Facing Facts, Facing Reality: On Deborah Nelson’s “Tough Enough”

By Jacquelyn ArdamJune 8, 2017

Facing Facts, Facing Reality: On Deborah Nelson’s “Tough Enough”

Tough Enough by Deborah Nelson

THE POLITICAL TURMOIL of the past year has provided women — public and private alike — with all too many opportunities to demonstrate toughness and resilience. I think of Ieshia Evans captured in a photograph by Jonathan Bachman at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last July: tall, slim, poised, and resolute in glasses and an airy long dress as two armed police officers in heavy riot gear approach her. I think of Sally Yates’s very public refusal to defend the president’s travel ban, which resulted in her firing. I think of Elizabeth Warren, in Jeff Sessions’s recent confirmation hearing, reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter against Sessions’s nomination to the federal court. The Senate voted to silence her, Mitch McConnell explaining: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” That last bit — “Nevertheless, she persisted” — was quickly reappropriated as a feminist rallying cry against the Trump era, a paean to female toughness if there ever was one.

Now seems like a particularly important time to be thinking about what it means to be both tough and a woman. Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough is a useful guide to a particular kind of toughness — toughness not just as a form of resilience, but toughness as a moral, ethical, and aesthetic stance in the face of pain and suffering. Considering the works of an eclectic collection of female subjects who cross disciplinary boundaries — Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion — Nelson affirms toughness (which she defines as coldness and lack of emotional expressivity) as more than just an aspect of their public personas. In particular, Nelson explores the ways that each figure conceives of the moral and ethical imperatives of unsentimentality as the only adequate response to the traumas that mark the 20th and 21st centuries.

A significant amount of recent feminist scholarship in fields such as literature, history, cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies, has focused on affect and emotion, and Nelson explains that Tough Enough “marks a border territory of affect studies.” At a time when we are thinking in new and exciting ways about not just the existence but about the value of affect and emotion in texts, writers, and readers, Nelson’s book marks an important intervention in the field. In a culture that often derides women, both private and public, for expressing and engaging seriously with feelings, the six women discussed in Tough Enough have, to varying degrees, been accused of the opposite, their work being too austere, too cold, too unfeeling. In reading several limit cases of affect among women writers, intellectuals, and artists, Tough Enough reveals the ways in which refusals of sentimentality, by those most likely to be accused of it, constitute a deliberate and powerful ethical stance.

Tough Enough is ordered chronologically, each chapter taking on the oeuvre of a different subject. The subjects sometimes overlap; Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt had a fruitful and complex friendship, for example, and Susan Sontag’s landmark On Photography (1977) grew out of her response to the 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. For the most part, however, the subjects remain contained in their chapters, and one of the book’s strengths is Nelson’s convincing case for reading these disparate figures alongside one another. Each chapter explores not only the work of these women, but also the reception histories of that work. When we read how the work of philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, and journalist Joan Didion were received by their readers and reviewers, Nelson’s juxtapositions seem unimpeachable. She lists the telling terms with which her subjects’ work has been described. Weil’s contemporary reviewers and critics speak of her “clarity, balance, simplicity, transparency, and purity.” They are fond of water metaphors; her work is “clear, cool, and refreshing,” though sometimes “icy and cold.” Assessments of Mary McCarthy’s prose are more extreme, if in the same vein; reviewers find her work “heartless,” “cutting,” “acid,” “pitiless,” “detached,” and “brutal.” Reviewers of Didion’s enormously popular memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) call the book “lucid,” “penetrating,” “acerbic, “ironic,” “taut,” “clear-eyed,” “spare,” “dramatic,” “fierce,” “intelligent,” “brutal,” “compact,” “precise,” “immediate,” “literate,” and “restrained.” Though the positive and negative valances of these descriptions vary, Nelson’s argument for reading these figures alongside one another practically makes itself. That her subjects are all women, and that their art is often lauded for its not-so-womanly qualities, does not escape Nelson. Yet, she remains interested in exploring their ideas and works on their own terms rather than in relation to gendered expectations.

