Friday, March 30, 2012

Tony Judt: A Final Victory

Readers of The New York Review of Books will vividly recall the essays Tony Judt, the NYU historian, published in the months leading up to his death from ALS. Now Jennifer Homans, his wife, has offered an intimate look at the process by which Judt worked in the last months of his life when his “locked in syndrome,” left both him and her in “what we came to call the bubble. The bubble was a closed world, an alternative reality, a place that we lived in and peered out of." (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory,” NYRB, 3/22/12) The beauty of the prose is belied by the horror it describes. A famous New York Times reporter namedNan Robertson, who also wrote about battling illness, once described a fatal plane crash with a similar lush prose; the ability to find beauty in tragedy (which is after all the substance of Lear and Karenina ) never ceases to astonish, particularly when its brought to bear on real events. The title of the book that Judt was working on at the end of his life wasThinking the Twentieth Century and a brief excerpt from it appears inTNYRB along with Homans memoir. Homans essay describes the writing of the book as the means by which Judt escaped his imprisonment in the bubble. “There were…portals to the world where he could find his way, at least momentarily, out of the bubble and back to himself…Thinking the Twentieth Century was part of that: a portal to the world. The past was still the engine of his thoughts. Not history anymore, but memory. Memory was Tony’s only certainty…It was the thing the disease could not take from him.” Judt could have called the book Remembering the Twentieth Century, but thinking is much more powerful since it accounts for both the present from which he is writing and the past and recalls other great works of intellectual history like theAutobiography of John Stuart Mill. In an especially riveting part of the essay Homans says “Tony was tormented by the idea of his own absence not in itself (he was as hard a realist as any) but for his two boys.” But as Homans describes it, the book also provided a reprieve from the pain of that loss. “Here he did something extraordinary: he projected himself beyond his own death and found a way to reach ‘back’ from the abyss. I didn’t truly understand it at the time but I now see that the dead can extend feelings across the divide separating the living from the ever after. But—and it is a big but—they can only do it if they think of it in advance, before they actually die.”

[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

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