by Jay Merill
‘In the end the things were more transient than the words, in that they stopped, and the words are still there.’
by Joanna Walsh,
Bloomsbury: London, 176 pp.
Hotel by Joanna Walsh, is a book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. It is essentially a memoir in the context of visits made to hotels by a reviewer who is at that time undergoing a personal marital breakdown. Many thoughts about the distinctions between hotel and home arise and are investigated, at the same time as an examination of Freudian theory. Hotel particularly draws upon ‘An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’ in which Freud examines the case of Dora. Freud himself and also Dora, are fairly constant characters within this work, sometimes being present as hotel guests themselves: the exchange between the two of them is a major theme in the book. Dora was of course suffering from aphonia and it was Freud’s psychoanalytic aim to reveal the cause of this. He identified the aphonia as a symptom of hysteria with a sexual origin, and believed that ultimately, a talking cure would provide the solution to Dora’s problems. These seemingly separate areas within the text of Hotel are blended together smoothly, to illuminate their connection, or sometimes are discordant and sharply juxtaposed.
Walsh also introduces us to a wide array of objects, some luxury, some everyday. The predominant thought about an object is that there will be a weight attached to it. It is therefore thrilling and not a little uncanny to see the qualities of these hotel objects to be the opposite of what we might have expected. Descriptions of hotel furnishings, the interior spaces, the views from the windows, all feel slightly surreal and fantastical, exhibiting an elusive quality. The hotel’s conceptual nature, rather than its solidity, is frequently drawn upon. And all the objects within it, though described with great attention to detail, seem insubstantial. Another way of putting this is to say that the object qua object, is not of such very great importance. It is what lies within or beyond, or what is evoked which are the key factors.
And how do objects in the hotel differ from objects in a home? Well, there is little intimate feeling in a hotel. The objects encountered carry no emotional weight. This can actually serve as a kind of release from the too-intense. In a hotel, life has in a sense, gone on hold. In a hotel there is nothing to think about, we are informed. Conversely, in a home there is too much to think about. Home is a place of accumulated objects, home and possessions belonging very much together. Interestingly, this book arrives at the conclusion that neither hotel nor home can really satisfy desire. Clearly therefore, it will eventually become necessary to leave both. But where to go?
Throughout the text there is frequent discussion of the Freudian premise that a thing hides other things. The things hidden may not be able to be spoken of openly, they may be taboo or painful, invariably with a sexual connotation; they may be a source of anxiety or objects of desire. And they too may have undergone disguises. Like the jewellery in Dora’s mother’s jewellery box. So, some things are hidden but they may still have symptoms and it is these which express their existence.
Hotel carries through its messages reference to a variety of fictions and movies. Quite a few stories are recounted. Some of these are purely filmic but sometimes they relate to real people and there are a number of possible quotes from characters such as the Marx Brothers. All the inputs of historical, literary and philosophical celebrity add their significant touches of glamour and insight. But also, these residues and remains are in themselves symptoms which are constantly brought forward and scrutinised. There is an incipient jokiness in the frequent dialogues which occur and very often confusion about who said what or what was really meant. At one level, these components are expressive of the workings of an unconscious. Yet on the other hand, the overall tendency is to deflect from the real rather than to enhance it, and most importantly, all these inputs make a major contribution to the illusory quality being played with. Golding’s 1932 film Grand Hotel is looked at in some detail. The movie is formulated in a discourse of illusion, pretence and imitation. This being the case it very much sets the tone for the hotels visited within this memoir.
The chapter ‘Marriage Postcards’ is highly adept at conjuring up a visual image of the hotel. Each one begins with a verbal description of the picture on the front of the card: Shots of the hotel, or at least a hotel; or views from a hotel which may or may not be the hotel where they are displayed. They are always tangential, anonymous, and with messages which in some way approximate to the married state. For example, accompanying Postcard #9, the subject of which is a hotel with each side cut off, is the marital reminiscence: ‘I can scarcely begin to say what went on between us. It was so mundane its violence was embarrassing.’ And Postcard # – 9 shows an empty hotel bathroom. The text starts: ‘At home, I’d lurch toward drunk twice a week, sometimes more. Always I did it while waiting.’
