Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Heartless, Heartless, Heartless
I finally got a chance to read an essay plugged by Ray some time back, Debbie Nelson’s “The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anesthetics of Empathy". It’s an excellent essay—eloquent and persuasive and refreshingly free of academese. (Disclaimer: I’m a friend and long-time admirer of Debbie.) The essay’s main contention is that Mary McCarthy’s famously stern persona was not solely a matter of temperament, but part of an Arendtian commitment to public virtue. Debbie suggests, without hammering too heavily, that critics have been slow to recognize the point because of the patronizing to which women writers are often subject—maybe especially writers like McCarthy who make no allowance for conventional expectations of femininity. Basically, it’s been too easy for everyone to call McCarthy a shrew, or worse.
As Debbie sees it, though, McCarthy was motivated by political and aesthetic conviction. She shared with Arendt not just a biting critical sensibility, but a preference for a solidarity rooted in public deliberation over the satisfactions of emotional bonding and identity politics. (As Ray emphasizes, there’s an aesthetic angle to the argument stressing the necessity of paying attention to, without sentimentalizing suffering.) Again without overstressing the point, Debbie clearly wants to defend their aversion to sentimentality. The essay is part of a work in progress called “tough broads.”
It’s a persuasive case. McCarthy and Arendt’s famous friendship has been discussed in great detail. But I think only rarely have critics probed the intellectual passion at its core. It’s long amazed me, for example, that, so far as I know, no one has yet noted how thoroughly—formally and thematically--McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is rooted in Arendt’s theories (about which more in a moment).
But, personally, I’m probably less drawn to the Arendtian view than Debbie. I see Arendt’s brilliance and the force of a lot of what she’s got to say, but her distaste for democracy and her infatuation with the “authentically political,” among other things, have always dissuaded me from getting too enthusiastic. I like George Kateb’s summary—that Arendt wants to make politics the monopoly of the admirable. (Hanna Pitkin’s Attack of the Blob also seems to me to offer a great account of just what makes Arendt’s critique of mass politics compelling and why her view of “the social” is nevertheless finally more provocative than plausible.) For, similar reasons, I can’t get behind McCarthy 100 %. There’s a lot to love about her—the prose, the integrity and guts, the awesome intelligence and intellectual seriousness. And yet . . . Well, I’m not sure it’s only prejudice that has made critics see something deeply cold in her.
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is the prime exhibit for me. It’s a great book, I think—with eight pellucid autobiographical essays and a series of answering metacommentaries that have made the book a classic in the canon of postmodern memoir. Like I say, I don’t think anyone has noted this yet (I’ve got a long brewing essay in the works myself), but together the book’s two genres combine to stage a virtually explicit Arendtian drama. McCarthy later claimed that her core ethical conviction was: “Don’t have ‘a little private self.”’ In the meta-commentaries where she reflects on the doubtfulness of her own memories and the seductions of her own narrative, she performs for us her unwillingness to settle for cheap satisfactions. (It’s a kind of anti-Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.) We see the private self shunted aside and the public self created. Not surprisingly, Arendt ate it up with a fork and spoon. “There is a cheerfulness in the very relentlessness with which you separate factual truth from the distortions of memory,” she wrote McCarthy. “More than the absence of self-pity,” it “is real gallantry.”
(Come to think of it, it really is pretty amazing. There aren’t many writers who could recall being orphaned as a small child by the flu epidemic of 1918, and then cruelly neglected by her own family—only to follow the memory by saying: “There are several dubious points in this memoir.”)
But though less directly, McCarthy’s autobiographical essays themselves are equally shaped by Arendt’s theories. Recalling Uncle Myers, for example, the nasty piece of work who was one of her first foster parents, McCarthy describes him as a virtually paradigmatic example of that prime intellectual invention of Cold War liberalism—“totalitarian man.” (“Myers was the perfect type of rootless municipalized man who finds his pleasures in the handouts or overflow of an industrial civilization.”) And many of the other elements in the pantheon of McCarthy’s memories slot directly into the Arendtian account of totalitarianism.
How thoroughly did McCarthy combine her own natural snobbery with Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism? Well, here’s a good example. Among the “totalitarian elements” she saw in postwar American society, McCarthy listed “radio, television, Nixon, Whittaker Chambers,” going on to add: “the Catholic hierarchy, psychoanalysis, the Great Books . . . the demoralization of the middle class, foundations, writers’ conferences, municipalized bathing- beaches, the psychology of the expense account, [and] social work.” Municipal beaches! Watch out.
But the pinnacle of McCarthy’s book is the culminating portrait of her maternal grandmother—who she describes as a vain, selfish, and shallow woman, who seems nevertheless to have loved McCarthy and done no great harm in raising her. It’s an incredibly vivid and compelling depiction, a real masterwork of literary portraiture, and, I think, just terribly, brutally cruel. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch either to say that McCarthy looks at her grandmother and sees a version of Arendt’s parvenu. It’s not an incidental detail of the portrait that McCarthy’s grandmother is a Jew who has married a Protestant, or that McCarthy describes her as a wealthy and prominent woman who remained cripplingly insecure, or that she recalls her grandmother as beholden to a ignoble family loyalty.
In fact, neither the child McCarthy nor the adult narrator can sympathize with her grandmother’s grief at the loss of her daughter, McCarthy’s mother. “I felt somehow that her obdurate mourning was willful and selfish.” More strikingly, the suspicion is confirmed when McCarthy recalls witnessing the breakdown her grandmother suffered on hearing that her beloved sister had died.
