JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
Harvill Secker, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781846558887
reviewed by Marc Farrant
Truth, as both an historical and temporal problem, is consistently broached by the interlocutors here representing each tradition: the Nobel-winning novelist, JM Coetzee, and the clinical psychologist, Arabella Kurtz. Although time is not necessarily thematised as such, the issues of memory, repression, trauma, and (auto)biography all touch upon the problematic relation between the self and its finite, corporeal and contingent nature; that is, of a self divided by time. The exchange opens with a discussion of the self in literature via life writing, and how to tell the story of one’s life, and then comes full circle by the end to close with a literary discussion of the historical self in the work of WG Sebald. Sandwiched in the middle is an engaging, trenchant and hard-wrought dialogue. The dynamic is one of productive antagonism.
Coetzee opens the exchange by asking: ‘What relationship do I have with my life history?’ To which Kurtz replies:
One way of thinking about psychoanalysis is to say that it is aimed at setting free the narrative or autobiographical imagination. If we follow this line, then it is possible that a writer like yourself may have insights to offer on the form that narrative takes in the consulting room.
This perceived affinity, however, pivots on sharing a notion of truth that, in fact, becomes the primary site of contestation throughout this book. Coetzee’s preoccupation with life writing, and the relation between literature and truth, surfaces throughout his career as both a writer (of three memorial fictions) and academic (his inaugural professorial lecture at Cape Town was entitled ‘Truth in Autobiography’). This is perhaps surprising, given Coetzee’s laudation as an arch anti-rationalist; a flaunter of the naiveté of literary realism. In fact, Coetzee’s opening salvo follows a familiar pattern, one that implicitly structures the three fictionalised memoirs and is explicitly articulated in a 1992 interview with David Attwell: the rejection of ‘truth to fact’ (that is, a correspondence theory of truth) in preference for a higher form of truth, a ‘truth [that] is related to silence.’ This sense of another truth, one that remains perilously abstracted but inextricable from ‘reality’ (the reality of one’s life), informs Coetzee’s interest in psychoanalysis as a ‘post-religious form of therapeutic dialogue.’
Hence, the stakes of what ‘post-religion’ means orientate the antagonism: if psychoanalytical therapy is designed to bring the patient ‘face to face with the true story of their life,’ as Coetzee puts it, is this ‘the whole truth’ or “a version of the truth that, in some sense, works’? For Kurtz, ‘the opposition between practicality and truth’ (that Coetzee consistently establishes) has no valid purchase; for psychotherapy what works is the truth:
There is a need for the psychotherapist to help the patient dig deeper and come to a way of understanding why they are so unhappy that has not been possible before, usually because something painful or difficult cannot be faced. When this happens, however imperfect or incomplete, it feels like the truth. Not historical or scientific or philosophical truth, but emotional truth.
For Coetzee, this marks a certain recklessness within the therapeutic enterprise: ‘The question, however, is whether we really want to move in a society in which everyone around us feels empowered... to “be who they want to be”...Do we trust the human imagination as an invariable force for good?’ On the other hand, Coetzee concedes, for a suffering individual, an effective lie can function operatively in the reparation of one’s existence (the example given: ‘After we die we wake up in another, better world’). How to reconcile these oppositions?
For Kurtz, the first position, predicated on the sense of an immutable truth that is violated in a spirit of postmodern perspectivism, is intrinsically flawed. Is an event ever wholly singular, pertaining to an irrefutable reality, or is an event always a matter of context? If the latter, then its interpretation – the example of a trauma being primarily in mind here – is a matter of perspective, but, she argues, not a process of endless substitution: ‘we cannot simply substitute one perspective for another in the self-determining way you describe; or if we do so, there are considerable costs.’
These costs for Coetzee seem to invoke an elicit ethical command, one that would repeat Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the Republic: we are not simply free to make up our own life stories as we choose, and further, we ought not to. The rank of fiction is subsumed under the priority of the New Testament prescription that Coetzee reads implicitly in Freud: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’
One of the lurking concepts behind Coetzee’s ambivalent stance between a sense of indubitable truth and fictional free-play is that of history. In the early works, history is to be evaded to the precise extent that it is also inescapable; there is a warring tension between the individual (and its relative autonomy) and his or her place in a world of others. In his second novel, In The Heart of the Country (1977), this tension is witnessed in the protagonist Madga’s self-reflexive narration, which also evidences a similarly suspicious outlook towards psychology:
There is consolation in having a psychology – for has there ever been a creature blessed with a psychology yet without an existence? – but there is cause for unease too. Whose creature, in a tale of unconscious motives, would I be?
