The Three Solipsisms of Tony Judt
In his short memoir, The Memory Chalet, dictated at the end of his life as he lay immobilized from motor neuron disease, the historian Tony Judt three times uses the word solipsism. It's a curious and exotic word, and its repeated use in Judt's brief final statement to the world conveys both his deepest fear about the future of politics, and his horror at his own locked-in condition.
In his short memoir, The Memory Chalet, dictated at the end of his life as he lay immobilized from motor neuron disease, the historian Tony Judt three times uses the word solipsism. It's a curious and exotic word, and its repeated use in Judt's brief final statement to the world conveys both his deepest fear about the future of politics, and his horror at his own locked-in condition. It's as if the fatal illness he contracted were the physical manifestation of his worst nightmare about our withdrawal from the public realm in postmodern culture. As he writes in another late work, Ill Fares the Land:
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears natural today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector; the growing disparities of rich and poor. And, above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: Uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
"The thin veneer of civilization," he says in The Memory Chalet, "rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity." Without at least a shaky conviction of that commonality, we are lost.
Yet it is a mark of the realism of his farewell letter that Judt's own existence, as he remembers it, reveals no straightforward progress toward greater and greater commonality. Instead, he describes, starting at a very young age, one flawed effort after another, on his part, toward solidarity - kibbutz Zionism, '68 radicalism... Repeatedly his passion for common life and just causes (a passion rooted in his memories of shared sacrifice and moral seriousness in post-war London), draws him toward particular groups; repeatedly, with more and more nuance, he comes to know the limitations of ideological collectives. Of kibbutz life, he writes:
[C]ollective self-government... does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism.
Judt recalls leaving the kibbutz whenever he could and going to Haifa, where he "star[ed] wistfully from the dock at the passenger ferries bound for Famagusta, Izmir, Brindisi, and other cosmopolitan destinations." He was beginning to move toward what he became - a "universal social democrat" - for whom all forms of identity politics, inside and outside the academy, were anathema. "Fierce unconditional loyalties - to a country, a God, an idea, or a man - have come to terrify me."
Always, in the manner of George Orwell, Judt propels himself in the direction of greater clarity about the empirical realm. He fixes his attention on what is in front of his nose. Or slightly peripheral to it: Of himself and his fellow soixante-huitards, he writes, "Had we cared a little more about the fate of ideas we tossed around so glibly we might have paid greater attention to the actions and opinions of those who had been brought up in their shadow." Judt's attention, that is, came to be diverted more and more from Paris to Warsaw, Prague, Budapest.
Indeed his human rights activities in Central and Eastern Europe "cured me forever of the methodological solipsism of the postmodern academy." Like Richard Rorty, Judt detested what he regarded as the smug and often politically passive obscurantism of many of the radical critical theorists of his day. He believed that '68 posturing had become academic posturing.
Helping him always to perceive things better were the teachers Judt praises throughout The Memory Chalet, like the professor who
broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.
In place of what he (in his third use of the word) calls "communitarian solipsism," Judt defends "a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling," an always restless, never complacent, analytical rigor about one's deepest commitments.
Yet The Memory Chalet would not be what it is - one of the best intellectual autobiographies of its time - were it not for Judt's insistence, even in his final days, on taking a stand against his own enforced solipsism, his personal decline into privatization. A frozen figure drawing air from a tube, an object of pity and curiosity and some degree of fear, Tony Judt gave major lectures and lengthy interviews from his wheelchair. He must have been just as aware of the discomfort and anxiety his presence generated as was another locked-in writer, Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:
[As] soon as I direct my one eye toward [other people in a rehab unit, they] turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke detector.
Like Christopher Hitchens, whose bald head and sallow skin from chemo are anything but hidden as he remains as public an intellectual as ever, Judt stayed in the game. Like Anatole Broyard, who in his own dying memoir, Intoxicated by my Illness, is haunted by Gregor Samsa, who "dies like an insect," Judt writes that his "cockroach-like existence is cumulatively intolerable... 'Cockroach' is of course an allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect. The point of the story is as much the responses and incomprehension of his family as it it the account of his own sensations, and it is hard to resist the thought that even the best-meaning and most generously thoughtful friend or relative cannot hope to understand the sense of isolation and imprisonment that this disease imposes upon its victims."
Privatization again, then; yet, as Broyard goes on to say:
To die is to be no longer human, to be dehumanized - and I think that language, speech, stories, or narratives are the most effective way to keep our humanity alive. To remain silent is literally to close down the shop of one's humanity.
The stories Judt tells - of his youth in England, his love of trains, his discovery of Indian food - are narratives that keep him - his human particularity - permanently alive. He tells these stories very beautifully, in the way of someone who loves prose, speaks many languages, and recognizes that "communication is as [vital] to the republic" as it is to himself. Take this bit of prose-poetry from The Memory Chalet, in which Judt describes an outdoor scene in Cambridge:
There were boathouses, houseboats, the occasional tug, abandoned skiffs rotting gently into the mud...
Put it into poetry and it's poetry:
There were boathouses, houseboats,
The occasional tug,
Abandoned skiffs rotting gently into the mud...
All of this, I think, goes to explain why, in the epigraph to his dying memoir, This Wild Darkness, Harold Brodkey writes: "I don't see the point of privacy."
Read more by
You may also be interested in...
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading