"Can the Tide Be Shifted?: Transgressive Sexuality and War Trauma in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy"

By Vickroy, Laurie | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, August 2002 | Go to article overview

"Can the Tide Be Shifted?: Transgressive Sexuality and War Trauma in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy"


Vickroy, Laurie, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Concerned with the lingering effects of traumatic history, the contemporary British writer Pat Barker examines the complex interconnections of trauma, recovery, war and sexuality in her World War I trilogy, Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). Traumatized war veterans are emblematic of the personal and collective losses associated with one of the most devastating and criticized 20th century wars, itself a historical trauma that provoked the beginnings of important shifts in cultural attitudes about war, war trauma gender, class, and the reliability of authority figures. Her locus for exploring these disruptions is her protagonist, officer Billy Prior. Through his transgressive sexuality and protean social identity, Prior is in some respects a Bakhtinian carnivalesque figure who challenges gender and class traditions, and in doing so "celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order /_marking/ the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions" (qtd. in Stallybrass and White 7). Barker's texts also explore the possibilities of infraction and change, illustrating some of Michel Foucault's arguments about transgression: that it is short-lived by its nature because any limit that it crosses--that is, authority, rule, law, etc.--rapidly "closes up behind it" ("Transgression" 73). The workings of trauma, how it brings about enormous change, and the possibility for transformation, and yet also can instill defensive stasis, provides the context that illuminates Foucault's formulations and the counteractive forces of rebellion and reinscription that dynamically inform the soldiers' lives and the British society that Barker reconstructs in her trilogy.

Though I am not suggesting an equivalence between trauma, carnival, war and sexuality, they are meaningfully interrelated in Barker's texts around conflicts of culture, knowledge and being. Trauma is a defensive response to an overwhelming event or events which impair emotional and cognitive responses and bring lasting psychological disruption and often alienate the individual from others. Traumatic situations take their victims out of the realm of the normal, and their symptoms are resisted by social forces. The horrors of trench warfare and bombardments change the lives of Barker's veterans, sometimes irreparably, as they experience a variety of symptoms including physical revulsion, terrifying dreams, the seeming reappearance of dead comrades and hysterical symptoms. The sometimes grotesque nature of their injuries suggests a more grim view of the carnivalesque, but the revulsion soldiers feel about slaughter provides reasons for criticism of authorities. Moreover, the defence mechanisms employed for psychic survival--among these, dissociation, repetition, acting out--though sometimes reinforcing cultural repression, enable acts of transgression as well. Examining their feelings in therapy often reveals or leads to questions about the dominant values that brought them into war. In this regard, Barker brings in the historical case of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is described as a "split self" who defies the social order as an anti-war poet defending his suffering men, but does so by using the "raw material ... ammunition" supplied by his experience as an officer (Eye 233), in addition, the situations of war, mobilization and social disruption, provide opportunities for "subversive" sexual behaviors such as homosexuality, chance casual encounters, unusual partners, etc. This is especially true of Prior, who acts out sexually, and because his partners are often forbidden according to social standards, these encounters are carnivalesque in their flaunting or mores, in their association with the lower body, in their expression of high and low social thoughts and practices, and in providing a respite from prevailing ranks and privileges.

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