… takes a close look at an instance of superior writing. Superior not only in its displaying higher verbal skill than most other pieces of prose display, but also in its having the effect of elevating us, ethically and emotionally, as we read it.

Jennifer Homans, Tony Judt’s widow, wants to clarify, for readers of his last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, “the conditions under which it was written.” These were profoundly dark, and “the darkness shaped the book, in its form but also in its ideas.” For Judt, ideas were personal as well as public; abstract laws were about bettering the living conditions of not at all abstract people, and as he gradually, humiliatingly, miserably died of ALS, he became very intimately enraged at the way people less fortunate than he were suffering with it:

[M]any of these people were younger than Tony and destitute or medically uninsured, with narrow if not ruined life possibilities. They needed help — practical social and medical services. Humiliation was a terrible feeling, but, as he felt strongly, it was also — and should be treated as — an ugly social fact. “Night,” his essay describing his “imprisonment without parole,” was partly for these new friends, and so, in another key, was the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century, where Tony mounted as fierce — and felt — a case as ever he had for our need to “think socially”: to make human rather than monetary gain the goal of social policy. This was not the politics of disability or special interest; it was about collective responsibility and the duty of us all to each other.

So that’s the basic thing, the thing Homans wants to convey as people open Judt’s book – its particular intensity about injustice and the social good derives from his having felt, viscerally, a certain unjust endgame. “Tony’s own physical hardship, and his sense of the fragility of human dignity, if anything increased his worry for the world he was about to exit.”

*************************

But there’s so much more in this essay than its basic point…. Phrases like the fragility of human dignity, for starters, fragility and dignity having a nice brittle uncertain assonance… When interrupted by the smooth word human the phrase generates an almost graphic sense of the shaky balance we try to maintain between the ideal of dignity and the reality of, well, shakiness.

Or take the way Homans conveys the always peculiarly intense nature of Judt’s intellectuality:

For Tony, ideas were a kind of emotion, something he felt and cared about in the way that most people do about feelings like sadness or love.

This is odd – hard to understand, perhaps. How can concepts be sad or happy or passionate? Maybe one can think about it in a couple of ways. Judt spent his life raising, rearing, if you’d like, ideas – he loved to gestate ideas, expand them, argue them; and in this thinking and molding and arguing he was cherishing, maintaining, defending, growing, his sense of the world, his sense of the best ways to think about the world. Like a lot of intellectuals, he seems never to have outgrown the excited erotic fun of the adolescent bull session. So ideas were emotions in this sense, that they were always an intense part – perhaps the most intense part – of his affective life.

And in another way Judt was simply a materialist thinker, in the left tradition …

And yet that is an abstraction, and it doesn’t take into account the emotionality involved here, which I think has to do with the pathos of his lifelong effort to feel the reality of human suffering — to feel the link between that suffering and certain settled political and social ways of doing things. Think of an excerpt like this one from Orwell’s essay, Down the Mine:

Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’– something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

You sense in this paragraph the same emotionally intense “mental-effort” to connect political abstraction with human suffering. One reason Judt’s brief autobiography (I reviewed it here) is so beautiful is that it breathes life into the all but moribund ‘lost illusions’ plot of so many lives — so many politically engaged lives. Judt recalls, as he lies dying, his several youthful attempts toward ideologically charged collective life – kibbutz Zionism, for instance – and how they all failed, all brought him to where “Fierce unconditional loyalties – to a country, a God, an idea, or a man – have come to terrify me.”

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As he grew sicker, he became understandably more fearful. There was too much he couldn’t control in the outside world: everything from electrical outlets for the breathing machine (batteries fail) to his wheelchair (power-operated but he had no way to steer it) and — not least — the unbearable goodwill of people who didn’t understand. He took grim refuge in his study, his sickroom, his closed, safe prison-cocoon that would house his deteriorating body and entrapped mind.


Grim refuge
is something of a cliché, but never mind; the phrase that hit me here was “the unbearable goodwill of people who didn’t understand.” For a couple of reasons. Since Homans has already made vividly clear how much lucidity, clarity, and understanding meant to Judt, we now feel with a special ache just how hideous this incomprehensible, incommunicable condition must have been for him.

And then too, the writing here is so personal, I’m receiving it so strongly, she’s been able to place me so powerfully in his sickroom (“thick air and layers of dust impossible to clean, smells that seemed almost visible, of antiseptic, flowers, morphine, and the burn and buzz of electricity from the amplifier that projected his ever-weakening voice; windows thrown open for air and light and hastily shut against the unnatural chill in his static and stationary bones”), that I absolutely see myself there understanding. And then I absolutely recognize that although I want to see that – want to idealize that – the reality is that like almost everyone else I would have brought into that study an unbearable goodwill… Which has me musing yet more deeply on my empathy generally, my… humanity — a very big abstraction, but this great writing has fitted it to one particular prison-cocoon.

Ultimately this is great writing because Homans regenerates in me a powerful and immediate sense of what an abstract phrase like the life of mind really means. The life of the mind.

For Tony the incentive behind the book — and it had to be a powerful one to overcome the discomfort and depression that were his constant companions — was primarily intellectual, a matter of clarification. [W]hen his dialogue with his co-author] worked, as it usually did, Tony was transformed. Sick Tony, frustrated and anguished Tony, unable to eat or scratch or breathe properly, his body aching from inactivity, was able, with Tim and through sheer mental and physical exertion, to find some relief and exhilaration in the life of the mind… To hell with the disease, with fate, with the body, with the future and the past. He would keep the conversation going and raise the stakes; his public would fight back — and when you fight, you feel alive. Engagé. He needed that to keep going. Which is why he kept going with Thinking the Twentieth Century; it was part of the fight, from his withering comments on intellectuals who supported the Iraq war right down to his ever-prescient defense of the role of the state in public life. He had a soldier’s discipline and even though he was miserable he fought on, saying what he had to say and refining and honing his every word. That was the only kind of public intellectual he knew how to be.

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5 Responses to “Scathing Online Schoolmarm…”

  1. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    Wow.

  2. tony grafton Says:

    Thank you: a wonderful appreciation of a wonderful piece of writing.

  3. theprofessor Says:

    The Orwell passage is far superior.

    “life possibilities”? Ugh.

    “Humiliation was a terrible feeling, but, as he felt strongly, it was also — and should be treated as — an ugly social fact.” What does this mean?

    Much of the end of the first paragraph could be lifted from any liberal/left party platform, in practically any country.

    “…his closed, safe prison-cocoon that would house his deteriorating body and entrapped mind.” Did it not actually house his deteriorating body and mind? Why the “would”? This does not seem to be the increasingly common future pretentious tense, but the future careless tense.

    I don’t doubt that the author is entirely sincere, but it is hard to see that this pile of cliches is an outstanding piece of writing. Judt’s own writing is much better.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    tp: I agree that the Orwell is much better.

  5. theprofessor Says:

    The Road to Wigan Pier should be required reading for anyone interested in how to write about social issues, regardless of political persuasion. Orwell has passion, but never loses control. Is his style too cool and direct for recent tastes?

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