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"The Blameless Physician": Narrative and Pain, Sassoon and Rivers Robert Hemmings Literature and Medicine, Volume

"The Blameless Physician": Narrative and Pain, Sassoon and Rivers

Robert Hemmings

Literature and Medicine, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 109-126 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/lm.2005.0026

Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/lm.2005.0026 For additional information about this article
Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/lm.2005.0026 For additional information about this article

For additional information about this article

Robert Hemmings


“The Blameless Physician”:

Narrative and Pain, Sassoon and Rivers

Robert Hemmings

Psychoanalysis meets psychological pain with narrative. As a dis- course, psychoanalysis was itself founded upon narrative—its earliest therapeutic methods for the treatment of hysterical suffering based on the catharsis of the “talking cure,” its earliest articulations presented in the form of case histories about patients written by physicians. 1 In “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication,” Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer famously state that their hysterical patients “suffer mainly from reminiscences,” very often the repressed reminiscence of a traumatic event in the past. 2 Pierre Janet claims that traumatic memories are dissociative in nature, cut off, whereas healthy memory is rooted in narrative: “[M]emory is an action: essentially, it is the action of telling a story.” 3 The narratives exchanged between patient and physician in the therapeutic models that prevailed in early twentieth-century psychoanalysis were typically mediated by the physician through the case study, over which he had absolute narrative and interpretive control in spite of the patient’s resistance. The patient’s narrative, according to Freud, no matter how “complete and self-contained” it seems, is not so. 4 The physician fol- lowing Freud’s relational model must examine the patient’s narrative “with a critical eye,” discover its inevitable “gaps and imperfections,” and follow these “lacunas” deep into the dissociated memory, the realm of the repressed traumatic experience. 5 Primarily a blank or missing portion of a narrative, “lacuna” comes from the Latin word meaning “hole” or “pit,” etymological associations which inflect the narrative gap with a spatialized dimension consistent with the archaeological metaphors that characterize Freud’s conceptualizing of the psyche. 6 Having discovered the patient’s lacunas, the physician is obliged, in composing his corresponding case history—his narrative constructed

Literature and Medicine 24, no. 1 (Spring 2005) 109–126 © 2005 by The Johns Hopkins University Press



from above and temporally beyond the physician-patient encounter:

what I will call in this paper a “sur-narrative”—to fill in these gaps with carefully considered supporting interpretations that draw up the dissociated memory from the murky depths of the unconscious to consciousness, and to the surface of the narrative. However, there are also cases in twentieth-century modernist literature of patients writing retrospectively of their psychoanalytic encounters to create their own sur-narratives. The sur-narratives of writer-patients often take the form not of case studies per se, but of homages. Lacking the generic interpretive imperative of the case study, patient sur-narratives do not so much fill in the gaps or seek to re- trieve repressed dissociated memories as cover them over with layers of idealized memories of the physician-therapist, layers replete with their own imperfections and lacunas. Perhaps the best known example is H. D.’s Tribute to Freud, the poet’s account of the treatment she sought to explore the traumatic effects of her personal experiences with death during the First World War. 7 While some critics identify in Tribute a celebration of the collaborative nature of H. D.’s interactions with Freud, which reinvigorated her creativity and imbued her with a sense of wholeness and perfection, others position Tribute as a feminist correc- tive to Freudian psychoanalysis in which the patient seems almost to cure herself of suffering, in spite of Freud, by symbolically replacing him. 8 But more recently, some less altruistic features in the relationship between the poet-patient and what H. D. calls her “blameless physician” (after Homer’s designation of Aesculapius, god of medicine) have been pointed out, including H. D.’s alignment of herself with spirituality and Freud with materialism—she with the gods, he with the goods. 9 In any event, Tribute to Freud is the patient’s sur-narrative in which the traumatic pain that initiated the physician-patient encounter is assuaged through the patient’s construction of her own sense of order. A lesser known example of a poet-patient writing in retrospect is also rooted in the First World War, though more explicitly so, and involves the exploration of repressed traumatic experiences, encounters with death, and conceptions of spiritual and material being. In the case of Sieg- fried Sassoon and W. H. R. Rivers there are no detailed records of the narratives exchanged during their therapeutic sessions, nor did Rivers publish a case history. 10 Sassoon’s poems and prose narratives represent the primary textual legacy of his work with Rivers. Sherston’s Progress (1936) is the third volume of the autobiographical trilogy narrated by George Sherston, a thinly veiled stand-in for Sassoon; the only histori- cal figure whose name is not altered in The Complete Memoirs of George

