Newfangled Inner Worlds

Adam Phillips

  • Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War by Peter Barham
    Yale, 451 pp, £19.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 300 10379 4

Malingering, the OED tells us, is something originally done by the armed forces: ‘To pretend illness, or to produce or protract illness, in order to escape duty; said esp. of soldiers and sail-ors.’ To avoid conscription (the first usage is recorded in 1820), or to escape the horrors of what the military authorities have referred to since at least the 17th century as ‘engagement’, has always required a certain amount of ingenuity. And the onus has usually been on the medical profession to decide when someone is pretending, producing or protracting an illness to avoid their duties: the implication being, as the definition suggests, that the malingerer is responsible for his condition. His illness is an artefact, and the escape artist is a weak character. ‘Genius’, Sartre said, is the word we use for people who get themselves out of impossible situations: so is ‘malingerer’.

From one point of view the malingerer is clearly a coward; from another point of view he is someone who really knows himself, knows the limits of what he can bear, of what is morally and emotionally acceptable to him. From one point of view, his talent for pretending is a sign of his authenticity; from another point of view it proves his duplicity. The actor who pretends to be Hamlet is not really Hamlet but may be as much Hamlet as anyone is ever going to be; the person who pretends to an illness – a so-called mental illness – may not really be ill, but can be as ill as anyone can be. At the very least, pretending to be ill, or producing or protracting an illness, suggests that something is wrong: even though the actor in this situation may be dependent on the audience, so to speak, to help him find out what it is.

If the ‘actor’ was a serviceman invalided out of the Great War for ‘lunacy’, as it was then called, and the audience was a psychiatric profession that believed, as most German doctors and many of their British colleagues apparently did, that, in Peter Barham’s words, ‘the so-called war neuroses were for the most part not causally connected with the circumstances of the war at all, but were essentially psychological reactions in terrified and weak-willed individuals unwilling or unable to place the national interest above their selfish desires,’ he would be unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing. And by the same token, if you worked for the Ministry of Pensions you wouldn’t want to be paying out money to people who didn’t deserve it. You wouldn’t want to reward selfishness and fear. If you are a government at war, or recovering from a war, and you run a pension scheme for servicemen who are casualties of that war, and some of them have lost their limbs and some of them have lost their minds, you have to be able to tell the difference, and you have to believe that there is a difference between pretending to be wounded and actually being wounded. Fortunately for the pension scheme, a person can only in a very limited sense pretend to lose a limb, and no one in a war is likely to lose one on purpose. But with minds, or personalities, and their so-called mental illnesses, the doctor often can’t see what the patient is talking about, and the patient is utterly dependent on what the doctor can hear in what he says.

The emotional crises of the war lunatics were also, as Barham shows in this fascinating, eloquent and well-researched book, a crisis for the medical profession and for governments. The noisy exchanges between ordinary soldiers (and their families), and the presiding authorities (medical, psychiatric and economic) are used by Barham as signs of a sea-change in the wider culture. Once the so-called malingerers and their supporters took on their critics, many of the great issues of the day – to do with social welfare, distributive justice, democracy, masculinity and patriotism – found a new focus. For men, or rather for modern soldiers, weakness could be the new strength; and some members of a newly enlightened psychiatric profession would encourage these soldiers to have the courage of their vulnerability. The ‘forgotten lunatics’ are Barham’s test-cases for modern democracies, in which governments are forced to assess who they can afford to listen to and look after, and who they must disparage and discard.

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