Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Rhiannon Tudhope: The Preservation of Disunity: Confronting Pain in The Company She Keeps

“The Preservation of Disunity: Confronting Pain in The Company She Keeps”


 
In, “The Virtues of Heartlessness,” Deborah Nelson provides an illuminating analysis of Mary McCarthy’s aesthetic. Nelson explores the professional and personal relationship between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy to reveal the intersection between their ideals. Nelson suggests that McCarthy was deeply fascinated by pain. This observation seems relevant to The Company She Keeps, a compilation of short stories centered around Margaret (Meg) Sargent’s search for self-identity. Sargent’s journey—from a cruel affair to her resistance of healing—can be seen as not only a pursuit of self-knowledge, but an exploration of suffering.
The Company She Keeps is considered autobiographical, as McCarthy herself admits to shaping the novel around her life experiences. As a result, the distinction between McCarthy and Sargent is often blurred in analyses of the novel. Nelson helps to clarify the coldness and cruelty often attributed to McCarthy’s heroine and McCarthy herself. McCarthy rejected empathy and solidarity in favor of confronting the pain of reality. Nelson proposes that McCarthy’s aesthetic is grounded in fact . “What makes something a fact seems to be less its informational content than its capacity to alter the observer.”[i] Through factuality McCarthy attempted to fight against the self-delusion that plagued society followed World War II. As a result of the horrors committed in war and the inconceivable destruction produced by modern technology, McCarthy noted that, “…the leading characteristic of the modern world is irreality.”[ii] In her essay, “The Fact in Fiction,” she pushes for writers to recognize the reality (factuality) of the world and to embrace “common sense”. The influence of Arendt can be seen in McCarthy’s use of the term “common sense.” “Common sense…requires individuals to engage with others in the act of perception, sharing the world in a way that corrects and amends subjective insight.”[iii] In The Company She Keeps, Meg Sargent is an individual who embraces common sense. Sargent is highly critical of others and often very brash, however she is vulnerable. Her intellect allows her to judge others, but her vulnerability allows for a continual process of self-criticism and self-alteration. Terry A. Cooney expands upon Nelson’s point by commenting that McCarthy anchored her novels in reality. “Common sense anchored intelligence to human experience…”[iv] The Company She Keeps can be viewed as a novel in pursuit of factuality. In each episode Sargent engages with others and exposes herself to their reality. She strengthens her insight, which she ultimately refuses to give it up in the end.
A clear intersection can be found between McCarthy’s fascination with pain and her aesthetic of fact. Real facts resist the delusions of society and cannot be manipulated. Facts of experience are often painful, and therefore people do not want to recognize them. McCarthy recognized this as self-delusion. One must confront reality, and in doing so face the “pain of self-alteration…the discomfort of uncertainty…and the anxiety of unpredictability.”[v]
The Company She Keeps opens with the story, “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment.” The reader encounters an unidentified narrator in the midst of an affair with a younger man. She decides she must reveal the affair to her husband because it had, “finally reached the point where it needed the glare of publicity…”[vi] She measures her relationships through the social commentary they invite. Through confession to her husband she saw her self as, “…both doer and sufferer: she inflicted pain and participated in it.”[vii] This provides a glimpse into McCarthy’s developing interest in suffering. The woman chooses to partake in an affair knowing the pain it will cause her husband, and then decides to submit to a full confession. She exposes her infidelity and accepts the pain that accompanies it. The narrator’s tone remains uncertain, and the reader is left wondering whether she has done the right thing. Her husband’s reaction is unexpected and mature, and the “public” begins to take his side. Her relationship with the Young Man becomes equally monotonous, “They were…merely another young couple with an evening to pass, another young couple looking desperately for entertainment.”[viii] McCarthy addresses all the facts that accompany an affair—the pain inflicted, the social response, and the reality that the narrator is uneasy in her decision. The story closes with the narrator arriving late to board a train due to the Young Man’s tardiness. She admits that she has become disenchanted with him. She finds him repulsive, yet recognizing the weakness of his character, produces an unwilling gesture of affection by blowing him a kiss. As the train departs she cuts all ties with the Young Man, and travels into, “an insubstantial future with no signpost to guide her.”[ix] The story closes with the narrator assuming her first identity, “Young Divorcee.” She rejects the security of bourgeois marriage, and envisions herself as a femme fatale, a glamorous traveler.
