Arguing the World
In his last book, the late intellectual Tony Judt is sharp as ever—offering biting comments about American Jews, Israel, and his ex-wives
Thinking the Twentieth Century, the last book by the late NYU historian and intellectual provocateur Tony Judt, is the product of an unusual collaboration. Before Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the summer of 2008, he was planning to follow up Postwar, a now canonical account of Europe since 1945, with a history of 20th-century social thought. But the incurable neurological disorder made it impossible for him to write.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the critically acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and a longtime friend of Judt’s, suggested that Judt talk the book out with him, instead. Most Thursdays, for most of 2009, Snyder visited Judt’s apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Square and recorded their conversations. The men worked on the final product until a couple weeks before Judt’s death in August 2010, at the age of 62. The result mixes history and ideas, Judt’s personal journey from a young Zionist to a lapsed Marxist, and current politics. Each chapter—from the first, on Judt’s Jewish upbringing, to the last, in which he makes his argument for a renewed social democracy—begins with an extended biographical section in Judt’s words, followed by a dialogue between him and Snyder, who asks questions and offers his own thoughts.
Judt’s mind and elbows are as sharp as ever. At turns, he is biting about colleagues and ex-wives, the political right, and—no surprise to those who followed his political writing—Israel. Judt gained wide notoriety for a 2003 New York Review of Books essay that argued that to remain a democracy, Israel needs to morph “from a Jewish state into a binational one.” The New Republic subsequently dropped Judt as a contributing editor, and Judt’s career as a Francophonic, British, Jewish, New York public intellectual, so to speak, flourished. I sat down with Snyder last week in New Haven to talk about Judt, their friendship, and their new book.
A “spoken” book comes with its own logistical challenges, but this also must have been emotionally challenging. You befriended Tony Judt, who was 21 years your senior, when you were an undergraduate at Brown. As you note in the foreword, every time you saw him during the course of writing the book, he seemed to deteriorate physically.
The important thing is that it wasn’t primarily a challenge for me. It was primarily a challenge for Tony. He’s the one who’s now in the position that in order to work he has to talk instead of write. He’s the one who instead of being humiliated, chooses to be humble and to accept that working with someone else might be a good idea. That he chose to overcome utterly horrible physical limitations in order to keep working at his ideas, and that he did so extremely well, transcending not only his condition, but in my view some of his previous intellectual limitation—that, for me, is the truly remarkable thing.
This kind of collaborative book is common in Central Europe and France. You call the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz’s interviews with the writer Aleksander Wat, My Century, the best of the “spoken” genre, and the first book that Judt ever read in Czech, which he learned in middle age, was Karl Capek’s conversations with the Czech statesman Tomáš Masaryk. Why is it so rare in America?
It’s a matter of really being able spontaneously to call up the best in yourself, on both sides, over and over and over again, without preparation. It’s harder than it looks. Tony not only had a fantastic memory, but he could recall almost at will what was in that memory. I don’t think Americans are generally that articulate—I say this as an American. I don’t think very many of us could do this sort of thing.
Was it a form of psychological relief?
I think it allowed him to be him, at least for a moment. The Tony who was immobilized and certain of death was in many ways a different person who hadn’t been immobilized and certain of death. But our long conversation was a way for him in his new situation to express himself and to continue to work, and to continue to think, and to continue to progress. I think he really would forget the breathing apparatus, he would forget the immobility, for a time. I think there were moments when, because he was only in his mind, his mind was all that mattered to him.
Judt grew up in a working-class London Jewish home. His academic work was primarily on France. And he spent the last two decades of his life in New York. Yet did Judt have an essentially English mind?
It was a Jewish mind, and Jewish history, recent Jewish history, was always at the back of it. And it was a contestatory mind. He described himself as an outsider, and the default way he could be an outsider was his Jewishness. Even if he didn’t stress it, it was the safe, haimish way of being an outsider.
Smuggled into Syria, a reporter finds that the Free Syrian Army lacks leadership but is fiercely united against Bashar al-Assad and Iran