The Formidable Friendship of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt

From The New Yorker:

Hannah-arendt-table-290In the new film “Hannah Arendt,” the political theorist’s friendship with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy gets its first cinematic treatment. The results are not good. McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly—and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them. McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair”—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up.

To give just a sample of the subjects McCarthy and Arendt talked and wrote to each other about: George Eliot, Cartesianism, Eldridge Cleaver, Kant, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sartre. Both women were members of the Partisan Review crowd, who spent much of their time talking about Stalin and Trotsky. It was at a party at an editor’s house that the friendship hit a snag. McCarthy said she felt almost sorry for Hitler; that he seemed to want the citizens of occupied France to like him struck her as ridiculous. It took four years for Arendt, who’d only narrowly evaded Nazi clutches, to forgive the remark. To her, pity for Hitler was not just absurd but offensive. A truce was struck on the Astor Place subway platform, where Arendt approached McCarthy after a meeting and said, “Let’s end this nonsense. We think so much alike.”

More here.