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.”
Pictorial spiritism (a woman's drawings guided by a spirit)
There are numerous examples in the history of self-taught artists which suggest an interrogation of that which we take for granted within the universe of art. Such was the case with figures like
Astounding fairytale illustrations from Japan
Fairy tales tribal stories— are more than childish tales. Such fictions, the characters of which inhabit our earliest memories, aren’t just literary works with an aesthetic and pleasant purpose. They
A cinematic poem and an ode to water: its rhythms, shapes and textures
Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. - John Keats Without water the equation of life, at least life as we know it, would be impossible. A growing hypothesis holds that water, including the
Watch beauty unfold through science in this "ode to a flower" (video)
The study of the microscopic is one of the richest, most aesthetic methods of understanding the world. Lucky is the scientist who, upon seeing something beautiful, is able to see all of the tiny
To invent those we love or to see them as they are? Love in two of the movies' favorite scenes
So much has been said already, of “love” that it’s difficult to add anything, much less something new. It’s possible, though, perhaps because even if you try to pass through the sieve of all our
This app allows you to find and preserve ancient typographies
Most people, even those who are far removed from the world of design, are familiar with some type of typography and its ability to transform any text, help out dyslexics or stretch an eight page paper
The secrets of the mind-body connection
For decades medical research has recognized the existence of the placebo effect — in which the assumption that a medication will help produces actual physical improvements. In addition to this, a
The sea as infinite laboratory
Much of our thinking on the shape of the world and the universe derives from the way scientists and artists have approached these topics over time. Our fascination with the mysteries of the
Sharing and collaborating - natural movements of the creative being
We might sometimes think that artistic or creative activity is, in essence, individualistic. The Genesis of Judeo-Christian tradition portrays a God whose decision to create the world is as vehement
John Malkovich becomes David Lynch (and other characters)
John Malkovich and David Lynch are, respectively, the actor and film director who’ve implicitly or explicitly addressed the issues of identity and its porous barriers through numerous projects. Now