The Modern Distemper

Tony Judt in Washington Square Park, 2001.
Tony Judt in Washington Square Park, 2001.

Writers who write because they must will write even when they are facing oblivion. Historian Tony Judt was such a writer.

Judt wrote in the shadow of imminent death, even though, strictly speaking, at the end of his life he could not write. In the fall of 2008, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This fatal, incurable malady rapidly and steadily deprives its sufferers of bodily functions, all the while leaving them free of pain and in full possession of their mental faculties. By the summer of 2009, Judt could no longer use his arms and legs, he could breathe only with the help of a mechanical apparatus, his voice was failing, and he was confined to a wheelchair by day and to solitary, wakeful immobility in bed at night.

This latter state was particularly galling. “There I lie,” he reported, “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.” What’s more, Judt could no longer communicate those thoughts to others readily or unaided. “The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect upon past, present, and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words.”

ALS struck Judt at the height of his powers as a writer. Judt was long established among his fellow historians as a distinguished student of the history of mid-twentieth-century Europe—France in particular—and by the time of his illness he had broken free of the constraints of academic professionalism that had often chafed at him. He won a wide audience not only for his historical work but also for historically informed, withering, and often controversial political criticism (much of it published in the New York Review of Books) on subjects ranging from the Iraq war to the corrosive effects of market fundamentalism to (most controversially of all) the policies of the state of Israel. In 2008, Judt had barely had time to enjoy the returns of this exceptional flowering, particularly the well-deserved praise that had greeted his masterpiece, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005).

But, with a great deal of help from family and friends, Judt overcame in remarkable fashion the challenge of transforming his night thoughts into words. Before his death in August 2010, Judt completed three books: The Memory Chalet (2010), twenty-five short essays, or feuilletons, mixing autobiography, history, and political commentary (from which I have quoted above); Ill Fares the Land (2010), a vigorous defense of social democracy from its antistatist detractors; and now Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Among Judt’s steadfast friends was Timothy Snyder, two decades Judt’s junior and himself an accomplished historian of modern Europe. Thinking the Twentieth Century is the product of their collaboration, a “spoken book,” as Snyder puts it, derived from weekly conversations the two men shared in the first half of 2009 as Judt’s disease progressed remorselessly.

Thematically, the book follows the arc of Judt’s life. It revisits his childhood in North London, where he was raised as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and then recounts his “Jewish decade” as an enthusiastic Labor Zionist and kibbutz worker in Israel. Judt also gives an account here of his evolution as a thinker, beginning with his undergraduate and graduate education at Cambridge, where he won few admirers as a research fellow (he had “all the worst instincts of a French intellectual,” as one eminent don put it), and continuing on through to his tenure as founder and head of the Remarque Institute at NYU, and his late-life emergence as a leading public intellectual. Along the way, we hear of Judt’s three marriages—one amicable but misguided, another misguided and miserable, and a third well aimed and happy. We learn of his love of trains and other public transport, of his belated discovery of the riches of East European history and culture (and his midlife commitment to learning the Czech language), of his impatience with academic conventions and concerns (“dowdy, musty, and unworldly”), and of his fond regard for New York (“it was New York City which made me a public intellectual”).

Snyder builds on these self-reflections, and pushes Judt outward from them toward wider matters of twentieth-century history and politics. Each chapter follows up Judt’s autobiographical reminiscences with a spirited dialogue between Judt and Snyder, who proves an adept interlocutor, respectful toward Judt yet never fawning. Snyder consistently poses provocative questions, sometimes plays devil’s advocate, and contributes plenty of his own suggestive insights, especially when the conversation turns to East European history. The result is a record of the sort of conversation that is idealized among historians throughout the land but seldom practiced—an exchange characterized, as Judt puts it, “by a lack of constraint and absence of conventional politesse towards the mediocre and the fashionable.”

