Tony Judt would have liked this book to be judged solely on its merits, but it is impossible to read it without being aware of the circumstances in which it was composed. In the fall of 2008, Judt, sixty years old, the father of two young sons, a respected scholar and celebrated public intellectual, learned that he had amyotropic lateral sclerosis, the motor neuron disease conventionally associated with Lou Gehrig. Although the pace may vary, the course of ALS is certain: a gradual paralysis, first of the limbs, then the rest of the body, that inevitably leads to death. There is discomfort but no pain; patients remain lucid, fully aware of their own deterioration.

During the two years in which Judt endured what he called “progressive imprisonment without parole,” he composed three books: Ill Fares the Land, a statement of his political values and a lament for their declining resonance, The Memory Chalet, twenty-five autobiographical vignettes, several of which first appeared in the New York Review of Books, and now Thinking the Twentieth Century, whose afterword is dated just a month before its author’s death in August 2010. All three are, by necessity, deeply personal books, based on Judt’s formidable capacity to recall what he experienced and read; all three combine history and autobiography, joining Judt’s own story with the larger story of the twentieth century that provided both subject and setting for his scholarly work.

Thinking the Twentieth Century is a series of extended conversations with the distinguished Yale historian Timothy Snyder (author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), which were recorded and edited over a period of several months. Each chapter begins with an autobiographical section and then, gently guided by Snyder’s questions and comments, moves into a discussion of twentieth-century politics and culture. This format does not always work. Some of the transitions are abrupt. Sometimes the dialogue seems forced—it is, after all, extraordinarily difficult to capture the spontaneous kinetics of good conversation. Nevertheless, the book is full of stimulating insights and powerful analyses, the summation of a lifetime’s reading and reflection. Throughout we are struck by the author’s common sense, good judgment, and sound instincts, as well as by his resolute unwillingness to believe something just because he would like it to be true.

Several themes shape the book, each marked by an intersection of autobiography and history. First is what we might call “the Jewish question”—that is, the question of what it meant for Judt to be a Jew and the deeply complex and often tragic place of Jews in the twentieth century. Judt discusses his youthful attraction to Zionism and his later, controversial advocacy of a one-state solution for the problem of Israel-Palestine. A second theme, sometimes intertwined with the first, is the historical role of ideologies and particularly of Marxism. Here again the personal and the political merge: Judt always considered himself a man of the left; he was attracted by the moral urgency of Marxist theory but repelled by the blood-stained record of Communist practice. Among the finest sections in the book are those treating Marxism’s intellectual origins, political appeal, and oppressive application. Judt and Snyder also examine the Social Democratic alternative to Marxist orthodoxy, which rests on a belief in the government’s capacity to provide public goods and guide economic institutions.

The central theme in Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt’s abiding concern for the role of intellectuals in modern life. This was, I think, what first drew him to study France, the locus classicus of intellectual engagement, the land of the Dreyfus affair, the Popular Front, and myth of the Resistance, of Émile Zola, Léon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron. In the 1980s, his growing disgust with left-wing intellectuals’ persistent and willful blindness to Stalin’s crimes, as well as his disillusionment with what he took to be the shallow fashions of contemporary French historiography, encouraged Judt to turn his attention to Eastern Europe. For him and for a handful of other British and American intellectuals, Czechoslovakia and Poland were what Spain had been for an earlier generation, the site of an epic battle between freedom and tyranny, a battle in which intellectuals defied oppressive authority to speak for liberty and humanity. Here, during the final decade of communism’s increasingly tawdry misrule, ideas still mattered and people were willing to pay a high price for expressing them. The book’s conversational format works best in the chapters on Eastern European politics and history, where Judt and Snyder, coming from different backgrounds and generations, fruitfully exchange ideas, opinions, and information. 

Permeating Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt’s awareness of the intellectual’s place in contemporary America. Relentlessly honest and realistic, Judt recognizes the security and comfort his position as a tenured faculty member provided him. He swiftly rejects the notion that it required courage to express unpopular views about Israel or any other issue: unlike his heroes in Eastern Europe, he was never at risk, no secret policeman stood on his street corner, no prison cell awaited him. And yet he knew that the price of security and comfort is marginality. There are moments of profound disaffection in the final chapters when Judt questions the value of what he does, at one point comparing the writer to someone “throwing a letter into the ocean in the forlorn hope that it will be picked up.” But the very act of writing—and especially, the act of writing this book—contradicts this counsel of despair.

Dylan Thomas referred to death as “the dying of the light.” In Tony Judt’s case, it might be better to think about the silencing of the voice. Perhaps the most harrowing chapter in The Memory Chalet is called simply “Words.” It begins by evoking the languages he remembers hearing as a child at noisy family gatherings and ends with his recognition that the progress of his disease will soon make it impossible for him to speak. While one can imagine the challenges Judt confronted in composing Thinking the Twentieth Century, he does not rage against the stilling of his voice. Undistracted by anger or self-pity, Judt leaves us an enduring testament to his belief in the power of language and the importance of ideas. This is, as Snyder writes in his affectionate foreword, “a book about the life of the mind, and about the mindful life.”

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: View Contents

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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