This story establishes the female protagonist who we will follow throughout the novel. The “Young Divorcee” is highly aware of taste and social commentary. She appears self-conscious of her social position, andjudges her husband, the Young Man, and her affair all through the public reaction they receive. She contemplates her new reality as a divorcee through the social engagements she will have. The reader views her as cold, abandoning both lover and husband with very little regard to their feelings. She embodies what Nelson describes as McCarthy’s “toughness.” It seems that the protagonist is interested in suffering, as she admits to administering pain but also receiving it. “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” illuminates the aesthetic that will guide the following stories.
In “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” Meg Sargent meets a successful, middle-aged businessman on the train. Initially perturbed by him, she engages with him in conversation, giving her an opportunity to brandish her intellectual superiority. Ultimately she agrees to dine with him in his compartment. The encounter that follows is one that embodies the factuality McCarthy valued. She remains in his compartment for dinner, which then turns into drinks. She shares her favorite quotation with the man, identified as Mr. Breen, “I am myn owene woman, wel at ese.”[x] Sargent believes she has established her ascendancy over Mr. Breen, who responds to her quote with the foolish exclamation: “Golly…you are, at that!”[xi] Carol Brightman believes the quote provides an “ironic transition” between Sargent’s momentary relief at believing she had escaped Breen, to realizing the next morning that she has woken up in his bed. “For that moment, she had become, in effect, the man’s woman, and she was not at ease.”[xii] Conversely, William Barrett believes this quote to be the motto of The Company She Keeps. “Carrying this Chaucerian blazon…she has entered a man’s world and, faithful to her motto, she intends to hold her own with men—both intellectually and sexually.”[xiii] It seems that Brightman has illuminated the circumstances more accurately than Barrett. Sargent succumbs to the physical advances of Breen and wakes up mortified. While she holds her own intellectually, the embarrassment and shame she feels the next morning reveal that she does not hold her own sexually with men.
Nelson writes that McCarthy believed, “…reality had to be faced in a condition of exposure..”[xiv] This theory truly takes shape in the form of Sargent’s inebriated, sexual transgression. Sargent wakes up physically exposed in bed with Mr. Breen. The experience can only be described as truly painful. Upon waking Breen declares his love for her. “…[Her] own squeamishness and sick distaste, which a moment before had seemed virtuous in her, now appeared heartless, even frivolous, in the face of his emotion.”[xv] Her pity towards Mr. Breen recalls the pity she felt for the Young Man when she sneered at him on the train platform. The exchange between Mr. Breen and Sargent exemplifies the “toughness” often attributed to McCarthy. Sargent is entirely honest in describing the exchange. When Breen leans in to kiss her Sargent replies that she is going to throw up. Her violent physical response is not only due to a hangover, but a reaction to Breen’s gesture of intimacy. Mary Ann Caws writes of McCarthy that, “…she was fearless about discomfort, hers and the reader’s too.”[xvi] It is through this discomfort that McCarthy is able to ground the novel in reality.
After getting sick, Mr. Breen offers Sargent whisky to cure her hangover. “The vulgarity was more comforting to her than any assurances of love.”[xvii] Sargent resists intimacy with Breen and instead takes comfort in the sheer vulgarity of the situation. She labels her decision to sleep with him a second time as an act of charity and considers it “self-sacrifice.” She remains detached from the situation. After being forced to bathe by Mr. Breen, she reflects on the luxury of Brooks Brothers and Bergdorf Goodman and feels repulsed, her sentiment having greatly changed from the previous day when she enjoyed the luxurious dining experience afforded to the “Best People.” There is evidence of a process of self-alteration. Having faced the sheer embarrassment of her sexual transgression, Sargent is able to remain dignified. He declares his love for her, while she remains aloof. “A proud, bitter smile formed on her lips, as she saw herself as a citadel of socialist virginity, that could be taken and taken again, but never truly subdued.”[xviii] The experience fills her with a passionate revulsion for opulence and wealth. While previously she had felt embarrassed by the safety pin used to hold together her underwear, she now views it as a metaphor for her morality.
Morris Dickstein writes of Mr. Breen that he turns out to be the most satisfactory of all the men Sargent pursues relationships with. He is distinguished by the fact that he is not an intellectual. In, “Fact and Fiction,” McCarthy emphasizes the need for social range within a novel. Through setting the encounter between Breen and Sargent on a train, McCarthy creates a world in which they have something in common. Her interaction with Breen is significant because it enhances Sargent’s perception.
