Telling [my] Truth: Ethics, Aesthetics or Space for the Miraculous?

J.M. Coetzee “asks questions about existence that people don’t ask, and should not ask, if they want to simply live a comfortable life. His books are not therapeutic; they are written to discomfit.”

My tastes in fiction generally do not run in the direction of the memoir. Earlier this year, however, I found myself entranced by the late British philosopher, Gillian Rose’s, called Love’s Work. There was so much in it that came so close; there was such brilliance and vigour and devastation in it. It broke open the genre and parts of my own mind. It made me feel kind of small; it showed such courage, such possibilities for expansion. I can hardly begin to describe it or its effects on me except that I continue to pick up its resonances. It, too, asked questions people oughtn’t ask if what they want is simply a comfortable life. But, in a way, I think this is ‘therapeutic’, if by that word one understands not simply ‘feeling better’ but that the struggle with questions and striving to perceive reality more clearly and compassionately, is worthwhile.

I thought of it again when I came across this review of the correspondences between J.M. Coetzee and the British psychoanalyst, Arabella Kurtz called The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction & Psychotherapy. (Cannot wait to read it!) Yes, it is a discussion centred on that old chestnut: what is the relationship between truth and storytelling? And, out of that question come several other musings that dance between ethics and aesthetics in self-narrating. [1]

⁃ What relationship do I have to my life history? (This one caused a double take! It struck me in its profundity, surely a very good contemplative, emptying, transitional, autumnal-type question.)

⁃ Stories always come from somewhere. They are derivative & appropriated & there is a tendency to cast the life narrated in a kinder light in the attempt to make sense (softening the rough edges of the real?) and to make selves ‘fit for purpose’. While personal narratives are always purposeful they can also be self-serving and/or self deluding, or both.

– Our cultures enable us to tell certain stories and not others.

⁃ Why do psychoanalysts care about truth if their real job is to make their clients feel better? (Non-spoiler alert: Kurtz takes up the question and responds!)

⁃ What is the relationship between memory & conscience? Isn’t it the case that certain memories are forgotten so that the story appears more coherent and/or consoling and/or convenient and/or amusing or beautiful?

⁃ What are the ethical dimensions (and obligations) of self-narrating? This seems important especially as we seem predisposed to fabricate, and/or unable to tell the (whole) truth, inclined rather to comfort, coherence and convenience, and to need to be – consciously, or not – in control? Are ethics more important than aesthetics, or the other way around? Who decides and when, and how, and why?

– Is truth in narrative perhaps that third thing between myself and the story, a dynamic living thing, a metaxy, a speculative place between immanence and transcendence: something akin to grace? Gillian Rose notes

‘writing is a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control’ (59).

[1] On aesthetics & ethics, the obvious question: Is Beauty Truth? Phillip Ball, the science writer, says not. See, in the always fabulous Aeon magazine, this article: Beauty ≠ Truth.

[2] This article, also in Aeon, Plot Twist, by Will Storr, concurs. It’s not about writing, per se, but engages the struggle to give expression to the self (and how stories are involved with that). ‘The self’ he writes, ‘is a lie . . . we’re so good at seeing ourselves as consistent and sane, we can underestimate just how many faces we have.’


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