Deborah Nelson: Tough Enough

THU, APR 20, 2017 (00:00)

Author Deborah Nelson focuses on six brilliant women who are often seen as particularly tough-minded: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Aligned with no single tradition, they escape straightforward categories. Yet their work evinces an affinity of style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a “cold eye” was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches.

Tough Enough traces the careers of these women and their challenges to the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain. Their writing and art reveal an adamant belief that the hurts of the world must be treated concretely, directly, and realistically, without recourse to either melodrama or callousness. As Deborah Nelson shows, this stance offers an important counter-tradition to the familiar postwar poles of emotional expressivity on the one hand and cool irony on the other. Ultimately, in its insistence on facing reality without consolation or compensation, this austere “school of the unsentimental” offers new ways to approach suffering in both its spectacular forms and all of its ordinariness.

(Pictured: Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt)

+ BIO: Deborah Nelson

Deborah Nelson studies late twentieth-century U.S. culture and politics, (known as Post45 or Post War). She is a founding member of the Post45 collective, which publishes an online journal_ Post45_ and a book series at Stanford University Press. Nelson's interests include American poetry, novels, essays, and plays; gender and sexuality studies; photography; autobiography and confessional writing; American ethnic literature; poetry and poetics; and Cold War history.

Nelson's first book, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America, examined the discourse of privacy beginning with its emergence as a topic of intense anxiety in the late 1950s. Pairing landmark Supreme Court decisions on the right to privacy with the investigation of privacy and private life in the work of the confessional poets, the book takes up these two discourses for their particularly subtle investigation of the language of privacy as the concept evolved over the next decades.

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