After Elisabeth-A Remembrance
“I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, truly to love the world ... Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theories [the book that would become The Human Condition] Amor Mundi’”—Hannah Arendt
I am writing this in a tiny room in Brooklyn, sitting on a red leather chair at my desk next to a window which looks onto a garden. Above me, and across the entire wall I am facing, are shelves of books: each section of which I’ve assembled in accordance with a theme. Part of one shelf contains a history of the battle at Stalingrad, translations of Rilke, Cavafy and Rene Char, RB Onans’s The Origins of European Thought, Said’s Orientalism, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution each of which is relevant to, or footnoted by, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which I read during a business trip in Europe. In this room I do not allow food, television, music or clocks—anything that might divert my attention from writing—but I inadvertently had my phone in my pocket yesterday, and so the news reached me about the death of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.
We called each other Elisabeth and Steven whenever we met, but in my head and in conversation, first with fellow students of hers and later with professors and scholars, she was never Elisabeth or Young-Bruehl, but always the entire name Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in keeping with a certain gravitas, which surrounded her like an invisible fence. You could not cross that barrier without a special permit, a permit that, despite my many efforts, I was never able to obtain.
The grief I feel at Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s death is clearer because we were not friends, though, especially recently, we did travel in some of the same circles. We first met 29 years ago at Wesleyan University, at the College of Letters, where I was her student in a course on technology and philosophy. Her lectures displayed a penetrating understanding of what we might today call the Net Delusion: the dark side of freedom unleashed by technology. She was certainly the first person I ever heard speak about thinking global (she always pronounced the word with the stress on the second syllable to emphasize its importance); yet she was constantly flummoxed by the operation of her tape recorder. I once pointed what I thought was the humor in this situation, but Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did not find it even remotely funny. She was a formidable professor, projecting both a coldness (especially towards men) and a muscular intellectualism. It would not have been safe to “think aloud” or “free associate around an idea” in her class for she would cross-examine you without mercy. On the other hand, if you were prepared with notes and quoted sources precisely, she would suddenly remember your name and thank you for your contribution.
It was in her classes that I first read (first heard of) Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, whose work arrested my respect as no author had before or has done since. My admiration grew into awe as I read her works and as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl told us about Arendt’s life: her principled stance against Jewish fascism (in a letter she co-signed with Albert Einstein); her affair as a student with her married professor, and despite the fact that her husband was a communist, her love of fine dining.
It was about this time that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl became famous. Her biography of Hannah Arendt was published to near-universal acclaim, and I can still remember Peter Berger’s cover review in the New York Times Book Review featuring Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World proudly displayed in the entryway to the College of Letters.
Often when EYB walked on campus, she was surrounded (guarded?) by five or six women whose appearance and decibel levels of Sprechstimme I can only describe as “fierce.” But my desire to know more about Arendt was strong, and when EYB lectured on Hannah Arendt at Yale and NYC, I travelled to hear her. I went, in part, to slake my thirst for more information on Arendt but also to tell EYB how much her biography meant to me and how immersed I had become in her subject. But despite the fact that I was the only one of her students who attended the lectures away from Wesleyan, she rebuffed me and I retreated. One day, however, in New Haven, I’d forgotten to put gas in the car and was forced to ask her to lend me $10 so I could get back to school. I returned the money to her the next day with a thank you note and a pack of LifeSavers. She smiled, said nothing. My friends said she really didn’t like men, though I saw she made room for a few. I became a model student of hers, reading assigned books and even commentaries on them; I wrote tough, straightforward papers, in dense academic prose, with footnotes and translations; and I received high marks, but the admittance to her circle that I craved never arrived.
A few months later, I went to her office to discuss a paper, but she did not wish to discuss papers. Some elitist in the Academy had rejected an essay or book proposal she had proposed. “I don’t send them out if they’re not good anymore,” she said and then told me how she had toiled for five years writing Arendt’s biography and about the file cabinets of correspondence she had sorted through in doing so. The irony that she was complaining to me that she was not getting the recognition she deserved was not lost on me. Feeling she had opened the door onto exchanging confidences, I shared with her my recent decision to come out of the closet. She withdrew instantly, and said only, “Honey, it’s 1983, where have you been?” Another student was waiting to speak with her and I swallowed my feelings and left.
