'Feeling is like
poison and a certain kind of high explosive":
torture, homoeroticism and subversion in James Hanley's The German Prisoner.
During the First
World War, two British working-class infantrymen become separated from their
patrol in the trenches of France. They encounter a young German soldier who
surrenders and becomes their captive. He is then savagely beaten, sexually
tortured and murdered, shortly before the two British troops are themselves
killed in a bombing raid. That's the premise of The German Prisoner,
James Hanley's second book, and one of the most powerful, harrowing and
important works he ever produced.
unlikely that any conventional publisher would have accepted The German
Prisoner in 1930, when censorship rules concerning overtly violent or gay
writing were extremely severe. Two years later, publishing house Boriswood were
faced with legal action when Hanley's novel Boy, which they had released
the previous year in 1931, was judged an obscene libel. Boriswood pleaded guilty
and were fined a total of £400, while the book itself was banned and remained so
for almost sixty years. Boy, a disturbing work in its own right, deals
with many of the same themes as The German Prisoner, but even so does not
have the impact and overwhelming horror of Hanley's earlier work. This perhaps
explains why The German Prisoner was produced as a luxury edition, with
vellum pages and a gilt-stamped buckram cover, priced at one guinea,
and-crucially-privately printed, to allow its unconventional content to bypass
contemporary publication laws.
Aldington, whose financial assistance was essential in producing The German
Prisoner's print run of five hundred, was a staunch supporter of Hanley's
works. His introduction to the edition anticipates the objections that such a
story would raise in a typical bourgeois readership, before going on to
pugnaciously champion the emerging form of 1930s working-class writing to which
Hanley can be said to belong:
we see human nature ruthlessly exposed in its most abject and terrible
circumstances; we see the unspeakable wrong which is worked upon human souls by
those who are supposed to be its guardians and guides. Why are these men in this
hell? Mr. Hanley leaves us to find the answer. But what force and vitality there
are in this presentation of men driven to madness under the inconceivable stress
of modern war...
"But," it will be said, "there are so many dreadful dirty words in the talk
of these two men. Even though they are tortured to madness, we cannot
sympathise with men who talk like that."
Well, you ought to. You were not afraid to send men to that hell, you did
everything you could to get them there, and congratulated yourselves on your
patriotic fervour. (2)
warmth and respect for Hanley is not to be questioned, and his preference for
powerful, hard-hitting writing over bourgeois art-for-art's-sake recalls the
sentiments expressed in his own story of World War One, The Death of a Hero
(1929). (3) However, Aldington's interpretation of The German Prisoner
itself is not without faults. It's not sufficient to say that the sole purpose
of Hanley's text is to impress upon its readers the corruption and depravity
that working class soldiers were reduced to in a war for the upper classes’
sakes. I would like to argue that Hanley wants us to understand more than
Aldington's reading suggests, and that the real function of The German
Prisoner is to subvert certain key bourgeois concepts associated with the
Great War, thereby providing a uniquely working-class voice.
The first problem
with Aldington's appraisal of The German Prisoner is that if Hanley’s
intention is to portray "men driven to madness by the inconceivable stress of
modern war," then he has chosen a strange pair of protagonists with which to do
so. Of the two British soldiers, the Irishman Peter O'Garra is the one we learn
more about and it is from his perspective that the majority of the story is
told. On page eight Hanley presents us with a list of no fewer than twenty-three
terms of insult by which O'Garra has been known over the last fifteen years,
including "Belfast bastard," "misanthrope," "sucker," "blasted sod," "strange
man," "toad" and "pervert."(4) This last one is clearly justified even if the
others are not, for we are told that O'Garra has a habit of stalking and
frightening women back home in Ireland. (There are two references to his "lonely
nights, those fruitless endeavours beneath the dock in Middle Abbey Street.")
(5) But unsavoury as O'Garra seems, his Mancunian crony and squadron-mate Elston
is even worse. Apparently, "When he [O'Garra] had first set eyes on Elston, he
had despised him, there was something in this man entirely repugnant to him."
(6) One hardly likes to think what kind of "something" could be so appalling to
a man like O'Garra. But my purpose in drawing attention to all this is to argue
that surely, if Hanley's intention is to show working-class men brutalised by
the horrors of modern war as Aldington suggests, then why does he involve
characters who seem immensely brutalised from the very beginning? Wouldn't it
make more sense to portray Elston and O'Garra as more conventional working class
characters, not possessed of their debased and repulsive tendencies at first,
but developing them as a result of the hardships they face?
makes a similar point when he remarks that The German Prisoner "is a
curious story from one whose writer's sense of mission derives from a desire for
working-class emancipation, since its two soldier protagonists from the ranks
are represented as unspeakably sadistic."(7) Certainly Hanley presents us with
an unflinching view of their sadism in the torture scene itself, which in places
becomes difficult to read. It takes some effort to look beyond the stark
portrayal of violence but, if we do, we can observe two important elements that
contribute much to the deeper meanings of this story. One is the strong
undercurrent of homosexual desire, about which more later, and the other is the
political and psychological dimensions behind the act of torture itself.
