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Journal of Distraction - by Michael Kelly

Week 2 - Sunday

I laze around, bathe, prowl the house in a skimpy and loosely-tied dressing gown admiring glimpses of my lithe nude body, sprawl, read, belatedly answer some e-mails.

A sarky reader wants to know if it isn't inconvenient that half the staff at my workplace have dashes instead of names. Yes, it's annoying, instead of saying, 'Good morning, Susan,' or 'Good morning, Jane,' I have to go, 'Good morning, - ' and just leave my mouth hanging open for a few seconds.

Another sarky reader asks if I ever did filing for the previous Home Secretary - for foreigners or those like me who have taken to avoiding the news, he recently lost his job for accidentally setting several thousand convicted murderers and rapists free - although this also seems to be official policy.

...Vaguely apropos of this, yesterday a copy of the Mary McCarthy-Hannah Arendt letters arrived from a second-hand bookshop in the middle of America courtesy of Amazon Marketplace, which comes close to justifying the internet and the jet engine and credit cards and the modern world in general. In another life when I have more time or discipline I want to write an essay on McCarthy. She was one of the better novelists of the 20th Century, I think, and a luminous critic, and was at the centre of the intellectual life of her time, but she's been rather in eclipse since her death - which is par for the course, except it's been almost twenty years now and there's no sign of a revival yet.

Her books are brilliant and most of them remain - I'm trying to avoid the word 'relevant' because I don't want to sound like the kind of theatre director who sets Hamlet in a video game arcade, but her concerns are still current. She was of the left but satirized it cuttingly. The dopey left remain wary of her. One might have expected the intellectual right to have embraced her the way they have Orwell, but a lot of the old guard knew her personally and remember the scathing wounds she inflicted, and besides she slept around too much for their taste, although not with them. But it's high time she was revived by the sensible left and people who just love literature and the intellect. At heart she was an old-fashioned moralist and small-c conservative, an intellectual elitist, interested in Nature and the Natural, deploring mass culture and the effects of industrialization - a radical fogey not unlike The George.

One of her recurring themes is the inability of the left or liberals or modern society in general to judge people and find them wanting. In The Groves of Academe, written in 1952, an incompetent college teacher tries to avoid dismissal by falsely claiming he's the victim of an anti-Communist witch-hunt. He lies, blackmails, drags students into his schemes and is altogether loathsome, but those members of the faculty who would oppose him are paralysed by the pity and neurotic guilt they feel towards him, because of his straitened means and impoverished background - and the very fact of his wickedness: 'At bottom...she was conventional, believing in a conventional moral order and shocked by deviations from it into a sense of helpless guilt toward the deviator. In other words, she was a true liberal... who could not tolerate in her well-modulated heart that others should be wickeder than she, any more than she could bear that she should be richer, better born, better looking than some statistical median.'

An idealistic Russian girl, Domna, eventually overcomes this, saying:

'One has only to look at Henry to imagine the matrix that formed him... a nasty and narrow environment... I detest the social order which sprouts these mildewed souls - all that should be changed, for everybody... But there is also in each individual the faculty of transcendence; there is in each of us a limited freedom. I myself have been poor and I am not sentimental about poverty - poor people must be judged, like the rest of us... Everybody who will judge himself has the right to judge others and to be judged also. This abrogation of judgement you practice is an insult to man's dignity. Everybody has the right to be judged and to judge in his turn.'

This 'Everybody who will judge himself has the right to judge others' (which, by the way, came four years before Camus's The Fall with its 'judge-penitent' protagonist) is a precept McCarthy exemplified her whole life; famously merciless in her judgements on other people, she subjected her own motives and conduct to the same pitiless scrutiny. The other maxim she might be said to embody is 'The unexamined life is not worth living' - although as several of her novels about the self-lacerating intelligentsia show, it is much bloody simpler.

In a letter to Arendt she writes the following regarding her novel Birds of America , probably her masterpiece:

'I have the sense, maybe subjective, that the worm of equality is not only eating away at the old social and economic foundations but at the very structure of consciousness, demolishing the "class distinctions" between the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. To be concrete, I find that I feel guilty and awkward in the presence of a psychotic person, as though I ought to conceal my sanity in the interests of equality with him.'

Is this neurosis widespread? Is this a key part of the modern madness? I don't know. Personally I've never felt guilty towards any bugger. I have judged myself and found me perfect, and the rest of you, frankly, need to pull your socks up.

...Why am I banging on about this now? Is this the time or place? Probably not. But more tomorrow, maybe, and then it'll be out of my system.

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