Tony Judt: The Distinctions

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Jennifer Homans
Tony Judt, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1993

The title of The Memory Chalet refers to its method of composition. Locked inside a body made inert by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and faced with his shrinking future and approaching death, Tony Judt decided to revisit his past. Physically unable to write, but with a mind as sharp and active as ever, he plotted the twenty-five short essays that compose this book in his head, while he was alone at night, using a mnemonic device taken from accounts of the early modern “memory palace,” whereby elements of a narrative are associated with points in a visually remembered space; but instead of a palace, he used a small Swiss chalet that he had once stayed in on vacation as a boy, and that he could picture vividly and in detail. He was then able to dictate these feuilletons the next day from the resulting structure. All but four of them were originally published as separate pieces in The New York Review, but their impact is much enhanced as a single book, a book that is at once memoir, self-portrait, and credo.

Judt says that ALS is in both senses an incommunicable disease, yet his articulacy in describing the condition almost makes you think you can understand what it is like to be helpless in this way:

Having no use of my arms, I cannot scratch an itch, adjust my spectacles, remove food particles from my teeth, or anything else that—as a moment’s reflection will confirm—we all do dozens of times a day.

It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.

Ask yourself how often you move in the night. I don’t mean change location altogether…merely how often you shift a hand, a foot; how frequently you scratch assorted body parts before dropping off; how unselfconsciously you alter position very slightly to find the most comfortable one. Imagine for a moment that you had been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back…for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable not just for one night but for the rest of your life.

But he believes that the deeper experience of isolation and imprisonment cannot be conveyed; he feels as out of reach of the imagination of others as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa.

The articulate recreation of the active life that he has lost is Judt’s answer to his imprisonment and impending death, and it gives him a more personal posthumous existence than do his historical and critical writings, important as they are. These eloquent personal recollections are infused…


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