Psychology is both affirming and negating; the ‘I’ becomes aware of itself, but as something that is not wholly of itself. If this ethically complicates the fixity of ascertaining moral agency, then later in The Good Story Coetzee establishes the link between this underlying preoccupation and history explicitly:
I am sure that my dogged concentration, here and in earlier exchanges between us, on the ethical dimension of truth versus fiction comes out of my experience of being a white South African...a member of a conquering group.
If fictional self-creation is suspect, morally reckless (able to engender such dangerous myths as racial superiority), then Coetzee’s assertion of the problem of history reminds us that fiction does not merely pertain to non-reality; if the past, and our memory of it, is mutable, then we are nevertheless subject to it in a real way. Fiction’s capacity to affect the world marks its redeeming ethical force: we are the stories we tell ourselves.
However, after an intriguing discussion of guilt and confession in Dostoevsky and Hawthorne, the conversation returns to the problem of truth, and Coetzee’s disbelief in the efficacy of Kurtz’s strategic-essentialist formulation of the truth of psychotherapy. Once again, Coetzee’s position appears resolute:
what I wish to focus on is the longing or nostalgia for the one and only truth, a longing that I myself happen to feel strongly, but that I don’t see in the kind of contact between therapist and patient which takes it as a premise that all transactions will be on an as-if basis...Are we truly so changed (so advanced) that we can be satisfied by...as-if stories…?
Coetzee’s concern for the truth strikes the reader, Kurtz, and himself as surprising (‘As you can see, I am as divided, undecided and confused as can be. By profession I have been a trader in fictions’), but this indecision is also qualified: ‘what ties one to the real world is, finally, death. One can make up stories about oneself to one’s heart’s content, but one is not free to make up the ending.’
Although the question of death is not explicitly discussed, it holds the key to Coetzee’s position. Kurtz takes Coetzee’s position to be one of stubbornly insisting on ‘an objective or transcendent truth, a truth outside or above the realm of human understanding,’ yet if we take seriously Coetzee’s interest in the promise of psychoanalysis as a post-religious form of therapy, the sense of a postulated absolute truth is doubled: firstly, the concern for a nostalgia (or desire) for an infallible truth is figured as that which psychoanalysis ought to engage with, to work through, and secondly, the nature of the truth that Coetzee seems to want to advance as absolute is necessarily and fundamentally paradoxical; infallible but not transcendent, irrefutable but not above or beyond the material, finite world. Coetzee’s absolute and infallible truth is a paradoxical belief in the absolute primacy of fallibility, contingency and finitude; that death is more certain than taxes.
If the real, actual truth is that there is no truth, how does fiction avoid the irresponsible freedom of proliferating lies? How do we continue with an operative sense of the truth that would permit an ethical engagement? Coetzee believes the faculty of sympathy is vital to conceiving the way by which stories work ethically:
I see sympathy as an inborn faculty in human beings which may or may not grow, may or may not atrophy, may or may not be fostered; I also see it as capable of extending itself beyond fellow human beings … sympathetic identifications allow us to enter other lives and to live them from the inside.
These sympathetic identifications, however, ‘can be relied on only to yield fictional truths.’ Discussing the philosopher Thomas Nagel (who also surfaces in Coetzee’s 2003 novel, Elizabeth Costello), and his question ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Coetzee refutes Nagel’s hypothesis that ‘the only true, real knowledge one can have of what it is like to be anyone or anything in the world is a form of knowledge of what it is like to be oneself,’ and postulates an alternative sense of knowledge that can be derived from sympathetic projection or identification outside of oneself: ‘the truth of fictions.’
Kurtz’s riposte is clear: ‘We have been over this ground before. I am not a philosopher, I am a psychologist, and fretting about the exact nature of the Truth with a capital T is not going to meet the situation that faces me, which is that of a human being, usually in great distress and confusion.’ Instead, what is proffered again is a version of intersubjective truth arising from the clinical practice; a ‘relational truth.’ For Coetzee, this presses ‘the point too far...this makes the concept of truth so wide as to evacuate it of usefulness’:
The point I want to make is that any close or intimate relation with another person is likely to involve sympathetic projections … Thus I would be in favour of a therapeutic psychology which, instead of trying to get beyond or through such projections or fictions, treating them as though they necessarily hide the truth, could instead easily and openly accept our fictionalising of self and others as part of life.
