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The Liveliest Mind in New York

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Judt delivered a masterful performance, speaking for an hour and a half without interruption or hesitation. He began by referring to himself as “a quadriplegic wearing facial Tupperware,” and, after running through a concise history of his illness, declared, to an enormous upsurge of laughter and applause, “What you see before you is an original talking head.” As he turned to the substance of his speech, Judt’s voice grew stronger, spontaneously generating the same seamless structure of well-ordered thought that he had habitually produced before his illness. “Why is it,” he asked the audience, “that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?”

Judt left the auditorium satisfied: He had delivered as vigorous a cry for the importance of old-fashioned left-wing ideas as had been heard in New York in some time. (“It was a good lecture by any standard,” he says, “not just the standard of quadriplegics with bi-paps.”) Afterward, in his apartment, Judt elaborated on the themes of his speech. “There is much more to be done,” he said, “in defense of what we used to think of as classical philosophical abstractions—justice, fairness, equality—in countries like the United States which have become increasingly unjust, unfair, unequal, and which are, by their nature, intuitively unworkable over the long run. If we say it’s not fair that Goldman Sachs can rip off the taxpayer, we are told that that is a silly way to talk and that it has nothing to do with fairness. Well, it has everything to do with fairness. You can’t run a society that is profoundly unfair for a long time without people becoming profoundly distrustful, and without social trust, there can be no common consent and no common goods, and no shared purposes. We need to find a way to once again talk about these things, in ways that used to be commonplace, but now have become radical propositions.”

ALS is incurable, but it does not inflict any pain. “You’re free to sit there quite calmly contemplating your own steady decline.”

The speech has had a prolonged afterlife. It was published in The New York Review of Books last December, and Judt worked quickly to expand it into a longer essay, which then aroused the interest of the Penguin Press, who encouraged Judt to expand it further. Judt calls the resulting book, Ill Fares the Land, “an essay on the possibility of living differently.” It was rushed to press, and will be released next week.

It has been a long time since such a political pamphlet has found an American audience. “Who knows if I can get a readership for a book like that,” he says. “But if I don’t try, I have no right to complain that no one is reading or writing such things.” Judt acknowledges the degree to which his illness has added to the curiosity surrounding his work. “I am a little caught between satisfaction at my newly increased reach and mild irritation at the reason for it,” he says. “I understand the sense in which it seems as though I am in a hurry. But as you’ll see when you read the book, I am quite convinced that the urgency lies in the external world and all I am doing is drawing attention to it.”

“You’re going to find this weird,” Judt says, “but the thing I do best is teach.” He considers his role as teacher to be more important than his work as a historian or public intellectual, and he has received hundreds of letters from former students over the years expressing their gratitude. Last spring, Judt taught an undergraduate class in his living room, and since then he has continued to teach a graduate seminar and the occasional individual student.

One Wednesday last month, as a blizzard blankets Washington Square, Judt is helping a second-year graduate student, whom we will call Gabrielle, construct a dissertation reading list on Jewish history.

Gabrielle is a fresh-faced woman in her twenties who speaks with a French accent. They settle into an easy rapport, readily interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences.

“So, how many books … ” asks Gabrielle.

“Should we do in toto? Look, if the choices are between 20, 50, 100, and 500 … ” Judt begins.

“We go for 500?”

“We go for 100, dear,” Judt replies. “There won’t be more than 100 books worth reading.”

Their talk ranges across the whole of European Jewish history—Eastern, Central, and Western Europe, the Sephardim, the “port Jews” living in places like Salonika and Alexandria. They arrange to meet weekly to plow through the reading.

“I have a request,” Gabrielle mentions. “I said yes to a seder in California. I’ll just be away for just four days, but I feel guilty.”


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