Tony Judt (1948–2010) was the founder and director of the Remarque Institute at NYU and the author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Ill Fares the Land, and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, among other books.

Edge People

Tony Judt, 2006
The following is an extract from “Edge People,” one of a series of short memoirs and reflections he composed beginning in 2009, after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; they were later collected in The Memory Chalet (2010).

On Intellectuals and Democracy

Yemeni women looking for their names on a registration list before voting in the presidential election that ended the thirty-three-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sanaa, February 21, 2012
Intellectual activity is a little bit like seduction. If you go straight for your goal, you almost certainly won’t succeed. If you want to be someone who contributes to world historical debates, you almost certainly won’t succeed if you start off by contributing to world historical debates. The most important thing to do is to be talking about the things that have, as we might put it, world historical resonance but at the level at which you can be influential.

Bring Back the Rails!

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively.

The Glory of the Rails

Claude Monet: Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877
More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. Try to think of a world before the railway and the meaning of distance and the impediment it imposed when the time it took to travel from, for example, Paris to Rome—and the means employed to do so—had changed little for two millennia.

Captive Minds

Paris stock exchange, 1959
Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czesław Miłosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there …

Meritocrats

High table in the dining hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1958
I came up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1966. Ours was a—perhaps the—transitional generation. We were past the midpoint of the 1960s—the Mods had come and gone and the Beatles were about to record Sgt. Pepper—but the King’s into which I was matriculated was still strikingly traditional. Dinner in Hall was formal, begowned—and required. Undergraduates took their seats, awaited the arrival of the Fellows, then rose to watch a long line of elderly gentlemen shuffle past them on their way to High Table.

Captive Minds, Then and Now

Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czeslaw Milosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers. My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Milosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviskiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis).

Words

I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist …

Words

I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.

America, My New-Found-Land

A 1956 Studebaker Power Hawk, Cedar Hill, New Mexico; photograph by Rob Atkins from Neon Mesa: Wonders of the Southwest, published by Bunker Hill
America is not everyone’s destination of choice. Few people wake up and say to themselves, “I’ve had it with Tajikistan—let’s move to America!” After the war my parents despaired of England (a widespread sentiment in those dreary years); but like so many of their British contemporaries they looked naturally to …

Magic Mountains

The funicular above Mürren, with a view of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps
One is not supposed to love Switzerland. Expressing affection for the Swiss or their country is akin to confessing nostalgia for cigarette smoking or The Brady Bunch. It immediately brands you as someone at once unforgivably ignorant of the developments of the past thirty years and incurably conventional in the …

Austerity

Rome, 1952; from the exhibition ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through June 28, 2010. For a slide show about the exhibition, narrated by Dominique Nabokov, see the NYR blog.
My wife earnestly instructs Chinese restaurants to deliver in cardboard cartons. My children are depressingly knowledgeable about climate change. Ours is an environmental family: by their standards, I am a prelapsarian relic from the age of ecological innocence. But who traipses through the apartment switching off lights and checking for …

Toni

Magnum Photos I never knew Toni Avegael. She was born in Antwerp in February 1926 and lived there most of her life. We were related: she was my father’s first cousin. I well remember her older sister Lily: a tall, sad lady whom my parents and I used …

Toni

I never knew Toni Avegael. She was born in Antwerp in February 1926 and lived there most of her life. We were related: she was my father’s first cousin. I well remember her older sister Lily: a tall, sad lady whom my parents and I used to visit in a little house somewhere in northwest London. We have long since lost touch, which is a pity. I am reminded of the Avegael sisters (there was a middle girl, Bella) whenever I ask myself—or am asked—what it means to be Jewish.

Girls! Girls! Girls!

‘In the Café, or The Provincial’; painting by Félix Vallotton, 1909
In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. History was a fast-feminizing …

Ill Fares the Land

Arnold Nursing Home, 7 Mile Road; photograph by Andrew Moore from Detroit Disassembled, just published by Damiani and the Akron Art Museum. For a slide show of Moore’s photographs, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

Work

Jean Gabin in Le Quai des Brumes, 1938
I always wanted to be a historian. I was twelve when I began calculating how long it would take to accumulate the necessary degrees. How did historians earn a living? The only one my family had ever seen was A.J.P. Taylor—and while I assumed that he got paid for his …

Edge People

“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In Britain, the mandarins of New Labour—not satisfied with installing more closed-circuit surveillance cameras than any other democracy—have sought (so far unsuccessfully) to invoke the “war on terror” as an occasion to introduce mandatory identity cards. In France and …

Lord Warden

We are all Europeans now. The English travel throughout continental Europe, and the UK is a leading tourist destination as well as a magnet for job seekers from Poland to Portugal. Today’s travelers don’t think twice before boarding a plane or a train, alighting shortly after in Brussels, Budapest, or Barcelona. True, one European in three never leaves home; but everyone else makes up for them with insouciant ease.

Girls! Girls! Girls!

In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. History was a fast-feminizing profession, with a graduate community primed for signs of discrimination—or worse. Physical contact constituted a presumption of malevolent intention; a closed door was proof positive.

Paris Was Yesterday

What happened to French intellectuals? Once we had Camus, “the contemporary heir to that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes whatever is most distinctive in French letters” (Sartre). We had Sartre himself. We had François Mauriac, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the ” inénarrable Mme De Beauvoir” (Aron).

In Love with Trains

According to the literary theorist René Girard, we come to yearn for and eventually love those who are loved by others. I cannot confirm this from personal experience—I have a history of frustrated longings for objects and women who were palpably unavailable to me but of no particular interest to …

Saved by Czech

Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one’s youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, “different” is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as …

Revolutionaries

I was born in England in 1948, late enough to avoid conscription by a few years, but in time for the Beatles: I was fourteen when they came out with “Love Me Do.” Three years later the first miniskirts appeared: I was old enough to appreciate their virtues, young enough …

The Green Line

For some years at the end of the Fifties, I went to school on the Green Line bus. The Green Line, publicly owned like all London buses in those days, was a division of London Transport providing long-distance bus connections across London, typically starting out in a country town twenty …