Remembering Tony Judt

Sunday, August 8, 2010

If you're reading a blog like this, you probably already know that Tony Judt died this weekend. Judt, a British-born historian, writer, and intellectual, suffered from ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. He wrote Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, and was best known for his political essays in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic.

I won't pretend that I know that much about Judt, or even studied his work to a great degree. I had just become a fan in the past few years reading his writing in the New York Review. He published a series of personal essays there, chronicling his life and coping with the ravages of ALS. For such a combative, spirited, and sharp mind, slowly losing the capability to move, then speak, then even breathe on his own, all the while retaining his mental faculties, must have been a special kind of hell.

The most evocative of these essays is "Night," where he describes the degradations of his condition:

During the day I can at least request a scratch, an adjustment, a drink, or simply a gratuitous re-placement of my limbs—since enforced stillness for hours on end is not only physically uncomfortable but psychologically close to intolerable. It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.

But then comes the night. I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse’s need for sleep. Once I have been “prepared” for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I have spent the past eighteen hours. With some difficulty (despite my reduced height, mass, and bulk I am still a substantial dead weight for even a strong man to shift) I am maneuvered onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward. This process requires considerable concentration. If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.

He wrote and lectured to the very end. I would like to describe the way he dealt with his disease as noble or the mythical American notion of "uplifting," but as he said during his last public lecture, “I’m English, and we don’t do ‘uplifting.’ ”