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Mary McCarthy on Love and Hannah Arendt’s Advice to Her on the Dangerous Delusion That We Can Change Our Lovers

“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?”

Mary McCarthy on Love and Hannah Arendt’s Advice to Her on the Dangerous Delusion That We Can Change Our Lovers

Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) remains one of the most blazing intellects of the past century, whose ideas about the crucial difference between thinking and knowing, the power of outsiderdom, our impulse for self-display, and what free will really means continue to electrify with their insight into the fabric of being.

In 1944, Arendt met the writer and political activist Mary McCarthy (June 21, 1912–October 25, 1989) in a Manhattan bar. So began an intense lifelong friendship. After Arendt’s death, McCarthy became her literary executor. Their letters, collected in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy (public library), are on par with such great epistolary friendships as those between Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan.


What makes Arendt and McCarthy’s correspondence so remarkable is its uncommon combination of intellectual rigor and unflinching openheartedness. In between offering comprehensive feedback on each other’s work and discussing subjects ranging from consciousness to politics to Kant, they also share the most irrational perplexities of the human heart — nowhere more movingly than in the realm of romance.

A decade into her marriage to her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, 46-year-old McCarthy had grown restless in a relationship founded on affection and agreeableness rather than passion. In May of 1956, she met an English book reviewer and former heavyweight boxer named John Davenport, and the two embarked upon an ardent affair. But the following spring, through a chance encounter with a friend of Davenport’s named Mr. Hughes (whom Davenport had initially introduced as his cousin but who in actually was not), she discovered that her lover was a pathological liar, an alcoholic, and an occasional thief.

McCarthy was completely shocked by the revelations, and yet what her intellect found morally repugnant her heart refused to factor into the infatuation. She wrote to Arendt, reporting this unbearable psychoemotional dissonance:

The truth is, I still care about him, just as much as ever, though perhaps this feeling would not last if I saw him in actuality. But this caring, of course, is really hopeless now. Hughes says he is hopeless and I believe him… Hughes says he started to write too late and lacks all discipline and habits of work, so that he keeps making these massive escapes into lies and drinking. Hughes says there’s a strong self-destructive urge in him and that, whatever the superficial motive, good or bad, that made him break off our correspondence, the real thing must have been that he was rejecting the one thing that could have saved him.

Oh, Hannah, isn’t it awful? I still would do anything for him … but what can I do?

In a letter from early June, Arendt counsels McCarthy on these “crooked corkscrews of the heart” (a phrase of W.H. Auden’s, which Arendt loved) and the whole romantic delusion of being able to save anyone from themselves, to love them out of their demons — a delusion responsible, I would argue, for the vast majority of broken hearts the human race has produced. Arendt writes:

When an acknowledged liar speaks the truth, he does not want to be believed… There are two things which could “save” him: either a woman, but then saved for what? Evidently for some form of respectability. Or: more than talents, namely almost genius, or a talent so compelling that it will overrule everything else. (This is of course the case of people like Brecht or Heidegger.) But if this Who they are is not matched by qualities and gifts, what can there remain to do? And then life becomes a very long and rather boring business; for the Who as such is nowhere recognized in our society, there is no place for it. Under such circumstances, to destroy oneself and become “self-destructive” can be a time-consuming and rather honorable job. More honorable and probably less boring than to save oneself. The only thing which is really not permissible is to drag other people into one’s own amusements… Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this; but then you can’t expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself.

McCarthy was eventually able to extricate herself from the relationship despite its self-mutilating magnetism. But by the spring of 1960, her marriage to Broadwater already beyond salvation, she was head-over-heels in love with another man — a diplomat named James West. In a letter to Arendt from that May, while separated from her husband and awaiting a final divorce as West was working on the same with his wife, McCarthy writes:

Dearest Hannah:

The next mail leaves in forty-five minutes, and I’m writing you this note for purely selfish reasons: because my heart is full of emotion and I want to talk. As if we were in your apartment. Bowden … has written three times in response to my last letter, and so I’ve purposely slowed down a little on answering, not to keep up a fevered correspondence with him, which would awaken all sorts of hopes. Indeed, they are awake. And it’s so sad, because I grow fonder of him as he recedes a little into the distance and all the memories become good ones; the thought of him suffering, moreover, makes me want to scream aloud. He writes that he is not sorry, in a way, that this happened because it made him realize what he wanted or loved, and that he never knew he wanted or loved anything before.


Meanwhile, and as a strange and soaring trumpet-music to this growing tenderness I feel for Bowden, my love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I’ve become conscious in myself of certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember my telling you once that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing house, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games. And that all this should happen with a U.S. government official seems utterly bizarre in a way… So I shall stop and run for the mail and only end by sending you much, much love and winged thoughts.


Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)
Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)

Arendt had cautioned McCarthy against getting hurt in that familiar way of trying to change another person with the sheer power of her love. In a letter sent three days later, while suggesting that certain kinds of getting hurt are the inevitable growing pains of love, Arendt reiterates the admonition against that particular peril:

[Some] getting hurt … is only another way of being alive. But, please don’t fool yourself: nobody ever was cured of anything, trait or habit, by a mere woman, though this is precisely what all girls think they can do. Either you are willing to take him “as is” or you better leave well enough alone.

