Mary à la Mode

The writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays.
by Mary McCarthy.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 213 pp. $6.75.

If two pieces in Miss McCarthy’s latest collection had been left out, her book would scarcely have needed to be noticed. It would have been enough to say that once again she had given proof of her skill at writing a certain kind of essay, often having to do with the deciphering and appreciation of a book she judges worthwhile, but, more memorably, with putting the needle into a reputation which fashion and misunderstanding have inflated past our ability to stand it any longer (in this collection see, for example, her “J. D. Salinger’s Closed Circuit”). But everybody knows that she can do this—it has been her stock in trade for some time—and though they might feel genuinely grateful, there would seem not much to do but dispense thanks and go on with other things. What makes it inevitable that we think about this new book of hers longer than we would have if it were really, as advertised in the title, a collection of literary essays from beginning to end, is the striking way in which Miss McCarthy’s approach to George Orwell and to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem illustrates what can happen when a very bright, quite compact talent goes astray.

When Miss McCarthy fixes her attention on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or “The Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett,” or on the imagined world of Nathalie Sarraute, seeking to explain what the author meant to do and how, exactly, he (she) succeeded, the result is lucid, vigorous—all those things Miss McCarthy is deservedly celebrated for—but it is unexceptionable: that is to say, it is hard to see how anyone, other than a professional critic committed to an opposite or variant interpretation of these works, could be moved to anything more disturbing or important than the pleasure that an ordinary reader gets at simply re-encountering Miss McCarthy’s talent. This is the sense in which writing may be called strictly literary; it may almost serve as a definition of such writing that its author’s argument, point, gist, may be well taken, or the “truth” (there is none) may be quite the other way around, but that it would make no difference at all either way, for all that really matters is the brilliance of presentation. It is simpleminded to accuse such writing of being meaningless, or useless, or in any way harmful: obviously the non-approbatory essays, like the one on Salinger, serve to release the unpleasant pressure we feel at the injustice of a wrong reputation; also, the writing of literary criticism, a specialized activity in a society that can afford leisure, may indirectly have a humanizing effect on what is known as the Quality of Life—though this has tended to be taken perhaps too much on faith. However, these considerations may be irrelevant. If Mary McCarthy on Emma Bovary can be downright charming and give pleasure, what more justification should be required?



Sometimes, not always, it is a sign of incipient morality when the pleasure that is to be gotten from reading literary writing is spoiled by a nagging suspicion that this writing is not, after all, serious. “Serious” can never be satisfactorily defined, but evidently it has something to do with words on paper whose meanings seem to have reverberations in the world, on actual things and persons and possibilities, as opposed (of course too schematically) to words that refer only to themselves, which inhabit a closed system. The composition and consumption of such writing is peculiarly interior, indoor. Travel, public events, war do not lend themselves to treatment—in purest form literary writing is commentary on other peoples’ books. To repeat: Miss McCarthy is excellent at this. In addition, she seems to know it and, aside from her novels, she makes departures from straight literary criticism only when there is some unusual reason. For example, she tells us she was obliged to go to Vietnam, and write her two books, one about the South, one about the North, because her guilt at being an American was making it impossible to continue the comfortable and circumscribed life in which she could write of interior things. The Vietnam books were very popular, and as far as they were more sensitive and verbally proficient than most of the reportage from a war zone, they were welcome. But, finally, they were unsuccessful, monumentally so, for what they really did was only to document Miss McCarthy’s avowed aim in coming to Vietnam of gathering all the evidence she could that would utterly damn and blast the U.S., ending with a depiction of the North Vietnamese as physically beautiful, happy, loyal, kind, and pro-American as compared with the ugly, depressed, corrupt, vindictive, and anti-American South Vietnamese. Miss McCarthy, writing of serious things, was not clearly credible, and perhaps this is why she confessed to feeling out of place.

“The Writing on the Wall,” her essay on George Orwell, occasioned by the publication in four volumes of his letters, journalism, and essays, is not so drastically flawed, but it begins to show the difficulties Miss McCarthy runs up against when her subject is not perfectly suited to her temperament and imagination. Now the person and work of Orwell are important to Miss McCarthy, and we might have guessed this even if she had not chosen the title of her essay on him for the title of her book. During the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet purges, and the Second World War, she must have been in very considerable sympathy with Orwell. It is probably fair to say that in his dread of hypocrisy, his early opposition to Stalin, and his unillusioned solidarity with the poor, Orwell was the nearest thing to a political hero Miss McCarthy had thirty years ago. And she retains admiration for the man. But the point of her essay is that Orwell is no longer useful, in fact has become a pernicious influence, and that this was a necessary outcome of the nature of his life and work. Her tone is somewhat distressed, since her former model has failed her, but more significantly it becomes disparaging, aiming clever shafts at Orwell’s way of dressing and living as if to puncture an overblown reputation. The reader feels that this is certainly not proper literary stuff—it makes a great deal of difference what is written about Orwell because his life and work (unlike Salinger’s) are inextricable, having public dimension, so that to do a job of cutting him down to size involves more than tampering with a literary reputation.



