“Just the Facts, Ma'am"

I bristled when my brother said it. "You, as an historian, care mostly about facts [or words to that effect], while I, as a literary critic [or philosopher or humanist seeker, I'm not quite sure how he put it] care about..." Actually, I don't remember what he wrote (and for some odd reason can't find the original email in my files, although I did track down part of a response); I was too busy fuming over that thing about "facts".

Me, like facts? No way! I'm as hip and theory-oriented as the next edgy academic. Just watch me wield my knowledge of Gadamer and Ricouer and Bourdieu and Foucault. I can talk about hermeneutics and narrativity and social capital and power with the best of them. I know my way around the lit crit schools; I even know a little Freud. Certainly, I've taught a little Freud, so I must know something. Okay, so I'm a little shaky on Heidegger and Hegel, but I've read William James on the principles of psychology (well, some of it) and one of my favorite books of all time is Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain. True, sometimes I find some of my lit crit and social theorist colleagues a little difficult to follow, but as a medievalist, I'm not daunted. After all, as my colleague Bruce Holsinger has so beautifully shown, most of those fancy French "theorists" were actually just medievalists in disguise. Barthes' famous polysemy? Pshaw! That's just a fancy name for the way in which medieval exegetes read the four (or two or three) levels of meaning in Scripture. Barthes was simply reading too much Henri de Lubac without crediting his sources. And Bourdieu's famous concept of habitus? Stolen from Panofsky on Gothic architecture and scholasticism.

See? See? No grubby and boring old facts here. Just high-wire intellectual acrobatics. Flash, dash, sizzle, pop. Kazaam.... Yeah, right. I'm not fooling you either, am I? The thing is, my brother is right. I realize that I do like facts. Facts are comforting. Facts let you know where you are. Facts like when so-and-so was born or how many manuscripts there are extant of a particular text or where such-and-such took place or who attended which council when: facts are good things, even if, as historians, particularly medieval historians, we sometimes despair at ever being able to get them exactly right. I can't get enough of facts. My students may or may not be surprised to hear this since I don't, as a rule, tend to spend much time testing them on facts. After all, who wants history to be simply a boring old list of facts? Much better to ask them to write about processes and mindsets and other fancy and unquantifiable things. Like, for example, attitudes towards the body or theories of the individual or nation-state. Mind you, I don't tend to ask them to write much about theories either. And I do get upset when they get their dates and footnotes wrong.

I'm not quite sure what to do with this. If it is true, as it seems to be, that I like facts, why then do I torture myself trying to write about something so apparently fact-free as devotion and prayer? Why not just stick to the facts: who wrote what when, never mind how or why? Ah, there's the rub: "Why?" As much as I like facts, this would in fact seem to be my favorite question, and no fact in the world ever answered the question "Why?" Facts, as I told my brother in the email I did manage to find this morning, are tools, not answers. I like facts, it would seem, for the same reason that I like colored pencils and keyboards and foils. They are the tools that enable me to work on the question "Why?" LOL. This is not where I thought that this blog post was going to take me. I thought that it was going to convince me that what I should do is just stop worrying about the Big Questions and let myself enjoy my passion for facts. But much as I like facts, what I love is Truth, and Truth does not yield itself as easily to answers as do the things about which it is possible, however provisionally, to establish a fact.

So, in fact, I'm back where I started: not bristling anymore, thank goodness, but still clear that facts as such are not what I am about, however many facts I may need to establish in order to make the point that I want to. The difference, I suppose, is that now I can see more clearly my passion for facts, rather than being defensive about it.


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