Comparison of the mental suffering created by war
When exploring the presentation of mental suffering as a result of experiences in war, it is important to consider its literary representation as a lens to examine its true nature. When contemplating both Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration and Douglas’ collection of Second World War poetry, alongside Sherriff’s Journey’s End, there does seem to be a stark illustration of the heinous mentality suffered by those affected by war; both the soldiers themselves and also those connected to them. Moreover, it is necessary to consider the validity of these writers’ portraits of mental calamity in their works if we as readers are concerned with authenticity, which ultimately raises the issue of whether or not there is in fact – as expressed by Graham – an element of pretense when writing war literature from the ‘outside’ of the nefarious experiences of warfare. If Graham’s contention is equitable then verisimilitude plays a vital role when dealing with mental suffering in war literature, thus posing the question of whether or not Barker and Douglas are successful in their respective works in encapsulating the true nature of what Freud called ‘war neuroses’.
One of the most prolific subjects explored by Barker throughout Regeneration is the mental struggle faced by those affected by war regarding gender roles – specifically, the issue of emasculation. Patterson interprets Regeneration to ultimately reveal the ‘need to alter masculine gender roles in order to embrace emotions and be healed’ and this can be considered viable as the damaging effect of emasculation is an extremely emotive topic that is weaved through the entirety of Barker’s novel; largely manifesting itself in almost every male character that the reader encounters. In Chapter Four, for instance, Barker presents the mental suffering inflicted by the prospect of emasculation upon the character of Burns, who after escaping Craiglockhart Hospital reveals a metaphorical representation of feelings of inadequacy as a male. Burns strips himself naked which in itself hints at a sense of vulnerability due to the ‘stripping’ of his protection in the form of clothing and then ‘cupped his genitals in his hands…they didn’t seem to belong with the rest of him’. This seems to indicate Burns’ internal torment, eliminating one of the facets of himself that proves his masculinity; he perhaps believes that he is no longer worthy of the male title due to his discharge from the Front. This is somewhat reminiscent of Sherriff’s use of language in Journey’s End when constructing the dialogue between Stanhope and Hibbert in Act Two, in which Stanhope perhaps directly threatens Hibbert’s masculinity through giving him an ultimatum; ‘you either stay here and try to be a man – or you get out of that door – to desert’. Sherriff’s adoption of pathos here arguably reveals desertion as the antithesis of ‘being a man’ and presents the harsh brutality of the consequences of what was then labelled as ‘cowardice’. Stanhope overtly threatens Hibbert through portentously stating that if Hibbert deserts his post then his revolver will ‘shoot you between the eyes’, thus revealing the cantankerous consequences of such an action. When contemplating Burns’ shame through the lens of the contextual factors relating to desertion as revealed by Sherriff in Journey’s End, the reader’s sympathy for Burns is greatly intensified as the brutal consequences of the human instinct to protect their own life is strenuously challenged.
When relating this back to the issue of verisimilitude, the behavior exhibited by Burns and Hibbert can be aligned to Freudian theories relating to war neuroses and more specifically the indirect influence of Barker’s husband’s role as a neurologist. Depending upon individual interpretations of Freud’s work it is possible to claim that both Barker and Sherriff incorporated elements relevant to the con- cept of war neuroses as a method of implementing both pathos and element of verisimilitude into their respective presentations of war. In 1921, which was notably before the writing of both Journey’s End and Regeneration, Freud concedes that in ‘war neuroses the human ego is defending itself from a danger which threatens it’ and this in many ways links to the mental struggle of both Burns and Hibbert. When considering Freud’s ideology relating to the id and the superego, which respectively hold the human facets of instinct in the id and the influence and understanding of cultural and social expectations within the superego. Freud goes on to claim that ‘what is feared is nevertheless an internal enemy’ which perhaps alludes to an inner mental conflict between the id and the superego; the instinct to survive and preserve one’s life when faced with the horrors of potential death, and the knowledge of the weight of social expectations of the archetypal soldier. This in turn may be – in Freud’s view – the cause of such mental suffering as exhibited by Burns and Hibbert, and the burdening brawl of their crippling terror at the prospect of being killed in war and also the haunting pressure to uphold their status as men and to live up to the ideology of traditional masculinity.
