Friday, June 06, 2014

Compassion for the Combatants

Regeneration (Regeneration, #1)Regeneration 
by Pat Barker

“In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who '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.”   ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Regeneration was a Booker Prize nominee described by the New York Times Book Review as one of the four best novels of the year in its year of publication. It is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1995. The novel is loosely based on the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers like Siegfried Sassoon being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Barker attributed the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist familiar with the writings of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his experiments with nerve regeneration.

Some of the themes in the novel include madness, homosexuality, loss of masculinity and the idea of regeneration itself. Madness is exhibited through symptoms such as mutism, fear of blood, and Sassoon's angry anti-war declaration.  “I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”  Because such behavior is deemed unacceptable Sassoon is given the label "shell-shocked" to discredit his views. Rivers eventually questions whether it is "mad" for these soldiers to have broken down in war or to blindly follow the orders which they are given. Rivers also questions whether it is right to treat this "madness" only to send soldiers back to the war which made them mad in the first place. 

“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.” 

 Love between men is another theme explored as in war the bond between men is a desired quality, and Sassoon is condemned for the love that he shows towards his fellow men. The idea of a loss of masculinity runs throughout the novel. Anderson has dreams where he wears female corsets; Rivers contemplates the feminine qualities needed for his caring profession. Sassoon describes a male soldier who loses his genitals in a war accident and also contemplates the idea of an "intermediate sex"; the boundaries between the two traditional genders are becoming increasingly blurred as soldiers begin to lose the qualities which are, for them, essential in their identity as 'men'. Rivers also remarks on the fact that soldiers serving in the trenches – confined, powerless, forced to do nothing for long stretches despite intense stress – suffer similar symptoms as do women during peace-time.

“Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough's army, than to think they'd been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can't challenge. It's like a very deep voice, saying; 'Run along, little man, be glad you've survived” 

Many patients also refer to Rivers as a father figure; one of River's former patients, Layard, refers to Rivers as a "male mother". It is through this compassion that the soldiers are able to "regenerate" – the motif of the novel from which the title is taken. Rivers explores the fact that his role in helping the soldiers to express their painful experiences means that he requires the skills and traits typical of a woman. He dislikes the idea that nurturing is a uniquely female trait. Rivers also throughout the novel is constantly trying to be a 'fatherly figure' to his patients. This is emphasized by the job that he does. The combined effect of the thematic material and the lucid style of Barker make this a superior historical novel.

Update of GoodReads Review

4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

This one sounds impressive.

The entire issue of "curing" insanity so people can go back to combat, which itself is an insane thing to do was, of course tackled satirically by Joseph Heller in "Catch 22".

James said...

Brian,
This is about an interesting condition that, I believe, was first being diagnosed during World War I. Pat Barker's approach to this issue in her historical novels, while different, pursues in part some of the same ends as Joseph Heller.

smellincoffee said...

War's harrowing effects on the human psyche seem well on display here, and not in the usual ways. Quite a read, from the sound of things.

Do you find you ever have to read other works to recover from disturbing ones?

James said...

While difficult to read at times for the reason that you mention, I was not emotionally vested in the characters to the degree that affected me too much. In the case of Dr. Rivers I read the story as his education in the science of the mind of Sassoon.
I do not remember ever specifically seeking out other works to recover from disturbing books. I try to avoid books that might disturb me, for example any that might contain gross violence or gratuitous gore.
One book I had to set aside was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.