Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tony Judt: The Memory Chalet

Last month I read the massive, discursive, utterly fascinating Thinking the Twentieth Century, an extended conversation in which Timothy Silverman assists the tragically mute and paralyzed (Lou Gehrig's disease) historian-intellectual Tony Judt to reflect on the world which he is about to leave as it has been left in its turn by the dismal failings of the century in whose middle he'd been born.

I can't write about that book here: it's too big, too complex, too important — and not at had: I made the mistake of reading it in a library copy.

After recording those conversations, though, later transcribed and edited into the final version, Judt produced one more book, a memoir in a series of self-described feuilletons called The Memory Chalet (London: Penguin Books, 2010). The title refers to his method of composing these essays, which accumulate steadily in depth and importance: in his long wakeful nights he composed them, organizing their paragraphs and mentally stowing them at this site or that in a country hotel fondly remembered from his youth; then the following days retrieving them, one by one, and dictating them to an amanuensis.

The writing itself is always graceful, rather conversational, informal, yet elegantly contoured and distributed. (It reminds me of other work similarly made: for example, the paragraphs of Alberto Moravia's first novel Gli indifferenti, or — very different — the visions recalled and re-stated in Sam Francis's lyrical, light-filled paintings.)

But skillful, artistic as his expression is, it is Judt's substance, concepts, insights that make his work in these books so significant — imperative, I would say. His observation is detailed and retentive; his intellectual organization of the results is careful and logical; his conclusions, it seems to me, both inescapable and utterly persuasive.

His training was the result of a fortunate confluence of opportunity and ambition, tempered by a healthy amount of typical adolescent male curiosity and adventure; and much of The Memory Chalet is a dying man's retrospection on the luck that made his career. Central: the conviction that meritocracy and social democracy, which underlay his own development, represent the best possible organizing principles of contemporary society.

Literally central to his book: Meritocrats, a chapter describing his education at King's College, Cambridge, in the 1960s, where John Dunn
broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history, He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.
   That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum.
It is in discussions like this — listening and responding — across positions, even mutually exclusive ones formed by individual awarenesses based on conflicting allegiances, that enlightenment can occur. Such conversation is at the heart of social democracy, which can only obtain in a context subordinating partisan doctrine to greater collective good.

Before King’s College, Judt was a youth influenced by Marxism and Zionism; King’s cured him of those enthusiasms by introducing him to greater responsiveness to observed historical fact and keener analysis of the means by which specific political objectives might be achieved. He concentrated first on issues of French political history as it responded to Marxism, studying at the Ecole Normale. One thing and another led him to lectureships in the United States, at Davis and Berkeley among others. A “mid-life crisis” was met not with the purchase of a sports car or the acquisition of a trophy wife but with the determination to learn Czech, and he investigated the fascinating, sobering political and philosophical history of Eastern Europe later in his career, which ended in the pages of The New York Review of Books, among other publications, where he was by the early years of this century a public intellectual, avoiding partisan allegiances in order to take reasoned, pragmatic positions on the great issues of our time.

There are many ticks in the margins of my copy of The Memory Chalet. Let me simply quote out a few of the passages:

• On education:
Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy. (page 145)
• On words:
The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication.” (p. 152)
• On America:
For Milosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the East European in the face of Western innocence. (p. 180)
• On “Captive Minds”:
Milosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for “a feeling of belonging.” (p. 175) “Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.” (p. 176)
• On failure of western intellectuals to dissent from, e.g., Bush’s “hysterical drive to war just a few years ago”:
Few of them would have admitted to admiring the President, much less sharing his worldview. So they typically aligned themselves behind him while doubtless maintaining private reservations. Later, when it was clear they had made a mistake, they blamed it upon the administration’s incompetence …they proudly assert, in effect, “we were right to be wrong”… (p. 178) … “Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1930-1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease “the markets.” But “the market”—like “dialectical materialism”—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). (p. 179)
• On identity politics:
Substituting gender (or “race” or “ethnicity” or “me”) for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a projection of self onto the world at large. (p. 189)
Judt sadly shakes his head at the increased attraction of abstraction, the diminished concern for pragmatics, among journalists, academics, politicians, and the public at large. Unthinkable things happened throughout the Twentieth Century because of that confusion of social values. For a few years after the end of World War II, chiefly in western Europe, it looked as if a meritocracy of social technocrats might prevail, but the end of Communism, in 1989, gave way not to Social Democracy but the return of “free-market Capitalism.” Judt died, of ALS, very soon after completing The Memory Chalet; it stands as a fond, generous, often funny appreciations of the good events of his life and mind, but also an elegy on the premature relinquishment of the power to further such events. Ut tempora, ita homo.

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