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Tony Judt: A Final Victory

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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.

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.

  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. 

  3. 3

    Published in The New York Review, January 14, 2010

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