind’s eye out.”  As I used to put it, he “pulled an Oedipus” on himself.  And it is also worth noting the similarity to my own “blinding” of myself by hiding under the covers in my old axe-murderer nightmare.  Might, indeed, all traumatic numbing or distancing or supression (as Barker calls it in these pages) involve such blinding of oneself as a blinding to oneself, a blinding to oneself in the sense that what one does not want to see is also precisely oneself, the very self one blinds?  Maybe.  At any rate, I’ll go on with the passages in Barker’s novel.

Rivers lets Prior and others think he is not aware of the loss involved in his lack of visual memory.  He is, however, already aware of it.  P. 141:  “It was a loss, and he had long been aware of it, though he had been slow to  connect it with the Brighton house experience.  Slower still to recognize that the  impact of  the experience had gone beyond the loss of visual memory and had occasioned a deep split between the rational, analytical cast of his mind and his emotions.  It was easy to overstate this:  he had, after all, been subject to a form of  education which is designed to inculcate precisely such a split, but thought the division went deeper in him than it did in most men.  It was almost as if the experience–whatever it was [Note:  maybe “the experience” in trauma is always an “as if,” and a “whatever it was”–that is, maybe the ontological split which is the emergence of “awareness” as such is always a matter of a Lacanian sort “quilting point,” wherein something datable/locatable is made to function as the “site” where awareness “situates” itself.]–had triggered an attempt at dissociation of  personality, through, mercifully, not a successful one.  Still, he had been throughout most of his life, a deeply divided man, and though he would once have said this division exercised little, if any, influence on his thinking, he had come to believe it had determined the direction of his research.”  Barker then goes on to the key exemplification of that impact on, and, indeed (though she doesn’t say this explicitly), its repetition in, Rivers’s later research (p.142): “Many years after that experience [at Brighton], he and Henry Head had conducted an experiment together [as also recounted in Regeneration, which I want to reread now, with these other two volumes of the trilogy].  The nerve supplying Head’s left forearm had been severed and sutured, then over a period of five years they had traced the progress of regeneration.  This had taken place in two phases.  The first was characterized by a high threshold of sensation, though when the sensation was finally evoked it was, to use Head’s own word, ‘extreme’.  In addition to this all-or-nothing quality, the sensation was difficult to localize. Sitting blindfold at the table, Head had been unable to locate the stimulus that was causing him  such severe pain.  This primitive form of innervation they called the protopathic.”

To interrupt the recounting of Barker’s text, here, I willl observe that, if one takes Rivers’s and Head’s experiment as a general model for trauma, then at this “first phase” of regeneration–which, I’d also note here, is  perhaps what is involved in all “generation,” so that all generation is already as such re-generation, just as all traumatic experience (which may equal all experience, period, if I’m onto something) is always a repetitive re-experiencing–there is generalized un-ease or dis-ease, the generalized sense that “something is wrong.”  It is important that this be seen as belonging to a process of re-generation that comes, itself, only after the period Freud calls “latency,” when everything seems “all right” after the traumatic-traumatizing episode (i. e., the triggering episode for remembering:  cf. Plato’s anamnesis).  Then the “second phase” is, in effect, an imaginative construction (cf. Heidegger’s Kant-Buch) wherein that generalized, global dis-ease is built into an image/brought to stand at some site “somewhere”/”located.”  Thus, as Barker’s passage goes on (p. 142 again, picking up right where I left off):

