Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Tony Judt's Reflections - "Death be not Proud"

With a short essay entitled "Night" in the January 14th, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books Tony Judt, the British, Jewish NYU historian and prominent public intellectual, began writing a series of short reflections that he likely expects to be a coda to his remarkable intellectual life. I have blogged about Tony Judt before here and here and have long admired him for his intellectual acuity and moral courage. But these series of memoirs are a startling revelation even for a long time fan.

In 2008 Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig's disease. This deadly motor neuron disease causes the nervous system to degenerate overtime with patients eventually losing their ability to move their bodies even as their mind continues to function normally. Since October 2009, Judt has been paralyzed from the neck down and breathing through a respirator. His voice is now so weak that he can be heard only through an amplifier. In "Night", he vividly describes the experience of losing control over his body and he continues to write with the help of an assistant who transcribes his dictation. As he comes to terms with his approaching mortality, Judt's equanimity, thoughtfulness and his luminous intellect are inspirational.

Since the initial discussion of his illness in "Night", Tony Judt's short reflective essays have been entitled "Joe" , "Bedder" , "Kibbutz" , "Revolutionaries" , "Food" , "The Green Line" , "Saved by Czech" , "Paris was Yesterday" , "In Love with Trains" , "Edge People" , "Lord Warden" and "Work". (Only Kibbutz, Food and Edge People have links to the full essays on the NYRB site.) I particularly identify with "Edge People" as I count myself among them.

Excerpts from "Edge People":
As an English-born student of European history teaching in the US; as a Jew somewhat uncomfortable with much that passes for "Jewishness" in contemporary America; as a social democrat frequently at odds with my self-described radical colleagues, I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of "rootless cosmopolitan." But that seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.

In any event, all such labels make me uneasy. We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms. One should keep one's distance not only from the obviously unappealing "-isms"—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety: communism, to be sure, but nationalism and Zionism too ---

I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages—often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified—as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhhorod. 
Unlike the late Edward Said, I believe I can understand and even empathize with those who know what it means to love a country. I don't regard such sentiments as incomprehensible; I just don't share them. But over the years these fierce unconditional loyalties—to a country, a God, an idea, or a man—have come to terrify me. The thin veneer of civilization rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it. Certainly, it is that faith—and the constraints it places upon human misbehavior—that is the first to go in times of war or civil unrest.
On March 29th, 2010 Terry Gross interviewed Judt on her NPR program Fresh Air. I highly recommend listening to this 39 minute interview. I can only wish that more of us possessed Judt's vivid powers of observation and language and his contemplative grace in the face of extreme adversity.

Interview Excerpts:
On his religious views:

"I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in a single or multiple godhead. I respect people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big 'but' which enters in here. I am much more conscious than I ever was — for obvious reasons — on what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything for me. But it will mean a lot to them. It's important to them — by which I mean my children or my wife or my very close friends — that some spirit of me is in a positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginations and so on. So [in] one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife — as a place where I still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life — except that I can only exercise them before I get there. Once I get there, it will be too late. So, no God. No organized religion. But a developing sense that there's something bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and we have responsibilities in that world."

On how living with ALS makes him feel:

"You mustn't focus on what you can't do. If you sit around and think, 'I wish I could walk,' then you'll just be miserable. But if you sit and turn around and think, 'What's the next piece I'm going to write?' then you may not be happy, but you certainly won't wallow in misery. So it's an active choice every day to renew my interest in something that my head can do, so I don't think about the body."


Zakintosh said...

Lovely piece.

Fawad Zakariya said...

Thanks Zak. My blog pieces are probably relevant to only a couple of people:)

Anonymous said...

more than a couple. Your piece on Tony Judt reached out to someone whose life has been enriched by his writing and his insistence that it's our duty here on this earth to think and be honest.

Atif said...


it was very refreshing experience of your blog. I felt very warm in this grey clod morning in Toronto