This is a first in the series about the correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt.
To Receive One
The letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy only become heated in one moment. It is a conflict completely defused by Arendt, whose combination of empathy and logical thought remains unparalleled among those of her generation. McCarthy started wondering openly if Arendt’s sympathies towards McCarthy’s soon-to-be ex-husband Bowden Broadwater were actively sabotaging her plan to remarry. She had fled her marriage for a relationship with a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service named James West. (He was also married, with three kids.) In order to start her new life, she had Arendt persuad Broadwater to grant her the divorce she needed. But she could not be sure the reticence of Broadwater to grant her the divorce was not in some way being caused by Hannah.
In reality, McCarthy was paranoid and Arendt was just trying to help the situation along by offering Broadwater the kindness he required to let go. “I talked to him without any threats or even implications of an ‘or else,'” Arendt writes to her friend.
I talked to him as a friend and did not lie. For to me that fact is that you brought him into my life, that without you he never would have become — not a personal friend which, of course, he is not — but a friend of the house, so to speak. But once you placed him there, you cannot simply take him away from where he is now. As long as he does not do something really outrageous which he has not done so far and really turns against you which he has not done either, I am not going to sit in judgment. That his life is in ruins is quite obvious to anybody who is willing to have a look at him and his situation. I am quite convinced this was inevitable, and if he were to commit suicide which, I think is not probable but not altogether impossible either, I would be the first to tell you that you are not to blame. But it is not exactly when one feels like adding insult to injury. I never believed that you would or could or should go back to him.
McCarthy does not only accept Hannah’s explanation, but she seems to take it to heart as a credo. They exchange much other advice profitable to both in the abridged versions of the letters that follow.
Your letter was a telepathic answer to mine, evidently. Yes, I should love to be in Paris October 1, and I shall keep in touch. What will your return address be? I shall probably go to Montalembert, if I can get a room there.
Thank you for what you say about the Venice piece. Yes, the New Yorker cut it severely. The two pieces, I think, are only about half or even less of the book as it will appear. This way it goes too fast, I agree, like an express train hurtling by the person who doesn’t know Venice, I fear.
I wish I were doing something similar. But I can’t seem to fasten on another entity that would hold together like Venice. Florence is a possibility, but one would have, again, to spend several months there. And I wonder whether modern Florence has much to do with Florentine history. Florentine history, so far as I can make out, stopped such a long time ago, while the city continued developing along normal modern lines. Just the opposite of Venice, which keeps reenacting its story in a sort of frozen form.
As for the smaller places — Parma, Bergamo, Padua, Mantua — I hoped to find something there but I did not. Of course, I didn’t stay long enough, but nothing really tempted me to. Bologna, perhaps. It’s the only one that seems to have a mysterious life of its own that bears some relation, even if an inverse one, to its past. Red Bologna.
Bowden pointed out that the scale of the buildings — which I’d never noticed before, the proportions being so good — must have something to do with Papal rule there. The arcades draw your eye onward, horizontally, but if you stop to look up, the buildings are staggering.
Do you have any ideas?
We’ve moved into our apartment, which is pleasant and cool, and we can stand like two Veronese people on separate balconies looking out on the Grand Canal. But there are too many people I know in Venice at this season. Americans, most of whom I wish I didn’t know. Example: Johnnie Myers. One feels one has not ever come to Venice to see such acquaintances, but it is unavoidable. Nancy Macdonald is back and I’m having her and the two boys, Mike and Nicky, to dinner tonight. I might as well be in New York. And Dwight and his family arrive Saturday. My curse is trying, unsucessfully, to be nice.
See you October 1.
I trust Bowden wrote you how much I liked the Memories. Of all your books, I feel this is most as you are yourself — which is not a ‘value-judgment’. Technically as well as artistically, the pieces are bound together by the comments in italics, there is a cheerfulness in the very relentlessness with which you separate factual truth from the distortions of memory. It is much more than mere absence of self-pity — most writers apparently being quite incapable of even mentioning their childhood without bursting into tears. It is really gallantry and fairness from which the cheerfulness springs. I did not read the reviews and I don’t know how it is selling.
