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Mary, still contrary.

Mary, Still Contrary

Brightman: When you left the United States in 1960 was it because you felt you could no longer function as a writer in America?

McCarthy: I don't know if it was hard to function as a writer, but as a person, yes. I think there was a certain flight. I don't know if it was from America or from New York intellectual life. Before Jim [West] and I were married we were living in Warsaw, never sure we would ever get our divorces. I would have these dreams where we're sitting there in Warsaw, and we know a few Poles but we hardly see anybody, and I'm reading Hegel. I'm just sitting there reading Hegel. I really did develop a kind of horror of the sort of tinniness of New York intellectual and literary life.

Brightman: Did something happen around the end of the 1950s that made it difficult to be a part of that life?

McCarthy: What happened, of course, was the whole McCarthy period and the reaction to the McCarthy period, and both were terrible. The McCarthy period itself was worse, but the counterhysteria was also sometimes very false and self-loving. I was involved with Dwight Macdonald's Politics. That had died. A great many things had died. Then I tried with some other people to start a magazine [Critic] that never got off the ground. Critic was a reaction against the McCarthy atmosphere and The Nation, The New Republic and The Reporter. They were just so dead, so weak and timid. A combination of hysteria and cowardice. I did some work for The Reporter, and I know how cowardly Max Ascoli was.

Brightman: In her book about you, The Company She Kept, Doris Grumbach described Critic as politically "middle of the road.' What does that mean?

McCarthy: I don't know what that means. It certainly was to the left of The Nation and The New Republic, but we weren't all of the same views by any means. It had Nicola Chiaromonte, who was to me the most important figure, and Dwight Macdonald and Hannah Arendt and Arthur Schlesinger and Dick Rovere. They were certainly much more classically liberal, but they were also independent.

The problem for the new magazine, of course, was to get money. We figured we could do it for $28,000 a year. We had something quite inexpensive in mind. But as soon as I started trying to raise this money and seeing all these people, we immediately got involved in something much more expensive, because nobody would give me $1,000 unless I wanted to spend $50,000, and so our budget went up.

It was not going to be only political; there was going to be quite a strong cultural side--looking into phenomena that hadn't been looked into, like Levit-towns, for example. And The New Yorker wasn't doing that kind of journalism then. Now it's more or less all been done.

Anyway, I finally succeeded in getting promises for about $60,000, and by that time I was completely broke. I had spent the whole winter working on this, so I hadn't earned any money. And I quit. It was all this business of pledges. The strange thing was that the only people who were truly helpful were Republicans --whereas the Democrats, they were awful. I remember when I first met with Marietta Tree, her opening remark was, "My dear, I'm flat as a pancake!'

Brightman: Meaning what, that she was--

McCarthy: Broke, yes. I was eating all this rich food and drinking cognac with these people and they were telling me they didn't have any money.

Brightman: Did you see working on this magazine as a way of making a connection between your writing life and your social concerns?

McCarthy: I've always had quite an attraction to communal enterprises and things guided by friendship, or I used to have anyway. And I thought we were going to have an awful lot of fun doing it. Then the usual thing developed; people became very hateful. I got word from Alfred Kazin that my quitting had been a betrayal. He hadn't done one thing; he hadn't given use the price of a postage stamp. So I went back to writing. I was working on A Charmed Life and doing magazine pieces like "My Confession,' which was a reaction to [Whittaker] Chambers. When we didn't get anywhere with the magazine--and all that disappointment with the Democrats --I suppose that was very off-putting.

It was shortly after that that I got into doing the European books, the art books. That began in 1955. The Venice book [Venice Observed] happened by chance; then I did the Florence book [The Stones of Florence] on my own initiative. I had an absolutely marvelous time. I was very happy through all that. That was when I discovered what sculpture was all about. I discovered the ideas of art.

Brightman: What was it that you discovered?

