Genders
 

Genders 35 2002
 

What is Prior?
Working-Class Masculinity in Pat Barker's Trilogy

By PETER HITCHCOCK

[1]   There are a myriad ways to understand the importance of masculinity for Marxism, including whether one is interested in the analysis of gender and sexuality in divisions of labor or mutations of masculinism and patriarchy in Marxist concepts themselves. Materialist feminisms have certainly deconstructed many of the "sacred" truths in the latter, but the question of labor and masculinity itself tends to get fudged by representational fallacies, as if labor is only a metonym for shoring up the myth of the working-class male in various guises, those " men" who make history, but not alone, or else it synecdochally links men to masculine in the being of labor, as if this relation were natural. Rather than turn one's back on the work of representation in the slide from labor as concept to labor as masculine it would be more productive to interrogate the grounds of representation within the concept that, for my purposes, complicate our historical sense of the relationship between labor and capital. Indeed, this is an extension of historicizing the conditions of Marxist theory in dialogue with the history that is its subject. Just as there are materialist explanations for why ideology for Marx becomes fetishism after 1852, so there are moments in desire for capital that change the constitutive modes of labor subjectivity in social relations. If the worker as such is the distillation of labor/capital trade, that worker is also subject to the metaphor machine (both of masculinity and feminity) that is part of capital's projected needs. This projection is not simply false, as in the false consciousness of labor subjectivity: it is integral to the identitarian processes deemed necessary to produce and reproduce the conditions of subjection in general.

[2]   Any mention of representation in the analysis of labor immediately raises the specter of the symptom, progressively, as that determined by social relations, and idealistically, as that which short-circuits materialist understanding in advance. Both are alibis in the sense that one can be simply adjudicated by reference to the other, yet neither are the substance of historical change. It is not my intention here to solve the riddle of representation in labor as a concept by reaffirming the prison-house of language, but I do believe that the representational fix usefully points to the non-said or the unspeakable of labor and masculinity, a kind of repetition in silence like the space between words, an idea of relation that is the being of capital. Just as there is nothing marginal about profit margins so there is nothing superfluous in the silence of labor: it is itself a text of capital and here, concomitantly, one of masculinity.

[3]   What is the value of reading class in terms of masculinities? The instability of gender and sex categories is not the mirror image of difference in labor but is nevertheless instructive about the logic of representation at any one moment of history. Basically, a labor theory of masculinity begins with the question, what sex and gender roles best serve the interests of a class structured in dominance? How are these roles, imagined and assigned, disrupted not just by the consciousness of dissident subjects, but also by the process of representation deployed or unconsciously invoked? On one level, the following is an attempt to clarify an approach to the cultural representation of labor and masculinity. On another level, my particular example of representation, the Regeneration trilogy of Pat Barker (Regeneration [R], The Eye in the Door [E], and The Ghost Road [G]) is not meant to sit easily with the concept of labor central to Marxist analysis. The tension within and between these levels of critique may serve as a lesson in the virtues of the dialectic, but the main aim is to further a materialist rethinking of the constituents of labor for theory when formations of masculinity are taken into account. That capital effaces labor's self representation comes as no surprise; what is more difficult to fathom is whether the ruse of representation itself blocks capital's desire to produce, in this case, a working-class male subject consonant with its domination.

[4]   Pat Barker is no stranger to the fictive possibilities produced and constrained by categories of class. One of the ways that she has defamiliarized the platitudes and pieties that accompany representations of the English working class is by decentering the ideology of the working-class hero, he who has shouldered the burden of proletarian aspiration. In the main, her novels have done this by detailing the narratives of working-class women and by showing that the vitality of individual communities is not dependent on narrow versions of masculinity. Indeed, if Barker can be characterized as an author of class fictions it is precisely because her writing has not been hamstrung by the truths of class. Of course, that this makes Barker's novels very different from socialist realism has not been in question, but for many critics the problem is the status of realism itself. Earlier in her career the accusation was that even if working-class women from the north-east of England spoke like that is it art to faithfully record them? More recently, the Regeneration trilogy has garnered class animus from the opposite direction; that is, certainly you have used real historical figures to explore the pastness of the past in World War One, but you have been too imaginative and stretched the bounds of historical fact. Bluntly, when you write of women workers you are too realistic; when you write of a key moment in the history of masculinities you are not realistic enough. This indeed, is the pathos and the paradox of any class fiction.

