Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975.
"Don't seek precedents, they are always wrong," Arendt wisely observes. I was nevertheless touched by the epistolary spectacle of these amazing power bags throwing their weight around with whomever while never obsessing about their role "as women" as either help or hindrance to their lucidity and self-expression. It was simply a given for them that their perceptions and feelings were valid, so they got on with the business of living my literary-lady fantasy of staying in fancy hotels, dishing one's fellow intelligentsia, sending and receiving flowers, having summer homes and custom-made dresses, and discussing fancy ideas with adults over highballs. At first I was a bit bored by their "discretion," but on the rare occasion when they permit themselves a bit of gossip, we are treated to delicious tidbits: they can't resist commentary on the insanity and wife-dropping of Robert Lowell, Germaine Greer appears as "an absurd Australian giantess," Diana Trilling, a preferred figure of fun, becomes "quite fat," nor is "Lizzie" Hardwick a favorite. To be honest, the writing improves when the gals deign to "stoop" just a little.
In our age of fax and phone, we are less likely to exert ourselves in the literary labor of letter writing, so taxing because, deep down, we know letters are acts of self-portraiture, evidence, for good or bad or lazy, of whatever self it is we would like to project. These ladies come off as noble, healthfully selfish, supportive (increasingly so as they got older), altogether excellent examples for young ladies and people in general. They expected a lot from everyone on every level, which strikes one today as heartbreakingly quaint. What a fabulous thing to read pages of two old gals arguing about Kant, Vietnam, and Watergate and Nixon, all of which they were covering for various periodicals. Both spend their golden years jetting around the world collecting honorary degrees; Hannah seemed to get more. Perhaps most important, they were thorough and enthusiastic readers of everything the other one wrote, providing each other with the supportive gaze and feedback essential to anyone engaged in chronic literary exertions. Arendt commiserates with McCarthy on the torture of correcting overzealous editors: "The outrage is that they make us work to undo what they did. . . . If we were compensated by the hour by the publisher for unnecessary work they would begin to be a bit more careful."
The younger by only six years, McCarthy defers to Arendt as the philosophical arbiter and seems to need her validation. McCarthy appears the more dependent one, exercising her novelistic imagination off-duty almost to the point of paranoia: once she accuses Arendt of being mad at her because Hannah didn't turn back to get a last look at her at an airport. While most friendships, no matter how noble, produce some libidinal exhaust (resentment, rivalry, etc.), this phenomenon is strangely absent here: in the editor's notes we learn that "Bill" Jovanovich, their publisher, has taken moments out from his "empire-building" to clear up misunderstandings between our friends, but we never learn what they are! One can indulge in some (Mary) McCarthy-ish speculation on the situation between Arendt, impassive goddess of reason, admittedly low on "intuition," and McCarthy, on total psychological overdrive, her "passionate" mode of embracing causes sometimes casting her as the classic limousine liberal.
Arendt (I can't believe she dated Heidegger!) is indeed a passionate intellectual presence (for a Kantian - laugh track please), striking me as a period piece in the way she combined intellectual rigor with political engagement. Her refusal to moralize in Eichmann in Jerusalem conveyed stylistically as well as philosophically "the banality of evil," withholding the textual Valium of righteous indignation from the Jewess point of view. She was deeply concerned about Israel, and ambivalent: "The Jews," she observed, "actually are as afraid of complete assimilation as they are of extermination." Remarks like this did not make her the most popular girl at the Purim party. Denounced by B'nai B'rith simply because she reported that the Jewish Councils "complied" with Nazi orders to register their members, thus tragically facilitating the extermination, she reports to her friend, "The Anti-Defamation League has sent out a circular letter to all rabbis to preach against me on New Year's Day. . . . What a risky business to tell the truth on a factual level without theoretical and scholarly embroidery." As the chronicler of hideous events, she was "guilty" only of trusting her audience to draw their own conclusions. In the context of mass culture, today's and every day's, Arendt's sharp, lucid mind strikes one as poignantly idealistic. It is interesting to read these gals in the context of today's politics of stupefaction, in which cynicism about corrupt "experts" and "insiders" has resulted, not in more vigilant reading by a shafted public, but in the glorification of ignorance: we don't trust people who know how to do stuff, so candidates endear themselves to the consumer, claiming, "I'm the dumbest, least-experienced guy for the job - so vote for me." Adult Beavis and Butt-Heads are running for office. Huh huh.
McCarthy, the more emotional one, proposes an ingenious account of stupidity as "pure malice," writing to her Dearest Hannah in 1971,
I rather agree with Kant . . . that stupidity is caused, not by brain failure, but by a wicked heart. Insensitiveness, opacity, inability to make connections, often accompanied by low "animal" cunning. One cannot help feeling that this mental oblivion is chosen, by the heart or the moral will - an active preference, and that explains why one is so irritated by stupidity, which is not the case when one is dealing with a truly backward individual. A village idiot may be far less stupid than Eichmann. Hence the old equation between "simplicity" and goodness of soul or heart. An idiot of course can be reflective, he thinks, in your sense, probably quite a lot, maybe more than most people, since his other mental powers are deficient.
As the years go on, Arendt and McCarthy blossom into world-acclaimed power bags, collecting honors the way most bags collect, well, bags. I was totally sucked into this account of friends approaching old age with the inner resources of mind and spirit, reminding us in our youth-crazed culture (with its implicit contempt for experience) of the rewards of a life of thinking about stuff. Oh yeah, they had husbands, too: Mary was happily domiciled in Paris with diplomat Jim West, who brought three children and a vindictive exwife to the marriage; Hannah married the devoted Heinrich Blucher, who taught philosophy. She was the first to be widowed, and died five years later, of a heart attack, between chapters on "Willing" and "Judging" in a study of Kant.
At her memorial, McCarthy gave her brilliant friend a kind of postmortem glamour makeover "as what Bernhardt must have been, or Proust's Berma, a magnificent stage diva, which implies a goddess . . . a thespian, enacting a drama of mind." This sounds more like McCarthy's own drama of mind; she may have been projecting her own rather histrionic persona onto Hannah, who seemed to command all of the flamboyance of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Still, McCarthy loyally spent the next three years prolonging their correspondence across the grave, laboriously editing and annotating her friend's final lectures into a book called The Life of the Mind.
Rhonda Lieberman contributes regularly to Artforum.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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