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Tony Judt: A Final Victory

Gina LeVay/Redux
Tony Judt in his office at New York University, June 2006

I was married to Tony Judt. I lived with him and our two children as he faced the terror of ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was a two-year ordeal, from his diagnosis in 2008 to his death in 2010, and during it Tony managed against all human odds to write three books. The last, following Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, was Thinking the Twentieth Century, based on conversations with Timothy Snyder.1 He started work on the book soon after he was diagnosed; within months he was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine, but he kept working nonetheless. He and Tim finished the book a month before he died. It accompanied his illness; it was part of his illness, and part of his dying.

The book is a history of twentieth-century thought. It begins with his reflections on Jewish idealism and Jewish suffering in Europe and ends with a devastating account of the failure of American politics in the post–cold war world. It is also an intellectual autobiography—of sorts. “Of sorts” because Tony rarely wrote in the first person, and the autobiographical sections of the book were wedged in, almost reluctantly, between the ideas, the history, the politics, and the ethical dilemmas that were central to his life.

This doesn’t mean that the book is not personal. For Tony, ideas were a kind of emotion, something he felt and cared about in the way that most people do about feelings like sadness or love. This, as the book shows, goes back to the beginning—even before the beginning—of his life: Tony was named after his father’s cousin Toni, who perished as a young girl in Auschwitz. As he was growing up, his father passed on his own passion for left-wing politics and European history as a form of parental love: Tony’s thirteenth birthday present, which he devoured, was Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume study of Trotsky. Ideas and the need for historical explanations ran deep, back then and right through to Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Of all of Tony’s writings, this book seems to me in need of some explanation: a backdrop or a scene, because the scene—the conditions under which it was written—was so dark and because the darkness shaped the book, in its form but also in its ideas. I am writing this because I have a few things to say about Thinking the Twentieth Century—things that I believe he would have wanted his readers to know.

When Tony was first diagnosed with ALS he knew he would die, soon. He knew it before any doctor told him; and he continued to know it even as we pursued every possible alternative explanation and cure. He knew it because it was happening to him every day: hands, arms, legs, breathing passed out of his control with terrifying speed. It was impossible to keep up, a dizzying and exhausting time of doctors and tests and daily crises; of emotions too large and consequential to bear; of bewilderment and determination; of anger, grief, desperation, and love.

At some point—it is hard to say exactly when, but it was about the time he began Thinking the Twentieth Century—we entered what we came to call the bubble. The bubble was a closed world, an alternate reality, a place that we lived in and peered out of. It had walls—transparent, filmy walls—but they were like one-way mirrors: we could see out, but no one could really see in, or at least that is how it felt from the inside. We knew our world was strange and apart, governed by the rules of illness and dying rather than the rules of life. I could pierce through, sometimes, by taking a walk and seeing the sky, but Tony could not—and increasingly would not.

As he grew sicker, he became understandably more fearful. There was too much he couldn’t control in the outside world: everything from electrical outlets for the breathing machine (batteries fail) to his wheelchair (power-operated but he had no way to steer it) and—not least—the unbearable goodwill of people who didn’t understand. He took grim refuge in his study, his sickroom, his closed, safe prison-cocoon that would house his deteriorating body and entrapped mind.

The more he retreated the more public he became. His private life at home and with friends was his greatest comfort but it was also deeply sad: he couldn’t be the things he wanted to be and he was haunted and humiliated by his “old” self—what he called “the old Tony,” who was lost to him forever. There were other places that it was in some ways easier to be: portals to the world where he could find his way, at least momentarily, out of the bubble and back to himself. E-mail and the disembodied, virtual World Wide Web was one. Words and memory were the others. With the help of his family and friends and especially his extraordinary assistant, Eugene Rusyn, who had a way of effacing himself and could type at the speed of thought and speech, Tony could sit at the computer and we could act as his hands, typing his words and opening his view electronically out onto the world. And so he took on more and more writing, more and more e-mail and electronic interviews; anything where people could hear or read but not see. Thinking the Twentieth Century was part of that: a portal to the world.

