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  • Mary McCarthy and McCarthyism: A Review of “The Group”

    Posted on April 9th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Not many people remember Mary McCarthy anymore, but she was a household name among the literati back in the 50’s and 60’s, as both a novelist and a political activist.  I’d never read any of her work, but noticed in an old review of her novel The Group that she was a Vassar grad.  I used to date a Vassar girl, as my alma mater was West Point, about 30 miles down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and the novel was about Vassar girls, so for no more substantial reason than that, I decided to have a look.  It was a good decision.  Given what I look for in novels, The Group was one of the best I’ve ever read.

    When it comes to literature, I agree with my favorite author, Stendhal.  He said that novels were artifacts of the time in which they were written, and were meant to appeal to the tastes of people who lived in those times.  I also agree with George Orwell, who held that novels are a way of expressing truths that the limitations of language make it difficult to express in any other way.  From both points of view, I found The Group superb.  It is full of the impressions left in the mind of a very intelligent woman by the life going on around her, in this case, in the 30’s, following her graduation from Vassar in 1933, told from the point of view of a “group” of her fellow graduates.  It is a perfect time capsule.

    What’s in the capsule?  Well, to begin, I found an artifact of the contemporary “progressives'” embrace of eugenics before Hitler ruined everything, as exemplified by the father of Kay Strong, one of “the group.”

    Dad, like all modern doctors, believed in birth control and was for sterilizing criminals and the unfit.

    How about a morality inversion?  Kay’s dad had sent her a check on the occasion of her marriage to a playwright by the name of Harald Peterson and she agreed with him that,

    It was a declaration of faith… And she and Harald did not intend to betray that faith by breeding children(!, ed.), when Harald had his name to make in the theatre.

    Which, of course, begs the question of why it is that anyone is predisposed to “make a name” for himself.  My readers should know the answer to that question.  I note in passing that McCarthy’s first husband was also named Harald.  Another thing documented in the novel is the fact that, at least for some, the sexual revolution happened a long time before the pill was ever heard of.  There are detailed descriptions of the prophylactic techniques of the day, including the diaphragm, sort of a trap door in the way of hopeful sperm that was carefully fitted to cover the opening of the cervix by a gynecologist.  This was used in tandem with the douchebag, containing a spermicidal concoction to finish off the more recalcitrant searchers for the holy grail.  According to the novel, women who were open to sexual adventures would announce the fact by hanging these on the back of their bathroom door.

    Perhaps the most useful insight one can glean from The Group is the prevalence and matter-of-fact acceptance of Communists in the 30’s.  Many magazines, some of which are still around today, were open advocates of Communism in those days.  Kay’s classmate, Libby MacAusland, an aspiring book reviewer, noticed this in the case of two titles still familiar today.  As she put it:

    At the Nation and the New Republic they said too that you had to run a gauntlet of Communists before getting in to see the book editor – all sorts of strange characters, tattooed sailors right off the docks and longshoremen and tramps and bearded cranks from the Village cafeterias, none of them having had a bath for weeks.

    Most of the action takes place in New York, and playwrights there noticed the same phenomenon.  For example, Kay’s playwright husband, Harald,

    …had been directing a play for a left-wing group downtown.  It was one of those profit-sharing things, co-operatives, but run really by Communists behind the scenes, as Harald found out in due course.  The play was about labor, and the audiences were mostly theatre parties got up by the trade unions.

    Another of the Vassar classmates, Polly Andrews, became the lover of Gus LeRoy, a book reviewer for one of the big New York Publishers.  He is described as a humdrum man whose embrace of Communism was described as something entirely commonplace and unremarkable:

    His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression.  (George Bernard) Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union.  So Gus switched to Communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself.  He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impresse3d by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl Guide.  After that, Norman Thomas (longtime leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S., ed.) seemed pretty ineffectual.

    Polly’s father, who comes to live with her after divorcing his wife, preferred another flavor of Communism:

    And unlike the village cure in France, who had required him to take instruction before being “received,” the Trotskyites, apparently, had accepted him as he was.  He never understood the “dialectic” and was lax in attendance at meetings, but he made up for this by the zeal with which, wearing a red necktie and an ancient pair of spats, he sold the Socialist Appeal on the street outside Stalinist rallies.

