Earlier this week at the American Academy in Berlin, I attended a lecture delivered by the Columbia University literary theorist and feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. She was reporting on her wide-ranging, scholarly research, ostensibly about W. E. B. Du Bois. She said many incisive things, but one has stayed with me, and I am still trying to gauge the degree to which I believe it—or whether its veracity even matters. Speaking of the subaltern women in India, she said, “You do need statistics, but you must remember that they do not describe the real world.” They do not, she argued, have anything to do with the existential element that makes life human.
It’s the type of comment that can engender eye rolls—or worse—especially in our data-worshipping culture and public discourse. But it also brought me back to something I once read in Ralph Ellison, who railed against American society’s tendency to reduce the entire tragedy—but also the triumph—of black life to pure sociology. I don’t recall his exact words, but it was something to the effect of, “I don’t need a pie chart to show me what it means to be a Negro.” Like his old classmate and friend Albert Murray, Ellison believed in a certain degree of heroism and self-invention, but also, I would think, dignity in defeats that could be seen as singular and meaningful not generic. These are romantic notions, it’s true. But people, even those who suffer, as Spivak pointed out, also need to “commune with the stars.”