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The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anesthetics of Empathy
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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 86-101



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The Virtues of Heartlessness:

Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anesthetics of Empathy

To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires deep sympathy modified by revulsion.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

1. Introduction: Alone on the Same Side

One evening in the late 1940s, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy found themselves standing together on a subway platform in uncomfortable silence. Though both were returning home from an editorial meeting for the magazine politics, on which they had both served for some time, neither had spoken to the other since their disastrous first encounter at a party six years earlier. Arendt approached McCarthy and said in her typically blunt manner, "Let's end this nonsense. We think too much alike" (Brightman, Writing Dangerously 299). Each then apologized, and so began one of the most vital intellectual friendships of the last century. Brock Bower aptly surmises why they were able to make peace: over the years at politics, "they found that on any number of public questions they always ended up on the same side, and 'usually alone'" (qtd. in Gelderman 43). Carol Brightman, McCarthy's biographer and the editor of their letters, suggests that they formed a "party of two" (Between Friends xxx), but it is more accurate to make use of Bower's felicitous turn of phrase: on the same side and alone. Being "alone" "on the same side" seems to me an unusually precise characterization of the detached quality of relation they sought in each other and in their political affiliations.

Their preference for going it alone has made them difficult to categorize politically. McCarthy could have been referring to herself [End Page 86] or Arendt when she described another friend, the Italian drama critic and political anarchist Nicola Chiaramonte: "[H]is ideas did not fit into any established category; he was neither on the left nor on the right. Nor did it follow that he was in the middle—he was alone" (McCarthy, Occasional 10). Nevertheless, not only did their stands on particular issues ostracize them, at times, from potential allies, but so too did their mode of relation. Arendt's and McCarthy's detachment, their preference for solitude over solidarity, sets them apart from the type of political affiliation favored by the progressive social movements that emerged in the Cold War era, all of which advocated bonds of intimacy and group identification. Indeed, their repudiation of both in theory, to say nothing of their refusal in practice, marked these women as pariahs within groups that expected to win their support. Arendt's major work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, On Revolution, carefully dissected the "devastating" effects of compassion in political life (72). When the social movements of the late twentieth century recommended the healing power of empathy as the glue of solidarity and the aim of progressive politics, Arendt and McCarthy recoiled, not from the goal of social justice but the path to it. It was not always easy for their readers to make this distinction.

Their refusal of empathy and solidarity was taken by many to be unpardonable. It was, furthermore, quite literally unthinkable because it landed squarely in the heart of postwar America's incoherent relationship to psychic pain and its remedies. As Lauren Berlant in "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics" (1999) and Wendy Brown in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995) have argued, intimacy, empathy, and solidarity derived their conceptual and social power from their imagined capacity to heal a deep and often traumatic psychic wound. This relief from pain through empathy resonated widely with other discourses of recovery in late-twentieth-century America. Indeed, as Shoshana Felman has argued, the twentieth century was "a century of traumas and (concurrently) a century of theories of trauma" (1). It is essential, however, to cast the dilemma of pain more broadly still by remembering that it is not peculiar to areas that we identify with woundedness&#x02014...