Pat Barker: Detachment can be a means of survival

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

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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!

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