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Tony Judt and the Integral Word

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books Tony Judt wrote:

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we dont feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (Its only my opinion). Rather than suffering from the onset of newspeak, we risk the rise of nospeak.I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughtsthe view from inside is as rich as everbut I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.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 rightand properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

Professor Judt passed away on Friday. The New York Times remembers him here.[Editor's note: We just posted Peter Steinfels's review of Judt's last book, Ill Fares the Land.]

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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He will be remembered for his brilliance and his high moral standards; an exemplary scholar, a courageous human being. May he rest in peace.

Peter's review is, as usual, lucid and insightful.This paragraph seems to me to identify a further area for crucial conversation:"In Ill Fares the Land, Judt the moralist touched the topic of religion but usually to quickly back away. He was well aware that the postwar consensus in Europe was the creation of Christian Democrats as much as of Social Democrats. He took a swipe at sophisticated dismissals of religion and noted that the appeal of John Paul II to young people, even beyond the bounds of faith, indicated that humans need a language in which to express their moral instincts. To argue convincingly about right and wrong we need a language of ends, not means. Can we hope for such a language in what Judt, still the European, assumed were postreligious societies like our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives? He believed so but without advancing much of a case."

Judt could pick up religious themes that others missed. He greatly admired the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski who was equally adept in Marxist theory and Jansenist theology. A revealing anecdote here:

A Bit of History. I'm still reading the fascinating biog of the Maritains. Jacques Maritain's influence on the Christian Democrat movement was large in Euroge and huge in South America, His "Integral Humanism" strongly supported both individual freedom of conscience and a pluralistic form of government. But in France the extremely conservative (and in many cases fascist) French clergy and laity and the powers in Rome itself were so against Maritain's thinking that he feared that the book would be put on the Index. Indeed, at one point, in South America some newspapers reported it had already been condemned. (It hadn't.) And even Paul VI, a friend of Maritain, refused to approve its publication.Is it any wonder that after WWII the existentialists, with hopes unguaranteed by their essentially nihilistic philosophies, became the dominant new political thinkers in Europe? And Rome wonders why Europeans don't pay attention to it any more?

The publication schedule of The New York Review of Books resembles that of Commonweal. I keep checking the periodical shelf of our public library to see whether a new issue has arrived, but I subscribe to Commonweal. ----Aside from Judt's marvelous insights into civil behavior, his travels caught me. A few months ago, he recalled how great it was as a youth to explore London and its surroundings by public transport and bicycle. I think he would ride an Underground or Tube route out a considerable distance and then bicycle an arc until he encountered another route home.-----Unless I am mistaken, Judt gave high praise to Jean Monnet and the other founders of the Common Market. I must reread "Postwar."

Ann, may I ask who are the nihilistic existentialist philosophers that you refer to? I'm prepared to argue that some people called existentialists (many people called existentialists at some point or other denied that they were existentialists), e.g. Marcel, Buber, Merleau-Ponty, and going back a bit, Kierkegaard had important things to say. Sartre is a hard case. He tends to drive me to distraction, but my friend Tom Flynn, a first rate philosopher at Emory ( and, by the way, a fine priest) has spent lots of his career making the case that Sartre, among other postmoderns, is important in showing us the limits of the Enlightenment.In political terms, what about Raymond Aron, etc., on the French scene? I need not denigrate maritain when I say that there was much more of great value on the French asecne than one would know from reading only Maritain.

Bernard --I was thinking of Sartre and Camus. Strictly speaking, I suppose they aren't nihilists since they think one can invent one's own values, but since so far as I know neither gives a strong ground for their positions, poignant as Camus may be. (Sartre drives me up the wall -- brilliant and willful adolescent.) I find it hard to read philosophers whose foundations are so shaky, so I don't know very much about either. But their influence has been huge -- it extends all the way down to "doing your own thing", I think.