I meant to write immediately when I got your letter, and then got wrapped up in reflections until I did no longer know what to write. Mary, dear, I am afraid you came into too close a contact with the English variety of the “lost generation” — which apart from being a cliche is a reality. They are always the best and the worst, but in such a way that every single one of them is both at the same time. The lying is pseudologia phantastica with the emphasis on phantastic, and to lie about one’s origin and to play the aristocrat in England is, it seems to me, as much satire on the English and amusement about their standards as it perhaps is also the attempt to lie yourself into something you are not.
In a sense, they all appeared with a “Here you have somebody upon whom you cannot rely” (as Brecht once put it). Their charm is that they with all their lies are somehow more truthful than all the philistines who don’t lie.
I think what belongs to this charm is that their lies usually concern only facts — which will come out and show them to be liars not what they do. (Whereas if one lies about his “feelings,” he is really safe, who can find out?)
There is some supreme defiance in this, and what one falls for is among other things this defiance. You know I believe that one ought to trust one’s senses, and I don’t think, therefore, that you have been wrong. Even the boasting about you must be seen in this light, since he was known to be a liar and knew this, he could really afford it — trusting that nobody would believe him to begin with. And you are completely free to say that he lied — I think without being really false to him. When an acknowledged liar speaks the truth, he does not want to be believed. But certainly, he did not want to be saved by you either. And this is the reason why I think you were right not to see him.
The worst part of it is the bottle. But even apart from that: there are two things which could “save” him: either a woman, but then saved for what? Evidently for some form of respectability. Or more than talents, namely almost genius, or a talent so compelling that it will overrule everything else. (This is of course the case of people like Brecht or Heidegger.) But if this Who they are is not matched by qualities and gifts, what can there remain to do? And then life becomes a very long and rather boring business, for the Who as such is nowhere recognized in our society, there is no place for it. Under such circumstances, to destroy oneself and become “self-destructive”; can be a time-consuming and rather honorable job. More honorable and probably less boring than to save oneself. The only thing which is really not permissible is to drag other people into one’s own amusements.
So, you had to be frightened away, and he must have known that it would take rather drastic measures to achieve this. Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this, but then you can’t expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself. The equality of love is always pretty awful.
Write me and let me know how you are.
I do not want to bother you with questions before I read the whole, but I think I shall even agree with your treatment of Michaelangelo — you are much more careful than I expected, by the way. I want to take the articles with me when I go to Florence, and I hope the New Yorker will send me the two missing copies. The rigmarole the fact-checking department put you through is terrible, this phony scientificality is no help and I think those who cooperate simply don’t understand what it is all about. It is one of the many forms in which the would-be writers persecute the writer. And since this is nicely combined with job-holding and job-justification this kind of torture has become an institution.
Jerusalem will be an altogether different proposition, and probably much less rewarding for than Florence or Venice. On the other hand, there is no book on Jerusalem and the market possibilities are certainly very high. Also, and more important, Jerusalem is the only city I know that gives you an idea what a city in antiquity was like. It has been frozen through religion, and though I would not know what exactly to do with this, I have always been impressed by the enormous quiet significance that is present in every stone. But leave the ant and grasshopper considerations out of the decision-making. You have plenty of time to become an ant if you ever want to be one, which I doubt. And anyhow, don’t think of precedents, they are always wrong.
Love, Mary, and drop me a line, and many greetings to Bowden!
Vienna at Easter was alternately sultry and icy, with rain, we went Easter morning, under an umbrella, to hear a Schubert mass at the Hofburg Cappelle, every bien pensant Viennese was there in tweeds and mufflers, I was the only person in a light spring dress. Almost everything was either closed or sold out because of the long Easter holidays. We couldn’t get seats to The Magic Flute but managed to get into the Albertina (drawings) and the Kunshistorisches Museum during the three hours they were open from Good Friday through Easter Monday. The Albertina drawings were marvelous, and there was a huge Rouault graphic show there, which was interesting as a study of progressive deterioration — a plentifully illustrated case history.
I want to tell you this much about Jim. It was a somber time (ours), in part, or chequered like the Vienna weather. He has been through a sort of hell in Warsaw (which he hadn’t told me) with that woman and the sight of the children. Coming home at night for their bedtime, then going back to the Embassy to work till midnight or one; working in the same way weekends and having a sandwich and a whiskey and soda or a coffee for dinner, so as not be at home with her. Or, when she was out, eating alone in the dining room. Sleeping on the divan. Because she will not have the furniture moved around, so that the little girl could sleep in her room and he in the little girl’s, it would cause talk among the Embassy servants, she says. In the mornings, he and the children tiptoe around in the dark, so as not to disturb mamma, who is sleeping.