[5]   If realism is the medium of Barker's representational aesthetics then its imaginative reach would seem to fall short of our primary concern, the non-said that links labor to masculinity. Curiously, perhaps, it is the very discursive doxa of realism as a mode of representation that creates new possibilities in understanding what makes up social identities in history. In a postmodern world this is not to make a virtue of anachronism; it is, rather, to note that realism partakes in a particular crisis of chronotopicity, that process, as Bakhtin describes it, where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. The chronotope most often assigned to the Great War at this time is one of nostalgia, on the surface an avowedly postmodern proclivity, a process of representation in which the past is recalled as something precisely not experienced. There is obviously a lot more going on in the chronotope than that. Barker describes her interest in the war as a kind of personal recreation of the war memories of her step-grandfather (she was raised by her grandparents), a man who carried the trauma of the trenches quite literally in the form of a bayonet wound in the stomach (as a child, Barker could put her hand into this wound which, given the Freudian themes in her fiction since the late Eighties, might usefully come into play in any more comprehensive critique of her oeuvre). Whatever the biographical contexts of the trilogy (grandfather also seems the basis for Geordie in Barker's subsequent novel, Another World), the impact of the trilogy is also positioned by the heritage industry, which has found in World War One a way to rearticulate heroic Englishness in the face of a much diminished and otherwise troublesome image of England as a nation state. This nostalgic mode is not just raging against the dying of England's light (or might), but it is part of a complex array of cultural discourses that are rearticulating what it means to be English into the new millennium.

[6]   Barker's Regeneration trilogy does not belong to the regenerative claims of cultural nostalgia (and this is why critics have often been hostile about her portrayal of the "facts" of the Great War). It displaces the scene of Englishness not by attacking what is remembered but by exploring the process of memory itself. Memory is the subject of the narrative, specifically the annulment of the past associated with the traumas of trench warfare commonly known as "shell shock." The first volume, Regeneration, focuses on the work of W.H.R.Rivers at the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh and his attempts to restore or "regenerate" officers enough to return them to the front (treatment detailed in his book, Conflict and Dream). The title actually refers to a series of experiments that Rivers conducted with Henry Head on nerve regeneration, but Barker elaborates the physical process as a metaphor for Rivers' psychological therapies during the First World War. A close and critical reader of Freud, Rivers believed that the emergence of neurosis in the officers he treated was not the result of a single trauma but was part of an ongoing psychological struggle between an officer's desire to forget the horrors of war and his memory's insistence that these events are actually the substance of the what the war represents. In addition, Rivers also subscribed to the notion that shell shock was a product of trench warfare and extended periods of immobility coupled with fear. While Rivers' methods of treatment are historically interesting in their own right (particularly since his patients included Siegfried Sassoon, who also appears as a character in the trilogy) Barker imaginatively explores the subjective elements of the First World War and its symptoms, mixing real and invented characters and events in order to consider social conflicts and contradictions beyond the war psychosis that is its major theme. Not surprisingly for a social realist, Barker makes connections between the mutism, hysteria and nightmares precipitated by the experience of war and the social values and culture that pre-exist yet are foregrounded by this extreme situation. This is in part what I mean by "prior," which is a way to conceptualize how class and masculinity are figured into the very texture of the problem of representation. The conceit of "regeneration" is clearly that it depends on something that has already been generated, overdetermined, produced. It is not war that fashions a subject for annihilation, but the social that performs this task, and this is the process of memory that Barker is interested in writing into history.

[7]   But Barker's social acuity does not mean that the Regeneration trilogy is simply playing out a base/superstructure model in which capital ideologically fashions a subject that fights for its interests to the exclusion of that subject's needs. There is legitimacy to that interpretation if we read the war as also about the desire of the nation state to meet the needs of capital accumulation over those of the workers who provide the power of value in exchange. Yet Barker approaches the archive on the war as a different resource for figuring real foundations. The conduct of war not only requires a massive ideological state apparatus sufficient to rationalize the class hierarchies at stake (primarily, the rulers call upon the ruled to make the ultimate sacrifice, yet the ruled themselves must also generate this paradox of "victory") but necessitates codes of subjectivity apposite with violence to order. Thus, even though needs are prior to what capital demands, ideology projects back as if its social relations were always already a template from which the subject must derive being. Barker is concerned to show both how her characters are seduced by this trick of memory and the capacity of their memories to provide a few tricks of their own. Indeed, remembrance is the field in which class codes and control are confounded by the ineffable, the non-said of pastness in relation to identification. Paul Fussell once famously argued for the Great War as a tragic satire full of ironic action and there is much to recommend this reading. Barker's trilogy also underlines that the war is the touchstone for revenge tragedy: its recall constantly risks regenerating the past as a revenge on the present.

[8]   I want to connect the power to interpellate subjects in the Great War to the production of working-class masculinity. The obvious reason is that the war disciplines forms of class and sexuality that may subtend it. The more complex and ambivalent reason is that in attempting silence and erasure such total war facilitates the opposite: it asserts the force of class and sexuality as viable modes of social contestation. The Great War was, as Elaine Showalter underlines, "a crisis of masculinity and a trial of the Victorian masculine ideal." (171) Yet it was also a pronounced and intense crisis in class relations that threw the hierarchies established by the Industrial Age into turmoil. True, as one character laconically observes, the ruling classes were not overly perturbed that for four years workers killed eachother, but there was much more at issue than that. For one, the level of casualties tested all kinds of allegiance. The aristocratic influence on the military going into the war was out of step with the mechanics of total war. Calvary charges and officers leading lines of men into attack across the mire of mud and mayhem of No Man's Land were no match for artillery and machine guns. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme the British suffered 60,000 casualties, and by the end of war a whole generation of men under the age of 30 had been destroyed. If the industrialists had lined their pockets this was small recompense for their sons buried at Passchendaele. And for the working class, no amount of patriotism or promises of a "land fit for heroes" would make up for the obscene numbers of dead and wounded. Something would have to change, and the rise of socialism and the Labour Party were just two of many such indications.