The intense pleasure I felt at being her student, at having studied philosophy at the hem of the garment of Arendt’s student, who was Heidegger’s student, who was Husserl’s student, was forever undercut by the frustration I felt whenever I actually found myself in the same room with her, and had to confront my inability to make friends with her. Not only were we not friends, but also I came to dislike her for the principal reason that I felt she did not like me. How petty and utterly formal that dislike was, I always knew. I thought my devotion would eventually win her over; I was wrong.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was an exceptional professor and I was not surprised when she became famous, though I was shocked by those who ascribed her fame to her exclusive access to Hannah Arendt’s archives, rather than the magisterial display of intelligence, sensitivity and restraint she brought to bear on her topic. Those of us familiar with Arendt’s life knew Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was much smarter than she was lucky: she was chosen by Hannah Arendt herself as her research assistant. EYB was the only one of Hannah Arendt’s students to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy under her tutelage, and had to write two theses because Arendt rejected her first work (on Heraclitus) and ‘suggested’ she write a second one (on Jaspers.) And at the time of Arendt’s death, Mary McCarthy-- the best friend, famous author and Arendt’s literary executrix—could easily have taken on the biography project, or given it to an experienced biographer, but she did not. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once told me, she had three strikes going in against her candidacy: unlike Arendt, she wasn’t Jewish, German was not her Muttersprach and she was not one of Hannah’s intimate friends. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was chosen for the promise of her brilliance, a promise she fulfilled magnificently.
When Hannah Arendt died, EYB was in her mid-thirties, and she wrote a biography that not only illuminated many of the most important ideas behind Arendt’s books, but one in which the intensely private Hannah Arendt seemed to leap from the pages: sending her housekeeper’s son to college with the proceeds of one of her books, debating with Hans Morgenthau on the editorial pages of the New York Times, and refusing Auden’s marriage proposal after a visit to his apartment during which Arendt blanched when witnessing a group of Auden’s friends share a single spoon while tasting and stirring their cups of coffee. But what I also admired most about Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book was the way she remained quietly in the background, so as not to distract her readers. EYB never names herself in the biography, though those of us who were her students discerned that many of the anecdotes illustrating Arendt’s intensely nurturing relationships with her students were, in fact, about the two of them.
It has been faithfully reported to me by the son of the former concertmaster of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, that during rehearsals the great maestro would wave his arms and gesticulate emphatically, often pantomiming his musical ideas, the better to illustrate them to his musicians. But during performances, Toscanini was entirely restrained, used miniscule gestures, and quipped that audiences should sweat, not conductors.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was the Toscanini of biographers, whose mastery of her subject included privileging graciousness over self-promotion, and she turned out a bravura performance. Such was the demand for her writing afterwards, Louisiana State University Press republished her novel Vigil later that same year.
Susan Sontag pointed out that there is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things. I will always wonder if, on some level, her colleagues’ resentment at her learning a second field motivated EYB to leave Wesleyan, where she was a revered and tenured professor. A few years after I graduated; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl took on the project of writing a biography of Anna Freud, and she enrolled at Yale, and became a clinical psychologist. You might not think this was such revolutionary choice for a woman of EYB’s extraordinary intelligence and accomplishments, but it was for Hannah Arendt’s student and biographer. In EYB’s words, Hannah Arendt “rejected psychological categories altogether” which meant that she held psychology with the same degree of barely concealed contempt as she did “the social,” “statistics,” and “economics”; phenomena which Arendt regarded more as symptoms of the breakdown of the polis, and the triumph of charm over greatness. It is widely reported by Hannah Arendt’s students that she “ate talk of psychology for breakfast.” Nevertheless, in the last years, I attended many of EYB’s lectures where she never failed say things like “as a clinician we say…” or “in the field of psychology this is termed…” as though she were still dealing with objections to her succeeding in yet a second career. David Schorr, who did the cover illustration for the Arendt biography, told me EYB was disappointed by what she learned about Anna Freud: hoping to write about a pioneer in the emerging field of psychology who was also a lesbian, EYB discovered that Anna Freud was not and, in fact, was even less tolerant than her father had been about same-sex love. The Anna Freud book, like the Arendt book before it, won awards and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl added psychology to her philosophy, and did it so well that she was recently appointed the editor of Donald Winnicott’s complete papers, a task that will now have to be completed by another.