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Sherston is Rivers. 11 Sassoon’s sur-narrative about their relationship is, like H. D.’s, a tribute, but rather than seeking to replace Rivers, or explicitly counter his ideas, Sassoon seeks to transform Rivers from a mere physician into a guiding spiritual presence. Previous critical studies of Rivers and Sassoon have focussed on each man’s influence on the other’s ideas about war, pacifism, and masculinity, with conflicting views about the degree to which Sas- soon was actually suffering from war neuroses. 12 Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991) fictionalizes and expands their relationship, in effect providing Rivers’s perspective on the narrative of their work together that Sassoon creates in Sherston’s Progress, while reviving interest in both historical figures. In her discussion of Barker’s fiction, Anne Whitehead focuses on Rivers’s theorizing about dreams that concerned his treat- ment of Sassoon. 13 In this paper, however, my goals are more specific. By attending to the gaps, imperfections, and lacunas within Sassoon’s sur-narratives concerning Rivers, I explore the cultural tensions they seek, without complete success, to contain. The sur-narratives elide the suffering of the poet-patient’s war trauma and conceal the ensuing gaps with spiritual mirages he can neither fully accept nor wholly deny. By elevating the physician to quasi-spiritual mentor, Sassoon covers over his own complicity in the harsh materiality of war experience that initiated the therapeutic encounter in the first place. Thus Sassoon’s hagiographic portrayal of Rivers is at once a compensatory and di- versionary gesture: it compensates for the untimely loss of his physi- cian-cum-mentor and friend by creating an homage, and it diverts, in the grandness of the transformation, both Sassoon and his reader from his traumatizing experience. Accordingly, I argue that his sur-narratives allow Sassoon to focus on the transcendent potential of human experi- ence, which surmounts the trauma and the therapeutic procedures of material existence. But fissures of pain disrupt these sur-narratives and reveal the poet-patient unable to escape his past and unable to accept the spiritual future into which he projects his physician, safely beyond the harsh material conditions of the war-torn modern world. Like H. D., Sassoon demonstrates in his sur-narratives a preference for the order of the spiritual realm. But rather than usurping the physician’s place to attain transcendence, Sassoon replaces himself with Rivers and seeks consolation in an order he cannot yet accept as his own.



“A Live Museum of War Neuroses”

In July 1917, already decorated with a Military Cross, Sassoon was sent by the military authorities to Craiglockhart War Hospital outside Edinburgh. Their motives were political. Eventually published in twelve newspapers, including the Times, and read out in the House of Commons, “A Soldier’s Declaration” (1917), Sassoon’s statement against the war, was a potentially damaging document. The War Of- fice sought to limit the damage by declaring that the author of “A Soldier’s Declaration” was suffering from shell shock and therefore not of sound mind. 14 Sassoon referred dismissively to Craiglockhart as “Dottyville” and insisted publicly that there was no psychological basis for his confine- ment in “the truly awful atmosphere of this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes.” 15 Entrusted to the care of the eminent ethnographer and psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, Sassoon would recall in the mid- 1930s how both of them had joked about the “anti-war complex” from which he was reputedly suffering. 16 He asked Rivers outright if he was a shell-shock case and reports that Rivers replied, “Certainly not” (SP, 12). Compared to some of his dramatically incapacitated fellow “inmates” in that “live museum of war neuroses” (SP, 12), Sassoon thought his mental health was relatively untroubled and, consequently, accounts of his own suffering have no explicit place in his sur-narratives. This view seems to accord with Rivers’s initial assessment in the medical case sheet—the only record of Rivers’s response to this physician-pa- tient encounter, hardly a case study—taken after their initial meeting on July 23, 1917. Leaving the space following the heading “Disease” blank, he noted:

The patient is a healthy-looking man of good physique. There are no physical signs of any disorder of the Nervous System. He dis- cusses his recent actions and their motives in a perfectly intelligent and rational way, and there is no evidence of any excitement or His views differ from that of the ordinary pacifist in that he would no longer object to the continuance of the War if he saw any reasonable prospect of a rapid decision. 17

The fact that Sassoon was free from any “physical signs” of nervous disease set him apart from many of Rivers’s other patients. Rivers knew that a rational, nondepressive demeanour and the lack of physical symptoms were not conclusive proof of an undamaged psyche,

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but this case sheet was completed before the commencement of more than three months of treatment, and therefore by no means amounts to a clean bill of mental health. 18 Privately, Sassoon was very anxious about the impact of traumatic war experience, as shown by his diaries of the time, which reveal a preoccupation with the fragile state of his nerves, a preoccupation later swallowed up by lacunas in Sherston’s Progress. While Rivers’s theoretical background is also largely elided from his sur-narratives, this background is nevertheless an important context for Sassoon’s quest to understand his suffering and cope, how- ever indirectly, with the traumatic pain of his past experiences. Since his training in Germany in the early 1890s, Rivers had been interested in Continental approaches to neuroses and once back in England had become an early advocate of Freudian ideas. 19 Rivers noted that before the war, due in large part to their foundation upon the theory of infantile sexuality, Freud’s ideas were, in Britain, “the subject of hostility exceptional even in the history of medicine.” 20 So it required considerable political acumen to expose the British medi- cal community as gently as possible to the utility of Freudian ideas, ideas that were crucial to his own understanding and treatment of war neuroses. In “Freud’s Psychology of the Unconscious,” Rivers empha- sizes the “naturalness” of unconscious experience in human existence and the role of instinctual impulses in the unconscious, foregrounding what he found to be the most striking aspect of Freudian thought: the active nature of forgetting, especially forgetting unpleasant experience and suppressing it in the unconscious (IU, 160). But unlike the typi- cal case studies of Freud, who sought to trace his patients’ illnesses back to childhood traumas or sexual development, Rivers focussed on the more immediate emotional conflicts of front-line experience that produced the “flight into illness.” 21