[9]   The enormity of what the First World War represents is only matched by the archive that attends it. As I have already suggested, the struggle over the meaning of the war continues to the present day because the memories at stake remain active in the social relations that the crisis bequeaths. For Barker this represents a quandary because even with the war's contradictory modes of presencing (it proceeds as a ghost story-wars are alive in memory only as an interpellation of the dead) it "weighs on the living" as if it were irrefutable, as if the archive were only there to be re-verified, revivified, regenerated. Any writer who sets out to solve the enigma of the First World War is doomed to overstatement or sheer muddleheadedness; Barker, by contrast, realizes by the end of Regeneration that the grand statement that might have come to pass in the relationship of Sassoon and Rivers would have to be scrupulously reaccentuated. She accepts the inexorability of the war's regeneration while displacing its requisite narratives of class and sexuality. Barker believes in Rivers' theories of shell shock but not necessarily his conclusions. She imaginatively tests what is prior in terms of social determinants with what is emergent in terms of agency and rearticulation. This alternative trajectory of regeneration and controversial vector of emergence focuses on a character called Prior. Prior destabilizes any and all attempts to narratively enclose the concept of working-class masculinity that the war requires. What emerges instead in the interstices of sexuality, class, and gender is a counter claim that exceeds individuation and even, perhaps, the power of discourse itself: what the memory of war unleashes is not so much the principle of annihilation but a condition of subjectivity that cannot be answered or articulated without broader social transformation. This condition itself is prior to what we might become.

[10]   Prior is not drawn as the locus of truth in the trilogy. Indeed, even in terms of class and masculinity much of Barker's social criticism emerges from the way she contextualizes his particular example. His girlfriend Sarah, for instance, works in a munitions factory and its depiction is just as good an indication of the war's complex articulations of class and gender:

The women sat at small tables, each table forming a pool of light under a low-hanging bulb. Apart from the work surfaces , the room was badly lit and so vast that its far end disappeared into shadow. All the women were yellow-skinned, and all, whatever their colouring, had a frizz of ginger hair peeping out from under the green cap. We don't look human, Sarah thought, not knowing whether to be dismayed or amused. They looked like machines, whose sole function was to make other machines." (R 201)

[11]   Sarah knows, like the other women, that the chemicals and dust in the factory are unhealthy but it means money and survival in the war and beyond. Other working-class women see this too. Beattie, now driving an ambulance and wearing short hair, is also a suffragette and a pacifist who helps "conchies" (conscientious objectors). She tells her daughter, "Hettie, for women, this is the first day in the history of the world." (E 101) This is one of the significant paradoxes of the war. Britain must generate a working-class male in accordance with its war aims: he is disciplined, patriotic, and aggressive. It must also produce officers who supervise these men and uphold the war machine's projected masculinity. But what happens? The men go off to war but the war itself undermines every formula of masculinity and class. The immobility of trench warfare, constant fear and massive casualties produce hysteria, a veritable emasculation that before the war had been designated a "female malady," as Showalter explains, of epidemic proportions. The proximity of bourgeois and proletarian males at the front confirms much class prejudice but challenges it too, not least because the conditions were intolerable to all. Meanwhile, working-class women prove to themselves and their communities that they can labor just as productively in the factory as they can in the household, and that this contradicts labor and sexual divisions deemed natural before the war.

[12]   Describing the war as an extreme situation is obviously not Barker's point. She does not seek to explain away the exceptionalism of the Great War but instead works through the representational fallacies it unmasks. Two problems, however, remain acute. The war defies the ability of the artist to disengage its anomalous intensity, and representation itself cannot arbitrate every facet of the social, especially where labor, gender, and sexuality are concerned. Politically, a condition of emergence is an anomaly, but it would be wrong to think of it as an aberration, as a deviation; it is, more accurately, the challenge of representing otherness within Being when that relation itself is non-representational. I have argued elsewhere ("Value") that Marx faces a similar problem in representing the existence of value because commodity relations seek to maintain such "existence" as invisible in order for capital circulation to proceed. Use value is unrepresentable because exchange value is the only form in which it can appear. Marx's solution is to work back from the commodity, stripping it of all of its "sensuous characteristics" until "congealed quantities of homogenous human labor" are revealed. But, while Marx aims to substantiate a law of value in terms of labor power he is very careful to frame this revelation with the subjunctive; that is to say, if this paring down could actually be performed the link between value and the commodity could be represented (128). This goes beyond the "what if" supposition that any creative writer must face: more accurately, it measures the degree to which a writer wants to engage or contest the givenness of social relations, in spite of their representational fix.

