I feel as if I’ve been on a death watch for Tony Judt all year. In his January essay, “Night,” in The New York Review of Books, he discussed his 2008 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis—imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind’s response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).
Judt’s brilliant mind remained undiminished by the disease. He dictated a series of essays – autobiographical reminiscences with contemporary insights. They appeared in each new issue of the NYRB.
In the July 15th issue, in an essay called “Words,” he mentioned that it had become difficult for him to speak.
In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.
I was relieved to see his essay, “Meritocrats,” in the August 19th issue.
That was his last essay, however. Tony Judt died on Friday, August 6.
I greatly admired the workings of his mind and the independence of his spirit. All that remains is to celebrate his life and work.
Somewhat ironically, the day after Judt’s death, the Irish Independent published an article on his life and his experience of ALS. The story includes comments Judt recently made to BBC Radio 4:
I’ve been told, for example, that I’m supposed to consume 3,000 calories a day even though I don’t have a single moving muscle below my neck, because the sheer effort of talking alone consumes as much as a professional runner when you have a body in this condition.
So your choice is to lie very bored, very vegetative, for a very long time, or else to say “sod it, I intend to do something. Well, what’ll I do?”
If I’d been a plumber, it would be catastrophic. But the thing I have done well all my life is read, write, talk, think, teach, disagree, explain and so on, and I can still do those things.
So I’ve made a quite conscious decision, that I would do those things as long as I could, even if they shortened my life by tiring me out, which they may do. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but they may do.
And since that decision, I’ve written the equivalent of two and a half books, given a public lecture, taught graduate courses, I’ve dictated probably thousands of emails. And I feel good. So it works.
Remembering Tony Judt
The New York Review of Books has a complete list of Judt’s essays, dating back to 1990. (Some require a subscription.)
Having wounded the earth, we watch as she bleeds out
Tony Judt and the Move for ALS bike ride
A generation obsessed with material wealth
Tony Judt: On the edge of a terrifying world
This mess we’re in – Part 3
Image source: The Guardian
Tony Judt, Night, The New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010
Tony Judt, Words, The New York Review of Books, July 15, 2010
Tony Judt, Meritocrats, The New York Review of Books, August 19, 2010