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The Liveliest Mind in New York

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“Guilty toward the work or guilty toward me? That’s why God created holidays. So people like you can go to California.”

After a while, they turn to more personal subjects. “I cannot resist Cambridge people,” Gabrielle confesses.

“That’s a bad basis on which to select anything—husbands, boyfriends, whatever,” says Judt with an amused nod of the head.

“I know!” Gabrielle says ruefully, shrugging.

“I had the same problem once, with midwestern Puritans, with similar consequences.”

They laugh. “All right, then, kiddo. You have your marching orders.”

After Gabrielle leaves, and in the remaining interval before his massage therapist arrives, Judt talks about focusing his unsentimental mind on the subject of his own illness. He give the impression that rationality is sufficient to master any situation. When a reporter for the Guardian asked him recently if he would ever consider euthanasia, he answered without hesitation. “It’s perfectly reasonable that there will come a point where the balance of judgment of life over death swings the other way.”

It is the fate of every strong, indomitable personality to confront his or her own decline, and no one, it seems, has done so with harder lucidity than Judt. “Nothing prepares you to die,” he says. “I imagine it helps if you are profoundly religious, if you absolutely, unequivocally believe that there is a purpose to all this, and that you are going to go somewhere nice. I don’t believe either of those things.

“I understand it seems as though I am in a hurry. But I am quite convinced that the urgency lies in the external world.”

“I thought of this as a stroke of catastrophic bad luck,” Judt explains. “Neither unjust, because after all, there is no justice in luck; nor unfair—‘Why me and not you?’—which would be a ridiculous way to think of it; nor implausible, because it’s so implausible that plausibility is off the scale. Nor does it have meaning: One thing I always felt very strongly empathetic about in my reading of [the Italian chemist and Holocaust diarist] Primo Levi was his absolutely clearheaded sense that none of what had happened to him in the camps had any meaning. You might draw lessons from it in terms of experience, you certainly might draw political lessons. But at the existential level of one man’s life, it had no meaning. This has no meaning. What I do with it is up to me.

“History can show you that it was one pile of bad stuff after another. It can also show you that there’s been tremendous progress in knowledge, behavior, laws, civilization. It cannot show you that there was a meaning behind it. And if you can’t find a meaning behind history, what would be the meaning of any single life? I was born accidentally. I lived accidentally in London. We nearly migrated to New Zealand. So much of my life has been a product of chance, I can’t see a meaning in it at all. I can just see the good stuff that happened and the bad stuff.

“The meaning of our life,” Judt continues, “is only incorporated in the way other people feel about us. Once I die, my life will acquire meaning in the way they see whatever it is I did, for them, for the world, the people I’ve known. I have no control of that. All I can do is do the best, now.”


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