    Polly’s dad has some choice words for the New York Times’ prize, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Moscow.  Chagrined at the refusal of his daughter’s Aunt Julia to include a small behest to the Trotskyists in her will he remarks:

    But Julia has been convinced by what she reads in the papers that we Trotskyites are counter-revolutionary agents bent on destroying the Soviet Union.  Walter Duranty and those fellows, you know, have made her believe in the trials (the Great Purge Trials of the old Bolsheviks, ed.).  If what they write wasn’t true, she says, it wouldn’t be in the New York Times, would it?

    In short, what the novel is documenting here is the fact that, among the “woke” elements in the population back in the 30’s, Communism was a commonplace.  Look at the entertainment and literary magazines of the day, and you’ll see that it was just as prevalent in Hollywood as it was in New York.  Which brings us back to the title of this post.  I refer, of course, to McCarthyism.

    McCarthyism lays fair claim to being the next to the biggest media scam of the 20th century, taking second place only to the Watergate coup d’état.  The news media were nearly as firmly in the grip of the ideological Left in Joe McCarthy’s day as they are now, and those who controlled the message were perfectly well aware that many of their friends and ideological soulmates had been party members or fellow travelers in the 30’s.  Once it became obvious that Walter Duranty and his pals had been purveying some of the most egregious “fake news” ever heard of, and the Communists and their collaborators actually had the blood of tens of millions on their hands, all these would be saviors of the proletariat were in a precarious position.  Then tail gunner Joe began seriously rocking the boat, “kicking ass and taking names,” as we used to say in the Army.  Something had to be done.  The result was the media-contrived charade we now know as McCarthyism.  Instead of feeling sympathy for the tens of millions of voiceless victims of Communism lying in mass graves starved and tortured to death or with bullet holes in their skulls, the American people were successfully bamboozled into wringing their hands over blighted careers of those who had gleefully collaborated in their murder.  McCarthy was cast in the role of one of the media’s greatest villains, an evil witch hunter.  The fact that the witches were actually there, and in great abundance, didn’t seem to matter.

    If you think Mary McCarthy was some right wing zealot who was trying to exonerate tail gunner Joe when The Group was published in 1954, guess again.  Indeed, as Alex might have said in A Clockwork Orange, “now comes the weepy part of the story, oh my brothers (and sisters).”  Mary McCarthy was actually a lesser, albeit smarter, version of Jane Fonda.  That’s right.  She, too, traveled to North Vietnam as the war was raging in the south and openly collaborated with the enemy.  She was a leftist activist of the first water.

    What can I say?  I still loved the book.  As it happens, not everyone agreed with me.  Stanley Kauffmann, a noted critic back in the day, wrote a scathing review of The Group when it was republished in 1964.  Kauffmann, too, was a leftist, and complained that McCarthy had been insufficiently zealous in portraying the oppression and victimization of his pet identity groups.  Beyond that, however, he criticized the disconnected story line and McCarthy’s lack of “style.”  To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the critics mean when they speak of “style,” and I could care less about it.  It appears my favorite Stendhal was also lacking in “style.”  It’s a matter of complete indifference to me.  What I look for in novels are such things as the accurate portrayal of the times in which they were written, insight into human nature, and bits that teach me a little bit something about my own quirks and follies.  I like Stendhal, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, and Kafka (because he’s so good at amplifying my worst nightmares).  I don’t like Dickens, I don’t like Joyce, and I don’t like Proust.  That’s not to say they aren’t great authors.  I don’t doubt that they are, because people whose opinions I respect have found much to like in them.  I just didn’t find what I like.  I did find it in The Group.  Have a look and see if you find it, too.  Don’t miss the bits about “advanced” methods of child rearing back in the 30’s.  I suspect they would make any modern pediatrician’s hair stand on end.  Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out some of McCarthy’s other stuff.

  • Contra Stendhal and Other Whimsies of Massimo d’Azeglio

    Posted on March 23rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo d’Azeglio was a 19th century Italian patriot.  He occasionally turns up on the Internet as “Massimo Taparelli” as well.  I happened to run across his memoirs in the random walk that accounts for most of what I read.  Sometimes you get lucky.  So it was with d’Azeglio, who turned out to be a highly original thinker, and whose Recollections are full of all kinds of whimsical bon mots.

