Tony Judt's never been one to stand down. The Jewish, British, leftist historian and professor who's been called a self-hating antisemitic terrorist-sympathizer and a liberal-hater isn't one to back down. Ravaged by Lou Gehrig's disease, he's not pussying out, either.
This is a guy who once had a fairly high-profile battle with the ADL's resident shitheel Abe Foxman after Foxman intimidated the Polish Consulate into getting one a Judt's speaking engagement canceled because he said some things Abe didn't dig, which also got the infamous Postwar author removed from the editorial board of The New Republic. So naturally, since his body's been battered by Lou Gehrig's disease, he's not going quietly into the dark by that bullshit, either. And Tuesdays with Morrie, this isn't.
In October, he delivered a lecture called What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy? from a wheelchair at NYU; Ross Douthat noted his surprise at this little factoid when introducing Judt's first in a series of essays about his illness, which he intends to use to get people thinking about their mortality (and what it means to experience the rapture of being alive) over the next few months. The last sentence of the opening paragraph:
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.
The disease puts its victims through a stark Kafka story, comparisons to which can't be far off, and aren't:
This cockroach-like existence is cumulatively intolerable even though on any given night it is perfectly manageable. "Cockroach" is of course an allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Watch this:
Imagine for a moment that you had been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back-by no means the best sleeping position, but the only one I can tolerate-for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable not just for one night but for the rest of your life. My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased.
It only gets better. The full essay is here and—as kinda-sorta conservatives as David Brooks 2.0er Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan have already noted—well worth the reading. Almost as fascinating as they essays themselves, though, are the refreshingly idealistic intentions he has in writing them and the memory-muscles he's exercising constructing them:
Judt now intends, in the time he has left, to devote himself to writing a book to help young people think collectively again. "It could really have an impact if I get it right. Something that will get the next generation to see there is a way to think about politics that is not just the way we've been habituated to do it. I care about that and I think I can do it."
Judt is already working on the book, using the same memory technique that he deployed for his NYRB essays. During the night he builds in his mind a Chinese memory palace – or in his case a modest Swiss house – and into each of its rooms he imagines placing a paragraph or theme of the piece he is composing. The next day he recalls each room in sequence, unloading its contents by dictating it to his assistant.