Repression of War Experience

In December 1917, at the Royal Society of Medicine, Rivers pre- sented a paper called “Repression of War Experience” in which he cautioned against the harmful effects of the standard medical advice for psychologically disturbed soldiers: avoid all thoughts of the war and you will be right as rain. The attempt to banish or repress the effects of painful experience from the mind not only did not work but actually exacerbated the neurosis. The mental discomfort and de- pression resulting from the conflict that produced the neurosis tended



to “crystallise” (IU, 123) around some incident of trauma the patient had experienced. The haunting memory of this experience often dis- placed the original affect of fear by producing its own affect of hor- ror, guilt, or shame of survival. During waking hours the conscious mind worked fervently to banish these powerful affective memories. But during sleep the repressed images returned with a vengeance in “dreams or nightmares” when “the painful affect, together with the experience round which it has crystallised, dominates the mind” (IU, 123). Such distress often drove the sufferer to increased efforts of con- scious repression until finally a “comparatively trivial shock, illness or wound” (IU, 123) caused a breakdown and the loss of ability to deal with the original conflict. From these observations, Rivers developed a therapeutic treatment based upon the principle of catharsis whereby the patient was encouraged to eschew repressive tendencies and give voice to the traumatic memories—latent narratives themselves, in Janet’s terms—without dwelling excessively upon them. Patient and physician would work together to construct from these painful memories a narra- tive that found some tolerable, or redeeming, even pleasant association for the trauma (IU, 189). In early July 1917, during the frantic days of putting the finishing touches to his public protest against the war, Sassoon began the poem he later, once under Rivers’s influence, retitled “Repression of War Ex- perience.” 22 In this poem, Sassoon depicts a wounded and embittered soldier unfamiliar with the benefits of Rivers’s narrative-based therapy. The speaker, who seems to be rehearsing repressive techniques favored by the nonpsychoanalytically inclined medico-military authorities Rivers describes in his essay, attempts to figure a moth as a talisman to keep his mind from wandering to darker subjects, but the scorching of its wings by a candle returns him to that from which he yearns to escape:

“No, no, not that, —it’s bad to think of war, / When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you.” 23 As the moth “bumps and flutters” (line 5) against the reflection of candlelight upon the ceiling, and is trapped there beating against the illumination and not passing through it, it symbolizes the surviving soldier’s plight. It is not his experience exactly that traps him; rather, the reflection of that experi- ence through unbidden memories entraps him in a painful cycle of repression and repetition. The poem, itself a narrative fragmented by ellipses and dashes and abrupt shifts in resolve, recounts a struggle to repress memories of war experience, a struggle lost as painful affect eventually bursts through the silent gaps and floods the speaker with thoughts of madness:

Robert Hemmings


Hark! Thud, thud, thud, — quite soft

cease— Those whispering guns— O Christ, I want to go out And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy.

they never

(CP, 90, lines 36–8)

A more central lacuna dominates “Repression of War Experience.” The absence of an explicit physician-patient relationship and of the insights into the harmful consequences of repression serve to distance Sassoon from the pain the soldier-patient depicts in his poem. After all, in 1917 Sassoon did not admit to being plagued by war neuroses; his public protest against the war was based, he liked to think, on rational, moral grounds. Moreover, in his personal demeanour he was able to maintain the aplomb of the fox-hunting man and the soldier-poet. But privately, in his diaries and letters, he provides ample evidence of the traumatic impact of his front-line experience. His terminology is of course different from Rivers’s technical discourse, but the psychological suffering he describes seems to be the same, as he invokes “feeling nervous and rattled” (D1, 132), being “over-strained” (D1, 161), wary of “my nerves” (D1, 171), and after the war being in a “state of ‘nerves’” and experiencing “nervous exhaustion.” 24 This vocabulary of “nerves” seems to have protected him, even as he describes the symptoms of war neuroses, from feeling the full incapacitating pain they could bring on; the euphemistic description may also have sufficiently concealed the condition so that he never felt bound to acknowledge it as his own. He certainly never admitted publicly to suffering from war neuroses. A diary entry from 1917 reveals the depth of the painful affect:

“[W]hile I lie awake staring at the darkness of the tent my own ter- rors get hold of me and I long only for life and comfort” (D1, 133). He felt “scarred and tortured” by the “nerve-strain” of his front-line experience, “[and yet] I suppose all this ‘emotional experience’ (futile phrase) is of value,” even if it “leads nowhere now (but to madness)” (D1, 133). Recovering from a head wound in Fourth London Hospital at Denmark Hill, Sassoon recorded his mental distress:

And when the lights are out,

with drowsy figures, huddled out-stretched, then the horrors come creeping across the floor: the floor is littered with parcels of dead flesh and bones, faces glaring at the ceiling, faces turned to the floor, hands clutching neck or belly; a livid grinning face with bristly moustache peers at me over the edge of my bed, the hands

and the white beds are quiet



clutching my sheets. Yet I found no bloodstains there this morning.