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World provides an attempt
to theorise the politics of torture. She begins by arguing that 'To have pain is
to have certainty;" or to put it another way, pain is one of the most vivid and
indisputable emotional states. (8) Somebody in pain will be in no doubt as to
whether they are in pain, and though they may be able to convince others that
they are not, the sufferer cannot fool him or herself in this way. (9) For
Scarry, the undeniable reality of pain is at the core of the political intent
behind the act of torture:
The physical pain [of the victim] is so incontestably real that it seems to
confer its quality of "incontestable reality" on that power that has brought
it into being. It is, of course, precisely because the reality of that power
is so highly contestable, the regime so unstable, that torture is being
interpretation is useful in understanding the activities of Elston and O'Garra
as they set about inflicting agonies on the eponymous German prisoner, Otto
Reiburg of Muenchen. The two British soldiers repeatedly announce their
opposition to Reiburg's leaders, countrymen and nation, thereby associating
themselves with Britain and her allies in the War's greater scheme. ("We're
trapped here. Through you. Through you and your bloody lot. If only you hadn’t
come.")(11) In perverting the role of "defenders of the nation" Elston and
O'Garra legitimate the atrocities they commit upon Reiburg, convincing
themselves that their acts of violence are carried out in the name of King and
country. According to Scarry, one of the functions of torture is to establish a
framework of allegiance and opposition:
Pain is a purely physical experience of negation, an immediate sensory
rendering of "against," of something being against one, of something one
must be against. Even though it occurs within oneself, it is at once
identified as 'not oneself," "not me," as something so alien it must right
now be gotten rid of... it is the very nature of torture to in each present
moment identify, announce, act out in brutality, accusation, and challenge
the state of its own otherness, the state of being against, the fact of
being the enemy. (12)
faction that Elston and O'Garra ally themselves with can be seen as a
"contestable power" or "unstable regime" in two ways. Firstly, their assertions
that their deeds are only what their nation demands of them in wartime are
tenuous, to say the least. They are simply two rogue soldiers in a trench,
separated from all their commanding officers, acting without the orders or
approval of any higher-ranking figure. What power they have over the situation
in a non-military sense is also dubious, for although they successfully dominate
their prisoner, both know that an untold number of enemies, hidden in the fog,
have them surrounded. Their torture of Reiburg can be seen as a desperate
attempt to cling to some illusion of power over the opposing faction, whilst
both British troopers steadily descend into madness caused by this terrible fear
for their lives. Hanley portrays their breakdown into paranoia and delusion in
every graphic detail: their repeated and obsessive cries that there is no
escape, their verbal and physical fights with each other, and their increasingly
deranged view that Reiburg is the one personally responsible for the War and all
their suffering. Just before the final torture scene in which Reiburg is killed,
Elston screams at him:
Make the funkin’ fog rise and well give you anything. Everything. Make the
blasted war stop, now, right away. Make all this mud and shite vanish. Will
you. You bastards started it. Will you now. See! We are both going mad. We
are going to kill ourselves. (13)
defenders of Britain and all her values are in reality no more than two madmen
fearing their deaths, which duly come to them in the story's final paragraph.
But the power they claim to represent is unstable for another reason, and that
is because the very idea of nineteenth-century British values and the politics
of Empire were thrown into question by the events of the Great War. New
technology and new methods of fighting changed the way in which battles were
fought, and made it dear that wars such as those previously won by the British
Empire would not come again. The world had changed, and a new form of combat now
brought fatality statistics so high that men were reduced to nothing but
numbers. For many, a telling symbol that the old order had passed and a new,
darker age was beginning was the enormous losses that were suffered among the
younger generation, such as in 1916 when thousands of British youths were
unceremoniously slaughtered during the Battle of the Somme. (Hanley’s elder
brother Joe was among them.)(14) Events such as this led to a growing fear that
the natural order had been sacrificed, and continuity and social stability were
now under threat from the new, advancing class of Yeatsian "rough beasts."
