Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder, is exactly what the title says it is. Conceived as a “spoken book” in the traditional European sense (not, that is, as an audio book but as one proceeding from conversation), it is the last written record of his thoughts by the author before his untimely death at the age of 62 of ALS. It is also a collaboration between two minds well schooled in history and particularly in Eastern European political history and drawing, therefore, on two lifetimes of extensive and catholic reading. As Judt’s conversational partner, Timothy Snyder, remarks in his foreword, “This book makes a case for conversation, but perhaps an even stronger case for reading.”
Judt’s wife, Jennifer A. Homans, says that Tony did not prepare for the weekly two-hour conversations with Tim, that he went into them without notes, and that the two men talked without a break (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory,” New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012). Toward the end of his life, this book was very much what he lived for--clarifying thought, retrieving memory.
For Tony the incentive behind the book—and it had to be a powerful one to overcome the discomfort and depression that were his constant companions—was primarily intellectual, a matter of clarification. ... Sick Tony ... was able, with Tim and through sheer mental and physical exertion, to find some relief and exhilaration in the life of the mind.
The conversations between Judt and Snyder took place in the Judt family apartment in New York City. At their first meeting, Tony was able to walk to meet his friend at the door, although already he could not open the door himself. By their final meeting, he was bedridden and paralyzed except for his head, eyes and vocal chords. It isn’t difficult to imagine how these islands of stimulating conversation must have stood out in a glow of their own for Tony Judt in his last bleak, paralyzed days. Again, Jennifer Homans—
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I now see that the dead can extend feelings across the divide separating the living from the ever after. But—and this is a big but—they can only do it if they think of it in advance, before they actually die.
Although the topics covered in Thinking the Twentieth Century are fully as serious as Judt’s earlier Postwar, and the background information assumed every bit as erudite, the structure here and the conversational tone make the book more readily accessible to the nonacademic reader. There are no footnotes. There is no bibliography. This is the work, basically, of a single well-informed mind, speaking to and being drawn out by another. Each chapter begins with a short autobiographical section by Tony Judt, which serves to situate his thought and its development over time. As Ian Buruma observes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (April 5, 2012),
Passion and skepticism would always be in competition in his mind, as though he were forever debating his own enthusiasms. He has been criticized for being inconsistent in his views. But arguing with oneself, especially with one’s passions, is the mark of a real thinker. And Judt didn’t stop thinking until he drew his last breath. [My emphasis added]
Because Judt never rested dogmatically with any particular view of life or of history, he was able to to bring to his last thoughts both an insider’s and an outsider’s viewpoints on many different beliefs. He was also able to see striking similarities, of a kind indiscernible to true believers, between militantly opposed viewpoints. For instance, in the third chapter of Thinking the Twentieth Century, he spoke to Snyder of Christianity and Marxism as having an important commonality not shared by social democratic liberalism. Both the Christian and the Marxist, he said, can justify inflicting suffering in the present for the sake of a future they believe the suffering will bring—e.g., torturing save immortal souls or murdering for the sake of the Revolution.
...It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.
Put another, it’s one thing to be ready to die for a belief and quite another to be ready to kill for it, and the two kinds of readiness are not morally equal.
It was clear to Tony Judt that no one had perfect knowledge of the future and that every political or economic decision, therefore, must be based on very incomplete information. At the same time, he lived every day with the certainty of his own death. Thus, of this book, his wife Jennifer Homans writes, “Thinking the Twentieth Century was a labor on behalf of a future he knew he would not share.”
This is not a review of Judt and Snyder’s book, as I have only reached the fourth chapter in my first reading of it, but Tony Judt is one of my heroes, and it is important to me to say something about his last work before I am completely overwhelmed and rendered speechless by it. As I have been reading the book, I want to quote from page after page, so that by the time I reach the end—well, you see how that would go. So rather than choosing another few lines from the book, my last quotation today comes again from Jennifer Homans and has to do with Tony Judt’s beliefs and this book and with conversation and public debate:
...The only thing he was an idealist about was serious public debate. This was the one thing, along with love, that was always left standing no matter how much was felled by the disease, and so much was. Tony called it the core. To me it was a narrowing beam of light in the darkness that was separating Tony from us all. And if Thinking the Twentieth Century stands in the no-man’s-land between what is and what should be, as I think it does, this is in part because it was driven by the darkness but also part of the light. It was besieged, as he was.As is liberalism? As is democracy?