What links these women together is not just their formal or aesthetic coldness, but a particularly non-expressive, unemotional response to reality; “facing reality” is one of Nelson’s most frequently used phrases in Tough Enough. Their work, Nelson demonstrates, was categorized as “cold” not only because of the crispness of their prose, but also because of the lack of sentiment in their representation and consideration of trauma. Susan Sontag, for example, responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks in The New Yorker just days later not with a cry of pain or call for unity, but with a scathing assessment of the political right’s actions. In one of the most controversial pieces of her celebrated career, Sontag critiqued the political establishment’s “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric […] unworthy of a mature democracy” and, while acknowledging that we might all “grieve together,” admonished us “not [to] be stupid together.” Nelson reads Sontag’s “stupid” through its etymological roots and, paraphrasing Sontag, understands the term to imply an injunction against having “our faculties deadened or dulled […] stunned with surprise and grief.” She goes on to argue that Sontag here demands that the reader “remain attuned, even sensitive, to reality in this most extreme state of emotional distress” as a way of facing a traumatic reality. Attuned and sensitive, but not sentimental; this distinction is vital to both Sontag and Nelson.

Nelson traces a similar reaction to painful reality in her other subjects, most powerfully in her reading of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The book was controversial for a number of reasons: for its claims that Nazi Adolf Eichmann was not a monster or sociopath but rather “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” and for its unemotional, matter-of-fact, often ironic tone. That Arendt herself was a German Jew who fled from the Nazis seems incongruous with Eichmann’s argument and aesthetic. But Nelson closely reads a number of passages of the text and traces the ways in which Arendt’s rhetoric — particularly her irony and “abrupt understatement” — undercuts Eichmann’s account of his actions during the Holocaust. “It is not that Arendt denies this story its horror,” Nelson observes, “but rather that she attempts to suggest its horror by not dwelling on it, instead letting the rhythm of her prose convey the weight of the evidence.” By focusing on evidence over feelings, on facts over emotions, Nelson finds that Arendt “insist[s] on facing painful reality as the price not only of sharing the world with others in their plurality but of having any world at all left to share.” For Arendt, it is not Eichmann’s lack of emotion, but his lack of thought that enabled his many crimes. To face facts, to face reality — the only ethical response to the Holocaust for Arendt — requires critical thinking, questioning, and judgment. Without these, we are no better than Eichmann.

One of the strengths of Tough Enough is Nelson’s close focus on the interplay of the ethics and aesthetics of her subjects’ work. Yet, I found myself longing for more discussion of the cultural conditions that enabled and shaped that work. While Nelson does discuss the ambivalent relationship of many of her subjects to feminist political movements, and does explore Didion’s vexed relationship to her particular form of privilege, Tough Enough would have benefited from a more thorough assessment of the ways in which race factors into the perspective of her figures. It will escape few readers that all of Nelson’s subjects are white, a fact that I wish were considered more forthrightly, if only because it might illuminate the role that whiteness plays in their aesthetic and affective dispositions. What is the relationship between whiteness and the tough, cold, and unemotional aesthetic? Might the whiteness of her subjects be part and parcel of their ways of understanding and representing the world? These are important questions for both our current political juncture and for thinking about the historical moments in which Nelson’s figures produced the work examined in Tough Enough.

That being said, Tough Enough is an important contribution to literary, gender, affect, and trauma studies, and an all-too-timely read in our current political climate, for academic and non-academic readers alike. At a time when the study of the humanities is under threat, Nelson proves, again and again, that analysis of evidence, critical thinking, and argumentation are vital tools for confronting brutal political realities. May we all be tough enough to approach the world as Weil, Arendt, McCarthy, Sontag, Arbus, and Didion.


Jacquelyn Ardam is a visiting assistant professor in English at Colby College.

LARB Contributor

Jacquelyn Ardam is the author of Avidly Reads Poetry (NYU Press, 2022) and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCLA. Her writing on literature, art, and culture has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, LitHub, HyperallergicPublic Books, and The Toast, as well as in academic journals. 


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