Bernard --I don't know Aron at all. I'm not much interested in political philosophy. I just happen to have read some of Maritain's because I couldn't avoid it. I don't doubt there is a lot of value in the French scene, They've gone through so many trials for so many generations. I defend Maritain because he was quite courageous in sticking to his guns against a repressive Vatican and he spoke out against the sometimes fascist French clergy. (According to this biog I'm reading his association with L'Action francaise was always a troubled one, though I'm not so sure how objective the biog. is.) Unfortunately, the Church since V2 has turned anti-Thomas, which means that Maritain's fine political theory is being lost, though as I understand it, it still is influential in So. America. It was just what the Church needed to counter Communism. But Pius XII apparently suspected Maritain himself of being a Communist. Small wonder the liberation theologians didn't stand a chance.

Ann: In the Vatican there were different views of Maritain. The Holy Office came close to a formal condemnation of his views on religious freedom in the mid-to late-1950's (J.C. Murray's views would have been condemned, too). Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange spoke of Maritain's "doctrinal deviations," by which he meant his political views; Maritain reminded the very influential Dominican of his support of Vichy during WW II; G.-L. is supposed to have said that anyone who supported the Free French was in a state of objective mortal sin! On the other hand, Giam Battista Montini (future Paul VI) was a Maritainist and himself trandlated at least one work of M's into Italian; there's a book on the relation between Montini and Maritain. Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, living and working at the Vatican, was a world apart from G.-L. and the like. Etienne Fouilloux is preparing a biography of Tisserant which should be quite revealing. Maritain, of course, served as French Ambassador to the Holy See right after the War. I'm inclined to think that Maritain's early association with L'Action franaise was serious and earnest. It was a French Dominican priest, Fr. Clerissac, who helped Maritain through his conversion journey, and there was a good deal of sympathy for Maurras and his movement among French Dominicans, as a book published about a decade ago showed. (There was similar support for Maurras among some French Jesuits--e.g., Fr. Pedro Descoqs--, but as far as I know this hasn't been studied as closely or deeply.) The leaders of Action franaise considered Maritain a rat when he not only submitted to the papal condemnation of the movement but wrote a couple of works defending it. Maritain's difficulties in Rome and elsewhere, particularly in Spain and Latin American countries, began with his refusal to call the Spanish Civil War a "holy war." Many of his critics then went on to criticize his proposal of a "new Christendom" that would be at home in the new climate of democratic and pluralistic societies in which the Church would have ti rely on the "poor means" of the Gospel. The critics didn't see anything wrong with the old Christendom in which the Catholic Church (and the Church alone) enjoyed the economic, politcal, and even coercive support of the State.

And Maritain also had an unexpected friendship when in the U.S. with Saul Alinsky. CWL published something about this (their correspondence) and someone at UND published a book I believe. Memory fails at summoning the author's name. The article must be in the archives....

In the Aug 19 "Summer " issue of NYRB there is another Judt memoir piece called "Meritocracy." He reflects on his education, especially his days at King's College, Cambridge, praising a then young research fellow who first introduced him to the challenges of intellectual history, and changed his mind about certain unconsidered assumptions " by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect." That," said Judt, " is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken ) opinions across a broad political spectrum."That same approach to controverted matters has long made it hard to resist reading Judt's pieces in the TLS or LRB or NYRB before anything else. Just watching the way his mind worked on whatever subject he's turned it to has been a special pleasure--nevermind whether you agreed with him, or not. And these last little fragments of memoir have been a gift to his readers for the glimpse of the man behind the words he handled so well. He will be missed.

Susan,Thank you for including the quote from Judt's August 19th article. It suggests what university teaching at its best should be. Of course, the Oxbridge system of tutorials can help foster such patient and extended conversation.I fully agree that "these last little fragments of memoir have been a gift to his readers."

". . . by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. "I read recently (was it here?) that the idea for this "tutorial" method has its origin in Newman's Idea of a University. Maybe it accounts for the enormous influence the Oxford/Cambridge thinkers have had in so many fields in the last century or so. Those schools are not very big to start with, relatively speaking. What a remarkable man Judt must have been, a brother in spirit to Stephen Hawking, another Oxbridge product and ALS victim.

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