The Liveliest Mind in New York

Photo: Marco Grob

It’s a bit of a struggle to get comfortable right now,” says Tony Judt, who is seated in a book-lined office in an apartment above Washington Square. He says this in a matter-of-fact way. He has been resting a little, as he does for short spells throughout the day. The room is very warm and quiet, save for the whirring of the air pump that keeps his diaphragm functioning and his labored intake through the bi-pap valve embedded in each of his nostrils. Three large computer monitors stand adjacent to one another on a long desk. They run a looped slideshow—snapshots of Judt walking with his wife, clowning around with his children, wearing various styles of glasses (square and clunky giving way to round and sleek), sitting in a chair with an arm draped casually across its back.

Now Judt excuses himself and very patiently gives instructions on how to make sitting upright, for a time, bearable. Just a little bit forward with the legs, please. All right. Now—up—and back. His nurse, a sturdy man with a black ponytail, wrestles with the electronic knobs that control the many moving parts of his wheelchair. No—up, as far as it can go. Far as it can go. That’s right. Just a little bit down. And now back. That’s right. Judt requires the assistance of a microphone to be easily heard, and the speaker crackles with the sound of his sighs.

The disease that has paralyzed most of Judt’s body—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease—has reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper, though it still retains the distinctive rhythms and intonations that made it, until recently, a commanding instrument. Judt is, by common assent, one of the most eloquent and erudite public intellectuals working today—“one of the great political writers of the age,” in the judgment of the political philosopher John Gray. He presides over the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he supports research, schedules lectures, and shapes the direction of European historical studies. He has written eight books on the history of politics and ideas in Europe, and is a famously tough-minded and combative writer of essays, reviews, and op-ed pieces. All in all, he is one of the most admired and denounced thinkers living in New York City.

ALS is incurable, fatal, and little understood. It leaves its victims mentally intact. It does not obliterate sensation, and it does not inflict any pain. As Judt puts it, “You’re free to sit there quite calmly contemplating your own steady decline.” Recently, he dictated for The New York Review of Books a short essay offering his readers a glimpse into his bedroom at night. “There I lie,” he wrote, “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.”

He went on to invite his readers to imagine deleting their ability to move their arms and legs from various daily settings—to scratch their hand, or shift position at night—and consider the effect this would have on their morale. Morning, he wrote, brings “an occasion to communicate with the outside world and express in words, often angry words, the bottled-up irritations and frustrations of physical inanition.” By the time he refers to his “cockroachlike existence” of “humiliating helplessness,” his simple thought experiments have posed a paradox: How can a man enduring the unbelievable torment described within the essay have retained the clarity and poise to have written it?

The essay was unlike anything he had written before: an intimate view of the author’s private anguish. “I can’t remember another piece of memoiristic writing that created such waves of interest in our little pond,” says the writer and Columbia professor Todd Gitlin. It was not, however, the whole of his written output. After spending a few months absorbing the shock of his diagnosis eighteen months ago, Judt has become enormously prolific: dictating essays and opinion pieces, delivering a public lecture to a packed auditorium, and assembling material for three books, one of which—a rallying cry on behalf of a renewed social democracy—will be published next week. Consigned to a broken body but perfectly sound in mind, he has acquired something of a second presence beyond that of a historian and public intellectual—a figure whose pathos haunts the thoughts of others. “There are many days now where I find myself thinking about Tony Judt,” says Gitlin, “and I hardly even know him.”

“I use words to make sense of my life,” explains Judt. “Words can make the illness a subject I can master, and not one that one simply emotes over.” Longtime admirers believe Judt’s writing is stronger than it has ever been. “He has been able to do some of his best work,” says Robert Silvers, the editor of TheNew York Review of Books, who has assigned Judt more than 60 pieces over the years. “The pure intensity of effort and courage needed to arrive at the ability to do it is something difficult to imagine. It’s a great victory for him.”