McCarthy: That sculpture is civic: these are the pillars that uphold the civic life. Painting has a thin and flimsy quality by comparison. It has this element of witchcraft. Hannah Arendt was very helpful in these discussions. We used to go down to Princeton and listen to the Gauss lectures--she had given one set--and come back on the train, and we would have a lot of conversations on the difference between painting and sculpture. Until then, I had much preferred painting to sculpture.

Brightman: Do you still feel that way about sculpture?

McCarthy: The trouble with modern sculpture is that when it's bad it's so ugly; it's so big and ugly, much more so than painting, whose very flimsiness makes it somewhat harmless. There are a lot of those columnar and pillarlike forms in Brancusi's work at the Guggenheim, and suddenly you see all this and its relation to the idea of a republic. I think I am really a republican--I mean with a small "r.' I've never liked those late Medici. I liked old Cosimo, the most democratic of the Medici or at least the simplest in his manners.

Brightman: Wouldn't you describe yourself as a democrat with a small "d' for the same reason?

McCarthy: I've tried all my life to be a democrat, but I think I'm really a republican in this sense: I believe in the institutions of a republic, the protection of laws, starting with the protection of the rights of the individual. I have a great suspicion of the demos. Society needs the protection of institutions. Of course, things can reach a point where an outbreak of democracy is terribly exciting and liberating and oxygenating. But it doesn't seem to work out very well at the stage we're living in now.

Brightman: What stage would you say we are living in now? The institutions of this country seem very weak.

McCarthy: We're not living in a republican society at all.

Brightman: Certainly. But it's not a demos either.

McCarthy: It's more a demos of the belly. Even that isn't democratic, or rather it's not egalitarian, in that everybody is fed up to here, but the quality of what he's fed differs greatly. It's terrifying. There is satisfaction delivered in the form of cars, television and the usual packaged foods, convenience foods.

Brightman: That's just a holding action, don't you think?

McCarthy: No, I think it's forever. I've been going to supermarkets all my life and I've always wanted to write an article entitled "Let Them Eat Cake.' Marie Antoinette had the right idea, from the point of view of those in power, about what to do with the plebs. Anyway, your heart leaps up when you see somebody taking out a bag of oranges.

Vietnam, Deja Vu

Brightman: I read your essays in The Seventeenth Degree when they were first published in The New York Review of Books; I read them again recently and it seems to me they stand up as the only writing about Vietnam that actually shows Americans who the North Vietnamese leaders were as individuals. "To this fastidious man,' you wrote of Pham Van Dong, "bombs were a lowgrade intrusion into the political scene, which he conceived, like the ancients, as a vast proscenium.' I think you captured his conservatism and audacity perfectly.

McCarthy: I suspect that Pham Van Dong's ascendancy at the time that you and I were there* had a lot to do with the fact that he was really the carrier of Ho Chi Minh's values and that with the death of Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong became something of a figurehead. I haven't seen any of the Vietnames that I used to know for years. They used to look me up in Paris, but I don't think they come there anymore. The last time I saw Nguyen Minh Vy was at the time of the carpet bombing when I went out to see what one could do, and he was rather ironical. I wanted to go to Hanoi and get bombed--

* Brightman was in Hanoi in 1967, McCarthy in 1968.

Brightman: What year was that? 1972?

McCarthy: Yes. I wanted to go to North Vietnam, and I was trying to get the Pope to go. I thought it would be great if the Pope got hit by an American bomb, and I don't mean it against the Pope, really. I was also trying to get the bishop of Harlem to go. I was trying to get various Americans to go but not one would touch it. It was like that magazine, exactly, a real deja vu.

Brightman: People were retreating to their burrows then, weren't they?

McCarthy: And they had the most terrible excuses. Granted, it was a rather chimerical project, but you couldn't get one taker. Anyway I did go to see Vy and he said, "You don't want to go to Hanoi, you want to go to the White House.' At any rate, in a few days it was over. And so, where are we?

Brightman: By your own account, Vietnam certainly succeeded in setting a great many American intellectuals into a kind of action we haven't seen since. It seems a long time ago. Getting back to your supermarket, I wonder if we've reached a stage where consumerism has become a substitute for either civic life or political life?

