Intellectual heroes

Finally, after several snow-affected weeks, the postman brought me a book I had ordered that I suspect will mean more to me than anything else I have read in 2010 – “The Memory Chalet” by the late Tony Judt.

Author of the extraordinary “Postwar”, a history of Europe from 1945 to the present, as well as many other works of intellectual and political history, Judt was cursed with the appalling motor neuron disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2008. That he died only two years later, in August 2010, was something I’m sure he would have counted as a blessing. As his body further encaged him, as speaking and breathing gradually became difficult and then impossible, Judt would have looked forward to death as a great release from the physical torment that had afflicted him.

I know this because his final book, “The Memory Chalet”, is written with an excoriating honesty, lucidity and courage. That he could have made the prisons of his nights bearable through the exercise of his prodigious memory, and through turning his analytical genius onto the workings of that memory to illuminate crucial questions of European history and culture, was small compensations for the inability to move as much as a finger when you needed to scratch yourself. Judt, one of the supreme intellectuals of our time, knew that the human animal needs the free operation of it’s physical faculties in order to live anything more than a stunted life. This may go against many of our most cherished Romantic illusions (think of Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon”), but try telling otherwise to someone who had to rely on machinery to breathe, and who still had the stoicism to state that his nights had become more intriguing, but that he could still do without them.

I first read Judt’s work a few years ago, when I was staying for a few days, in one of my more peripatetic periods, with my friend Steph. (A hugely talented artist, a great beauty, and an all-round A+ human being, Steph suffers only from not having a website or blog or anything that I can link to here. You’ll just have to take my word for it.) I read “Reappraisals”, his book of essays and reviews, in the course of one day while Steph was at work and while I was just hanging around her flat on Glasgow’s south side. Judt managed to combine combative insight, and a sophisticated and humanitarian analysis, with the rare skill of immense readability. This holy triumvirate is rarer than you might think, and goes some way towards explaining the peculiar hold this writer has on my imagination. His truly heroic struggle with his illness (and he would be aware that heroism is a concept almost completely devalued these days by the ease with which it is used to describe, for example, minor sporting triumphs) is another reason. No one knows how they will react when something terrible happens to them. We all hope we’ll stiffen our upper lip and meet disaster with indifference, but in reality the way we confront serious illness or grief is entirely human, and not to be disparaged for that. We’ll rage against it, at the same time as we’ll collapse into self-pity. Judt’s example gives us perhaps another model, something that does not deny the human fear of encroaching death and doesn’t wallow in it either, but that interrogates the span of our life to find solace and meaning at best, and mere distraction when that isn’t quite enough.

If you haven’t read anything by Tony Judt, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. He was a great historian, and a great human being.


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