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The kind of intellect we most urgently need

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below, David Sehat (author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom) discusses the powerful last essays of Tony Judt, as collected in The Memory Chalet.

Prior to this year, I was familiar with Judt as the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University and as a controversial public intellectual: his stands against the politics of Israel and the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process made him an object of scorn or celebration, depending on one’s politics.  Judt’s presence in the public sphere as both an engaged intellectual and a deeply serious historian was comforting if rare proof that some in the United States still take seriously the life of the mind.  But earlier this year, with the announcement that he had Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), his work took profound new directions that extended and deepened his intellectual example.

Reduced to long and solitary nights in which he could neither sleep nor move because of his terminal condition, Judt began composing pieces of short memoir, turning his critical gaze onto his own past.  I encountered many of these pieces, which would eventually make up The Memory Chalet, when they were first published in the New York Review of Books (NYRB).  I still vividly remember the first: it was early January and I had just arrived home to a still house in the late afternoon.  My wife had gone out with our small son, leaving the copy of the latest Review on the kitchen counter for me.  As I flipped through the magazine and reveled in the late-afternoon quiet—a rare occasion with a small child in the household—Judt’s first essay, “Night,” caught my eye.  As I began reading, my heart sank.  No longer conscious of anything but the essay, my body slowly lowered itself to a kitchen chair.  When I finished reading, I looked up, paused for a moment, and then read the essay again and then yet again.

Over the next few months Judt’s short memoirs continued to appear in the NYRB two or three at a time.  They were all rooted in his experience and blended his historical consciousness, honed by years of scholarship, with a clear-sighted assessment of his own life as a product of historical contingency, political engagement, and familial and social forces.  In spite of his condition, his reflections never turned solipsistic or fell into self-pity.  They returned again and again by different angles to the ways in which history bore upon his life and the responsibilities that he (and we) inherited from the past.  After his death in August, the pieces continued to appear before being published as The Memory Chalet in November. And so, as a result, I have spent most of 2010 reading Judt and thinking about his life and work.

The Memory Chalet is ultimately a kaleidoscopic reflection on Judt’s past and a reflection on the times in which his life was lived.  Yet, at the risk of reducing a complicated set of reflections to one message, the thought that kept returning to me as I read these pieces was that Judt provided a particularly ascetic but instructive model of the life of the mind.  Trapped though he was in a dying body, his mind continued to reach out, making connections with members of his past and present for the sake of life that was his for just a while longer.  Here was a man who seemed to believe above all in the possibilities of communication, the existential and political necessity of achieving connection with others, a connection that demands a thoughtful understanding of the medium of communication, of words.  As he explains in one of his most powerful essays, words form the slender tissue of civilized life.  They provide the only defense that we have against anarchy and barbarism, though not a foolproof one.  Yet words seem to have a diminished place in our own time, which has led to a further devaluing of communication in public debate that he laments. “No longer free to exercise it myself,” he concludes in his essay, “I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic, not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”

His own words were sometimes acerbic but always trenchant in their analysis of public life.  Rejecting the cant, the simple-mindedness, and the demagoguery that is all-too-pervasive in the present, this book provides an example of the kind of intellect that I value most and that we most urgently need: engaged, honest, allergic to partisan loyalties, rooted in deeply personal concerns with public relevance, and, though not necessarily nice, always humane.

David Sehat is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University and author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Listen to his interview on The Oxford Comment here.

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