Nonetheless, I am compelled, unhappily, to issue some disclaimers in the caveat lector vein. Readers familiar with The Memory Chalet, or with the initial incarnations of some of that volume’s essays in the New York Review, will be struck by how much of the autobiographical material in Thinking the Twentieth Century repeats in so many respects—sometimes word for word—the accounts in the earlier versions. Moreover, the comparison doesn’t work to the advantage of the new book; the life story that Judt tells in The Memory Chalet is more lyrical, more moving, and more evocative—quite simply, more accomplished. Readers who are keen to flesh out the biographical details that emerge in Thinking the Twentieth Century should consult the more artful alternative. For example, those who find themselves wincing here at Judt’s unremarked propensity to bed and then wed his graduate students should also consider his halfhearted assault in The Memory Chalet on the sexual-harassment regulations of today’s universities. He knew he was out of step: “To say that the girl had irresistible eyes and that my intentions were . . . unclear would avail me nothing.” Ensnared in “the curious ’60s blend of radical attitudes and domestic convention,” he mutters darkly about the sex police, yet he admits he pursued his resistance surreptitiously until a wedding rendered his transgressions moot. Moreover, and more important, Thinking the Twentieth Century is not the book that its publisher would have us believe it to be. The book’s press materials and jacket copy characterize it as an ambitious effort that “unites the century’s conflicted intellectual history into a single soaring narrative. . . . Spanning the entire era and all currents of thought in a manner never previously attempted, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a triumphant tour de force that restores clarity to the classics of modern thought with the assurance and grace of a master craftsman.”

This is palpable nonsense. There is no single narrative here, let alone one that soars. It is no tour de force, nor even a tour d’horizon: Many classics and currents of modern thought fail to put in an appearance. Indeed, there is precious little intellectual history in the book.

Here even Snyder misleads. The book is not, as he says, “a history of modern political ideas in Europe and the United States.” Not only are the thinkers Judt and Snyder discuss a very select few (including only a small handful of relatively undistinguished Americans—none who made their mark before 1945—and comparatively few Germans), but the two interlocutors also offer little genuine interpretive engagement even with the figures they do briefly consider. And some of their highly encapsulated intellectual history is dubious: They characterize Sigmund Freud, for instance, as an optimist on par with eschatological Marxists; they crudely overestimate Jean-Paul Sartre’s debt to Martin Heidegger; they seek to dismiss John Rawls by referencing early views that he substantially revised in his later work; and they charge that never-named “late generation pragmatists” (Richard Rorty, perhaps?) are purveyors of the voguish “neo-relativism” they set out to repudiate.

As these elisions and oversights all suggest, Judt was not so much preoccupied with political ideas, abstractly conceived—let alone the broader intellectual history of the twentieth century—as with the work of political, “engaged” intellectuals. And he was especially focused on the legacies of thinkers of the communist or anticommunist persuasion. In addition, what drew his attention to such figures was less their theoretical work than their politics—or rather the thinking, or the thoughtlessness, that informed their politics.

Above all, Judt was, in his mature work, an anti-ideological student of the leading ideologies of the Right and the Left, which he defined as captivity to supposedly absolute truths or providential metanarratives at the expense of the more mundane practice of truthfulness. He resented particularly those ideological adepts who wrote off violent repression as the price of a better tomorrow. “This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.”

Thinking the Twentieth Century affords a quick and partial tour of these tendencies. It effectively dissects the misguided political engagement of some of Judt’s bêtes noires among modern ideologues—Sartre, Friedrich Hayek, Eric Hobsbawm, Václav Klaus, the liberal intellectuals who backed the Iraq war (“Bush’s useful idiots,” as he termed them). Judt gives a much fuller account of the political engagement of his anti-ideological heroes: John Maynard Keynes, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, and François Furet, among many others. Most of these figures have been treated more fully and well in earlier books, but if Judt and Snyder have ginned up a new audience for past Judt works such as Past Imperfect (1992), The Burden of Responsibility (1998), and Reappraisals (2008), so much the better.

This is not to say that Thinking the Twentieth Century lacks any fresh touches. Judt’s lengthy consideration of interwar fascist intellectuals, for example, is illuminating and nuanced. He has little sympathy for figures such as Robert Brasillach, Mircea Eliade, Ernst Jünger, and Hjalmar Schacht, who lent their considerable intellectual talents to movements of revolutionary authoritarianism from France to Romania, but he makes a good case for the plausibility and appeal of their views during the crisis of the 1930s. As he says, “Fascism really was not only respectable but—until 1942—the institutional umbrella for quite a lot of innovative economic thinking.” Moreover, the Nazis offered up a seductive notion of a strong, postdemocratic Europe in which national boundaries were subordinated to a common stand against Bolshevism and Americanization. As Judt says, “The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea.”

