The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
J M Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Harvill Secker, 198pp, £16.99
The contemporary gaze has been turned, lately, on stories. There is something in stories that is essential to our sense of what it means to be adequately human. Children intuitively grasp this and what makes sense to them tends to be what truly nourishes (and so what deeply informs) the adults they become. Nor is it an accident that all of the great religions are founded on stories. The King James Bible’s translation from the Greek of the opening of the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – can as well be translated as: “In the beginning was the story, and the story was with God, and God was the story.” This is not the Gospel writer, as it were, dissing God. Unlike our materially minded age, the ancient world respected stories as the proper reflection of a reality too myriad and complex to define in simply naturalistic terms.
And stories – those we tell, or try to tell, ourselves; those we tell others; those that others tell about us – are the stuff of psychotherapy, the strange business that, in our age, has displaced the shaman, the wise woman, the guru and the priest in our attempts to make sense of our troubled lives.
J M Coetzee, one of our most distinguished living novelists, has been pondering the connections between fiction and psychotherapy. The Good Story is a dialogue between Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist and trainee psychotherapist. The title, as one might expect from a writer alive to antinomies, is ambiguous. What is meant here by “good”? Are we talking in moral, aesthetic, evolutionarily successful or remedial terms? And crucially, what relationship do fiction and therapy have with truth?
It is a perhaps unconscious assumption made by most therapists that “the truth shall set you free”. Coetzee finds Freud “echoing” this prescription (given Freud’s stalwart atheism, the Christian association is intriguing). “What is it,” Coetzee inquires, playing not so much devil’s as artist’s advocate, “that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themselves, as opposed to collaborating or colluding in a story . . . that would make the patient feel . . . good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?” The book mimics in form, though hardly in content, the exchanges between therapist and patient. Kurtz’s reply is sensible but predictable: self-serving narratives of one’s self are not fit for purpose. They narrow one’s life options and buckle under strain.
The supposition here is that a better, truer story exists, one that conforms in some way to things as they really are, or were – and that can be encouraged into existence in the therapeutic encounter. Coetzee presses the point: “What is an event itself, as opposed to the event as we interpret it to or for ourselves? . . . Is it possible – philosophically but also neurologically – to speak of a memory that is pristine, uncoloured by interpretation?”
If the real thing is such a dark horse, how do we know when we meet it? Though Kurtz, following the therapeutic model, is guardedly sanguine about the possibility of peeling back the veils occluding truth, both authors rightly mistrust memory as a source of veracity. (During my time as a psychoanalyst, I worked with a chief constable who convinced me the only trustworthy court witnesses are the tentative ones. Those who assert clear memories, he said, were generally shown to have been making things up.)
Memory, the authors agree, is endlessly mutable, subject to both internal and external prompts and steers. Yet it is equally capable of creative, as well as fantastical, formulations and flourishes. The way we recall history alters history: what is it, after all, but a compendium of memories? And the way we forget it alters it, too.
Freud’s most valuable contribution to our theories about consciousness and selfhood may be his theory of the anti-therapeutic inner editor who causes repression, followed by the inevitable “return of the repressed” (the fairy turned malign by exclusion from the christening). The pivotal story of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus drama, is the canonical account of this phenomenon. In flight from the prospect of killing his father, Oedipus meets and kills his father. Desire denied fosters the dreaded deed. (Although that raises a question about how far incestuous and murderous desire is actually innate. A more relevant interpretation of this story is that you don’t lose the things you fear by running from them.)
In the consulting room, Kurtz pragmatically suggests, the task is to reflect relegated matter back into consciousness; to enliven a moribund narrative by enfranchising what has been disowned. The story will then become a renewed space wherein its subject – and author – may the better live and move and have a freer being.
Coetzee cites Dostoevsky, whose pre-Freudian acuity on the return of the repressed was judged so dangerous in The Possessed that it was itself censored. One of the several beauties of Coetzee’s argument is its elegant deployment of fiction – he is especially good on Thomas Hardy and Henry James. It is on his wide experience of fiction, too, that, like a more engaged and more courteous “jesting Pilate”, he draws as he pursues the question, “What is truth?”
What works to set us free in the consulting room, he argues, is not so much truth as sympathy (though not simply mushy approval). He challenges the idea, notably promulgated by Melanie Klein, that one can “know” how a young baby feels, suggesting that when we “sympathetically inhabit our neonate selves, we are inhabiting a fiction”, and extrapolating from this that all sympathetic identification with another – of the kind that we experience in fiction – “has a fiction-like status and that our sympathetic intuitions can be relied on only to yield fictional truths”.
By which, as a creator of fiction in his own right, he means no dishonour. Kurtz describes the dispiriting process whereby trainee therapists are obliged to record their verbal exchanges with patients in their care. In the days when I supervised therapists, I mentally divided these accounts into three types: the patently bogus, the enlighteningly edited and the pseudo-record of an alleged dialogue, often laced for effect with ums and ers. The least satisfactory was the last, the supposedly accurate and accordingly more deceptive report.
But stories are not the prerogative of the patient. They are also the medium through which psychotherapists talk about their practice. Freud’s case studies, while cracking good stories, are not literally faithful to the process they purport to describe. What they have is their own kind of fidelity – what Coetzee would describe as a poetic fidelity – to the trauma of human experience. Coetzee’s most radical and exciting claim is “that our own needs and desires have a . . . fiction-like status . . . We try them out and if they suit us we inhabit them. A desire that is too thoroughly understood loses its force and in effect ceases to be desire.”
“How unworthy a thing you make of me,” Hamlet says to his dishonestly “open” friends. “You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” As Coetzee suggests, there is an inalienable mystery about being human. Long before psychotherapy was invented, Shakespeare showed how that mystery may more finely be apprehended through a sufficiently subtle story.
Salley Vickers’s latest book, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking