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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.

Leaving things out is, I suppose, repression, and the idea seems to be that the bits left out are still there somewhere in the dark recesses of the mind. As I understand it, the classical theory asserts that repression cannot succeed: whatever is repressed here manifests itself there, though perhaps in so heavily disguised a form that only a trained specialist can track it back to its roots. What we gain in repressing what we do not want to remember we have to pay for with the subterranean poisoning of other aspects of our life. At the same time, Freud says, repression is necessary: repression is the basis of civilization; it is what distinguishes human beings from the beasts.

But is it true that repression necessarily fails? To give an extreme example, certain people who have committed vile acts — torture, murder — seem able to construct life stories (memories) for themselves out of selected fragments of the real (the long hours they had to work, the gratitude of their superiors, the promotions and medals they received) and to live with and by such memories, while repressing all the ugliness.

Classical theory, at least in its popular version, says that such people have unhappy relations with their wives and children. It says they suffer from nightmares. It says that they are secretly haunted by the cries of their victims — by what they try and fail to repress of their “real” past.

And indeed, if you put a torturer on trial or if you compel him to undergo a course of psychic rehabilitation, he may begin to recollect those “repressed” cries. If memory is malleable in one direction, obliterating what disturbs the subject, it is surely malleable in the opposite direction too. Which leads me to a quandary, as I think it should have led Freud. By the nature of things, the analyst does not often get to see happy people. The records of psychoanalysis are biased toward people for whom (in my account) repression has been tried but has not worked. It is not the rare, extreme case of the torturer that troubles me, but the much more frequent cases of people for whom repression — which at this point we can go back to calling forgetfulness — has worked, and has in fact become the foundation of a happy and successful life.

The claim that repression cannot succeed — and consequently that we are not free to create our own past — seems to me to rest finally on faith in the justice of the universe. Many of the great novelists have offered such a vision. Emma Bovary tries to live out a fantasy life — tries to live like the heroine in one of the romances she devours as an adolescent — but the world won’t allow it.

What if one chooses to operate on a much less grand scale than Emma? What if one makes up a fantasy past that doesn’t lead one into conflict with the world and instead merely makes one’s life sound more interesting, and thus perhaps makes one happier? Surely you cannot deny that there are people like that in real life, people who don’t like the past they have been given and have replaced it with a better one?

Let me explain why I say that the belief that we are not free to make up our own past must be based on faith in the justice of the universe. One of the basic story plots has the following shape. During his youth a man (it is usually a man) commits a shameful act, perhaps even a crime. He runs away, covers his tracks, takes a new name, makes a new life for himself in some faraway place. Years pass. He marries and has children; he becomes a pillar of the new community. He begins to allow himself to think his secret is safe, he has escaped. Then one day a stranger arrives in town and begins asking nosy questions. Implacably, step by step, the man’s secret is uncovered. He is shamed; he is ruined.

There are many novels built on such a plot (think of Thomas Hardy). The experience of reading them is interesting. Insofar as we identify with the hero, we do not want his secret to come out — we do not want the truth to emerge. In this respect such novels are the opposite of the detective novel, where we identify not with the man with the buried past but with the nosy intruder. The story is about the futility of trying to escape from one’s past, of trying to reinvent oneself. The past (the past self) refuses to be buried.

In the story, read as an allegory of psychic processes, the hero never forgets his secret history — he is haunted by it — but he hopes he can keep it inside, bottled up. The hero’s will stands for the agency within the psyche that seeks to repress uncomfortable, shameful memories, to keep them from consciousness.

Novels that use this plot implicitly teach a lesson, as indeed do detective novels that use the plot’s mirror version. The lesson is that we cannot escape what we have done or experienced, that we are not free to reinvent ourselves. Such novels are often quite gripping: as we read them, the attempt — the doomed attempt — to preserve the secret gradually becomes our own. Why? Perhaps because each of us, in one way or another, cherishes the hope of remaking our lives, and is reluctant to concede that our past is inescapable.

Now imagine a story that tries to teach exactly the opposite moral: that our lives are ours to make and remake as we wish, that the past is past, that secrets can freely be buried and forgotten. Can there be such a story that works as a story? Can we have a story that ends, “And his secret was forgotten and he lived happily ever after”?

Insofar as it ends in a paradox — the secret is not really buried, since the reader knows it — you cannot have such a story, at least not in its straightforward, unironic version. In other words, not only the moral-religious tradition in which we are brought up but the tradition and perhaps even the very form of the story refuse to concede that the past can be buried.

There is a sense in which the great plots submit to, or evoke, the notion of a moral universe. That is to say, the story that can be told — the story of the man who tries but fails to bury the past — tells us something about cosmic justice; whereas the story that cannot be told — the story of the man who buries the past and lives happily ever after — cannot because it lacks justice.

But what if the true secret, the inadmissible secret, the secret about secrets, is that secrets can indeed be buried and we can indeed live happily ever after? What if our culture, perhaps even human culture in general, has created a form of narrative that is on the surface about the unburiability of secrets but seeks to bury under the surface the one secret it cannot countenance: that the past can be obliterated, that justice does not reign?

Is everyday life not bursting with examples of people who have forgotten what it is not convenient for them to remember, and who prosper nonetheless? I would like to believe that there is one or another eye that sees all, that transgressions do not ultimately go unpunished. But a voice keeps asking: Is that really so?


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August 2010

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