Reflections on Reading Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy, #3

2/27/09

Below is the next entry from my philosophical journal concerning Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy.  The preceding two entries pertained to the second volume of the trilogy, The Eye in the Door.  After reading that second novel last summer, I went back and reread the first of the three, Regeneration, which gave the name to the trilogy as a whole.  The entry below, under the date I originally wrote it in my journal, was occasioned by my rereading of that first novel.

 

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Now I’ve gone back to reread Regeneration, which did not at all impress me the first time I read it, but to which my work on trauma has now opened me.  I’m better than halfway through already, and will go on from Regeneration to The Ghost Road, the last of Barker’s trilogy.

Page 96:  In an exchange with Prior about why mutism occurs in “shell shock” victims among private soldiers much more commonly than among officers, where, instead, stammering (as does Rivers himself) is the most common symptom, Rivers observes:  “‘Mutism seems to spring from a conflict between wanting to say something, and knowing that if you do say it the consequences will be disastrous.  And for the private soldier the consequences of speaking his mind are always going to be far worse than they would be for an officer.  What you tend to get with officers is stammering.  And it’s not just mutism.  All the physical symptoms:  paralysis, blindness, deafness.  They’re all common in private soldiers and rare in officers. It’s almost as if for the . . . the laboring classes illness has to be physical.  They can’t take their condition seriously unless there’s a physical symptom.  And there are other differences as well.  Officers’ dreams tend to be more elaborate.  The men’s dreams are much more a matter of simple wish fulfillment.  You know, they dream they’ve been sent back to France, but on the day they arrive peace is declared. That sort of thing.’

“[Prior:]  ‘I think I’d rather have their dreams than mine.’

“‘How do you know?’ Rivers said. ‘You don’t remember your dreams.’

“‘You still haven’t said why.’

“‘I suppose it’s just a matter of having a more complex mental life.'”

Since Prior, though an officer, comes from a lower-class background, he immediately senses the class bigotry that slips even into Rivers’s responses at the point of such a remark–which really just begs the question, since even if true, it would still, I’d add, need explaining just why officers tend to have “more complex mental lives.”  (Barker is very good at capturing this structural–not “intentional”–class bias in her novels.  So, for another example, in The Eye in the Door at one point Prior points out how Rivers always calls him “Prior,” whereas he calls the [patients who are] members of the upper class by their first names–e. g., “Siegfried” for Sassoon.)  Thus, page 97, the dialogue continues:

“Prior reacted as if he’d been stung.  ‘Are you serious?  You honestly believe that that gaggle of noodle-brained half-wits down there has a complex mental life?  Oh, Rivers.’

“‘I’m not saying it’s universally true, only that it’s generally true.  Simply as a result of officers receiving a different and, for the most part, more prolonged education.’

“‘The public schools.’

“‘Yes.  the public schools.’

“Prior raised his head.  ‘How do I fit into that?’

“‘We-ell, it’s interesting that you were mute and that you’re one of the few people in the hospital who doesn’t stammer.’

“‘It’s even more interesting that you do.’

“Rivers was taken aback.  ‘That’s d-different.’

“‘How is it different?  Other than that you’re on the other side of the desk?’  He saw Rivers hesitate.  ‘No, I’m not being awkward.  I’m genuinely interested.’

“‘It’s usually thought that neurasthenic stammers arise from the same kind of conflict as mutism, a conflict between wanting to speak and knowing that w-what you’ve got to say is not acceptable.  Lifelong stammerers [such as Rivers himself]?  Well.  Nobody really knows.  It may even be genetic.'”

More than one thing is interesting in this exchange.  Here are at least two:

1)  The comparison to addiction rates, where the greater the social oppression (by race, class, whatever)–and, therefore, the greater the limitations on effective agency–the greater the addiction rate.  The explanations of the two phenomena are the same.

2)  The suggestion I, at least, can read into Rivers’s final remark:  “lifelong” stammerers are victims/points of manifestation or breakthrough where the underlying traumatic structures themselves manifest apart from any specific triggering occasion, such as the war, which triggers “shell shock” in, perhaps, the next most “susceptible” layer of the population–“susceptible,” that is, to such breakouts/eruptions of the traumatic.

P. 105, Prior asks, having under hypnosis now remembered his triggering trauma in the trenches, why that episode brought on his trauma, when he’d seen as bad or worse too often before.  Rivers replies:  “‘You’re thinking of breakdown as a reaction to a single traumatic event, but it’s not like that.  It’s more a matter of . . . erosion.  Weeks and months of stress in a situation where you can’t get away from it.'”  Prior still wonders why he broke down, and others didn’t.  Rivers (105-106):  “‘I don’t know that there is a “kind of person who breaks down.”  I imaging most of us could if the pressure were bad enough. I know I could.'”

Indeed, part of the power of Barker’s novels is how they depict the stiff-upper-lip, “masculine,” British mentality as the refusalof breakdown and, therefore, the exponential heightening of the destructive potential of breakdown when, despite everything, it breaks out,  as it inevitably will.

 

P. 157, in an exchange where Sassoon is helping Owen [another of Barker’s “historical” characters:  the poet Wilfred Owen, who was at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland under Rivers’s care when Sassoon himself was, and who later died in the trenches back at the front] revise a poem, which Sassoon recognizes for its power.

Sassoon:  “‘You do realize you’ve completely contradicted yourself, don’t you?  You start by saying there is no consolation [for the the horrible deaths of so many at the front], and then you say there is.’

“‘Not consolation.  Pride in the sacrifice.’

“‘Isn’t that consolation?’

“‘If it is, it’s justifiable. There’s a point beyond which–‘

“‘I don’t see that.’

“‘There’s a point beyond which you can’t press the meaninglessness.  Even if the courage is being abused, it’s still . . .'”

Owen leaps up to get something of Sassoon’s own where he, says Owen, does “the same thing.”  Sassoon notices [to himself], “. . . he’s getting better.  No stammer.  Quick decisive movements.  The self-confidence to contradict his hero [Sassoon himself].  And the poem had been a revelation.”

Here, then, Owen himself passes beyond [the point at] which one can no  longer “press the meaninglessness.”  But notice:  The “revelation” which is the poem allows for “pride in the sacrifice” necessary to  get that revelation, but in no way “redeems” that sacrifice, that abuse inflicted on Owen, the poet.

Great exchange here!

 

P. 184:  “Rivers knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration.  Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems.  No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.”

P. 222:  Taking a job at the RAF hospital in London, leaving Craiglockhart in Edinburgh to do so, Rivers finds that there are significant differences in susceptibility to  breakdown and intensity of it “between the different branches of the RAF.  Pilots, though they did indeed break down, did so less frequently and  usually less severely than the men who manned observations balloons.  They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable either to avoid attack or to defend themselves effectively against it, showed the highest incidence of breakdown of any service.  Even including infantry officers.  This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition.  That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways.  Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.”

 Once again, the key role of the sense of effective agency.

Published in: on February 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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