The Doctor of Desire by Allen Wheelis (Norton: $14.95)
Marketed as fiction, "The Doctor of Desire" splits abruptly into a novella followed by five essays on the implications of the story just told; a schizophrenic approach appropriate to an author who is an analyst himself. The narrator, Henry Melville, is an aging San Francisco psychiatrist with a thriving practice, splendid bay views from every window and a loving wife, but he's tormented by a sense of the road not taken. He has an advanced case of midlife crisis, though as a doctor, he would never call his syndrome by the popular name.
Lately, Melville has become an insomniac, awakened by a recurring dream in which an alluring dark-haired woman beckons to him, walks away, "turns, looks back, her head tilted as if asking why he does not join her. And he wants to. Desperately." As he reaches for the vision, she glides away, turning to look yearningly at him. He struggles to follow, caught in dream quicksand. Awake, Melville is overwhelmed by a sense of his own mortality. As a psychiatrist, he knows the woman represents an essential and precious part of himself, now receding beyond recall. "I'm good for one more big push," he thinks. "What shall it be?"
Embodiment of Dream
Immediately thereafter, the embodiment of the dream woman appears in Melville's office. Did you ever see a dream walking? Well, Melville does, in the person of Lori Savella, a troubled young Venetian pianist who has come to him because she's unable to form a close attachment to any man. Lori fears love because to her it implies submission. The analysis proceeds slowly. Lori is a reluctant patient, unwilling to discuss the intimate experiences that are the sine qua non of the process. Though the hours pass in near silence, the sexual tension between analyst and patient deepens and grows.
Despite her neuroses, Lori is sensual and seductive; Melville helplessly vulnerable to her glances, touches and enigmatic allusions. One day she "forgets" her coat and he wraps himself in it, inhaling her scent, stroking the silky leather, mooning over the contents of the pockets. Melville has become his own case study, obsessed by forbidden desire for his young patient. Soon, because this is a short book, she offers herself to him, making matters exponentially more difficult. Instead of accepting her favors, as unprincipled psychiatrists have been known to do, he writes a novel chronicling the course of his passion through its various stages.
There is just one other significant character in the story, a male patient of Melville's; a coarse blustering fellow with no professional ethics to prevent him from trying his luck with Lori. The contrast between Charlie Morgan and the sensitive, caring, morally impeccable Melville is stark and unmistakable. In portraying Morgan, the author abandons his lofty lyrical style for broad caricature, turning Charlie into an oaf.
Melville bravely and sadly rejects the proffered chance of love everlasting with Lori, devoting the second half of the book to a series of gloomy meditations on various aspects of sexual passion, describing his transformation from a cool detached observer of human nature to a fully involved participant in the untidy drama of life. He conducts his own analysis in public, complete with fantasies, confessions and recriminations. "My erotic history is one long list of misses. Girls wanted but not had. . . . What galls is the not having tried"--observations barely saved from banality by aphoristic musings on the nature of love, sin, guilt, desire, and despair, all interpreted according to the received wisdom of the analytic fraternity.
The Ultimate Insight
Toward the end of this exercise in exorcism, the author presents his ultimate insight. "The creative process . . . appropriates sexual energy, deploys it to higher purpose. . . . The sexual drive is freighted disastrously with the whole meaning of life. Unable to bear such a burden, it breaks down, degrading love into lust, turning the lover into a violator and predator."
Though talking about the problem may help the sufferer, analysis is not a cure but merely a palliative. The novella and the ensuing pensees leave the writer sadder and wiser for the experience, aware he's no different from his patients "tormented either by guilt for my sins or by regret at missed opportunities for sinning. Or both together." Though there's some wintry satisfaction in hearing a psychiatrist make this candid admission, the message is hardly a revelation.