Tony Judt has passed away.
I did not know him, and I’ve known of him for only a little while – since the first of his autobiographical essays for the New York Review of Books. And yet for the last few days my mind has been returning to him and I’ve re-read most of what is available. I’m embarrassed to admit to a sense of loss, one to which I am by no means entitled.
It is, of course, not so much for the man but for his prose that I am mourning; the words smashed out of marble into a likeness of life better than life itself. Melancholy without self-pity, humility avoiding demureness – Judt seemed desperate to convey all that we had lost while being aware of the triteness of his position. For what is more common than an old man comparing (unfavorably) the youth of his memories to the youth of his world?
As he saw it, we have lost the ability to discuss ideals seriously; we have lost our loftiest dreams to the 20th century and the men who used every one of them to justify horror. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace, who instead attributed this loss to our generation’s aesthetic dissatisfaction with straightforward moral principles, leading to their intellectualization.
Both stories are the same: we threw away the narrative of good and evil because it felt grossly inadequate to describe our reality. How could this new generation continue to use blunt terms like good, evil and justice when they have proven to be so vulnerable to hijacking? In an age when unjustified invasion is blanketed in the promise of enduring freedom, how can we begin to make sense of what these words mean?
Instead of trying, we have attempted to carry on the conversation without ever referring to what the conversation is about. When we discuss ethics we are unable to discuss specific cases lest we pass colonialist judgment over other cultures. What remains is but the stale abstraction of human rights. In our transition from philosophy to science we have taken the descriptive and discarded the normative. Public policy, as Judt remarks, is discussed solely in terms of efficiency but not in the broader, vital context of which society it is that we want to live in. Today, we live with the ghost of fascist rhetoric always nearby, and it weighs heavily on us as we pour out bland intellectualized jargon.
When he criticizes Israel for using holocaust-shame to get away with questionable tactics, when he berates identity studies, when he chastises public intellectuals for their complicity to amoral behavior, Judt is not only arguing against a particular position in a debate: he is fighting a position which would quiet all debate. If he eulogizes morality, equality and justice it is not because he believes we have lost these instinctive ideals, but because we have become terrified of talking about them – because we have lost the words.
What I retrieve from Professor Judt, beyond the rapture of his essays and his stoic grapple with ALS, is this duty to revive the moral conversation. He is a reminder that fascists disguise themselves not only in 18th century ideals but also in the guilt of past crimes- we must beware them both. If we are not all endowed with Tony Judt’s gifts, we regardless share his task of recovering the meaning of these words, and, with them, his goal of discarding the partisan for the communal.