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  • D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel:Mirrors, Triangles, and Sublime Repression
  • Robert D. Newman (bio)


When Discord has fallen into the lowest depths of the vortex concord has reached the center.


The Horror of D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel is also its passion. Its narrative structure propels the reader backward and forward in an obsessive quest to explain the convergence of contraries that constitutes the novel's motifs. Sex and violence parallel and coalesce as the narrative movement conflates the pleasure of the text with its terrifying vision. The reader moves through the dizzying succession of narrative voices, each undermining its predecessor, and seeks an authoritative interpretation through repetitive clues. However, the notions of authority and repetition become attached to a death force, culminating in the Babi Yar chapter, which defies the closure of each of the previous chapters and is in turn [End Page 193] defied by the concluding chapter. The Prologue invites us to read the text as psychoanalytic detectives, drawing on events and images from the past in our epistemological search. Freud's last letter in the Prologue advises a dispassionate attitude toward analyzing Anna G.'s poem and journal. Yet the voice of Anna's documents, matter of factly describing the rain of corpses over the landscape while the pleasures of prolific sex are tinged with violent imagery, is disconcerting. Although the scenes and events are fantastic, the tonality with which they are rendered seems strangely flat—like that of a mind in shock. This sense is reinforced in Freud's case history when he remarks that his initial encounter with Anna reminded him of the faces of victims of battle trauma (90).

Ferenczi's letter in the Prologue depicts Freud teasing Jung for his Christian mysticism, a fate he regards the Jews as having escaped (4).1 However, Lisa's clairvoyance becomes the epistemological vector of the text that counters rational analysis. Rather than symptoms of past causes, Anna/Lisa's present torments predict the future. Here the terror of the text replicates and magnifies the terror of the events it depicts. The interpretive direction is reversed as deduction gives way to prescience and future revelation replaces a deterministic past. We discover the flat tone of Anna/Lisa's initial documents to be a repression not only of the anti-Semitism of the past but of the holocaust of the future. These are repressed in her present consciousness and disowned through the substitution of an obsessive sexuality that only partially masks, because of its place in, Lisa's persistently intrusive vision of the future.

The text itself operates within a similar psychic duplicity. Thomas directs us into Lisa's past in Freud's case history and in Lisa's modification in "The Health Resort" chapter, allowing us to reach intellectual resolutions at the conclusion of each as Freud's brilliant deductions are extended and metamorphosed through Lisa's revelations. Lisa's life appears to have reached a stable and healthy center; however, the Babi Yar chapter shatters this semblance of security. The inability of the Jews to discern the implicit meaning in the signs directing them to evacuate mocks us as readers leaning on our rational crutches. The "demon of repetition" (129) is revealed as truly demonic as the images from Anna's poem and journal are horribly realized. Repression is disclosed to be proleptic as well as historical. As Lisa indicates in the final chapter, anagnorisis—recognition—is what is wrong (261). It breaks through the metaphoric defense of repression but leaves us buried in the void.

The author's note defines myth as "a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth." In plot and narrative structure, The White Hotel is about ways of discovering truth. By directing the reader through various [End Page 194] revisions, it traces the mythic resonance of archetypal images. The novel functions as palimpsest where we read backward as we move forward. Through repetition of images we experience no erasure; instead we have memory and revision of memory. Mirrors and doubling imply dualities that in turn create choices for the reader. We are presented with the conflicting epistemologies of Freud and Jung, the oppositions of rationalism...


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pp. 193-209
Launched on MUSE
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