Reviewed by John-Paul McCarthy (Exeter, 2011)
When the British historian Tony Judt died of ALS at the age of 62 in 2010, the influential American interviewer Charlie Rose devoted a whole PBS programme to his career. A visibly stricken Rose prefaced a recording of Judt’s last major television interview with a tribute to his one-time co-host’s ‘spirit, his struggle and his passion for the ideas that dominated his life’. This touching adieu spoke to the reach of Judt’s work.
A fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford in the eighties who worked on the minutiae of twentieth-century French socialist thought, Judt found something akin to global fame when he left Oxford to head up the Remarque Institute at New York University in 1995. He was also co-opted to write for the New York Review of Books as a specialist in European history and politics.
Most of the essays reproduced by Judt’s widow in this collection first saw light in the NYRB. They touch on his animating preoccupations: the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its ‘two-state solution’, the desolation and subsequent reconstitution of Europe after ‘the midnight of the century’ between 1939-45, the deranging influence of the Holocaust on Jewish political identity, and the sheer vulgarity of so much of American intellectual and political life after Reagan.
Those who are already familiar with Judt’s powerful meditation on European life after 1945, Postwar, will find little that is startlingly new in this melancholy and often irritable collection, since this earlier tome was really Judt’s most accomplished attempt to analyse the diastole and systole of memory politics in particular. Here Judt made the paradoxical case that the ‘very scale of the collective misery that Europeans had brought on themselves in the first half of the century had a profoundly de-politicizing effect: far from turning to extreme solutions . . . the European publics of the gloomy post-World War Two years turned away from politics.’
This latest collection retains Judt’s recognisably wintry tone, especially on matters touching contemporary Israeli politics, but it lacks the roar and dazzle of Postwar’s 900-odd pages.
There are two conflicting voices to be heard in these essays. The first is that of the academic historian, at once aggressively empirical and ever alert to partisan raids on the historical record. The Holocaust looms like a Saturn here, and Judt writes bleakly about the diminishing returns he felt were inseparable from the American (and Israeli) habit of ‘emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs. . . .’
The second voice is more uninhibitedly polemical, whether his quarry is Ariel Sharon, ‘Israel’s dark id’, Norman Davies’ ‘truly unsavoury’ history of post-war Europe, or those who insist on the special responsibilities of intellectuals in perilous times. Judt quotes approvingly here from the work of the Oxford-based Polish dissident, Leszek Kołakowski who asked: ‘Why should intellectuals be specifically responsible, and differently responsible than other people, and for what?’ (This obituary piece on his Polish friend is much the best effort in the whole collection).
Judt’s polemical instincts suggest that in certain respects some part of him felt inhibited by the narrow economy of the academic’s art. And he certainly never ignored the more deforming aspects of certain kinds of academic history, whether these be its contempt for mere journalism, its tendency towards jargon or its periodic clumsiness in the face of theory. Judt was politely appalled for example by the Stalinist evasions of Eric Hobsbawm, especially his bizarre attempt to suggest that Stalin originally wanted ‘multi-party parliamentary democracies’ east of the Rhine. Judt also dismissed ‘cultural studies’ as a quaint form of personality disorder, and found plenty to laugh at too in the French intellectual cosmos that did much to mould his younger self.
Judt emerges from these essays as an intense if somewhat jaded man, someone who saw rackets and euphemism everywhere. Truly, it seems, the price of intellectual liberty in his case was eternal vigilance.
Jacket image © William Heinemann. Portrait of Tony Judt © John R Rifkin, reproduced with permission.