“The second phase of regeneration–which they called the epicritic [as distinct from  the first phase, the  protopathic]–followed some months later [just as the redirection, so to speak, of generalized dis-ease to  a given “memory image” in recovery from trauma in general], and was characterized by the ability to make graduated responses and so to locate the source of a stimulus precisely.  [Yes!  Just so!]  As the epicritic level  of innervation was restored, the lower, or  protopathic, level was partially integrated with it and partially suppressed,  so that the  epicritic system carried out two functions:  one, to help the organism adapt to its environment by supplying it with accurate information [cf. Kantian  schemata], the other, to  suppress the protopathic, to keep the animal within leashed.  [But what Barker here presents as two functions emerges, in the images of her own telling of this story, as really just two sides of one and the same function–the function, as it were, whereby what Kant calls “the transcendental imagination” builds a world!]  Inevitably, as time went on, both words had acquired broader meanings [or had they perhaps gone through a process of degeneration and “idolization”?], so that ‘epicritic’ came to stand for everything rational, ordered, cerebral, objective, while ‘protopathic’ referred to the emotional, the sensual, the chaotic, the primitive [so that an originally "ontological" distinction de-generates into an “ontic” one between two different regions of being].  In this  way the experiment both reflected Rivers’s internal divisions [and thereby–or, in this case, at least, doing so–exteriorizing them, onto-cizing them, and thereby doing in a sort of benign fashion the very splitting that Prior does in his “fugue” state–though Barker seems to miss this analogy] and supplied him  with a vocabulary in which to  express them.  He might almost have said with Henry Jekyll [in lines from Stevenson which Barker herself uses as the epigraph for her whole novel], It was on the moral side, in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two  natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both . . . .”

Barker returns from there to  Prior’s case of his fugue state, of which, she writes (pp. 143-144), for Rivers, “There was one genuinely disturbing feature of the case;  that odd business [in Prior’s case] of making an appointment in the fugue state and keeping it in the normal state. It suggested the fugue state was capable of influencing Prior’s behavior even when it was not present, in other words, that it was functioning as a co-consciousness.  Not that a dual  personality need develop even from that.  He intended to make sure it didn’t.  There would be no hypnosis, no encouraging Prior to think of the fugue state as an alternative self.”  But Barker goes on to observe–and it is an important observation with regard to the necessarily constructed character of trauma, a notion I’m exploring (among others) here.  “Even so.  It had to be remembered Prior was no mere bundle of symptoms, but an extremely complex personality, with his own views on his condition.  And his imagination was already at work, doing everything it could to transform the fugue state into a malignant double.  He believed in the monsters [at the edge of old maps, where the cartographer’s knowledge ended]–and whatever Rivers might decide to do, or refrain from doing–Prior’s belief in them would inevitably give them power.”

That is the end of Ch. 11.  In the next few pages, in Ch. 12, Barker picks up with an episode in which Rivers and Head are testing for the progress of “regeneration” in a head-wound victim from the front, named Lucas.  Barker has Rivers observing how Head can switch back and forth at will between caring, concerned, sympathetic care-giver for Lucas, to the dispassionate, clinical observer viewing Lucas in terms of  an interesting technical problem for the research clinician in Head/who is also Head.  One moment being the detached clinician, the next, in response to Lucas looking up, Head becomes the caring healer.  However (p. 146-147):  “A murmur of encouragement, and Lucas returned to his drawing.  Head’s face, looking at the rigid purple scar on the shaved head, again became remote, withdrawn.  His empathy, his strong sense sense of humanity he shared with his patients, was again suspended.  A necessary suspension, without which the practice of medical research, and indeed of medicine itself [Yes!  “Indeed!”  Because modern medicine, at one with all science in the modern sense, is based upon exactly such suppression of care and, therewith, of  world!], would hardly be possible, but none the less identifiably the same suppression [Exactly!]  the soldier must achieve in order to  kill.  The end was different [Is she so sure?], but the psychological mechanism employed to achieve it was essentially the same.  What Head was doing, Rivers thought, was in some ways a benign, epicritic form of the morbid dissociation that had begun to afflict Prior.  Head’s dissociation was healthy because the researcher and the physician each had instant access to the experience of the other, and both had access to Head’s experience in all other areas of  his life.  Prior’s was pathological because areas of  his conscious experience had  become inaccessible to memory.  [Yet, interestingly, it is precisely and only in dealing with Prior’s case that, through the power Prior’s illness allows him to  bring to bear in his earlier interrogation" of Rivers that the latter is brought to “remember,” as Barker says on p. 141, is “brought face to  face with the full  extent of his [Rivers’s own] loss [in his loss of visual memory]”–or at least it, even earlier, had taken an interaction with a “native,” “in the Torres Straits,” whom Rivers watched reliving as re-seeing an earlier episode of her own life, to bring Rivers face to face with that  loss of his  own.  According to that, it is Rivers–and, by implication, Head–for whom “areas of their own conscious experience” have become “inaccessible to memory.”  That symbolically points to this:  Prior’s so called “pathology” more belongs to recovery than does Rivers’s and Head’s “healthy” dissociation!  See my own treatment of addiction as the cure for idolatry [in my book Addiction and Responsibility].  What was interesting [and here Barker is right on target, I think] was why Head’s dissociation didn’t lead to the kind of split that had taken place in Prior.  Rivers shifted his position and sighed.  One began by finding mental illness mystifying, and ended by being still more mystified by health [or whatever passes for it].”

Still on page 147, returning to Head, Barker notes that some areas of his left hand remain as areas of “protopathic innervation,” and adds, “for the process of regeneration is never complete.”  To be sure!  So there is never “cure,” only “recovery”:  as in the men in the [AA] Big Book “who have lost their legs:  they never grow new ones.”

Then, ending this episode, Barker has Head remark, concerning a newly emergent tendency on Rivers’s part no longer just to go along with things one should not go along with(p. 149), “‘What happened to the gently flowing Rivers we all used to know and love?'”  Rivers responds:  “‘Went AWOL in Scotland [in the clinic where the action in Regeneration, the earlier novel, takes place].  Never been seen since.'”  Head replies,”‘Yes.'”  Rivers:  “‘Yes what?'”  Head:”‘Yes, that was my impression.'”

And isn’t it precisely there, in that image of Rivers, that we have a model, and image, of a genuine health–one which is not the myth of an original wholeness or absence of all disease, but is, instead, a clear image, cleared of all such myth, in which all such “original health” is disavowed, and all health is seen as recovery from illness? In effect, Rivers lets himself be riven, but without lapsing into the externalizing distancing of the fugue state as represented by Prior, on the one hand, or of the technician-clinician-scientist as represented by Head, on the other.  Rivers, riven, continues to bleed–as manifest in the stutter that now reenters his speech when he no longer keeps his mouth shut in the face of “business as usual,” in effect.


A bit later in the novel, Rivers is sleeping at the hospital and wakens from a nightmare connected to the earlier experience with Head and Lucas, the patient.  Page 164:  “The link with Head carrying out the tests on Lucas was obvious [when Rivers interprets his  nightmare, in which Head operates on a cadaver, but it turns out not yet to be dead].  Rivers had thought, as he watched Head looking at Lucas, that the same suspension of empathy that was so necessary a part of the physician’s task was also, in other contexts, the root of all monstrosity.  Not merely the soldier, but the torturer also, practices the same suspension.”

 The appalling willingness of doctors to experiment on concentration camp inmates under the Nazis is illuminated by such reflections, for one thing.


Later, the same night, after an air raid, in Rivers’s office (p. 168):  “‘It’s . . . ungraspable, ‘Manning [another character and another patient of Rivers] said at last.  ‘I don’t mean you can’t grasp it because you haven’t been there.  I mean, I can’t grasp it and I have been there.  I can’t get my mind around it.'”

Accurate for trauma in general:  trauma is the ungraspable.


A few pages later (170) Manning talks about “Scudder,” a soldier under his leadership in the platoon back at the front, whom Manning, it turns out, had to shoot–in an act of mercy, to  save him from a slow, agonizing, even more horrible death (A powerful story!).  Scudder seemed to be “clumsy” at everything.  But watching “‘at bayonet practice, running in and lunging and . . . missing.  You know, the thing’s this big, and he was missing it.  And suddenly I realized it was nothing to do with clumsiness.  He couldn’t switch off.  He couldn’t . . . turn off the part of himself that minded.  I’m quite certain when he finally got the bayonet in, he saw it bleed.  And that’s the opposite of what should be happening.  You know I saw men once . . . in close combat, as the manuals say, and one man was reciting the instructions.  Lunge, one, two:  twist, one, two:  out one, two . . . Literally, killing by numbers.  And that’s the way it has to be.  If a man’s properly trained he’ll function on the day almost like an automaton.  And Scudder was the opposite of that.”

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 11:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. A bit too Chaotic To Handle marsala wine ?

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