Tony Judt (1948-2010)

One of the pleasures of reestablishing my habit of reading The New York Review of Books was discovering Tony Judt.

A prolific, gifted writer, Judt’s commentary appeared, it seemed, in every other issue. An historian of modern Europe, he inquired deeply not just as to chronoligies but into the culture and mentalities that from which events sprang.

In an essay titled ‘Night’ in NYRB’s Jan. 14 edition, Judt began,

I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig’s disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.

Unable to move, alone with his thoughts, he developed essays – mainly reminiscences – he dictated each morning. These then appeared in the NYRB.  I found them never less than interesting whatever the topic – boyhood explorations of London, the lessons of student days in Czechoslovakia, romances and marriages.

Stylistically, they were not up to his best writing. But part of the wonder of these short pieces is how very good they are.

I learned to dictate in my first law job in 1971. I have dictating units scattered about my home and carry two in my briefcase. I have dictated large sections of the briefs, books and essays I’ve done over the years. But not a single dictated sentence survived later manual edits. I can’t imagine producing pieces of Judt’s quality without a pen or a keyboard to sharpen my thinking.

Were his thoughts not worth hearing, his feat of will would only be remarkable for its spirited response to an inconceivable condition. There is much more in these eight months of essays. His valedictory, ‘Words’, appeared in the July 15 edition. He reflects on how ‘Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s…’ and the retreat from formal intelligible English in academic and public discourse.

‘Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and awrite badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think….’ Judt distinguishes his conclusion from George Orwell’s 65 years ago. But the difference in result between the dishonesty Orwell decried in ‘Politics and the English Language’ and Judt’s ‘intellectual insecurity’ seems negligible.

Nonetheless, Judt is right. He’s also right about the its consequences for the public discourse which he did so much to foster and improve. Here is the final paragraph of ‘Words’:

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.


H/T: I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels deeply grateful to The New York Review of Books for publishing Tony Judt’s final essays. Thank you. Thank you!