[13]   For Barker, the dilemma of representation is not a psychological or philosophical conundrum, although it can be discussed as such; rather, it is a symptom that seethes in forms of socialization. Again, Prior is not the embodiment of a labor theory of value, or one of masculinity. Nevertheless, by writing him into the predicaments of war Barker is able to explore what part memory plays in confounding or confirming dominant desires. Interestingly, for Prior this condition is also the fabric of nightmares. For many of the other characters in the trilogy Prior is anomalous in the more negative sense: he is a working-class intellectual, bisexual, and a Second-Lieutenant in the British Army. He suffers from shell-shock and more generally the mise en scène of total war. There is nothing unusual in the fact of war injuries; after all, that is the very raison d'être of war. What is challenging, however, is how the pain of war raises questions for society beyond the war (this is part of the after-life of the death machine). Prior begins in silence, the war has taken his capacity to speak. When Rivers, a doctor of sensory disfiguration, asks Prior what he dreams about, Prior writes back: "I DON'T REMEMBER." (R 41-caps. in original) Barker, particularly in The Century's Daughter has already shown an aesthetic and political interest in the production of community memory from silence (one thinks of the seance in which Frank ventriloquates all of the dead sons of the First World War for their mothers--and this is a man who himself has been shot through the throat, a symbol for me of working-class choice in war: the stigma of conscientious objection or the stigmata that means silence). Besides the horror of war itself, what trauma of memory is Prior compelled not to speak?

[14]   In one sense, his silence is dialogically produced by the desire of Dr.Rivers to hear him speak. Prior reacts to Rivers doing the work of the war machine. He is being repaired for war, and speech will be used as a language of dreams, the dreamwork that for Rivers will serve to recall the trauma that has been repressed. Silence is not just a void of intention, but it is also a mark of it: one can, strategically, as theorists of subalternity, class, race, and gender discourse have shown, withold words to dispel, defer, or misdirect interpretation. This is not just a problem for Rivers, but one for Barker. The waft of Freudianism that drifts between Barker and her characters in the trilogy is resisted in the manifest silences of the narrative. Structurally, the connection provides a good deal of its suspense, but it is significant in its own right because it signals an impasse: the perplexity of voicing from extreme situations. When Prior does begin speaking, the first thing he remembers is "Standing up to my waist in water in a dugout in the middle of No Man's Land being bombed to buggery." (R 52) The exposition of Prior's war experience in the trilogy traces the outlines of this sexually-charged description. The loss of manliness is underlined by the reference to "no-man's land" and his helplessness before bombs as "buggery." It is no coincidence that his extant speech begins with false consciousness.

[15]   To some extent, Barker follows Rivers' actual historical casework and its attendant theorization; again, that war neurosis, hysteria, or shell shock, was directly dependent upon being stationary for extended periods of time. But this is not Barker's only frame of reference. Feminists have already provided a great deal of provocative critique on "No Man's Land"--the space of war in which hegemonic modes of masculinity are otherwise challenged or emptied out (in Gilbert and Gubar's volume of the same name, in Showalter's The Female Malady--which Barker enthusiastically cites--in collections such as Behind the Lines, and in more recent studies like Bourke's Dismembering the Male). This space of intense anxiety about what makes a man a man, also inflects alternative desires about sexuality and class. Crudely put, the anxious assertion of manliness at the Front was always already a hesitation about the insertion of emasculation at the rear. Narratives of "damaged men" are simultaneously stories of "anomalous" masculinity (and that is obviously why popular culture must celebrate a hard-edged heroism in masculinist societies nervous about their codes of sexual identification. It is also one reason why conservative critics, like Ben Shephard in the Times Literary Supplement, take Barker to task for aberrant historicism). The challenge in reading Prior is to resist the tendency to explain away his bisexuality as a condition of war neurosis (that his same sex relations, for instance, are pathologically induced by the effects of violence) and instead come to terms with the complex interrelation of sex, class, and violence in war as a register of Being in process. Of course, such an approach must also take account of Prior's heterosexual Self, whose activities are not simply answered by the circumstances of war. Nevertheless, the body in pain, as Elaine Scarry's book testifies, is a body in transformation--a body not just blown apart but reconstituted, regenerated. We cannot thank war for the hideousness of its violence, only for the social processes that it throws into relief.

[16]   As Showalter points out, we owe the term "shell shock" to Charles S.Meyers who, like Rivers, was dedicated to analyzing the psychic effects of the Great War. Meyers himself admitted that the term was incorrect since his research clearly demonstrated that what was at issue was hysteria, and of epidemic proportions (80,000 cases were treated during the war, and these were but a fraction of those recorded). Again, the problem of "damaged men" was not just that Britain needed them fighting at the front, but that their "damage" called into question the ideology of masculinity requisite for war. Fussell argues that the image of the soldier in the British forces was a product of boy stories, Tennyson's Arthurian poems, and the faux medievalism of William Morris. Tales like Haggard's or Henty's are certainly influential, but primarily within a public school ethos of rugged adventurism and fair play. The anachronistic chivalry of the British officer and his proper sense of gentlemanly conduct was woefully inadequate for the barbarism of total war. Officers who marched into battle at the head of their troops were the first to be mowed down by machine gun fire (as a result, 25% of the officer class who studied at Oxford and Cambridge were killed).