    It turns out that there’s a lot about d’Azeglio that reminds me of my favorite novelist, Stendhal.  He had a highly developed sense of personal honor and dignity.  He admired the fine arts, and dabbled in painting himself as a young man, as did Stendhal in acting.  Both were profoundly influenced by their experiences in Milan, and Stendhal, who experienced a love affair there that turned out tragically, at least for a Frenchman, because the lady refused to give in, went so far as to call himself “Milanese” on his gravestone.  Both were dismayed by foreign domination of their native lands.  And finally, both were filled with hope, fear, and anxiety about whether the readers of the future, the people Stendhal dreamed of as “The Happy Few,” would notice them.  All of which makes it all the more interesting that d’Azeglio’s take on Napoleon’s occupation of Italy was exactly the opposite of Stendhal’s.

    Stendhal, of course, worshipped the great man, as anyone who has read The Red and the Black is well aware.  To hear him tell it, the only ones in Italy who opposed the French occupation were a few ultramontane priests and reactionary aristocrats.  For example, from The Charterhouse of Parma,

     On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan… A whole people discovered that everything that until then it had respected was supremely ridiculous, if not actually hateful.  People saw that in order to be really happy after centuries of cloying sensations, it was necessary to love one’s country with a real love and to seek out heroic actions… These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; they were all under 25 years of age, and their Commander in Chief, who had reached twenty-seven, was reckoned the oldest man in his army.  The gaiety, this youthfulness, this irresponsibility, furnished a jocular reply to the furious preachings of the monks, who, for six months, had been announcing from the pulpit that the French were monsters, obliged, upon pain of death, to burn down everything and to cut off everyone’s head… At the most it would have been possible to point to a few families belonging to the higher ranks of the nobility, who had retired to their palaces in the country, as though in a sullen revolt against the prevailing high spirits and the expansion of every heart.

    After the French were temporarily driven out in Napoleon’s absence,

    These gentlemen, quite worthy people when they were not in a state of panic, but who were always trembling, succeeded in getting round the Austrian General:  a good enough man at heart, he let himself be persuaded that severity was the best policy, and ordered the arrest of one hundred and fifty patriots:  quite the best men to be found in Italy at the time.

    Which brings us to some essential differences between the two men.  Whereas d’Azeglio adored his father, Stendhal loathed his, and always blamed him for the loss of his mother, whom he madly adored, at the age of four.  And whereas Stendhal always envied the aristocracy he portrayed with such spite, d’Azeglio actually belonged to it.  His father might easily have passed for one of “these gentlemen,” although by his son’s account he was a brave soldier who wasn’t given to trembling, and was neither harsh nor greedy.  So it was that, though both men were romantic patriots, and both were in some sense products of and profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, d’Azeglio’s recollection of the occupation was not so rosy.  In his words,

     I have already said that to the minds of his contemporaries Napoleon appeared as an irresistible Fate; and this is true.  Imagine, then, the bewilderment of all those who, though crushed under that enormous weight, and without hope of rescue, continued to chafe under injustice and disgrace, when the first ray of a possible redemption gleamed forth, – when came the earliest tidings of the report, borne almost on the wind, Napoleon is vanquished!  Napoleon is retreating!

    At last, one blessed day, came the glad tidings that Napoleon was no longer our master, and that we were, or were about to become, free and independent once more.  He who was not at Turin on that day can form no idea of the delirious joy of a whole population at its utmost height.

    Quite a difference for two men who were fundamentally quite alike.  No doubt a good Marxist would just apply his cookie cutter and come up with a smug class interpretation.  I doubt it’s quite that simple.  Family loyalties and clashing national patriotisms undoubtedly played a role as well.  In any case, d’Azeglio had no illusions about the kind of men who came back to take Napoleon’s place.  He was in full agreement with Stendhal on that score:

    I felt the reaction – I know its effects; and although even it has not made me regret Napoleon and French dominion in Italy, it is none the less true that we lost a government which, sooner or later, would have secured the triumph of those principles which are the life of human society, to revert to a government of ignorant and imbecile men, full of vanity and prejudice.