. to scare me; they look at me reproachfully, because I am so lucky, with my safe wound, and the warm kindly immunity of the hospi- tal is what they longed for when they shivered and waited for the

to me. They are not here


. I don’t think they mean any harm

attack to begin, or the brutal bombardment to could sleep. (D1, 161–2)

I wish I

Such a hallucinatory experience, a common symptom of war neuro- ses, affected Sassoon only intermittently, however, and several weeks

after recording these nocturnal visitations, he wrote in his diary, “For

a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me” (D1, 167), but

clearly he was not sure how long he could keep up his resistance. 25

It is hard to conceive that such psychological horrors played no part

in his public protest against the war in 1917, in his fears of an actual breakdown, or in his treatment with his physician.

In Sassoon’s sur-narratives of the encounter between physician and patient, the extent of the psychological damage he suffered in the war, not to mention the subject of his sexuality and the possibility of an erotic attachment to Rivers (a prospect seized upon in unconvincing fashion by Wilson), all constitute significant and conspicuous gaps. 26 While Sassoon preferred to emphasize the political motivations behind the War Office’s decision to send him to Craiglockhart and to dismiss his experience of mental anguish as merely part of his “anti-war com- plex”—the light-hearted diagnosis offered by Rivers with a smile (SP, 12)—after his release from the hospital, he made a note in his diary that undermines such jocularity. He writes that “after the strain and unhappiness of the last seven months [at Craiglockhart]” he would stop brooding about the war’s futility and instead indulge in “light- hearted stupidity” and even feel “peaceful-minded” (D1, 197). It was, he said, “the only way by which I can hope to face the horrors of the front without breaking down completely” (D1, 198). And yet, despite his resolve, the obstinate concern about complete breakdown persisted; contemplating his return to the Western Front, he determines: “I will not go mad” (D1, 238, Sassoon’s italics). Like many veterans, including his friends Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and T. E. Lawrence, Sas- soon feared the onset of madness, which Rivers recognizes as itself a sign of war neuroses. 27 Five months later, in May 1918, Sassoon seems actually to acknowledge that what he had experienced was indeed a breakdown: “I must never forget Rivers. He is the only man who can save me if I break down again” (D1, 246).

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Rivers provided Sassoon with a strategy to keep madness at bay, which Sassoon adapted to suit his latent mysticism just as he converted Rivers’s influence from a psychological to a spiritual mentor. In his paper “Repression of War Experience,” Rivers warns of the pitfalls of obsessive self-absorption and expresses the limitations of the talking

cure: “[I]n my opinion it is just as harmful to dwell persistently upon painful memories or anticipations, and brood upon feelings of regret and shame, as to attempt to banish them wholly [through repression] from the mind” (IU, 203). For a reticent patient, this observation is tantamount to the physician’s permission to conceal. Rivers approached the treatment of neuroses, including war neuroses, through what he called autognosis and reeducation. By autognosis he meant “[t]he pro- cess by which the patient learns to understand the real state of his mind and the conditions by which this state has been produced.” 28 This search for self-understanding had to be combined with reeduca-

in which the patient is led to understand how his

tion, “a process

newly acquired knowledge of himself can be utilized.” 29 It is clear from his diaries and letters that Sassoon understood that his “real state of mind” had been badly shaken by his war experience and by the harsh materiality of the modern world. But rather than brood upon painful

feelings of shame and survivor guilt, Sassoon chose flight. Burdened by his moribund material existence, he utilizes in his sur-narratives a hagiographic portrayal of Rivers and endows that “great and good man who gave me his friendship and guidance” with spiritual potential as yet unavailable to himself (SP, 15).

Faith and the Religiosity of Psychoanalysis

Sassoon’s prose narrative of his work with Rivers at Craiglock- hart, “Rivers,” part one of Sherston’s Progress, has at its core a gap, a conspicuous lack of detail about therapeutic procedures. Sassoon raises the possibility of disclosing psychoanalytic insights into hallucinations and dreams, yet he invariably steps back from the edge. Rivers’s psy- choanalytic treatment of Sassoon, regardless of its influence on his later writing (which is profound), is impossible to ignore but is neither the focus of this sur-narrative nor the basis of a tribute that constructs for Rivers a role of transcendence. Midway through the narrative, Sherston, Sassoon’s stand-in, remarks on his desire “for a few gramophone records of my ‘inter- changes of ideas’ with Rivers” (SP, 28). The absence of such record-



