Although I haven’t picked it up in a while because of limited reading time, I’ve been enjoying Mary McCarthy’s collection of essays On the Contrary. It has a lot of essays that are new to me, and a couple that I’ve read before and loved, one of which is “Artists in Uniform.” The essay tells the story of McCarthy meeting and striking up a conversation with a man, the Colonel, on a train journey across the U.S. The two of them have been sitting in a car with a few other people, and because the Colonel is a man who tends to get what he wants, everyone expects that McCarthy will have lunch with him, even though he never actually asked her. But McCarthy hears the Colonel making anti-Semitic remarks, and she decides she will refuse lunch. She argues with him and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for his offensive comments, and although she eventually gives in and does have lunch with him, she keeps on arguing with him the entire time.
What makes the essay enjoyable is the way McCarthy describes their intellectual battle. The Colonel insists that there must be some personal reason McCarthy is so adamant about her anti-anti-Semitism; he can’t wrap his mind around the possibility that someone would have such a view just because it’s the right view to have. McCarthy believes what she does because it’s the right thing to believe, but the truth of the matter is that her grandmother was Jewish. She realizes she can’t let the Colonel know this, or he will dismiss her beliefs as personally motivated. So the two of them go at it: he keeps asking her questions trying to figure out what her personal connection to the Jews is, and she keeps trying to use reason and logic with him.
She sees that she’s much smarter than he is, and, given that it’s Mary McCarthy here, there’s no reason to doubt her. She’s aware of what’s going on in his head, all the twists and turns of his thinking, as he tries to figure her out. At the same time, she describes her own weaknesses and mistakes:
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The colonel put down his attache case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then …” said the colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” … All at once the colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving. “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted.
McCarthy, despite having given in on the matter of lunch and despite making some minor tactical errors along the way (such as assuming the Colonel is religious, when he is not), is in control of the situation. She is watching the Colonel trying to catch her out and failing again and again.
She is in control, that is, until all the sudden she’s not. I won’t give away the essay’s ending, but the encounter does not conclude in the way McCarthy wanted it to. Her hopes of converting this man into a more enlightened way of thinking completely disappear. What the essay ends up being about, finally, is McCarthy’s own pride — pride in her intellect and in her ability to reason people into good behavior. Intellect will only get you so far, after all. If the Colonel doesn’t want to believe something, he won’t, and no amount of arguing will change his mind.
That dynamic captures what I like about McCarthy: she’s wickedly smart, but she’s not afraid to make herself look a little foolish. That, I think, is often what the best personal essayists do.