Eating Pavlova by D.M.Thomas   

D. M. Thomas eats Pavlova, metaphor for Woman, Art, Sin, and Lust.  He eats Anna.  He eats Martha.  Most of all, he eats Freud.  And Oedipus, the Depraved?  Thomas swallows him whole.  Here is how: Oedipus is depraved because he carried out the fantasy of killing his father so he could, then, have his mother for himself, of course.  In so doing, Oedipus, or, Shakespeare - or, rather, Freud - elevated (or reduced) a feeling (perhaps universal, perhaps not) to Everyman's and (in reverse) Everywoman's fantasy.

Thomas writes of Freud as if the fantasy Oedipus carried to the extreme was the shadow that underscored Freud's raison d'etre. Perhaps it was.  Freud needed rules to live by.  He did not like those of The Fathers, so he created new ones.

Eating Pavlova is an insider's book.  Once again, Thomas, author of The White Hotel (1981), uses psychoanalytic history as a basis for his fictional narrative.  In Thomas' earlier work, Babi Yar set the stage.  This time, Freud's private hell does.  Thomas recounts it from the old man's sick bed.  Freud's daughter, Anna, attends him; so does Max Schur, who administers periodic injections of morphine and awaits Freud's request for the final dose.  Thomas, as Freud's mouthpiece (and Freud as Thomas's) weaves Freud in and out of consciousness.  He does this brilliantly but, unfortunately, (and this is not Thomas's problem, but that of psychoanalysis) references to Ferenczi, Tausk, Lampl-de Groot, Burlingham, Jung, Adler, Fliess, Anna O, Joseph, Abraham, Breuer and God - the whole list of players - are so intertwined that only readers intimately familiar with psychoanalytic history and myth can possibly understand what this story is about.

It is about a man who looks back on the conflicts he created and to those he was born to; it is about one who self-analyzes down to the last button, whose mind looks over a life of struggle and mistake in his attachment to others. Thomas writes of a Freud who has done sexual damage to Anna, for instance.  "Comfortable unattractive Anna!"  "A woman in her forties, with no life but mine."  Nonetheless, he leaves this woman--whom he has confused with his lover, mother and wife--"to fight the banshees and all the dark forces."

In a dream conversation with his father's first wife, Rebecca asks him:  "Did you ever truly get to understand anyone?"  He shakes his head, and she continues:  "`Those famous patients in your elegant tales--Dora, the Rat Man, the Wolf Man, Little Hans--they are dybbuks: wonderful likenesses but not the people themselves.  Isn't that  true?'"  Freud nods, and his "... back bows, as under a burden."

Anna sponges her father's body.  The pain is unbearable: "She might as well have been scraping off my skin with a razor.  Fear is in her eyes, fear that I'll ask to die today." He tries to bury the pain with memory;  and as he does he experiences survivor's guilt and the Jewish struggle as metaphor for the unborn child's struggle to be born:  "... I fought my way up my mother's birth channel ahead of those millions of other Freuds who did not quite make it.  I had no compunction:  it had to be me.  Had I come all that immense way from Palestine to Munich to Galicia to Moravia, only to be vanquished at this stage?  It was unthinkable."

In his delirium, Freud, or, Schlomo, as his father called him, refuses to call his father by his correct name, Jacob.  "Perhaps I find it hard to see my mild father, who once stepped into the gutter to retrieve his hat after a Gentile had insulted him, wrestling with an angel."  Nor does he forgive his parents for being Eastern Jews and speaking "in a coarse mixture of Yiddish and German."

Thomas brings forth Freud's connections to Judaism skillfully.  Throughout Eating Pavlova, Freud's mind swirls with Jewish references:  the Talmud, the Zohar, the Skekhinah, Moses, Maimonides, the Kabbalists, and trains, lots of trains, with "children being led into a station for evacuation."  Most important, Thomas  employing metaphor, (He is king of metaphor), innuendo and insight -- shows that Freud's conflation of Jewishness with self informed his thinking, including some of his attitudes towards Jews and women.

To be a Jew is to be ambivalent, strong like Jacob but also weak like his father and woman.  Woman-as-concept, that is, because some women--"These women analysts, Lou and Sabina and the princess, Anna and Deutsch [he also accuses her of lesbianism] and even the choleric Klein, have the balls."

"Woman is cocaine." She is the "deep, dark forest" where the boy/man loves to go.  But: "Happy is the infant whose father fills him with a passion for forests by coupling with his bride in full view."

In his reverie, Freud dreams the future: His sisters are killed in the Holocaust (his punishment for leaving them).  And an earlier sin:  "With my sister ... I could simply tell my parents her piano-playing was interfering with my studies, and the piano went out the window."  Freud dreams Israel exists as a prison cell; AIDS is rampant; men can be accused of raping their wives, of all things; there is something called Herstory, and feminism still confuses him:  "Would I have discovered the secret of dreams and the unconscious, and earned the money to feed and keep my extended family," Freud wonders, "If Martha - instead of putting the toothpaste on my brush each morning - insisted I went out and bought my own paste?" Freud even foresees Jeffrey Masson badgering poor Anna as she tries to protect the Oedipal Complex.

Eating Pavlova is a stunning read for psychoanalysts, perfect for discussion over cocktails or at a conference panel on psychoanalytic novels, say.  But others, especially those who are watching loved-ones die, will find Thomas's work engrossing for another reason, perhaps a more important one than the author's intrusion into history:  Even though the dying man at the center of the narrative is the god-like Freud, he is simply a man, suffering like the rest of us.  The author connects the pain Freud experiences while dying with the emotional conflicts of a lifetime; and so Thomas's review of Freud's personal history, however irreverent, becomes a vehicle for imagining other individuals' musings during the last stages of their lives.

The book has one key problem--a matter of voice.  Thomas writes in the first person, as if Freud is speaking.  How can a man in a morphinic state analyze dreams as thoroughly, albeit as mistakenly, as Freud does here?  How can he provide the reader with pages from his diary written years earlier?  The narrative is Thomas's, not Freud's; and as imaginative (though prosy) as it is, it may have worked better in the third person, with Thomas's voice in charge.  On the other hand, Eating Pavlova is as much about Thomas as it is about Freud.  So the first person may be the correct voice after all.                                       

originally published in The American Psychoanalyst, 1996, Vol. 30, No. 4.

Esther Altshul Helfgott

Esther Altshul Helfgott:

"I underwent a four-and-a-half year five-day-a-week analysis with a traditional male Freudian psychoanalyst (or he tried to behave that way).  The maternal aspects of the analysis were wonderfully  gentle, but the paternal/fraternal aspects were horrendous.  He came to hold an incredible amount of power over me and would not help me leave, terminate, be done with the process that was, from the beginning, highly sexualized and erotic...  He refused to confront the "here and now" between us, always taking me back to my past; in so doing, he helped repeat/reenact a condition that brought me to analysis in the first place... In the end, I thought he would keep me there forever ... and so I left.  Eventually I came back to the study of psychoanalysis which is, with all its faults, one of my intellectual homes; another is poetry."
- Esther Altshul Helfgott

read Esther's

Diary Entry, Spring 1992

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