[17]   What is prior, or who is Prior? Prior invokes a suspect chronologism but this predication is entirely necessary to our understanding of the relations between class and masculinity. "Real" men not only fight war, but they accept all of the social hierarchies that the military confers. Prior, the character, embodies much of the disjuncture between what the nation expects and what the individual desires. This is not always convincing, but the shortfalls in representation are themselves indices of the crisis at hand. For instance, Rivers expects officers to have nightmares that they can verbalize but Prior's mutism is prevalent among enlisted soldiers and seems to confirm his working-class roots. To act like an officer, even a damaged one, implies talking in a way that is almost literally out of character. Rivers does link this to a trauma, the discovery by Prior of an eyeball wedged between duckboards in the trenches, and an experience that contributes to Prior's near paranoia about surveillance. Yet the direct experiences of war often provide a manifest content that Rivers, with his Freudian eye, finds latent elsewhere. War neurosis evinces a tendency for dissociation that, in extreme forms, produces multiple selves that are irreconcilable. Rivers refers to this as a fugue state, and Prior develops a particularly acute form. Thus, the eyeball is also connected to Prior's separate "I" and the conflict this confers. The difficulty for Barker is that, since Prior is her invention, readers will seize on any characteristic that might seem to play out the major tenets of Rivers' research or her own Freudian predilections. Prior's war-torn self is almost a cliché: he appears made for Rivers' professional care. As Rivers comments, "They'd been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men." (R 48) Prior is deeply ambivalent about his masculinity-he questions its norms and its manifestations. If he is less than the "man" the war requires it is only partly because of the emasculation that the horror of war itself produces. Indeed, Prior's masculine desire is overdetermined in a number of ways, so much so that critics like Shephard have dismissed him as merely "an assemblage of attributes." This not only misreads Prior as a character but seriously misunderstands the dilemma of representation in terms of class and masculinity.

[18]   Rather than an agglomeration of characterological features, Prior reveals the fictive possibilities in masculine expression. His fugue state, for instance, is obviously a division of self that enables him to rationalize both what he cannot control and what he does not want to control at the level of desire (the fugue state is a challenge to prohibitions of all kinds). Interestingly, Rivers claims that patients often refer to this fugue state as their "Hyde," even if they have not read Stevenson's story. The epigraph from Stevenson in The Eye in the Door, by the way, is an answer to Prior's disagreeable multiplicity in readings of the trilogy: he is the "radically both," not just in terms of the "duality of man" but in terms of what makes a human simultaneously individual and social. It is this sense of Prior as a person and prior as a material ground that for me marks the "radically both" in representation's Real. I should add that this aspect of the relationship between the individual and the social was of intense interest to Rivers (one of his last lectures before his death in 1922 was on "Socialism and Human Nature": the lecture counters the claim that the former is a derogation of the latter). Prior's fugue state is so pronounced that he experiences it as a blackout that he cannot recall. And yet Prior is awake during these periods. At one point, Prior's other self even visits Rivers and discusses Prior in the third person. Once Rivers cottons on he sees how the fugue state allows Prior to put together the man who was destroyed in a bombcrater in France. This Prior has no trouble speaking, no trouble describing how he feels in what River refers to as "an incrongruous mixture of effeminacy and menace." (E 239) He was born in the trenches to allow Prior to go on, to allow him to keep on fighting in spite of all the contradictions and personal guilt. And yet, of course, this Prior is not simply a break from Prior's pre-war self. His class identification, his fearlessness, his disavowal of his father, even his sadomasochism (in his fugue state he burns himself with a cigar) are aspects of his character accentuated by the war, not just created by it. Prior's "warrior double" both confirms that subject most interpellated by the war and questions that this is, in fact, consonant with some masculine ideal. Two immediate effects after the appearance of Prior's fugue state are: for the first time Rivers addresses Prior by his first name, Billy, and Prior is able to verbalize an earlier moment of dissociation from his childhood. The first effect owes something to Rivers' class prejudice and decorum, but also the represssed homoeroticism of their encounters (reviewers bristle at even the mention of Rivers' homosexuality but it forms a creative tension in the trilogy-Prior loves Rivers but Rivers loves Sassoon and neither relationship is socially sanctioned or reciprocated). Prior remembers when he was five and he used to hear the shouting and fighting that broke out between his parents when his father came home drunk. Prior would sit at the top of the stairs and listen but then try to block out the sounds of his mother being beaten by looking into the glass of the barometer: "I used to go into the shine on the glass." (E 248) Prior's father wanted him to replicate his standard of masculinity: work in the factory, drink hard, and don't get above yourself. But while it takes him a long time to realize, part of Prior has not forgotten "going into the shine on the glass" and he has both consciously and unconsciously sought a different sense of self within himself.

