I don’t think I quite grasped it at the time, but “understanding” was becoming for me an increasingly central objective: harder, deeper and more enduring than merely “being right.” – Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder (NY, Penguin, 2012)
How to begin to describe the mind of Tony Judt? That is the question that came into my mind yesterday. In current parlance, one would automatically say “Amazing!” But then, everything is “amazing” these days, isn’t it? A new jacket, a movie, a hairdo? So to use the word in a serious (let alone a casual) context is to say nothing at all.
First of all, his mind was “well stocked.” The phrase is his own, as he referred to the memories he used to construct the essays in The Memory Chalet. That writing was reflective and impressive, along with being personal, even deeply intimate, but in Thinking the Twentieth Century we see more clearly yet the extent to which Judt’s mind was stocked not only with personal experience but with a lifetime of reading and intense engagement with both experience and ideas.
His mind was engaged. It is clear from reading this book that his mind was always engaged and that the engagement ended only with his death. He didn’t just “talk his way” through this book. He and Snyder talked it, and then Judt edited each chapter, continuing to clarify his ideas about our world in the twentieth century, because it mattered to him. Thinking was not an idle game for him but an activity of crucial importance. He cared about his world and felt a responsibility to the present and to the future.
He thought critically. He did not easily give his assent.His was not a mind to acquiesce easily, either in the pronouncements of others or to his own initial responses, and he continued to question others, the world, and himself as long as he drew breath. But neither was he one to dissent merely to be different, to gain attention, or to play devil’s advocate lightly, as a diversion. Again, he analyzed and reflected endlessly but never as a game—always because he saw thinking as important work.
His thinking and expression had a style all their own. Analytical by temperament and by training, Judt retained a poet’s love for the sensuous details and the great romance of the world about him. Anyone who has read The Memory Chalet knows this. Whoever has not read it, should.
For the remainder of this post, I want to highlight a few passages from Thinking the Twentieth Century, beginning with the somewhat unromantic (most would say) of economics. Judt identifies the Reagan-Thatcher view, “that the right to make any amount of money unhindered by the state is part of an unbroken continuum with the right to free speech,” and he goes on as follows:
It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that this is not what Adam Smith thought. And it was certainly not the view of most neoclassical economists either. It would simply never have occurred to them to suppose a necessary and permanent relationship between the forms of economic life and all other aspects of human existence. They treated economics as benefitting from internal laws as well as the logic of human interest; but the motion that economics alone could supply the purposes of human existence on earth would have struck them as peculiarly thin gruel.
On the role of the historian, a topic of great importance to him, he is particularly eloquent.
The task of the historian, if you wish to think of it this way, is to supply the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole.
Has anyone ever described the job better? A couple of pages later he is more precise:
I would break that thought into two parts. The first is simply this: the job of the historian is to make clear that a certain event happened. We do this as effectively as we can, for the purpose of conveying what it was like for something to have happened to those people when it did, where it did and with what consequences. This rather obvious job description is quite crucial. The cultural and political current flows in the other direction: to efface past events—or to exploit them for unrelated purposes. It’s our job to get it right—again and again and again. The task is Sisyphean: the distortions keep changing and so the emphasis in the corrective is constantly in flux. But many historians do not see it this way, and feel no responsibility of this kind. In my view, they are not real historians. A scholar of the past who is not interested in the first instance in getting the story right may be many virtuous things, but a historian is not among them. However, we have a second responsibility. We are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest. ... We are never free of that.
Accordingly, we must operate in two registers simultaneously....
Critical as he was of all national political agendas, Judt was very clear in his mind that before students can criticize history, they must learn it. Facts first. Without facts, “criticism” becomes a hash of opinions slung about willy-nilly. And, in thus making history irrelevant, in making it chaotic, “we [historians] lose any claim upon the civic conversation.”
He thought a lot, also, on the distinction between history and collective memory:
...I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective: those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies—sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. In either event, they cannot substitute for history.
I could quote endlessly from this book but give these samples only in the hope of inducing hunger for more, so the last passage I have chosen for today is one from my previous post, and it has to do with faith and judgment:
...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.
Tony, his wife tells us, believed in two things: love and serious public debate. That is, love and informed conversation. Both require that human beings care.