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.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.


1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.

Sherry Turkle on the Documented Life

Sherry Turkle articulates, quite gently, a familiar complaint about–among other things–the smartphone-and-selfie obsession:

A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. In this, it shares something with all the other ways we break up our day, when we text during class, in meetings, at the theater, at dinners with friends. And yes, at funerals, but also more regularly at church and synagogue services. We text when we are in bed with our partners and spouses. We watch our political representatives text during sessions.

Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does thing[s] to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations “on pause” when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.

Fair enough. I presume Turkle would be just as dismayed at those who raise their phones to take photographs at rock concerts or those who seem to spend a great deal of time taking photographs at national parks rather than ‘just taking it all in.’

Turkle is fighting a losing battle here though.

This battle is not a lost one because the smartphone generation–to use a familiar pejorative description for it–is the most narcissistic in living memory. Rather, it is because documenting our life–in some shape or form and stepping out of the immediately experienced moment–is an old, deeply hard-wired and ingrained instinct of ours. It cannot but be given our nature as creatures that do not always live in the moment, that remember their pasts and anticipate their futures.

Note, for instance, that in days gone by, and even now, a common reaction to the visible beauty of nature was to sketch it, or perhaps write about it. These were reactions to the moment but they were also records for the future. We know the pleasure of the remembered moment just as well as that of the current experience; the  bitter-sweetness of nostalgia includes, as is obvious, sweetness too.  We anticipate the remembered moment; we seek raw material for reflection later; we cannot but document as we go along. Sometimes in diaries, sometimes in photo albums, sometimes in various forms of art.

The smartphone photograph, in many ways, is the modern version of these older modes of remembering and filing away for the future. We know we will look back on the past in the future; why would we not aid ourselves in that endeavor?

Perhaps it is our curse, as a species, to not be able to live in the moment. But it is also an often singular distinction that lets us traverse great mental landscapes in remembering, planning, and yes, looking back. Those journeys often need aids; the documents of our lives are one such.

The ‘Narcissism of the True Artist’ and Reading What One Writes

In his seminal Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, RJ Hollingdale, after noting that Nietzsche made note of some forty-six poems composed between 1855 and 1858, goes on to say:

The sign that he was a born writer, however, is not to be found in them, but in a remark in Aus Meinem Leben [From My Life], where describing his earliest efforts in verse, he says, ‘In any event, it was always my design to write a little book and read it myself’–a childish expression of the narcissism of the true artist, who works because he wants to admire what he has done.

There is one rather mundane way in which one reads what one writes: the infuriatingly necessary re-readings of one’s writings in an effort to get them ‘just right.’ This results–as I have experienced in the closing stages of getting a book manuscript to the publisher–in a peculiar sort of nausea at the sight of one’s ‘beloved.’ At that moment, weary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)

Then, there is the ‘narcissistic’ way: going back to read what one has written, perchance to admire and self-congratulate. It doesn’t always quite work out that way: all too often, our reaction to what we have written in the past is horror at the juvenile confusion on display. (I suspect this is by far the most common reaction that most writers have.) The internet, of course, has added a wrinkle to this: what we have written in the past is preserved seemingly forever, for others to search, track down and deploy against us. (I shudder to think of the trail of unmitigated nonsense I have left behind me in my perambulations through internet fora.)

But there are times when we do admire what we have written. And this is productive of a pair of peculiar sensations related to each other. One, I think, is a kind of mystification: Did I really write that? The second, is an acute anxiety: Will I ever be able to repeat that? The sense of wonder, of puzzlement, about the source of the sentence(s) we see before us reminds us that we are often not quite sure of the provenance of a desirable turn of phrase, from whence it came, what prompted it. The worry about our capacity to pull off a repeat is an acknowledgment of the same conundrum: If I don’t quite know how I pulled it off the first time, how am I ever to encore? The endless theorizing about the ‘process’ of writing, the ‘writers’ tips,’ indeed, the entire arsenal of writing instruction, often seems a tacit acknowledgment of this simple fact of writing: we are never quite in control of it all.