February 19, 1995
The Group of Two
By LORE SEGAL
t was at a New York party in 1945 that Mary McCarthy, an American, a Roman Catholic, a novelist and a critic, offended the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew. Unable, one imagines, to refrain from an opportunity for wit, McCarthy said she felt sorry for Hitler, who wanted even his victims to love him. Arendt asked how such a thing could be said to her, a Hitler victim who had been in a concentration camp.
The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975.Edited by Carol Brightman.
In her introduction to "Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975," the editor, Carol Brightman, reports that it was Arendt who put an end to the following three years' chill between the two women, admitting to McCarthy that the French camp where she had been interned was not a concentration camp. "We think so much alike," Arendt said to McCarthy, offering an intense friendship that lasted until Arendt's death and is documented in their 26-year correspondence.
Their letters tend to open like everybody else's, with puzzled regret at not having written sooner. Both were extraordinarily active: they thought, wrote and published; they taught, lectured and traveled; they leaped into controversies. Both became famous, and fame can be a burden. In 1963, after publication of her novel "The Group," McCarthy wrote, "Success seems to take so much of your time, you are devoured by it."
In their letters they ranged widely. They gossiped, laughed at their friends and worried about them. They talked politics, exchanged philosophical ideas, celebrated and criticized each other's work. They write "I am really homesick for you," and they long "just to see you and talk." Before they close each remembers to send affectionate messages to the other's husband. In 1949, at the beginning of the correspondence, McCarthy had divorced Edmund Wilson (that "old woman") and married Bowden Broadwater ("just two people playing house like congenial children"). McCarthy communicated her intimate adventures to her friend. She asked for Arendt's discretion when she confided in her about a hapless London affair and about the theologian Paul Tillich's attempt to seduce her on a trans-Atlantic crossing. In 1960 Arendt was privy to McCarthy's discovery of more and more charms and virtues in her new love, the American diplomat James West, who was to be her fourth and final husband. "He has a kind of exquisite tenderness, toward things as well as persons," McCarthy wrote from Warsaw; "the ordinary Poles . . . all love him." She suspected her friends, yes, even dearest Hannah, of "condoning" those two dastardly soon-to-be-exes -- her current husband, Broadwater, and West's wife -- who were not letting themselves be shed quietly. In a characteristic letter -- clear, firm, not unsympathetic -- Arendt explained that she was not about to turn against Broadwater while his life was in ruins and reminded McCarthy that she had once trusted him enough to marry him. It is the only time in their correspondence when McCarthy could not hear what her friend was saying.
Arendt thought of herself as reticent. In 1970, after her Berlin-born husband, Heinrich Blucher, died of a heart attack, she wrote, "I don't think I told you that for 10 long years I had been constantly afraid that just such a sudden death would happen." McCarthy replied that she had known of Arendt's fear. It was Arendt who was unaware of having communicated her continual fright, which she said "frequently bordered on real panic."
What sort of friendship was it between these two women with such different pasts and temperaments?
It's not that they "think so much alike," but that they did what Hannah Arendt called "this thinking-business" for and with each other. There are letters that read like little essays by Montaigne. Of Truth: Arendt said it was not "the end of a thought-process" but "the condition for the possibility of thinking." Of Equality: McCarthy wrote that it was a worm "eating away . . . the 'class distinctions' between the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly." "Let us talk about the equality business; most interesting," replied Arendt, adding that "constant comparing is really the quintessence of vulgarity."
"Taste," Arendt wrote on another occasion, "is a principle of 'organization,' " of "who in the world belongs together" and how "we recognize each other." Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy recognized and belonged with each other. Both responded to the political moment; they were on the same side. We read their letters, and like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," we revisit events whose outcomes we suffered years ago. McCarthy was early and urgent in wanting to do something about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The next situation they could do nothing about was the 1952 Presidential election. McCarthy didn't know what to think of Adlai Stevenson, but wrote: "My breath is bated to see what he would do in office. . . . The wit is not very good, but the sarcasms are alive." She thought Richard Nixon's success as a Vice-Presidential candidate "would mean that mass society is a reality, which nobody here . . . really has ever believed except in talk." In 1960 McCarthy quipped that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was "not a human being but a figure in a serial comic strip . . . an outline drawing." The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 "is going to be one of those litmus-paper issues or goat-and-sheep dividers, like the Moscow Trials and Pasternak and your 'Eichmann.' " In 1965 Arendt summarized a scenario she had read about "a neat little nightmare" of China declaring war on the United States and then overwhelming us by surrendering. And then Vietnam: though "hamstrung" by her husband's Foreign Service career, McCarthy again felt she must do something, and in 1968 she visited Hanoi.