Reiburg can be seen as an image of doomed youth after this fashion, while
Hanley's descriptions of O'Garra and Elston repeatedly portray them as brutal
and physically repellent. There is an abundance of animal imagery: Elston has
teeth "like a horse's, "(15) O'Garra is referred to as a "rat, "(16) and the two
men maul Reiburg's body "like mad dogs. "(17) Furthermore, in a descriptive
passage comparing Elston and Reiburg's physical appearances, we are told that
"Nature had hewn him [Elston] differently, had denied him the young German's
grace of body, the fair hair, the fine clear eyes that seemed to reflect all the
beauty and music and rhythm of the Rhine. "(18) In this way The German
Prisoner is similar to Hanley's later short story 'Feud’, in which
once again an old order represented by a beautiful youth is crushed by coarse
and savage men.(19) When O'Garra (who is marginally more sympathetic than Elston)
bursts into tears upon first seeing "the stream of blood gush forth from the
German's mouth,"( 20 ) his weeping can be interpreted as an unconscious response
to the death of civility that he is enacting. And in participating in this shift
to barbarism, thereby undermining the values they claim to be upholding, the two
British soldiers render the power they represent all the more contentious.
German Prisoner's gay overtones are never made explicit, as they are in the
book's companion piece A Passion Before Death, but they are no less
powerful for it. They emerge in various different forms throughout the text, the
first of these being a suggestion of homosexual attraction between the two
British soldiers themselves. This dimension is only ever hinted at, most
strongly in the paragraph below when Elston and O'Garra are fleeing from the
attack that will separate them from their squadron and land them in the fateful
now every sound and movement seemed to strike some responsive chord in the
Irishman's nature. He hung desperately onto the Manchester man. For some reason
or other he dreaded losing contact with him. He could not understand this sudden
desire for Elston's company. But the desire overwhelmed him. (21)
Reiburg stumbles into Elston and O'Garra clutches, the story's homoerotic
elements take on a stronger and much more loathsome form. Perhaps because of
this unrealisable desire between the two British troopers, or perhaps because
O'Garra (as we know from the accounts of his activities on Middle Abbey Street)
is already sexually frustrated, their torture of Reiburg rapidly becomes as
lascivious as it is violent. From his first appearance, perceived through the
eyes of Elston and O'Garra, Reiburg is described in romantic, sensuous terms:
Hanley dwells upon his body, "as graceful as a young sapling," his hair, "as
fair as ripe corn," his "blue eyes, and finely moulded features. As the torture
progresses, Hanley remarks of Elston that "There was something terrible stirring
in this weasel's blood. He knew not what it was. But there was a strange and
powerful force possessing him, and it was going to use him as its instrument.
(23) We see this force at work during Elston and Reiburg's moments of physical
contact during the violence, which are strongly erotic in tone. ("Elston, on
making contact with the youth's soft skin, became almost demented. The velvety
touch of the flesh infuriated him.," (24)) What follows is the final segment of
the torture scene, in which the death-blow is struck:
"PULL his bloody trousers down."
With a wild movement Elston tore down the prisoner's trousers.
In complete silence O'Garra pulled out his bayonet and stuck it up the
youth's anus. The German screamed.
Elston laughed and said: ‘I’d like to back-scuttle the bugger."
"Go ahead," shouted O'Garra.
"I tell you what," said Elston. "Let's stick this horsehair up his
So they stuck the horse-hair up his penis. Both men laughed
A strange silence followed.
"Kill the bugger," screamed O'Garra.
Suddenly, as if instinctively, both men fell away from the prisoner, who
rolled over, emitting a soft sigh - Ah . His face was buried in the soft
dimax of the torture scene parallels the climax in a sexual act. Overt gay
elements are prominent: the repeated use of the word "bugger," the fixation on
Reiburg's anus and penis, and Elston's remark about "back-scuttling" leave us in
no doubt that homosexual desire is apparent here. (Shortly after this scene,
Elston remarks, apropos of nothing: The last time I fell asleep I did it in my
pants. It made me get mad with that bugger down there. Though we're not told
what exactly he did in his pants, the most likely suggestion for a man Elston's
age would be a nocturnal emission, prompted by his attraction to Reiburg, which
he dealt with through the torture that followed.) The scene also contains some
more oblique gay symbolism: the bayonet "enters" Reiburg as a phallus would, and
the event that this leads to his death is described in language that recalls the
"little death," or orgasm. Hanley presents the violence committed by Elston and
O'Garra in a manner that acts out, with monstrous transformations, the practice
of homosexual congress.
In The Body in
Pain, Elaine Scarry describes this transformation as one of the key elements
of torture. In order to objectify the disappearance of anything in the world
external to the victim's pain, "Everything human and inhuman that is either
physically or verbally, actually or elusively present.. .become[s] part of the
glutted realm of weaponry; weaponry that can refer equally to pain or power.
