U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History and Imagination: Lessons from The White Hotel

white hotel If philosophers of history in the twentieth century focused on the distinction between historical knowledge and scientific knowledge, contemporary philosophers of history, after the linguistic turn and the literary turn, are confronted with the problem of history’s relation to art, specifically the art of telling stories. Any scholarly attempt to construct the boundaries between history and poetry should be of interest to historians, who generally demonstrate only a vague understanding of the theory behind their enterprise, often repeating unhelpfully that history is both art and science.1 When political satirist Stephen Colbert straps Elie Wiesel’s Night to his bookshelf between the fiction and non-fiction rows, or when acclaimed novelist Cynthia Ozick asserts that imagination has no place in historical writing, historians should pay attention and asks what these assumptions suggest about the evolving potentials of historical writing and historical inquiry.2

An examination of the D.M. Thomas’ breathtaking Holocaust novel, The White Hotel (1981), reveals what the historian—particularly the historian concerned with trauma and memory—can take from fiction. In this remarkable book, Thomas lovingly probes problems of memory, imagination, the historically situated and socially constructed individual, and authenticity in the tender story of a woman who becomes a victim of the Holocaust at Babi Yar. In addition to rendering in fiction the real historical event of the Babi Yar massacre, Thomas fictionalizes the real historical person of Sigmund Freud in this novel. In an “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book, Thomas explains that his Freud is entirely fictional, though based on real facts from Freud’s life and on his works and letters. Thomas praises the real Freud as “discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis,” adding that by “myth” he means “a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth.”3 Thus the novel begins by blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and by suggesting that psychoanalysis– history writ small– combines both.

A reader of The White Hotel encounters on the first pages a lengthy poem followed by a chapter-long prose version of the poem. With no context for the these pieces, the reader cannot begin to understand the jumble of haunting images—a white hotel in the mountains, the different characters who stay there, the food they share, the concerts they enjoy, a flood, a landslide, and quasi-pornographic descriptions of the narrator’s affair with a man who is supposedly Freud’s son. The beginning of The White Hotel recalls William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which similarly begins with personal recollections that “no one understands at first reading,” as Louis Mink admits. “It is not until later in [The Sound and the Fury],” writes Mink, “that these opaque pages become intelligible in retrospect . . . but of course this is merely an especially vivid illustration of a character which every narrative has in some degree.”4 Human experience, in other words, is only intelligible within the context of a narrative.

After beginning with these evocative texts, Thomas provides context, and the reader learns that the poem and its prose version were written by Lisa, a fictional patient of Freud. Lisa experiences trauma manifested as difficulty breathing, mysterious pains, and hallucinations of burning bodies during sex. Freud, in addition to inquiring into her past and interpreting her dreams, asks her to write down her experience while on a vacation during the time of her analysis. When she writes the poem and the prose fantasy that the reader encounters at the start of the novel, Freud, perhaps like the reader, dismisses them as mad ravings, but later, with context, views them as poetic attempts to convey the truth behind Lisa’s trauma—or as “a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth,” to borrow words from the “Author’s Note.” Interestingly, Lisa chose to write her poem on an opera libretto, suggesting the layered nature of all writing, of memory, and of history, for Lisa declares that her poem and prose fiction are “a mixture of past and present, like I am.”5

In addition to confronting the necessity of narrative and the layered nature of human identity, Thomas also addresses the issues of authenticity and memory. On a journey to Italy, Lisa sees a photograph of the Shroud of Turin. She then tells a priest that “having seen . . . the photograph of the Holy Shroud, she no longer believed in Christ’s resurrection.” Lisa confounds the priest when she insists that she does not doubt that the shroud is genuine, or authentic. “Then why do you say you have lost your faith?” asks the priest. “Because the man I’ve been looking at is dead. It reminds me of pressed flowers.”6 But if Thomas declares the authentic or scientific reproduction of the past dead and devoid of power to inspire, he also suggests that living memory is unreliable. Thomas’ fictional Freud states, “I have my doubts if we ever deal with a memory from childhood; memories relating to childhood may be all that we poses.”7

