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'Ill Fares the Land' by Tony Judt

A heart's cry from a preeminent, dying historian on the West's need to reclaim a collective sense of duty and justice before it's too late.

March 22, 2010|By Tim Rutten

"Ill Fares the Land" is a remarkably compelling book made all the more so by the remarkable circumstances surrounding its composition.

Its author, British-born Tony Judt, is our preeminent historian of postwar Europe, a scholar of remarkable breadth and erudition and one of the West's foremost and most outspoken public intellectuals.

Educated at Cambridge and at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and currently university professor and head of the Remarque Institute of European Studies at New York University, Judt is by conviction a man of the left, though a formidable independence of mind seems to have rendered him impervious to orthodoxy. In his youth, for example, he was a fervent Labor Zionist, lived on a kibbutz and volunteered as a driver and translator for the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1967 war. By 2003, his disenchantment with Israel had become so complete that he argued in the New York Review of Books that the Jewish state had become an "anachronism" and should be replaced by a single binational entity. Bitter controversy ensued, estranging Judt from a number of his former friends and colleagues. More recently, he assailed one of the academic American left's sacred cows, ethnic and gender studies, saying it encourages "members of that minority to study themselves -- thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine."

As Judt recently told an interviewer: "Today I'm regarded outside New York University as a loony-tune lefty self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I'm regarded as a typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist. I like that. I'm on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable."

Less than a year and a half ago, Judt was diagnosed with an aggressive form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease. In the months since, he has become a quadriplegic, dependent on an apparatus to sustain even his breathing. He is dying. Depending on your point of view, one of ALS' mercies or perversities is that its sufferers' mental faculties are undiminished. Judt's disability has become the occasion of an astonishing outpouring of movingly provocative work. He is immobile from the time he is put to bed at night, and through the hours until morning he uses the Renaissance mnemonic device of a memory palace -- in his case, a Swiss chalet -- in which to store, room by room, his reflections. In the morning, he dictates them to an assistant.

Many of these have appeared as autobiographical sketches in the New York Review of Books; Bob Silvers, the NYRB's editor, has called them "some of his best work. The pure intensity of effort and courage needed to arrive at the ability to do it is something difficult to imagine. It's a great victory for him."

Last August, Judt delivered what was likely his last public lecture, to a packed auditorium at NYU. He spoke for 90 unbroken minutes from memory and, by all accounts, held his listeners in utter thrall. Silvers suggested that the talk be transcribed into a piece for his magazine and that, with further revisions and expansion, has now become his most recent book, "Ill Fares the Land."

The title is taken from Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem "The Deserted Village": "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay." This, in effect, is the moral testament of a historian who has given a lifetime of intense study and deep reflection to the West's failures and successes since the end ofWorld War II.

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