When he got to Vienna, he suddenly discovered he was totally exhausted by this daily torture — all nerves, the second morning he abruptly wept for a minute or two. This doesn’t mean a lessening of love, on the contrary, a hardening of determination. What he has been doing, in Warsaw, is confront, very grimly, the price, and the price is the children, whom he loves. He insists on seeing this clearly, without softening it. (“You will have them for the summer anyway,” or “Maybe we can take all three of them, in time, or one at least,” these assurances, from me, don’t palliate anything for him.)
On the other hand, he will not live with her, the damage to children, some of it, has already been done or was done at their birth. “I keep reminding myself,” he says, sadly laughing, “that I asked that girl to marry me.”
Anyway, dear Hannah, I love him, more than before. He’s the most wholly serious person I’ve ever known, anywhere, I don’t mean lacking in gayety or wild high spirits. It is way beyond thinking about the pros and cons or having doubts, it’s simply a fact. And I’m glad. But I’m alarmed, for him, for his nerves an stamina.
I must stop. Forgive what must be a tedious letter for you. And thank you, for everything you did. Jim wants me thank you for him again too, he has been reading The Human Condition with delighted excitement and quoting from it — the last time, I think, on forgiveness!
How is the translation going? Love and kisses to you,
The next mail leaves in forty-five minutes, and I’m writing you this note for purely selfish reasons: because my heart is full of emotion and I want to talk. As if I were in your apartment. Bowden wrote me about his visit to you, in her version, the conversation seems to have been chiefly about Reuel. He has written three times in response to my last letter, and so I’ve purposely slowed down a little on answering, not to keep up a fevered correspondence with him, which would awaken all sorts of hopes. Indeed, they are awake. And it’s so sad, because I grow fonder of him as he recedes a little into the distance and all the memories become good ones, the thought of his suffering, moreover, makes me want to scream aloud. He writes that he is not sorry, in a way, that this happened because it made him realize what he wanted or loved, and that he never knew he wanted or loved anything before.
But now he knows that there is just one thing: me. I realize that there’s an element of dramatization in this and even (perhaps?) of calculated play on my feelings. And yet I am so troubled for him. And this picture of a morally re-educated, redeemed, christened, so to speak, Bowden makes me smile as one would at a dear child.
Keep an eye on him, won’t you?
I’ve finally written to him this afternoon — a long letter but designed to keep hope to a minimum. Or so I delude myself.
Meanwhile, and as a strange soaring trumpet-music to this growing tenderness I feel for Bowden, my love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partially paralyzed. And I’ve become conscious in myself of certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember my telling you once that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing house, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games. And that all this should happen with a U.S. government official seems utterly bizarre in a way.
Perhaps I too am sounding like the redeemed, christened Bowden, and these things are almost incommunicable, except to the two people concerned. So I shall stop and run for the mail and only end by sending you much, much love and winged thoughts.
My dearest Mary,
I am writing not to write a letter but to do everything required to receive one.
Much more serious is that I have not the slightest idea where you are and if this letter will reach you. Is the divorce business still on for September? Dear, please let me know. You know I worry and I also have somehow the firm conviction that as long as I keep worrying, things will straighten out. As though this is my way of keeping my fingers crossed.
I saw Harold Rosenberg and it was again very nice. Except that May Rosenberg published her masterpiece, But Not For Love, and sent it to me and it is simply lousy. And there I am, caught, because I must say something nice. And the book is not only devoid of talent, it is also rather nasty and unpleasant.
I am half toying with the idea to get some magazine to send me to cover the Eichmann trial. Am very tempted. He used to be one of the most intelligent of the lot. It could be interesting — apart from being horrible.
Here in New York is again a certain mood among intellectuals for Adlai Stevenson, and that precisely when Schlesinger et al. decided to switch for Kennedy. It looks like either Kennedy or Nixon. It is rather nauseating.
Much love and yours,
“Chemical Switches” – Andrew Bird (mp3)
“Left Handed Kisses” – Andrew Bird (mp3)