Is there an objective external reality; and if yes, how do we interpret that reality with our subjective sense of the world? These questions might seem fit to be tackled by psychiatrists or philosophers but many literary writers have been fascinated by these questions and have endeavoured to answer them, be it Tolstoy in 19th-century Russia, or Austen in 19th-century England.
The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, a record of conversations between the novelist J.M. Coetzee and the psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, seeks to bridge the theoretical gap between narrative technique and psychotherapy in order to address the nature of fiction and truth. It is not, however, a theoretical or philosophical book. Written in the form of dialogues, it attempts to answer these big questions in a not-so-heavy, conversational method.
The primary aim of this book is to provide a clear and accessible discourse, taking into account the historical take on the given subject matter as well as its evolving nature. Psychotherapy today places great value on an individual’s ability to solve their past baggage and reinvent themselves. Coetzee, however, finds this hard to accept; he believes a patient’s narrative can be as unreliable (not entirely true) as that of a fictional character: “Are all autobiographies, all life-narratives, not fictions, at least in the sense that they are constructions?”
Kurtz, on the other hand, does not believe in this “forced and wholly abstract” idea of reality but an “internal truth” which is “always dynamic, provisional and intersubjective”. Moreover, she advocates the idea of “groundedness in our existence as subjective beings in the world”.
Coetzee asks a number of questions related to storytelling, language, and reality, to which psychotherapy might contribute a different, more practical dimension.
J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz attempt to bridge the distance between narrative technique and psychotherapy in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
He starts the conversation by asking the question “What are the qualities of a good story?” Should a narrator attempt to be neutral and objective and “tell a kind of truth that would meet the criteria of the courtroom?” How can we be logically sure that we are not unconsciously leaving out parts of the narrative, and thus changing the truth? This resistance to telling our own stories, the malleability of memories and the recurrence of the repressed are among the recurring themes of the book.
Coetzee’s approach is rather methodical and concerned with the ethical responsibility of handling the sacred truth. He realises that his approach can be “abstract to the point of airy-fairyness” but yet decides to press on. As a storyteller he is concerned with the question of “how to disentangle the memory component from the component of interpretation”; can a harmless lie be justified if it makes a person happy when “We can’t all simply be who we like to think we are”.
Kurtz, on the other hand, is much more flexible in her approach, claiming that any version of truth that works for us is what matters in the end. If Coetzee is focused on the limitations of perception, Kurtz commends our ability to understand the world and believes that it is the psychotherapist’s job to help the patients be “more aware of themselves”.
She concludes by pointing out that “understanding something of who we are and of our context is to some extent contingent on relinquishing the aspiration to perfect vision”; and this openness to certain kinds of emotional stimulation is, in her opinion, where “the paths of creativity and psychotherapy converge”. Coetzee finds it hard to accept a less-than-perfect version of truth but accedes by admitting that “As a genre 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 … has a comparable stake”.
Intelligent dialogues and honest input help The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy provide a refreshing take on the psychological process and its significance to both a novelist and psychotherapist.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
By J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Harvill Secker, London