I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can. The longer I live the more I would like to put the world in suspension and grip the present before it’s eaten by the next second and becomes the past. A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.
Siri Hustvedt, The Mysteries of the Rectangle
If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
Found photo made into a book cover without an author. Photo found amongst the boxes of photos in The Junk Company,
Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.
My father always preached from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. I’ve never gone back to them to see if they were worth anything, if I actually said anything. Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. I could look through them, maybe find a few I would want you to have. I’m a little afraid of them. I believe I may have worked over them as I did just to keep myself occupied. If someone came to the house and found me writing, generally he or she would go away, unless it was something pretty important. I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, and people respected me for all those hours I was up here working away in the study, and for the books that used to come in the mail for me— not so many, really, but more than I could afford. That’s where some of the money went that I could have put aside.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
“The stories we tell about ourselves may not be true, but they are all we have.”
I am interested in our relations with these stories we tell about ourselves, stories that may or may not be true. Let me select three cases.
(a) I have a story about myself which I sincerely believe to be true, in fact which I believe to be the story of me, but which some ideal, omniscient, God-like observer who is entirely independent of me and to whose mind I have no access knows not to be true, or at least not to be the whole truth.
(b) I have a story I tell about myself, one in which I wholeheartedly believe but which certain well-placed observers (my parents, my spouse, my children) know to be flawed, probably self-serving, perhaps even to a degree delusional. (This is a not uncommon state of affairs.)
(c) I have a story about myself in the way that we all have stories about ourselves: I concede that it may not be true by the standards of (a) or even (b); nevertheless, it is “mine”, it is all I have, and therefore I give it my allegiance. “It’s all I have, it’s the best I can do.”
The Monthly October 2014
Extract from The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, to be published by Harvill Secker in May 2015. Copyright © JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz 2014