Pat Barker’s 1992 novel, Regeneration, is about many things. The futility of war, the assumptions of Freudian psychotherapy, the defacto caste system of early twentieth century Britain, the absurdity of England’s attitude towards homosexuals. An anti-war novel without a single shot; the love story between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen without a single touch.
Almost nothings happens—except talk—within the cloistered mental hospital where WWI British officers are sent for however long it takes for them to ‘recover’ from shell shock enough to return to trenches in France. Then, abruptly, in the final chapter, another talking head—this one actually named Head— takes us on a late night detour in recounting a long ago trip to the Solomon Islands.
“I don’t know whether you’ve ever had…the experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident…I was on the Southern Cross—that’s the mission boat—and there was a group of islanders there—recent converts. You can always tell if they’re recent, because the women still have bare breasts…I started asking questions. The first question was, what would you do with it if you earned or found a guinea? Should you share it, and if so, who would you share it with? It gets their attention because to them it’s a lot of money, and you can uncover all kinds of things about kinship structure and economic arrangements, and so on. Anyway, at the end of this…they decided they’d turn the tables on me…What would I do with a guinea? Who would I share it with? I explained I was unmarried and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody. They were incredulous. How could anybody live like that? And so it went on, question after question. And it was one of those situations, you know, where one person starts laughing and everybody joins in and in the end the laughter just feeds off itself. They were rolling round the deck by the time I’d finished. And suddenly I realized that anything I told them would have got the same response. I could have talked about sex, repression, guilt, fear—the whole sorry caboodle—and…they wouldn’t’ve felt a twinge of disgust or disapproval or…sympathy, or anything, because it would all have been too bizarre. And I suddenly saw that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs. And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom. I lay back and I closed my eyes and I felt as if a ton weight had been lifted.
“…the Great White God dethroned…We quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but there was no measure.”
Within that sideways vignette exists, for me, the essence of all human understanding; illumination upon the chasms that divide us. Every person measures the world around her and establishes identity from the actual position he occupies, as well as her relative relationships to others. An origin point at the spine is the only way a sentient creature can measure their place in the world. Which leads, logically, to misunderstanding, self-centeredness, narcissism, selfishness, prejudice, dominance, the whole sorry caboodle of distrust and violence.
The way through this conundrum is, of course, through education and travel: witnessing other ways of being and acknowledging their validity. I believe there are fundamental truths that must apply to all of us if we are ever to attain a civil society (the Golden Rule, anyone?) But I also realize that the parameters that guide my world are not the same as the ones that guide others. And I can be alright with that.