It seemed clear to me that night, as I sat stroking her hair, that she had never really cared for anyone but her sister; that was her secret. The intellectual part of my mind was aware that some sort of revelation had taken place—of the nature of Jewish family feeling, possibly. And I wondered whether that fearful insensate noise had been classic Jewish mourning, going back to the waters of Babylon. Of one thing I was certain: my grandmother was more different from the rest of us than I could ever have conceived.
This has the ring of hoo-ha. But even more impressive is what seems its, yes, sheer mean frigidity. You can’t forget McCarthy’s grandmother after reading the essay. It’s a portrait written with a scalpel. But you can’t recall a redeeming characteristic either.
Amazingly, the essay, which ends shortly after the quoted passage, is the only one in Memories that is not answered with McCarthy’s own critical rejoinder—so that it stands out in the book as the one undoubted truth of the writer’s memory. Why is that? I think the grandmother pretty clearly exemplifies everything McCarthy, like Arendt, saw herself rising above. It’s an essay that shows her literary gifts and critical intelligence at their most refined and that also more subtly displays her commitment to the public gallantry Arendt admired. Me, I’m awed by the piece, but I’m not sure I think it’s completely admirable.
RayTracing: GoogleCached mirror site.
RayTracing: GoogleCached mirror site [corrected link, I hope, depending on commentbox behavior]
I disagree with McCann’s appraisal of McCarthy’s depiction of her Jewish grandmother. Maybe because there are great similarities between the grandmother and members of my own family (I’m Piedmontese Italian, not Jewish), I found that old woman quite “admirable"--at the very least, she enlisted my sympathy.
And although I fully concur with Nelson’s estimate of McCarthy as brilliant in a gem-like way, I don’t see why that should be a drawback--any more than it would be in a male writer.
I’ve just turned the house upside-down searching fruitlessly for Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. I agree wholeheartedly that the book is a very great achievement, but I don’t have any reservations about it, ethical or otherwise.
Sean you say “I think the grandmother pretty clearly exemplifies everything McCarthy, like Arendt, saw herself rising above.” Does that suppose a critical distance from the grandmother, & is that supposition perhaps contradicted by the absence of a commentary? The grandmother’s cultivation of her femininity I remember as presented not with scorn or contempt but with ambivalence and fascination and pity and empathy. The Mary McCarthy I treasure is too corruscatingly honest and intelligent and hard on herself to write about the falsity and perversity of feminine masquerade and painting and fashion and the rest without also acknowledging how deeply alluring those practices are, even to women like herself who “should know better,” thanks to modern liberated education and so on, and she can’t or won’t leave behind her grandmother perhaps because of feelings similar to Flaubert’s about Emma Bovary. Even in the little pieces you quoted, I would argue that the way she writes of her feelings about how the death of her own mother was mourned by her grandmother acknowledges something unattractive about Mary’s own feelings.
I’m sort of winging this because as I said I can’t find my book. When I do find it I’ll think more about what you’re suggesting.
hmmmm . . . maybe I’m misremembering. But it seems to me meant to be a pretty critical portrait. Here, for example, is the brilliant description of the grandmother’s distinctive appetite for new greens:
She was greedy in a delicate way, picking daintily at her food, yet finishing off a whole bowl of fresh apricots or a dozen small buttered ears of the tenderest white corn. She had a cormorant’s rapacity for the first fruits of the season, the tiniest peas, the youngest corn, baby beets cooked with their greens. This emphasis of hers on the youth of the garden’s produce made her fastidious appetite seem a little indecent--cannibalistic, as though she belonged to a species that devoured its own young.
Wow. That’s good, but it’s pretty nasty, no? And then there’s the remark that “this body of hers was the cult object around which our household revolved” and the repeated description of the grandmother before her mirror or locking herself in the bathroom during lunch to attend to her toilet. “That was why we were so peculiar, so unsocial, so, I would add, slightly inhuman; we were all devoting ourselves literally to the cult of a relic, which was my grandmother’s body . . . .”
In fact, I think one of the few places in the book where the adult narrator confirms the accuracy of the child’s memory, has to do with her impression of the pettiness of the grandmother’s grief.
I think I was on the track of something real. . . . Her grief had the character of an inveterate hostility. . . . And that is how I see my grandmother, bearing her loss like an affront, stubborn and angry, refusing to speak not only to individual persons but to life itself, which had wounded her by taking her daughter away. Her grief was a kind of pique, one of those nurtured grievances in which she specialized and which were deeply related to her coquetry. . . . what confirms it for me is her manner of grieving, her mistrust of words, her refusal to listen to explanations from life or any other guilty suitor."
A pretty dismissive portrait of grief, I think, and not exactly charitable. You can’t call someone’s mourning for a lost child “pique” and maintain much empathy for them. I agree that McCarthy’s corruscatingly honest, but my impression is that the portrait of the grandmother is a significant loophole in the ethos--the place where you can see that McCarthy’s commitment to honesty has its own self-regarding component and, yes, cruel streak. Quite possibly, I’m overdoing it. But on a quick skim through now, I’m not catching the kind of self-reflection that characterizes her other writing. I think the reason for that is that McCarthy really is devoted to a kind of Arendtian view that makes her grandmother represent everything she must defeat in herself. If you read the description of the parvenu in Origins of Totalitarianism, I think it’s impressive how similar McCarthy’s grandmother is made to fit the bill.
btw, I meant to say nnyhav that link is really cool. Probably typically, I don’t think I get the joke. (Am I Ray’s double?) But I liked that image.
speaking of heartless: you absolutely must check out the Heartless Bastards if you haven’t already.
they are playing at mercury lounge in november.