In explaining McCarthy’s aesthetic of the fact, Nelson posits that McCarthy valued the aesthetics of reality (“corporeal, material, natural.”[xix]) Perhaps Sargent gains cognition of reality through her sexual experiences. She often reflects upon her relationships with regret, embarrassment and sometimes revulsion—all a source of pain. Sabrina Abrams provides a different interpretation, noting that the intellectual woman’s separation of the physical from the mental prevents her from enjoying sexual acts.[xx] This is an example of Sargent’s disunity between mind and body that she desperately wants to hold on to.
Edith H. Walton reviewed The Company She Keeps in 1942 for the New York Times. In her article she condemns Sargent’s sexual discovery, criticizing it as narcissistic:
As assistant literary editor on a famous liberal weekly, one sees her adopting Trotskyism as a kind of brash, romantic pose and as a means—half unconscious—of attracting the attention which she craves. One sees how she uses it to inflame various lovers, and how she prostitutes a very real intelligence to serve a wanton’s goal.”[xxi]
Walton is referring to Sargent’s defense of Trotsky on her first day of work in the fourth story of The Company She Keeps, entitled “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man.” Meg Sargent has returned to New York to write for the Liberal, a weekly not dissimilar to The Nation or the New Republic where McCarthy had worked. Walton’s criticism of Sargent seems unjustified, as she overlooks McCarthy’s aesthetic of fact. McCarthy believed that American journalism was plagued with conformity of opinion. There lacked any truly subversive opinions because, “writers were more interested in displaying their cleverness than contending with facts.”[xxii] The Liberal is a reflection of magazines such as the Nation and the New Republic, who were so absorbed in the struggle to defend their ideas that they feared showing any recognition of conflicting opinion. Sargent enters into The Liberal and decides to defend the unpopular opinion. She sarcastically comments that they would have loved to run an article written by Trotsky, to which the managing editor responds, “Well, no, we wouldn’t. . . .  Solidarity on the left is so important at this moment. We can’t afford self-criticism now.”[xxiii] Jim Barnett (the “Yale man”) comments that Trotsky made a mistake in publishing his article in Liberty, and might as well have published it in Hearst. Sargent retorts with a compelling defense of Trotsky’s decision, “Liberty is read by the masses, and the Liberal is read by a lot of self-appointed delegates for the masses whose principal contact with the working class is a colored maid.”[xxiv] Not only does she rip apart Barnett’s comment, but criticize the publication she has just been employed by. Yet in doing so she has confronted them with fact. “And facts, rather than writers, are socially offensive.”[xxv] Nelson illuminates McCarthy’s serious emphasis on courage. Sargent was courageous to challenge her colleagues and reveal a disloyalty to their publication.
However, Doris Grumbach takes a position dissimilar to Nelson. She relates Meg Sargent’s attraction to “unpopular causes” as a reflection of McCarthy’s own temperament and romanticism. McCarthy herself stated that she only involved herself in politics because the men who surrounded her were involved in politics, while she had little personal interest.[xxvi] This view speaks more to McCarthy/Sargents search for self-identity in the novel. Sargent can be seen as adopting the unpopular opinion in order to distinguish herself from others.
In the aftermath of her defense of Trotsky, Sargent experiences the pain of acknowledging fact. She sits in complete discomfort; calmly drinking her tea that everyone knows must be cold. Her audience stares at her, unsure of how to respond. Contrary to Walton’s interpretation that Sargent is attracting the attention “that she craves,” Sargent instead has courageously defended the unpopular opinion and in doing so is exposed to her peers. Barnett recognizes the fear Sargent felt in defending Trotsky, and applauds her courage, “’The coward dies a thousand deaths,” he murmured. “The brave but one.”[xxvii] Sargent effectively triggers a process of self-alteration in Barnett, in which he seriously contemplates her actions and comes to understand them. There is in fact nothing wrong with her (as he previously had thought), and from this point he begins to question his own ideals.
Barnett becomes fascinated with McCarthy, and pursues an affair with her. He believes himself to be in love with her, and she allows him to feel that way. Sabrina Abrams posits that McCarthy often conflates personal relationships with politics. This tension is felt in “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man”, in which the relationship that develops between Sargent and Barnett is equal part political and sexual. “Jim may conquer Margaret’s body; however, she persecutes his conscience. She represented a certain intellectual integrity that he lacks . . . .”[xxviii] Similar to her relationship with Mr. Breen, Barnett may possess Sargent physically, but her intellect is out of reach. There remains a disparity, in which Sargent is superior in mind but seems to be used physically by Barnett. Yet she is still able to affect change in him. “He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him; she had showed him the cage of his own nature.”[xxix] Self-knowledge harms Barnett, as it illuminates the limitations of his existence.
