But now shrinks the place where you stand: Where now, stripped by shade, will you go? — Paul Celan

Journeys to Beautiful Oblivion

Dust jacket of ‘The White Hotel.’

Before he becomes aware of the truly awe-inspiring nature of death, every young man romanticizes death. In his book The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera describes a short story by the young Thomas Mann. It is the story of a young man who takes a long train journey to an unknown destination. He gets off at an unknown station and checks into a hotel.

Long train journeys are symbols of death and the young man in the story was taking his last train journey to Oblivion. Once inside the hotel, as he walks towards his room through the corridor, the young man passes a closed door from beyond which comes a very faint but distinct sound. Mann describes the sound like the sound of a golden ring falling into a silver basin. The sound plays absolutely no role in the ‘plot’ of the rest of the story, yet according to Kundera, it is essential, as it creates the silence of death that the story needs.

That sound is not just the silence of death but it the silence of a certain kind of death — a melancholic and yet beautiful death.

Another train journey towards oblivion, this time by the protagonist of Borges’ exquisite short story The South. A literary man, recovering from a painful and near-fatal head injury, takes a long train journey to the South of Argentina to stay a while in the country house that he owns but has never lived in. For some inexplicable reason, he gets off at the station before his station and goes into the village store. In the store, he is insulted and ultimately challenged by some local gauchos to a knife fight. He can get out of it if he wants to, but suddenly a sleeping Indian in the corner awakens and throws him a knife. Instinctively he catches the knife and in the act of catching it, he is committed to a duel with one of the thugs. He steps out into the night for the duel ready to die under a sky full of glittering stars. All he knows about knife fights is what he has read in books… In all of this there is one tiny but irreconcilable fact: someone in the village store calls him by his name, although he is a complete stranger there, and it is by this slip the attentive reader is able to figure out the real truth buried within the story: that this beautiful and romantic death is but the delirious dream of a man in a hospital dying a miserable death from a fatal head injury.

Borges with his cat Beppo.

Borges with his cat Beppo.

Borges is the master of beautiful and poetic deaths, although by placing these deaths within the framework of a dream or a vision inside the story they become more poetic than romantic. He doesn’t deny the horrible nature of ‘real’ deaths but suggests that the poetic force of our inner lives can rescue us even in our moments of termination. I see a strange and taciturn hope in how Borges views death.

His work is littered with deaths of individuals whose secret miracles are hidden from view. If I were to associate a music with these journeys into oblivion I would choose that impossibly romantic piece called Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla, another Argentinian.

"The White Hotel" by D.M. Thomas

‘The White Hotel’ by D.M. Thomas

Yet another train journey. This time, taken by Lisa, the young opera singer from D.M. Thomas’ novel The White Hotel. The train takes her to the White Hotel in the Alps. On the train, she meets Sigmund Freud’s son — and the two are so attracted to each other that they immediately start making love as the train snakes its way through the wintry landscape to the magical White Hotel. Their non-stop lovemaking continues as they arrive at the White Hotel, where things happen that are erotic, magical and tragic at the same time. In the billiard room, it is revealed that the landscape around the hotel reflects the traumas and inner lives of the guests staying at the White Hotel. There is a ménage-à-trois in Lisa’s room with the beautiful middle aged women next door. Later, when she is going up the mountain with Freud’s son, they witness through a telescope a terrible accident in which the cables of a cable-car snap, and she sees her attractive neighbour floating down to her death with her skirt puffed up like a parasol.

The erotic train journey and her subsequent stay at the White Hotel that Lisa records, first as a poem in between the staves of her copy of Don Giovanni, and then as a short story in her Gastin Journal, turns out to be a hallucination stemming from the psychological condition of ‘hysteria’ and in reality, she is a patient of Professor Sigmund Freud. The central chapter of the novel is a long psychoanalysis (with Freud) of Lisa’s visions.  It is the unravelling of the erotic episodes of Lisa’s vision as symbols whose meanings are buried deep within the fabric of Lisa’s life, especially her childhood. Psychoanalysis is revealed to be the poetic tool of science with which one explores the uncharted and subterranean world of the human unconsciousness.

This fantastic and magical voyage at the beginning of the novel is mirrored later in the novel by another train journey, but now towards a Nazi death camp. Love, eroticism, and death mingle at the White Hotel, and it is a beautiful dream of Europe before all is rent asunder by the violence of the Third Reich.

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