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The cover of Deborah Nelson’s “Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil,” rendered in elegant grayscale, offers a hint of the provocative personalities within. In the foreground is an upright female hand that lightly, elegantly holds a cigarette as its smoke curls indifferently through the book’s title letters. In the background, blurred, is a sturdy typewriter with a page in the platen. The paper is halfway up the rollers. This is a writer who has already begun; she’s only paused to consider her next big idea.
Each of these six women’s distinctive and fiercely uncompromising viewpoints helped to transform mid- and late-20th century writing, visual arts, political discourse and philosophy. As the title indicates, their work is born of an unflinching astuteness, as in Mary McCarthy’s knife-sharp fiction and criticism and in Joan Didion’s succinct, penetrating perspectives.
But other notable women of the time were also tough, like Patricia Highsmith or Betty Friedan. What is the thread that draws these women together here?
In the book’s introduction, Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, acknowledges that these women initially “do not constitute a recognizable group.” In fact, each was quite determinedly not part of any organized faction. However, by book’s end Nelson has shown that, for all their differences, their work shares an essential bond: unsentimentality. Or, in Nelson’s expanded phrase: an “aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face painful reality unsentimentally.”
This artistic backbone would be useful in any era, but it was especially so in post-WWII America when the scale of suffering from the war, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, was practically impossible to comprehend. These horrors were followed by the Vietnam War, assassinations and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Nelson posits that there were two primal, contradictory responses to the events: empathy, “that required the public sharing of feelings,” or irony and coolness. The former could devolve into wallowing and the latter could disintegrate into disregard. Neither one a good jumpstart for external action or internal growth.
In their work, the women of “Tough Enough” each chose a different way to relate to suffering: directly, but with a “display of feeling … minimized if not outright excluded.”
The term “unsentimental” is a loaded one: compliment or condemnation. It can be a particularly tricky term when applied to women, too easily changing from describing what they create to defining their character. Nelson keeps the book laser-focused on each woman’s works, with a broad background of 20th century culture as context. This presentation mostly succeeds, but since each of these women produced a large portfolio, there were times when I wanted a little more biographical background, or a fuller introduction to an essay.
If you’re of a certain age, you’re probably familiar with many of the writings and photographs highlighted, though Nelson does acknowledge that few readers will know all of the works being analyzed. In style, “Tough Enough” tips more toward academia than a general-interest book; be ready to dive in. Fortunately, Nelson has a very enjoyable writing style that enlivens each analysis; reading even the unfamiliar works is a bit like joining an interesting conversation in progress, and happy to have been invited in.
During her years of research for this book, Nelson also seems to have kept a keen eye for the memorable detail that can breathe crisp air into scholastic scrutiny. She relates the famous story of the older Mary McCarthy (she of the famous “cold eye”) meeting rising star Susan Sontag at a party and saying “So I hear you’re the new me.” Or during the 1972 MOMA retrospective of Diane Arbus’ photographs, how MOMA staff had to wipe spit off the photographs at the close of each day, “as some viewers of the exhibit rendered their judgment in a visceral way.”
Given that their professional lives overlapped, a chapter on one woman’s work also incorporates that of another. McCarthy translated Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” into English for “politics” magazine; Susan Sontag critiqued Diane Arbus’ photographs.
Whether it’s Joan Didion writing about singer/activist Joan Baez, or Hannah Arendt publishing “Eichmann in Jerusalem” — these women are wary of how a surfeit of feelings, whether it’s well-intended sympathy or empathy, can become an end in itself. It’s not that these women want their audience not to feel pain, it’s that simply feeling sympathy or empathy can be “anesthetic” (a word used by both the writers and by Nelson) and can prevent a deeper, clearer way of confronting both everyday pain and inconceivable evil. In this, “Tough Enough” shares part of that theory with 2016’s “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” Paul Bloom’s sometimes jumbled, but often intriguing treatise about using your head more than your heart to make certain momentous decisions.
One of the most infamous controversies surrounding unsentimentality is Hannah Arendt’s 1963 “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” and the enraged reactions it received. Nelson emphasizes that Arendt had worried that “feelings of horror aroused by the death camps [would] obliterate thought.” Here the cultural context is crucial, and a reminder about how much courage it took for each of these women to produce the works that they did.
Mid-century America could not, or would not, deal directly with the horrors of the death camps. As just one of Nelson’s surprising examples on this, the 1955 Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” contained no references to Anne’s Jewishness; the play, according to Nelson, “converted her story into a timeless and universal example of the triumph of the human spirit under trying conditions.” There were no protests against the Tony Award-winning play; in contrast, consider the public outcry after the Trump administration’s omission of the word “Jewish” or “Jews” in its 2017 Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.
Agree or disagree with the case for unsentimentality, “Tough Enough” is well worth the time: for Nelson’s insights on some landmark works of the 20th (and for Joan Didion, the 21st) century, and for its considerations on how to face suffering. How to see it and wholly appreciate it without trying to inhabit its emotional space. And to wrest something meaningful from that.