ings provides a convenient pretext to avoid the details of treatment, lest he report their “confabulations incorrectly” (SP, 28), and as a result lacunas appear where one might expect an elaboration of the interchanges between physician and patient. For example, the lingering pain of Sassoon’s front-line encounter with death seems to lie behind a haunting vision he records early in his narrative. Gusting late-night autumnal winds cast Sassoon’s mind back to the trenches and compel him to acknowledge that “the reality of the War had still got its grip on me” (SP, 21). He stirs from sleep after the storm subsides and sees the figure of a dead comrade standing nonchalantly in his doorway. His roommate awakens as well, but does not see a visitor, and when Sassoon looks again the figure of his comrade has vanished. Clearly such an experience in a patient is fodder for discussion with his physi- cian, especially as Sassoon and Rivers met for sessions three times per week. Indeed, this haunting encounter probably did enter into their “interchanges of ideas.” The point is that it is dismissed in the sur- narrative as “an odd experience,” dropped without further comment or analysis, and the very next section begins with Sassoon’s admission of “suffer[ing] from a shortage of anything to say” about his experience at Craiglockhart (SP, 22). The sur-narrative is not designed to conduct the reader back into the quagmire of trauma and pain but forward toward the possibility of spirituality, following Rivers’s lead. A more conspicuous gap opens up around the role of dream interpretation in this particular physician-patient relationship. Sassoon’s narrative is virtually complete, but he feels duty bound to “add a few final impressions”: “The analysis and interpretation of dreams was an important part of the work which Rivers did; and, as everyone ought to know, his contributions to that insubstantial field of investigation were extremely valuable” (SP, 48). The lightness of tone that puns on “insubstantial,” characterizing dream work as simultaneously ephem- eral and weak or flimsy, belies the heavy burden of the two recurring dreams Sassoon is subject to, a burden he prefers not to acknowledge fully, and certainly not to submit to depth analysis or interpretation. When he does raise the matter of his war neuroses he does so in a similar lightly ironic and intriguingly equivocal way: “About my own dreams he hadn’t bothered much, but as there may be someone who needs to be convinced that I wasn’t suffering from shell-shock, I am offering a scrap of dream evidence, which for all I know may prove that I was!” (SP, 48). The exclamation point almost invites the preemp- tive assertion of the final clause to be read at face value. Whether or not physician and patient bothered much about dreams in the course

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of treatment, Sassoon offers his two pieces of dream evidence more to cover a gap he perceives in the narrative than to explore the depths of his unconscious. In the first instance Sassoon recounts a “battle-dream,” as Rivers would have called it, in which he and his battalion are adrift in the mud of the Ypres Salient, a sector where he never actually served, the same sector he imagined himself in the night he saw the vision of a dead comrade in the doorway of his Craiglockhart billet. 30 Now he is surrounded by the “unmitigated horror” (SP, 49) of the battle- field, and he feels sure of imminent death. Yet even in the depth of “dream-despair,” he notices a “queer thing”: the distressing dream allowed him to add “a very complete piece of war experience to my collection” (SP, 49). Here he seems to be drawing on Rivers’s view of the unconscious as “a storehouse of experience associated with instinc- tive reactions” (IU, 38), with memories drawn from unconscious as well as conscious sources, avidly collected, almost cherished, perhaps even fetishized, each new “addition” increasing the overall worth of the “collection.” “Dream-despair” offers him a glimpse of the ongoing vitality of his memory collection, which animated even as it disturbed his postwar life, especially as the portents of a new war began to gather. The second dream recurred, with subtle variations, every two or three months and amounts to this: “The War is still going on and I have got to return to the front” (SP, 49). Sassoon is upset because he is ill equipped for this return: he is anxious because he cannot find his service kit, and he worries that he has forgotten how to perform his duties. Sometimes in this dream the anxiety is so intense that he bursts into tears as he frantically searches for his equipment. In spite of his fears and doubts, in the dream he often returns to the front, though it is a strangely altered front, “always in England—the Germans have usually invaded half [of] Kent,” and he is “tak[ing] out a patrol,” feeling “quite keen about it” (SP, 49). It bears remembering that Rivers argues in Conflict and Dream that a dream is an attempt by the unconscious to solve an underlying conflict that has been preoccupying the dreamer (CD, 17). He observes that the affective symptoms of a recurring dream or nightmare prevail until the conflict underlying the dream is satisfactorily resolved (CD, 39). Through his work with hundreds of soldiers during the war, Riv- ers learned that encouraging a patient to “talk through” his trauma, to revisit it consciously, produced in accordance with Freudian theory abreactive, or cathartic, benefits that lessened the affective intensity of the nightmare. As a patient slackened his repression, his battle-dreams



