Kathleen O'Connell

Writer and Historian Tony Judt Has Died

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Writer and historian Tony Judt has died. Judt was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) about 2 years ago, and became totally paralyzed as his disease progressed. He continued to work nonetheless, writing a series of autobiographical essays for the New York Review of Books and a recently published book, Ill Fares the Land. He was a professor of European History and director of The Remarque Institute at NYU. His 2005 book "Postwar" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He was married to the dance critic Jennifer Homans; they have two teenage children.

Judt's unsentimental (and heartbreaking) NYRB essay about his disease is here: Night. If you read nothing else today, read this.

The New York Times' notice about his death is here: Tony Judt, Author and Intellectual, Is Dead . The NYT promises a full obit shortly. In the meantime, a NYT profile of Judt and his struggle with ALS can be found here: A Chronicler of the World now Looks Inward.

A longer Chronicle of Higher Education profile of Judt is here: The Trials of Tony Judt . (But be warned: the comments thread turns into an acrimonious debate about Israel in short order. Judt's views on Israel and Palestine were controversial. )

Terri Gross' "Fresh Air" interview with Judt is here: A Historian's Long View on Living with Lou Gherig's.

Rest in Peace.

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Thank you for posting. Very sad news. His recent pieces in the NYRB have been most moving.

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Thank you, Kathleen, for this thread. My copy of Postwar: a History of Europe Since 1945 (2005) has a jacket photo (clearly pre-Gherig's) of a healthy, handsome, smiling, intelligent man. The 2010 photo from the Terry Gross interview seems to be as far from that photo image as one can go. As far as intellectual curiosity is concerned, however, Judt remained remarkably the humanist and scholar he had always been..

Judt was eloquent in his belief in the importance of historical thinking and writing. In Postwar, he applied this to Europe since the Hitler War. I think he brought the same values and mind-set to his recounting of his experience of a debilitating and deadly disease.

Here are some extracts from the last couple of pages of Postwar.

Even if Europe could somehow cling indefinitely to a living memory of past crimes -- which is what the memorials and museums are designed, however inadequately, to achieve -- there would be little point. Memory is inherently contentious and partisan: one man's acknowledgment is another's omission. And it is a poor guide to the past [ ... ]

To say this is not to advocate amnesia. A A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it. Until the French understood Vichy as it was -- and not has they had chosen to misremember it -- they could not put it aside and move one. The same is true of Poles in their convoluted recollection of the Jews who once lived in the midst. The same will be true of Spain, too, which for twenty years following its transition to democracy drew a tacit veil across the painful memory of the civil war. Public discussion of that war and its outcome is only now getting under way. Only after Germans had appreciated and digested the enormity of their Nazi past -- a sixty-year cycle of denial, education, debate and consensus -- could they begin to live with it: i.e. put it behind them.

The instrument of recall in all such cases was not memory itself. It was history, in both its meanings: as the passage of time and as the professional study of the past -- the latter above all. Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorization incomplete. [Quoting Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi:] "Only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard.' [ ... ]

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Thanks for posting, Kathleen. The latest New York Review of Books has a new Judt piece, Meritocrats, but the full article is available online to subscribers.

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The last paragraph of "Meritocrats" tells us a lot about where Judt was coming from. As a slightly older contemporary of his, I can identify with the the following:

In my generation we thought of ourselves as both radical and members of an elite. If this sounds incoherent, it is the incoherence of a certain liberal descent that we intuitively imbibed over the course of our college years. It is the incoherence of the patrician Keynes establishing the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council for the greater good of everyone, but ensuring that they were run by the cognoscenti. It is the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented. It was the incoherence of my King's [College, Cambridge,] and I was fortunate to have experienced it.

I put that next-to-last sentence in italics because I suspect it will resonate with many of us who value ballet and the other classical arts.

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Nothing wrong with that at all. Of course, not all who regard themselves as members of an elite are correct in their own estimation.

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From the New Statesman.

That lecture, entitled "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy", was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered - for the benefit, he said, of "young people on both sides of the Atlantic" - both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake") and a vision of what political discourse used to be like - not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy. This was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a "moralised quality to policy debates", when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community".

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From the New Statesman.

That lecture, entitled "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy", was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered - for the benefit, he said, of "young people on both sides of the Atlantic" - both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake") and a vision of what political discourse used to be like - not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy. This was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a "moralised quality to policy debates", when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community".

The Remarque Institute has made a video and transcript of the lecture available here: "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy"

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And the NYT obit is up in full. Quite a career.

“A historian also has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about,” he told the online magazine Historically Speaking in 2006. “Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist. Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently.”

In 1987, after teaching at Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford, he began teaching at N.Y.U. There, in 1995, he helped found the Remarque Institute with a bequest from Paulette Goddard, the widow of the writer Erich Maria Remarque. Under his directorship, it became an important international center for the study of Europe, past and present. His skepticism about the future of the European Union found expression in a sharply polemical, pamphlet-length book, “A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe” (1996).

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Thanks, Kathleen, for the link to the Remarque Lecture. I read this in the NYRB and identified strongly with the central dilemma and envious of the erudition.

I lost the print clipping, but now have been able to register with the online NYRB an print it out myself.

It's sad and frustrating that Judt was struggling with such debilitating disease at the time he prepared his lecture, and that he did not have the opportunity to refine his ideas and organize his material further.

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Bart and Dirac,

Many thanks for adding some context-setting quotes to the thread. I couldn't even begin to formulate a capsule summary of Judt's work, but I think the passages you've selected at least give a flavor of what it was like.

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Thanks, Kathleen. I thought you chose well also.

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I never knew he was married to Jennifer Homans, a dance critic we haven't heard much from lately (probably for understandable reasons, alas).

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