Pat Barker: Detachment can be a means of survival

From a discussion with the novelist, held at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London

Share

I think if you watch a good doctor switching between responding to you as an individual and doing the detective work on the symptoms you present to him, you see somebody flitting almost between two personalities, between one sentence and the next. And that process fascinates me. The essence of a good doctor is that you have both the compassion and the involvement with the patient, and the willingness to accept the patient as an individual combined with a rigorous and unemotional investigation.

I think if you watch a good doctor switching between responding to you as an individual and doing the detective work on the symptoms you present to him, you see somebody flitting almost between two personalities, between one sentence and the next. And that process fascinates me. The essence of a good doctor is that you have both the compassion and the involvement with the patient, and the willingness to accept the patient as an individual combined with a rigorous and unemotional investigation.

I'm fascinated to what extent, if any, there is that same process of detachment in other areas. The most extreme example would be the concentration camp guard who goes home and bathes his kids and puts them to bed. But there are less terrible examples than that: the man who goes home and clinches the ruthless business deal or fires somebody and then goes home and responds to his wife and his kids as individuals.

This is a very common-or-garden aspect of doubling. It's so universal to all of us that I don't think it can in any way be called illness. And yet it does obviously have certain links with dissociation. One difference is that if you're in a dissociated state, the experience of both states is not accessible to the other state. Whereas at any moment the dissociated doctor or the dissociated businessman has instant access to the other personality.

One of the characteristics of the First World War as a war, which is perhaps not true of all wars, is the extent to which there were these extremes of experience, that a man going back to the front at Amiens might be sitting in a restaurant with a nice bottle of wine with a white table cloth and silver cutlery, and literally within a matter of two or three hours he would be in a dug-out, and if it was in the middle of winter and they hadn't managed to bury the bodies, there would be unburied bodies lying around him.

You would almost have to have a mechanism of doubling simply as a reflection of the extremes of the experience you were being forced to go through. And they tended to think in extremes – before the war, after the war; the home, the front; the front-line trenches or staff officers. It was divisions after division after division, and when a soldier's divisions finally get to the point where he starts to dissociate and can't actually remember what he's doing half the time, this is really quite a good adjustment to what everybody is being forced to do.

You could argue that we did all the right things after the war was over – virtually every village was designing its war memorial, collecting for its war memorial; they were all observing Armistice Day. So there was a very formal acknowledgement of people's grief, and there were recognised rituals of grieving. And there was social support. There was validation for the woman who had lost her husband or the mother who had lost her son.

What has happened since then is that every generation has emphasised a different part of the war. In the 60s, for example, you got an enormous emphasis on the horror of the trenches, and particularly on the horror of that landscape. And that landscape was actually a sort of coding of the fear of the post-nuclear landscape, for which it isn't a bad symbol.

The memories of that war and the fear of the post-nuclear world coalesced into a single unit, most notably in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which used the poetry of Wilfred Owen as its text along with the Latin mass. I often think that Wilfred Owen has had a very extraordinary posthumous career.

A lot of writers get stuck in their own time. They're of immense significance to their contemporaries, but they somehow don't translate. The next generation doesn't see what the fuss is about basically. I think that Wilfred Owen didn't get stuck in 1917 or 1918 or 1919, he got stuck in 1963, which is quite an achievement when you think he'd been dead for 40 years!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The rules were simple: before the results are announced, don’t mention the S-word

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Howard Jacobson has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the second time  

In praise of Howard Jacobson

Simon Kelner
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week