The Construction of New Identity in Regeneration

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Words: 3726 |

Pages: 8|

19 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 3726|Pages: 8|19 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a series of novels that explore various marginalized subjects in WWI-era Britain. Originally set in a mental hospital, she is particularly interested in exploring concepts of madness – how a society decides what constitutes madness and how the mad are subsequently treated. Through the use of two apparently insane protagonists, Siegfried Sassoon and Billy Prior, the author destabilizes traditional notions of madness and privileges the madman as a site of cultural subversion. In the trilogy, these characters represent emergent identities – a kind of knowledge that develops on the border of possible thought. Dangerous and frightening, these characters are marginalized by the cultural institutions of the time: the space they inhabit and their bodies become sites of cultural contest – spaces to be controlled. However, through several subversive tactics, these characters begin to ‘speak back’ at existing systems of control. They transform and ‘pervert’ the very institutions that attempt to regulate their mad behaviour, reaching their ultimate expression in Prior who is able to free himself (almost completely) of cultural limitations, free to cross cultural, psychological and personal boundaries in an apparently contradictory way. Barker, however, seems to argue that these contradictions are inherent in society itself.

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Throughout the trilogy, Barker explores that which exists ‘outside’ of a dominant cultural understanding. Foucault argues that at any given time, a culture is composed of certain ‘discourses’ or ways of understanding. These discourses, when combined, create an episteme which in turn creates difference. Through this difference, the subject develops a categorical understanding of the world and communication with other subjects is made possible. This is the simplest definition of ‘culture’ (Foucault, The Order of Things 45). Foucault’s primary argument is that this episteme is necessarily limited – it is impossible for any given culture to allow for every possible thought. However, on the peripheries of culture, on the ‘outside’ as it were, new combinations of thought develop: novel definitions, identities and understandings that push the boundaries of culture in new directions (Foucault, The Order of Things 67). It is on this periphery that the thematic action of the novels is enacted.

These peripheral characters are always viewed as aberrant and damaged because of their countercultural behavior; if the culture of the novels dictate that a ‘normal’ person is attracted to people of the opposite gender and supports their country in a time of war, then those who fail to conform to these categories must be ‘damaged’ and in some way they are ‘mad’. The ‘mad’ subject follows the line that divides the discursively possible from the discursively impossible. Barker makes a point of recovering this madness and privileging its subversive potential, in the sense that Julia Kristeva uses in her essay, Black Sun:

“The modern political domain is massively, in totalitarian fashion, social, leveling, exhausting. Hence madness is a space of antisocial, apolitical and paradoxically free individuation.” (Kristeva, Black Sun 11)

The issue of same-sex attraction falls into this area, in part because many men in the novels admit to, or conversely deny, a sexual attraction to other men. What is important is that this attraction need not constitute an identity, but instead it can be constructed as such on the level of culture, as the culture develops ways of describing this attraction. In the novels this attraction is described in terms of its action, rather than as an identity. The use of the terms ‘sodomite’, ‘bugger’, and perhaps more importantly, ‘abomination,’ focus primarily on the sexual act rather than sexual preference. Towards the end of the Regeneration, Graves implies a very specific construction of homoerotic desire: “It’s only fair to tell you that … since that happened my affections have been running in more normal channels. I’ve been writing to a girl called Nancy Nicholson. I really think you’ll like her. She’s great fun. The … only reason I’m telling you this is … I’d hate for you to have any misconceptions. About me. I’d hate for you to think I was homosexual even in thought. Even if it went no further.”(Barker 176) In this example, Graves implicitly admits to some degree of homoerotic desire. Whether that desire actually led to a sexual act is beside the point. Deviance is located in the act as opposed to the subject. When these acts are willfully discontinued they are no longer an issue. The sexual relationship between Prior and Manning is discontinued with the return of his wife and children, and Manning’s fears of persecution, like those of Graves, are allayed.

