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Tony Judt: A Final Victory

Perhaps in part because he was so private, Tony was tormented by the idea of his own absence, not in itself (he was as hard a realist as any) but for his two boys. He wanted desperately to teach them, to love them, to be with them into their adulthood. He had so much to tell them about where he had been, whom he had known, books he had read (and written), and what he had made of it all. Here he did something extraordinary: he projected himself beyond his own death and found a way to reach “back” from the abyss. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I now see that the dead can extend feelings across the divide separating the living from the ever after. But—and it is a big but—they can only do it if they think of it in advance, before they actually die.

Tony did this. He was fast losing control of his life, but the afterlife was ironically more within his grasp. He didn’t believe in it for himself, but he did believe in it for the people he left behind. Not as a supernatural act, although we talked about that too, but as a matter of word and record: of history. He knew it would matter what he wrote. Thinking the Twentieth Century was a labor on behalf of a future he knew he would not share. And to the extent that the book contains an autobiography, it is largely for Daniel and Nicholas.

The book was written from inside the bubble and bears its marks. The future, Tony’s plans, and our imagined life together were suddenly erased. The past changed too, every memory a melancholy reminder of a physicality and life that had deserted him. In the normal nonbubble world, as he put it, people accept that they can’t predict the distant future, but the present feels reasonably sure. We may not know where we will be in ten years, but most of us know what we are doing today. For Tony this suddenly reversed. The future—even the near future—was all too certain: he would be dead. The present, however, was utterly unpredictable. Would his arms work today? Would he be able to breathe?

This time-switch, an unsettling red shift in the mind, altered Tony’s view of politics. Everything became urgent: now was all he could count on. His writings became more radical. We both thought of his book Ill Fares the Land, with its account of growing economic inequality in the US and elsewhere and the widespread betrayal of social democratic principles, as his Eighteenth Brumaire; and in Thinking the Twentieth Century the idea of justice swung hard to the fore. Yet there was something more, too. Justice, inequality, good-faith politics: these had always been the touchstones of Tony’s thought, but now other ideas were crowding in, ideas that needed to be made sense of privately and emotionally, but also—because this is how Tony was and how he thought—collectively and intellectually. Humiliation, shame, fear, anger: these were not just feelings. They were political ideas.

Humiliation was the most important. Tony felt it acutely and it was a theme in his correspondence with others afflicted by ALS. Many of these people were younger than Tony and destitute or medically uninsured, with narrow if not ruined life possibilities. They needed help—practical social and medical services. Humiliation was a terrible feeling, but, as he felt strongly, it was also—and should be treated as—an ugly social fact. “Night,” his essay describing his “imprisonment without parole,”3 was partly for these new friends, and so, in another key, was the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century, where Tony mounted as fierce—and felt—a case as ever he had for our need to “think socially”: to make human rather than monetary gain the goal of social policy. This was not the politics of disability or special interest; it was about collective responsibility and the duty of us all to each other.

By the time he was finishing the book, the disease was taking over and the space for clear thinking was limited and unpredictable, interrupted by respiratory crises and shots of morphine. But Tony’s own physical hardship, and his sense of the fragility of human dignity, if anything increased his worry for the world he was about to exit.

Take his discussion of our age—“the age of fear”—that ends the book. Fear of joblessness, fear of lost pensions and financial decline, fear of outsiders and

unknown strangers who might come and drop bombs. It’s fear that our government cannot any longer control the circumstances of our lives. It can’t make us a gated community against the world. It’s lost control. That paralysis of fear, which Americans I think experience very deeply, was reinforced by the realization that the one security [physical security from terrorism] they thought they had they now don’t.

The political manipulation of fear made Tony angry. Not upset or disappointed or frustrated, as it had in the past, but truly angry. Fear is the ultimate emotion and he lived at its door: the heart-stopping fear of helplessness and falling backward, plank-like, onto hard cement with no hands to catch you; the panic-fear of a breathing machine that fails (and the ever-after fear that it will happen again); the fear of strangers who drive tubes into your nose and throat (irrationally but understandably, he wanted me to do it even when I had no idea how); and the blank, staring fear of death itself. To exploit fear for political ends, as had happened following September 11, for example, was to him an ethical abuse of the first order.

