One of the spring highlights in southern Manitoba is the local library booksale. Books of all kinds find their way onto the sales tables and then for virtually pennies a volume, one can indulge in purchasing a feast of literary delights. While circumstances did not allow me to go in person this year, my son, having heard me wax rhapsodic over a new "favourite author" earlier this year, found several recent works by Tony Judt, University Professor and Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University: Ill Fares the Land and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.
I first came across Judt's name in one of my infrequent purchases of the New York Review of Books where I read one of his essays now collected in his book Ill Fares the Land. Once sympathetic to Marxism but now a social democrat by political conviction, Judt writes with a passion and hope about the return to a civil and meaningful discourse which, in his view, is needed now. He writes in his introduction: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them." This book is an extended essay on how that might happen and what this conversation could look like.
The second book, Reappraisals, is a series of essays on significant actors of the twentieth century political and philosophical stage. Reviews of Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Louis Althusser, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Primo Levi and others provide a wonderful entry into the intellectual world of Western democracy. I found myself comparing Judt not infrequently to Terry Eagleton, the famed Irish literary theorist currently buttering his bread in England at the University of Lancaster. Eagleton has also written extensively on twentieth century intellectual history and seems to take almost perverse delight in skewering anyone and everyone just because he can. But whereas Eagleton loves the sound of his own voice and cynically revels in the pleasure of demolishing anyone who disagrees with him, Judt exudes a sense of melancholic hope and imagines the possibilities of a new way forward in our collective lives. I like hope more than cynicism.
The urgency of Judt's voice and the passionate plea for a return to a more civil and productive conversation between Right and Left, young and old, franchised and disenfranchised, have their roots in Judt's own life experience. Born in a secular Jewish setting, his immediate family escaped Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany. But the Holocaust did not spare others from his more extended family. Judt's working class upbringing, his success at Cambridge University, his transition from Great Britain to New York, and his illness and eventual death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) add to his stature as a compelling figure. Many of these vignettes are found in his last book The Memory Chalet, conceived in the last stages of his illness, dictated to a friend and then published as a book. It is a book of tenderness and insight; it is also a book of courage and tenacity.
So read, learn, and enjoy!