Not only does Thomas, through Freud, suggest the impossibility of an authentic memory, but he acknowledges the inauthenticity of his Holocaust narrative. After Lisa’s gruesome death among a pile of bodies at the bottom of the Babi Yar ravine, Thomas beings a new paragraph. “During the night, the bodies settled. . . . A woman did scramble up the ravine side . . . she did come face to face with a body,” he writes, italics emphasizing the truth in his fictional story, highlighting for the first and only time in this novel the difference between the historical fact and Thomas’ fiction. “Nor can the living ever speak for the dead,” he states in the same appeal to the reader after Lisa’s death. Thus Thomas steps outside his narrative—a story of the truth-value of fantasy—to acknowledge the limits of fiction. He also establishes the passage of time, and his distance from Babi Yar by explaining that “After the war . . . engineers constructed a dam across the mouth of the ravine, and pumped water and mud in from neighboring quarries, creating a green, stagnant and putrid lake. The dam burst; a huge area of Kiev was buried in mud.”8

The White Hotel acknowledges the limits of fiction while embracing story as an authentic mode of human understanding. Thomas admits transience and passage of time and the instability of memory. He depicts the layered and embedded nature of each individual in history and in multiples stories; the Babi Yar Massacre takes up only thirty-two pages of the 274-page novel, illustrating that the Holocaust was only one thread embedded in a number of larger narratives and millions of individual narratives. In short, Thomas affirms that the living cannot speak for the dead, but understands that when the living and dead do speak, they speak in stories.

D.M. Thomas suggests with The White Hotel that historians combine fiction and history, not by simply adding novelistic devices to historical writing, but rather by studying literature as the fictional Freud studies Lisa’s poetry—analyzing fiction as an emotionally compelling way of approaching historical truth. “What [Lisa] had in her consciousness,” writes Thomas’ Freud, “was only a secret and not a foreign body. She both knew and did not know. In a sense, too, her mind was attempting to tell us what was wrong; for the repressed idea creates its own apt symbol. The psyche of an hysteric is like a child who has a secret, which no one must know, but everyone must guess. And so he must make it easier by scattering clues.”9 For the historian (and the intellectual historian in particular, who is concerned above all with how individuals in the past understood their experiences) the past is like a child who has a secret and who scatters clues. The clues may be illusion, fantasy, false memory, and distortion. Yet as the historical Freud wrote of theism in Moses and Monotheism, “As far as its distortion goes, it may be called a delusion; in so far as it brings to light something from the past, it must be called truth.”10 In The Future of an Illusion, Freud similarly declared that “illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say . . . in contradiction to reality.”11

By making fantasy the object of historical inquiry, historians can creatively and poignantly uncover hidden truth of the past, particularly of past trauma. People make sense of themselves and their experiences through story. “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal,” wrote Alasdair MacIntyre. “He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth,” he explains.12 Agreeing with Thomas’ philosophy of story as dramatic expression of hidden truth, MacIntyre further insists that “there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, expect through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources.”13 A study of the creation of story and fantasy does not escape into the metaphysical, but rather uses the human mind as the site of the conflict between the material and the ideal, the social and the individual, fantasy and experience—the drama of history. “Long may poetry and psychoanalysis,” declares Thomas’ fictional Freud, “continue to highlight, from their different perspectives, the human face in all its nobility and sorrow.”14

As psychoanalysis is simply a form of historical inquiry on the individual level, one may substitute “history” for “psychoanalysis” here and demand that history and poetry work together to uncover the truth of human beings in time.
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1 See, Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts,” The Western Political Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sep., 1955), 327-340, Lois O. Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History 1 (1970) 541-554, Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (Cambridge: 1988).

2 Stephen Colbert, “The Colbert Report,” Comedy Central January 23, 2006. 

3 D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel (New York: 1981), vii.

4 Lois O. Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension,” New Literary History 1 (1970), 548.

5 Thomas, 118.

6 Thomas, 168.

7 Thomas, 109.

8 Thomas, 250-252.

9 Thomas, 99.

10 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 167.

11 Freud, The Future of an Illusion (New York: 1961), 39.

12 Alasdiar MacIntyre, After Virtue (1978), 216.

13 MacIntyre, 216.

14 Thomas, 143.

One Thought on this Post

  1. We want to get into the head, wear the skin, of a person alive in a certain time or place. The passions, prejudices, the spirit of the times. And at best, we can be not just a journalist with a time machine, we can be Meryl Streep, putting on that skin faithfully and truthfully.

    Unfortunately, with this fictionalization stuff, for every Streep there are ten Tony Curtises in bad costumes saying “Yondah lies the castle of my foddah.”

    Actually, that last bit is apocryphal, and atrociously unfair to Tony Curtis, but carries a greater truth.

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