|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"The Good and Evil of the Imagination"
Carla Schuster (Spring 2004)
It is through the imagination that we have the power to create and destroy. This theme holds true throughout Pat Barker's Regeneration and for the many characters in this novel who experience both the awful and inspired effects of the imagination. Pat Barker draws on many resources to support this claim, including the Book of Genesis, from which she cites the quotation "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth," spoken by the character David Burns on page 183 of this novel. Through this quotation and many other developments, the theme of the power of the imagination, both good and evil, perpetuates itself throughout Pat Barker's novel.
The word "imagination" is one that has evolved throughout its many years in Biblical history. Its first and original meaning to the ancient Hebrews was that of "plotting or devising evil" rather than what we think of as imagination today: "the power of freely forming mental images" (Denton 685). The Hebrews thought of the power of the mind, for the most part, in the context of preparation for action rather than simply as a creative power (Denton 685). Although "imagination" in the biblical quote "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" does mean the power to form mental images, it also has a sense of forming these images in preparation for evil action. Through this dual role of the imagination, that of plotting evil and creating images, we see the imagination as a double-edged sword that can be either destructive or constructive, depending on its use.
In order to determine further the meaning of this quote, one must go to the Book of Genesis from the King James Version of the Bible, to Genesis 8:21, which reads as follows: "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" ("God's" 547). The speaker here is God after He has destroyed the earth with a flood. When the first part of this quote is added to the second part found in Regeneration, one learns that God is resigning himself to the realization that men will always have an evil imagination, or evil tendencies, and that even destroying the earth could not correct these inclinations for evil in the heart and imagination of man ("God's" 548).
Because the imagination has roots in the preparation and use for evil, it is easy to see how one could use the imagination for these same purposes in warfare. The presence of the imagination was definitely evident in the designing of weaponry of the Great War, which effectively killed massive amounts of people. One such weapon was mustard gas, which burnt and blistered the bronchial tubes and lungs of its victims, usually causing them to choke to death in agony over the course of four or five weeks while strapped to beds. These poor men were also covered with giant mustard-colored blisters and their eyes were sealed shut. If they survived, they might or might not be blind ("Mustard Gas"). Other imaginative weapons included aerial bombardment, tanks, and more effective machine guns and artillery, which were also more efficient ways of killing and maiming more people. Because of these brutal means of warfare, many argued that there was no such thing as a "just war," especially World War I because the means of this modern warfare were anything but "proper" or "just" ("War" 1719). Because of both the complexity and cruelty of these weapons developed for this unjust war, it is easy to see the role of the imagination in their creation, and also how, because of these weapons, the war could be considered unjust.
Because of the horror of these weapons and so many other atrocities of this war, it is easy to see how Burns could believe and say that imagination is evil. To Burns, the imagination is something evil. He talks about the imagination with Dr. Rivers after he had been sent home as "cured" and has gone to his family's summer home. He starts out saying that before the war, he "used to wonder why pick on that? Why his imagination?", but now, after he has experienced the war and the effects of its weapons, he believes that "it's absolutely right" (Barker 183). After all, it is only through the "evil" imagination of man that these atrocities could happen. It is because of "the terrible death" that "someone has to imagine" that Burns believes so whole-heartedly that nothing good could come from the imagination (Barker 183). Burns believes that the imagination is evil because someone had to have imagined those terrible deaths by suffocation, both that of Christ and the deaths of the mustard gas victims in the war. Someone had to imagine such evilness being acted out on another human being, the effects on the person's body, and how to exact the most amount of pain before death. It is because of this premeditation within the human imagination that he believes the imagination is primarily evil.
Burns has accepted that the "imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth," as he quotes from the Bible, and that the imagination of men will always be evil, from youth to death (Barker 183). In fact, he recalls with Dr. Rivers an incident from his childhood when he and some friends would eagerly imagine that they "could see ghosts" of people that had died "violent deaths" (Barker 172). Looking back, he realizes that boys really are "Bloodthirsty little horrors" and that the imagination was especially evil in youth (Barker 172). Burns has never seen the imagination as anything but evil. He went from a childhood where he imagined bloody deaths and torture to the war where he saw the products of these imaginations first-hand. He has seen the terrible imaginative weapons and their destructive effects on human beings, from the lingering, agonizing deaths of mustard gas victims to men being ripped apart by machine guns and artillery. His mouth and nose have been filled with "decomposing human flesh," forcing him to accept these terrible works (Barker 19). Burns, like God after the flood, realizes that even the senseless destruction of so many people could not change the heart and imagination of man. Man still goes on to use his power of creativity to destroy, unperturbed by the decimation of most of the world, by either floor or war. However, unlike God, Burns cannot accept this capacity for the imagination of evil in humans, as God does in Genesis. He feels that he must destroy his imagination, which is so full of evil, in the watery dungeons where he imagined with relish that torture victims died horrible deaths. He seeks to destroy in himself what is in all humans: the imagination, which has destroyed so many, and which he feels is evil.
Burns believes in the evilness of the imagination and that it can be used only in the way that the ancient Hebrews viewed it -- in order to plot or devise evil. He does not see imagination in the light of its positive creative works. However, unlike Burns, throughout most of Regeneration, we as readers do not see the imagination as something that is primarily evil. Instead, for many of its characters other than Burns, the imagination is something to be used to create rather than to destroy. The creative application of imagination is especially employed by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who use poetry as a "therapeutic" (Barker 26) and perhaps as a creative release in order to counteract the destructiveness of war. After all, the imagination could create beautiful, heartfelt words, can touch another human being and make them feel the same fear, anger, and other emotions that the writer felt as he wrote; this same imagination could not be completely evil, despite its many evil products and its biblical origin of "plotting or devising evil."
Through Sassoon's poetry we see the creative forces of the imagination, and so many possibilities for hope. It is ironic that this same powerful force of destruction as seen through the awful weapons and means of death can also create something so beautiful as these words from Siegfried Sassoon's poem "To the Warmongers": "And the wounds in my heart are red, / For I have watched them die" (Barker 25). This poetry also helps Sassoon overcome his own memories of the awful war. Dr. Rivers says clearly that "Writing the poems had obviously been therapeutic" and so it had helped "account for his early and rapid recovery" from the horrors of war (Barker 26). Without the imagination, we would have less destruction, and no more weapons that kill more and more people in increasingly painful and horribly efficient ways. But without imagination, we also would have no poetry, no music, and none of the beautiful things that help justify our being and that bring something beautiful and redeeming to the otherwise bleak characteristics of humans. There would also be no hope for Sassoon, who recovered from the trauma of war primarily because of his poetry. In the end, perhaps these good characteristics of the imagination counterbalance the bad and compensate for the truly horrific and unspeakable things that we can imagine and do to other human beings.
The imagination is a very powerful tool, and one that humans have used throughout the ages for various nefarious purposes as well as for the simple purpose of creating something beautiful. From its evil roots in the Bible to its being the ability to create the weapons used in World War One, the imagination has always been and will continue to be something evil. However, from the creation of poetry and art, the imagination is also portrayed as something that can create good as well as destruction. It is seen as both the salvation and ruination of man, and the imagination as source of both good and evil is a theme that can be traced throughout Pat Barker's Regeneration.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
Denton, R. C. "Imagination." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962. 685.
"God's Long-Suffering." The Interpreter's Bible. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. Vol. 1. Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1952. 547-548.
"Mustard Gas." Spartacus Educational. 24 March 2004. 17 April 2004. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmustard.htm>
"War, Christian Attitude to." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 1719.