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“Artists in Uniform” originally appeared in the March 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine as “Artists in Uniform: A Story by Mary McCarthy.” Almost a year later, in the February 1954 edition of the magazine, McCarthy, a novelist and essayist today remembered best for her Memoirs of a Catholic Schoolgirl, published an addendum. An essay of its own, actually, called “Settling the Colonel’s Hash.” In it she addresses the questions sent to her by readers about “the chief moral or meaning” of the original piece, in which McCarthy describes her encounter with an anti-Semitic colonel and the lunch at which he orders hash. The hash, she explains, is not a symbol of anything; it’s what the colonel ordered. And there are nuns in the piece because there were nuns on the train she shared with the colonel, and the “Mary McCarthy” in the story is depicted as wearing a green dress because McCarthy wore a green dress. That is all.
That’s true only if there’s no deeper level to our experience of the world than what you see. But “Artists in Uniform,” a study of perception and its faults, suggests otherwise. McCarthy repeatedly emphasizes the colonel’s “hawklike” face, first as expressive of his cruel manner, then as a contrast to the dull limits of his understanding.
Meanwhile, she worries that he’ll see her green dress as a symbol of bohemianism that will undermine the cool reason of her case against anti-Semitism. She then frets that her alleged bohemianism does, in fact, undermine her cool reason. She works herself up to a theological fervor in her arguments with the colonel only to collapse into confused disbelief. What if the colonel’s anti-Semitism isn’t a matter of “religion”? What if her “anti-anti-Semitism” is its own kind of religious conviction?
Asking these questions, and answering them in the form of a story in which “the chief interest,” she later wrote, “lay in the fact that it happened,” goes to the essence of the fiction of literary nonfiction. “Fiction,” after all, means “to arrange.” McCarthy takes the facts of her encounter and arranges them. She does not make them up. She did wear a green dress. But she tells us about this dress, and then tells us again, shows it to us through her eyes and through her imagination of the colonel’s perception. Likewise the colonel’s ideas about Jews. He actually said these awful things. But the story is McCarthy’s arrangement of the colonel’s utterance of the words and of her changing perception of their meaning. That is, what they mean to the colonel and what they mean to her and what they might mean to you, the reader, observing the pair at lunch, McCarthy with her face “like a map of Ireland” and the colonel with his hash, between them a cloud of perception and misperception they both label “the Jews.”
Read “Artists in Uniform”
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Harper's Finest — June 30, 2014, 11:00 am
From the September 2010 issue
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
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