Tough Enough?

May 22, 2017
By

From a recent profile of Deborah Nelson’s latest book
Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weilat WBUR:

In the book’s introduction, Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, acknowledges that these women initially “do not constitute a recognizable group.” In fact, each was quite determinedly not part of any organized faction. However, by book’s end Nelson has shown that, for all their differences, their work shares an essential bond: unsentimentality. Or, in Nelson’s expanded phrase: an “aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face painful reality unsentimentally.”

This artistic backbone would be useful in any era, but it was especially so in post-WWII America when the scale of suffering from the war, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, was practically impossible to comprehend. These horrors were followed by the Vietnam War, assassinations and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Nelson posits that there were two primal, contradictory responses to the events: empathy, “that required the public sharing of feelings,” or irony and coolness. The former could devolve into wallowing and the latter could disintegrate into disregard. Neither one a good jumpstart for external action or internal growth.

In their work, the women of “Tough Enough” each chose a different way to relate to suffering: directly, but with a “display of feeling … minimized if not outright excluded.” . . .

Agree or disagree with the case for unsentimentality, “Tough Enough” is well worth the time: for Nelson’s insights on some landmark works of the 20th (and for Joan Didion, the 21st) century, and for its considerations on how to face suffering. How to see it and wholly appreciate it without trying to inhabit its emotional space. And to wrest something meaningful from that.

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To read more about Tough Enough, click here.

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