A new compilation of Tony Judt’s recent essays was released by Penguin press this fall. Tony Judt died on August 6, 2010. He succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Judt was a writer and a teacher. In his final days, although not in a classroom or even able to sit in front of a keyboard, he continued to do both through his mastery of thoughts and words.
I first became acquainted with Judt’s writing in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). He wrote extensively for many publications besides the NYRB, including the New York Times and the New Republic. He also wrote 14 books.
After his death, a book of 25 essays was released under the title The Memory Chalet. At least 15 of the essays were originally published in the NYRB. Each essay is a trip back in Judt’s life that is both revealing and enchanting. Judt is funny, candid, probing and contemplative.
In an essay entitled “Night” Judt concisely explains what ALS has done to his body. The first several paragraphs are jaw dropping as he lays out in detail how his very active mind is trapped in a very dormant body.
I have read the essay several times. The first reading came through the NYRB and later in The Memory Chalet and several times in between. With each reading, stillness came over me as my palm moistened; my heart raced; my mouth dried. Every word written by Judt jumped off the page as he expanded on the tragedy of an enslaving affliction. Judt wrote, “In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. First you lose the use of a digit or two; then a limb; then and almost inevitably, all four. The muscles of the torso decline into near torpor, a practical problem from the digestive point of view but also life-threatening, in that breathing becomes at first difficult and eventually impossible without external assistance in the form of a tube-pump-apparatus.”
Judt wrote about the mental exercises that brought about relief from the otherwise desolate period between bedtime and morning. “My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like, until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased.”
In Judt’s essay “Words” he lamented, “a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition.” He wrote of the past when, “Poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst.”
He then sets forth, unforgivingly, his thoughts about today’s problem with words, “Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: We speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“it’s only my opinion…”).”
Judt then defined why he is so acutely aware of the misuse of language, “I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them.”
Judt’s most poignant essay is “Captive Minds.” I read it for the first time in The Memory Chalet. The essay defines what I believe is a gigantic problem in America today—the avoidance of thinking—how falling-in-step rather than challenging is the easy way out and essentially leads to loss of liberty.
He made his point by citing the work of Czech writer Czelaw Milosz. Milosz wrote about people who could live with the contradiction of saying one thing and believing another. These people known collectively as “Ketman” could follow the directives of their rulers while believing that within themselves they have preserved “the autonomy of a free thinker.”
“Recall the Ketman-like trance of those intellectuals swept up in George W. Bush’s hysterical drive to war just a few years ago,” wrote Judt. Today we see it in many more subtle ways. A state lawmaker tells us we need to enhance the length of sentence for a certain class of offenders, knowing full well that prisons are at capacity and the budget provides little leeway to build more facilities. We accept that conduct as leadership without critical analysis.
Judt writes that the market, “has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers…(believers) who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it.” He concludes the essay with, “Milosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: ‘his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.’”
Judt’s insight will be missed, not to mention his smooth prose. The Memory Chalet gives us a glimpse into the man and more importantly how his experiences shaped his erudite analysis of people, places and events.