Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tony Judt explores the capacity for self-delusion of smart people whose greatest fear is thinking for themselves


In the new NYRB, Timothy Garton Ash describes his friend the British-American historian Tony Judt's Postwar as "the first major history of contemporary Europe to analyze the stories of Eastern and Western Europe in equally rigorous, nuanced detail, but also as part of a single, larger whole."

by Ken

In the new (September 30) New York Review of Books Timothy Garton Ash, the great historian of the late-20th-century transformation of Eastern Europe, pays unsentimental but large-scaled homage to his friend and onetime Oxford colleague Tony Judt, who died August 6 after a horrifying two-year siege of a variant of ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig's disease) that left his body all but totally useless even while his mind was apparently functioning at about as high a level as a human mind can function.

I can't do any sort of justice to Garton Ash's tribute, but it includes this characterization:
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of polemical intellectuals. There are those for whom the taking of controversial positions is primarily a matter of personal peacock display, factional or clique positioning, hidden agendas, score-settling, or serial, knee-jerk revisionism. Then there are those who, while not without personal motivations and biases, are fundamentally concerned with seeking the truth. Tony Judt was of the latter kind.

Sharp and cutting his pen could be, but his work was always about seeking the truth as best we can, with all the search tools at our disposal—from the toothpick of Anglo-American empiricism to the searchlight of Gallic overstatement. . . .

For our immediate purposes I want to quote Garton Ash's first and last paragraphs:
The poet Paul Celan said of his native Czernowitz that it was a place where people and books used to live. Tony Judt was a man for whom books lived, as well as people. His mind, like his apartment on Washington Square, was full of books—and they walked with him, arguing, to the very end.
It is probably inevitable that his life and work will now be viewed, at least for some time, through the prism of his cruel illness—and the quite public way in which he described and fought it. But death should not be allowed to define life. These were, after all, only two years out of sixty-two. As a hardheaded, nonreligious, unsentimental realist, Tony would have greeted any formulaic sentimentalities about what “lives on” with that dismissive shake of the hand. But in some important sense, his intellectual Czernowitz is still alive; and his books will long be walking and talking among us.

Garton Ash notes of the period of Judt's physical deterioration (the photo, by the way, was taken in his NYU office in 2006): "With the dedicated support of his family, devoted students, and professional carers, he found a way to go on doing what he did best—thinking, talking, and writing. In fact, the two years of his fatal illness were the occasion for a creative outpouring." He cites several projects still to appear in book form, including a "a set of memoir essays, composed in his head in those long periods of immobilized solitude, and then dictated," a number of which have been published in NYRB. I've written about several of them here, and to me they would be wonders of lucidity without regard to the author's near-total physical incapacitation. Factor that in and the achievement boggles the ordinary mind.

I confess that I've never read any of Judt's books, though I'm thinking I really need to get to Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005) among others. I realize that my "relationship" with him is based entirely on his voluminous output in NYRB, where he became a regularly appearing literary friend. By profession he was a historian, but I don't remember ever coming away from one of his pieces without a sharpened and/or expanded perspective on social, moral, and political philosophy. And I don't remember any of them being more concentrated, or perhaps crystallized, than those astonishing "memoir essays."

After his death, I wrote: "Judt was one of the most penetrating and illuminating writers of his time. He left behind an extraordinary body of writing which I suspect can continue to nourish us for as long as we need." The September 30 NYRB contains another of the memoir essays, titled "Captive Minds," which I'm sure the author understood would have strong resonance for readers aware of his personal condition. The subject, though, is the remarkable capacity of people, even (especially?) really smart people, to reconcile themselves to the status of "mental captivity" to ideological orthodoxy.

The title is taken from Czeslaw Miłosz's "most influential work," The Captive Mind (1953), a book that Judt took special pleasure teaching, but that, he explains, became increasingly difficult to teach to his American students.
[W]hen I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a “captive mind” was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out, my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.

As usual with Judt, he's headed toward an eye- and mind-opening observation about our present-day political and social reality:
One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Miłosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

I have no doubt that the only proper way to explain what Judt means by this and how he arrives here is the way Judt did, and I can't encourage you enough to let him do so for you -- before I blunder my way through an attempt tomorrow.


It occurred to me that we can't continue our discussion of this provocative Tony Judt piece tomorrow; that'll have to wait till Tuesday. Tomorrow is the eve of this week's round of primaries, being held in lots of jurisdictions that make a point of holding off till after -- albeit just after -- Labor Day, when tradition says that average Americans not only are at home and in harness but have finally begun thinking about elections. I'll have some thoughts about why this round of elections matters, which will include an admonitory reminder to residents of New York State to vote for Eric Schneiderman for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home