[19]   The splitting of self is experienced by other characters, most notably Sassoon, whose conscience is torn by his opposition to the war and his gentlemanly duty. What Prior imitates in a public school accent ("The pride of the British Army requires that absolute dominance must be maintained in No Man's Land at all times" [R 52]), Sassoon has introjected as a governing ideology of his class. Like Prior, this is overdetermined, but what is interesting in Sassoon's case is that the war simultaneously provides an aesthetic dilemma. Sassoon's searing poems about the war require his presence at the front: he cannot create solely based on the ghosts he conjures from the experience (although one specter, Orme, almost provides this touchstone). Rivers is supposed to cure Sassoon of pacificism which, given its association with being "sissy" or as a symptom of "damaged" masculinity, is another subtle irony of history. What Rivers exploits is basically Sassoon's crippling guilt about being away from the front (he does not suffer from shell shock, and his stay at Craiglockhart owes more to Robert Graves' machinations-a friend's attempt to save Sassoon from prosecution for opposing the war-than it does to medical diagnosis). Both learn from the treatment: Rivers comes to respect a more radical critique of what the war represents; Sassoon understands the importance of memory for both his art and the construction of the social. In Sassoon's memoirs of the war (he writes about it again and again), he offers himself in the form of George Sherston (Rivers retains his own name in Sassoon's work), as if to make dissociation an aesthetic in its own right, something that informs Barker's trilogy as a whole.

[20]   If the war foregrounds the constructedness of class and masculinity in specific ways, decentering all that is fixed in "nature" by violence or by reflection on the same, this does not absolve the critic from "cleaving to the negative" in understanding historical process. I would suggest, rather, that the Great War blasts away at history's continuum as part of modernity's logic, just as exchange value is bound to represent, negatively, that which it is not, use value-the prior or ground of economic activity. The issue obviously extends beyond an assessment of Billy Prior but it is nevertheless always at stake in memories of the First World War. On one level, what is forged in class and masculinity as relations is something akin to what Heidegger extols as aletheia in the origin of art, a compulsive "unconcealment of being" that the art of war parades as the truth of trauma. Yet for all the nihilism in the war's effects and affect, it continues to provoke a creative substance in historicity, modernity's very symptom, the task of seizing hold of memory, as Walter Benjamin puts it, in a moment of danger. However much the nostalgia mode wants Barker's trilogy to be the substance of heroic recall, granddad's war troubles memory in the act of recollection. To recall Barker's childhood memory once more, even if the bayonet wound was not there, it is always there in what the Great War represents. True, it is a psychic process that is, for instance, Rivers' primary concern, but it is also the way in which Marx asks us to see labor value in what it is not: we do not have to settle for representation as truth.

[21]   Theoretically, however, this appears a convenient sleight of hand, like the one in which ideologist admits no contradiction (it is always the other person's problem). But Marxism has always had to fight at this level of impossibility and abstraction because it provides a path to the trick in value itself, the Id that says it is not. Barker's trilogy is a fascinating correlative: it is itself the scene of contestation over what remains to be regenerated, what remains to come back, like the ghosts that stalk its pages. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that because she focuses on the class, gender, and sex contradictions immanent to modern war, the guardians of normative history take her to task. Ben Shephard's review article, "Digging up the Past," is typical of the genre. That Barker cites her sources for her novelization of the war as memory allows Shephard to dismiss the trilogy as "recycling academic clichés" (the academics he has in mind are Eric Leed, Elaine Showalter, and Sheila Rowbotham). The problem, of course, is that Barker is neither interested in faithfully reproducing history nor providing a template for academic leftism. Perturbed that Barker seems to "out" Rivers (she does not) and that Prior has the capacity to read Freud and anthropology (the former a monopoly, apparently, of Bloomsbury esthetes), Shephard exhorts his readers to stick with "solid historical originals," the "real world of shell-shock" to be found in the case histories of the time. This is mistaken for two reasons. First, we need to remind ourselves that even in our putatively postmodern world there are significant differences between a novel and a case history (starting with the question of author and reader in aesthetic activity). Shephard is aware of this since he celebrates the "solidity" of the archive only to finish his article with a flourish from Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Second, there is no "real world of shell shock" because even in Barker's sometimes overbearingly Freudian narration the truth that is Jekyll is not the lie that is Hyde. Real fiction, such as it is, exists in the process of narrating the two, not choosing between them. Yet the "real world of shell shock" is a perfect way to describe the dissociative effects of war. Shephard provides the oxymoron, but not the means to adjudicate it.

