JM Coet­zee makes a bril­liant ar­gu­ment for jus­tice in fic­tion, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JM Coet­zee writes the way Ivan Lendl played ten­nis: au­thor­i­ta­tively but grimly. There isn’t much warmth in the per­for­mance. One doubts, for that mat­ter, that ei­ther man would con­sider per­for­mance to be part of his job de­scrip­tion. The Good Story is an ex­change of let­ters be­tween the No­bel prize-win­ning South African-born, Ade­laide-based nov­el­ist and psy­chol­o­gist Ara­bella Kurtz, who prac­tises and teaches in Eng­land. The book is aus­tere and man­nered, es­pe­cially on Coet­zee’s side. But it’s re­ward­ing, too, in a purely in­tel­lec­tual way. Stick with the dia­lec­tic and you’ll be re­paid with mo­ments of limpid in­sight, like out­breaks of sun­shine on a frosty day.

The project’s premise is that Coet­zee, as a nov­el­ist “sym­pa­thet­i­cally dis­posed” to psy­cho­anal­y­sis, wants to open a dia­logue with Kurtz about the con­nec­tions be­tween Freudian ther­apy and fic­tion writ­ing. “As a genre,” Coet­zee writes, “the novel seems to have a con­sti­tu­tional stake in the claim that things are not as they seem to be, that our seem­ing lives are not our real lives. And psy­cho­anal­y­sis, I would say, has a com­pa­ra­ble stake.”

Each ex­change starts with Coet­zee seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion on a clus­ter of is­sues — as the lay au­thor, he has the priv­i­lege of open­ing each rally. As Kurtz replies, and fires back ques­tions of her own, the dis­cus­sion deep­ens. Sym­pa­thetic to Freudian the­ory as he is, Coet­zee finds him­self at odds with it on sev­eral fun­da­men­tal ques­tions. For starters, psy­cho­anal­y­sis seems to put the quest for well­be­ing ahead of the quest for truth. An­a­lysts try to re­verse the process of re­pres­sion by un­earthing buried mem­o­ries. Their pa­tients are cured, for prac­ti­cal pur­poses, when they have re­con­structed a ver­sion of their past that doesn’t trau­ma­tise them. Whether that ver­sion is ob­jec­tively true is a sec­ondary mat­ter. All this seems to sanc­tion the wishy­washy post­mod­ern idea that we are all free to au­thor our own his­to­ries — a free­dom Coet­zee finds “morally du­bi­ous”.

In this con­nec­tion Coet­zee doesn’t men­tion Instagram or the selfie stick. His prose is not that pro­mis­cu­ous. He is in­clined to put it this way: “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.”

I quote this not just to il­lus­trate Coet­zee’s po­si­tion but to of­fer a pretty typ­i­cal sam­ple of his style. This is not the only mo­ment, dur­ing his quest to get to the bot­tom of things, when he finds him­self us­ing a term cau­tiously, or hedg­ing his words be­tween quote marks or brack­ets or both. Some­times his prose, by striv­ing for pre­ci­sion ahead of all the other virtues, has an in­farc­tion right there in front of you.

But the ex­tent to which one feels like read­ing Coet­zee has al­ways de­pended on one’s ap­petite for the starkly un­com­pro­mis­ing. What you un­fail­ingly get from him, in this book and else­where, are fierce in­tel­li­gence, an awe­some com­mand of world lit­er­a­ture and a multi-lin­guist’s re­spect for word ori­gins and shades of mean­ing. What you don’t get are the tricks an­other writer may use to make his ab­struse ar­gu­ments more reader-friendly: things such as metaphor, hu­mour, brio, the per­sonal aside.

Then again, it’s ev­i­dent that for Coet­zee the in­tel­lec­tual is the per­sonal. Psy­cho­anal­y­sis un­der­mines the prospect of his­tor­i­cal and moral truth — and a be­lief in th­ese things is pretty vi­tal to his prac­tice as a writer. He ad­mits he has a “nos­tal­gia” and even a “long­ing” for the no­tion of tran­scen­dent truth — he be­lieves, and wants to be­lieve, that cer­tain things re­ally did hap­pen in the past and cer­tain things didn’t.

The same goes for the lost cer­tain­ties of ethics: Coet­zee is nos­tal­gic for them, too. “I would like to be­lieve that the uni­verse is just, that there is some or other eye that sees all, that trans­gres­sions of the Law do not ul­ti­mately go un­pun­ished.” But here again his hope seems to be at odds with the doc­trines of psy­cho­anal­y­sis. If re-

June 6-7, 2015 pres­sion works, and we can for­get our trans­gres­sions for­ever, then what hap­pens to jus­tice? “This is Dos­to­evskian ter­ri­tory,” he writes. “If there is no God, where is the sense in it all?”

This ques­tion prompts an ex­change about Dos­to­evsky, and ethics in fic­tion, which proves to be the book’s best stretch. One would ex­pect no less from the au­thor of The Mas­ter of Peters­burg. But it turns out that Kurtz, too, is a well­versed Dos­to­evskian, and a sub­tle reader of lit­er­a­ture.

