Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #7: D.M.Thomas (1981)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large

The conventional biography was subverted in different ways during the eighties. Wallace Shawn, for example, with playwright Andre Gregory and film director Louis Malle concocted My Dinner with Andre (1982), a film about two men having dinner and discussing philosophical issues set in the dramatic context of a performance piece. Author David Young, in his book Incognito (1982), stumbled upon a box of old photographs that he found in an attic of an old house he purchased. He decided to write a fictional biography based upon the sequence of photos he discovered. Thriller writer William Diehl (Sharky's Machine, Chameleon), a committed pacifist, wrote lurid pulp as a means to exorcise the violence within himself. What many of these artists in the eighties were attempting to do was to link to their work to a larger collective memory; a shared mythology enhanced by an expansive popular culture.

author and poet D.M. Thomas
In 1981, poet and novelist D.M. Thomas worked with historical fact to create a vivid and powerful work of fiction that would link the psychological insights emerging in the work of Sigmund Freud with the terror of the Holocaust during WW II. He did it in a novel called The White Hotel. The White Hotel was broken into three movements opening with the erotic fantasies of Lisa, one of Freud's patients, which overlapped with the convulsions of the early part of the 20th century leading to the Holocaust. Over the years, many film directors including Terrence Malick (The New World, Tree of Life), Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch (even Barbara Streisand) have attempted to put The White Hotel on the screen. But its dreamy horror has yet to be fully conceived as cinema. In one of my first professional radio interviews at CJRT-FM, D.M. Thomas explained how he created such a potent fiction out of this unsettling reality.

kc: Why did the fusion of Freud and the Holocaust become the central motif in The White Hotel?

Sigmund Freud
dmt: There are these powerful events of the 20th Century: Freud's discovery of the unconscious, his marvelous case studies of individuals, and the way he mapped out this mythic territory of the mind; and there are those horrific historic events like the Russian Terror and the Holocaust. No one has thought of associating these events before but the idea for The White Hotel clicked when I saw a connection between them. I made the connection between a patient of Freud having some terrible hysterical symptom stemming from a traumatic event and something like Babi Yar, itself being a hysterical outburst based on anti-Semitic feelings. It seems to be that there is always a struggle - both personally and socially - between the death instinct and the life instinct, as Freud discovered. The contrast of the individual and the historic is the key to the book.

kc: You also create a link between the psyche of the character Lisa and her premonition of the historical events to come - Why make this link?

dmt: Well, Lisa, who is Freud's patient, does possibly have these hysterical symptoms not only from what happens in her childhood but also as a premonition of what is to come, which is the Jewish experience. It seemed to me that any sensitive person of the Jewish race being around in 1920 would have felt the future looming. They must have had intuitions because there was anti-Semitism already. It didn't seem unlikely for someone this sensitive to have those premonitions since you can find a mixture of hysterics and sensitivity going back to the Delphic Oracle or Cassandra

kc: Why does history play such a dominant role in your writing?

dmt: Certain events just keep haunting me particularly the history of our own time. I think that the period of the thirties and forties were the most terrible in human history. Both Hitlerism and Stalinism were horrific things. Then after that we get Hiroshima. Anyone who was born during that time, as I was in 1935, is touched by the consciousness of those events even though those events didn't touch me personally. I'm a child of Babi Yar as much as anyone else. So my mind keeps coming back to these events, but I always try to relate it to individual lives because that's what interests me as a writer.

kc: How does your understanding of Freud though add to your understanding of human history and its impact on the individual?

dmt: I feel that Freud didn't take away dignity from human beings as some people claim. He gave us dignity back. Humanity was being reduced by the scientific studies of Darwinism and by doubts about religion. Freud saw in our minds a great battlefield between powerful forces. The Oedipus conflict is in itself an epic struggle of the child against the father. It doesn't matter if it's true. I don't know if I even have an Oedipus conflict. But it's a poetic drama unfolding. And basically what I like about Freud is that he was a poet more than he was a scientist. When the idea for The White Hotel came, it suddenly struck me that I could include a Freudian case study. And I enjoyed feeling my way into his mind and writing in that very dry and passionate style.

kc: Do your own dreams and fantasies have any bearing on the way you write about events like the ones cited in The White Hotel?

dmt: Not generally because one's dreams are usually only of interest to oneself. I do create waking dreams. Sometimes the poems I write are from dreams, but not in The White Hotel. I have used my fantasies, however. My own inner life I do draw upon.

kc: Maybe what I'm after here is whether or not that consciousness of the Holocaust is being worked out in your writing by exploring its very influence on the characters.

dmt: I suppose it is a way of exploration. One of my books of poetry is called Love and Other Deaths. All of my writing is about those two forces: love and death. I know they're very present in me, so The White Hotel is also an exploration of my own psyche. It grows out of me and somehow turns into Lisa. I explore even though I haven't yet found the answer.

kc: Whether you've found the answer or not, The White Hotel has certainly touched a nerve in the public. Did you anticipate any of this controversy?

dmt: I think I was tackling dangerous territory. The Holocaust is very difficult to deal with and then you have the sexuality in the book which is the meaning of The White Hotel. It goes from a very personal and subjective study of the sexuality of a woman to then seeing her as an anonymous number in the mass of those wiped out. It was deliberate. But some people found that offensive and shocking. There are terrific polarities of feeling about this book which is disturbing in itself. It's a bit like having a perpetual suite in The White Hotel (laughs). There's been lots of milk and honey as well, like traveling to places I might not have gone to and where responses have been nice. Then there has been the bad side of being under the pressure of becoming so suddenly exposed and naked with people looking at me. Like The White Hotel, it's very interesting, but not very restful. 

kc: Don't those intense reactions from readers go with the territory of using your imagination to make connections between people and their culture, or even between people and their understanding of sexuality?

dmt: I think so. Robert Frost once said that the writer has the freedom to fly off in wild connections. And that's the greatest freedom of all, to be able to leap from one image to another connecting metaphor that might be light years away. This is marvelous because you can do it whether you are in Britain, Canada, or the Soviet Union. And maybe it comes easier in a State where there is great oppression because you always get thrown back on your imagination. This is probably why Russia has produced greater artists than in the West in the last fifty or seventy years. Oppression forces you to be subtle. You have to make your point in invisible ink. That's often more affective.      

 — Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see 

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