[22]   For Rivers, Prior was "the mystery," "formidable," the inexplicable according to the dictates of his thesis. In the curt criticism of Shephard, Billy Prior is false, simply not credible. He compares his class attitudes to those of "the confidently stroppy grammar school boy of the 1950s." (13) His sexual identifications, meanwhile, are confined to what Shephard calls "airport novel sex." Barker has always been forthright to the point of bluntness about sex, but this is because she often attends to the violence and mysogyny in some of its forms, not because she seeks lurid titillation in the description of the sex act itself. While Prior's bisexuality is hardly novel, the infusion of class codes with sexuality is linked to social hierarchy.

[23]   For instance, while in London as part of his regeneration, Prior meets another officer, Charles Manning and they go to the latter's house for a round of sex. Although Prior thinks he recognizes Manning, at this point he does not know that he too is a patient of Rivers. The sexual tension of their encounter is remarkable for the class discourse it implicates. Manning, a true officer according to his bourgeois class position, has an injured leg, and one does not need to be an avid reader of psychoanalysis to sense the phallic significance of this fact. Just to accentuate his damaged masculinity, Manning has trouble opening his door: "It works if you pull, I keep forgetting that." (9) Manning's house has been hit by the bombing and Prior cannot help but notice the large crack that has formed above the door. These are not careless or amateur innuendoes but in fact contextualize the themes of the trilogy (The Eye in the Door, in particular, explores in detail the surveiller/punir that attempts to rediscipline gender, class, and sexuality in the face of the war's exploded categorizations). In this scene, we look through that crack, we are the eye above and in the door. Readers of Barker will recognize the graphic sensuality and physicality in Manning and Prior's encounter (it is through these methods, for instance, that Barker defamiliarizes the terror of masculine violence in Blow Your House Down). This is compounded by class relations. Both men know that they are officers but Manning hesitates at this level of sexual encounter, as if it is not something officers should do together. Sensing this, Prior plays up his working-class identity by exaggerating his accent and offering himself as "a sort of seminal spittoon" (11) (the working class as WC, as they are referred to by Birtwhistle, the Cambridge don in The Ghost Road). Manning then assumes his position more assuredly and leads Prior from the parlor to the servants' quarters for the sex itself. Working-class officers in the First World War were described as "temporary gentlemen" and it is enough for Manning that Prior is temporarily not a gentleman so that they can fuck. I do not use this word lightly, but then, neither does Barker, who never deploys it outside the social determinations that render it legible. After the sex Manning declares, "I needed a good fucking," (14) and Prior, cognizant of the class relations this has played out thinks to himself, "You all do." But he does not say this, and in his silence the tenor of class conflict becomes palpable. Certainly, Prior's class anger is inconsistent, enough, for instance, that his childhood friend Mac believes him to be a class traitor by informing on anti-war and anti-government protesters (political instability on the home front constitutes one of the sub-plots of the trilogy). Yet in this scene and others Prior constantly attempts to negotiate his personal desire with social expectations, spoken and implied.

[24]   Barker is well aware that the war conjures much more than Prior's experiences, but her particular skill is in weaving elements of Prior's identity into the structure of war relations as a whole. There is an element of danger in such narration because, by including some of the historically specific paranoia of the period in her trilogy (like the anti-feminism resplendent in Captain Spencer's thesis of the enlarged clitoris, and the homophobia clearly present in an associated trial), the Regeneration trilogy risks trivializing the conditions of emergence--implying that, for instance, bisexuality or homosexuality are of a piece with hysteria, and that they do not have a relevant history outside or before the moment of war. But then, it has always been a risk for women to write about war and its realm of possibility, especially where ideologies of the male struggle to articulate a patriarchal hegemony.

[25]   The representation of sexuality is complicated yet again in Barker's last volume in the trilogy, The Ghost Road. Prior's engagement to Sarah seems like an exercise in appropriateness, as if, according to the codes of class control in his community, it was expected that a person like him would marry a person like Sarah (just as it appears appropriate that officers are regenerated by Rivers' compassion, and enlisted men by Yealland's sadistic shock therapy). One wonders from time to time whether Barker might appreciate too warmly the psychoanalytic dicta of the early twentieth century which held that homosexuality should be "cured." Clearly she is intrigued, however, by the incidence and treatment of war neurosis precisely because it facilitates a deeper questioning about the strictures of sexuality that attend the structures of war. In The Ghost Road, Barker is presented with an aesthetic and political challenge. She knows that Prior must die--it is part of the very texture of the trilogy's anti-war statement that he is regenerated only to be decimated. On the other hand, however, Barker does not want the forces foregrounded by total war, the conditions of emergence as I have called them, sublated by the moment of Prior's oblivion. This is the bayonet edge of the narrative's achievement, one that is suspended in the aura of the other spirits that animate the story.