Ironically, a similar tactic of deflection is used when these acts are repeated. They are understood in terms of a psycho-clinical discourse that treats the deviance as symptomatic of some psychological malfunction. In the following example, Sassoon uses this concept of homosexuality as a malfunction when he tells Rivers about the outcome of a young gay man, Peter, after he was arrested:

“Sassoon looked straight at Rivers. ‘Apparently he’s being sent – the boy – sent to some psychiatrist or other […] ‘To be cured.’ A slight pause. ‘I suppose cured is the right word?’ (Barker 180-81)

Homosexuality as a category, then, is not constructed as an opposite to heterosexuality. It is something more like heterosexuality gone wrong. Considering the description of homosexuality by Sarah’s coworker in the munitions factory, the emphasis is on development; homoerotic desire is described as frustrated or false heteroerotic desire. As with Graves’ explanation regarding ‘normal channels’, this construction reinforces the notion of homoerotic desire as a perverted heterosexuality. As a result, the dominant culture of the novel creates a compulsory heterosexuality, even while declaring the necessity of love between men-at-arms. Men who have homoerotic desires or even engage in sexual acts with other men are thought to be heterosexuals, on some deeper, more genuine level: “But you know, he never had any sisters, so he never met any lasses that way. Goes to school, no lasses. Goes to university – no lasses. Time he finally claps eyes on me, it’s too late, isn’t it? It’s gelled.”(Barker 177-78) As Foucault says, “What is important is that sex was not only a question of sensation and pleasure, of law and interdiction, but also of the true and the false.”

The reason for Sassoon’s commitment is also worth considering. He is essentially committed for his defiance of military authority, a position evidenced by his anti-war Declaration, which is taken as proof of his insanity (Barker 5-6). Specifically, he is determined to be suffering from neurasthenia or ‘shell-shock’. As with the case of homoerotic desire, this anti-war stance is viewed as some defect of character. At the beginning of Regeneration, Sassoon states: “‘You can’t put people in lunatic asylums just like that. You have to have reasons.’ [to which Graves replies,]‘They’ve got reasons’”(Barker 9). For the categories of ‘homosexual’ and ‘pacifist’, the novel raises the question: As opposed to what? There is, of course, no real alternative to homosexual or pacifist in the language of these characters unless it is a generalizing ‘normal’.

Kristeva uses the term abject to describe these impossible half-identities. To her, the abject is that which exists somewhere between the subject (what ‘I’ am) and the object (everything that ‘I’ am not). The abject’s existence challenges the distinction between subject and object, and threatens to undo the subject’s perceived coherency (Kristeva, Powers of Horror 3-4). On an individual level, the abject is realized in bodily emission: blood, vomit, urine, shit and more graphically in the dismembered limb: "Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be" (Kristeva, Powers of Horror 3). It is fitting then that the Craiglockhart facility is occupied by patients who are caught up with symbols of the abject; Anderson cannot stand the sight of blood, urinating on himself when his roommate cuts himself shaving, and Burns vomits uncontrollably when he eats. Prior develops a similar behavior that split his personality after seeing dismembered compatriots , creating a “new” Prior who attempts to excoriate his weaker self. While their subjectivity is threatened by their ‘mad’ deviance, the characters’ bodies respond by attempting to symbolically maintain their own subjective integrity. This highly technical and specific use of the word ‘abject’ plays on its more conventional meaning of ‘cast off’ or ‘excluded from the whole’. We can consider the half-identities mentioned above to be abject in the second sense as they are marginalized by the dominant discourse of the novels’ culture.

Cultural abjection, like its psychological counterpart, is abhorred because it threatens the unity of the subject; specifically, it causes the subject to reassess itself and so it is ‘covered-up’ and excluded from cultural thought. However, it is precisely because the abject is so abhorrent that it cannot be directly approached. Repression of the abject is unpredictable and riddled with the inherent contradictions of the dominant culture, as evidenced in Barker’s depiction of the Pemberton Billing affair. The manifesto, ‘As I See It – The First 47,000’ is lashing out against these abject elements of society and effectively conflating them all into a nebulous ‘not us’. This is not an attempt to describe, but more so an attempt to cover up and ignore behaviors culture refuses to recognize. Here, Billing draws attention to numerous ‘abject’ groups: those who practice the “evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia”, who are encouraged towards anti-war sentiment by corruptive German agents through “fear of exposure” and located most specifically in London’s artistic community, affiliated with Robert Ross and Maud Allan.

The political mechanisms aligned against these groups recognize a natural, progressive index between them; that is, to be one is as good as being another. This seemingly logical index reaches its most absurd expression in the ritualistic killing of Miss Burton’s dog – “It was a daschund. One of the enemy.” In this way, the specifics of the transgression are deferred, though not entirely, and the abject is covered up and made into a subversive German object which, while hated is describable, knowable, and killable, certainly having nothing to do with the homogenous, cultural ‘I’.