Sargent therefore is both fearful and courageous, exhibiting the contradictions inherent to the novel. Carol Brightman seems to disagree with Nelson’s perspective on McCarthy’s “toughness.” Brightman writes of the original publication of the “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” “the story broke like a comet over the heads of McCarthy’s literary generation; and it established her reputation as a writer, a rough writer, and as a woman, a tough woman—neither of which she was at all.”[xxx] It is unclear why Brightman denies that McCarthy was a tough woman. In The Company She Keeps Sargent never shies away from revealing exact truths, and in doing so must face painful situations. Her powerful skills of observation allow her to be highly critical, not only of others but of herself. Here the line between McCarthy and Sargent becomes blurred. It is clear that The Company She Keeps can be treated as a compilation of autobiographical stories (asides from the Yale Man[xxxi]) in which case the toughness displayed by Sargent is a reflection of McCarthy’s aesthetic.
In the final story of The Company She Keeps, “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” the reader finds Meg Sargent sprawled across a therapist couch. She has been advised by her second husband (Frederick) to seek professional help for her “hysteria.” He criticizes her neurosis and makes judgments on her sanity. Frances Kiernan writes of the episode, “Pinned like some poor broken butterfly to Dr. James’s couch, Meg Sargent views her predicament with an amusement so sardonic as to be almost savage.”[xxxii] She delivers a “malicious portrait” of Dr. James, painting him as a predictable and bland character. However, her confidence falters—what if she was wrong in her analysis? Sargent typically delivers her sharp observations with an assured belief in her superior intellect. Yet in this instance she reveals her vulnerability. Mary McCarthy’s fascination with pain and fact are most evident in the final story. Nelson writes of McCarthy (and Arendt’s) concept of reality:
They sought not relief from pain but heightened sensitivity to what they called reality. Perversely or not, they imagined the consolations for pain in intimacy, empathy, and solidarity as anesthetic. Their toleration of pain—indeed, their insistence on its ordinariness—is a part of their eccentricity. (88)
Nelson’s analysis of McCarthy’s approach to healing reflects Sargent’s own analysis of therapy:
First comes the anesthetic, the sweet optimistic laughing-gas of science. After consciousness has been put to sleep…it is a very easy matter to cut out the festering conscience, which was of no use to you at all, and was only making you suffer. Then the patient takes a short rest and emerges as a cured neurotic; the personality has vanished, but otherwise he is perfectly normal (276).
McCarthy confirms Nelson’s idea of the “anesthetic” effect of healing in Sargent’s description of therapy. Sargent dissects the process of therapeutic healing, reducing it to an extraction of personality and consciousness. Sargent views therapy as a weakening force. The sympathy and solidarity provided by Dr. James makes Sargent fear that she will lose her agency. If Sargent’s personality and opinions are suppressed, she can no longer communicate the truth. “…[U]nder the pressure of this, her own sense of truth was weakening. This and her wonderful scruples were all she had in the world…”[xxxiii] Therefore she chooses to reject healing, and embrace the pain caused by her neuroses and troubled past.
In reflecting upon her childhood, Sargent realizes that as she grew into an adult, she went through a process of self-alteration in which she abandoned the religion, the temperament and the culture of her upbringing. However, after her first marriage she began to resume her old ways. She attempts to restore herself: “[s]he knew that she did not cry or make disgusting scenes or have cheap tastes or commit adultery…”[xxxiv] yet these elements of her personality continue to reappear. In rejecting her past, Sargent appropriated an identity that was not authentic. She viewed her previous self as an alien personality, until “she came at last to the place where she wondered whether the false self was not the true one?”[xxxv] Not only is Sargent grappling with her self-identity, but she is coming to terms with her own self-delusion
The reader is led to believe that Sargent succumbs to Dr. James analysis, after he wins her affection by complimenting her beauty and her intellect. However, she recalls his words, “I think you can,” and realizes that the intimacy and solidarity she felt with him had been a therapeutic lie[xxxvi] Here McCarthy asserts her rejection of healing. To succumb to psychoanalysis would be a continuation of self-delusion. She recalls a dream in which she kisses a man with a “Byronic air” only to discover he is a Nazi. In recognizing the extremity of her dream she realizes that she is still capable of distinguishing a Nazi from an English nobleman—she could still, “detect her own frauds.”[xxxvii] She realizes that to maintain her self-knowledge she must resist the numbing effects of psychoanalysis.
