“The secret casket of his genius contains a vapor rather than a jewel,” E. M. Forster wrote of Joseph Conrad, in Abinger Harvest. The same could be said of Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. For, as Forster said of Conrad, “What is so elusive about him is that he is always promising to make some general philosophic statement about the universe, and then refraining with a gruff disclaimer.”
Long-time readers of Coetzee may, therefore, welcome his exchanges with psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz, collated in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, in the hope of insights into his work. The pair first corresponded in the literary journal, Salmagundi, back in 2010, and it is a shame that this original exchange is not also included in the book. I have drawn on both here.
Taking in a wide discussion of the therapeutic process, the pair explore psychoanalysis as a secular form of confession, the human drive to create narratives, the effects of collective repression in post-colonial societies and, finally, a struggle to grasp one’s historical identity in a discussion of Sebald’s Austerlitz.
In these, and the Salmagundi exchange, Coetzee likens the therapist’s role to a projection of oneself into the subjectivity of the other. He regards this as similar to the role of the writer, (he thinks the process “spiritual”) the difference being that the therapist’s responsibility is to the patient. The writer’s responsibility he finds harder to pin down. Some may call it aesthetic; “but to some, perhaps many, writers it also feels like a responsibility to the real, to constructing a world that is some kind of version of the real world, and (more important) that makes the features of the real world more visible.” Kurtz describes this process as “self-transcendence” in a manner that harks back to the work of Emerson and the transcendentalists.
The question is, where does this take place? While James Wood found Elizabeth Costello (reviewed in the London Review of Books) a profoundly religious novel and, in spite of Coetzee’s work being peppered with words like “soul,” “spiritual” and even “God,” Coetzee is categorical that where it does not take place, “is in the realm of being outside the universe - for example, the realm where the Judaeo-Christian God, creator of the universe, has his being.”
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
His chief concern appears to be a moral one. If a patient can be a given a version of the truth that makes them happier, one that is not so flawed as to be challenged in daily life, what is the problem with that? Here Kurtz and Coetzee appear to miss each other. She restates that a falsity will inevitably be found out, but he believes this only to be true in fiction. What, he asks, of those who don’t live fantasy lives that bring them into conflict with the world, but simply small lies that enable them to get by? What is psychoanalysis’ objection to that?
At this point, he introduces the notion of value – the importance of believing in the value of what we do, although neither he nor Kurtz examine the origin of such a sense. Citing Don Quixote – who eventually acknowledges to Sancho Panza that he is not a knight errant but that he prefers the fictional version of himself, because it enables him to lead a better and more moral life – Coetzee asks what prevents the therapist from helping their patient with a happy lie? Why should we not live like Quixote who finds, the “world turns out to be a more lively, more entertaining place when at least some of us live out our ideals.”
But, yet again, Coetzee’s adherence to truth comes out. Having cogently argued for such a course, he admits to feeling it “in some way wrong.” But nor he does accept that repressions, falsehoods, even crimes, will necessarily have a psychological consequence: truth will not always out.
“What,” he asks, “if the true secret, the inadmissible secret, the secret about secrets, is that secrets can indeed be buried, and we can indeed live happily ever after? What if this big secret is what the Oedipus-type story is trying to bury? In other words, what if our culture, perhaps even human culture in general, has created a form of narrative which is, on the surface, about the unburiability of secrets, but under the surface seeks to bury the one secret it cannot countenance: that secrets can be buried, that the past can be obliterated, that justice does not reign?”
However, in spite of this amorality, there is an inescapable sense that in his “longing and nostalgia for the one and only truth,” Coetzee is something of an absolutist. No matter how often he denies it, he is fixated on some sense of a universal truth - beyond us - against which everything, including the therapeutic process, is found wanting. His argument remains predicated on an exterior truth that has lost its force.
Kurtz’s response, one she expands upon and restates, is that therapy works “on the basis of a subjective and an intersubjective truth, a truth to experience.” For her, being and truth are relational - we can only be, and only know, ourselves through others. The truth Coetzee is speaking of is non-relational, almost hermetically sealed. It is unknowable precisely because it is impossible.
So where does this get us? Readers looking for instruction on how to read the novels may find some illumination. Coetzee’s musing that the best we can hope for, in an ideal society, is one in which the “citizens’ fictions of themselves magically mesh with one another” is explored in his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus. His defence of what we might call the humanities, and his attack on rationalism, published in Salmagundi, echo one of the chief passages in Elizabeth Costello. Coetzee hopes psychology can explore the mind “by means other than what we call the scientific method.” When asked to expand on this, he argues, much like William James, that “reason/rationality is only one aspect of mind (though hypertrophied in human beings). Just as it would be a mistake to limit investigations of the mind to exploring its reasoning faculty, so I think it a mistake to decide that the only faculty that may do the exploring is the reasoning faculty.” This argument mirrors aspects of claims made by both Elizabeth Costello and her sister, Blanche, in the course of that novel, and this turn to modes of being other than the rational are evident throughout his fiction. His suggestion that all life narratives, autobiographies, are in fact fictions, is at the center of the trilogy, Scenes from Provincial Life; the sense that the closest we can get to the truth of ourselves is our own, married with the versions of those who knew us, the subject of Summertime.
But those hoping for Coetzee’s general, philosophic statement about the universe may be disappointed. In his closing remarks in Salmagundi, Coetzee expresses his sympathy with those whose thinking is “disordered.” He reflects that “People rarely - in fact almost never - act on the basis of reason: people act on the basis of impulse or desire or urge or drive or passion or mood, and dress up their motives afterwards to make them seem reasonable.” In rejecting a purely rationalist view of the world, Coetzee also rejects anything like a position that is systematic or consistent. “I think back to The Brothers Karamazov, where the storyteller distinguishes between those of us whose thinking is disordered, and those whose minds work tidily and efficiently. He belongs (more or less) among the latter: he sees the Karamazovs as cautionary examples of where disordered thinking can land one. I hear what he says. Nevertheless, my sympathies are with the Karamazovs.”
In this, Coetzee is like Conrad. If his genius “contains a vapor,” it is by design. It as much as we can know, as much as we can claim and, arguably, leaves us a world richer for failing to predicate reason as our chief mode of being.