A History of Feminist Ideas: It’s Better to Think of a Great Culture

When reality becomes a crash test of belief, style questions become irrelevant. But the opposite may be true. An interest in style can be a way to explore reality. “Tough Enough” is the name of this sparkling article by Anglican writer Deborah Nelson, originally published by University of Chicago Press. Wagenbach Verlag gave it the rather somber title of “Thinking Without Consolation.” While this is not an error, it obscures the point of the article.

Because it’s about toughness, toughness, rigor, and clarity—particularly in depicting suffering and pain. The six women Deborah Nelson brings together with their businesses have one thing in common. They consider it a moral, ethical and aesthetic duty to face reality without evasion. Nelson has written about photographer Diane Arbus, philosophers Simon Weil and Hannah Arendt, and three writers and essayists Mary McCarthy: Joan Didion and Susan Sunday.

[Deborah Nelson: Denken ohne Trost. Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Aus dem amerikanischen Englisch von Birthe Mühlhoff. Wagenbach Verlag, Berlin 2022. 240 Seiten, 22 €.]

How can an ‘unsympathetic’ morality be imagined, or at least not based on empathy? This is one of the central questions. Amid the tremors of Russia’s war against Ukraine, it seems surprising. The horizon on which the six women’s works were created spans the horrors of the 20th century, from world wars and death camps to the Vietnam War and the Yugoslav Wars. Hannah Arendt in particular was accused of cruelty to the victims through her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” about the Eichmann trial.

Icy and cruelty

It didn’t bother her too much, it conformed to her subjective style, and she even augmented the term in her work after her death “Vom Leben des Geistes”. Labels were also attached to other women, which were meant to be offensive. Mary McCarthy has been nicknamed “relentless,” “icy” Simon Weil, “clinical Diane Arbus,” “cold Joan Didion,” and “impersonal” Susan Sontag, according to Nelson.

From a German point of view, the reception of Ernst Ginger can be used as a comparison. His more deceptive prose is often honored as a stylistic masterpiece not for its coldness but for its coldness.

Should you be guided by feelings? As a result of gender-specific traits, women have to make a lot of extra effort to question the central importance of feelings. It’s not about insensitivity, it’s about controlling emotions. It has no place in public, this is a clear statement from Arendt. Although the mind cannot tame feelings, it can control how they come out.

This requires “extraordinary exercise of self-control”. For Arendt, not feeling, but thinking is the “fortress of morals,” in the words of Nelson. Simon Weil’s theologically radical rigor and rigor, which focuses on suffering and recovery from tragedy, also has to do with the fact that it “systematically prevents feelings – feelings toward oneself or another suffering.”

Managing emotions as an exercise

Susan Sontag, the only one of six women who developed an aesthetic, was not a systematic thinker. Relapses and reappraisals abound with her, and her emotional management was also an exercise in controlling strong emotions while increasing their intensity.

In contemplating the suffering of others, she summed up the skepticism of the justifying function of mercy: “So long as we feel pity, we feel we are not partakers of the cause of suffering. Our compassion protests our innocence and powerlessness.” The fact that Susan Sontag staged Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Bosnian actors during the siege of Sarajevo is an unacknowledged aspect of her political sensibility that, from today’s perspective, is gaining importance.

Contemporary historical context and rhetorical analysis come together effortlessly in Deborah Nelson’s essay. It tracks thought patterns and sensitivity, but also delves into individual actions and describes what is special in each case. Like the dual nature of Joan Didion’s work, with a fragile and idyllic character on the one hand and the ruthlessness of her controlled style on the other. She advocated “moral toughness” (moral toughness) and pursued “moral and political skepticism” in her style.

Paradox has no chance against terrorism

Struggling against “self-pity” after the early deaths of her husband and daughter, it was also a matter of style for her, as she said “the actual meaning is already set in the rhythm of the words and syllables (…). The way I write is what I am.” it is now or what it is now.” But she was also clear enough to see on a visit to El Salvador that the irony stands no chance against terror and fear.

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Anyone who reads Arendt’s reflections on inclusion today can only be amazed at how relevant they are. In “The Elements and Origins of Total Domination,” she describes how totalitarian methods of control exhaust the “entirely unknown scope of ‘everything is possible’,” which is precisely defined by the fact that “neither utility nor utility, whatever they may be conceptualized, set its limits.”

This is a diagnosis that is difficult to pass in terms of sobriety. He has as much space in this book as stylistic analyzes. Thinking Without Consolation by Deborah Nelson is indeed the book of the hour.

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