Eternity of the Holocaust on exhibit

November 23, 1993|By Michael Boylan | Michael Boylan,Contributing Writer

The contrast couldn't be more intense. On the one hand, we are presented an art gallery -- pictures at an exhibition. The art gallery is a quiet, serene place. It is full of theories about what this means and what that means. People talk in hushed reverent tones.

On the other hand, you have the subject matter of the pictures themselves -- intense human suffering. No suffering can surpass the Holocaust. And yet that is the underlying subject matter of the "paintings" in the latest novel by D. M. Thomas ("The White Hotel"). The result is a daring and largely successful composition.

The tone of the exhibition is set by the first exhibit. In it a young Jewish Czech inmate, Galewski, who has some understanding of Freudian theory, is called upon to cure Dr. Lorenz, an SS officer, who is suffering from grotesque dreams.

When Galewski first comes to the camp, he hides his medical status (because the Nazis are doing experiments on "intellectual" Jews). But it is soon revealed, and not only must Galewski serve his tyrant "master," he must give up his child to adoption by the Nazi in order to save the child's life. This entails denying that the child is his own. Instead, it is a "proper" Aryan suitable for Nazi adoption.

His family and dignity are stripped away, but still Dr. Lorenz pretends that they are on some kind of "footing." There is a farce of equality that further demeans Galewski. In some ways, the relationship follows the "master-slave" dialectic of Hegel, except that the dialectic never progresses beyond the first dialectical moment.

Then the story stops. It cannot go on because there are more paintings in the exhibit. Most of these are variations on a common theme: the way that the Holocaust resonates to survivors 50 years later.

What are the lessons of the Holocaust? What are the consequences? We are transported to London and an aging psychoanalyst and his wife who interact with a cadre of acquaintances. It would seem far removed from the events in Nazi Germany. But it isn't.

The people are either directly related to, or have associations with, people who were involved in Hitler's insanity. This involvement creates sickness that spreads to others. These mental disease carriers infect the culture.

No clear theory of history is being presented, but rather suggestions are made about contributing (rather than causal) factors. For example, the rise of Margaret Thatcher and "Thatcherism" is vaguely connected to a fascist impulse to suppress the common man. Various sexual perversions and obsessions are connected (in a Freudian way) to death and nihilism that had their origins in Nazi atrocities.

There is no end to the effects of the Holocaust. It is not an isolated event in history that can be forgotten. It continues to live because it has permanently changed the world. People are interconnected. The first filial generation affects the second, which conditions the third, and so on. There is no end.

" 'The cries of the children,' said the aged German bishop, in the crowded museum, 'will be heard no more. For those of us here rTC who were involved, innocently, and who fought with all our strength to save them, there is but one consoling thought . . .' "

All of this is very bleak. It is meant to be; it could be presented in no other way.

My only reservation is that the development of the novel is left to the contrasts between "pictures." Sometimes this clearly works, and sometimes it can be a bit oblique. References can get become obscure and some points lost. Because it is a very demanding novel, the author should take greater pains in clearly establishing his contrasts.

Nonetheless, the presentation is haunting. Like the art of Edvard Munch, who makes cameo appearances, it is the succinct presentation that delivers the power. When the contrasts are direct, it works wonderfully.

Michael Boylan is a poet and philosopher who lives in the Washington area.


Title: "Pictures at an Exhibition

Author: D. M. Thomas

Publisher: Scribner's

(Length, price: 278 pages, $22

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