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.

These stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness

Obscurely born (rumors circulated secretly like poorly printed money: was I caesarian? a breech? were those forceps marks on the back of my little red neck? was my papa playing baseball when my mother pushed me screaming into being? was I supposed to care that I was born obscurely?) of parents who hardly honored their heritage even by the bother of forcibly forgetting it; and who had many prejudices but few beliefs (the town I grew quickly older in appeared to be full of nigs, micks, wops, spicks, bohunks, polacks, kikes; on the public walks, in the halls of the high school, one could not be too careful of the profaned lips of water fountains); thus while there was much to complain of, just as there is in any family—much to resist—it was all quite particular, palpable, concrete. Good little clerk, my father hated workers, blacks, and Jews, the way he expected women to hate worms. There wasn’t a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn, unless perhaps it was the general suggestion of something poisonously Republican, or a periodical’s respect for certain Trade Marks. And I remember resolving, while on long walks or during summer reveries or while deep in the night’s bed, not to be like that, when that was whatever was around me: Warren, Ohio—factory smoke, depression, household gloom, resentments, illness, ugliness, despair, etcetera, and littleness, above all, smallness, the encroachment of the lean and meager. I won’t be like that, I said, and naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit. Even as a grown man I was still desperately boasting that I’d choose another cunt to come from. Well, Balzac wanted his de, and I wanted my anonymity.

School was a dull time in the beginning; I was a slow student, my achievement intermittent and unpredictable as a loose wire. I decorated my days with extravagant, outrageous lies. Yet I was reading Malory, too, and listening to Guinevere bid Launcelot adieu:

For as well as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, go to thy realm, and there take thee a wife, and live with her with joy and bliss, and I pray thee heartily pray for me to our Lord, that I may amend my misliving.

Amend my misliving. And everything in me then said: I want to be like that—like that aching phrase. So oddly, at a time when no one any longer allowed reading or writing to give them face, place, or history, I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables: not merely my soul, as we used to say, but guts too, a body I knew was mine because, in response to the work which became whatever of me there was, it angrily ulcerated.

I read with the hungry rage of a forest blaze.

I wanted to be a fireman, I recall, but by eight I’d given up that very real cliché for an equally unreal one: I wanted to become a writer

… . a what? Well, a writer wasn’t whatever Warren was. A writer was whatever Malory was when he wrote down his ee’s: mine heart will not serve me to see thee. And that’s what I wanted to be—a string of stresses.

a what?

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence, but I don’t know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known (I thought) always had. They appeared in the world obscurely, too—slow brief bit by bit, through gritted teeth and much despairing; and if any person were to suffer such a birth, we’d see the skull come out on Thursday, skin appear by week’s end, liver later, jaws arrive just after eating. And no one of us, least of all the owner of the opening it inched from, would know what species the creature would eventually contrive to copy and to claim. Because I wrote these stories without imagining there would be readers to sustain them, they exist now as if readerless (strange species indeed, like the flat, pigmentless fish of deep seas, or the blind, transparent shrimp of coastal caves), although a reader now and then lets light fall on them from that other, less real world of common life and pleasant ordinary things.

Occasionally one’s companion, in a rare mood of love, will say: ‘Bill, tell about the time you told off that trucker at the truck stop’; but Bill’s audience knows he’s no emperor of anecdote, like Stanley Elkin, and they will expect at best not to be bored, pallidly amused, not edified or elevated, not cemented or composed; and occasionally one’s children will still want a story told them, improvised on the spot, not merely read or from a flabby memory recited. Then they will beg far better than a dog.

Tell us a story, fawfaw. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us a long and lonely story about the sticky-handed giants who had no homes, because we want to cry. Tell us the story of the overfriendly lions. Tell us the story of the sad and barkless dog. Tell us, fawfaw, tell us, because we want to cry. Tell us of the long bridge and the short wagon and the tall tollkeeper and the tall tollkeeper’s high horse and the tiny brown tail of the tall tollkeeper’s high horse that couldn’t swish away blue flies … because we want to cry. We want to cry.

Well which? … which shall I tell you the story of to make you sad so you will cry?

Oh don’t do that, fawfaw. We want to cry. Don’t make us sad. We merely want to cry. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us about the giants. Tell us about the lions. Tell us about the dog. But do not make us sad, fawfaw, just make us cry.

Well which? … which then shall I tell you if you want to cry? … which, the story of?


Woods. I knew it would be woods.

William H. Gass, Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

What We See When We Read


I could begin with Lily Briscoe.
Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face …”—is a principal character in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of Mrs. Ramsay sitting by the window reading to her son James. Lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.
She is nervous about being interrupted, about someone breaking her concentration while she is engaged in this delicate act. The idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.
But kind, acceptable Mr. Bankes wanders up, examines her work, and asks what she wished to indicate “by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there.’ ” (It is meant to be Mrs. Ramsay and her son, though “no one could tell it for a human shape.”)
Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow…
Mother and child: reduced.
We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf’s novel). We are only told about it.
Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)
This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that Lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. The painting is Lily’s reading of the tableau in front of her.
I cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.
I cannot see Lily herself. She is, in my mind, a scarcely perceptible hieroglyph.
The scene and its occupants are blurred.
Strangely, the painting seems more … vivid.

