Readings — From the October 2015 issue

Lives by Omission

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By J. M. Coetzee, from The Good Story, out last month from Viking. The book collects a series of exchanges between Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a psychotherapist, on the correspondences between fiction and psychotherapy.

Let me ask a question that has nagged at me for some time. Are all autobiographies, all life narratives, not fictions, at least in the sense that they are constructions?

“When I was eight my father hit me with a tennis racket,” says a subject. “Not true,” says his father. “I was swinging the racket and accidentally hit him.” Is the boy’s or the father’s memory of the event correct? I call it a memory, but that is an oversimplification: it is a memory-trace that has been subjected to a certain interpretation. I might even say that it is a memory-trace that has been subjected to an interpretation behind which lies a certain will to interpret (in the boy’s case, perhaps a will to give the event the darkest available cast; in the father’s, a will to give it a harmless one). Is it possible — philosophically but also neurologically — to speak of a memory that is uncolored in this way, pristine?

I have a scar on my right thigh. The scar is there, so something must have caused it. But my only memory of what happened was supplied by my mother, who told me of an accident that occurred in 1942 as a result of which I had to have three or four or five stitches. Indeed, I have no recollection of the time before I was about four that was not reinforced, if not actually installed, either by my mother’s words or by a snapshot explained to me by my mother. “Don’t you remember? That was your third birthday. That was when we were living in that ugly old house in Warrenton, where it got so hot and the mosquitoes buzzed all night.”

To think of a life story as a compendium of memories that one is free to interpret according to the demands (and desires) of the present seems to me characteristic of a writer’s way of thinking. I would contrast this with the way many people see their life story: as a history that is forever fixed. (“You can’t change the past.”) The strange thing is how many of us want to fix the account, by repeating over and over, to ourselves and to others, one or another preferred version. You can hear trivial examples of the habit as you sit on the bus eavesdropping on conversations. “I said to her. . . . She said to me. . . . I said to her. . . .” What interests me is not so much what finds its way into these stories as what gets left out.

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