Judt politely declines to entertain any suggestion that there is something heroic in what he has accomplished. “It’s not heroic. Heroism consists of doing things you don’t have to do and that cause you tremendous cost that you’re willing to accept in order to do the thing you feel you have to do. It doesn’t cost me anything to write. Where I do think I deserve merit points is for sheer strength of will. The natural thing to do is to say ‘fuck it’—to lie down with a whiskey and watch old movies. It takes willpower to say, ‘I’ll be happier if I do this than if I just lie there, bored.’ ”

Judt’s academic reputation rests on the 2005 publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It was an enormous success: The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who is collaborating with Judt on a follow-up book, calls Postwar “the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone”; Louis Menand, reviewing the book in The New Yorker, wrote that Judt’s scope was “virtually superhuman.” Postwar recounts two related stories: How Western Europe banished political extremism by building a robust welfare state, and how Eastern Europe first succumbed to and later released itself from communist rule. The book hinges on a series of painful ironies, each of which Judt pins down with precision. He both exposes the self-serving myth of European resistance to the Nazis during the war and acknowledges that it was precisely on the basis of such myths that a ruined Europe was able to restore itself. He also observes that because war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing had separated the fractious, ethnically diverse regions of Eastern Europe into tidy, homogenous nation-states, “the stability of postwar Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.”

Judt regards himself as a teller of hard, impolite truths. “I’ve always been willing to say exactly what I think,” he declares. To wit: His own NYU history department used to be mostly “dull and p.c.”; most other historians are unable to write “to save their lives”; and public intellectuals who aren’t an expert in something are “blah-blah generalists—and then you’re David Brooks. And you’re garbage.”

“What if there were no place in the world today for a ‘Jewish state’? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome?” —“Israel: The Alternative,” The New York Review of Books, 2003

In his writing, Judt has a way of electrifying the atmosphere around intellectual debates, flinging shards of rhetoric sharp enough to shatter myths. Among his targets over the years: communism, the postmodern academy, French intellectuals, fellow liberals, fellow Jews. In 2006, he published an article in the London Review of Books accusing the American liberal intellectual class—singling out by name David Remnick, Peter Beinart, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Ignatieff, and Paul Berman—of a collective abdication of their critical responsibilities, calling them “useful idiots” of the Bush administration. In response, dozens of liberals who had opposed the war signed a manifesto denouncing the piece as “nonsense on stilts.”

To some extent, Judt’s Iraq essay could be read as payback for the sharp exchanges that had occurred three years earlier in response to another bombshell he had thrown. In an infamous article in The New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt declared, “The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.” For Israel to remain a Jewish state, he wrote, it would be all but impossible to remain a democracy: The demographics of “Greater Israel” (which includes an overwhelmingly Arab population in the occupied territories) will soon make this logically impossible. Yes, Israel could dismantle its settlements, but this appeared to Judt a fantasy: “Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move.” Or Israel could forcibly expel its Arab population, “but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project.” The alternative Judt floated was to establish Israel as a binational state—in effect, to give up on the Zionist project entirely.

Upon its publication, Judt was branded, as he puts it, as “a crazed, left-wing, anti-Zionist and self-hating Jew,” stripped of his contributing editorship at The New Republic, and labeled by Leon Wieseltier, his close friend and the editor there, as someone who had called for “the abolition of the Jewish nation-state.”

This is not a particularly helpful sobriquet for a Jew living in Manhattan, and Judt disputes the characterization of his essay (he was describing an emerging reality, he says, not advocating a solution). But to “think the unthinkable,” as he urged his readers to do about Israel’s future—and to say it aloud—has been Judt’s self-assigned mission. “I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community,” he says. “So liberals should look especially hard at the uninterrogated assumptions of liberalism. Otherwise we are just hacks for a party line. If I have an Archimedean ethical standpoint, it really just consists of telling the truth as I see it even if I don’t much care for the implications, or if it offends my friends and my political allies.”

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.

“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.

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.”

“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.”

The Liveliest Mind in New York