The past was still the engine of his thoughts. Not history anymore, but memory. Memory was Tony’s only certainty and he clung to it as a lifeline. It was the thing the disease could not take from him. It was another way out of the bubble and the only form of independence he had, and kept, to the very end. To retrieve a memory, he didn’t have to ask anything of anyone: it was just there, in his mind, and as long as he could still talk, he could use his memory at will. It was all his. This is why Thinking the Twentieth Century is a work of memory, not history, even if the twentieth century is its subject. It is not like his other books, which depended on vast quantities of notes, references, materials, charts, facts, and information gleaned from hundreds of sources and painstakingly transcribed and ordered on long yellow pads of paper.

Thinking the Twentieth Century was inside him. He had already started work on a history of twentieth-century thought, but it was still in its earliest stages when he became ill. So when his colleague and friend the historian Timothy Snyder approached him with the idea of a series of conversations, the book that Tony had planned to write metamorphosed, with Tim, into Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Every week for several months Tim came to our home with his voice recorder and sat in our living room with Tony; they would talk for two hours straight—no breaks. Tony went into each conversation without preparation and without notes. We all remember what we believe in most, and Tony had an astounding memory for facts and history. As I listened from the kitchen, as I often did, I was amazed by his range and command, as he talked of the intricacies of turn-of-the-century politics, the intellectual origins of fascism, and the fate of right-wing thought in postwar democracies. I was used to Tony’s brilliance, but also to his control: now he was letting all the barriers down.

It was a flood of knowledge. It was everything he knew passed through his own personal experiences. And Tim was careful to insist that Tony not only “talk” the twentieth century, but place himself in its setting. Zionism, for example, they treated as a moment and movement in Jewish thought and gave it its full historical due. It was also Tony’s own first disappointed political love, and he returns over and again to the ways in which his total—deeply ideological—commitment to the Zionist cause as a young man (after he joined a kibbutz and volunteered as a translator for the Six-Day War) and his subsequent disenchantment had allowed him “to identify the same fanaticism and myopic, exclusivist tunnel vision in others.” That phase of his life gave him a kind of historical empathy for the often disastrous ideological certainties of the twentieth century that he then set out to describe and analyze.

For Tony the incentive behind the book—and it had to be a powerful one to overcome the discomfort and depression that were his constant companions—was primarily intellectual, a matter of clarification. Tim knew this, and when their dialogue worked, as it usually did, Tony was transformed. Sick Tony, frustrated and anguished Tony, unable to eat or scratch or breathe properly, his body aching from inactivity, was able, with Tim and through sheer mental and physical exertion, to find some relief and exhilaration in the life of the mind. There was something about Tim, his seriousness and depth of knowledge, and his Protestant, midwestern morality, that provoked Tony in the best possible ways.

In this time out of time, ideas were everything. Tony had always cared more about ideas than anything—more than friends; more, in some way, than himself. He believed—really believed—that they were bigger than he was. He wouldn’t survive, but they would. So as he got sicker and sicker, the book mattered—grimly—more and more. He went over old ground, taking the time, for example, to reflect on the argument he made in these pages in 2003 for a one-state solution in Israel2; or insisting on the interwar Austrian historical setting of Friedrich Hayek’s ideas about economics and state planning—a setting too often ignored or misunderstood, he thought, by contemporary political pundits, with the regrettable consequence that “the Austrian experience…has been elevated to the status of economic theory” and “come to inform not just the Chicago school of economics but all significant public conversation over policy choices in the contemporary United States.”

Draft chapters would arrive from Tim, who had organized the conversations into a text according to the chapter outline they had agreed upon; then Tony and his assistant would work on the text, often deep into the night. The text didn’t always reflect what Tony wanted it to say, exactly, and he was annoyed that it did not have his voice or stylistic elegance. He was a writer, and the spoken voice transcribed—even after hours of painstaking editing—felt odd to him, off-kilter, even if he could (as he liked to say) talk in paragraphs.

It is true that the book was put together as a compromise between Tony and Tony; between Tony and Tim; and above all between Tony and ALS. But this is part of its force, I think, and a sign of Tony’s resolve as he tried to pin down his own thoughts one last time. This does not make the book confessional, even when it is autobiographical: Tony deliberately skirted or left out the people he cared about most in a desire to shield them, and himself, from the public light. He never kept a journal and never wrote down his innermost thoughts or reflections about himself or the people close to him.

  1. 1

    Just published by Penguin. 

  2. 2

    See “ Israel: The Alternative,” The New York Review, October 23, 2003, and his reply to critics, December 4, 2003. 

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