Tony Judt died on August 6. He had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in September of 2008. Over the years he had been both guest and guest host on the Charlie Rose show. Rose interviewed Judt just eight days before he died. As you can see from the video, Rose was visibly moved as he introduced the interview – Judt’s last, as it turned out.
Death is a huge uncertainty in anyone’s life. A friend once told me of a woman with leukemia who said “At least now I know what I’m going to die from.” For some, this knowledge brings relief.
What I find fascinating about the shared experiences of those with a limited time to live is the uniqueness of each response. What I find valuable is the opportunity to contemplate my own life and death.
Here is Judt’s answer to a question on his thoughts on dying and any insights into living.
I’m better on living than I am on dying because, until you die, you know nothing about it, but by then it’s too late. But I can tell you a little bit about the peculiarity of knowing you’re going to die and knowing when – roughly speaking.
Most of us, most of the time, have absolutely no idea where we’ll be in five years – you, me, anyone — anything could happen to a normal person. But we’re pretty clear where we’ll be next month: doing the same thing we’re doing this month.
My situation is exactly the reverse. I have no idea where I’ll be next month. I could be silent. I could be dead. I could be exactly like this. I could be in a variety of stages. But I know, absolutely with certainty – within reason – that I’ll be dead in five years. And that reversal of consciousness means that I am very focused upon life in the next two weeks.
And that, for me, is rather like when you’re in school. There’s an exam coming up, but you don’t want to think about it. You know perfectly well it’s going to happen. There’s nothing you can do to avoid it. Therefore it’s not a very interesting subject. It’s one best left aside.
Life after death
I have thought a lot about life after death. Now, this sounds strange because I’ve never believed in God. I grew up in a sort of world of declining religion. My parents were secular Jews. I went to Anglican schools, but most of the kids never went to church and so on. My sense of God was always very abstract. That hasn’t changed.
I have no idea whether there is a life after death for me, but I am absolutely sure that there is a life after death for the me living in this world. It will continue in the memory of people. The things I did. The things I failed to do and so on. In that sense, I am morally responsible for behaving now in ways that give my life after death some meaning or use value beyond simple memory. …
But as for living, I guess my view on that is that I’m now very clear that living can be reduced to the business of communication. I can’t move. I can’t travel. I can’t act in any autonomous way. But I can communicate with people, and they can communicate with me. As long as that is a possibility, one is alive. One has relationships which define one’s place in the world. And so, when I will be unable to communicate, when I cease to be able to talk, I think that’s when I’ll be ready to die. Because at that point life — in a quite literal sense — will not be worth living.
In the next-to-last essay Judt published in The New York Review – called “Words” – Judt wrote of his declining ability 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.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Judt describes his experience of the onset on ALS. He was diagnosed in September of 2008, almost two years before his death.
One of the odd characteristics of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, is that it begins so slowly that it’s almost unremarked. Your left finger — your left index finger – presses the wrong keys on the keyboard. Or you find that turning a corkscrew is a litter harder than it used to be. Then progressively you notice that walking uphill is a bit more tiring than you thought. Then you go telling yourself, well, I can’t be 45 forever. I’m 60. These things happen.
But then it gets more and more. You go to your doctor. He looks very worried and says “You’d best see a neurologist.” And you see a neurologist who tells you that the good news is that you don’t have multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, but that you may have ALS.
You go home, and you look it up. Like most people, I knew about Lou Gehrig, but very little else. It turns out that ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – is a disease about which almost nothing is known. It was identified by a French neurologist, Charcot, about 135 years ago, and ever since then all we’ve done is learn more about how it works, but very little about what to do about it.
This next comment is something Judt has said repeatedly in interviews and in his writing since being diagnosed.
I think I was very fortunate. If you are someone who works with your hands – a painter, a plumber, a bus driver – there is nothing you can do but to retire, to sit at home – or in a home – and you’d do nothing. Because I’m a writer — and a teacher — I was able to continue for two years after the initial diagnosis. And that, actually, is what kept me going – the fact that I could continue. I could dictate. I could think. I could – so to speak – write. Therefore, I could even teach for a while. That’s what kept me going.
I am saddened by the death of Tony Judt
Tony Judt — continued
A generation obsessed with material wealth
Tony Judt and the Move for ALS bike ride
Tony Judt: On the edge of a terrifying world
This mess we’re in – Part 3
Image source: Charlie Rose
Tony Judy, Charlie Rose, August 23, 2010