In Some Sense True

Tim Parks

  • The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy by J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
    Harvill Secker, 198 pp, £16.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 84655 888 7
  • J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time by David Attwell
    Oxford, 272 pp, £19.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 874633 1

Whenever we are in the company of J.M. Coetzee, whether it be an interview, a novel, a memoir or an essay, we are inexorably drawn into the realm of the ethical. We must judge and be judged, or at least strive to do the one and brace ourselves for the other. Hence a book titled The Good Story will not offer an analysis of the qualities that make for a satisfying reading experience, but investigate the consequences of storytelling in terms, frankly, of good and evil. This written debate between Coetzee and the psychologist Arabella Kurtz about the role of storytelling in psychoanalysis and, more generally, in the construction and consolidation of individual identity is largely a dialogue of the deaf. Or rather, one partner in the debate is deaf, or perhaps simply resistant, while the other is unable to overcome that resistance. No ‘progress’ is made. Nobody shifts their position in the slightest. Which is not to say the book is not fascinating.

Coetzee, who has no personal experience of psychotherapy, is concerned that the process might involve assisting the unhappy patient to construct a more amenable life-narrative with little regard for the truth. He is ‘alarmed by the prospect of a world in which people’s notion of liberty includes the liberty to reconstruct their personal histories endlessly without fear of sanction’. (Punishment is rarely far from his mind.) ‘Do therapist and patient nowadays,’ he wonders, ‘agree to trade only in fictions, fictions that both of them know … to be fictions and is that enough to satisfy them?’ Despite believing that people’s ‘needs and desires have a … fiction-like status’, he would prefer ‘to focus on … the longing or nostalgia for the one and only truth, a longing that I myself happen to feel strongly’. He speaks of ‘“real” selves’ as opposed to fictions and asserts the existence of the ‘soul’.

Kurtz, who is always thoughtful and persuasive, reminds Coetzee that ‘when people seek psychotherapeutic help because they are in distress there is usually a real breakdown in the overall coherence of memory systems and the accompanying sense of self.’ They come ‘because they feel dreadful … not because they do not know if God exists or how to read the weather’. In short, ‘in psychotherapy one is not trying to establish objective truth’ but rather to find ‘a means of containing experience, in the sense of giving it form and meaning’. This will usually involve going over and over the most difficult of life’s events rather than avoiding them, since ‘more often than not the truth is what works.’ ‘I can’t really go along with the opposition between practicality and truth set out in your account,’ Kurtz asserts.

I say nobody shifts their position, but perhaps that isn’t quite the case, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to establish what Coetzee’s position might be. Early on in the debate, Kurtz tries to pin down his view, observing that he sees nothing between, on the one hand, ‘a relationship with external reality, which is … pure and interpretation free’, hence ‘inhuman’, and on the other, ‘an alarming situation where … people are cut off from each other because of their absorption in wish-fulfilling fantasy’.

Many readers will feel that her summary is accurate and it’s hard to disagree when she goes on: ‘What is missing is a sense of us as living beings in the world.’ But Coetzee believes he has been misinterpreted; on the one side, yes, ‘a wilfully self-created reality that one might as well call fantasy’, but on the other, ‘a sense of one’s self as immutably fixed because the history out of which one grew … is immutable, beyond one’s control.’ He then goes on to wonder why memories ‘should not be amenable to revision’, something he now seems to be presenting as desirable: ‘Why can’t I install a new set of memories that suit me better than the old ones?’ Later still, he reflects that in fact all too often people do install a quite different version of the past and have no problem with it; the idea that the truth will always find you out is simply not the case.

At this point, it’s as if Coetzee were asking, why am I stuck with the ethically admirable but perhaps unhappy fate of adhering to the immutable reality of the past, when others feel free to manipulate their life stories at will? At the same time, speaking of his writing, he acknowledges that ‘it must be evident to you that I don’t have much respect for reality. I think of myself as using rather than reflecting reality in my fiction.’ As if to placate Kurtz, or perhaps the reader, for presenting these seemingly incompatible assertions he tells her, ‘As you can see, I am as divided, undecided and confused as can be.’

The exchange becomes repetitive. Kurtz seeks to coax Coetzee away from his fierce polarisations by describing her experiences with people in therapy. Selfhood, she insists, is always constructed in relation to others and doesn’t exist outside such relations; Coetzee is concerned that if truth is to be thought relational it will hardly be truth at all. Kurtz feels that what is constructed in relation has its own reality and hence is part of the truth. Coetzee shifts the ground a little by likening therapy to Catholic confession. We are back with the ethical: unhappiness is felt to be the result of sin. But confession, he observes, is all too often self-serving and theatrical, essentially seeking the feel-good factor of unburdening oneself: people just want to talk, and to be absolved. He brings in Dostoevsky and Stavrogin, whom he wrote about in The Master of St Petersburg. Always respectful, Kurtz doesn’t agree. People ‘come to therapy desperately wanting to get unstuck or to move beyond a circle of thoughts going round in their heads, with no promise of release … they do not just want to talk; they want to be taken beyond their talk.’

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