When considering the connotations of masculinity and the role of men within early twentieth century society, it is often concluded that the expectations placed upon men and fathers are to be the ‘protector’ and ‘provider’ for their families. This ideology, which is in some ways still relevant and present in our modern-day society, is further explored by Barker, through analyzing Anderson’s dream in Chapter Four. When contemplating Barker’s novel Loughran agrees with Rivers that ‘war neurosis stemmed from a conflict between self-preservation and duty, and that different symptoms represented different means of attempting to solve or repress this conflict.’ In his dream, Anderson is chased by his father-in-law and then tied up in ‘a pair of lady’s corsets’ which, like Burns’ experience, seems to indicate an internal feeling of inadequacy in not fulfilling the role as the ‘provider’ within society. However, unlike Burns’ mental suffering, Anderson’s personal torment seems to revolve around his role as a husband and father. He tells Rivers, ‘I have a wife and child to support’ and overtly professes that he feels that it is an ‘emasculating experience’ to be ‘locked up in a loony bin’. This seems to hint at what Loughran denotes as an internal ‘conflict’ between the pressure of upholding the duty as the provider and the fear brought about by humanity’s instinctual nature to conserve life and protect themselves.
Whereas the humiliating sense of inadequacy to reach the idealized role of the alpha-male protector suffered by the likes of Anderson in Regeneration, Douglas’ poetry contrastingly seems to exude a tone of abundantly ‘boyish’ masculinity, specifically in ‘Cairo Jag’. In this poem, Douglas immediately implements the metaphorical device of a euphemism in narrating ‘shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake’, the motif of a cake presumably acting as a metaphorical allusion to casual sex. This, combined with the notion of getting drunk seems to hint at what both a contextually relevant reader and a present day reader would resonate to society’s view of the archetypal young man, who drinks and is consumed with the prospect of sex. This also addresses the issue of verisimilitude in Douglas’ poetry, as it does reveal a sense of imperfect humanity in the soldiers and thus possibly highlights the more negative aspects of their character, as opposed to simply being a one-dimensional ‘hero’. Douglas portrays ‘the Turk who says she’s a princess’ who possibly indicates the boyish masculinity of the speaker of ‘Cairo Jag’. The impersonal labeling of this woman as ‘the Turk’ as opposed to her name possibly implies that the speaker does not know her name, which alludes to the objectification of women that is sometimes considered a common characteristic of young men and thus authentically correlates with the social norms consolidated within Freud’s ‘superego’.
However, it is possible to form an alternative interpretation of masculinity in Douglas’ poetry and thus Hall’s contention that Douglas ‘wanted to go into the war with a completely unsentimental view on everything’ can be rendered incorrect. Douglas makes several references to the childhood and youth of the soldiers depicted in his poetry and this perhaps also alludes to a type of emasculation that is somewhat more covert and elusive than in its prosaic and theatrical counterparts. For instance, in his poem ‘How to Kill’ the speaker specifically analyses the movements and characteristics of his target seen in his ‘dial of glass’. Douglas adopts a tone that may induce a certain amount of pathos in the reader as he highlights both the youth and vulnerability of ‘the soldier who is going to die’. The speaker’s recognition of how this soldier ‘moves about in ways his mother knows’ reminds the reader that this soldier is also a son and arguably forces the reader to perceive him as a child. This also pos- sibly reveals and hints at the suffering of young men and their feelings of emasculation; being thrust into the ‘stomach of warxivand forcing them to turn from ‘a child…into a man’. This perhaps shows evidence of Douglas’ stance as an introspective poet with a real appreciation of the tragedy of nostalgia and youth in war. When looking for further evidence of Douglas’ implementation of pathos relat- ing to the themes of youth and vulnerability it is possible to refer to ‘Gallantry’ which again depicts youth in a lamentable sense. Douglas injects emotion into his work by using – as Goldman points out – ‘strong language’, for example naming one solider as a ‘doomed boy’ which both highlights the delicate youth and naivety of the soldier but also forces the reader to infer that this ‘child’ is going to die. Douglas’ use of the adjective ‘doomed’ fundamentally holds calamitous connotations, and are highly intensified when relating to the ‘doom’ of a child.