In her terms, the foun­da­tion of jus­tice lies in the fact “we are so­cial be­ings”. The crim­i­nal who is un­trou­bled by his own con­science won’t get away with his mis­deeds for­ever: “If you are the kind of per­son that does this, sooner or later the world will cot­ton on and re­la­tion­ships with other peo­ple are go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult in­deed.” At this point view­ers of tele­vi­sion se­ries The Jinx may be un­able to help pic­tur­ing, in­stead of Raskol­nikov, the strange and twitchy Robert Durst, whose past seems to be lit­tered with the sawed-up bod­ies of peo­ple who have in­con­ve­nienced him. Clearly, the man is miss­ing some­thing that most peo­ple have. The usual word for it is a con­science. Dos­to­evsky, the em­bat­tled be­liever, would have called it a soul. Freud called it the su­perego: the in­ter­nalised repos­i­tory of so­ci­ety’s val­ues.

Coet­zee, for his part, mounts a bril­liant ar­gu­ment about the arc to­wards jus­tice in fic­tion. He imag­ines a story about a man who com­mits a foul crime, re­presses his mem­ory of it with com­plete suc­cess and lives hap­pily ever af­ter. Such a nar­ra­tive just wouldn’t work; it wouldn’t en­gage us. But the op­po­site story — the story of the wicked se­cret that re­fuses to stay buried — does res­onate with us. From Oedi­pus Rex to the de­tec­tive novel, the “great plot shapes” seem to em­body our in­tu­ition that “we can­not es­cape from our past … we are not free to rein­vent our­selves”. This would seem to sug­gest we have some sort of hard­wired in­stinct for jus­tice.

Around now, the book bumps up against the lim­its of Freudian the­ory. Coet­zee is surely right to feel that our sense of right and wrong is

Crime and Pun­ish­ment, some­how in­nate. But if he wants hard sci­en­tific con­fir­ma­tion of this — if he wants to find an ob­jec­tive ba­sis for ethics in our “post-re­li­gious cul­ture” — then surely he’d be bet­ter off turn­ing to Dar­win than to Freud.

For Dar­win, the moral con­science ex­isted for sound evo­lu­tion­ary rea­sons. The on­go­ing Dar­winian ef­fort to un­der­stand those rea­sons has a sci­en­tific so­lid­ity that Freud’s ideas will al­ways lack be­cause they are by their na­ture un­fal­si­fi­able — the ex­is­tence of the su­perego can­not be proved or dis­proved in a lab. The best you can say is that psy­cho­anal­y­sis is a body of metaphors that works, at least for some peo­ple.

Of course this is a book about psy­cho­anal­y­sis, co-writ­ten by a prac­tis­ing ther­a­pist, so evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory is be­yond its scope. Nev­er­the­less, one does begin to won­der, af­ter a while, why Coet­zee is “sym­pa­thet­i­cally dis­posed” to psy­cho­anal­y­sis if its cen­tral tenets trou­ble him so much. Af­ter all, he is not com­pelled to be­lieve in it. He is free to be­lieve, with Karl Kraus, that psy­cho­anal­y­sis is the dis­ease for which it presents it­self as the cure. To put it more crudely, Freudian the­ory is made up; you don’t have to be­lieve in it if you don’t want to. But in a way the book con­cedes this. When Coet­zee ob­jects that re­pres­sion and other Freudian doc­trines are morally du­bi­ous, he im­plic­itly ac­knowl­edges that they are just ideas. One doubts he would waste his time by mak­ing a sim­i­lar com­plaint about the prin­ci­ples of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. A fact can’t be morally du­bi­ous.

Like any good dia­logue, this one makes you want to butt in. It is de­signed to be an in­tel­lec­tual ex­change and it fills that brief. It is re­mark­able, though, how thor­oughly it de­clines to de­velop any di­men­sion be­yond that. In most cor­re­spon­dences of this kind you would ex­pect a cer­tain warmth to de­velop, a cer­tain fa­mil­iar­ity, a cer­tain loos­en­ing of the tone. Don’t ex­pect that to hap­pen here. The book’s most heated mo­ment, per­haps, comes near the end, when Kurtz ap­pears to lose her pa­tience with Coet­zee’s in­de­fati­ga­ble hair­split­ting: “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, want­ing sym­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing.”

For Coet­zee, in con­trast, fret­ting about the na­ture of the Truth is cen­tral to his job. One should be grate­ful he takes the task so se­ri­ously. Not many fic­tion writ­ers have thought so care­fully about the ethics of their craft. In a cul­ture sod­den with trivia, any sane per­son will pine for an an­ti­dote now and then, a coun­terblast of high in­tel­li­gence. Coet­zee can al­ways be re­lied on to pro­vide one. Whether the blast has to be quite so chilly is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. In a novel such as Dis­grace, the un­friend­li­ness of the prose made aes­thetic sense. No reader of that book is ever likely to for­get the un­for­giv­ing aus­ter­ity of its at­mos­phere. If I say the same thing about this book, I don’t mean it as quite as much of a com­pli­ment.

From the cover of a Wordsworth Clas­sics edi­tion of Dos­to­evsky’s

left; JM Coet­zee and Ara­bella Kurtz, be­low

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