would often evolve into recurring nightmares whose manifest content was transformed by the dream work into a setting less directly repre- sentational of the scene of trauma. The greater the transformation, the weaker was the affective intensity (CD, 67). For Rivers, a nightmare that jolts the sleeper awake bathed in sweat represented an unsuccessful solution to the conflict, for “where a conflict is solved in a dream in a symbolic manner there is no affect” remaining in that dream (CD, 71). The process of transformation sets the patient on the road to recovery. Even though Sassoon refers in the passage from Sherston’s Progress cited above to Conflict and Dream in all but name as an “extremely valuable” work, he resists an active engagement with the ideas it advances. His dream interpretations are intriguing as much for what he does not say as for what he does. Even in the diaries he describes his dreams rarely and briefl y, with perfunctory interpretations, if any at all. 31 But in Sherston’s Progress, a fissure opens beneath the lightness of tone and resolutely nonanalytic tenor of the narrative. From this fissure of pain he gestures toward Rivers’s ideas by claiming that the recurrent battle- dream at Ypres ended once he had written his “account of military service” (SP, 49), thereby demonstrating implicitly the psychoanalytic principle of abreaction endorsed by Rivers. The physician might have suggested that in creating the narrative Sassoon drew the repressed memories from the unconscious, where their affective energies had disturbed his sleep, into the conscious mind that was then enabled to face and to some extent resolve the underlying conflict, dispelling the recurring dream, or at least transforming it. But such psychoanalytic insights, steeped in the materiality of modern warfare, have no place in Sassoon’s sur-narrative of potential transcendence. Instead, Sassoon offers perfunctory dream interpretations that gesture toward without fully engaging in the ideas Rivers developed from his own experience with modern war. The recurring anxiety dream of the war still going on, Sassoon explains, “obviously dates from the autumn of 1917” (SP, 49), when he decided to leave Craiglockhart and return to active service—a decision he describes as a “‘potential death-sentence’” (SP, 50). Not very startlingly, the dream “proves” to him the underlying conflict between honor and patriotic duty, on the one hand, and “[t]he instinct of self-preservation,” on the other (SP, 50). That the dream situates the front in Kent, the land of his child- hood, is the kind of detail that Rivers would surely have seized upon, but Sassoon does not remark on it. His reluctance to tap deeply into psychoanalytically informed dream interpretation in the sur-narrative of his physician-patient encounter suggests not a turning away from

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Rivers’s influence, but a desire to locate its spiritual register. Rivers is for Sassoon the “solution” to Sherston’s Progress, as he insists in a letter, because of the adaptability of his teachings, which stress the common ground between the talking cure and confession, between the healing powers of faith in psychological principles and faith in religious truths. 32 Thus Sassoon was able to view dreams as windows into not only psychological but also spiritual truth, which he increas- ingly sought as he aged, and still maintain his emotional allegiance to his “blameless physician.” Some scholars have found Sherston’s Progress disingenuous be- cause of the religious overtones of its title and the concluding scene in which Rivers exorcises Sassoon’s demons with a smile. 33 However, it is not religion as such, I believe, that underlies the allusion to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in the book’s title and epigraph—“I told him that I was a Pilgrim going to the Celestial City” (SP, 9)—but the almost spiritual nature of Sassoon’s devotion to Rivers and the spiritual inflection by which he records his psychological insights in his sur-narrative. Rivers saw a relationship between medicine and religious beliefs, between the psychiatrist and the priest, between the cathartic benefits of the talking cure and confession: “[C]atharsis is the most important psycho-therapeutic agent in the process of confession, whether this form part of a religious rite or of a manifestly medical procedure.” 34 For Rivers, both approaches to human pain and distress were underwritten by the crucial element of “faith” focussed on “the personality of the physician or priest.” 35 Early in Sherston’s Progress, Sherston is told that “Rivers was evidently some sort of great man” (SP, 13), and soon after meeting him, he says, “All I knew was that he was my father-confessor, as I called him” (SP, 35). At the end, recovering from a head wound in the hospital, he is troubled by self-destructive thoughts, but when Rivers enters the ward, “my futile demons fled him—for his presence was a refutation of wrong-head- edness” (SP, 149). 36 Rivers “exorcis[ed]” Sassoon’s “demons” without saying anything—“his smile was benediction enough” (SP, 149). The goal of Sassoon’s “progress” in this sur-narrative is to translate Rivers’s therapeutics of autognosis and reeducation into quasi-spiritual terms:

to “know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us” (SP, 150). In effect, Rivers provides an epistemology for Sassoon that not so much conflates psychoanalysis with religion as draws out spirituality from psychoanalysis, affording a framework that signals the possibility of complete knowledge beyond traumatic experience. As such, the religiosity of psychoanalysis covers over the



gaps, imperfections, and lacunas of Sassoon’s own sur-narratives, and offers him the comforting fantasy of transcendence.

The Return of War

Sassoon’s association with Rivers continued after the period of his clinical treatment in 1917 until the physician’s premature death in 1922, and indeed his devotion continued throughout the remainder of Sassoon’s long life (he died in 1967). Rivers became what Sassoon needed him to be. As he wrote in 1936, “Rivers is the solution [to] my own life up to 1922—and since then too, for his spirit has been my guide in many dark places.” 37 His use of “spirit” and “dark places” marks his movement toward a conception of existence that transcends the disturbing vagaries of material and psychological existence, and which seems to embrace a spiritual vision of life that probably served as a precursor to his Catholic conversion. “Revisitation (W. H. R. R.),” a poem from the early 1930s, is both another tribute and another sur-narrative of his relationship with Rivers. Unlike “Re- pression of War Experience,” Sassoon sheds the device of persona in this poem, as indicated by the parenthetical dedication to Rivers. He describes the “strange survival” (CP, 221, line 15) of Rivers’s “ghost” (line 16) who “revisits” (line 1) him at night:

