Review of Hearts and Minds:
The letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy

By Claudia Roth Pierpont

Passages quoted from pp. 97-98
from: The New Yorker, March 20, 1995

Declaring pity for Hitler, in the spring of 1945, proved to be more cleverness than even the company around Mary McCarthy could bear, and the party gave way to a scene. Hannah Arendt, who had got out of Germany the same year that McCarthy got out of Vassar, demanded to know how McCarthy dared say such a thing "in front of me--a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp!" McCarthy had not intended a moral or political statement, needless to say. In fact, she held few strong opinions about the war, beyond a sense of accord with other Partisan Review thinkers that it had really been none of "our" business. Her intellectual celebrity and dauntless cultural criticism not-withstanding, McCarthy’s politics were cliquish and literary, and her attention to the devastation of Europe had been confined to appraisals of war movies and war correspondents. Her point that evening was a matter of social psychology: it was Hitler’s longing for the love of the Parisians, even while he occupied their city, that struck her as so uncomprehending as to be pitiable. McCarthy's usual audience would have been able to hear in this display of ingenuous wonder its author’s well-known love of shock and contradiction, and also the giddy sense of political imagery that marked her rueful autobiographical stories--stories in which wives collapsed from within like France and the unconscious was a Soviet prison and the message was always entirely self-conscious and personal. The message this time seemed to be that, unlike Hitler, Mary McCarthy knew better than to expect love from her victims.

It was not a message that Hannah Arendt was equipped to hear, and, deaf to excuses, she stalked off to upbraid their host, Philip Rahv, for the kind of talk he allowed in his apartment. ("How can you . . . you, a Jew?") Thus began the standoff between two of the most intellectually and temperamentally opposed women anybody knew, which lasted for almost four unspeaking years, until Arendt approached McCarthy on a cold New York subway platform following a meeting for a political magazine and uttered the propitiatory words "We two think so much alike." From this richly productive lie grew one of the literary world’s most loyal friendships, lasting until Arendt’s death, a quarter of a century later.

"The Origins of Totalitarianism," four hundred and seventy-seven pages hardbound--a book that Arendt had begun writing in 1945, overcoming her sense of "speechless outrage and impotent horror."

Arendt's original, driving aim, openly declared in the early outlines of this masterwork, was to argue against the inevitability of history, and to show that the Nazi catastrophe could have been avoided. The unsettling aspect of his argument was Arendt’s insistence that the Jews themselves must face up to a significant measure of responsibility for their fate. In the completed book, she charges the Jews with having been politically unaware and, historically, with having chosen the conditions of isolation and self-mythologizing racial antagonism that were to be turned against them to such monstrous effect.

Arendt's point about Jewish history was diffused and her fury generally disguised by the book’s extraordinary armature of scholarship and its dazzling exploration of anti-Semitism, of racism, and of nineteenth-century imperialism, the forces that in her view had prepared for the twin totalitarian states of Hitler and Stalin. About economics or Marxism as a historical force, she had little to say. She exonerated her revered German culture from a leading role in the development of Nazi anti-Semitism, locating the Nazi’s ideological sources, through a series of impressive intellectual contortions, in the European institutionalization of racism in colonial Africa. The fact that Stalinism was in no way dependent on anti-Semitic ideology as Nazism was did not deflect her from her theory of their common origins: Arendt did not write a balanced book, or an objective one.


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