The Courage of Tony Judt

“We need to rediscover how to talk about change: how to imagine very different arrangements for ourselves…” Tony Judt

Over the years I have read many of the essays and reflections Tony Judt wrote for the New York Review of Books. Since I had no background or particular expertise in the issues he discussed, I never felt I could write about them. However, I admired the spirit in which they were written and especially the way he went about reasoning.

He kept asking questions, wanted you to take issue with him, wanted you to help him think through his ideas, to talk and argue with him. How could I not admire him, regardless of whatever view he held, a view that was always provisional anyway?

Tony Judt died last August. Since 2008, he had suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). He was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine. He couldn’t move, not even to scratch an inch. He couldn’t write and was only able to express his thoughts and feelings by means of a voice amplifier that sputtered out his gradually weakening voice. He wrote: “In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole.”

And yet, in spite of everything, he continued to “write” essays and four books including his last, Thinking the Twentieth Century, completed with the help of Timothy Snyder who engaged him in a series of conversations. In “Tony Judt: A Final Victory” his wife, Jennifer Homans, describes how he continued to work up until his last day. She writes:

“…ideas were everything. Tony had always cared more about ideas than anything—more than friends; more in some in some ways than himself. He believed—really believed—that they were bigger than he was. He wouldn’t survive, but they would.”

She speaks often of his need to think socially, to make human rather than monetary gain the goals of social policy. “Tony had always been a forthright critic of social injustice; now he had zero tolerance…zero tolerance for political deceptions and intellectual dishonesty.”

With moving sadness she continues, “…he had lost his students, his classrooms, his desk; he couldn’t travel or take a walk. He had lost, in other words, the places that had helped him think through his ideas.”

Similarly, “He wanted desperately to teach them [his two boys shown in the photo with his wife and medical assistant], to love them, to be with them into their adulthood. He had so much to tell them about where he had been, whom he had known, books he had read (and written), and what he had made of it all.”

I write about Judt briefly out profound admiration for his courage, for his stamina, for his struggle, a moment-to-moment struggle to keep going, to keep thinking and talking ideas, all the while growing weaker, paralyzed within his "bubble.”

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books Ian Buruma concludes his tribute: “Judt would have been the last to claim that he had all the answers. But he asked all the right questions. And for that we can only be grateful.”

And at the end of Ill Fares the Land, Judt says it isn’t enough to talk and write about ideas. “But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.”