. What face

. To my heart’s room return? From that perpetual silence where the grace Of human sainthood burns Hastes he once more to harmonize and heal? (CP, 221, lines 1–5)


Sassoon feels “[h]is influence undiminished” (line 7). Indeed, it seems strengthened and expanded here with Christian overtones. The warmth of this encounter with Rivers’s spirit contrasts sharply with the chilling ghostly intruders who haunted him at Denmark Hill hospital in 1917, or the ghost who darkened his doorway at Craiglockhart. Increasingly, he saw Rivers in the light of spiritual guide rather than therapist. The consecrated memory of Rivers served as an ally in Sassoon’s postwar struggles. As with other veterans, the war did not end for Sassoon with the withdrawal from the front line or with the armistice. In his celebrated autobiography, Robert Graves recalls how he and Ed- mund Blunden suffered from “war shock” in autumn 1919 at Oxford

Robert Hemmings


when they “talk[ed] each other into an almost hysterical state about

The war was not yet over for us.” 38 Two years later

Blunden was on the point of breakdown and his employers at the Na- tion and Athenaeum booked him on a journey to Argentina, ostensibly to write a travel book but actually to provide him with the relief a change of scene might bring. 39 In language similar to Sassoon’s, Blunden reports being troubled by his own “futile demons” even at sea: “Still the dreams came; the war continued.” 40 Even during the day, the memory of traumatic war experiences “is as sombre and as frightening as they were themselves in their aspect and their annals. They come unbidden, and when they will come, the mind is led by them as birds are said to be lured by the serpent’s eye. A tune, a breath of sighing air, an odour—and there goes the foolish ghost back to Flanders.” 41 Sassoon’s experience echoes Blunden’s. In his diaries Sassoon frequently—and tellingly—resolves not to think about the war. On June 30, 1921, for example, he writes, “I’ve given up thinking about the War. I am clear of it all, steadily settling down into a new state of mind,” but in the very next sentence admits that “the War comes back on me occasionally” (D2, 73). Before long he complains of living in an “[a]tmosphere of nerve-twitching exhaustion” (D2, 75). Increas- ingly, Rivers, in memory as physician and in memoriam as spiritual mentor, serves his former patient in the struggle to regain equilibrium after the disasters of wartime. War veterans were not alone in suffering the painful memories of the First World War and seeking, or being compelled to seek, psy- choanalytic intervention. The sur-narratives that emerge from these interventions, whether the case studies of the physicians or the per- sonal narratives of the patients, are testimonies to both the varieties of misery and unhappiness and of the compensatory strategies produced by modern culture. In her Tribute to Freud, H. D. endows herself with spiritual capacities that challenge and transcend the transformation of traumatic pain into common unhappiness offered by Freud, and by attending to her sur-narrative carefully, mindful of its gaps and imperfections, readers can see that she seeks to replace him, thereby privileging a spiritual realm of existence she represents in contrast to Freud’s materiality. 42 In Sassoon’s sur-narrative tributes to Rivers, the smooth transmogrifying surface belies the lurking presence of underly- ing gaps, sinkholes of repressed experience. Readers attentive to the inevitable lacunas can see the patient’s desire to privilege the spiritual implications of his physician-patient encounter as a drastic veering away from the material reality of a modern world that had produced




so much suffering and pain during the First World War, and which was gearing up for an unthinkable recurrence in the 1930s.


1 . I use “physician” throughout this paper to refer to Freud or Rivers, even

while I am dealing largely with psychoanalytic encounters, because it captures bet- ter than “psychoanalyst” the reverence and authority bestowed upon them by their patients generally and by Sassoon in particular. While many psychoanalysts are not

physicians, both Freud and Rivers were, and in the early period of the psychoanalytic movement, Freud gathered around him at the Wednesday Psychological Society keen practitioners who were exclusively physicians (see Gay, Freud, 173ff.).

2. Breuer and Freud, “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenom-

ena,” 58.

3. Pierre Janet, Les Medications Psychologies, 3 vols. (Paris: Société Pierre Janet,

1919–25), 2:272. Quoted in van der Kolk and van der Hart, “The Intrusive Past,”


4 . Freud, “The Psychotherapy of Hysteria,” 379.

5. Ibid., 379, 380.

6 . Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “lacuna.”

7. See Freedman, “Gifts, Goods and Gods,” 185.

8. See, for example, Jaffe, “‘She Herself is the Writing;’” Buck, H. D. and Freud;

and Chisholm, H. D.’s Freudian Poetics.

9. From H. D.’s dedication “To Sigmund Freud,” in Tribute to Freud, v; Freed-

man, 187.

10. Sassoon does figure as Patient B in a case study of dreams in Rivers’s

posthumous text, Conflict and Dream, 165–80, but Rivers discusses his own dream life, not his patient’s.

