Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and the Great War discourse on "Shell-Shock"
Author(s)Özden-Schilling, Thomas Charles.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Humanities.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Literature Section.
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Introduction: The infantrymen of the Great War experienced the unimaginable. Soldiers in the trenches internalized images of confusion and gore, and returned to a society unwilling and often unable to comprehend their sacrifices. For nearly 65,000 of these soldiers, their experiences on the front brought on hysteria, mental breakdown, muteness, paralysis, and other bizarre physical maladies (ER, 189). The medical description of the mental conditions that precipitated so many of these symptoms underwent a dramatic evolution as more and more cases were reported. These conditions were first collected under the terse assignation of "shell-shock," linking the range of maladies to the psychological influence of heavy artillery as well as referring tacitly to ontological theories of physical lesions in cerebral tissue. Such diagnostic projections were assisted by patients who, upon solicitation, readily supplied anecdotal evidence of mortar blasts. As the war progressed, however, the appearance of cases not directly linked to close-proximity explosions prompted the search for a non-physical term; "neuroses" was put into use, and an epistemological link to madness was established. Finally, in the search for a more scientific label, physicians decided upon "neurasthenia," a psychiatric condition linked to exhaustion and memory loss. These three terms - shell-shock, neurasthenia, and neuroses - were used interchangeably in public, political, and military discourse throughout the war, but most of the physicians who worked in Great Britain's mental wards were less careless. Each term bore a distinct epistemological weight: shell-shock clearly implied both physical causality and temporariness, neurasthenia referred to a specific mental condition, and neuroses hinted at a psychological disease "entity." Every subsequent war since the medical "discovery" of shell-shock has occasioned another evolution in terminology, and each new term has since fought to position its particular insight alongside an epistemological backlog that accrued new facets more often than it changed form in totality. Disassembling such networks of discourse thus requires historicizing conflicting definitions. The theories of psychoanalysis put forth by Sigmund Freud loomed large for many of the figures in these debates, both as an inspiration for cerebral therapeutics and as a challenge to the conventionalism and psychological materialism of the pre-war medical establishment. In subtly adapting Freud's insights, however, the practitioners of post-Freudian psychoanalysis pushed the official discourse on shell-shock in a different direction, leading to a more sophisticated understanding that was less accepting of paradigmatic and ideological identifications of Britishness with courage, character, and mental fortitude ...
Thesis (S.B. in Literature)--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Humanities, 2006.Includes bibliographical references.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Literature Section.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Humanities., Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Literature Section.