[26]   It is important to register that these ghosts, these unsettled shades of memory, are not outside the machinery of therapeutic treatment: they have built that too. In the third volume, Barker sets up a series of parallels in Prior's and Rivers' lives in which the juxtaposition of Prior's letters with River's experience in Melanesia underlines the stakes in memory and in modes of interpretation. Much more could be said about the construction of Rivers' anthropological "I" (another "eye in the door") in observing Melanesian death rituals, not just from the biographical details that Barker provides but from the extensive lecture materials that Rivers amassed and that Barker consulted. In the novel, Rivers' reveals his own experiences of trauma, including the moment of "breeching" when his hair was cut and his father admonished him for crying. Rivers is certain that this is the cause of his stammer and his inability to visualize memories (as Elaine Scarry points out, our imaginative realm is almost entirely dependent on an object world--we must "see" something to dream). But the point in Rivers' eventual self-consciousness of this trauma is not an endorsement of psychoanalysis but a set of questions about the relationship of traumas to social rituals and the capacity to remember them in a concrete and autocritical way. War wants to renegotiate social structures by obliterating their substance. The aristocracy, impossibly positioned in relation to capital, projects its death throes onto the world order: the First World War is its ghostly apparition. Wilfred Owen, another significant character in The Ghost Road opines, "You say we kill the Beast. I say we fight because men lost their bearings in the night." (G 144) And for this, unlike the Melanesians, there can be no "proper death."

[27]   I have invoked Prior's sexuality in relation to the conditions of emergence in war, but lest we misinterpret this as a function only of war let me conclude with a couple of points of clarification. Prior dies not because he is a rogue male, a working-class officer who has lost his bearings in the night and become "amoral" (as Shephard suggests) to the point of bisexuality and promiscuity. He dies as part of an ethical statement about what war denies our species' capacity to be, or what Marx refers to as "species being." Clausewitz's obscene formulation about war being a continuation of politics by other means is no less true when those politics are sexual. There is now a huge storehouse of research and writing in which feminism has reconstellated war's relationship to women. Barker attempts to extend this critique into the fictional representation of masculinity. The British working-class male has brutally participated in his own subjugation (for war is also always class war by other means). Throughout the trilogy Prior comes to question more and more the constraints on his capacity to be, whether prostituting himself for food, prostituting himself metaphorically for glory, or using prostitutes for some vague and ultimately unsatisfactory exercise in self esteem. On one level we may agree with the pathetic Hallet, whose bullet in the brain allows him to say "Shotvarfet" ("It's not worth it"). Yet on another level the oblivion that Prior returns to meet in France asks us to consider who or what is killed at the Sambre-Oise canal? Is it the bravado of Prior's sexual expression? Is it his desire to understand what makes a man a man? Prior dies looking at his reflection disappear in the water, he returns to the "shine in the glass," an emergence literally as submergence. I believe that we are asked not to separate, ultimately, Prior's sexuality from the other elements of emergence in identity that he might otherwise represent. To make these connections in the shadow, the shade (the ghost) of the Great war is Barker's achievement: it is a responsibility to memory, and not just idealization, that Prior be made a man differently from the requirements of the war machine. And now, particularly now when war is presented as a video abstraction rather than a text of history for memory, we must study the emergence of such difference as a political and artistic imperative.

[28]   The short answer to what is prior is that it calls attention to what is determinate and sedimented in social formations that does not close off a capacity for change (or, as Prior states the case, "the past is a palimpsest" [E 55]). If one lesson of masculinity for class is that identity is conjunctural, ambivalent, performed, then another of class for masculinity is that the subject's consciousness is not identical with itself (in the sense that it cannot fully nominate its self identity or act out its being on its own terms). Prior fights every attempt to categorize him, from his father's accusations that he is a anti worker to Rivers' assumptions that every symptom merely awaits its match with a prior trauma. For working-class masculinity, Barker claims, the war is both a crisis and a catalyst. The capacity to remember is a way to shake ideologies even if, in itself, it does not sublate them. That regeneration, changing on the basis of what is prior, takes more than representation.

WORKS CITED

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Barker, Pat. Another World. New York: Viking, 1998.

----------. Blow Your House Down. London: Virago, 1986

----------. The Century's Daughter. London: Virago, 1984

----------. The Eye in the Door. New York: Viking, 1993.

----------. The Ghost Road. New York: Viking, 1995.

----------. Regeneration. New York: Dutton, 1991.

Bourke, Joanna, Dismembering the Male. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gilbert, Sarah M. and Susan Gubar. No-Man's Land. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Origin of the Work of Art" ("Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes"), trans. Albert Hofstadter, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1993: 143-212.

Higgonet, Margaret R. et al, Eds., Behind the Lines. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Hitchcock, Peter. "The Value of" in Class Issues Ed. Amitava Kumar. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 117-124.

Marx, Karl. Capital (Volume One), Trans.Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1976.

Rivers, W.H.R. Conflict and Dream. New York: Harcourt, 1923.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. London: Faber and Faber, 1937.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. London: Oxford University Press, 1985

Shephard, Ben. "Digging up the past." The Times Literary Supplement 4851 (March, 22, 1996). 12-13.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

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PETER HITCHCOCK is a Professor of literary and cultural studies at the City University of New York. His books include Working-Class Fiction in Theory and Practice and Imaginary States (forthcoming).

Copyright ©2002 Ann Kibbey. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
 

Copyright ©2002 Ann Kibbey.
 

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