What is unacceptable in Miss McCarthy’s approach to Orwell is all the more disappointing because much of what she has to say is correct, and might have had a therapeutic effect if it had not been written in 1969 but in 1953, when it was relevant. Immediately following Orwell’s death, in a development he probably would have found dismaying, a cheap popular adjective was coined, “Orwellian” (in the same cheap denomination as “Kafkaesque”), and had currency for the duration of the coldest years of the cold war. It was used to sell a received opinion about politics, without working through the hard and dangerous experiences that Orwell worked through before he decided that politics may be a trap. Today, this form of weak modishness has a mainly historical interest—at the time Miss McCarthy actually writes, the equivalent fashion, if any, is for ideology, action, engagement, without excessive thought given to what they may mean and what their consequences might be. In our time a writer’s value is often judged by his immediate applicability: what is his program, what does he propose be done about racism, urban blight, drugs, above all about Vietnam? In fact, this is how Miss McCarthy concludes her reassessment of Orwell; she blames him for not demanding that America get out of Vietnam. “It is impossible [she says first], at least for me, to guess how he would have stood on many leading questions of our day. Surely he would have opposed the trial and execution of Eichmann, but where would he be on the war in Vietnam?” Curious: does Miss McCarthy mean that the Eichmann trial and Vietnam are not “leading questions”? Or is her admission that she can’t guess “how he would have stood” only a rhetorical device that leaves her free to guess? In any event, one sentence later she says, “I can hear him angrily arguing that to oppose the Americans in Vietnam, whatever their shortcomings, is to be ‘objectively’ pro-totalitarian.” Curious again: Orwell’s antipathy to America is well-known. More important, it was he who wrote, in 1946, in his famous essay on euphemism (which is reprinted in the collection Miss McCarthy is supposed to be reviewing): “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” Our too-natural reaction on coming across this is to marvel at what seems to be a clear case of prescience, one, moreover, that suggests very strongly “how Orwell would have stood” on the war in Vietnam. But we must refuse to play this game of Miss McCarthy’s. We must declare (and stick to it) that we simply don’t know—and add that this is substantially true of any dead man, however certain we may be at first that he would be staunchly on this or that side of some current burning issue.

Still, the charge rankles that Orwell’s legacy is barren. We like to think, again all too naturally, that a figure we esteem continues to change the world for the better after his death. In line with our current thinking, we would prefer him to do this by offering specific programs which, implemented by us, would improve the world. Orwell, as Miss McCarthy shows, fails miserably. The only program he ever devised was concerned with bringing some honesty back to the English language—its implementation is something we feel we can well postpone, seeing there are more pressing matters at hand. Orwell left us only the example of his life, and his style of putting words together, and some books—Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, 1984—that are classics and therefore can mean no more to us than Candide or a sunset. While searching in vain for some indication from Orwell on how to proceed, we discover that he was not a deep thinker, that in many respects he was an uneducated man. We feel cheated, and angrily reject the notion that because his instincts were decent at a time (like ours) when most instincts were depraved, and because his work is of a piece with this instinct, he may have something to “say” to us. The possibility that the dead can neither help nor hinder us in any specific way is too depressing; as is the possibility that a dead man’s complete program of action, with accompanying ideology, is only a delusion if we really believe it can help us solve our problems. There are certain things the living must do for themselves; even if we haven’t the power to end it, only we can decide on what terms the war in Vietnam should end. Miss McCarthy, competent at distinctions and analogies when writing of things that refer only to themselves, has it in for Orwell because he cannot help us. Yet in a way all his work has the broadest applicability, because its decency has reverberations in the world of things, people, and possibilities, unlike straight literary stuff, and very little of it can be switched around without depriving it of what makes it special.