McCarthy: For a while the uprisings in Poland seemed to break that mold. Something could happen there. Poland was always my other touchstone. That's where Jim and I met, and before we got married I kept going back to Warsaw; we would have lived there, except things worked out differently. It wasn't the best period then, but a good deal of the spirit of the 1956 revolution was still there. The people had a marvelous sense of freedom which was electrifying, and they were fearless--unlike the Russians, I must say. The Poles believe that they're very prudent and cautious but they are not.

Brightman: That seems to change when they come to America, doesn't it?

McCarthy: The ethnics. The ethnics certainly do not seem to be a courageous people. It may be only the intellectual class who are--except that those young workers [in Solidarity] whose pictures appeared in the paper, I've never seen such handsome young men. Maybe it has something to do with not having all those consumer goods. You know, we haven't had a worker in this country that looked like that in fifty years. Railway men used to be very good-looking in this country, very handsome. And an occasional telephone lineman.

Fiction and Action

Brightman: Twenty years ago I did a masters thesis at the University of Chicago about three woman writers who greatly interested me. One of them was you, and it was Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and early stories like "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt' that set you apart as a master of observation whose writing nonetheless honors the unruly truths of the heart. Today it seems to me that your essays about Vietnam possess both qualities in equal abundance, while a recent novel like Cannibals and Missionaries seems more remote from immediate experience.

McCarthy: Actually what I put in that novel was a real experience of trying to get a delegation to go to Iran.

Brightman: You mean that trip really happened?

McCarthy: Yes. But in actual fact it was to investigate torture. There was this character who came to see me in Paris and stayed on my sofa for about six weeks with his folders, and I was writing all these people like Ramsey Clark and Bishop Paul Moore. All that was true, including the fact that the committee that he talked to me about turned out not to exist--like the disappearing rabbi in the novel. One's life does tend to repeat, yes.

Brightman: Still there is something missing for me in the novel. I was caught up with your writing at times, with the feel you had for the female academic for example, the older one, Aileen, and with the way you just let people be by showing how they moved or how they talked. But then when they all got blown away I didn't feel any concern.

McCarthy: Well, you're not meant to.

Brightman: You're not meant to?

McCarthy: Not really.

Brightman: Are the characters meant to be less real than characters in other novels you've written in recent decades?

McCarthy: I would say that Peter Levi is more real in Birds of America. That's the one that's closest to the Hanoi experience, both in time and everything else. I interrupted Birds of America twice, first to go to Saigon and then to go to Hanoi. I said to myself, How can I be writing about a 19-year-old boy, draft-bait, and this war is going on and I'm not doing anything! So I felt I couldn't go on; it would be too false to be close to the hero, or think I was, and just be writing a novel.

Brightman: When you were in Hanoi you told Pham Van Dong that you were not sure you could write a book, yet with all your furious note-taking it seems to have written itself. You could not hold yourself back.

McCarthy: That was the thing. I got back to Paris and wrote "Hanoi' right off, which is what I did after Saigon too; only it was during the events of 1968 in France, and I had the most terrible time getting the copy out to The New York Review. Nothing was functioning in Paris, and I was just shut up in my apartment, without electricity sometimes. But I was working very fast against time to get that out--except the final chapter, which was written more slowly.

Brightman: How do you feel about that writing today?

McCarthy: I haven't reread it since it appeared in The Seventeenth Degree.

Brightman: Here's an observation you made in the book, and I'm curious to hear if you have anything to add: "Since the "brand' of radicalism we preferred had no appeal for the masses (only the C.I.A., as it turned out, was interested), we had no clear alternative but to be "believing' socialists and practicing members of capitalist society.'

McCarthy: That's still true. Perhaps I'm a little bit less believing, and more practicing.

Brightman: I'm curious as to whether you have given any thought to what that contradiction means.

McCarthy: I thought that somehow this experience in Vietnam was going to change my life. I didn't go there with that purpose, but while I was there I thought it would. And it did not.

Brightman: It didn't?

