I enjoyed Mary McCarthy’s essay collection On the Contrary, although many of the pieces felt dated. But there’s a certain kind of datedness that’s interesting, particularly when the topic is literature. It’s fun reading about the literary scene as it existed for McCarthy in the 1950s — the authors she was paying attention to and the ones from previous generations whose reputations she was busy sorting out. She has a way of starting out with a ridiculous claim such as there are no characters in fiction anymore or nobody is writing real novels these days, and I get ready to dismiss the entire essay as absurd, but then she starts defining her terms and giving examples and building up her arguments, and before I know it, I am beginning to agree, at least a little.
Other essays in the book are about the political and social scene, including some essays on feminism; some of these struck me as both relevant to today (in that way some essays can make you think that things never change) and also as dated. The datedness comes from the way she drops references to people and events without explaining them, because of course her audience at the time didn’t need these things explained. This makes me think that McCarthy writes wonderfully well about topical subjects, because in spite of feeling as though I’m out of the loop and lacking the context to understand her references, the essays are quite entertaining and good. How often are topical essays interesting 50 or 60 years later? This book kept me engrossed the whole way through.
The best essays, though, are “Artists in Uniform,” which I wrote about here, and “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” the title of which is truly awful, but which is a wonderful companion piece to “Artists.” “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” was inspired by responses she got to her the “Artists” essay, in particular, a letter from a school teacher wanting to know, among other things, “how closely do you want the symbols labeled?” Her students had spent a great deal of time discussing the story and while some of them insisted that it had no other meaning than the literal level, most students found it to be full of symbols.
Well, McCarthy didn’t answer this letter, except indirectly in the form of the essay itself, but she came down on the side of the students who read the piece on the literal level. There are symbols in the story, perhaps, but not the kind the students were looking for. The various shades of green she wore on the day described in “Artists in Uniform” were simply what she happened to be wearing that day, not an invention on her part meant to say something about fertility and growth. The contrasting greens she wore might possibly symbolize her desire to look like an artist, a little bohemian, but that’s where it ends. Similarly, the Colonel’s hash might say something about his desire to eat food considered properly manly, while McCarthy chose a more feminine sandwich.
This leads her into a discussion of various types of symbols, those that take the reader out of the text toward the world of archetypes and myths, and those that lead the reader back into the text:
In any account of reality, even a televised one, which comes closest to being a literal transcript or replay, some details are left out as irrelevant (though nothing is really irrelevant). The details that are not eliminated have to stand as symbols of the whole, like stenographic signs, and of course there is an art of selection, even in a newspaper account: the writer, if he has any ability, is looking for the revealing detail that will sum up the picture for the reader in a flash of recognition.
This is the interesting kind of symbol, she argues, the kind that merely is what it is — the shades of green McCarthy wore, the food she ate — while at the same time telegraphing, signaling something about her personality. In another example, there is the train in Anna Karenina:
The train is necessary to the plot of the novel, and I believe it is also symbolic, both of the iron forces of material progress that Tolstoy hated so and that played a part in Anna’s moral destruction, and also of those iron laws of necessity and consequence that govern human action when it remains on the sensual level.
One can read the whole novel, however, without being conscious that the train is a symbol; we do not have to “interpret” to feel that import of doom and loneliness in the train’s whistle …
The essay ultimately turns into an argument about how best to read, which does not involve the kind of symbol-hunting the unfortunate high school teacher encouraged her students to do:
The images of a novel or a story belong, as it were, to a family, very closely knit and inseparable from each other; the parent “idea” of a story or a novel generates events and images all bearing a strong family resemblance. And to understand a story or a novel, you must look for the parent “idea,” which is usually in plain view, if you read quite carefully and literally what the author says.
To illustrate this idea, she gives a close reading of her “Artists” essay, describing what her main point was and how the details of the story relate to that point. This is very satisfying, largely because “Artists” is such a great essay and it’s fun to hear McCarthy discuss the thoughts that went into it. It satisfies our curiosity about what the writer really meant and whether we “got it” or not.
And then she ends with this:
In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero…. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.
I’m not sure anything McCarthy says in this essay isn’t something I’ve heard elsewhere, but she says it all so well. There is something about the directness and forcefulness of her style that I love. Typical of McCarthy and the attitude that makes me love her is her statement that in “Artists in Uniform,” “I wanted to embarrass myself and, if possible, the reader too.” Any writer who sets out with that goal in mind is a writer I’m inclined to like.