As a professor, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had continuously astonished us with her ability to recognize the patterns of thought in the great philosophers. She could instantly identify the author of unattributed passages, and was at her most fascinating when pointing out why a given philosopher was incapable of conceptualizing this or that thought. I can only imagine the power of such a mind attuned to listening to her patients, and the patterns of their thoughts. She must have seemed uncommonly gifted and insightful, because she was uncommonly gifted and insightful.
By 1996, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had written An Anatomy of Prejudices, a book that, I believe, in time, will be seen as a seminal work, not in the least because of its Arendtian methods of drawing distinctions and bringing literally clinical thinking to the task of classifying prejudices. Prior to her work, all prejudice (singular) was regarded as a uniform mass of unexamined negative emotions as though they were all alike and shared a common point of origin. I can only imagine how furious she must have been when her work was extensively utilized by Andrew Sullivan in a major newspaper article, which sought to justify the removal of some section of the social net from underneath the underprivileged.
All the while, she continued to turn out books of breathtaking originality (Cherishment, Where Do We Fall When We Fall in Love, and Why Arendt Matters among her 11 books) and became increasingly preoccupied with the only topic I sensed was more dear to her than politics: love. I continued to follow her career, read her books, and eventually her blog. From her most recent writings I could tell she was deeply in love with her wife, Christine Dunbar and from our mutual friend Jerome Kohn I learned she was, at last, very happy. At this moment, the thought of her happiness is great solace to me. Once I sent her a letter acknowledging her profound influence, thanking her for teaching me to think, and enumerating all of the many ways I felt, and still feel, indebted to her. She wrote back, pointing out to me that my letter named my dog but not my Better Half, and made clear to me, in terms that were only fair, that I was to remain on the other side of her “gravitas.”
In choosing to become an analyst, and writing psychoanalytic books, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl showed her profound intellectual courage: recently, she even addressed Hannah Arendt’s disdain for her chosen field on her blog , postulating that it was understandable that Arendt, whose father died of syphilis when she was a child, and who famously guarded her private sphere, might have strong resistance to a field which focused so intently on early childhood experiences. And in a conference at Bard College in 2006, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt’s birth, she pointed out that recent historical research had revealed that “Eichmann was even more guilty than Arendt knew” with not-so-subtle reference to Arendt’s half-psychological, half-philosophical characterization of the Nazi logistics expert as “banal.”
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s public challenges to her very famous professor at first irked me, then made me think about the patterns of her life and thought and then finally confirmed for me what I had learned from her, first in her lectures and later through her many books: in order to be an Arendtian, she had to face up to and reveal the truth as she knew it, or else she would be sucked into mediocrity. When her truth led her into conflict with a small portion of Hannah Arendt’s thought, she did not run away; she analyzed the facts and stood her ground.
Her mentor often quoted the Ancient Roman saying fiat iusticia et pereat mundi, Let justice be done though the whole world may perish. In time I came to understand how Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, mutatis mutandis, came to embody the very ideals of her beloved and revered teacher, Hannah Arendt.
Even though I grieve that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has died, she will go on influencing me; here, in this tiny room where I am writing, and through the rest of my life, I will go on grieving that she is no longer with us to write more books, to illuminate the world and share the truth, in her courageous yet understated style. She was a bright and shining example of the life well-examined.
Steven Maslow is the Chairman of the Hannah Arendt Center Board, and a former student of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.