By Chris Wallace
One of my favourite biographers died this week: American philosopher and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, author of outstanding lives of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud. “The cause was a pulmonary embolism, her spouse, Christine Dunbar, said,” the New York Times obituary reported matter of factly.
Young-Bruehl was not still resident in her native United States at her time of death, I then realized. Nor was she living in New Zealand, the country from which spouse and fellow psychoanalyst Christine Dunbar hailed. It turns out they had married in Toronto in 2008 and lived in Canada. In a week when the federal ALP platform was amended in favour of marriage equality but without binding Labor MPs to vote in parliament accordingly, hearing about marriage equality in Canada reinforced the bittersweet “two steps forward, one step back” sense of progress here.
Young-Bruehl was one of Hannah Arendt’s doctoral students in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Her biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World was published by Yale University Press in 1982, several years after Arendt’s death.
It was Arendt, of course, who coined “the banality of evil” in relation to Hitler’s Germany so it’s unsurprising her student should become a scholar of the psychological roots of ideology – “personal, cultural, national and above all prejudicial” as the New York Times neatly summarized it.
Young-Bruehl’s The Anatomy of Prejudices (1996), for example, examined the roots of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, linking each to distinct psychoanalytic types. Analysing strands of bigotry separately was controversial amongst sociologists who tended to lump all prejudice in together. Linking prejudices to specific psychoanalytic concepts was controversial generally.
But one thing Young-Bruehl did which was an unarguable plus was getting direct accounts of the experience of prejudice from those subjected to it instead of relying on the generally third party accounts in the academic literature from authors who had not. She spotted a data gap – a blindness, really – just as American historian Annette Gordon-Reed did later in relation to the historiography of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship and children with his slave Sally Hemmings. Silence is significant, gaps have meaning, in science, in history, in philosopy, everywhere. How does the picture change when one acknowledges and addresses them? That’s the question.
I sensed a gap personally, on first meeting Andrew Barr. It was on the pavement at Giles Street, Kingston. Barr was running for the Assembly, a fresh, new young candidate with the obligatory card table and pile of promotional pamphlets. What a nice guy, I thought. Later I read the pamphlet and thought the personal bio was a bit thin. I googled him in search of some illuminating detail but the sketchiness proved systematic. The mystery was solved once Barr was elected to the Assembly and his sexual orientation became publicly known, met I think it’s fair to say, with a with a big fat “so what” from the Canberra community. That’s one of the great things about our town – it really is a progressive live and let live kind of place in what one likes to think is a progressive live and let live kind of country, though the limits of the latter were on show at last weekend’s Labor national conference.
Andrew Barr was one of the stars of the conference debate on marriage equality, his speech moving, personal and persuasive. Canberra should be proud of him and ourselves, too, for being ahead of most of the rest of Australia on this human rights issue at a time when most polities are prone to scaremongering godbotherers.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s blog Who’s Afraid of Social Democracy? included a great piece last year marking the second anniversary of her Toronto wedding. “I asked Christine for her permission to celebrate it with you by writing a post about marriage politics,” Young-Bruehl wrote. “ Fine, she said, as long as she gets final edit. Fine, I said, that will make it just like our marriage.” The vows included ten mutual promises of which Young-Bruehl nominated as the most challenging: “I promise to hold lightly and with flexibility my conviction that ‘I am always right’, and that I will not seek to be the boss.” Wonder how she and Christine went with that one!
The Arendt and Anna Freud biographies are fantastic achievements and if you haven’t read them, well worth tracking down. For Young-Bruehl is a biographer who wants to work out not just what her subjects think but how they think, rather than just cataloguing the ins and outs of a life. Arendt would have been proud.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 10 December 2011