If we turn now to Miss McCarthy’s essay on the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, we may see that while Miss McCarthy has a little trouble dealing convincingly with a man’s life and work, there are certain other subjects that are totally out of her province, and mass murder is one of these. There is no need to rehearse the particulars and emotions that surrounded the controversy over the Arendt book. On both sides intemperate and manifestly untrue things were said. But there were a number of thoughtful and more or less damaging critiques of Eichmann in Jerusalem put forward; without denying that Miss Arendt has a large and infinitely skeptical intelligence, they questioned not only her management of the historical facts, but a certain animus that gave to her book its provocative quality. Among these serious critiques was Lionel Abel’s “The Aesthetics of Evil.” According to Abel, Miss Arendt rendered a mainly aesthetic rather than moral or political judgment, not only of Eichmann the prisoner in the dock (rather than the Nazi in uniform), but also of the dead Jewish leaders of the Judenräte. This is the reason Eichmann could come out of her version looking like a buffoon who deserved to be hanged, while the Jewish leaders emerged as villains. Abel also pointed out some inconsistencies in Miss Arendt’s argument: if, as she charged, the Germans would not have been able to carry out the extermination without the “cooperation” of the Jewish leaders, how explain the mass killings the Germans perpetrated in Russia, where there was no Jewish organization? Abel tried to account for some of the animus he found, and some of the inconsistencies, by suggesting that an earlier study of Miss Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism, had been very much on her mind as she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: at times she seemed to be seeking tendentiously to bear out some of her earlier theories; at other times she seemed to be willfully ignoring her own conclusions, like the idea that totalitarianism is all-powerful and there is no use resisting it.

In her own contribution to the debate, entitled “The Hue and Cry,” Mary McCarthy gives two motives for making such a break from her usual concerns as to write about the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy. First, she feels she must defend her friend, Miss Arendt, from “slanders”; second, she purports to sense that Miss Arendt’s critics “are running a private Inquisition or police state” and therefore it is an obligation to try and exercise free speech. As an example of the “slanders” Miss McCarthy chooses the essay by Abel. She promises to take it apart piece by piece. In fact she does not. Her tactic, if it can be called that, is evident when she tries to confront the important matter of the Final Solution in Russia. She “genuinely wondered” about this, she tells us, but “was able to find a genuine answer on pages 197-198. The answer is Eichmann; he had nothing to do with the shootings in the East. . . . The story of the Jews of the East was separate from the story of Eichmann, to which Miss Arendt restricted herself as much as possible.” But this won’t do. It leaves as urgent as when Miss McCarthy began to wonder about it the question of why, in Russia, the Jews were murdered in masses even though the murderers did not have the “cooperation” of Jewish leaders, without which, Miss Arendt wrote in a deliberate and well-known phrase, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.”

If we begin to suspect from this that Miss McCarthy is not serious, we may be right. Later on she blithely informs us that she has not even read The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her contribution does not deserve to be taken seriously, but exists instead as one of a great number of “opinions” that everyone, eventually, got to express in print. Nevertheless, Miss McCarthy’s language here is revealing. When she identifies those non-Jews who have taken issue with Miss Arendt, she does it with a sneer: “Professor Trevor-Roper, who has a corner on Nazi history in its popular form, and Richard Crossman, M.P., who has been championing the State of Israel since 1946 and who winters in Tiberias.” Mary McCarthy positively invites comparison with the girl one must make every effort not to cross when Yale is debating Vassar. Indeed, among people who may hardly have read more than a story or two of hers, she has the reputation of being able to “destroy” an opponent in polemic, particularly when she succeeds in catching him out on a matter of phoniness. This being so, it is surprising to find, after Miss McCarthy has left Abel relatively unmarked, the following passage, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

And if Miss Arendt, a Jew, found it in her heart to pity Eichmann, is this a sin? Is this “aesthetics”? To a Christian, it is ethics; can this be the Gentile “blind spot”? A Christian is commanded not only to pity but to forgive his enemies. It is a hard commandment, and if the Gentile reader detected Miss Arendt showing a trace of pity for the clown that had murdered her own people, he was not shocked but moved to admiration. Abel no doubt would say that she did not extend pity (or charity) to the Jewish leaders, but they were not in need of it to the same degree, any more than they were in need of a great effort of understanding. We all, including Miss Arendt, pity them in a natural motion of feeling, but this is not the pity that counts, ethically speaking, which goes not to those nearest us (self-pity is scarcely a virtue) but to those farthest away and seemingly beyond the reach of human sympathy. Anybody can feel compassion for the Jewish leaders, even while criticizing their behavior. But “criticizing his behavior” is hardly what applies to Eichmann, and it would take a saint, as the saying goes, to feel pity for him.

To me, Eichmann in Jerusalem, despite all the horrors in it, was morally exhilarating. I freely confess that it gave me joy and I too heard a paean in it—not a hate-paean to totalitarianism but a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah. As in these choruses, a pardon or redemption of some sort was taking place. The reader “rose above” the terrible material of the trial or was borne aloft to survey it with his intelligence. No person was pardoned but the whole experience was bought back, redeemed, as in the harrowing of hell.