    Neither the Romans nor Europe could then foresee that the sovereigns, and the ministers representing the re-constituted governments, would be so blind as not to perceive how different were the men of 1814 from those of 1789, and not to know that they would certainly be most unwilling to give up that portion of good to which the great genius of Napoleon and the changes wrought by time had accustomed them.  The princes and their ministers who returned from exile found it convenient to accept the heritage of Napoleon sub conditione; they retained the police and the bureaucracy, the taxes, enormous standing armies, and so forth; but the good system of judicial and civil administration, the impulse given to science and personal merit, equalization of classes, improvement and increase of communication, liberty of conscience, and many other excellent features in the government of the great conqueror, were all ruthlessly flung aside.

    In a word, in spite of his reflexive loathing for Napoleon, not to mention his aristocratic father and a beloved brother who became a fanatical Jesuit cleric, d’Azeglio was much too intelligent to blind himself to the great man’s virtues.  Stendhal would have smiled.

    Here are a few more d’Azeglio-isms for the delectation of my readers:

    War exercises over nations a more salutary influence than a long peace.  Fidelity to a difficult and perilous duty educates men, and makes them fit to perform more peaceful tasks well and worthily… A singular conclusion might be drawn from all this, – viz. that a nation, in order to preserve those virtues which save it from decay, is necessarily obliged to kill a certain number of its neighbors every now and then.  I leave the reader to meditate on this question, and intend to study it myself one day.  Meanwhile, let us proceed.

    It is not in our natures to believe more than the priests themselves; and facts have always shown that the priests of Rome believe very little.  The Italians, therefore, have never considered dogmatic questions very seriously.

    Both parents had too much good sense to fall into the error so common in those parents who undertake the education of their children, viz. that of studying their own vanity or convenience instead of the good of their pupils.  I was never subjected to any of those domestic tortures to which, through maternal vanity, those unhappy children intended to act the laborious part of enfants prodiges are so often condemned… Adulation and incitement to pride and vanity, though they may be a mistaken form of parental affection, are in fact the worst of lessons for the child, and the most baneful in their results.

    But my education was governed by the Jesuit system, and the problem it has always so admirably solved is this – to keep a young man till he is twenty constantly employed in studies which are of little or no value in forming his character, his intelligence, and his judgment.

    In factious times, past and present, we fall into the habit of calling the men of our own party good, and our adversaries bad; as if it were possible that a country should be divided into two distinct bodies; five millions of honest men, for instance, on one side, and five millions of rascals on the other.  Men who profess these ideas are, as is natural, often bamboozled, or worse, by a scoundrel, whom they believe honest for no other reason than that he belongs to their own party.  To avoid this, let us forbear from selecting friends and confidants only on account of their political opinions; and let us remember that, if two different opinion professed by two opposite parties cannot be equally true, logical, and good, two men belonging to the said opposite parties are just as likely to be two arrant knaves as two honest men.

    It would seem the evolutionary psychologists weren’t the first ones to notice the existence of ingroups and outgroups.  The Recollections contain many other interesting and amusing sentiments that you’re not likely to run across on Foxnews or CNN.  As they say, read the whole thing.  D’Azeglio would have been pleased.

     

    Massimo d'Azeglio

    Massimo d’Azeglio

  • Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”: Literature Making a Comeback?

    Posted on March 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone.  To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism.  As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,

    Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

    Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

    His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic.  For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now.  It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world.  Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process.  Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present.  In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.

    While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either.  As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate.  In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20’s or 30’s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two.  The same goes for serious fiction.

    However, I keep searching.  In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked.  It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover.  For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.”  That’s no exaggeration.  I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words.  However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot.  McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel.  The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.  I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me.  I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately.  Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally.  No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”

    However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,

     And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind?  Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot.  Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science.  And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920’s?  It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)

    and,

     I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile.  A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution.  Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences.  The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.

    Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality?  Great shades of Arrowsmith!  I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about.  You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.

    How about this one:

     We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions.  I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats.  A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.

    I couldn’t agree more.  And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:

    Most educated people read contemporary novels.  Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened.  Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized.  It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.  A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.

    Sounds plausible to me.  Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me.  We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples.  Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film.  I’ll have to check it out.

    Stendhal Gravestone