public intellectual number one

March 31, 2010

One of my favorite public intellectuals, Tony Judt, is writing his memoirs via a series of essays in the New York Review of Books. At least a handful of them are available to the public and I can’t recommend them enough.

Although Tony hasn’t said it, I think there’s some real urgency on his part to get his story written down, because his health has deteriorated so severely in the last year and a half, since he was diagnosed with ALS. More than several weeks ago I linked to the first essay I read, Night; it’s an eloquent, brave and very powerful account of his experience with the disease – much of which got referenced in this recent interview with Terri Gross. He said this thing while talking with Terri, that I’ve been thinking about for the last day.  Terri asked Tony if people were expecting him to write about the life lessons he’s learned from ALS and he responded:

Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, I think my answer to that question is this: It’s a bit like, if you’ll allow me the analogy, which is a bit of a stretch, it’s a bit like what Primo Levi wrote about his experience of Auschwitz, which is to say that however terrible it was, that whatever he did to survive it, he doesn’t believe there’s any larger lesson or moral story to be learned from it. Because when you are hit by something as bad as a concentration camp, you survive, and there’s no lesson to be taught about surviving except how to do it.

In my case, I survive quite comfortably at one level because this is one of the worst diseases you can imagine, but it has no pain. So you have a lot of time in your untroubled head to think out of body, so to speak, about the reasons why the body doesn’t work, the implications of being immobile for hours on end.

I think the only life experience that I have to offer out of this is something we all know in the abstract but don’t experience in practice very much. That is that you can survive an awful lot of bad stuff, so long as your mind is intact. I’m afraid that’s the only life experience I have to offer.

I’m not sure what to add  except I’m grateful for how honest and direct a response he gave. Tony wasn’t dangling out some silver lining. He didn’t recount a list of the “20 things I learned from ALS before it killed me.” I keep thinking how much we struggle to deal what he said, the thing we know in the abstract, but don’t get a lot of practice with, which is surviving some really bad stuff.

Seriously, check out the interview of read the Night essay or both.


2 responses to “public intellectual number one”

  1. ned says:

    thanks for the tip, buddy. when he says “there’s no lesson to be taught about surviving except how to do it” it makes me think that people teach without realizing or intending it all the time. he gives a humble answer, and that’s cool, but even that humility teaches a lesson, i think.

  2. liz says:

    completely agree with you, ned, re: his teaching about humility. if you listen to the whole article there’s a lot there to learn. there’s probably some distinction there in the interview in the nomenclature between life lessons, as in chicken soup for the soul, and teaching. something i’m sure you already figured it out.

    i’m interested in tony’s seminal work – the europe postwar history book. from all accounts, it’s supposed to be a great piece of work.

    on another note i was just thinking about you and how one of the highlights for me in 2009 was celebrating your wedding. it was a weekend to treasure.

leave a reply