The Formidable Friendship of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt

In the new film “Hannah Arendt,” the political theorist’s friendship with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy gets its first cinematic treatment. The results are not good. McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly—and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them. McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair”—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up.

To give just a sample of the subjects McCarthy and Arendt talked and wrote to each other about: George Eliot, Cartesianism, Eldridge Cleaver, Kant, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sartre. Both women were members of the Partisan Review crowd, who spent much of their time talking about Stalin and Trotsky. It was at a party at an editor’s house that the friendship hit a snag. McCarthy said she felt almost sorry for Hitler; that he seemed to want the citizens of occupied France to like him struck her as ridiculous. It took four years for Arendt, who’d only narrowly evaded Nazi clutches, to forgive the remark. To her, pity for Hitler was not just absurd but offensive. A truce was struck on the Astor Place subway platform, where Arendt approached McCarthy after a meeting and said, “Let’s end this nonsense. We think so much alike.”

“We think so much alike.” In this magazine, in 1995, Claudia Roth Pierpont called the statement a “richly productive lie.” These days, McCarthy is not recalled as a thinker at all. She’s been portrayed as the woman who insulted Lillian Hellman, on “The Dick Cavett Show”; for people who watch “Mad Men,” she’s the author of the novel (“The Group”) that Betty Draper was reading in the bath. (Larissa MacFarquhar once referred to McCarthy’s novels as “strange failures.”) A recent article in the Times claimed that she was all style. She’s remembered (when she’s remembered at all) as a woman whose talent for insult ultimately did not amount to much, literarily speaking. McCarthy made herself a target of sexist condescension, the thinking goes, by writing primarily of inconsequential things, by being “minor” in her choice of subject. Even those who defend her style as elegant and forceful concede that what she actually said and wrote was, at best, of secondary importance.

Many of McCarthy’s contemporaries suggested, or said flat out, that they didn’t know what Arendt saw in her. But Arendt didn’t find her friend’s intellect so obviously minor. She sent McCarthy manuscripts to consider and edit; their letters are laced not only with gossip and household reports but with arguments about what constitutes fiction, about the reach of Fascism, about individual morality and common sense. In other words, Arendt thought there was more to McCarthy than pure cocktail-party style. And Arendt, as they say, was no dummy.

The friendship had an element of social strategy to it. It seems no accident, for example, that the subway-platform reconciliation was cemented when Arendt read McCarthy’s novel “The Oasis.” (The novel has long been out of print, but Melville House will reissue it on June 11th.) The book, typical of McCarthy, is a lightly veiled parody of the circles she and Arendt frequented. In it, a group of urban intellectuals starts a utopian colony in New England, which is promptly torn apart by the kind of esoteric infighting that seems to happen when people are united by little but ideology. (In “The Oasis,” the opposing camps are called Purists and Realists.) Frances Kiernan, one of McCarthy’s biographers, has noted that the novel is a bit like “Animal Farm.”

As usual, though, not everyone found McCarthy’s ridicule funny. Some of her friends were good sports about the fun she had at their expense—Dwight Macdonald, in particular, was unruffled. But Philip Rahv, who had been McCarthy’s lover before she married Edmund Wilson, threatened to sue to stop publication (he later backed off). Diana Trilling, the wife of Lionel and another of the small number of women admitted to the circle, went around calling McCarthy a “thug.”

But Arendt liked the book. She said that it was “pure delight…a veritable little masterpiece.” Arendt was not a literary critic, and her opinion might not be convincing to those who find the novel deficient as a work of art. But it can’t be an accident that she was amused by the satire, that she saw herself as standing enough apart from this crowd to make fun of them. And, indeed, Arendt had had her clashes with men, too. As David Laskin’s “Partisans,” a history of New York intellectuals, observed, though she was welcomed as refreshingly “European,” many men thought Arendt was imperious; she was not much concerned with coddling her co-interlocutors. Even to ostensible friends, like Alfred Kazin, she conducted herself in conversation “as if she were standing up alone in a foreign land and in a foreign tongue against powerful forces of error.”

Some referred to her as “Hannah Arrogance.” Others tried to make her out as the silly female they thought McCarthy to be, including Delmore Schwartz, who called Arendt “that Weimar Republic flapper.” Saul Bellow, in particular, was caustic; he told Kiernan that Arendt “looked like George Arliss playing Disraeli.” (Actually, Arendt was considered a great beauty in her youth.) His hostility hardly went unnoticed—“I have the impression he avoids me, and let it go at that,” Arendt remarked after trying to see Bellow in Chicago.

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