McCarthy: No. It sharpened some perceptions for a while and then they wore off. It flared up again with the Christmas carpet bombing in 1972, then it vanished and I went back to writing a book about the Gothic and I went on an English cathedral tour, taking notes.

Brightman: Have there been other events that brought you to that pitch and that did in fact change your life?

McCarthy: Yes, but those are intellectual things that haven't changed my life in terms of where I live or how much money I have. One was my friendship with Nicola Chiaromonte which I think was probably the crucial event in my life. It was not a love affair in any respect. I met Nicola Chiaromonte around 1943 through Dwight Macdonald on the Cape.

Brightman: I don't know Chiaromonte by the way.

McCarthy: He was an Italian anarchist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was in Malraux's air squadron, and in L'Espoir he's the flyer or mechanic who's always reading Plato and who's very awkward. Both parts are very true to Nicola's character. Then he came to America as an antifascist refugee during the fall of France, and eventually began writing for Partisan Review, The New Republic and Dwight's Politics. In the Spanish Civil War he became completely disillusioned with the idea of war as a means of solving anything political and became an anarchist/pacifist and worked with left-wing anarchist groups in France.

Brightman: Was it a core of ideas or a perspective on history that he passed on to you?

McCarthy: It was a kind of seriousness, a kind of thoughtfulness. The summer after I left Edmund Wilson, Reuel [her son] and I lived in Truro, and the Chiaromontes lived not far from us; we used to pass their cottage on the way to the beach and we had many beach picnics and talks at night by the fire. I was going off to teach at Bard, to begin to make my living. I was going to teach the Russian novel. And I was translating Simone Weil that summer. It was all part of the same ambiance. We talked about Tolstoy and about Dostoyevsky, and the change from someone like Edmund and his world was absolutely stunning.

Nicola did not like Dostoyevsky and he had an absolute passion for Tolstoy. Anyway we would talk and it had never occurred to me before to think of those two writers as anything but two writers-- as Edmund would have looked at them. One might have said that of course T. was a much better stylist and D. wrote bad Russian and so on. But that was a completely empty literary point of view by comparison. And in some way a self-satisfied point of view: it really didn't involve thinking about what these writers were saying! Talking with Nicola Chiaromonte was an absolute awakening, and I never got over it.

Brightman: Was that really different from the way Edmund Wilson looked at things in To the Finland Station?

McCarthy: Well, yes. I don't want to put him down too much but he had no moral core, Wilson--or any of those people around Partisan Review. It never occurred to them that there should be a connection between what they read and wrote and their own lives, how they were living and what they believed in.

Hannah Arendt, she is the other person in my life who, I would say, made a change, but not so dramatic.

Brightman: She lectured at the University of Chicago when I was a graduate student, and I used to sit in on the Eichmann lectures. It was very exciting then, that kind of passionate intellectual involvement with the world. Later I felt she got herself stuck behind a kind of elitism that allowed for very limited behavior on the part of different classes and groups.

McCarthy: I really do not think there was any elitism in her. I think that what you mistake for classes in society in her work are categories. She was corseted in her own categories. She seemed to need them to be able to think.

Brightman: It's in On Revolution that that rigidity comes out.

McCarthy: I think that's her weakest book.

Brightman: It's not really about modern revolution. It's more a classical treatise on the idea of revolution.

McCarthy: Yes, of course. There are wonderful things in it, but she thinks that revolution should only make political change, not social change. What is a revolution if it doesn't make any social change? I don't think she ever faced the contemporary fact that you can no longer separate these categories.

Woman's Estate

Brightman: Have you interested yourself in any feminist issues that have come up in the past twenty years?

McCarthy: It just does not say Hello to me at all.

Brightman: Really? Because it comes wrapped up in too much righteous rhetoric?

McCarthy: That too, but there are a lot of things that come wrapped in rhetoric besides feminism. I certainly don't like the tone and the shrillness and the self-pity. I loathe the emotion of self-pity.

Brightman: It's very dangerous in personal life.