Douglas also seems to address the tragic nature of nostalgia most prolifically in his incomplete poem entitled ‘Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe’ in which the speaker, as a collective member of the soldiers of the Second World War, claims that ‘everyone…will use these minutes to look back’ which ultimately hints at the prospect of memories of their lives before the war. This perhaps suggests a rather morose and cataclysmic view of the fate of these soldiers due to the usual connotations to the idiom of ‘life flashing before your eyes’ in the moments before one dies. Douglas is possibly – and fatalistically – suggesting that these soldiers are fundamentally doomed to die in war and some such as Douglas himself are fully aware of this themselves. This can be linked to the mental suffering exhibited in Sherriff’s play, especially when contemplating Stanhope’s reliance upon alcohol as a means to forget his impending fate and also his life before the war and his romantic relationship that awaits if he returns home. Robert Littell stated that ‘all the men in Journey’s End are seen not as soldiers, he- roes, or villains, but as individuals’ and this further brings to light the personal nature of the nostalgia felt by these soldiers whilst they were at war, thus further burdening them with an intensified mental suffering. Also, in a contextual audience viewing the play at the time of its first performance in 1929, as this is only just over a decade after the conclusion of the war, it is likely that there will be many people within the audience who would have known someone who had died in the war. As there were at least 250,000 soldiers in service who were under the age of nineteen and so it is even more likely that Raleigh’s death, along with some of Douglas’ depictions of young men in his poetry, would have a profound impact upon both a contextually relevant and a present day audience, and reveal the fundamentally tragic nature of wartime youthful death. This also seems to allude to the mental suffering inflicted upon those at home as opposed to the front line, as even a modern day audience would find personal links to war in their ancestry, thus furthering the authentic nature of the emotion presented in Douglas’ presentation of the tragedies of death in war and its effect upon those who bear its burden.
Barker seems to deal with the theme of the tragedy of youth and nostalgia more prominently than Douglas, especially through the portrayal of characters such as Burns who inhabit Craiglockhart. Bowman concedes that the ‘delicate balance of life and the frailty of the human condition caused by an unbalance is a constant theme in Regeneration’xix and this is consistently evident in Barker’s con- struction of language. In Regeneration Barker utilizes emotive language as a means of manifesting pathos in somewhat a similar way to that of Douglas if viewing him as an introspective poet. When first introducing Burns, Barker states that ‘the most distressing feature of his case was the occasional glimpse of the cheerful and likable young man he must once have been’ and this perhaps ultimately illustrates the themes of tragedy and nostalgia and the mental suffering that the prospect of nostalgia catalyses; as now Burns is now ‘merely the skin-and-bone casing for a tormented alimentary canal. His suffering without purpose or dignity.’ The imagery of Burns’ body as ‘the skin-and-bone casing’ for a tormented mind crafted by Barker seems to completely encapsulate the mental suffered by Burns. In depicting the image of Burns’ body as being ‘skin-and-bone’, the reader may find themselves enlightened with a sense of both the physical and thus the mental effect of the tragic nature of war and the pain of nostalgic innocence. His body has physically become malnourished due to his mental suffering and in metaphorically labeling his body as a ‘case’ this further intensifies the state of entrapment in which Burns is contending with his mental trauma which seems an alien being in comparison to his life as a ‘cheerful and likable young man’xxii before the war. All of this does seem fundamentally highlights the calamitous transformation that Bowman hints at in her contention and Burns’ character seems to fundamentally act as a synecdoche of the traumatic experiences in the war and how this molds a lamentable shadow that plagues the lives of those affected by war.
Ultimately, to fully comprehend the ways in which war literature presents the mental suffering of soldiers it is important to thoroughly delve into the facets of post-traumatic stress and shell-shock, which is predominantly examined in Barker’s novel Regeneration. Throughout the novel, Barker frequently highlights the constant struggle faced by those men who have faced horrors in war even in their everyday activities after returning home. In the first chapter, Barker seems to illustrate the many facets of shell-shock, including symptoms relating to ‘triggers’. It is important to note that from a modern perspective when Barker wrote her novel, issues surrounding mental illness have gain a high- er level of tolerance when compared with its contextual setting. This perhaps encourages a more sympathetic view on the part of the reader as they are accustomed to a social context with a more supportive ethos as opposed to the pejorative perceptions shown throughout then novel on the part of the public, and the labeling of the soldiers in Craiglockhart as ‘shirkers’ and ‘cowards’. Barker describes Sassoon’s experiences at a train station in which as ‘the whistle blew. Immediately he saw lines of men with grey muttering faces clambering up the ladders to face the guns’, and this ultimately indicates the difficulties faced by those returning from war and their processes of integrating themselves back into normal society. In depicting these men as ‘grey’ Barker is possibly bolstering the lethargic and lifeless state in which these men exist within. This perhaps alludes to their lives now being in a constant condition of purgatory; thus not fully living, but not dead either, in the same way that the color ‘grey’ is a halfway point between the colors ‘black’ and ‘white’.
