Weird, Slippery, and Beautiful: A Master Essayist at Work

If one is the kind of person who takes pleasure in intelligent wickedness, Hardwick is certainly one of its master practitioners. She is...


If one is the kind of person who takes pleasure in intelligent wickedness, Hardwick is certainly one of its master practitioners. She is sharp in her satire, icy in her judgements, shrewd in her takedowns. She is what Janet Malcolm once called “fearless and uncharitable” and what the Partisan Review editor called “one of our sharpest minds.” Take, for example, his description of Monica Lewinsky: “Monica, who is always about discretion, has a big deficit, as the nurses call her when they describe stroke victims.”

An invigorating and refreshing aspect of Hardwick’s work is that she does not spare her own critical rigor and ferocity. She pins herself as she pins other people. At one point she confesses, “As a writer, I feel an almost inexplicable attraction and hostility to the work of other female writers. Envy, competitiveness, contempt sometimes infect my judgment, and indifference is strangely hard to find in this business. Her very uptight attitude towards other female writers will not have escaped readers familiar with her work, but there is something about her open struggle against this trend on the page that is disarming. As a critic, she doesn’t shy away from the complications, ambiguities, and self-incriminations that many others would simmer without mentioning.

In these pages, she does not directly address the pain of the disorderly end of her marriage to the poet Robert Lowell or the excruciating public humiliation of her use of her letters in her poetry collection.The dolphin.” But she writes eloquently of the collapse of her life in middle age: “Nothing is more pitiful than an older woman thrown into ‘freedom’, lying like a wounded dragon in paralysis of bitter rage and nostalgia.” The disorientation and recalculation that comes with the breakdown of a marriage seems to seep into his essays on the wider culture. There is a personal urgency, a sense of the open world, that seeps in in many of his interrogations of the climate of the 1970s and his more philosophical inquiries into the difficulties of life.

In one particular and remarkable essay, “When to Chase, Give Up, Let Go,” she speaks in general or ruminative terms of personal calamities like her own. “In love, the despair that comes from loss, from deprivation, throws us into the desert. Sometimes it is only through brutal and splendid renunciations that wounded people can find water in the sand. She struggles on the page with the possibility of coming to terms with the loss of love. She writes that “then affection is not the strange and ambivalent manipulation of love’s death, but a kind of salvation to its happier beginning”.

Her unpredictable, wildly divisive and perplexing views on feminism are perhaps the biggest revelation of this edition. In a series of essays grouped around contemporary femininity, she writes about the burdens of the new freedoms experienced by women, the new pressures they generate and the new problems created by the loss of domestic scripts. Is the modern, liberated world better for women? Hardwick isn’t sure. Elsewhere, she commented on Simone de Beauvoir’s “brilliantly confused” thinking, and here we find a bit of hers. In some of her essays on the women’s movement, she seems rather lost; the authority and trust we associate with it turns into tangled thoughts and nostalgic daydreams. She wrote in 1971: “I look at little girls with wonder and anxiety. I don’t know if they will be free, the only certainty is that many will be adrift.

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