11 . In Siegfried’s Journey, the third volume of his nonfictive autobiography,

Sassoon acknowledges the extent to which George Sherston’s experiences, memories, and accounts represent his own: “My experiences during the next three weeks [of 1917], which ended in my being sent to a shell-shock hospital, have already been

related in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer [the volume preceding Sherston’s Progress]. I am thankful not to be obliged to drag my mind through the details again” (55).

12. See Showalter, “Male Hysteria” and “Rivers and Sassoon;” Caesar, Taking

It Like a Man; and Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet and Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey From the Trenches. Showalter and Caesar argue that Sassoon did suffer from war neuroses; Wilson disagrees.

13. See Whitehead, “Open to Suggestion.”

14. See Wilson, War Poet, 384.

15. Sassoon, letter to Robert Graves, 4 October 1917, in Diaries 1915–1918, 189;

hereafter referred to as D1 and cited parenthetically in the text.

16. Sassoon, Sherston’s Progress, 12; hereafter referred to as SP and cited

parenthetically in the text.

17. Medical Case Sheet, 23 July 1917, Document Archive: Siegfried Sassoon,

Imperial War Museum, London, 2.

18. See Rivers, “Psycho-therapeutics,” 434.

19. See Slobodin, W. H. R. Rivers, 13–4.

20. Rivers, Instinct and the Unconscious, 3; hereafter referred to as IU and cited

parenthetically in the text.

21. This point is made by Stone, “Shellshock and the Psychologists,” 255.

Robert Hemmings


22. See Wilson, War Poet, 378.

23. Sassoon, Collected Poems 1908–1956, 89, lines 4–5; hereafter referred to as

CP, with page and line numbers cited parenthetically in the text.

24. Sassoon, Diaries 1920–1922, 150, 168; hereafter referred to as D2 and cited

parenthetically in the text.

25. See, for example, Babington, Shell-Shock, 168; Kardiner and Spiegel, War Stress

and Neurotic Illness, 201–10; and Rivers, Instinct and the Unconscious, 69, 80–3.

26. See Wilson, War Poet, 393.

27. Rivers notes that the hallucinatory symptoms of neuroses often give rise

to the patient’s anxiety over “approaching insanity.” “Psycho-therapeutics,” 437.

28 . Rivers, “Psycho-therapeutics,” 437.

29. Ibid., 440.

30. Rivers, Conflict and Dream, 68; hereafter referred to as CD and cited par-

enthetically in the text.

31. Examples of his dream descriptions appear in Sassoon’s published diaries:

Diaries 1920–1922, 200, 222, 227–8, 230, 232, and Diaries 1923–1925, 23, 147, 271.

32. Sassoon,


to Ellis Roberts, 9 September 1936, Sassoon Collection,

Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas, Austin.

33. See, for example, Moeyes, Siegfried Sassoon, 186–97.

34. Rivers, “Psycho-therapeutics,” 437.

35. Ibid., 436.

36. “And now that angry feeling of wanting to be killed came over me—as

. mind was in a muddle

though I were looking at my living self and longing to bash

I suppose

and one’s nerves were all on edge” (SP, 148–9).











. [O]ne’s

its silly face in.



37. Sassoon, letter to Ellis Roberts, 9 September 1936.

38. Graves, Good-bye to All That, 358–60.

39. See Webb, Edmund Blunden, 131.

40 . Blunden, The Bonadventure, 42.

41. Ibid., 65.

42. See Freedman, 186.


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R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1922. Breuer, Joseph and Sigmund Freud. “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication.” In Studies on Hysteria, translated by James Strachey and Alix Strachey, edited by Angela Richards, 53–69. London: Penguin, 1991. Buck, Claire. H. D. and Freud: Bisexuality and a Feminine Discourse. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. Caesar, Adrian. Taking It Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality, and the War Poets: Brooke, Sassoon, Owen, Graves. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993. Chisholm, Dianne. H. D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. Ithaca, NY:

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Paul B. Hoeber, 1947. Moeyes, Paul. Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory: A Critical Study. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Rivers, William Halse. Conflict and Dream. London: Kegan Paul, 1923. ———. Instinct and the Unconscious. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924. ———. “Psycho-therapeutics.” In Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. Vol. 10, 433–40. New York: Scribner’s, n.d. Sassoon Archives. Imperial War Museum, London. Sassoon Collection. Harry Ransom Centre. University of Texas, Austin. Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems 1908–1956. London: Faber, 1961. ———. Diaries 1915–1918. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983. ———. Diaries 1920–1922. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1981. ———. Diaries 1923–1925. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1985. ———. Sherston’s Progress. London: Faber, 1983. ———. Siegfried’s Journey 1916–1920. London: Faber, 1945. Showalter, Elaine. “Male Hysteria: W. H. R. Rivers and the Lessons of Shell Shock.” In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980, 167–94. New York: Pantheon, 1985. ———. “Rivers and Sassoon: The Inscription of Male Gender Anxieties.” In Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet et al., 61–9. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Slobodin, Richard. W. H. R. Rivers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

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