I knew Tony Judt only secondhand. I first encountered him in my first year of graduate school, as part of a seminar designed to introduce new PhD students to the principles of good historical writing. Judt’s book Postwar stood at the end of a line that included Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, and other history books that have become, in some sense, immortal. And Judt’s Postwar was the only one of the ten books that I chose to read in its entirety rather than skim that term.
Of all the arguments that Judt makes in Postwar, his criticism of intellectuals struck me the hardest. No serious engagement with the outside world, no real anger about contemporary issues, no general goal beyond self-replication on the one hand; too much “high-cultural pretension” and “hardening crust of knowing cynicism” on the other.
Well, that was me, wasn’t it? Part of the process of becoming an academic “lifer,” I thought, meant that you had to give up the active life in favor of the contemplative. I would condescend to set someone straight about medieval conspiracy theories (“You don’t actually believe what Dan Brown says, do you?”), but I couldn’t be bothered to care much about the modern Middle East. I rolled my eyes, as did many of my colleagues, whenever someone mentioned the name “Bush,” and could regurgitate received opinion about his policies if pressed, but I usually just kept my mouth shut about such things. As long as I wanted to be a professor, I felt that it was better to restrict myself to the library or the classroom.
Postwar began to draw me out of my complacent reverie. Over the next year or two, I took a particular interest in Judt, even though he was technically outside of my area of academic interest (of course, to a medievalist, much is proscribed). I read his book Reappraisals, a book of previously-published essays which again beat the drum of intellectual engagement. Alongside portraits of the select few leftist intellectuals who tried to make a difference in the postwar world — Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi — Judt also blasted people like Eric Hobsbawm who were too in love with ideology to see the world as it was, rather than as it should have been, and contemporary liberal “intellectuals” who failed to speak up against the Iraq war as “Bush’s useful idiots”. And, for the first time, I heard Judt’s voice, even though he was in Manhattan and I was in northern Indiana, thanks to NYU’s broadcast of his lecture “Disturbing the Peace: Intellectuals and Universities in an Illiberal Age.” I wrote down one passage in particular from his lecture:
Those of my academic colleagues who spend their days substituting meaning for fact — “meaning,” with heavy scare quotes, and “fact,” with even more — cannot expect to be taken seriously at night when they condemn George Bush or some pompous neo-con for sneering at reality-based views of the Middle East. If we want to be taken seriously, we’d better stop talking about positional verities. If we want to be taken seriously, we should stop placing “truth,” “reality,” in witty scare quotes. And not just stop it when we walk out the doors of the campus, but stop it in the classroom too.
As Timothy Garton Ash noted, Judt was one of those people who shunned “personal peacock display, factional or clique positioning, hidden agendas, score-settling, or serial, knee-jerk revisionism” in favor of “seeking the truth.” Of course, sincerity and engagement can still be trumped by ignorance or a lack of expertise — which leads, in Judt’s words, to an epidemic of “blah-blah generalists — and then you’re David Brooks. And you’re garbage.”
It would be the worst sort of sappy sentimentalism to say something like Tony Judt chartered a course for my life. But he has given me a lot to think about. I’ve since given up graduate school (in large part, but not entirely, because I became disenchanted with its insular nature) and I try to be both informed and engaged, though now that I’ve left graduate school and have to pursue expertise on my own time, I wonder whether I am becoming one of those “blah-blah generalists.”
In some sense, too, I am not sure about Judt’s call for a return to social democracy and the moderate, collectivist state, a theme to which he returned in the last few years of his life. I don’t doubt the passionate intensity with which he wrote Ill Fares the Land. But at first blush, I found myself agreeing more than I expected with The New York Times Book Review’s relatively unpraising review, which suggested that social democracy as Judt envisioned it is neither doable nor desirable in the United States. Then I realized: I simply don’t know enough about the topic to have an informed opinion; better withhold judgment until later.
Most of Judt’s obituaries dwell on his views about Israel or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better-known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which took his life. Obviously, both things defined him in important ways. But I think of him mostly as a teacher in the best sense of the word: as someone who introduced me to the intellectual history of Europe and, by doing so, upended my self-satisfied view of the world and made me a little more skeptical about my own, and others’, ironclad beliefs and breezy dismissals.
Obituaries (or eulogies, whatever this is), like book reviews, are challenging things to write. In this case, I’ve probably avoided the Scylla of mere synopsis or dishonest sensationalism only to stumble into the Charybdis of underwhelming self-indulgence. Maybe so. But better to do this, I think, than to try and define the life of someone whom I knew only at a distance, and to paraphrase someone who wanted his epitaph to read, “I did words.”
Besides, others can describe Judt better than I can:
- “The Liveliest Mind in New York,” New York Magazine
- Review of Postwar by the executive editor of The Economist
- Review of Postwar in The Wall Street Journal
- Obituary, The Telegraph
- Obituary, The New York Times
- Obituary, The New York Review of Books
And he can describe himself better than anyone:
- “Night,” about living with ALS
- “Edge People,” about the idea of identity and its many abuses
- “Words,” about his relationship with reading, writing, and speaking
- “The Wrecking Ball of Innovation,” about the perils of seeing the world in purely economic terms
- “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?,” about the “evisceration of the public domain” at the hands of the political right, and the left’s inability to stop it
- Excerpt from Ill Fares the Land, which expands on the themes Judt brought up in the previous two essays