McCarthy: But I'm sort of Uncle Tom from this point of view; I'm quite aware of that.

Brightman: You mean you've made your way in the world of men?

McCarthy: Yes, yes. Or I'm an "exception Jew.'

Brightman: You never realized you were inferior? (laughing)

McCarthy: No, I've always liked being a woman. I had a lot of trouble, especially with Edmund Wilson.

Brightman: Did you have competition problems?

McCarthy: No. He was excellent on that score. It was that he was a terrible bully and a tyrant and paranoid--a rather pitiable man in a way, like a minotaur. But in terms of work he was marvelous. He made me write. I would never have written fiction, I think, if it hadn't been for him.

Brightman: You never had trouble working after you had a child? You never got caught up in that ancient history that overtakes you when you're a mother?

McCarthy: I did sometimes, but Edmund always insisted that I have a nurse, and sometimes we had a cook.

Brightman: But you were never limited by the expectations or training or socialization of being a woman?

McCarthy: No. I think it may be because I'm an orphan.

Brightman: Because you had to make your own way as an orphan first rather than--

McCarthy: As a girl.

Brightman: There were also some men in your life early on who supported you.

McCarthy: My grandfather was absolutely marvelous.

Brightman: And even argued with you.

McCarthy: Yes, and wanted me to do what I wanted to do. He liked that and respected it. I've had very good luck in men, and most of the men I've known have been like that.

Brightman: How is it then that in so many of your stories the relations between men and woman are so embattled?

McCarthy: Really?

Brightman: It comes out most strongly in the early short stories in The Company She Keeps, and in The Group. There's such a frustration with the limited rituals of behavior that exist between wives and husbands in particular.

McCarthy: Well, that's just bourgeois marriage!

Brightman: But that's basic to feminist literature, and you've described that piece of life with as much clarity and horror as anybody else, yet in your public life as an essayist or speaker, you have made no pronouncements.

McCarthy: I think feminism is bad for women. I mean, it induces a very bad emotional state.

Brightman: Which is self-pity?

McCarthy: The self-pity, the shrillness and the greed. There's an awful greed and covetousness there too. And what else? I've never met an intellectual woman who was a feminist--except my friend Barbara Deming. And she's a lesbian so it's a little bit different. And she's such a dear feminist, she's not really as militant as she ought to be from her own point of view.

Brightman: What was the trouble you had with Edmund Wilson?

McCarthy: He was very hard to oppose because he was so stubborn and so mean and violent when drinking. When I inherited a little bit of money from the McCarthy family--and I was earning a little bit of money from my writing--he made me put it into his bank account. And, of course, I couldn't have signature power on his bank account. I had to ask him for a nickel to make a telephone call.

Brightman: That's pretty incredible.

McCarthy: The signature power idea gave him the horrors, but it sort of did me too, because if it was a joint account and I was putting my own money in and he had signature power, that didn't look too good to me either. Anyway, I fought. I finally thought it was absolutely mad. Maybe I was going to a psychoanalyst at that point who said that perhaps I could have my own bank account, though usually they tell you to avoid change in your life arrangements. I took a stand and Edmund gave in and I had my own bank account and that was the end of it.

Brightman: Well, a good part of feminism is rooted in that kind of frustration in personal relationships.

McCarthy: I don't believe in equality in personal relationships, whether it's between two men, whatever. It's absolutely meaningless and silly.

Brightman: What about the public issues that have been fought over during the last twenty years, the right to a legal abortion, for example?

McCarthy: I'm for that. But that has nothing to do with feminism.

Brightman: Can you explain why it doesn't?

McCarthy: To me, it's just a question of freedom. If men could have abortions I'd be for that.

Brightman: Who wouldn't?

McCarthy: No, of course I'm for free abortions. I had quite a lot of abortions and I think they are rather damaging psychically, but that doesn't mean that I think people should not be free to have them.

Brightman: Yet you're detached. It surprises me somehow that you are not stirred by the struggles of women to change the laws and institutions that hem them in at a time when both domestic and economic responsibilities are theirs.