This impasse persists throughout the rest of the exchange, but fruitfully colours the illuminating discussions of repression and memory, confession and post-religion, group and gang psychology, pedagogy, and nationalism. Indeed the exchange itself, evoking as it does a therapy-room dialogue between a searching analysand (Coetzee) and an authoritative analyst (Kurtz), broaches the very terrain upon which the individual arguments are premised. Coetzee’s prioritising of the power of a fictional, sympathetic imagination almost appears clumsy in the context of the slightly thwarted discussion. No matter the intellectual or ethical affinities shared by the participants, there is a weight of discursive baggage that prevents the neat symbiosis of the terms and concepts deployed; Kurtz’s transmutation into clinical terms of Coetzee’s more free-flowing abstractions only works to a limited extent. One feels that if the book weren’t also trying to be an exercise in pop psychology (it is appended with a useful but domineering glossary of terms) the dialogue may have been more productive. But as a succinct if unorthodox introduction to basic psychoanalysis, the book can easily be appreciated without any prior knowledge of its authors.
Readers familiar with Coetzee’s other works may be tempted to scour this exchange for psychological insights into the novelist: what clues are here that might unlock the oeuvre? This would be true of any author, but especially Coetzee, whose work is built around an entanglement of biography and fiction. As such, The Good Story can’t but help redouble the irony that forms the translucent vertebrae of the fictional work. If the book does illuminate our wider reading of Coetzee then this occurs through its explicit embroilment within of the question of ethics and that of truth.
Writing in the London Review of Books about the memorial fiction Summertime (2009), Frank Kermode describes Coetzee’s work as ‘the writing of a “fictioneer,” to borrow a word he uses to describe his craft,’ arguing that this ‘is a form of art that cannot have a simple relationship to truth.’ Indeed, Coetzee’s three fictionalised memoirs (collected together in a single volume entitled Scenes from Provincial Life) go some way to substantiating Coetzee’s position in the exchange documented in The Good Story. Written in the third person, the ‘he’ (‘John’) of the memorial fictions operates between the simultaneous sense of the writing and the written, the said and the saying. These subjective displacements both permit the sympathetic projection or intuition that Coetzee advocates – loosening the grip of a self-fulfilling, auto-biographical ‘I’ – but as memoirs also intrinsically mock the process of sympathetic imagination (the ethical ‘other’ here is also the same as the self), as is documented (almost ironically) by the unnamed third-person narrator in the second volume, Youth: ‘Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself?’
To return to the opening premise of The Good Story – that is, how and why do we go about constructing stories of ourselves, and what ethical implications are attached to them – then the memorial fictions, one might argue, go about undermining the premise of the sympathetic imagination, or the pretension of fully inhabiting another consciousness, even the transmuting power of art in general. Although a fashionable sense of otherness has been attached to Coetzee’s works, The Good Story reminds us that the question of ethics is just as much caught up for Coetzee with the confessional site and scene of the ‘I’ or self.
This sense of limitation in our relation to the other is also manifest in Coetzee’s implicit conception of language, and once again the exchange between Coetzee and Kurtz mimes the problematic. Late in the book, during a discussion of associative thinking and the unconscious mind, Kurtz realises a paradox in attributing to the unconscious notions of conscious agency, and concedes ‘here we are up against the limits of language.’ As in Youth, Coetzee’s (fictional and non-fictional) work is often concerned with a sense of language as an unconscious force, an interpellating presence, ultimately unmasterable. In this, his relation to Beckett (who is not discussed here) becomes evidenced. Echoing Beckett’s linguistic scepticism, Coetzee’s style is often described by critics in similar terms to his forbear: tight, minimal, taut. This process of ‘paring down,’ as he describes it in an essay in Doubling the Point (1992), emerges from a profound incapacity to be content with the illusory comforts of the stories that are here associated with the functional as-if narratives of psychotherapy; that is, an incapacity to be content with, as is described in a letter to Paul Auster, the all-too-easy ‘in-built templates of how one thinks, how one feels.’
That the dialogue should hit up against the limits of language testifies to the irresolvable nature of the differing stances adopted. In this, the dialogue mimes the ethical problems associated with both the act of storytelling and the fictional capacity to project sympathetically. Although there is a genuine belief in the power of this second position, Coetzee also implicitly gestures towards the impossibility of such a commingling sensibility, of truly abnegating the self and its (self)interests. In fact, I would argue, this hesitancy marks the very urgency and pathos behind the ethical questions that arise, and more widely fixate Coetzee’s authorship. Is not the failure of a full sympathetic identification what necessitates the question of ethics in the first place, that is the awareness that we are, in fact, individual distinct from others?