(27) The human body can become a weapon against itself if contorted or abused;
language becomes a weapon through verbal connection with non-present objects
(there are torture methods called The submarine," "the Vietnamese tiger cages,"
"the parrot's perch" etc.),(28) and torturers are known for taking everyday
objects not intended for violent purposes and using them as instruments for
doing harm. (29) Elston and O'Garra's weapon is a bayonet, an object designed to
cause injury, but it's still possible to see something of the transformation
Scarry describes in the metaphorical process whereby the male phallus becomes a
steel blade. Through the symbolic metamorphosis of the one to the other, an
organ that should allow the ultimate sharing of human experience (the sensations
of sexual intercourse) instead brings a completely internal experience that the
two other men do not share (Reiburg’s pain).
as Hanley is well aware, homosexuality played an important part in the lives of
many British soldiers of the First World War and informed much of the writing
they produced. Paul Fussell remarks that young middle- and upper-class officers,
coming to the front line from public school and used to life without female
company, found comfort and satisfaction in a tender, romantic, sublimated and
temporary homoerotic desire that recalled the crushes on older boys of their
earlier adolescence.(30) Fussell states that gay writers of the Great War such
as Wilfred Owen called upon a literary tradition that portrayed soldiers as
homosexually desirable, dwelling on their youth, virility, cleanliness and
heroism. The original source for writing of this nature is the Classical texts
of Greece and Rome, but its modem-world equivalent can be said to begin with
Whitman, followed by Hopkins and Housman and continued in the immediate pre-War
years by the Aesthetic movement and the Uranians.(31) This pre-existing
tradition informed the front-line homoerotidsm identified by Fussell, which he
recognises as a purely bourgeois interest. Of working class infantrymen he makes
no serious mention, and is content to remark in passing that "Of the active,
unsublimated kind [of homosexuality] there was very little at the front. "(32)
German Prisoner focuses on a very different social class, and a very
different type of homosexual activity, to the one Fussell concentrates solely
upon. However, there's a strong suggestion of the young, desirable and chaste
soldier ideal in Reiburg himself, whose blond hair, extreme physical beauty and
(initially) unsullied aspect are all characteristics the Uranians and Aesthetics
sought in such a figure. By presenting Reiburg as an object not of some
romantic, unfulfilled desire but rather of a violent desire that manifests
itself in physical brutality and murder, it's as if Hanley is challenging the
sexual ideals associated with upper-class officers just as he challenges the
ideals they were supposed to be fighting for. The German Prisoner is a
story that overturns all our assumptions about the Great War and the men who
fought in it, providing a working-class perspective that is very different; so
different it is often unsettling to read, but which remains unflinchingly
all this illustrates the flaws in Richard Aldington's view that Hanley's story
presents the working class simply as victims; innocent pawns unspeakably
corrupted when forced to endure hell in the name of the social order above them.
Rather, Hanley's work is deliberately subversive-it unbalances established
bourgeois beliefs about the War and presents the experiences of those whose
voices have been excluded from histories of the event, which have for the most
part been documented by and for the middle and upper classes. Hanley's working
class soldiers are not pleasant men to read about, but it is not his point that
they should be, any more than he intended for us to see them as sufferers under
a higher power. Hanley's aim is to provide an authentically working-class voice,
one that we may not always want to hear, but which will nonetheless be heard
over the bourgeois voices that surround it. Aldington's introduction comes
closest to Hanley's original intent at its very end, when he writes:
Gentlemen! Here are your defenders, ladies! Here are the results of your
charming white feathers. If you were not ashamed to send men into the war, why
should you blush to read what they said in it? Your safety, and indeed the
almost more important safety of your incomes, were assured by them. Though the
world will little note nor long remember what they did there, perhaps it will
not hurt you to know a little of what they said and suffered. (33)
1) John Fordham,
James Hanley, Modernism and the Working Class, Cardiff: University
of Wales Press, 2002, p. 146.
Aldington, 'Introduction’, in James Hanley, The German Prisoner,
privately printed by author, 1930, pp.4-5.
3 J Fordham, p.97.
4) Hanley, p.8.
5) Hanley, pp.
6) Hanley, p. 10.
7) Fordham, p.96.
8) Elaine Scarry,
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1985, p. 13.
10) Scarry, p.27.
14) Fordham, p.
15) Hanley, p. 29.
17) Hanley, p. 32.
18) Hanley, p.32.
20) Hanley, p. 27.
23) Hanley, p. 25.
24) Hanley, p. 32.
26) Hanley, p.33.
27 )Scarry, p.56.
28) Scarry, p. 44.
30) Paul Fussell,
The Great War and Modem Memory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp.272-4.
32) Fussell, p.
33) Aldington, in
Richard. The Death of a Hero, London: Chatto & Windus, 1929.
James Hanley, Modernism and the Working Class, Cardiff: University of Wales
The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975
A Passion Before Death, privately printed by author, 1930.
Boy, London: Boriswood Ltd., 1931.
'Feud’ in Men in Darkness, London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1931.
The German Prisoner, privately printed by author, 1930.
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1985.
The Novels of James Hanley, Melbourne: Cheshire, 1964.