Posts Tagged ‘Tony Judt’

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

But what did Leszek Kołakowski really mean?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

They didn’t get it. (Photo: Piotr Wojcik)

“The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was ‘The Devil in History.’ For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. ‘I’ve got it,’ he whispered. ‘He really is talking about the Devil.’ And so he was.”

– From Tony Judt‘s “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)” in the NYRB (hat tip to Artur Sebastian Rosman)


Tony Judt’s mixed legacy

Monday, September 6th, 2010

“I must condemn a terrorism operating blindly on the streets of Algiers … and which one day might strike at my mother, or my family. I believe in defending justice, but first I will defend my mother.”

— Albert Camus

Influential political historian Tony Judt highlights this passage in his 1998  The Burden of Responsibility (University of Chicago Press) “as a moment of consummate, intuitive brilliance.”

Zipperstein takes on Judt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

But a writer in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes:  “Why this same argument should be deemed brilliant in mid-20th-century Paris and mere cant in 21st-century Tel Aviv, Tony never, ever sought to explain.”

In a piece that’s bound to create controversy, Steve Zipperstein has taken on Judt, one month after his death at 62 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Steve is the author of of last year’s acclaimed Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing and a man of great personal generosity and kindness.

Judt shot to fame after his 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative” in The New York Review of Books.  I was impressed instead a year-and-a-half earlier with his less-touted “Road to Nowhere,” an article whose “icy clarity” (a term Judt uses to describe Raymond Aron’s assessment of France’s Algerian conflict) makes it a provocative must-read for those who broker peace.  His overarching theme:  At some point, all sides have to recognize that “the point was no longer to analyze the origins of the tragedy, nor assign blame for it. The point was to do what had to be done.”  (I’m not sure his political radar is as precise as his pragmatism. Aron again:  “It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions for their interests.”)

Zipperstein’s article is not skimpy on praise: He notes that Judt “stood out for his capacity to absorb vats of knowledge and analyze them with uncommon, if acidic, clarity, and his mind combined, in more or less equal measure, rhetorical radicalism and common sense.” He added that Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land: a Treatise on Our Present Discontents (Penguin Press, 2010), “was dictated over the course of a couple months as his illness progressed; it is a call to social austerity, to self-effacing, moderate, social-democratic principles—in short, a document of the conservative left.”

The two met in the 1980s, and broke after “Israel: The Alternative”: “The piece, a stark reversal from Tony’s previous stance on Israel (when young he spent some time there as a socialist activist), stated flatly that Israel was an ‘anachronism’ constructed out of an unholy amalgam of ethnic essentialism and bogus democracy. The only solution was the creation of one single unified state of Palestinians and Jews. The Jewish Daily Forward likened Judt’s article to an atomic explosion.”

Zipperstein is unpersuaded by Judt’s later insistence that he had been misunderstood, because “Tony contributed mightily to this by insisting, time and again, that he didn’t quite say what he so clearly did say.” Moreover,  “Tony increasingly spoke of Israel in ever-darker terms.”  Steve concludes:

“Tony Judt was an outstanding historian, a superb political journalist, and a man whose capacity for concision and analysis ensures that his books will be read and celebrated for years to come. It would be a shame if he is remembered primarily as one of the best and brightest of America’s anti-Zionists.”