Coetzee: I don’t have much respect for reality

By profession I have been a trader in fictions. From what I write 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. If the world of my fictions is a recognisable world, that is because (I say to myself) it is easier to use the world at hand than to make up a new one. In a letter to Louise Colet, Gustave Flaubert spoke of aspiring to write a book about nothing, a book that would be held together by the mutual tensions of its component parts rather than by its correspondence to any real world. He never wrote such a book: it was much too hard, and anyhow no one would have read it. But it is telling that a writer who is thought of as an arch-realist should have had such a low opinion of reality.

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. The ending has to be death: it is the only ending one can seriously believe in. What an irony then that to anchor oneself in a sea of fictions one should have to rely on death!

John Maxwell Coetzee, Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, 2015.

On truth

John Maxwell Coetzee: Let me start by posing a philosophical question. What is an event itself, as opposed to the event as we interpret it to or for ourselves, or as it is interpreted to or for us by others, particularly authoritative others? ‘When I was eight my father hit me with a tennis racket,’ says a subject. ‘Not true,’ says his father. ‘I was swinging the racket and accidentally hit him.’ What really happened? Specifically, is the boy’s memory of the event true, or is the father’s true? I call it a memory, but that is an oversimplification: it is a memory-trace which has been subjected to a certain interpretation. I might even go on to say that it is a memory-trace which has been subjected to an interpretation behind which lies a certain will to interpret (in the boy’s case perhaps a will to give the event its darkest interpretation, in the father’s case a will to give it a harmless interpretation). How are we to disentangle the memory component from the component of interpretation, leaving aside for the moment the will behind the interpretation? Is it possible – philosophically but also neurologically – to speak of a memory that is pristine, uncoloured by interpretation?

Just recently I read an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he says that, after submitting to one promotional interview after another for his new book, he felt he had to break free or else he would begin to believe in the life-narrative that he had been spouting in the interviews. I interpret him as saying, not that he had been telling untruths in the interviews, but that the repetitions of a single account of his own life were scouring so deep a trace that he would soon lose his freedom to interpret (remember) his life otherwise.

To think of a life-story as a compendium of memories which one is free to interpret in the present according to the demands (and desires) of the present seems to me characteristic of a writer’s way of thinking. I would contrast this with the way many people see their life-story: as a history that is forever fixed (‘you can’t change the past’). The strange thing is how many of us want to fix our life-story, by repeating over and over, to ourselves and to others, one or other preferred interpretation of it.

You can hear trivial examples of fixing a piece of history any day of the week as you sit in the bus eavesdropping on conversations. ‘I said to her … She said to me … I said to her …’ You write of the changing ways in which one may be able to see the past according to one’s age or personal development; you use the word perspective. I don’t think you and I are far apart here. The therapist who comes up against the ‘ordinary’ notion that one’s past (more accurately, the story of one’s past) is immutable must surely experience it as an obstacle.

As I have said before, what interests me in these fixed life-stories is not so much what finds its way into them as what gets left out.

Leaving things out is, I suppose, repression; and the theory seems to be that the bits that have been left out are still there somewhere in the dark recesses of memory. I know the human brain is huge, but is it really big enough to hold everything that has been left out? Doesn’t what we leave out add up to everything in the universe minus our small part? We leave it out, we say, because it isn’t relevant. What that means is that it isn’t relevant to the present interpretation we prefer to give to our past.

All of which leads me back to your suggestion that psychotherapists might be able to learn from writers (in this case fiction writers) how to aim at, or at least be satisfied with, a life-narrative whose truth is poetic (a hard term to define – later you write of ‘the truth of what is in the heart and the mind’, which may or may not be the same thing) rather than pragmatic, conforming to the facts of the case.

I would agree and might even be persuaded to go further: to say that the therapist might aim to foster in the patient a freedom to be master of their own life-narrative; that the sense of freedom or mastery, and what can be achieved with it, may turn out to be more important than the story itself.

The question, however, is whether we really want to move in a society in which everyone around us feels empowered (a term I use cautiously) to ‘be who they want to be’ by acting (acting out) the personal myths (the ‘poetic’ truths) they have constructed for themselves. Do we trust the human imagination as an invariable force for good? Doesn’t the human imagination, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, fall back on the most banal of stories, picked up out of the commercial repertoire?

Where one would go from here I am not sure. On the one hand I am 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 (fear of the reality principle). On the other hand, if an individual who is deeply miserable can be cheered up by being encouraged to revise the story of their life, giving it a positive spin, who could possibly object?

In the first case the truth seems to me to matter, finally. We can’t all simply be who we like to think we are. In the second case the truth seems to me to matter less. What is wrong with a harmless lie if it makes us feel better? (Example of such a lie: After we die we wake up in another, better world.)

Help me to get beyond this point

John Maxwell Coetzee, Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, 2015.