For the past two hundred years, ever since Rousseau began his Confessions with the presumptuous word “I,” the expression of the self has been a compulsive preoccupation in Western literature. For some writers, self-discovery must be pursued through memory by reconstructing the autobiographical past, as in Proust’s search for lost time, or Joyce’s portrait of the artist. Other novelists question the historical and biological givens of religion, color, and class in order to confirm an identity distinct from the group they were born into—as in the Jewish novel, the black novel, the Catholic novel. In some cases the drive toward self-definition is conceived in terms of psychoanalysis, which is valuable for novelists less as a clinical method than as a bridge between the history of the individual and the history of the race, as in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers.
Since the end of the 18th century, the idea of the individual has been the great legacy of liberalism, which maintains that human identity can transcend the fixed characteristics of a group. But to define the genuine rewards of liberalism in this way is also to suggest some of its problematic consequences, in life as well as literature. How does the self-realized individual fulfill the sense of his uniqueness without weakening his ties to such institutions as the family, which impose obligations that restrict the perfect freedom of the self? In countless novels of recent decades, the newly hatched “I” is celebrated as authentic only as he (more often, she) rejects the constraints of collective authority and personal duty, and some feminist writers have gone so far as to equate repression with responsibility of any kind. As liberalism has turned into “liberation,” the apostles of self-determination have sought to absolve the individual of all accountability to anything or anyone but himself.
Most novelists still set out on their voyages of self-discovery along the familiar route of autobiography. Yet even when a novelist stretches his vision beyond the magnet of self-regard—William Styron in Sophie’s Choice or Philip Roth in The Ghost Writer, finding in the Holocaust a historical and imaginative reality their own experience cannot provide—his attention, momentarily diverted from himself by the evil specters of history, invariably returns to the self-portrait of the artist goaded by dreams of literary glory.
These ruminations have been prompted by three current novels—Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby,1 Francine du Plessix Gray’s World Without End,2 and D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel3—each of which deals in a radically different way with the struggle to find one’s identity and choose one’s destiny. The tone of the first two is intensely personal—not because the fictional story is modeled on the writer’s life, but because the feelings and opinions attributed to their invented creatures have the ring of a message. Toni Morrison writes about a black woman whose affirmation of her authentic singularity—“not black—just me”—leads to the denial of her roots within black life and culture. Francine Gray dramatizes the rocky road to self-fulfillment through the self-conscious interplay of the autobiographical past and the fixed certainties of the present. In contrast, The White Hotel is free of exhortation, for Thomas has dramatized the quest for self-knowledge within the somber, objective framework of psychoanalysis and history.
The pursuit of the authentic self is the last thing one would expect in a novel by Toni Morrison, for black writers by and large take a dim view of prattle about self-definition. To be troubled and anxious about the reality of the self would have to seem inexplicable or frivolous to the people depicted in most black fiction, including the three novels Toni Morrison published before Tar Baby. These men and women already have more reality than they can bear—it is without, not within—and it is not something to be discovered but, if they’re lucky, escaped.
Jadine, the heroine of Tar Baby, would seem an alien apparition in the black ghetto, which she left behind in early adolescence Now a dazzling model in Paris, she has not only become a huge success in the high life of the haute couture, but she has also earned a doctorate in art history from the Sorbonne. Though the most glamorous man in Paris is dying to marry her, she has drawn back, wondering if he craves not what she really is, but the exotic idea of her blackness:
And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside—not American—not black—just me?
Such a dilemma, and this kind of deracinated black woman, have until now been absent from Toni Morrison’s fictional world. In The Bluest Eye and Sula, she focused with sorrowful intensity on the isolated black neighborhoods in Midwestern steel towns, and especially on the women, disfigured by helplessness, rage, and obsequious gentility. Neither alienated blacks nor white persons of any kind appear in Song of Solomon, a more ambitious tale that made vivid use of myth and the supernatural in recounting the pilgrimage of Milkman Dead, who goes South in search of buried treasure, only to learn that the real treasure is the knowledge he gains about his vanished slave ancestors.
