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.

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


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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Reflections on Reading Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy, #2


Below is the next entry in my philosophical journal, dated when originally written, from a series of entries containing my reflections on British novelist Pat Baker’s Regeneration Trilogy, so named from the title of the first of the three books.  The following is my second entry on the second novel of the trilogy, The Eye in the Door


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A bit later in Barker’s novel [later than the passage cited at the end of my preceding  post], Rivers visits [the British poet] Siegfried Sassoon [another of Barker’s “historical” characters in the trilogy] in Lancaster Hospital after the latter has been sent back again from the front for a head (scalp) wound, which Sassoon may have brought on himself in an effort to die with the men he’d led to death over the tours he did in France. As Prior, Manning (a married, homosexual, upper-class officer), and Rivers (and Head) all in their own ways have Jekyll-Hyde splits, so does Sassoon in these passages reveal himself to be two persons in one:  the caring humanitarian, and the sadistic killer.  His war protest and his thinly veiled attempts to get himself killed off, both manifest as a sort of drive to introduce basic existential “consistency” into his own being.  At one point, before his most recent accident, an encounter with a new second in command to him at the front, makes Sassoon face himself (as Prior makes Rivers face himself earlier [in the “change of places” episode I commented upon in my immediately preceding post]).  As he describes the incident to Rivers (p. 229):

“A marked change in tone:  ‘It was when I faced up  to how bloody stupid it was.’   Rivers looked puzzled:  ‘What was?’   [Sassoon replies:] ‘My pathetic little formula for getting myself back to France.’  He adopted a mincing, effeminate tone.  ‘I’m not going back to kill people.  I’m only going back to look after some men.'”

A couple of pages later (231-232) Sassoon says:  “‘You know, Rivers, it’s no good encouraging people to know themselves and . . . face up to their emotions, because out there they’re better off not having any.  If people are going to have to kill, they need to be brought up to expect to have to do it.  They need to be trained not to care because if you don’t . . .’  Siegfried gripped Rivers’s hand so  tightly that his face clenched with the effort of concealing his pain.  ‘It’s too cruel.'”


After finally helping Sassoon calm down and go to sleep, Rivers sits beside him, thinking.  P. 233:  “He was finding it difficult to be both involved and objective, to turn steadily on Sassoon both sides of medicine’s split face.”  P. 235:  “Perhaps, contrary to what was usually supposed, duality was the stable state; the attempt at integration, dangerous.  Certainly Siegfried had found it so.”


P. 249, exchange between Prior and Rivers: 

“Prior was lost in thought.  ‘Is it just remembering?’  [Rivers:] ‘I don’t think I know what you mean.’  [Prior:] ‘If I remember, is that enough to  heal the split?’  [Rivers:]  ‘No, I don’t think so. I think there has to be a moment of recognition.  Acceptance.  There has to be a moment when you look in the mirror and say, yes, this too is myself.’  [Prior:] ‘That could be difficult.'”

Published in: on February 25, 2009 at 5:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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