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,…

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