Of particular importance to Barker in her exploration of these phenomena are concepts of space and boundaries. Barker is particularly adept at addressing the issue of boundaries within the relationship between Prior and Rivers. Her depiction of their relationship displays how that which is abstract and cultural can transition between mental and physical interpersonal zones. Dominant culture’s practices can attempt to control the abject through its ability to define space, through the ability to say, ‘Your body is such and we have created a territory in which you are allowed to exist.’ In this way, the abject begins to emerge as an object. Obviously, this does not occur universally or evenly across a culture. At its worst, the body is a site of control, a space in which dominant ideologies can reside; definitions and understandings are the individual organs, bones, and muscles that make up the body as a whole. Foucault suggests a similar concept when he says, “The soul is the prison of the body” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 30). In his book, Foucault is particularly interested in the way a bodily act such as ‘sodomy’ can invite the creation of cultural consequences. Describing the creation of ‘the homosexual’ he says,

“Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

This is an evolution of the psychological definition described above, though in a more extreme form; what was previously abject becomes pushed into the realm of philosophical understanding.

Through the course of The Regeneration Trilogy we see the various psychiatric, judicial and socio-sexual discourses of the time converge to create an emergent homosexual identity. Barker appoints Robert Ross to be the chief propagator, along with his host of homosexual writers and poets, of a perceived homosexual agenda; duly noted by his strong support for the Oscar Wilde play, Salome. From that point, all people seemingly associated with Ross, be it sexual or otherwise, are considered to be of the homosexual persuasion. In this instance, homosexuality is dispersed from the act of sex and becomes located in a range of behaviors and indicators. Characters in the novel begin to attribute a particular physicality to the homosexual male: he walks a certain way, speaks a certain way and even looks a certain way. The construction of anti-war sentiment is constructed similarly: it is some physically observable and physically-treatable disease.

This concept is most vividly explored through the issue of electro-shock treatment. In many ways, electroshock therapy perfectly represents the attempt to transpose the cultural into the body by reducing human consciousness to a series of physically observable electrical impulses, and subsequently controlling that body. Barker explores this notion through the characters of Yealland and Callan, who are directly comparable to Rivers and Sassoon, respectively. Here, Yealland makes aggressive use of electro-shock treatment in an attempt to cure Callan’s mutism: “As soon as he could say words clearly at a normal pitch, he developed a spasm or tremor – not unlike paralysis agitans – in his left arm. Yealland applied a roller electrode to the arm. The tremor then reappeared in the right arm, then the left leg, and finally the right left, each appearance being treated with the application of the electrode. Finally the cure was pronounced complete. Callan was permitted to stand up.”(Barker 205) In this passage, Barker’s use of language is quite particular and mirrors Yealland’s dehumanizing brutality. The sentences, interrupted as they are by punctuation, take on the appearance of list. This reflects the way in which Callan’s body is anatomized by the treatment – he is reduced to his constituent body parts. Aside from the obvious cruelty of such treatment, it is worth considering what kind of statements this treatment makes about Callan’s body. He is his body, his body is deviant, and he is subject to bodily control by the dominant cultural powers.

This method of electroshock treatment is an exertion of bodily control and psychological manipulation. When asked if he is pleased to be cured, Callan smiles. Yealland finds his smile ‘objectionable’ and therefore decides that he must be ‘cured’ of that. Of the various disciplinary mechanisms outlined by Foucault in his History of Sexuality, an important mechanism is what he terms ‘confession’, or the passive affirmation of the subject’s discipline: “The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest powers have a similar need of confession. The Western man has become a confessing animal.” (Foucault, History of Sexuality 59) So now the confessing subject, Callan, must speak back to his oppressor and affirm his oppression. In this way, he denied even an internal resistance to Yealland, and the doctor goes further to explicitly state, “You must speak, but I shall not listen to anything you have to say” (Barker 203).

The asylum, or ‘mad’ space, is also worth considering as a space for discipline and control throughout the trilogy. Yealland’s National Hospital facility is a prime example of this control. Barker constructs the various spaces within the asylum to regulate the movement of patients. These spatial relations mold, shape and discipline the subject through the power of the gaze. In the opening chapters of ‘Eye in the Door’, Prior describes the panopticon-like surveillance of subversive prisoners: “He found himself looking at an elaborately painted eye. The peephole formed the pupil, but around this someone had taken the time and trouble to paint a veined iris, an eyewhite, eyelashes and a lid.”Foucault terms this situation as ‘the unequal gaze’: the constant possibility of being looked at. The actual presence of the unequal gaze is eventually unnecessary as the viewed subject eventually internalizes his or her own discipline and become ‘docile bodies’, a regulated part of the asylum (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 114-17). Yealland’s used the physical arrangement of his patients to suit some “desired impression of tidiness” (Barker 198). In this sense, the patients are decorative parts of the physical landscape within the asylum. They become an aesthetic to the viewer and enforce a certain discipline upon him.

