- WW I, Shell Shock, & the Death Drive
When professors of English leave their field of expertise and speculate about medical diagnoses, the results can be both startling and troubling. Perhaps the most famous example of such an ambitious leap was Elaine Showalter’s well-publicized assertion in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997) that the causes of the debilitating physical symptoms reported by United States veterans of the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf were not organic but psychological. This so-called “Gulf War Syndrome,” she stated confidently, was merely a form of male hysteria linked to war neurosis and akin to shell shock in the aftermath of the First World War. Many of those affected by the illness reacted with outrage. As recently as June 2013, moreover, the New York Times cited a new study in which researchers at Georgetown University found neurological damage in the brains of some affected veterans—thus, potential evidence of a biological basis for their illnesses. Whether those trained in literary analysis are qualified to rule on matters related to medicine remains doubtful.
By no coincidence, the least convincing chapter of Wyatt Bonikowski’s otherwise illuminating Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination is “The Invisible Wound: Shell Shock and Psychoanalysis,” in which he moves farthest from discussing modernist authors and their novels and ventures into the practice of psychiatry. Bonikowski reanalyzes some of the soldier-patients whose case histories were recorded during World War I in the medical journal the Lancet as he seeks to counter the conclusions published at the time and to introduce instead a Freudian slant on the origins of “traumatic neuroses” (38). Using, for example, the dream that a particular soldier described while he was under hypnosis—a dream reported by Charles S. Myers “in the first medical article on shell shock” from 1915 (52)—Bonikowski decides that the details “resist the orderly narratives the doctors are trying to construct”; in fact, they suggest to him alternative explanations: [End Page 417]
While we may see evidence of … “danger-instincts” here in the wish to escape the dangers of war by retreating into a dream of home, we may ask once again why self-preservation seems to be linked to a wish for death. It is only a wish for death, however, if we regard being buried in the earth as the soldier’s true wish, which the dream covers with an enticing vision of a woman. But the soldier’s wish may also be for the woman herself, or the sexual desire the woman may represent.(54)
Why Bonikowski takes for granted the heterosexuality of this long-dead soldier and, therefore, feels able to interpret the presence in the dream of a “young lady playing the piano” (53) as indicative of erotic “desire” for a woman may be the more interesting question. Secondhand psychoanalysis seems in general to be a problematic, if not a futile, enterprise.
Had the author continued in this vein, Shell Shock and the Modern-ist Imagination would be of dubious value. But what follows immediately is a chapter of great brilliance: “Transports of a Wartime Impressionism: Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.” Showing both creativity and critical acumen, Bonikowski unpacks the novel’s metaphor of “transport”—a concept applicable to the private worlds of Eros, on the one hand, and to battlefield scenes of troops in transit, on the other—as he builds up to this well-constructed statement: “Ford celebrates the mobility of signification, moving between two meanings of ‘transport’ as easily as switching tracks … [while] suggesting a blurring of the boundaries between the violence of war and the violence of a traumatic sexuality.” Certainly, Tietjens’s experiences with these two sorts of “violence” are shattering ones.
Bonikowski is equally persuasive in his account of Ford as a self-conscious literary innovator, who is “not concerned simply with the impact of war on an individual character’s mind,” nor even with war’s reverberations across the larger social order, but with the “problem...