Author of Postwar and New York University professor dies after two-year fight with motor neurone disease
7 August 2010
and see the Guardian obituary, 8 August 2010
Considered by many to be a giant in the intellectual world, Judt chronicled his illness in unsparing detail in public lectures and essays – giving an extraordinary account that won him almost as much respect as his voluminous historical and political work, for which he was feted on both sides of the Atlantic.
Judt was born in 1948 and grew up in south London. His mother’s parents had emigrated from Russia; his father was Belgian, descended from a line of Lithuanian rabbis.
His academic career began with a history degree and PhD at Cambridge and took him eventually to New York University, where he was the Erich Maria Remarque professor in European studies, director of the Remarque Institute and a renowned teacher.
His finest work was widely thought to be Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, published in 2005 and an enormous critical success. It was described by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder as “the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone”.
But Judt’s willingness to voice, as the New York Times recently put it, “impolite truths” brought attacks from fellow intellectuals. He was called cantankerous, which he probably took as a badge of honour.
His criticism of Israel – particularly a 2006 essay in which he declared that “Israel today is bad for the Jews” – placed him at the centre of an intellectual firestorm.
Not that he appeared to care what others thought. “I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney tunes leftie, self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university, I’m regarded as a typical, old-fashioned, white male liberal elitist,” he said recently. “I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”
His view of history was unvarnished. “History can show you that it was one pile of bad stuff after another,” he once declared. “It can also show you that there’s been tremendous progress in knowledge, behaviour, laws, civilisation. 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.”
Despite his illness, Judt continued giving public lectures without the aid of notes, granting interviews and writing for the New York Review of Books.
In one recent essay, Judt discussed the condition that had left him a quadriplegic, unable to perform almost any muscular action – including breathing – unaided. “There I lie, 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.”
Words, for Judt, were a way of making sense of his life and a weapon in his battle against his illness. “Words can make the illness a subject I can master, and not one that one simply emotes over.”
His widely admired command of language, he believed, was down to his upbringing. “I was raised on words,” he once wrote. “They tumbled off the kitchen table on to the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation.
“Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.”
Judt was awarded a special Orwell prize last year for lifetime achievement for his contribution to British political writing. Penguin published his latest book, Ill Fares the Land, a passionate call for a re-engagment in politics, in March.
The motor neurone disease diagnosis had come in 2008. Judt, who had considered himself a “very healthy, very fit, very independent, travelling, sports-playing guy”, found his body ravaged. Soon he lost the use of his hands and had to start using a wheelchair. He considered euthanasia.
“There are times when I say to myself, this is so damn miserable I wish I was dead, in an objective sense of I wish I didn’t have to get up this morning and do it all over again,” he remarked.
“I’ve thought about euthanasia a lot, not for tomorrow, but one has to plan for it because the likely trajectory is that you lose your capacity to express yourself long before you die.”
In an email correspondence published in the July edition of Prospect magazine, Judt discussed how, lying awake at night trapped in his body, he would review his life and prepare for dictating a series of highly personal essays published in the NYRB shortly before he died.
The process was cathartic, he said. “I don’t think I enjoyed living as much as I should have done – too busy thinking about it all the time. So now I am enjoying thinking about it (which is a different sort of thinking) and getting as close to enjoying it in the moment as retrieved memory will permit.”
In his own words
On society: I think what we need is a return to a belief not in liberty, because that is easily converted into something else… but in equality. Equality, which is not the same as sameness. Equality of access to information, equality of access to knowledge, equality of access to education, equality of access to power and to politics. We should be more concerned than we are about inequalities of opportunity, whether between young and old or between those with different skills or from different regions of a country. It is another way of talking about injustice. We need to rediscover a language of dissent. London Review of Books, 25 March
On his illness: It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing– nothing – that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory. New York Review of Books, 14 January
On Israel: The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the president of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the prime minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate. Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the “road map.” The president of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: “It’s all Arafat’s fault.” Israelis themselves grimly await the next bomber. NYRB, 23 October 2003
On dying: The meaning of our life … 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. New York magazine, 7 March