Our prompt impression is that such high-flown sentiment is phoney. Suppressing this reaction, which may be a hasty one, we try to find the specific ideas within the purple prose that ring false. There are a few. Perhaps, for instance, it is not for Christians, accomplices by default in the Final Solution, to call on Jews, the victims, to show Christian understanding toward the criminals. And does Miss McCarthy really pity the Jewish leaders “in a natural motion of feeling”? We are entitled to have our doubts. We come back to our original impression: that Miss McCarthy is simply not to be believed. Her attitude toward Israel and the Israelis is more telling than her lyricism about choral works. For Miss McCarthy, Israel is almost—but not quite—beneath contempt. She writes: “The State of Israel promises that to Jews [that what happened shall never happen again], politically, by offering them a homeland, an army, and a foreign policy. ‘You are safe now,’ it tells them.” On Miss McCarthy’s part, this is just plain ignorant. No one “tells” Israelis they are safe now—if anyone did, he would be laughed at. Yet we must allow that there is something satisfactory, symmetrical, about this combination of prominently displayed feeling in favor of dead Jews who did not resist, and contempt, at best condescension, for the live Jews who make up the State of Israel and who do resist.

It is not so much that Miss McCarthy is vicious, or that she lacks the expertise of specialized knowledge, or even moral imagination, but that she lacks curiosity. To use her kind of rhetoric is like saying that you are not talking about millions of individual events, when a bestial force descended on innocent people. What you are really talking about is a juicy scandal conducted in the pages of literary magazines thousands of miles from the scene twenty years later. It seems never to have occurred to Miss McCarthy—this is where curiosity comes in—to stop for a moment, and ask, “What would I have done if I had been in the place of the Jewish leaders who look so bad in Hannah Arendt’s account?” “What would I do and feel now if I were a survivor?”—to which the only honest answer would be, “I don’t know,” and the only decent “literary” thing to do would be to write “I don’t know,” or voluntarily to keep silent.



We should not get angry at Miss McCarthy. To do so would be to imply that she really is vicious and has the power of doing real harm, and on both counts the implication is probably unwarranted. Though she is a well-known writer and read by many people, there is every chance that they (consciously or unconsciously) realize that when she departs from the criticism of novels and poetry she is exercising the privilege that every American has of airing political “views,” and is not to be taken all that seriously. Moreover, it is not clear whether Miss McCarthy is in advance of changes in opinion, “molding” them, or whether she trails a step or two behind. In her writing over the last thirty-five years the fluctuation in her “views,” as distinct from her literary opus, seems to divide itself roughly into three periods: from the middle 30’s until sometime during the Hitler war she was a sort of near- or mild Trotskyite; during the Truman and Eisenhower Presidencies, on the other hand, she wrote glowing things about America; and in the last decade, and particularly since the Vietnam war has infected our lives, she has re-embraced a thoroughly anti-American ideology. For a sample of her manner in making use of her perfect right to change her mind, consider that in the midst of making fun of Simone de Beauvoir’s Marxist preconceptions about America, Miss McCarthy wrote, in 1947: “. . . the irritating thing was that we did not feel negative. We admired and liked our country; we preferred it to that imaginary America, land of . . . violence . . . which had excited the sensibilities of our visitor.” In 1968, writing from Paris after having visited Hanoi, Miss McCarthy says: “Nor franky do I think it admirable to try to stop Communism even by peaceful subversion. The alternatives to Communism offered by the Western countries are all ugly . . . town planning, city planning, conservation of natural and scenic resources are more in the spirit of socialism, even a despotic socialism, than in that of free enterprise. . . . And variety of manufactures, encouragement of regional craft, ought to be easier for Communist planners whose enterprises are not obliged by the law of the market to show a profit or perish. . . .”

Now it is quite possible that America in 1947 is not America in 1968, and that there is reason to have changed one’s mind and become adamant. But this is not what we think about in looking at the development of Miss McCarthy’s views. What strikes us is the terms she chooses: they are silly. They are also extremely contemporary. Miss McCarthy is no more in a minority, or a groundbreaking avant-garde, in today reproaching free enterprise for its bad ecology, than she was in 1947 in praising American democracy, or in the 30’s in being a young Red. Her essay on Orwell arrives just a few years after one of those periodic, galloping “reassessments” of a man’s reputation has gotten under way, and shortly after what passes for a literate spokesman of ideologically influential young people has written, “George Orwell is a fink.” When Mary McCarthy goes out of bounds she is nothing if not à la mode, and this can never be vicious. When we laugh, or blush, we cannot be angry, or condemn. The best we can do is look elsewhere for serious writing on serious subjects, and be genuinely grateful to Miss McCarthy for the things she does do well.



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