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J.M. Coetzee: Does Truth Exist?


A conversation with psychologist Arabella Kurtz allows us to go deep into the relationship between truth and fiction, and one of the most-read novelists nowadays.

J.M. Coetzee (South African, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2003) is known for refusing to give interviews, or to problematize in them “the value of opinions expressed through my public persona.” However, in 2008 he permitted an exchange of emails with British psychologist Arabella Kurtz, published in a recently released book: The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

The title leaves few doubts on its subject: the relationship between the idea of truth and fiction in a therapeutic and literary sense, not necessarily as opposite positions, but as zones of contact where truths and fictions adopt pragmatic values to construct the world. In Coetzee’s case, the auto-biographic truth, for example, always goes through the filter of fiction: in novels such as Elizabeth Costello or the volumes of memory/fiction Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, the author uses characters in the sense of voices through which his own facts can be narrated.

Kurtz emphasizes that something similar occurs in psychological therapy, a process whereby a person tells himself his story from an assisted perspective. Coetzee questions Kurtz on his motives in therapeutic work:

 What is it that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themselves, as opposed to collaboration or colluding in a story—let us call it a fiction, but an empowering fiction—that would make the patient feel good about themself, good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?

The question isn’t minor, as it questions the pertinence of stories that seek to establish a truth without fissure: in the book, Coetzee remembers the episodes he witnessed during the apartheid regime in South Africa since he was a child, and how there existed historical narratives meant to pass a lie for truth for political aims.

For Kurtz, the categories of truth and fiction are not as clear in everyday practice, so the individual must “be satisfied with the version of truth that works for him.” However, in his experience, “truth is what DOES work.”

Thus, we see that Coetzee’s narrative “truth” seeks to inconvenience and question the reader as to the congruency of social truths, while Kurtz’s therapeutic truth is not aimed, as one could think, at creating a fictitious fantasy where the subject remains a hero or innocent player of his reality, for a patient is also confronted with disguised fictitious discourses which have become a truth in his environment––a truth that his family or himself have believed for years. In this way we see that writing is not necessarily a therapeutic form, and psychology is not a discourse of power to keep an individual subdued to the logic of capitalist production. Rather, it deals with the understanding of reality in aesthetic terms, in the sense that an aesthetic subject –– to use Leo Bersani’s terms –– is one who lives in the threshold of his relationships with the images in his world, through an economy of affections, where “aesthetics” does not have the connotation of a pursuit or a study on beauty, but rather the same choices of images (objects, Freud would say), through which we construct ourselves as subjects.

But regarding a writer such as Coetzee, one can also distinguish the importance of suspicion in the construction of a truth which resists the imperative logics of power, a suspicion that does not simply seek the “guilty” of a story, but rather seeks to place the subject in a fair place––something we could associate to the truth understood from psychology (although not necessarily from psychoanalysis). Accordingly, Coetzee underscores the danger of official narratives and the importance of suspicion as the last stronghold of truth of the subject, at least to himself: “I have lived as a member of the conquering group… [which] believed that what it was achieving in settling a foreign land was something to be proud of.”

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