Reflections on Reading Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy, #4


Below is the next to last of the series of entries I made in my philosophical journal last summer occasioned by my reading of British novelist Pat Barker’s wonderful Regeneration trilogy–three novels dealing with W. H. R. Rivers, Siegfried Sassoon, and other “historical” characters, along with various “fictional” ones, all involved one way or another with cases of “shell shock” in World War I.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The “regeneration” of Barker’s title is above all that of Rivers himself, whose repressed/severed affectivity is triggered into such regeneration, as Head’s nerves were in their earlier experiment, by his work with “war neurosis” victims and especially with Sassoon, the supposed non-war-neurotic “patient” under his care,whom he helps persuade to return to the front (against his [Sassoon’s] own protest against the war).  Late in the novel, in an exchange with Head, Rivers says that, on his way back from (pp. 241-242) “my second trip to the Solomons,” he undergoes “the experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident.”  On the way back, with a boatload of “recent converts” among the Islanders, they start asking his own questions as an anthropologist back to him–especially one in which the question is with whom you would share it, if you “earned or found a guinea.” So they ask Rivers what he would  do with it.  With whom would he share it?  He replies:  “I explained that I was unmarried and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody.  They were incredulous.  How could anybody live like that?”  They end up in a contagious laughing fit.  “And I suddenly saw,” Rivers then goes on, describing his “life changing insight,” “that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs.  And do you know, that was a moment of the most amazing freedom.  I lay back and I closed my eyes and I felt as if a ton weight had been lifted.”

Reminds me of my Mazatlan experience in February of ’82 [when I had a “life-changing” experience of a sort myself, an insight into my life and concerns as a teacher and professor that also, like Rivers’s insight, brought with it an amazing sense of freedom, and which I may someday recount here, or make public in some other suitable setting], as does his description of how he was not able to retain that freedom and clarity.  Head responds, a propos of Rivers’s remark on freedom, “‘Sexual freedom?'”  Rivers responds:  “‘That too.  But it was more than that.  It was . . . the Great White God de-throned, I suppose.  Because we did, we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things.  That was how we approached them.  And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.’  [Head:]  ‘And yet you say nothing changed.’  [Rivers:]  ‘Nothing changed in England.'”

Just so, nothing changed at DU [the University of Denver, where I teach] when I came back from Mazatlan [despite, I might add, changes I introduced into my own classroom teaching, which I later had to abandon, but which continue to have an impact on what I do as a teacher in class].

[Rivers continues:]  “‘And I don’t know why.  I think partly just the sheer force of other people’s expectations.  You know you’re walking around with a mask on, and you desperately want to take it off and you can’t because everybody else thinks it’s your face.”

The problem here is, once again, as with recovery from addiction:  to last, the change must be institutionalized in everydayness.  It must be incarnated and supported by new institutional structures of everyday life on an ongoing basis.

“‘And now?'”  Head asks at that point.  And Rivers’s reply both illustrates my point about the need for everyday reinforcement, and points to the “regeneration” being triggered in Rivers by his work with patients at Craiglockhart:  “‘I don’t know.  I think perhaps the patients’ve . . . have done for me what I couldn’t do for myself [shades of AA!].’  He smiled,  ‘You see healing does go on, even if not in the expected direction.'”

This whole exchange is background for Rivers’s reflection, at the very end of the novel [Regeneration, the first of the three], on how the encounter with Sassoon has changed him–and, I might add, as a heralding of how, in the second novel, The Eye in the Door, the reversal of roles with Prior (see the entries on this a few [days ago]) brings Rivers again face to face with himself, just as the biographically much earlier changes of place with the Islanders on the way back from the Solomons did [see my preceding post].  [Rivers reflects] (pp. 248-249):  “If anything, he [Rivers] was amused by the irony of the situation, that he, who  was in the business of changing people, should himself have been changed, and by somebody who was clearly unaware of having done it.”

Rivers’sreflection then continue:  “It was a far deeper change, though, than merely coming to believe that a negotiated peace would be possible, and desirable.  That at least it ought to be explored.  He remembered telling Head how he had tried to  change his life when he came back from Melanesia for the second time and how that attempt had failed.  He’d gone on being reticent, introverted, reclusive.  Of course it had been a very introverted, self-conscious attempt [Trying to self oneself out of self!], and perhaps that was why it hadn’t worked.  Here in this building, where he had no time to be introverted or self-conscious [because of the demands on him at the RAF hospital in London], where he hardly had a moment to  himself at all, the changes had taken place without his knowledge.  That was not Siegfried.  That was all of them.  [Just as he has been counselling his patients that breakdown is not a matter of a single episode.]  Burns and Prior and Pugh and a hundred others.  As a young man he’d been both by temperament and conviction deeply conservative, and not merely in politics.  Now, in middle age, the sheer extent of the mess seemed to be forcing him into conflict with the authorities over a very wide range of issues . . . medical, military.  Whatever.  A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.  Perhaps the rebellion of the old might count for rather more than the rebellion of the young.  Certainly poor Siegfried’s rebellion hadn’t counted for much, though he reminded himself that he couldn’t know that.  It had been a completely honest action and such actions are seeds carried in the wind.  Nobody can tell where, or in what circumstances, they will bear fruit.”

Regeneration, indeed–at least for and in Rivers.  What’s more, as she brings it into the light, WWI could have triggered a regeneration in medicine and science and the military and whatever of the whole damned West.  But it didn’t–at least not yet.  But perhaps the latency period for such global or worldwide change is unusually long, as Nietzsche, for one, can be taken to suggest.

(Note:  the last half page of the novel is a great “telescoping” of what lies ahead in the next novel for Sassoon:  the breakdown of his illusions about himself and the confrontation with his own internal divisions, sending him into  his own “real” war neurosis, precisely when his attempt to “solve” the problem, by getting himself killed in France, fails.)

Published in: on March 2, 2009 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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