It seems that both Barker and Foucault, then, leave the reader with a decidedly negative outlook. The formation of the subject is created through systems of discipline and control. Even those positions that are superficially privileged by these systems of control are nevertheless implicated in them. Rivers describes both himself and Yealland as being similarly “locked in, every bit as much as their patients were.”

However, both Sassoon and prior make use of tactical subversion that is comparable Michel de Certeau’s ideas of consumption as outlined in his essay The Practice of Everyday Life (Certeau). Therein, he describes the ways in which dominated subjects “make (bricolent) innumberable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules.” That is, these emergent categories of ‘homosexual’ and ‘anti-war’ can use the very systems of control in a ‘perverse’ way and subtly reassert their own autonomy. We might take as an example the complex power dynamic that exists between Prior and Rivers, particularly their ambiguous parting at the end of the third novel. Having consented to therapy, and ‘played the game’, he maintains his moral opposition to the war effort but is nevertheless considered ‘fixed’: “Rivers saw that he had reached Sassoon’s file. He read through the admission report and the notes that followed it. There was nothing more he wanted to say that he could say. He drew the final page towards him and wrote: Nov. 26, 1917. Discharged to duty.” Officially, Sassoon is ‘cured’ and Rivers can find no way to express the complexities of his subversion. While Sassoon’s resistance is certainly felt, it is inexpressibly subtle and apparently in line with the discourses that prescribed his commitment at Craiglockhart.

If the act of confession can act to discipline the confession subject, there is always a possibility for the confessing subject to speak actively, that is to speak back to the system of control. The title of the second novel, ‘The Eye in the Door’ plays on this concept. While the voyeur has the power to observe, he or she is always at least partly held in thrall by the spectacle – by the desire to see what is forbidden. This is expressed in part in the explicitly spectacular nature of London’s homosexual artists in their performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome: “Against a yellow backcloth a woman draped in brilliant green veils writhed and twisted. She looked like an exotic lizard or a poisonous snake” (Barker 280.) The social taboo and questionable subject matter of this performance draws the viewers gaze to the forbidden object. In itself, the image of the ‘eye in the door’ recalls the guilty voyeur who looks on that which is forbidden. The characters of the novel are openly aware of the pun between ‘eye’ and ‘I’ (Barker 279). The emergent identity is viewed in its complete form, no longer abject or object, its undeniable existence threatens to become the subject: the ‘I’ in the door. For the first time, the identity becomes understandable.

This kind of subversion is directly observable in the therapeutic relationship between Prior and Rivers. Prior continually undermines Rivers and perverts the direction of their relationship. At several points, Rivers is informally analyzed by Prior during their sessions – “Is that the end of my appointment for today, Mr. Prior? (Barker 88). In this way, Prior subverts the assumptions of his environment; namely that he is ‘mad’ and Rivers is ‘sane’. Rivers own stammer comes to stand for the incoherency of what is normal: the ‘madness’ that is hidden in cultural normalcy. Through what appears to be sheer force of intelligence and character, Prior transcends the cultural boundaries to which the other characters conform. He reflects all possibilities but settles for none of them at the expense of remaining contradictory; he is both homosexual and heterosexual, both for the war and against it. So multifaceted is his character that he seems to develop multiple personalities to account for his contradictions. I would argue that Barker does not construct his character as defective or ‘insane’ but rather as a truly radical and subversive subject, who embraces the existential fluidity of his character driven by absurdity towards his death. He approaches the area symbolized by the abject, “a version of the apocalypse […] the fragile border where identities do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.”

In summation, Barker’s Regeneration Triology is a collection of texts that deal with issues of control and subversion – particularly as they relate to the ‘madness’ of emergent identities. Constructed on the edges of cultural thought, these subjects constitute the ultimate threat to dominant systems of power; in their inconsistency, they reflect the contradictions and arbitrary nature inherent in any cultural formation. They are therefore subject to marginalization and exclusion from mainstream society; ‘madness’ is written onto the space they inhabit and even onto their bodies. Their entire subject becomes a site of contest. Ironically, it is through this system of control that these emergent identities can articulate resistance. Characters like Billy Prior and Siegfried Sassoon are able to transform and invert the system even as they appear to be conforming to it.


Barker, Pat. The Regeneration Trilogy. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House, 1975.

---. Dits Et Écrits 1954–1988. Ed. Daniel Defert. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

---. History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

---. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, Inc., 1994.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

---. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

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Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. London: Cape, 1992.

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