“The meaning of our life,” wrote Tony Judt in a recent essay, “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 will always think of Tony Judt, whom I knew as the author of exceptionally elegant, intelligent and erudite writings, in a specific place: in Paris, on those benches in front of (where else for English-reading people like myself?) Shakespeare and Company. It was a beautiful, windy day in late May; the bells were tolling from Notre Dame Cathedral. With a cup of coffee and something to munch on, I installed myself on one of the benches and began reading his Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.
It is a wonderful and wonderfully written book of essays with a wide range and consistent depth. Judt writes with passion but also distance about “the world we have lost” and the figures–literary, political, historical; places (America, Belgium, France); and the watershed historical events that have shaped the past century. His subjects in this book are what they have always been: the future of Europe, American foreign policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I stayed on that bench for some three hours, until it began to turn dark. Halfway through the book, I headed home and finished the whole thing by the next day.
Judt’s writing was not new to me though I have yet to read his monumental Post-War. I had followed his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and admired his scholarship and courage. I had also been following the shorter pieces which he wrote in the New York Review of Books about his illness, as he lay dying. But Reappraisals struck me for its intimacy, its fierce intelligence, and its ability to go straight to the heart of the matter at hand. A book of shorter essays (the form at which Judt was a master) Reappraisals spreads a weave across Europe, to the Middle East and back to the US. It is the kind of book which takes its reader (who is often not an expert) seriously, presenting its arguments in slow motion, as it were, veering away from academic jargon and privileged usages–but doing all this in a way which tells the reader that history–and the historian’s work–matters, and matters deeply. For me, it was the perfect book for that May day, in Paris.
Reappraisals is what Judt would call an “articulate” book–a term to which he devoted an entire meditative piece in a recent New York Review of Books blog. This post, titled simply “Words,” is one of the most beautiful things this great writer and thinker has penned, straddling as it does the private worlds of the degenerative disease that has finally taken him and the public spheres of collective action and change. It is also a kind of testament to what Judt himself has tried to do as a public intellectual, an elegant writer, and an academic. This is how he ends the essay: “Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”
Tony Judt died today; he was 62. Like Darwish, and like Edward Said (who was friend of both Judt and Darwish, and about whom Judt wrote the classic essay “Edward Said: the Rootless Cosmopolitan”) Judt, too, is a writer for the generations, the continents, and the many struggles we all wage in private and publicly.