Reflections on Reading Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy, #5 (of 5)


Here is  my final entry from the series I wrote in my philosophical journal  last summer, concerning Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.  The principle character in the three novels is an “historical” one:  the British psychiatrist W. H. D. Rivers.  Rivers treated numerous cases of “shell shock” in combat soldiers at the front during World War I, and his story is an important episode in the broader one of the emergence of “trauma” as a central category not only of modern medical practice, but of contemporary thought in  general.  The long entry below is the only one I wrote on the final novel of the trilogy, The Ghost Road, for which Barker won the prestigious Booker Prize.

In my next post, I will be leaving Barker behind and moving on to reflections that were occasioned by my reading of other works, but my thinking continues to be influenced by Barker’s admirable work of fiction.  Thus, for me at least, her trilogy is an excellent demonstration that, as William Faulkner once famously remarked, fiction, at least at its best, is truer than the truth.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

In The Ghost Road Barker retells the story of Rivers’s insight coming back from his second trip to Melanesia–but less effectively, in my judgment, than [she tells it] in Regeneration [see my preceding post] (she drops the reference to it as “life changing,” or even as an “insight,” for the main things changed).  Though it is less powerful on it’s own in this later novel, she does, however, let it link up with another important episode from Rivers’s past, from his stays among the head-hunters of Melanesia, an episode she recounts later in The Ghost Road.  In this incident [I am presently discussing], Rivers and Njiru, a medicine man with whom he’s developed a friendship across all the cultural differences, venture together deeper into a cave of the dead (of “ghosts”), beyond where a rockfall has closed most of  the passageway, and beyond where the rest of the members of the tribe and the other two anthropologists have gone, visiting the ghost of a just dead chief in his new home.  Rivers and Njiru come out into a massive cave expanse filled with bats, and a sudden noise Njiru accidentally causes awakens all the bats.  The two men are literally riven in place, and find afterward that they have reached out to one another to clasp hands as they stand rooted to the cave floor till the alarmed bats have finished swarming around them in their frantic flight.  When it’s done, [after they have rejoined the others, and all of them are] on the way back to camp, Rivers and Njiru drop behind and talk, in the Pidgin English to which their communication is confined.  At one point, Njiru pauses for a moment before answering a question Rivers has posed him, about how long the dead chief’s widow must endure a painful  process of staying scrunched up and immobile in a cramped (and muscle cramping, agonizing) sort of dead position in the ritual  of “tongo polo.”  Rivers asks–and this time gets an answer, having asked the same question before to receive no answer–how long the widow must endure tongo polo.  Barker writes:

“A short silence,  though not, Rivers thought, indicating a reluctance to go on speaking.  At that moment Njiru would have told him anything.  Perhasp this was the result of that time in the cave when they’d reached out and gripped each other’s hands.  No, he thought.  No.  There had been two experiences in the cave, and he was quite certain Njiru shared them both.  One was the reaching out to grasp each other’s hands.  But the other was a shrinking, no, no, not shrinking, a compression of identity, into a single hard unassailable point:  the point at which no further compromise is possible,where nothing remains except pure naked self-assertion.  The right to be and to be as one is.”  [Compare Schelling on “contraction” and “identity.”]

A powerful  scene, powerfully told! In her earlier retelling [in The Ghost Road] of the incident first told in Regeneration–an incident which, in the chronology of Rivers’s life, could actually have come after this one with Njiru–Barker had also dropped the reference, in Regeneration, to the insight there (in that earlier-told-but-later-happening:  a nice traumatic structuring of its own right there, by the way!) given, that “there is no measure,” as she has it in Regeneration. [See my earlier posts on Barker.]  Now, in The Ghost Road, thatinsight is postponed in the telling (though pre-poned, in effect, in Rivers’s life as recounted overall) until Barker gets to the passage I’ve just cited, and then [that insight is] no longer expressed as the potentially-misunderstandably “nihilistic” renunciation of any claim to there being a “measure,” but, rather, given an unmistakably positive, non-nihilistic formulation, by being so strongly and effectively linked, here in The Ghost Road, to the notion of the inviolability of the historically and  culturally individualized existence of each and every one of us.

