A discussion between the Nobel Prize–winning novelist and a clinical psychologist on the narratives that their work shares.
Fans of Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus, 2013, etc.) should be aware that his role here is more of interlocutor and provocateur and that the emphasis throughout is on psychoanalysis, with literature explored only as a means of understanding the goals and limits of therapy. “By profession I have been a trader in fictions,” writes the man of literature. “From what I write it must be evident to you that I don’t have much respect for reality. I think of myself as using rather than reflecting reality in my fiction.” He also thinks that those who spin personal narratives in therapy are also engaged in a sort of fiction and that their efficacy lies in not how true they are but in how helpful and functional, allowing the patient to engage with the world. Kurtz seems more willing to accept a provisional sort of truth or even an objective reality, though she counters, “I am not a philosopher, I am a psychologist, and fretting about the exact nature of the Truth with a capital T is not going to meet the situation that faces me, which is that of a human being, usually in great distress and confusion, wanting sympathy and understanding.” For those more interested in literary insight, Coetzee draws a parallel between “living reading,” which he calls a “mysterious affair,” and the challenge of therapy. “It involves finding one’s way into a voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself (your self) from outside yourself.” The explorations of narrative are frequently insightful, but the book is less like dialogue and more like an exchange of essays.
Caveat lector: the authors, both intellectual heavyweights, focus much more on psychology—and group psychology, where Coetzee keeps pushing the discussion—than on literature.