The life depicted in Toni Morrison’s earlier novels drew its strength from her flawless recollection of a cherished and painful past. Tar Baby is set not on the writer’s native ground but on a French island in the Caribbean where she, too, is only a tourist, and the novel seems to have been designed more as a vehicle for bitter judgments than as a reflective rendering of memory. This may account for its disjointed tone, its florid language, and the incongruity of its parts: a lush tropic locale; a gorgeously romantic and doomed love story; a melodramatic family scandal; and the harsh indictment of white civilization that washes over it all.
Tar Baby introduces white characters for the first time—Valerian Street, the wealthy candy manufacturer who paid for Jadine’s education, and his wife Margaret, a former Miss Maine with a terrible secret. Valerian has built a sumptuous house on the Isle des Chevaliers, and he can sometimes behave like a feudal baron toward Jadine’s aunt and uncle, his faithful retainers. But he is also self-mocking, quirky, and generous to a fault—a tyrant with a heart of tarnished gold—and Miss Morrison’s portrait of the old man shuttles so erratically between fondness and outrage that he is hard to place in her moral scheme.
When Newsweek devoted its cover to Toni Morrison last spring, the accompanying story hailed Tar Baby as “a truly public novel about the condition of society, examining the relations between blacks and whites, men and women, civilization and nature circa 1981.” Unhappily, this is cover-story hype. Except for brief interludes in New York and rural Florida, the action is confined to Valerian’s Caribbean fastness, where he hopes to end his days in isolated splendor; the social and racial actuality of the island, as Miss Morrison portrays it, does not have enough symbolic breadth or substance to make it the microcosm of white civilization she seems to have had in mind.
The racial and cultural tensions in Tar Baby are played out mainly in the fiery love affair between Jadine and a black fugitive called Son, who opens the can of worms at the heart of Valerian’s household, and by implication at the heart of white society as well. In an unrelenting tirade which summons up memories of the black-power assaults on white America in the 60’s and which puts no distance between character and author, Son pours out his wrath on the white barbarians who
had not the dignity of wild animals who did not eat where they defecated but they could defecate over a whole people and come there to live and defecate some more by tearing up the land and that is why they loved property so, because they had killed it soiled it . . . and they loved more than anything the places where they shit. Would fight and kill to own the cesspools they made, and although they called it architecture it was in fact elaborately built toilets . . . surrounded with and by business and enterprise in order to have something to do in between defecations since waste was the order of the day and the ordering principle of the universe. . . . That was the sole lesson of their world: how to make waste . . . and how to despise the culture that lived in cloth houses, and shit on the ground far away from where they ate.
Miss Morrison seems to have envisioned Son as a noble savage, a beautiful primitive blessed with perfect pitch for the natural order of things. It soon becomes clear that she has little sympathy with Jadine’s longing to get out of her black skin and be “only the person inside,” for such dreams of self-realization are an offense against the race and herself. “Culture-bearing black woman,” Miss Morrison demands, “whose culture are you bearing?” Only a man like Son, in sure possession of ancestral values, can redeem Jadine, who has sacrificed her tribal soul to “white” sophistication and learning. Son’s very name implies that the continuity of the black people, as Miss Morrison sees it, can survive only by resisting every white encroachment on its wholeness.
Though Miss Morrison tries to dramatize the lovers’ irreconcilable views, one senses a good deal of ambivalence and evasiveness beneath her uncompromising racial severity, and this may explain the pointless extravagance of her style in Tar Baby, which leans heavily on the pathetic fallacy. Rivers are “grieving and brokenhearted,” butterflies peek through windows “to see for themselves,” and avocado trees have ears. After a while the incessant anthropomorphizing of nature becomes grotesque. And when ideology insinuates itself into the metaphors, Miss Morrison is merely notional: in New York the subways mutilated with graffiti are “blazing jewels . . . shining with the recognizable artifacts of childhood: fantasy, magic, ego, energy, humor, and paint.” The IRT as Disneyland.
