MAY 22, 2018
LIKE HANNAH ARENDT IN her preface to Men in Dark Times (1968), Deborah Nelson concedes that the six women whose careers are canvassed in her 2017 book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil would definitely not appreciate being classed together, by gender or any other category. Thankfully for us, Nelson is undeterred: she boldly gathers Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil into a common room to stage a wonderfully readable, engaging, provocative conversation about their similarities in style and outlook. The main characteristic these women share is unsentimentality — “a concerted attempt to manage feelings so that no one tears up: not the writers, not their subjects, and not their readers.”
It is thrilling to contemplate the synergy sparked by the times when (some of) these women actually were in the same room together, sharing the same intellectual universe of ideas and encountering and commenting on each other’s work. Because of the popularity of Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film Hannah Arendt, many readers will be aware of Mary McCarthy and Arendt’s important friendship, but we might not be aware that McCarthy was also Simone Weil’s first English translator or that she once quipped to Susan Sontag at a cocktail party, “I hear you’re the new me.” Readers also may not know or remember that Diane Arbus’s 1972 photography retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art produced Sontag’s On Photography (1977), or that Joan Didion admired McCarthy’s work and modeled an essay on her literature of “fact.”
Nelson does not focus greatly on their interactions, however, instead challenging us to explore their commonalities in style and aesthetic practice. She also makes us see the misogyny at work when women writers and artists are criticized for being cold, contrary, insensitive, austere, unfeeling, or solitary. Critics often accused these writers of being too “detached” and thus displaying a defect in character, when in fact this attitude, as Nelson shows, was a deliberate style, an unsentimental engagement with suffering that exposes the unreliability of compassionate motives. As Sontag tells us, human misery is too often rendered beautiful, repeated exposure to such pain exhausts any shock to the conscience we may initially experience, and a confrontation with suffering renders no reliable ethical response. Nelson argues that, in the work of these women, we see a refusal of empathy, a refusal of the illusion of shared suffering, which opens up space for a particular kind of attention to painful reality.
Nelson divides her coverage into six chapters, and true to Virginia Woolf’s desire, each woman receives a room of her own. While they share unsentimentality as a politics, aesthetics, and ethics, each has her own lexicon and tools of the trade. Arbus’s camera stages the pain of helplessness and the failures of agency. Arendt anatomizes heartlessness, calling the perpetrators of the worst injustices “banal” just as the Holocaust is coming to the world’s attention. Didion writes in declarative syntax and with rhythmic repetition in order to erase self-pity, for her a moral flaw that produces bad writing and bad politics. McCarthy seeks to call our attention to the factuality of the world by banishing the forms of self-delusion that she thought plagued her generation. Sontag calls for an “erotics of art” to make us see, hear, and touch as an antidote to excessive emotion and its opposite, the inability to feel, both of which block sensation. Weil offers us the tragic as a way to deal with trauma; her approach to suffering eradicates feeling by forcing us to focus attention on the world’s blind necessity.
Attending to history and the generational mood her writers inherited, Nelson points out that the issue of how to represent suffering — our own and that of others — in the decades following World War II was presented as a choice between extremes. This was a time when the scale of suffering was so vast that writers, artists, and thinkers were forced to grapple with the inadequacy of the formal tools they had to represent it, even as it seemed ubiquitously visible. Should they choose authenticity or irony, saturation or denial? Nelson tells us that her subjects rejected these extreme poles, instead “insist[ing] on an encounter with suffering that is serious, engaged, and often painful.”
Another important thing these six women share is an antagonistic relationship to feminism. They sought a confrontation with reality without sentimentalism, but their anti-feminist posture raises the stakes involved in their collective refusal to explore how emotion and feeling infect and inform reality. Nelson operates with an unstated assumption that feminist writers of their generation chose strategies of authenticity and saturation. Did these six artists and thinkers mistake feminism’s diverse styles for mere emotional attachment? Despite Nelson’s effective brief for these writers’ collective style, I remain troubled by identifying them with one style, which obscures feminism’s many styles. Nelson says that “collectivity is something none of the women could abide. […] [T]hey were also, not coincidentally, ambivalent or outright hostile to the feminist movements of their days,” not because of any internalized misogyny or rejection of the claims of oppression, but because of feminism’s “relationship to emotional expressivity, its foregrounding of psychic pain, its emphasis on collectivity, and its advocacy of utopian projects.” They saw themselves as “realists” and were “robustly anti-utopian.” “Utopianism, very simply,” Nelson tells us, “violated two rules of their creed: that reality must be faced in all its complexity and pain; and that the outcome of any action is unpredictable.”
Nelson is taken with her subjects’ insistence that we prize the object of reflection — in other words, the painful reality — over our feelings about that object. But I think we also need to be aware of how other people’s feelings affect us and how those power dynamics create and maintain the feelings of oppressed subjects too. Attending more closely to the feelings of those who suffer — feelings of disgust, sympathy, detachment, anger, guilt — can not only let us see the way feelings constitute and shape us, but it can also help us recognize that the idea of cold reality is itself a kind of fantasy. Indeed, it is the feelings and fantasies of those in power that shape our reality. Can we risk ignoring feelings as they manifest in the creation of what we often experience as a violent world of cruelty and suffering? Can we ignore the way feelings may counter oppressive realities and create alternative worlds? This may be a question for Nelson’s women as much as for Nelson herself. Nelson has done so much to illuminate their creation of a singular space and style for thinking. What is left for us is an invitation to assess the costs and benefits, as it were, of their success.
Beauvoir forces us to confront what Nelson’s writers elide: that reality is shaped by male power, infused with male fantasy, and fueled by feelings — mostly ugly feelings of anxiety, disgust, fear, and anger. Other feminist writers engage this reality too, realities shaped by the hierarchy of sexual difference. Drawing on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Shulamith Firestone’s style is anything but detached, but it is also not sentimental. It does not make us tear up; it elicits our anger by helping us see the world in a new way and from a collective space: an engaged partisan forging of solidarity with women (and children) who suffer. Or we might consider Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto, which solicits shared anger and joy but also appeals to women’s “cool.” Solanas seeks to bring women together to “wheel on to something far beyond what [the world] has to offer.” Her style, like Firestone’s, like Beauvoir’s, is quite different from that of Nelson’s women. It shows the infusion of male fantasy in constructing reality and seeks to empower our shared suffering, shared anger, and shared desire for something else, something beyond patriarchy. Firestone said that, “[I]f there were another word more all-embracing than revolution[,] we would use it.”
Feminists are tough enough too, but they enlist different styles: they explore the feelings and motivations of the enemy and are willing to call women to battle. Solanas begins SCUM Manifesto by announcing that life in this society is an “utter bore.” What is most offensive about patriarchy is its lack of anything interesting to attract women who are “proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant.” Being a woman is a style, not an identity. It is instructive to remember that Beauvoir saw herself first and foremost as a novelist, Firestone as a painter, and Solanas as a playwright. For each of them, politics begins with aesthetics.
I don’t think Solanas would say that Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, and Weil are what she calls “Daddy’s Girls,” but she might wonder about the male company they preferred to keep and the style they preferred to adopt. In any case, I feel fairly sure that, like me, she would enthusiastically welcome Nelson putting them together in a common room to share each other’s company for the space of this book.
Lori Jo Marso is Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies and Professor of Political Science at Union College. She is the author or editor of several books, most recently Politics with Beauvoir (2017), Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier (2016), and 51 Key Feminist Thinkers (2016).