A week later, after sharing with West some of her romantic history and incurring a fit of his jealous fury, McCarthy reflects on the incident in her response to Arendt:

Hannah, I don’t know what you meant about my getting hurt, unless (as I thought) that he had the power to hurt me, that is to use me badly, as they say. Well, he has and he could. It surprised him… It surprised me too. Our joint surprise was perhaps rather funny — naive. But it “taught” him something and me something. We’ve both been mulling this over by mail ever since — rather mulling over the implications. The problem is how to curb this tendency (which is really, with him, a form of self-laceration) without closing off certain areas. I.e., my natural tendency would be not to tell him things that I expected would bother him and his would be not to show that he was bothered, not to let me see his suspicions or jealousy. But that way you would soon land in a relation of complete falsity — manipulating the truth and each other. And the point of this love is its honesty; everything is offered, nothing is held back. It’s total, like total war, and that power or drive comes from him. I have never known another man who had it and I’ve also become aware of how prudent (in spite of being romantic) I’ve always been myself, how many precautions I take against being wounded. So there is the dilemma. If we aren’t careful, he will hurt me, for I’m particularly alive to a sense of injustice, of being wrongly suspected or accused, and if he hurts me I will start protecting myself by congealing [sic]. And yet we don’t want to be “careful.”

Echoing the assertion that Martin Heidegger, Arendt’s great love, had made in their beautiful love letters decades earlier — what makes love so transformative, he asserted, is that “we become what we love and yet remain ourselves” — McCarthy adds:

Despite your warning that nobody ever changes for a mere woman, I think we shall both change a little. What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were? If he hopes for an inner change, a release from the monotony of certain habitual reactions, that’s partly why he’s in love, why he troubled, so to speak, to fall in love instead of just having an affair. And the hope is part of the man as much as the habitual reactions. If you take him “as is” you take the hope too.

On Valentine’s Day in 1961, McCarthy and Broadwater finally obtained their divorce. She married West almost immediately and the two remained together for twenty-eight years, until death did them part.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent Between Friends, edited by Carol Brightman, with sociologist Eva Illouz on why love hurts, philosopher Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering it, and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, how we humanize each other, and her love letters with Martin Heidegger.


Strange Trees: An Illustrated Atlas of the World’s Arboreal Wonders

From the cocoa tree that gives us chocolate to the Philippines’ rainbow tree, a global tour of rooted marvels.

Strange Trees: An Illustrated Atlas of the World’s Arboreal Wonders

Hermann Hesse called trees “the most penetrating of preachers.” Three centuries earlier, a forgotten English gardener asserted that they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”

Perhaps because trees are the oldest living things in the world, they have permeated our ancient mythology and our scientific sensemaking. More than a beautiful metaphor for life and death, trees have even saved our lives and, in inspired moments, we have saved theirs.

In Strange Trees and the Stories Behind Them (public library), French author Bernadette Pourquié and illustrator Cécile Gambini choreograph an illustrated tour of the world’s greatest arboreal wonders, from species that have witnessed the dinosaurs roam this Earth to exotic marvels like Brazil’s “Walking Tree” (Red Mangrove) and the Philippines’ “Rainbow Tree” (Mindanao gum tree) to underappreciated procurers of human delights, such as the sapodilla tree that gives us chewing gum and the cocoa tree without which there would be no chocolate.


Rainbow Tree (Mindanao Gum Tree)
Rainbow Tree (Mindanao gum tree)


Ghost Tree (Davida)
Ghost Tree (Davida)


Walking Tree (red mangrove)
Walking Tree (red mangrove)


Chewing Gum Tree (sapodilla)
Chewing Gum Tree (sapodilla)
Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris)
Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris)

Alongside each imaginative illustration, partway between botany and fairy tale, is a one-page autobiography of the respective tree, describing its natural and cultural habitat in a short first-person story fusing curious science facts, history, and local customs.

Chocolate Tree (cacao tree)
Chocolate Tree (cacao tree)

Don’t worry about getting bonked on the bean with a pod: cocoa trees don’t lose their seed pods, even when ripe. They dry up, unless, of course, a hungry parrot happens by.

I hope you didn’t forget your adventurer’s cooking kit: a club, a banana tree leaf, an oven, some rocks, and a healthy dose of patience.

Smash three pods with your club and save one hundred seeds to make about four ounces of chocolate. Let them ferment for a week, and a white pulp will seep out. Next, let them dry on a banana tree leaf for two weeks, stirring them frequently: you’ll get brown cocoa “beans.” Now break open their shells, wash them, and roast them for twenty to thirty minutes at 215 to 285 degrees Fahrenheit. Then crush them over heat with rocks. Now you have “cocoa paste,” from which you can make chocolate.





Complement the wonderful Strange Trees with this photographic tour of the world’s oldest living trees, the heartening story of how Marianne Moore saved a majestic elm with a poem, and the philosophical and uncommonly poetic Japanese pop-up book Little Tree.

Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press


John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunningham

“i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunningham

Composer, writer, artist, and Zen Buddhist John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) pioneered the aesthetics of silence, but he was animated by a clamorous inner life. When he was twenty-two, while dating another young man, Cage met artist Xenia Kashevaroff — the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest. He fell instantly in love — perhaps with Xenia herself, perhaps with the promise of life that conformed to social convention and appeased his inner conflictedness about his orientation, perhaps with some combination of the two. They were married in the spring of 1935. But as Cage continued to discover his voice creatively, he had no choice but to make room for his whole self. By the early 1940s, the couple had begun to grow apart and their marriage soon ended in divorce.

John Cage age his piano, 1947 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Berliner Festspiele)
John Cage age his piano, 1947 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Berliner Festspiele)

It was around the same time that Cage met the dance prodigy Merce Cunningham, who would go on to become one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of all time. Then in his early twenties, Cunningham was one of several choreographers with whom Cage had begun working in his quest to explore the physical dimension of sound. Although their relationship began as a creative collaboration, a vitalizing romantic electricity developed between them as they got to know each other. Cunningham became Cage’s great love and remained his spouse for the remainder of the composer’s life.

The correspondence from the dawn of their uncommon and intensely beautiful romance, found in The Selected Letters of John Cage (public library), is on par with Nabokov’s love letters — that gold standard of this most intimate genre of the written word — and makes a crowning addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, 1948 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust)
John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, 1948 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust)

In their first surviving romantic correspondence, postmarked June 28, 1943, Cage writes:

Dear Merce,

Saturday night nearly went crazy, because, not solving my problems until they occur, I ever suddenly realized you were gone. Fly away with you but was in a zoo.


I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.

In a sublime testament to the interplay of frustration and satisfaction in love, Cage adds:

I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.


I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.

Your spirit is with me.


The following day, Cage writes:

Rain finally came + it’s beautifully cool. Wonder how long it will last. It was marvelous because it started suddenly and then was alternately terrific and gentle.

I think of you all the time and therefor have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you.


Love you.

In this letter, Cage encloses a poem he has written for his new love:


As leaf with tree, I long to be
With you. A twig connection
If no other, would satisfy.

Sap from your trunk to vivify
My tissues; my one election:
On food you give to have satiety.

Will leaf turn dry and dead? My
Deep need to pale affection
Fade? Will snail transform to tree?

If leaf dies, Spring will mystify
The Winter. No death for tree:
Leaf adorned, ’twill live in ev’ry

Three days later, on July 2, Cage writes from the pit of longing:

I get terribly lonesome for you.


I nearly left this earth a few minutes ago — ecstasy — word from you. Pretty soon I’ll write music for you.

Scene from Beach Birds by Cunningham at the Lyon Opera Ballet, with music by cage (Photograph: Michael O'Neill)
Scene from Beach Birds by Cunningham at the Lyon Opera Ballet, with music by Cage (Photograph: Michael O’Neill)

Later that month, while Cunningham was in residence with the Martha Graham Dance Company at Bennington College in Vermont, Cage beseeches from New York with affectionate impatience:

Please be lonesome enough to come back in not too distant time.


I love you and often think of fancy reasons why: spirit is very close to me and mine, I sent it, close to you.


My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.



Over the year that followed, their love only intensified. In a particularly poetic and picturesque letter from July of 1944, Cage writes:

your letters i just plain love: they bring you so close that at any moment i expect the door will open and you will see me camouflaged in enigmatic home, built on shoes you made.


Country was beautiful, and lying on the grass so that i could sometimes see the net a tree is against the sky or turning make a space for eyes between two trees and watch bird-movements across and in it. Beautiful daisies and a jungle of tiger lilies. Multitudinous lakes and canoes. I could tell how distinctly happy you would be in country wherever; and i really need not be with you for me or for you, because there was facility in inventing your presence and knowing that just then you were merely not visible or not audible.

Nine days later, Cage writes:

your last letter is so beautiful i cannot answer it, only read it and lie on it.


i am often in deep pain; i am afraid i am not human being
i talk to you all day long but when i start to write i cannot

Later that month, many decades after Van Gogh articulated how love catalyzes creative work, Cage speaks to this all-consuming muse:

today is beautiful and i am dreaming of you and enigma and how we are together today: your words in my ears making [me] limp and taut by turns with delight. oh, i am sure we could use each other today.

i like to believe that you are writing my music now: god knows i’m not doing it, because it simply seems to happen. the pretissimo is incredible the way you are and is perhaps a description and song about you.


pardon the intrusion: but when in september will you be back? i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.

Cage and Cunningham continued to fill the air between them with love until the composer’s final breath.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1986 (Photograph: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images)
John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1986 (Photograph: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images)

The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Bard College professor and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn, is a beautiful read in its hefty totality. Complement it with Cage on human nature and Kay Larson’s sublime cartography of his interior life, then revisit the love letters of John Keats, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.


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