Judt is a man of many commitments and loyalties, none of them unconditional, and all of them subservient to the preservation of intellectual independence. “I grew up among Marxist autodidacts, but was never a root-and-branch Marxist for that very reason,” Judt explains. “It’s like chicken pox: If you’re inoculated early enough, you don’t get it completely.” In the sixties, he spent his summers working on a kibbutz, but he now says he was “never entirely, wholeheartedly ‘part of the project.’ ” This sense of dislocation followed him to Cambridge, where he studied and taught for twelve years yet never quite belonged. “At a certain point,” he says, “to remain slightly tangential to wherever I was became a way of ‘being Tony’: by not being anything that everyone else was.”
In the spring of 2008, the neuromuscular disease that was already stirring in Judt began sending out its first faint warning signals. While typing, he would slip and hit the wrong key, “as if your fingers wouldn’t quite do what you had told them to do.” Judt had undergone treatment for sarcoma in his left arm only six years earlier, and the prospect of another devastating illness was not on his mind. “Next thing you know,” he says, “you’re throwing a baseball and it doesn’t go quite as far as you expected, and you’re still thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I’m getting old.’ And then you go for a walk and your breathing is a bit tight, and you think, ‘I need to work out more.’ And it’s only when the doctor puts all these things together do you realize, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happening here is more serious.’ ”
ALS causes the neurons that connect the brain to the spinal cord and the spinal cord to the muscles to degenerate. The brain loses the ability to control movement. The muscles atrophy and die. Judt was diagnosed in September 2008, and the rapid deterioration of the large muscles in the lower part of his body set in soon afterward.
“He always wanted to continue doing things until it was no longer possible,” says Casey Selwyn, a recent NYU graduate who worked as Judt’s assistant. “Things like turning pages, or typing, or using a mouse.” She watched as, one by one, these faculties faltered. “Until it was absolutely physically no longer possible,” she says, “he would keep doing it.”
“In today’s America, neoconservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig leaf. There really is no other difference between them.” —“Bush’s Useful Idiots,” London Review of Books, 2006
Before his diagnosis, Judt had just begun imagining his next magnum opus, a follow-up to Postwar that would trace the history of twentieth-century social and political thought. These plans fell by the wayside—“Reality is a powerful solvent,” he says—and in November 2008, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder proposed, in its place, that they collaborate on a series of interviews ranging across the breadth of Judt’s career.
The disappointment was painful—Judt had never worked with a collaborator before—but he was impressed with Snyder’s intellect, and the partnership has been successful. “So long as your collaborator is very talented,” Judt allows, “it’s great fun.”
Their discussions took place against the backdrop of Judt’s rapid decline. By January 2009, he had lost the use of his arms. By March, his legs began to fail. He was on a respirator by May. “Without actually saying ‘You’ll be dead next month,’ ” Judt remembers, “the doctors said, ‘This is very fast. It’s unusual.’ ” Every week for five months, Snyder interviewed Judt for hours on end. “We wanted to get enough material for Tim to finish up on his own in case I was not able to do it with him,” Judt says.
Soon after they finished their project, in May, a remarkable thing happened: Judt’s health stabilized. The large muscles in most of his body were long gone, but the small muscles that control eating, speaking, and swallowing remained unaffected. They could go at any time and take him with them, or they could last a long time—months, even years. No one knows why his body stopped degenerating, or what happens next.
The interview sessions with Snyder awakened in Judt the urge to start writing again, and to make some noise. In June, he returned to print for the first time since his diagnosis with an op-ed in the Times warning that if Obama failed to follow through on his call for a settlement freeze in the occupied territories, “the United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes.” In July, he wrote a eulogy for the left-wing Israeli journalist and historian Amos Elon in The New York Review of Books, contending that Zionism has, “for a growing number of Israelis, been corrupted into an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God.” Here was the old Tony Judt, renewing the old polemics. He was not backing down an inch.