This not-quite-ethical position is all the more powerful for coming up short, and yields a profound affective state behind Coetzee’s relentless questioning (‘I write not in a cool, scientific spirit but under the sway of feeling. Specifically I write in the aftermath of a decision by the Australian parliament to revise its legislation of asylum seekers.’) As the dialogue mimes this not-wholly congruent encounter with an other, we are able to witness what Coetzee describes in the discussion herein of confession: ‘a paradox: dialogue that may take the form of monologue.’ In this light, Coetzee’s discourse appears like a monologism seeking another monologism. Like the absurd reproductive cycle of the mayfly, the sexual union kills them, yet the act of seeking congress establishes a position by which, as Beckett puts it, to go on.
Kurtz is ultimately unable to satisfy Coetzee’s underlying suspicion and doubt as to the efficacy of psychotherapy, as manifests in the final chapter on WG Sebald. There is an inherent pragmatism to Kurtz’s countered solutions, one that sees truth delimited in terms of clinical efficiency. For Coetzee, this fails to capture a philosophical sense of the truth as guarantor or legitimation. More importantly, Coetzee seems implicitly dissatisfied with the unacknowledged account of truth or certainty that is necessary to underpin this clinical efficiency; the necessary notions of consensus, positivity, perhaps even the underlying and unexamined presupposition that happiness is the default position from which we depart but seek to return. Indeed, Coetzee’s essentially philosophical position seems to beg the very question of psychoanalysis itself as the will to psychoanalyse, a will that implicitly, in Coetzee’s formulations, cannot be merely contained within the discourse of psychoanalysis itself.
The discussion of Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) brings this to a head. Specifically, the question of history and historical truth that the novel addresses. For Kurtz, Sebald’s text is affirming of our capacity to see, feel and think the world, that it is ‘not despite our frailties and blind spots and infirmities – both physical and mental – that we engage in acts of comprehension and insight, but because of them.’ The knowledge that Sebald’s text produces, through the identity crisis of the eponymous character as he travails through a European past from which he is inextricably but indeterminately related, is contrasted to Coetzee’s sense of truth as absolute mastery: ‘Indeed, understanding something of who we are and of our context is to some extent contingent on relinquishing the aspiration to perfect vision.’
For Coetzee, however, the identity crisis depicted and substantiated throughout the novel, one of repression followed by crisis followed by revelation, is notable for its distance from a psychoanalytical frame or thematics. This is achieved not only through the distancing effects of the unnamed narrator relaying the confessional story, but perhaps more importantly by the historical context of the book’s setting. Austerlitz’s psychic trauma – wrenched from his parents, culture and language as a young child – would fit perfectly the practice of psychoanalytical psychotherapy. And, as Coetzee argues:
Nor, living in the London of the 1960s, would he have lacked for resources...One cannot help inferring that Sebald intends something by this: that if there was any cure for the Austerlitzian condition, it will not be provided by psychoanalysis. My guess is that psychoanalysis cannot (in the view of Sebald the writer) offer aid because psychoanalysis is ahistorical.
So, asks Coetzee, why does Austerlitz have to have this initial crisis? Banally, he ventures, to set the plot in motion, but more significantly – and the ‘answer on which Sebald’s book is predicated’ – is because the repressed always returns. If the repressed past always returns, we may in turn infer, that Coetzee suggests that it never returns as solely our own, the property of an individual and inviolable self. This sense of historical and collective repression disrupts the neat utilitarian as-if truths of the therapy room, but this isn’t a stubborn insistence on an objective and transcendental truth (the noumenal realm) beyond our essence as corruptible and contingent individuals.
To return to Foucault, and the schema dividing an analytic philosophy of truth in general and a critical ontology of the present, of ourselves, there is something inherently critical about Coetzee’s thinking of the literary; a critical insistence on the exposure of illusory fictions through fiction. This critical enterprise, seemingly paradoxical, necessitates that the writing of fiction and of reality is ongoing; fictional truth is always a matter, in Foucault’s terms, of the present. ‘It is hard,’ Coetzee writes, ‘perhaps impossible, to make a novel that is recognisably a novel out of the life of someone who is from beginning to end comfortably sustained by fictions. We make a novel only by exposing those fictions.’