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  • Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and the Freudianization of Shell Shock
  • Michèle Barrett (bio)

Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, published in the early 1990s, has played a part in current interest in the shell shock of the First World War. Of the three books, Regeneration itself, published in 1991, has been the most popular, and a film adaptation was released in 1997. The novel Regeneration focuses on Siegfried Sassoon's protest against the war in 1917 and his treatment by Dr. William H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital. A "talking cure" practiced by Rivers is contrasted with the more brutal, though also effective, methods of doctors such as Lewis Yealland, who is shown shocking a mute soldier back into speech through "faradization." Rivers is presented by Barker as a kindly worker of miracles, the doctor who can make men mentally fit to return to the front without causing them physical pain. The contrast between the two methods of treatment is shown dramatically in a key scene of both the book and the film, where Rivers is an uncomfortable spectator of Yealland's treatment, which appears to be near to torture. Barker's depiction of Rivers's methods as thoughtful, respectful, and gentle to the patient are accompanied by many references to his interest in Sigmund Freud's work—there are four in the first fifty pages alone (Regeneration 29, 31, 46, 47). These references contribute to a general impression that shell shock, or war neurosis as it was called in psychoanalytic circles, provided the [End Page 237] ground on which a modernly gendered and psychotherapeutic approach to mental illness first became influential in Britain. In her author's note to the first volume, Barker cites Eric Leed's No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (1979) and Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady (1987) as "texts which contain stimulating discussions of 'shell-shock'" (251). However, a new generation of British historians is reassessing Showalter's thesis: Tracey Loughran has shown that the majority of doctors who treated shell shock brought to it a pre-Freudian, evolutionary understanding of the mind in which traumatized men were infantilized rather than feminized.1

In the context of these debates, I suggest that Freudianism, and psychotherapy in general, has been overemphasized as a factor in the historical and literary interpretation of shell shock. The phenomenon of shell shock, along with the variety of methods used to treat it, might, alternatively, be interpreted in terms of the Foucauldian category of "unreason." Barker's eloquent and influential trilogy, in drawing heavily on the Showalter school of thought, has contributed to a Freudianization of shell shock and is, therefore, a good starting place for considering these general issues.

Michel Foucault suggested that Freud was "the first to open up once again the possibility for reason and unreason to communicate in the danger of a common language" (Mental Illness 69). For Foucault, unreason can be found in the wisdom of the fool—for instance, in the literature of the early modern period. The insights that come from extremes of emotion—such as being in love, or possessed by vengeance, or transformed by a mystical experience—have their own truths in earlier cultures. Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization that in the eighteenth century, in Western Europe, the truths of unreason increasingly became rejected, and reason took over. An opposition, which had not existed before, between reason and unreason developed, and those who persisted in being "unreasonable" were pathologized. Unreason was converted into a medical problem, a psychiatric [End Page 238] problem, and those who suffered from it were locked up, first in public hospitals, then in lunatic asylums. Psychiatry, in which reason speaks about madness, is for Foucault part of this monologue: it can exist only because the communication between reason and unreason has, in general terms, gone. Bearing this argument in mind, I turn to Regeneration, the first novel of the trilogy, which provides Barker's account of Siegfried Sassoon's protest against the war and his subsequent treatment for shell shock and nervous breakdown.

Foucault's argument throws some light on the much-discussed episode of Sassoon's protest against...


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