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