McCarthy: I've always liked being a woman. And it seems to me that one of the problems of a lot of feminists is that they don't like being women.

Brightman: What has being a woman meant for you?

McCarthy: I like the so-called domestic arts, cooking and gardening. I like clothes very, very much. I'm not interested in makeup or beauty aids but I am interested in beauty, let's say. I'm so happy that I don't have to dress like a man. What makes women want to get into pants all the time I don't understand! I also like the social gifts that women develop, almost as a species I would say, which are the gifts of observation and analysis. I think that does come from their historic position of having to get their way without direct--

Brightman: Confrontation. We have to know what we're up against.

McCarthy: Yes. And I like both the male voice and the female voice.

Brightman: There's not much of a feeling in what you've written for children, or for the experience of being a mother.

McCarthy: No, I enjoyed that. It's so far away now. I've never been mad about children. But certain specific ones I have liked.

Brightman: Did you see the French documentary that was made a few years ago about Simone de Beauvoir?

McCarthy: Yes, I saw part of it in Paris.

Brightman: She's asked why she never had children, and she says that given the conditions that mothers face in this society--limited child care, little help from fathers--it's impossible to be a writer and have an independent existence and follow one's curiosity and have a child, period. I was moved by that because theoretically she was correct --I know that from hard experience --but nevertheless one does those things.

McCarthy: Of course!

Brightman: You take on life even when it's--"wrong.' I agreed with her and yet I was repelled. For a woman who thinks of herself as a leader of a women's movement, hers struck me as a strange kind of statement. I suppose she was just making a pronouncement out of her own experience.

McCarthy: I would think that the reason Simone de Beauvoir didn't have children is that she was really a shriveled up old maid.

Brightman: Really?

McCarthy: Yes.

Brightman: What is it about her that you don't like?

McCarthy: Everything. How dare she talk about injustice to women when she has put herself on the map solely by attaching herself to Sartre, solely. Sartre et moi. He made her. She's not utterly stupid; she would be a good "B' student somewhere in the intellectual world, maybe not even a "B' student. It's bad enough that she has cribbed from him, but when you add to it this language about the oppression of women, and how as a woman she's deprived--

Brightman: I've not heard that language.

McCarthy: She doesn't say Sartre deprived her of anything; I don't mean that. She speaks of herself as deprived because of her sex, discriminated against and so on. In fact, she made it through her sex by attaching herself to this man, and many others of us have made it through our sex; but it's most ungrateful in her case. (laughing)

Brightman: You mean to bite the hand that feeds her?

McCarthy: I've only met her once but I gather she is an absolutely horrible person; she's extremely jealous. Nathalie Sarraute claims that she would not permit Sartre to see her. They were friends, and he wrote an introduction to one of Sarraute's books. According to her, Simone de Beauvoir permitted him to have those little girls because it didn't threaten her position, but Nathalie was her own age and a highly intelligent woman with an original mind. Anyway, according to Nathalie, she broke them up; and it happened not only with her but with other intellectual women. Sartre by all accounts was a very sweet and kind man, and in some way he pitied this woman.

Brightman: De Beauvoir?

McCarthy: Yes, for her limitations and perhaps for her greediness and ambition --that I don't know.

Brightman: It's hard to imagine that they could have maintained the relationship they did over all those years--

McCarthy: Don't you think some relations are maintained through pity?

Brightman: Yes, perhaps in marital relations where there's a real dependency that gets under way, but Sartre and de Beauvoir maintained a different kind of arrangement with much more tension in it. What did they call it? "An essential love with contingent love affairs.'

McCarthy: I think the only way that he could stay with her was to have pity for her.

Brightman: Is that widely believed in France?

McCarthy: No, that is my opinion. She has a great cult in Paris. But she's not well liked, let's say, outside her cult of feminists, and not by all feminists either. I can't stand the way she writes; it's so dull. And I think there's also some element of a blackmailing soul in her. The way she puts out damaging things-- about Camus, for example, or about Merleau-Ponty.

