Freud in fiction, thinking about love

January 24, 1995|By Michael Boylan | Michael Boylan,Special to The Sun

Who was Sigmund Freud? What was he about? What is the impact of his vision? These are the questions that fill "Eating Pavlova" by D. M. Thomas, who has examined parts of this subject before ("The White Hotel" and "Lying Together"). So what is different about this treatment?

Plenty. The earlier work used Freud as a garnish that accented a meal whose main course was another entree. In this novel, Herr Doktor is in the center of the plate. It is 1939 in London, one year before Sigmund Freud and his family were allowed to leave Vienna for England. The famous psychoanalyst is slipping toward death. He takes regular injections of morphine to control the pain of his cancer. The drug also stimulates dreams of his entire life.

This novel is a brief, episodic account of that life. The stories revolve around Freud's primary preoccupation: sex. Freud's theory of sex provides a revisionist history. Each episode in Dr. Freud's life is tied to a version of his interpretive machinery. The results are sometimes insightful and sometimes way off the mark. For example, Freud's wife, Martha, is depicted as a cold and unfeeling woman. That condition is reversed when Dr. Freud analyzes his wife's "problem" and suggests that she begin an affair with the previously impotent Herr Bauer.

The result of this affair is that both Martha and Herr Bauer are "cured" of their sexual repressions. A life force within them is freed, and they are now able to enter into their later years with a newfound understanding of who they are and what their lives are about. The scene itself is rather comical, with the two married couples swapping partners: " . . . she struggled a little; though wordlessly. I soon realized she was embarrassed by a colostomy bag . . ."

Sigmund, however, is unable to match theory and practice. He cannot stand to have his wife having sex with another man, even though he set up the situation.

His ambivalence points to one of many chinks in the armor of the theory of Eros. If Eros is our new god, then it has to be worshiped on its own terms. The question is whether Eros explains the total workings of our inner selves or is merely one element of a larger explanation. If the latter, then defining the self by Eros alone creates a distorted image.

Such distortions are evidenced in Freud's own view of his daughter Anna (who by all other measures was a highly successful person in her own right). To Sigmund, his daughter must be viewed through the narrow perspective of his own theory. Though his daughter is dutifully and compassionately caring for her dying father, he heaps criticism upon her. She has not properly gone through the "stages" of development -- that is, sexual recognition -- and her deficiency has caused the "disease" of homosexuality and has limited her powers as a therapist.

Sigmund Freud's single-issue analysis thus creates a far different description than a more multi-faceted account.

There are a number of ways to understand events in the novel. From the title, which refers to a Russian dancer, a dessert, Russian psychologist Pavlov and Freud's own daughter, to the applications of Freud's own theory, the novel is a comedy of reflection.

Much of it is enjoyable. The problem is that the action itself is too stylized. It has too little vitality of its own. Mr. Thomas has had this problem in several recent novels. The conceit of the comedy overwhelms the narrative flow, and the novel suffocates. No matter how witty the text is, the story must initially captivate. In this regard, Mr. Thomas is only partially successful.

Mr. Boylan teaches at Marymount University.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Eating Pavlova"

Author: D. M. Thomas

Publisher: Carroll & Graf

Length, price: 231 pages, $21

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