Pearl K. Bell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

In The White Hotel, the British poet and novelist D. M. Thomas demonstrates his literary virtuosity…. Though Thomas himself stands outside the novel, and scrupulously excludes his own emotions from the story,… [his theme is] self-discovery. But Thomas has a genuinely intellectual imagination, and has had the audacious idea of dramatizing the exigencies of the self not merely in the context of psychoanalysis, but within the history of psychoanalysis. To carry out this scheme with the immediacy a novel must convey, Thomas has boldly appropriated the voice, personality, and therapeutic method of the genius who revolutionized the modem conception of the self—Sigmund Freud. (p. 58)

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As we read Freud's account of his successful treatment, in 1919, of Lisa Erdman, a half-Jewish opera singer whose hysteria took the form of debilitating pain, we realize that the seemingly dislocated structure of Thomas's novel closely follows the successive stages of psychoanalytic therapy. Like many works of fiction, Thomas's begins with a mystery, the symptoms of neurosis. This is followed by the patient's further contribution to the mystery, the surrealistic inventions of the unconscious in her dreamlike fantasy. And the mystery is gradually cleared up as the analyst deciphers the symbolic code, and enables his patient to gain self-knowledge….

This is far from the whole story, as we soon learn, for Thomas is writing a novel, not a text circumscribed by reality. Freud's case history … is only a chapter in this novel, and when, in the remaining sections of The White Hotel, Thomas becomes a conventionally omniscient narrator, we begin to understand the premonitory design of the book, as case history conjoins with history to flout Freud's stoic prophecy about Lisa's future….

D. M. Thomas is not the first novelist to explore the paradoxical interweavings of love and death, though he has given them powerfully original expression in The White Hotel. The classic 20th-century novel about the kinship of Eros and Thanatos, is of course The Magic Mountain, and for all the important differences between Thomas Mann's masterpiece and D. M. Thomas's book, the parallels that suggest themselves are intriguing.

Both writers explore the ways in which neurosis and acute spiritual malaise are literally "bodied forth" as physical illness. Hans Castorp and Lisa Erdman appear at first to be rather ordinary persons, but both are dangerously susceptible to the pathological promptings of their emotional ignorance, and must be "educated" into a state of health…. Within their unconscious minds, the obsession with death claws at their will to live, and in the Walpurgisnacht chapter of The Magic Mountain, Castorp subverts Freud's theory of Eros and Thanatos into the malignant affirmation that "the body, love, death, they are one and the same." But the most arresting resemblance between the two novels has to do with the insolence of history, as indifferent to Castorp's triumph over illness as it will prove years later to Lisa's. Castorp dies in battle during the first war, and Lisa is slaughtered in the second.

And yet, for all its bold originality and its ingenious borrowings from Sigmund Freud, D. M. Thomas's novel does seem thin beside the profound monumentality of The Magic Mountain. The balanced abundance of philosophical speculation, erudition, and scrupulously observed human behavior in Thomas Mann's capacious narrative invests his characters with a representative gravity that Lisa Erdman does not attain. Though she contributes unwittingly to Freud's theory of the death instinct, she remains in life untouched by political and cultural forces, a little too ordinary to be more than a victim…. It was nothing less than "the sick mind of Europe" that Thomas Mann sought to lay bare in The Magic Mountain, but not even the great presence of Sigmund Freud bestows a similar power of historical revelation upon The White Hotel.

The discrepancy between the two literary sensibilities is especially clear in the coda the British novelist has chosen to close his story. (p. 59)

The fantasy of resurrection is intended, one would guess, to bring Lisa's story full circle, back to the infantile pleasures of the white hotel, but without its charred bodies. In this dream of immortality, Thomas cunningly repeats some of the images in the neurotic outpouring that began Lisa's story, but by now the counterpoint is too contrived. It is inconceivable that the ironic mind of Thomas Mann would have summoned up the hopeful vision of eternity to suggest, as D. M. Thomas does, that the human imagination can outlive the betrayals of evil. What Mann understood, long before Hitler, was that the private pathology of everyday life is always devoured by the pathological reality of history. (p. 60)

Pearl K. Bell, "Self-Seekers," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 72, No. 2, August, 1981, pp. 56-60.∗

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