Snyder’s probing fleshes out how Judt had come to understand his own vocation as an anti-ideological, social-democratic political intellectual. Judt credits Isaiah Berlin with alerting him to the merits of an “ethical pluralism” that conceives of moral life as an often tragic clash of competing and incommensurable goods. “If there is no single good, then there is likely no single form of analysis that captures all the various forms of the good, and no single political logic that can master all of ethics.” Judt’s plea for social democracy (fully articulated in Ill Fares the Land) was thus wholly detached from Marxism, and even from socialism; like Berlin’s work, it was profoundly counterideological. Judt acknowledged the warts of the welfare state—while also conceding the appeal of the libertarian outlook determined to dismantle it. He did not deny that the market has its place—but he did object to the neoliberal ideal that effectively enshrines the market’s place as everywhere. He did not deny the perils of state power; he only acknowledged that the core operations of the state belong somewhere exceptionally important, on the “terrain of shared responsibility.”

Much as Judt relished the role of a political intellectual reaching an audience well beyond the membership of the American Historical Association, he had few illusions about the relative efficacy of the intellectual’s calling. “What we are doing is bizarre,” he remarks at one point to Snyder. “We are engaging in an intellectual exercise that will not have world-shattering consequences, and we are doing it in spite of that. Obviously this is the condition of most people who write: throwing a letter into the ocean in the forlorn hope that it will be picked up. But for intellectuals to write and speak in the full knowledge of their limited influence is, at least on first sight, a curiously pointless undertaking. And yet, it’s the best that we could hope for.”

There is much to argue with in this book, and many readers will periodically lament the objections that Snyder does not offer to Judt—or those that Judt does not offer to Snyder, and the key points that neither man seems to consider. Moreover, by virtue of its unbuttoned, conversational format, this book at times invites strenuous protest and outraged marginalia. Many American Jews—who have already called out Snyder for folding the Holocaust into a broader story of unremitting brutality across the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe—will no doubt take vigorous exception to Judt’s unchallenged contention that “in the years to come, Israel is going to devalue, undermine and ultimately destroy the meaning and serviceability of the Holocaust, reducing it to what many people already say it is: Israel’s excuse for bad behavior.” Snyder might be hearing as well from the folks at Emory University, to which Judt’s second wife dragged him for a year in 1981. Its faculty, Judt says, perceived it “as an oasis of culture and sophistication in the southern desert,” but the school struck him instead as “a sad and mediocre place.” And David Brooks and other para-intellectuals for whom Judt had nothing but contempt (“men like Brooks know literally, nothing”) will probably want to weigh in.

But one need not be among Judt and Snyder’s principal targets to take issue with the history they offer or the political stands they take. To plead but one point of my own: For one ever ready to indict Marxists for making revolutionary omelets by cracking the eggs of benighted people supposedly blind to their own best interests, Judt himself had a rather jaundiced view of the capacities of ordinary people to remake their own world. His social-democratic convictions were, in other words, a good deal more social than democratic; there is a large dollop of the “nanny state” in his vision of the good society. “Democracy,” he declares, “is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good, open society,” not least because “the vast majority of human beings today are simply not competent to protect their own interests.”

Let this less than world-shattering book stand, then, as merely an introduction for a curious few readers to what Snyder nicely terms the “mindful life,” and to the work of one of the significant historians and political intellectuals of the last half century. And let it likewise serve as their invitation to sustain the debate over the undeniably important questions that Tony Judt made his own.

Lou Gehrig, who lent his name to ALS, told a packed and tearful Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1939 that though he had had a “bad break,” he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Judt did not share this saccharine sentiment with the Yankees’ Iron Horse. “Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nice name.” Yet he allowed that he did enjoy a measure of good fortune in the face of his own bad break.

“There is more than one sort of luck,” he said. “To fall prey to a motor neuron disease is surely to have offended the Gods at some point, and there is nothing more to be said. But if you must suffer thus, better to have a well-stocked head: full of recyclable and multipurpose pieces of serviceable recollection, readily available to an analytically disposed mind. . . . I hope I have put it to some use.”

He most assuredly did.

Robert Westbrook is the Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.