On Facts (For Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)-Patchen Markell12-19-2011
“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”
— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”
I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University. Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life. When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death. In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate. I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?
Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear. Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events. (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”) But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.
The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.
But this wasn’t Arendt’s point. She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.” At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.” The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.
Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant? Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically. (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment. Maybe all great biographers do. Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.
But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently. It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us."