Tony had always been a forthright critic of social injustice; now he had zero tolerance. Not zero tolerance for halfway solutions—even a halfway solution is a solution—but zero tolerance for political deception and intellectual dishonesty. He acquired, in a way, the wisdom of a child: Why aren’t people angrier? Some were, of course, but Tony didn’t live to see the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. He would have taken a probing and active interest in both.

None of this made him, in his own mind at least, a “public intellectual.” He disliked the term, which seemed to him evidence of the failure of scholars to build links between the academy and public life. This division was our own trahison des clercs and Tony spent the second half of his career trying to remedy it by teaching and thinking and writing as clearly as he could. And by being alone. Tony’s idea of what it meant to be an intellectual was rooted in his sense of aloneness, of staying apart from the intellectual crowd, of keeping one’s own counsel and not belonging to any group or club—but also of evaluating an event or problem alone, on its own facts, and not according to any blueprint (he was for intervention in Bosnia but against it in Iraq).

Indeed, the greatest torment that the disease delivered was that Tony could never—ever—be alone. By the time he was “talking” Thinking the Twentieth Century, he had lost his students, his classrooms, his desk, his books; he couldn’t travel or take a walk. He had lost, in other words, the places that had helped him think through his ideas. Perhaps most seriously of all, he had lost his place: he had a rapidly diminishing sense of himself and a shattered mind’s-eye view of his own physical being—of his own “thereness.” Writing involves the physical self—pens, paper, keyboards—the touch connecting the mind to the page; it has a rhythm, a feel, a posture and pacing, a pulse through the body. Tony’s was gone or severely disrupted. The disorientation he felt was primitive and profound. How could it not have been? To write without this sense of place and self seems to me a near impossibility.

And yet he did it. Which is where the public—his public—came in. His public became, in effect, his place, the only place, paradoxically, that he had to think and be alone. And he really did think out loud, in public, listening to his words echoing electronically back to him in e-mails, interviews, blogs, and critically assessing their effect. Here was a place and people whom he could teach and engage. “They” became his students and his colleagues. And they—strangers all—helped him, not with praise but by arguing.

This mattered because his public was his place but also crucial to his defiance: his ultimate adversary. To hell with the disease, with fate, with the body, with the future and the past. He would keep the conversation going and raise the stakes; his public would fight back—and when you fight, you feel alive. Engagé. He needed that to keep going. Which is why he kept going with Thinking the Twentieth Century; it was part of the fight, from his withering comments on intellectuals who supported the Iraq war right down to his ever-prescient defense of the role of the state in public life. He had a soldier’s discipline and even though he was miserable he fought on, saying what he had to say and refining and honing his every word. That was the only kind of public intellectual he knew how to be.

So Thinking the Twentieth Century pours decades of thought and knowledge and days of illness into a lifelong idealism. It is an idealism that under the circumstances could be sustained only by a ferociously disciplined mind, and at great personal cost. I don’t mean that Tony believed in an ideal society. The only thing he was an idealist about was serious public debate. This was the one thing, along with love, that was always left standing no matter how much was felled by the disease, and so much was. Tony called it the core. To me it was a narrowing beam of light in the darkness that was separating Tony from us all. And if Thinking the Twentieth Century stands in the no-man’s-land between what is and what should be, as I think it does, this is in part because it was driven by the darkness but also part of the light. It was besieged, as he was.

Imagine, if you can, what it was like at his desk, in his room, as he made his way to the end of the manuscript and the environment around him darkened: thick air and layers of dust impossible to clean, smells that seemed almost visible, of antiseptic, flowers, morphine, and the burn and buzz of electricity from the amplifier that projected his ever-weakening voice; windows thrown open for air and light and hastily shut against the unnatural chill in his static and stationary bones.

It was here, in that study, that Tony completed Thinking the Twentieth Century. In a final and terrible irony, his last public task—and this is how he saw it—was editorial: editing his own words, just as he was losing the capacity physically to form them. Thinking the Twentieth Century wasn’t exactly right, he said, but it was “good enough.” Good enough for what? Good enough for whom? For Daniel and Nicholas someday, of course. But also and perhaps above all for his public; for the world “out there” that had done so much to sustain him. The illness had changed everything—and nothing at all.

Tony’s text is dated July 5, 2010. He died on August 6.

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    Published in The New York Review, January 14, 2010

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