Mary McCarthy has often been called a “contrarian.” Joseph Epstein referred to her as such in a retrospective essay for Commentary in May 1993, and Mark Greif did the same more recently in his book, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2007). McCarthy appeared to play up that reputation herself when she titled her first essay collection On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1947-1961. Yet the term is misleading. McCarthy never takes opposing views as a matter of course, though the conclusions she reaches are often a surprise. Her arguments have the force of commitment; she never aims merely to provoke. The key word in her book title actually comes after the colon. Not “faith,” which can easily be blind, but “belief,” which admits to the possibility of being proved wrong.
Though best known today for her novels, McCarthy’s strongest work is to be found in her essays on literature, society, and politics. The essays’ greatest virtue, in my opinion, is their attention to the way we talk about public matters: the phrases that serve as badges, bargaining chips, or bludgeons. What she does with the phrases is harder to describe. We could say she “investigates” them, but the word is now so often used with the implication that the author knows and approves of where the investigator will end up that I hesitate to use it here. (The same is true of “subvert,” “upend,” and their kin.) She is deeply interested in the terms that make up public discourse, in how they are used, and in what connotations they carry, either unwittingly or by design, and she often draws these connotations out so as to analyze them. While many political journalists perform similar tasks today, McCarthy’s process is distinct because she does not merely put words on trial but plays around with them in such a way that her playfulness is integral to her seriousness. Her flexibility guards her against the self-importance that can mar so much political writing, and it keeps the phrases themselves from having too much power.
A fine example of McCarthy’s skill with political language appears in “The Contagion of Ideas,” one of several essays dealing with the Red Scare. In it she talks about the imagery used to stoke fears about the spread of Communist ideology. For somebody to be accused, she writes,
it is enough to show that a primary school teacher belongs or has belonged to a subversive organization; from this, I quote, arises “the danger of infection,” as if Communism were a sort of airborne virus that could be wafted from a teacher to her pupils, without anybody’s seeing it and even though the whole hygiene of school and family and civic life today was such, one would think, as to sterilize the child against such “germs.”
McCarthy expands on the phrase “the danger of infection” to make light of its absurdities and turn its logic inside out. Yet the syntax is remarkable for how jubilantly it enacts the imagery it picks apart. The reader glides carefully down a meandering sentence, past turns and interruptions (“one would think”), only to land on another key word: “germs.” The quotation marks are satirical, but they also mimic the pincers used to handle objects one would prefer not to touch with bare hands. They signal a double tone. The distancing is both that of the citizen, frightened of Communist germs, and of the essay’s author, who finds such germ-terms distasteful. The ironies in this passage are made to turn back against their maker.
McCarthy’s alertness to the implications of public language extends to subjects that are not directly political. Her review of Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, by Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham, does similar work with the language of popular psychology books:
The mechanical view of psychology has never been so broadly rendered. Other pictures of women vanish before a vision of The Lost Sex as a broken-down sedan with Mr. Lundberg and Dr. Farnham in mechanics’ overalls peering under the hood. The frigid wife in the other twin bed will never look the same again to the husband with the psychiatric know-how. Private parts become “parts” to be sent to the psychoanalytic repair shop for reconditioning. The terminology of love and of medicine is replaced by the jargon of the factory and the garage: there is no more talk of passion or of healing, but only of functioning and adjustment.
Here, too, McCarthy’s lines are striking for the way they combine strong-minded criticism with an imaginative expansion of the language she might simply have knocked. In drawing out the mechanical quality of words like “parts,” “functioning,” and “adjustment,” McCarthy imagines a repair shop with the two psychologists cast as mechanics, inspecting a woman who has been transformed into a broken-down sedan. The effect is cartoonish, with that sinister streak which lurks at the back of so many cartoons (the goggle-eyed “peering”). The surreal quality of this scene is compounded by the fact McCarthy claims simply to be returning these terms to the context from which they are drawn. And yet it is her inventiveness that is apparent throughout—her willingness to have fun with the words rather than to just make fun of them.
A final example derives from what is perhaps her funniest essay, “Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue,” on the language of women’s magazines.
