The Reading Room: A review of ‘The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy’

 

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy by Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee

London: Harvill and Secker, 2015.

Reviewed by Vivek Santayana, The University of Edinburgh

 

Abstract: Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee’s The Good Story is a dialogue between a consulting clinical psychologist with an interest in literary studies and a novelist with an abiding concern with psychoanalysis and moral psychology. Through their exchanges, Coetzee and Kurtz explore the ways in which fiction and psychotherapy overlap, such as in their mutual concern with how history, memory and the self are mediated through language. They also enact conceptual disagreements between psychotherapy and fiction, particularly with their commitment towards the existence of an external truth. These exchanges suggest that while literary practice and psychotherapy can benefit each other tremendously, significant challenges remain in bridging the conceptual gulf between them.

The Good Story is a series of exchanges between Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee that explore the possibility of dialogue between psychoanalytic psychotherapy and literary fiction. Both Kurtz and Coetzee, in the course of their correspondence, represent their trade: Kurtz is a consultant clinical psychologist completing training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy while Coetzee is a novelist and critic with an expansive career to date in fiction and non-fiction. Both Kurtz and Coetzee are deeply interested in what they might potentially gain from each other, as Coetzee has an abiding concern with moral psychology and psychoanalysis, and Kurtz is interested in what psychotherapists can learn from interpreting narratives through literary techniques. Their exchanges, often circuitous and digressive, examine the ways in which psychotherapy and literary fiction overlap, points at which they differ and, subsequently, the respective roles of the writer and therapist in listening to and finding truth in these narratives.

Coetzee and Kurtz’s exchanges are ambitious in the range of topics they address, such as the nature of truth in fiction and psychoanalysis, the method and role of psychotherapy, the authenticity of narratives, the construction of the self, the psychology of groups and the broader political and historical critique for which psychoanalysis can be used. To begin with, Kurtz identifies several ways in which literary fiction and psychotherapy overlap. The therapeutic encounter, for Kurtz, is a creative process, and the psychotherapist must be sensitive to the internal coherences and frustrations of patients’ narratives and the ways in which they manifest themselves within the formal characteristics of the narratives. Moreover, knowledge of the past, whether it is through memory-traces or historiography, is constructed and mediated through narratives. Both psychoanalysis and fiction are interested in how the self creates a narrative to give the past coherence and structure in order to construct its own identity. Coetzee and Kurtz are divided on the truth of these kinds of narratives, and they further disagree on the nature of truth itself (an external, ontological truth versus an intersubjective, aesthetic one). Nevertheless, it is clear from their exchanges that both literary practice and psychotherapy have a mutual concern with interpreting narratives and serving a specific therapeutic function, and hence mutually inform each other. This idea chimes particularly with Rita Charon’s work in the field of narrative medicine.

In some of the middle exchanges, these themes are drawn into a pointed postcolonial question about descendants of settler communities in South Africa, the United States and Australia – nations with which Coetzee has some degree of affiliation – and how these societies deal with a history fraught with genocide. These troubled histories recur in the present and haunt these societies. Coetzee and Kurtz examine, through the lens of defence mechanisms such as splitting and repression, the rhetorical strategies societies use to integrate self-affirming narratives of their present with an ethical disavowal of the atrocities committed by their forebears. One of the debates concerns the nature of regression within group psychology, and whether nationalism is a force that is inherently regressive or whether there is a possibility of positive identity. These discussions are grounded in an awareness of contemporary political problems, such as Australia’s oppressive immigration policies towards asylum seekers. Coetzee argues that all forms of nationalism and group-thinking are inherently regressive (as in the case of armies or gangs of children in schools), whereas Kurtz maintains that there is a positive, non-regressive possibility of group thinking (drawing from institutions like the NHS or the analysis of Oedipal relationships). But there is nevertheless a methodological problem underlying both positions, which both Coetzee and Kurtz discuss in due course, and that is the possibility of generalising from the analysis of an individual psyche or the dynamics of specific institutions to the much broader group psychology of a nation or society.

The exchanges between Kurtz and Coetzee are also eclectic in their breadth of references and interests. They draw from numerous literary examples, including Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, D.H. Lawrence, Hawthorne and Sebald, a number of compelling case histories as well as a body of psychoanalytic theory such as Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, Isabel Menzies Lyth and Paula Heimann. There are clear philosophical themes, drawing from Plato, Kant and Levinas, which inform Kurtz and Coetzee views on truth and intersubjectivity, even though they are for the most part not explicitly stated. One of the most interesting discussion centres on Coetzee’s reading of Thomas Nagel’s paper What is it like to be a bat?, through which the author questions the limit of human empathy and projection in knowing ‘the Other’, thereby questioning the extent to which a psychotherapist can truly know what it is like to be the patient. Coetzee frequently challenges Kurtz on the idea of truth, and insists that rather than claiming to know the self and how it relates to others, psychotherapy should concede the fictitiousness of the narratives with which it engages.

The disputes between Kurtz and Coetzee are particularly instructive as they reveal how literary fiction and psychotherapy can diverge (at least in the way Coetzee and Kurtz characterise them). They disagree on the matter of truth, for example, as Coetzee is nostalgic for an external truth (either an event itself or some philosophical truth) that is inaccessible to narrative fictions like memory or psychotherapy. Kurtz on the other hand is agnostic of any such external truth and is instead concerned with a dynamic, inter-subjective notion of truth that represents the meaning-making process of the subject. The grounds of their disagreement seem subtle yet significant. Kurtz and Coetzee have difficulty finding common ground on the issue as well as a common terminology with which to address these questions. Their disagreements seem to suggest that a dialogue between psychoanalysis and fiction needs much more than a mere overlap between the methodological concerns with narrative and the self, but necessitates a reconciliation of distinct philosophical premises. The exchanges between Kurtz and Coetzee resemble a Socratic dialogue that foregrounds the challenges faced by psychotherapy and literature in bridging the conceptual rifts between them, while also exploring the tremendous benefit potentially achieved for both disciplines by conversing with each other.

However, one aspect of this dialogue between Coetzee and Kurtz that is particularly vexing is the apparent self-consciousness of its own structure. This is true of most of Coetzee’s novels, which employ metafictional devices to question their own ontological status as texts. It is particularly intriguing to apply what Coetzee and Kurtz say (about fiction, memory and constructing the self, for example) to the exchanges themselves (such as Coetzee’s recollection of his childhood or his account of his relationship with South Africa). Coetzee’s accounts of his life or opinions in these exchanges beg the question of whether or not these accounts are themselves fictions. This is complicated further by the fact that Coetzee seems to be channelling his own fictional narrator, Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals, in his discussion of Thomas Nagel. All of this begs the question of how much Coetzee’s position should be taken at face value. Moreover, there are aspects where his argument seems to invite resistance and scepticism. For example, in light of postmodern rejections of an external, objective truth (something that Coetzee seems to have foregrounded in his previous novels), it is tempting to push against Coetzee’s nostalgia for truth. The most remarkable thing about The Good Story is that it not so much the decisive arguments that Coetzee and Kurtz make, but the revealing contradictions and ambiguities behind what they say.

 

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy by Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee

London: Harvill and Secker, 2015.

pp.198

£16.99

 

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