Mary McCarthy On Henry Mulcahy’s Selfishness

In Mary McCarthy‘s The Groves of Academe, John Bentkoop, a faculty member at Jocelyn College, offers his take on his beleaguered colleague, Henry Mulcahy, who has set in motion schemes of varying deviousness in his bid to hang on to his precious position after receiving a dismissal notice from the college president:

Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He’s capable of commanding great loyalty because he’s unswervingly loyal to himself….Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause. In the world today, there’s a great deal of free-floating, circumambient loyalty that fixes itself on such people, who seem to offer, by their own example, the possibility of a separation from the self that will lead to a higher union with the self objectified in an idea. It’s Hen’s fortune or his fate to have achieved this union within his own personality; he’s foregone his subjectivity and hypostatized himself as an object.

There is no doubt Mulcahy’s ‘gift’ speaks to what could be a great and valuable skill: it enables the kind of fidelity and commitment to a greater purpose that is so often conducive to desirable forms of self-disciplining and to a channeling of personal energies towards a sought-after goal. (This goal will be, in all probability, one only of interest to Mulcahy.) Indeed, it is Mulcahy’s greatest strength–such as it is–that he is so utterly dedicated to himself and his life’s projects. He knows, with little self-doubt, who is number one. Bentkoop does not invoke narcissism here but there is no doubt the loyalty he refers to flirts with such notions.

Bentkoop’s suggestion that Mulcahy’s self-loyalty would be of most use in politics and religion is thus, entirely appropriate: a determined politician or preacher needs to sound–most of all, to himself or herself–entirely sure about his or her political or moral rectitude. Only someone with utter loyalty to themselves could be so convinced.

Mulcahy thus seems to have achieved what many others seek so desperately: some cause, some leader, some channeling of our otherwise all-too disparate energies toward a coherent objective. Fidelity and commitment to something–if only we knew what it was! Mulcahy has the answer: first, engage in a psychological maneuver–unspecified by Bentkoop–to transcend one’s own subjectivity, and then, regard oneself–and our goals–as a distant other to be approached with loyalty and desire. Thus, perhaps, who knows, we might even find the desirable balance between narcissism and self-abnegation.

As The Groves of Academe shows, the problem with Mulcahy’s loyalty to himself is that he does not find this balance: he is all too quick to sacrifice others to his cause. His colleagues, his family, his students, are all merely pawns, incidentals in a larger enterprise. McCarthy’s view of Mulcahy’s moral failings–forced upon by him by the news of his possible firing–is acutely unsparing.

The readers of her novel are not the first, and neither the last, to discover that self-loyalty is sometimes just an exalted name for selfishness.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.


But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.