Brightman: You don't object to her being a fighter--

McCarthy: No, she's dirty fighter.

An American Life

Brightman: I'm interested in knowing what the cutting edge will be in the intellectual autobiography you have begun to write.

McCarthy: I don't know; I hope that in some way this interview may be helpful. It has to be honest. It cannot start from a pinnacle of complacency. The very idea of writing your intellectual autobiography implies that it is a success. You know, Look how I evolved, and now here is where that idea of mine--now in full panoply--was born. There's a danger there.

Brightman: Is there a parable or a moral that you start with?

McCarthy: No, I'm going to try to find that. I want to bring out something American also. I don't even know how American I am--I suspect I'm very American.

Brightman: Do you think an intellectual history will help you do that?

McCarthy: More than?

Brightman: A social history.

McCarthy: No. It will be about people. The first sentence is about the time I first became conscious of the fact that there was such a thing as an intellectual.

Brightman: When was that?

McCarthy: I was about 14. I knew that there were people who wrote books, there were artists; but the idea that there was such a thing as an intellectual had not crossed my horizon until I was about 14. It was a young man. He was quite a bit older than I was, but by chance I knew him and had a kind of girlish crush. He was actually very darling; he was a campus intellectual and edited the magazine.

Brightman: You began to see that as a possible avenue for something to be?

McCarthy: I just became conscious that there were these people and that they were different from other people.

Brightman: It sounds like the style will be very much like Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

McCarthy: Yes, yes.

Brightman: And you will be studying where ideas started--for you--but starting with the social experience. That sounds exciting.

McCarthy: And it will contain a lot of portraits, some of people that nobody has ever heard of and some that are well known.

Brightman: And what interests you is to see if in doing these portraits, bringing these people alive--some of them are probably dead, right?

McCarthy: Most of them are dead.

Brightman: That you will find out more about what they had to say.

McCarthy: Yes, and about how ideas develop in this country. I think there is in my mind an American tincture to this.

Brightman: Something along the lines of The Education of Henry Adams?

McCarthy: There's quite a bit of complacency there.

Brightman: I don't mean the content of it but the idea of looking at one's education as a way of understanding one's place in the world.

McCarthy: Yes, yes. And you know, I think that getting to know Hannah Arendt and Nicola Chiaromonte, and becoming very close to them--probably that was Europe! You know, I've never thought of that until this minute. Hannah and Nicola had one striking thing in common: they were both Europeans. They both were Platonists too, incidentally, or Socratics, rather. And when I was talking before about the radical difference I felt with Nicola from what I was used to with Edmund and his circle, what I was listening to on the beach was Europe.

Brightman: You don't think you're coming full circle to becoming a royalist again, do you?*

* In an early essay, McCarthy once described herself half-seriously as a royalist.

McCarthy: No, no! I realize that I'm extremely conservative.

Brightman: God and the king are dead.

McCarthy: I think I've always been extremely conservative. I feel I'm the only one! I mean, the idea that someone like William Buckley is a conservative is just totally laughable. Nobody who believes in the capitalist system can possibly be a conservative, because it's a contradiction in terms.

Brightman: Why is that?

McCarthy: Because of the growth ethic that is built into the system. Everything has to be in continual growth and presumed evolution. A true conservative wants to preserve something resembling a golden age. Not only would he be against nuclear power--that goes without saying--he would also have to be against crossbreeding.

Brightman: Crossbreeding of what?

McCarthy: Plants.

Brightman: Do you think there is a "golden age' in your memory?

McCarthy: Not in my memory. But I think we were in much better rapport with nature, certainly, in the past. Some things have obviously been gained. Maybe the vacuum cleaner is an improvement. But I think air travel is absolutely ruinous. Aside from getting us into wars, it distorts our relationship with nature. And I think our perception of the world and our values stem absolutely from the possibility of some reasonably true perception of nature-- which is gradually disappearing, and will soon become impossible.
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Title Annotation:interview with Mary McCarthy
Author:Brightman, Carol
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 19, 1984
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