This “new” message–or renewed, deeper telling of the same single message, to be precise–is strongly but just as challengingly heightened by the answer Njiru now, after his pause, goes on to give to Rivers’s question of  how long tongo polomust be endured by a dead chief’s widow.  Njiru, just before his pause, has already told Rivers that tongo polo ends when the men of the tribe “blow the conch” for the widow, to signify it has ended.  When asked what that means, to “blow the conch,” Njiru pauses, but eventually tells him the answer.  Barker effectively recounts it:

  “Njiru was speaking, not out of friendship, though he felt friendship–but out of that hard core of identity, no longer concerned [at least so Rivers experiences it in the novel] to evade questions or disguise his pride in the culture of his people.

“The blowing of the conch, he said, signifies the completion of a successful  raid.  He turned and looked directly at Rivers.  The widow of a chief can be freed [from tongo polo] only by the taking a a head.”

Great stuff!

In the blurb on the back of the book it says: “As Dr.Rivers treats his patients, he begins to see the parallels between the culture of death in the tribes of the South Seas, where he served as a young missionary doctor, and Europe in the grips of World War I.”  Well, at the very least that is misleading, since it can all too easily be taken as just another rendition of the old garbage about how modern “civilized” society is really still just as violent and bloody as the supposed “primitive” society that the modern one wants to pride itself on having left behind.  It seems clear to me that that is not at all  the “parallel,” if there is one.  Rather, the parallel, I’d argue, is  of the uncompromising “self-assertion” Rivers and Njiru  experience together in the cave across all differences with the point [that is, parallel with the point that Rivers’s later, World War I other poet-patient–other than Siegfied Sassoon–Wilfred] Owen makes in Regeneration when Sassoon accuses him of contradicting himself in his, Owen’s, poem on the dignity of heroic bravery.  [See my earlier posts from this series on Barker’s trilogy.]  Owen insists in that earlier novel, against Sassoon, that there is no vindication, no “justification,” of anything by such acts of bravery, but that there is simply “pride.”  Well, to cut to the chase:  Owen’s “pride” is Rivers’s (and Njiru’s, if Rivers’s own experience is trusted, as it should be here) “pure naked self-assertion” of “the right to be and to be as one is.”

Such a pride in being just as one is, is genuine recovery from trauma–and “as one is” means precisely in one’s traumatized, traumatizing concrete, everyday, historical life.


A different point (though it can, I think, be related):  earlier (than the Njiru and  cave experience) in the novel, there is this exchange between Prior, returned now to duty in France, and a new comrade (new to the front, going there with Prior as the latter returns) named Potts, who  has made the all-too-familiar (today, at least) claim that the whole war is being fought for reasons, just not those being publicly given.  Instead, Potts says, it’s all (p. 143) “to safeguard access to the oil-wells of Mesopotamia.”  Prior gives the response I have long given myself to such conspiracy theories, when Potts asks him what he thinks [pp. 143-144]:  “‘What do I think?  I think what you’re saying is basically a conspiracy theory, and like all  conspiracy theories it’s optimistic.  What you’re saying is, OK the war isn’t being fought for the reasons we’re told, but it is being fought for a reason.  It’s not benefiting the people it’s supposed to be benefiting, but it is benefiting somebody.  And I don’t believe that, you see.  I think things are actually much worse than you think because there isn’t any kind of rational justification left.  It’s become a self-perpetuating system.  Nobody benefits.  Nobody’s in control.  Nobody know how to stop.”


