Agony in the night

Tony Judt, professor modern European history at New York University, author most recently of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, has been a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. In the January 14, 2010, issue of that journal, he published the first of a series of autobiographical essays. Here is how the first essay, entitled "Night," began:

I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig's disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALSthe least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnessesis firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration.

"Physical inanition" he calls it in another place, the result being that he is now "effectively quadiplegic." Despite, perhaps because of, the laconic style, the essay is painful to read. Subsequent essays have been in the form of memoirs of his childhood and youthful student experiences, but this one deserves to stand on its own.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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