Douglas’ poetry arguably also deals with this condition of purgatory in ‘simple, point-blank, bull’s- eye statement[s]’xxiii as stated by Hughes, with a concentration upon the purgative state between boy- hood and manhood. Douglas’ frequent recognition of youth and nostalgia such as his reference to a soldier’s mother in ‘How to Kill’ and the contemplation of the ‘doomed boy’ in ‘Gallantry’ does bode reminiscent of Barker’s portrayal of the soldiers’ purgative state between the living and the dead. Both writers seem to hold the mutual intention to represent the tragedy of war through the use of pathos as the ultimate recognition of humanitarianism and the fragility of life. Bourke claims that ‘emotional traumas were responsible for one-third of all discharges’xxiv from the army, and this is a heavily apparent facet of Douglas’ writing as a poet on the front line and also further validates Barker’s recognition of the need for verisimilitude to be a consistent feature of her novel. Sassoon’s momentary ‘flashback’ seems to reveal the extent of how war neurosis affected many thousands of men on their return from war. This also intensifies the tragic tone of the novel, as the reader is constantly aware that the novel is primarily based upon characters who – although fictionalized – arguably act as a synecdoche for the real men who dealt with the mental suffering depicted. The character of Burns continues to support Baker’s recognition of the need for verisimilitude when composing war literature, however this is brusquely challenged when reconsidering Graham’s contention that ‘there’s a pretense if you were trying to write about [war] from the outside’xxv. Graham came to this conclusion when contemplating Douglas’ work and it is also possible to align this view to that of Journey’s End as a play directed by first-hand experience. The contextual relevance of Douglas and Sherriff perhaps intensifies the calamitous torment with a more profound effect of verisimilitude as opposed to Barker. This possibly illustrates the intrinsic crux of how war literature and the presentation of mental suffering is portrayed, in that it is perhaps equitable to assert that it is not entirely feasible to capture a truly veracious portrait of the trauma languished in by those who have experienced war ‘from the outside’ in the way that Barker does in her novel.
i Graham, Desmond. Professor of Poetry / Douglas Biographer
ii Patterson, Hanna. “Gender Roles and Hypnosis” (Spring 2004)
iii Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
iv Sherriff, Robert Cedric. Journey’s End Oxford: Heinemann Educational, 1993. First published in 1929
v Sherriff, Robert Cedric. Journey’s End Oxford: Heinemann Educational, 1993. First published in 1929
vi Freud, Sigmund. Introduction to Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses London: The International Psyho-analytical Press, 1921
vii Freud, Sigmund. Introduction to Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses London: The International Psyho-analytical Press, 1921
viii Loughran, Tracey. Review of Shell-shocked: trauma, the emotions and the First World War (review no. 1173)
ix Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
x Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
xi Douglas, Keith. Collected Poems London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. First published in 1978
xii Hall, John Clive. Poet.
xiii Douglas, Keith. Collected Poems London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. First published in 1978
xiv Douglas, Keith. “Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe” Collected Poems London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. First published in 1978
xv Douglas, Keith. Collected Poems London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. First published in 1978
xvi Goldman, Mark. “Keith Douglas; War Poetry as ‘Significant Speech.'” Durham University Journal 51(1990): 217-226.
xvii Douglas, Keith. Collected Poems London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. First published in 1978
xviii Littell, Robert. “Journey’s End Broadway in Review” Theatre Arts Monthly Magazine, London: Theatre Arts Inc. 1929
xix Bowman, Alice. “Restoring the Balance” (Spring 2004)
xx Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
xxi Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
xxii Barker, Pat. Regenertaion London: Penguin, 2008. First published in 1991
xxiii Hughes, Ted. Introduction to Selected Poems by Keith Douglas. Ed. Ted Hughes. Faber and Faber, 1964.
xxiv Bourke, Joanna. Shell Shock in WW1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwone/ shellshock_02.shtml
xxv Graham, Desmond. Professor of Poetry / Douglas Biographer
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