The main element, or perhaps character, in the book is arguably, the ghost. Though rarely referred to by name a ghost-ambience is nonetheless ever present. There is even a ghostly quality about the largely invisible staff; and not least, the hotel guests themselves. The connection between ‘guests’ and ‘ghosts’ is drawn out very amusingly when one word is substituted for the other within a piece of dialogue.
Chapter One is itself titled ‘Hotel Haunting’. The promise of the book is that we will be pursued by ghosts, and we are, relentlessly. They are fading thoughts that persist; the flimsy messages from dreamlike film sequences, and they are the symptoms, metonyms and transferences which depict and represent everything else. Symptoms of self, maybe also symptoms of disorder, they, ghostlike, are the ‘eggshells of desire’. And behind them, or within them or articulated by them is the thing in itself: Maybe a disorder which may turn out to be desire. There is a dreamlike quality about everything we encounter and Freud instructs us that a dream is in fact, a desire represented as fulfilled. This, like the hotel experience, is of course, not quite the same thing as actual fulfilment and the suggestion of a lacuna is perpetually lurking beyond the descriptions.
Desire is always there somewhere within this text being examined distantly. One hotel lobby contains a large couch which is shaped like a pair of lips. This is the ‘Mae West’ sofa, an item of furniture which is obviously expressive of desire and hence fits very well into the environment in which it is placed the background thought being that a lobby or vestibule conceptualises female genitalia. But the sofa is not exactly inviting and unsurprisingly, sitting down upon it turns out to be a less than pleasurable experience. Again, what this sofa encapsulates is desire in a dissociative and outer form which does not really meet the experiential desires an individual may have.
And what of marriage, and the home environment? At home someone may feel real on account of having homework appreciated or at least observed by another. But at the same time this type of ‘real’ is a distanced and fairly ghostly experience in itself and therefore not much verification of being. It is also emphasised that the home is a more appropriate habitat for the archetypal ghost than the impersonal hotel ever could be. So various sorts of ghostliness would seem to flourish in both places but the individual it is apparent, can hardly thrive in either location. Postcard # – 4 is called ‘Nameless’. The desires a person may have cannot be found there. ‘The marriage problem is the same as the hotel problem’, we are told. Whether in home or hotel it is always incumbent on the individual to adapt to externally imposed, unreal seeming desires.
Leaving is of course, the only option. And it is not necessary to make a big thing about going either. At the hotel you generally go back out the way you had come in, passing through the indifferent lobby discretely in a fairly ghostlike manner. It is ghostlike to simply leave, as Dora herself did. Though she did give a notice of her decision to Freud her leaving had the effect of undercutting the imperative nature of a talking cure. So, Dora upped and went in order to tackle the past and confront the future in her own way. Freud reacted to this unfavourably, displaying symptoms of what is described by Janet Malcolm in her work ‘The Impossible Profession’ as ‘transference burn’. The movie Grand Hotel acts as though its story has an ending, or resolution. This however is a myth and one of the major illusions of its narrative. In a hotel there is constant coming and going but never an ending to be had.
So, where is it possible to go in order to become thoroughly oneself? The spas and hospitals and clinics visited en route are not perhaps the way forward. In terms of what the book puts our way it would have to be Heidegger’s hut for that is the most enticing option on offer. A ‘room of one’s own’ on a hillside. To that we might be tempted to stray, at least from time to time.
About the Author:
Jay Merill is widely published in such literary magazines as 3:AM Magazine, Epiphany, Hobart, Per Contra, Prairie Schooner and tNY. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, Minor Literature[s], The Nottingham Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Wigleaf and other great publications. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt – God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies – which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.