Even the title of Tar Baby contributes to the underlying confusion of Miss Morrison’s story, her failure to consider the way a metaphor can mislead. In the Uncle Remus story, a tar baby is the black doll a white farmer puts into the cabbage patch to trap the thieving rabbit. As Son hurls the tale at his lover’s head in their final quarrel, Valerian becomes the white man who made tar-baby Jadine—but how, then, does Son stand for the rabbit who outsmarts the farmer and runs away? Why does he desperately try to find Jadine after she runs back to Paris? None of this makes much sense, and perhaps Miss Morrison had nothing more allusive in mind than the blackness and stickiness of tar, which will cling to Jadine no matter how completely she imagines herself accepted in the white world. It is a depressing judgment, but Tar Baby does not convince us that it must be true.
The high-flown prose of Francine du Plessix Gray’s World Without End can be as tumid as Toni Morrison’s, but Mrs. Gray’s intentions are not in the least ambiguous. Ostensibly the novel is an exploration of friendship, but at bottom it is the familiar story of self-realization, divided among three stylish friends driven by similar obsessions. Edmund, Claire, and Sophie have been friends and sometime lovers for thirty years, and in 1975, when they turn forty-five, they decide to take an Intourist trip through Russia in order to “learn how to live the last third of their lives,” and to reach in the course of the journey what Edmund all too characteristically describes as “that ethereal summit of candor which only friendship can offer.”
Why Russia? The reasons for the choice are never made entirely clear, but Russia is the ancestral homeland Edmund has never seen. A wartime refugee, he grew up among impoverished White Russians in New York, abandoned a promising career as a realistic painter when Abstract Expressionism won the day, and is now a professor of art history at Berkeley. Sophie, the clever and voluptuous daughter of a Jewish impresario, has become a famous television-news broadcaster. Claire, a lean and chilly Wasp aristocrat, is an indefatigable do-gooder and ban-the-bomb marcher who briefly abandoned husband and child to become an Anglican nun, but has now returned to less stringent forms of self-redemption.
As the handsome and ferociously highbrow travelers bounce in their Intourist bus from Tbilisi to Kiev, and on to Leningrad and Moscow, the narrative shunts back and forth between the Russian present, thick with voluble banalities about art, reality, and truth, and the past ecstasies and sorrows the friends have shared in Nantucket, Berkeley, New York, and the more decorative corners of Europe. No matter where they are or what their age, Edmund, Claire, and Sophie talk in elegantly vaporous paragraphs, though they never give up their preppy fondness for whimsical nicknames: Claire is Pebble, Edmund is Eddem, and so on.
Just as Toni Morrison’s inflated imagery does not conceal the ambivalence of her fundamental judgments, Francine Gray’s sententious dialogue about love and death and self-fulfillment does not blind us to the poverty of thought in what seems to have been conceived as a novel of ideas. Ideas don’t stand a chance against such “spontaneous” conversational offerings as Claire’s “It took me some traumatic years to learn that . . . you and Edmund were the only ones whose stubbornness was great enough to claim me, whose voices were tenacious enough to break through my solitude . . . you may have been my humanity.” And then there is Edmund’s pillow talk, just after he has made love to Sophie: “I think most artists are narcissists, sweetheart, and even though I may never paint again I’ll always remain an artist, I’ll nurture my narcissism with utmost solicitude, water it, prune it, give it exotic plant care.” Even a simple admission of selfishness turns into an aria.
World Without End is not a novel of ideas, it is an adolescent daydream, an orgy of pseudo-intellectual posturing, a midnight bull session in a college dorm. Now and then there is a faint suggestion that Francine Gray has satiric designs on her nattering trio, but she loves them all too much to mock what the Intourist guide, infected by their idiom, calls their “calisthenics of the soul.” Nor is this a novel about friendship, since Edmund, Claire, and Sophie, at forty-five no less than at fifteen, are too self-absorbed to be capable of the responsive attention that friendship demands. Monsters of consciousness, they are conscious of nothing but themselves.
In The White Hotel, the British poet and novelist D. M. Thomas demonstrates his literary virtuosity without lapsing into the mannered convolutions of Toni Morrison or Francine du Plessix Gray. Though Thomas himself stands outside the novel, and scrupulously excludes his own emotions from the story, the one thing The White Hotel has in common with the two American novels is the theme of 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 modern conception of the self—Sigmund Freud.
In a brief prologue, Thomas invents an exchange of letters between Freud and his colleagues Sandor Ferenczi and Hanns Sachs which brilliantly imitates Freud’s characteristic tone of Olympian confidence and ironic authority. In explaining that the “pornographic” document he is sending them was written by a young woman he treated for hysteria, Freud prepares the way for Thomas’s fiction, which begins with the document itself—a convulsive fantasy disgorged from the unconscious mind of an as yet nameless patient.
In these extraordinarily erotic and violent imaginings, a young woman travels with one of Freud’s sons to a white hotel in the Alps where their savage coupling is accompanied by a series of catastrophes—flood, fire, a falling cable car, a landslide. Dozens of guests die horribly while the rest, including the lovers, remain remarkably unperturbed by the demonic invasions of their holiday pastoral, and go on with their revels as though nothing had happened. But the concatenations of sex and death grow more and more frenzied and bizarre in the course of the fantasy, which Freud will later describe as “an erogenous flood, an inundation of the irrational and libidinous.”
The following section consists of still another document, the case history that Thomas’s Freud writes after the analysis comes to an end. 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. As Steven Marcus has written in his essay on Freud’s case history of “Dora,” at the end of psychoanalytic treatment the patient “has come into possession of [his] own story. . . . It is a story, or a fiction, not only because it has a narrative structure, but also because the narrative account has been rendered in language, in conscious speech, and no longer exists in the deformed language of symptoms, the untranslated speech of the body.”
As D. M. Thomas’s Freud unravels the tangled enigmas of Lisa Erdman’s illness in his case history, he reveals how he broke through her self-protective deceptions and unriddled the crucial symbol of the white hotel. It is the womb of his patient’s mother, who died in a hotel fire, in the arms of her clandestine lover, when her daughter was barely five. Since she was never told the truth about her mother’s disappearance, Lisa has never ceased longing, though she is now almost thirty, for that body which is, in Freud’s words, “a place without sin, without our load of remorse . . . the auto-erotic paradise, the map of our first country of love.” But the haze of scandal surrounding her mother’s terrible death also turns the fantasized white hotel into a charnelhouse. In the case history, Freud picks up this thread of morbidity and tells us that the analysis of Lisa Erdman strengthened his theoretical conviction that there is “a universal struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct”—the famous Janus-head of Eros and Thanatos. But her symptoms disappear, and when the analysis comes to an end, Freud writes: “I told her I thought she was cured of everything but life, so to speak. She took away with her a reasonable prospect of survival.” With Freud’s guidance, Lisa Erdman has “come into possession of her own story.”
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 of “Anna G.,” as he calls Lisa, 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.
Some years after the analysis, she marries a Russian-Jewish opera star, a widower with a small son, and settles in Kiev. Though happy in her new life, she is often stricken by terrible forebodings, an ominous certainty that “somewhere—at that very moment—someone was inflicting the worst possible horror on another human being.” These forebodings are realized in 1941, when the Nazis occupy Kiev. Along with thousands of other Jews, Lisa and her stepson are herded into the ravine at Babi Yar, and a German bayonet brings the story of her life to an end in a gruesome parody of sex.
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. Castorp’s infatuation with the seductive Clavdia, and Lisa’s pornographic fantasy of the white hotel, are forms of surrender to the demonic, but they are necessary steps in the journey from neurotic darkness to the light of self-knowledge. 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. But Hans Castorp, caught in the fevered ideological crossfire between Settembrini and Naphtha, is transfigured despite himself. 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. All the dead have arrived in a desert settlement called Palestine, where everyone is welcomed, parents and children are reunited in tender forgiveness, and neutered cats have kittens. Since suffering still exists in this afterlife, it is purgatory, not paradise—but Lisa Erdman, embracing her long-lost mother, is convinced that “wherever there is love of any kind, there is hope of salvation.”
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.
1 Knopf, 306 pp., $11.95.
2 Simon & Schuster, 314 pp., $12.95.
3 Viking, 274 pp., $12.95.