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, Vintage (August 5, 2014).

Herta Müller: Nie ufam językowi


Nie ufam językowi. Z własnego doświadczenia wiem, że jeśli chce być dokładny, musi przywłaszczyć sobie coś, co nie należy do niego. Nie wiem, dlaczego językowe obrazy mają tak złodziejskie usposobienie, dlaczego najtrafniejsze porównanie kradnie właściwości, które mu nie przysługują. To w zmyśleniu powstaje zaskoczenie i okazuje się, że dopiero poprzez wymyślone zaskoczenie zbliżamy się w zdaniu do rzeczywistości. Dopiero gdy jedno postrzeganie okradnie inne, jeden przedmiot przywłaszczy sobie materiał innego i go wykorzysta – dopiero gdy to, co się w rzeczywistości wyklucza, stanie się przekonujące w zdaniu, zdanie może przetrwać w obliczu rzeczywistości jako własna rzeczywistość – rzeczywistość, która wpadła wprawdzie w słowa, ale jest słownie wiążąca.

Herta Müller, Nadal ten sam śnieg i nadal ten sam wujek, tłum. Katarzyna Leszczyńska, Wołowiec 2014

Herta Müller: Czytałam z ręki w usta


Do gimnazjum w mieście poszłam wbrew woli matki. Chciała, żebym została krawcową we wsi. Wiedziała, że miasto mnie zepsuje. I zepsuło. Zaczęłam czytać książki.
Moje lektury były trojakie: z jednej strony książki narzucone przez podręczniki i studia, książki, które nie mogły stać się dla mnie osobiście ważne. Już dlatego że ich lektura była wymuszona, człowiek bronił się przed nimi. Aby zaczerpnąć powietrza, trzeba było organizować książki nieistniejące i zakazane. Z dzisiejszego punktu widzenia da się przerzucić pomost od ballad Goethego i Schillera albo wierszy Heinricha Heinego do siebie. Ale do pokonania dystansu stu albo więcej lat konieczna jest przemiana. A żeby ją przejść, potrzebna jest wewnętrzna dyspozycja, wolna przestrzeń w głowie. Której nie miałam. Chciałam bezpośredniości, książek patrzących prosto w oczy czasom, w których żyję. Nie dosłownie, w skali jeden do jednego, ale pośrednio, pod kamuflażem. Do czytania popychała mnie natarczywość lęków – mieszanka strachu przed życiem i strachu przed śmiercią. Służba bezpieczeństwa była moim stałym gościem, kiedy nie było mnie w domu. Jeśli powinnam była to zauważyć, poprzestawiane były krzesła. Jadłam i myślałam, że jedzenie może być zatrute. Gdy późnym wieczorem dobiegał z klatki schodowej szum windy, nasłuchiwałam, czy nie zatrzyma się na piątym piętrze, przy moim mieszkaniu. Czy nie usłyszę kroków zbliżających się do moich drzwi. Czy może jednak nie zabiorą mnie teraz, lecz dopiero jutro, za dnia. Wtedy nie będzie tak źle, wtedy wzywają tylko na przesłuchanie, możesz sama pójść przez park, po drodze możesz nawet w takt kroków głośno wyrecytować wiersze w strach. Jeśli winda, dzięki Bogu, się nie zatrzymała, można było nadal siedzieć w mieszkaniu i czytać książkę. Czytałam z ręki w usta, czytałam tak, jakbym jadła zdania – karmiłam strach. Czytając w ten sposób, nie zdobywa się wykształcenia, gdyż ono buduje. Wykształcenie jest rezerwuarem, w którym wszystko się łączy. Moje czytanie było spłoszone, chaos zastygania w miejscu i ucieczki. Kiedy czytałam kolejną książkę, poprzednia była już w głowie i uczuciach doszczętnie spożyta. Czytałam z powodów pozaliterackich. Czytając, odrobinę lepiej wiedziałam, jak można by żyć. Ale chwilę potem znowu nie wiedziałam nic. Sięgając po następną książkę, od dawna byłam ponownie w punkcie wyjścia. Moje wykształcenie na nic się nie zdaje, jest kulą, na której się wspieram, wędrując od punktu zero do punktu zero. Treść książek zazwyczaj zapominałam. Jeśli w ogóle coś zapamiętywałam, było to poczucie bezbronności wobec gęstości tekstu, która nie rozmawia ze mną za pomocą słów. Nie nauczyłam się, jak żyć ani jak pisać lub czytać. W moim przypadku można by zawsze mówić czytać, LESEN, zamiast żyć, LEBEN, i tak różnią się tylko jedną literą. Tak jak tylko jedną różni się po niemiecku pisanie, SCHREIBEN, od krzyczenia, SCHREIEN.

Herta Müller, Nadal ten sam śnieg i nadal ten sam wujek, tłum. Katarzyna Leszczyńska, Wołowiec 2014