The trend of the times is resolutely reckoned with: today “the smaller collectors who have only one Giorgione” buy at Knoedler’s Gallery, just as Mellon used to do. As John Jacob Astor III said, “A man who has a million dollars is as well off as if he were rich.” What a delicious sow’s ear, my dear, where did you get it? The small collection, the little evening imply the intimate and the choice, as well as the tiniest pinch of necessity. Little hats, little furs, tiny waists—Vogue and the Bazaar are wriggling with them; in the old days hats were small. And as some images of size contract or cuddle (“Exciting too the tight skull of a hat with no hair showing”; “the sharp, small, polished head”), others stretch to wrap and protect: enormous, huge, immense—“a colossal muff,” “vast” sleeves; how to have enormous eyes. By these semantic devices the reader is made to feel small, frail and valuable. The vocabulary has become extremely tactile and sensuous, the caress of fine fabrics and workmanship being replaced by the caress of prose.
McCarthy offers a sharp analysis of what these key terms connote, what frame of mind they put us in. But she clearly enjoys parading them in her prose, so that the pleasure of her imitation cannot be chalked up to mockery alone. For McCarthy, there is delight in capturing a mode of speech that is characteristic of a specific genre and milieu, and in getting it right. There is also an implicit acknowledgment that the words “little hats, little furs, tiny waists,” and “colossal muff, vast sleeves, enormous eyes” do carry a certain charm. Such devices cannot entirely be dead language, or else they would be ineffectual. They make this world of objects a place in which you might want to cozy up.
The playfulness evident in these examples is essential to the justness of McCarthy’s writing. Finding pleasure in public language kept her from pouncing on the terms used by “the other side” and so dismissing them, or from using her own language as a bludgeon. McCarthy knew there were better ways to take on public discourse than to “eviscerate” it (a word often used to praise political commentators today). By dealing with that discourse imaginatively, she attempted to renew our attention to public language, while renewing the possibilities of words whose sense and function had become overdetermined.
“The other side” is in scare quotes because, though not a contrarian, McCarthy would be equally ill-served by that other popular attack-term of our present moment: “partisan.” Granted, she never takes an “each side is bad as the other” position, dispensing criticism to each political group in turn so as to spread the blame equally. Nobody would peg her as a conservative, but she also does not always take positions one would attribute to a liberal or a radical of her generation. She does not see herself as part of a political war which must end with the triumph of a single ideology.
That flexibility—which can easily be mistaken for flippancy—is apparent in her essay “America the Beautiful.” There she argues that Europeans are generally more materialistic than Americans, an argument which, she admits, seems counterintuitive.
The virtue of American civilization is that it is unmaterialistic. […] This statement may strike a critic as whimsical or perverse. Everybody knows, it will be said, that America has the most materialistic civilization in the world, that Americans care only about money, they have no time or talent for living; look at radio, look at advertising, look at life insurance, look at the tired businessman, at the Frigidaires and the Fords.
And certainly, McCarthy enjoys the surprise she thinks most readers will feel when reading this essay. But her arguments are more interesting than mere cheek.
Familiarity [with new objects] has perhaps bred contempt in us Americans: until you have had a washing machine, you cannot imagine how little difference it will make to you. Europeans still believe that money brings happiness, witness the bought journalist, the bought politician, the bought general, the whole venality of European literary life, inconceivable in this country of the dollar. It is true that America produces and consumes more cars, soap, and bathtubs than any other nation, but we live among these objects rather than by them. Americans build skyscrapers; LeCorbusier worships them. Ehrenburg, our Soviet critic, fell in love with the Check-O-Mat in American railway stations, writing home paragraphs of song to this gadget—while deploring American materialism. When an American heiress wants to buy a man, she at once crosses the Atlantic. The only really materialistic people I have ever met have been Europeans.
Did McCarthy really believe this? Of course, she was aware that America had its share of bought politicians, too. One might easily raise an eyebrow at her choice of evidence, which is made up entirely of anecdotes. The energy in this passage comes less from its full-throated commitment to its central thesis than from McCarthy’s pleasure in imagining colorful vignettes that will illustrate her argument. But this does not take away from the significance of her thinking, for she takes her premise seriously: If materialism is an excessive attachment to—and worship of—objects, then how can Americans, who do away with these so easily, be considered materialists? This question arises from genuine skepticism about how easily such attack-words can be pinned on others. What McCarthy does with “materialism” is representative of how she takes on public language more generally. Rather than leaning on such terms, she works back to their root definition and follows their logic through, the idea being she might end up somewhere we never expected. One wonders what imaginative commentary she would have provided in our own era of “alternative facts,” “bleeding hearts,” and “safe spaces”—phrases that, like their predecessors, are so fixed as to have put public discourse into a deadlock.