They worried about their friends: when Robert Lowell had another breakdown, McCarthy wrote, "Cal is in poor shape again; it must be the most monotonous fate for him." When the poet W. H. Auden died in 1973, Arendt sadly remembered refusing "to take care of him when he came and asked for shelter." He had come, a month after Heinrich's death, wanting her to marry him.
Husbands, lovers, friends, acquaintanceships -- their salon spread across the Western world. There are philosophers: Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Isaiah Berlin; French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Nathalie Sarraute; in Italy, the writers Alberto Moravia and Ignazio Silone and the American connoisseur Bernard Berenson. Arendt disliked Vladimir Nabokov: "He thinks of himself in terms of 'more intelligent than,' " a vulgarity she said she was allergic to because "I know it so well, know so many people cursed with it." Arendt and McCarthy had the same taste in vulgarity. The very laws of probability conspired to keep them from contact with regular people, which was just as well for the regular people. As a guest at the Villa Serbelloni, the Rockefeller Foundation's Italian retreat, Hannah Arendt found herself amid "scholars, or rather professors, from all countries . . . with their wives, some of them are plain nuts, others play the piano or type busily the non-masterworks of their husbands."
The friends read and admired each other's work. "The sensation of being honored doesn't diminish with familiarity," McCarthy wrote in answer to a fan letter from Arendt. They honored each other with criticism. McCarthy pointed out some "barbarisms" in Arendt's English usage and chided Arendt's translators, "whose language, far from achieving precision, creates a blur."
In her letters to Arendt, McCarthy might acknowledge certain weaknesses in herself as novelist, but against the critical world the two friends manned the trenches together for each other. Arendt on a negativereview of McCarthy's novel "Birds of America": "The old malice. . . . Also of course sheer stupidity." McCarthy on editorial politics: a negative review of Arendt's "Human Condition" "was certainly commissioned, the way you commission a murder from a gangster."
Their good friend Elizabeth Hardwick's anonymous spoof of "The Group," published in The New York Review of Books as "The Gang," and Norman Mailer's pan of the same novel have become literary footnotes. But the simultaneous furor over Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" -- particularly its subtitle, "A Report on the Banality of Evil," and the issue of Jewish cooperation with the Nazis -- is likely to revive with the publication of these letters. We Jews continue to feel the Holocaust as a wound; therefore we prescribe the manner in which it can be handled. At that party in 1945, Mary McCarthy handled it badly and Arendt cried out. In 1963 Arendt attended the Eichmann trial, and followed the facts, as she saw them, where they led her. The book raised a cry of pain that never quite subsided.
In his response in Partisan Review, Lionel Abel wanted to differentiate between Arendt's "esthetic" and his own (superior) "moral" judgment. But isn't moral judgment, too, a matter of "taste," that is to say of the "principle of organization" by which we understand innocence and evil? The litmus test divides those who need their victims to be driven-snow white from those who see them in every shade. There are those to whom evil is more terrible when it is absolute, an idea, inhuman, and those of us who fear that it is human indeed, ubiquitous, available at all times for the totalitarian idea. Sympathetic Mary McCarthy, with only one Jewish grandmother, rushed in, said everything all wrong, and apologized to her friend for making more trouble.
Jane Austen understood such friendship between women: "There was not a creature in the world to whom she spoke with such unreserve . . . with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always intelligible." And "the very sight of Mrs. Weston, her smile, her touch, her voice was grateful to Emma."
Hannah Arendt, German-born, a Jew, a Hitler victim, also understood it, and summed it up for the American Catholic, Mary McCarthy: "Your cards and letters -- so dear and then also so immensely sensible, just the day-to-day continuity of life and friendship."
Lore Segal's first novel, "Other People's Houses," and her most recent, "Her First American," have been reissued in paperback.