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The Liveliest Mind in New York

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“I would say that I have become more radical as I have gotten older,” he says. “I started out very radical when I was young, like most people, but I became less actively politically engaged in the middle of my life. And now I detect—and I don’t just think it’s because I have ALS—an urgency about the need to be angrier about what needs doing, what needs saving, and what needs changing.”

In a sense, it is Judt’s continued engagement with the world that has kept him sane. In order to pass the time at night, he has trained himself to enter into prolonged reveries: He organizes various memories into “a Swiss chalet,” placing certain thoughts in certain cupboards, and different examples in different shelves. The mnemonic device has worked well enough that he can wake in the morning and dictate the first draft of brief autobiographical essays, which he would send as e-mails to friends. They are now published as a series in The New York Review of Books, and will eventually be collected into a short book.

Some of the essays are charming reminiscences on light subjects such as his mother’s dismal British cooking. Recently, they have begun to dip, as if by the gravitational pull of Judt’s temperament, into ever more polemical forays. One recent essay on the dangers of identity politics assailed “para-academic programs” like gender studies and Asian-Pacific-American studies that “encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.”


“Liberation is an act of the will. We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation—no less than our crumbling physical infrastructure—unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition.” —Ill Fares the Land, Penguin Press, 2010

In “Kibbutz,” Judt wrote about his youthful infatuation with Israel and his eventual disillusionment following the Six-Day War, when he learned, to his chagrin, that “most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons.”

Ever since his friend Edward Said died in 2003, Judt has been assigned, not without his own participation, the mantle of the most visible intellectual dissident from the American consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject of Israel’s fate upsets him greatly. “It’s true I feel something between a kind of sorrow and anger that that country is going in that direction,” he says. “I feel I want to stamp hard on the toes of my fellow Jews and ask them: Have you any idea what kind of a place this is that you blindly defend?” He holds in greatest disdain those American Jews who have come down hard on his stance on Israel while declining to live there themselves. “The people whose necks hurt when I write about the Middle East tend to live in Brooklyn or Boca Raton: the kind of Zionist who pays another man to live in Israel for him. I have nothing but contempt for such people.”

In August of last year, Judt found himself planning out the agenda for the Remarque Institute. He told the dean of NYU that he intended to give a seminar about social democracy—its problems and its prospects today. In response, the dean suggested he consider making it a public lecture.

Samuel Johnson famously likened women preachers to dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” As the audience gathered at the Skirball Center at NYU one night last October—nearly 1,000 people, including much of New York’s intellectual community—there was considerable unease in the air. It was Judt’s first major public-speaking engagement since his diagnosis. Would this famously articulate speaker, rumored to be afflicted by a dreadful sickness, even meet the Johnsonian standard?

“We did not know what to expect,” says the Columbia University historian Istvan Deak, who had collaborated with Judt in the past. “We were worried about whether he would be able to speak at all, and how painful it would be to see this terribly ill man.” Judt himself knew that his mental capacity was undiminished. Still, he would be unable to take a drink or be adjusted if his body grew uncomfortable, and the logistics of having someone join him onstage to turn the pages of his notes were tricky enough that he decided to memorize the entire lecture. “It would have to be a pure adrenaline-driven performance,” he remembers.

After a fulsome introduction by the dean, Judt was wheeled onto the stage, accompanied by his breathing apparatus and swaddled in a black blanket. He looked ancient and regal and slightly unearthly; his head was clean-shaven, his nostrils distended by the bi-pap valves. Alone onstage, Judt had only two resources to draw on: his words and his will. But they were sufficient to keep the crowd enthralled.


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