To return (directly) to trauma, on page 172 Prior reflects in his diary:  “Rivers’s theory is that the crucial factor in accounting for the vast number of breakdowns this war has produced is not the horrors–war’s always provided plenty of those–but that fact that the strain has to be borne in conditions of immobility, passivity and helplessness.” Prior thinks his current experience, which is of “mobile warfare,” counts against Rivers’s thesis, which in his reading fits only the trenches (as what’s new in WW I):  “Cramped in holes in the ground waiting for the next random shell to put you out.  If that is the crucial factor, then the test’s invalid [the test of his own experience as he now returns to the front]–because every exercise we do now is designed to prepare for open, mobile warfare.  And that’s what’s happening–it’s all different.”

Yet just [starting on] the preceding page (171) [then finishing on 172], Prior has written:  “I’ve got a permanent feeling of wrongness at the nape of my neck.  Exposure’s the right word, I suppose, and for once the army’s bad joke of a haircut isn’t to blame.  We’re out in the open all the time and I’m used to a war where one scurries about below ground like a mole or a rat.”  Then, in the same paragraph, he continues as I’ve already indicated, with the transition of a quick comment, “It occurred to me last night that Rivers’s idea of my using myself as a test case . . . had one fundamental flaw in it.  Same loony [that is, himself], different war [then in trenches, now in the open],” his own preceding remark of feeling exposed.  [The earlier remark at issue now], however, shows that the underlying condition of “immobility [which is now simply the impossibility of moving anywhere safe], passivity and helplessness” required by Rivers’s theory still prevail.


Prior and Owen end up serving on the front together in this  3rd novel of the  trilogy.  At the end of the second of the three parts of the novel, on p. 200 (of 276), Prior writes in his  diary:  “We are Craiglockhart’s success stories.  Look at us.  We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think–at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror.  But our nerves are completely steady.  And we are still alive.”

Reminiscent of the end of Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, where “Joker” in the voice-over says, “I am in a world of shit.  And I am not afraid.”

This, indeed, is the only semblance of “recovery” possible in such a totally diseased world.


To free the chief’s widow from tongo polo, since head-hunting has been banned under threat of punishment by the British, Njiru’s tribe bring a “head” to free her by kidnapping a child from a neighboring tribe.  Various ceremonies follow, including in time an episode in which the “ghosts” are brought back to talk.  A bit earlier, another ceremony has Njiru–who is strangely absent when the ghost talk later occurs–officiating, to bring the dead chief’s skull, now rotted away of all  flesh, into the “skull  house.”  Rivers reflects (p. 207):

“Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives.  Head-hunting was what they had lived for.  Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest.  

“This was a people perishing from the absence of  war.  It showed in the genealogies, the decline in the birth rate, from one generation to the next–the island’s population was less that half what it had been in [the dead chief’s] youth–and much of that decline was deliberate.”

A moment later, Rivers is offered and accepts, along with the rest, some baked yams and pork, but remains thoughtful.  “Once he looked up to see Njiru on the  other side of the fire, a tall, lean, twisted shape wavering in the column of heat, and surprised on the other man’s face an expression of –bitterness?  No, stronger than that.  Hatred, even.”

After this, the episode of “ghost talk” occurs.  Barker has Rivers recall it in London one night during the war (p 211-212):

“Ten years later, throwing off hot sheets [he has a fever],Rivers reflected that the questions the ghosts had asked had all been questions the living people [of the tribe] wanted answered.  What were the white men [that is, Rivers himself and the other two anthropologists] doing on the island?  Were they as harmless as they appeared?  Why did they want to hear the language of ghosts?  Was it possible the spirits might be offended by their presence?

“At Craiglockhart, Sassoon, trying to decide whether he should abandon his protest and go back to France, had woken to find the ghost of a dead comrade standing by his bed [in Regeneration].  And thereafter, on more than one occasion, shadowy figures had gathered out of the storm, asking him, Why was he not  in the line?  Why had he deserted his men?

“The ghosts were not an attempt at evasion, Rivers thought, either by Siegfried or by the islanders.  Rather, the questions became more insistent, more powerful, for being projected into the mouths of the dead.”

An issue of the debt to the dead.

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