Nelson posits that McCarthy was deeply interested in the human capacity to change. “This continual self-alteration by contact with the world could be secured and enhanced by the cultivation of the organs of perception, that is, in the realm of the aesthetic.”[xxxviii] By cultivating perception one is always aware. A heightened awareness of reality forces self-reflection and thereby self-alteration. Sargent struggles to define her self-identity through her encounters with others without succumbing to group identification. She is open to reality and resists the temptation of self-delusion. Yet the sharp and scathing observation delivered by Sargent was subject to extreme criticism. It must be noted that it is hard to find analysis of McCarthy’s work that does not comment on the severity and cruelty of her heroine. Beverly Gross explores the “bitch” identity imposed upon McCarthy. She accurately notes that, “Her six novels seem less acts of imagination than of social and intellectual criticism, scoring the pretentious vulgarity of American life and the treachery of doctrinal thinking.”[xxxix] Gross attempts to find a positive element in the essentially misogynistic label so often attributed to McCarthy. The term “bitch” acknowledges McCarthy’s, “singular authority, courage, and self-possession.”[xl] Critics are quick to label McCarthy as a cold bitch because she rejects the identity of warmth, empathy and intimacy that is attributed to women.[xli]
The bold sexuality of Sargent combined with her neurosis and self-doubt make her an unusual and conflicted heroine. Sargent’s final plea for disunity provides a startling conclusion: a flawed heroine who does not wish to become complacent. McCarthy rejects the discourse of healing that flourished in postwar America, instead she chooses to explore pain and suffering. “Her heroines are both intellectually superior and self-sacrificing, both independent thinking and self-doubting, and, as such, they are a realistic representation of the ambivalent position of the woman intellectual in postwar America.”[xlii] Abrams illuminates the contradictions inherent to the novel, yet also hints at the greater aesthetic that guides the narrative. Sargent is a complex and contradicting character because she is undergoing a continual process of self-alteration.
Finally, a parallel can be drawn between Nelson’s position on McCarthy’s politics and Meg Sargent’s search for identity in The Company She Keeps. Nelson posits that McCarthy remained detached from, “[t]he progressive social movements that emerged in the Cold War era, all of which advocated bonds of intimacy and group identification.”[xliii][xliv] McCarthy preferred solitude, and remained uncommitted to any political ideology. This sentiment can also be seen in The Company She Keeps. Katharine Whitehorn interprets the title of the novel as revealing of, “the difficulty a woman on her own has in having any identity that is not just a reflection of each person she meets in turn.”[xlv] The novel opens with Sargent closing one chapter of her life and attempting to start anew. In her relationship with Mr. Breen we see Sargent giving in to a man completely ill-suited for her. He desperately tries to win her affections, and upon succeeding begins to lose interest in her. He visits her in New York, but with each trip his affection wanes. She attempts to please him however, “[a]ll her gestures grew over-feminine and demonstrative; the lift of her eyebrows was a shade too arch: like a passée belle,  she was overplaying herself.”[xlvi] Sargent realizes that her actions are inauthentic, and gives up trying to win him over. Instead of conforming to the girl he wants to see in her, she accepts that his understanding of her is deluded. Her search for self-knowledge culminates in a dissection of her past. She reflects upon her misguided relationships, her sexual transgressions, and her dysfunctional childhood. However she resists becoming the “creature that Dr. James and Frederick want her to be”[xlvii] Instead of submitting to healing she chooses to embrace her “disunity.”
The Company She Keeps was McCarthy’s first novel, therefore perhaps Nelson’s hypothesis of McCarthy’s aesthetic is not fully realized in novel. Instead The Company She Keeps reveals the roots of McCarthy’s aesthetic, which she will continue to define throughout her career.

Rhiannon Tudhope
CHUM338: New York City in the ‘40s
Wesleyan University
May 2011










[i] Deborah Nelson. “The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anesthetics of Empathy.” American Literary History, Volume 18. Oxford University Press, 2006: 94.
[ii] Mary McCarthy. “Fact in Fiction.” A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays. The New York Review of Books: New York, 2002: 200.
[iii] Deborah Nelson. “The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy,

Sunday, 26 April 2015