Deborah Nelson’s new book, which Jeff Nunokawa has called “a brilliant defense of coldness,” 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. We invite you to a conversation that will challenge the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain.
The writing and art by the women whom Nelson writes about 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.
Deborah Nelson is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her previous book is Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America. Jeff Nunokawa is Professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of Note Book, Tame Passions of Wilde, and The Afterlife of Property.