Pat Barker's Regeneration

After many years, I have finally read Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991). The novel, about life in Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital in Scotland during WWI is, of course, terrific--I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise. I have read W. H. R. Rivers’ essay on the treatment of war neurosis several times and know him to be the prime practitioner of successful early treatment of shell-shock so I was very ready for a novel in which the fictionalized Rivers played hero. I had never thought through, however, the central irony of the cure: that Rivers was curing men to rejoin the army, to return to France and, most likely, be killed. The better he was at helping them talk through their trauma, the quicker he exposed them to more.

This is, of course, what happened to Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and his appearance in the novel, as a young, fawning friend of Siegfried Sassoon created a renewed heartbreak in me. To watch the fictional young man blossom into life as a poet, compose “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and to know his fate (coming, I presume, in volume two of Barker’s trilogy) affected me more than seeing his things on display at the English Faculty Library at Oxford. There, I felt--shameful arrogance--slightly embarrassed at the completeness of the display: he was, after all, not much more than an undergraduate when he died, and the recreation of his bedroom library looks like just that. The diorama, in that cold, modern room, full of fluorescent light, seemed more like an indulgence of parental pride than a monument to a poet. Not so in the novel.

As for Sassoon (1886-1967), knowing he survived beyond the war only intensifies my fascination with his (failed) pursuit of martyrdom in spite of his pacifism. I see now why Jean Wilson wrote his biography, couldn’t understand why others didn’t share her fascination: there’s a crazy, admirable English integrity to returning to a war you don’t believe in, a different irony than the one at the heart of Rivers’ practice--though I’m not quite sure how.

I enjoyed the book, but didn’t think it was amazing until fifty pages from the end. The account there of Rivers witnessing another doctor’s treatment in London--extreme electric shocks, cigarette burns, brutality, impatience (this last seemed almost the worst to me--was gut-wrenching. Suddenly the whole pace of the book shifted for me, what’s at stake loomed much larger. I was doubly grateful to have had some of the patients cured in the mean time--her humanity there saved me. What’s worse about all of this is how familiar the treatment is from The Bell Jar or Girl, Interrupted. (Barker makes a fascinating point, linking women’s mental illness in peacetime to trauma, which, apparently, was worse among men whose job was to watch the battle from a balloon than it was among men in the trenches; passivity, isolation, disempowerment leads to insanity.) Doctors like Rivers remain rare; we remain inhumane to each other; war continues and we continue to train people to honor martyrs and seek martyrdom. Even I had to choke back tears at the Budweiser ad in which returning soldiers get a standing ovation in the airport: but then I think of my student, dropped out of college and now reapplying for an ROTC scholarship. She did not only choke back tears, she made a decision to willingly put her life on the line. I don’t think those in power are taking that willingness to sacrifice seriously enough. Young people are quick and generous in their offers; the elderly and powerful, just as quick and eager to spend young lives in the pursuit of--what? “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”