Arguing with Tony Judt

The late historian was provocative and courageous. Scott McLemee practices reader response criticism.

August 11, 2010

While scanning new magazines or newspapers, there are certain bylines you tend to notice. The list of them varies from person to person. But the habits of attention involved tend to be the same.

Usually the author is someone whose work you find informative, or stimulating, or otherwise agreeable (or some combination of these things). You tend to read the article immediately -- or postpone gratification until you’ve perused everything you must. Of course, things are not always so pleasant. The author may be your bête noir -- the very sight of his or her name provoking keen irritation. Which, to be sure, can involve its own pleasures.

Much of this speed-scan/instant notification is -- in my experience anyway -- involuntary, like a Pavlovian reflex. It would be possible to draw up a comprehensive checklist of authors whose bylines trigger my attention. But that would be after the fact. The "list" is unwritten and usually in flux. The whole process seems idiosyncratic and ad hoc. The brain knows what it wants, but isn't necessarily that rational or deliberate about it.

The historian Tony Judt, who died over the weekend, got entered into my registry not quite 20 years ago, when he started writing for The New York Review of Books and other publications. Some of his work was stimulating and some of it was annoying. His books on the European Left proved to be both. Judt was dismissive of questions and figures I thought were important, or else ignored them entirely. Reading Judt on Marxism involved a certain amount of intracranial yelling. As C.L.R. James once said about T.S. Eliot, he was someone I read in order to remind myself of what I do not think.

With Judt’s more recent writings on political topics (on the Middle East, the "strange death of liberal America,” and the prospects for a revitalized social democracy, for example), I noticed that other people were doing the complaining, in letters-to-the-editor columns and otherwise. This was gratifying, for Judt's conclusions were often similar to ones I'd come to by different means; and it was also instructive to see how he argued back against our shared opponents, especially since he did it more calmly than might be my wont.

Now it is the columnist’s privilege to express these things in utterly subjective terms. But just to be clear, no personal contact was involved. I never met Judt, nor made any effort to do so. The voice I was arguing with (or concurring with, as the case might be) was always the voice on the page.

This bears spelling out -- not because it was unusual, but because it is a completely normal relationship between author and reader, in many respects, at least for those of us whose sense of that relationship predates the Internet. It can be very intense, but it also possesses an element of distance, even of strict impersonality. Judt was someone with certain ideas who had published certain books and articles. His individuality stopped and started there.

All of which changed late last year, when I saw the video.

If you’ve seen it, you probably know what I mean. If not, here it is.

So little sense of Judt as an individual did I have that even his accent came as a surprise -- to say nothing of the impact of seeing him in a wheelchair, with tubes running into his nose (“a quadriplegic with facial Tupperware,” as he put it), all of it necessary given the muscular degeneration caused by ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Judt’s lecture -- sponsored last fall by the Remarque Institute, which he founded at New York University in 1995 -- has since been expanded into a book, Ill Fares the Land, published this spring by Penguin. In different circumstances my attention would go strictly to his political concerns. But that has become difficult, maybe impossible. His condition required Judt to compose the book in his head, then dictate it. Knowing that a text was written in prison always creates a sort of double consciousness in the reader. All the more so when the prison is the author’s body.

The grace and humor projected in that video naturally filtered into the tone of the voice that began to come from the page, especially as Judt began to write the series of essays, several of them amounting to a memoir, over the final months of his life. The first of them was a description -- calm and candid, but at times panic-inducing to read -- of what the days and nights were like under his changed circumstances. By that point, the relationship between author and public was no longer the same. Each essay might very well be his last. And seeing his name on the cover of The New York Review of Books now registered, not as part of my habitual, conditioned readerly expectations, but as a challenge that might as well be called “existential.”

Judt belonged to a generation that used that word a lot, maybe too much, but it feels like the one needed here. Faced not just with mortality but with conditions in which putting words on paper was getting ever more difficult, the decision to remain committed to the public role of writer and thinker was not obvious. Nobody would have blamed him for quitting. A choice was involved. He kept going.

My habit of scanning the names of contributors turned more deliberate, in Judt’s case. His name on the cover of The New York Review of Books was encouraging, because it meant he was staying the course. But also troubling, since it posed hard questions: In his circumstances, would you be able to keep on working? For how long? In the name of what values? Are you sure? You wouldn't give up, collapse like a black hole into despair? Again, you're sure about that?

Not that he was asking these questions, or even hinting at them. They amount to one reader’s confession of the thoughts raised by Judt’s example. At the same time, they are implicit in our common condition. How much of what we do is out of conviction, and how much out of the momentum of routine?

At this point, the habit of watching for Judt’s byline will soon give way. I'll still reread him every so often, of course -- in particular, his Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, published a couple of years ago by Penguin. It may be the best place to start for anyone who has yet to make his acquaintance. His essays are also excellent models of writing by a scholar addressing a public both academic and non-.

Not to say that his arguments are always persuasive. Some of them are actually pretty irritating, in my opinion, but that's the way it should be.


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