The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt
Tony Judt, a British Jew educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, was a renowned scholar, historian, teacher, and intellectual. And he wrote this lucid memoir while dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He had to dictate much of the book, and the early descriptions of being a prisoner in his own body were straightforward and chilling:
“The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect on the past, present and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words. First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences, except at the cost of such logistical complexity that the mere fact of mobility becomes the object of attention rather than the benefits that mobility itself can confer.
“Next you begin to lose your voice…By this point you are almost certainly quadriplegic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility, whether or not in the presence of others.
“For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge.” He then describes what is gone from his life, but without self pity. To cope, he focused on a life of the mind, recalling and writing stories in his head. He wrote, “Doubtless I was seeking oblivion, replacing galumphing sheep with narrative complexity to comparable effect.”
In the essay Night, he is “prepared” for bed: “…and there I lie, trussed, myopic and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.” Later he says, “I suppose I should at least be mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most people only read about…But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving…My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.”
In Part One, he moves into his specialties—commentary on culture and politics. In the essay on Austerity, he says, “The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.”
Writing about British food, he says, “Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it.” He writes about his home town, Putney, Citroens, the Green Line Bus, the Lord Warden ferry; and in the essay, Mimetic Desire, he writes with affection about trains: “As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained about people, my family in particular. Solitude was bliss, but not easily obtained. Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled, something amiss. Becoming, on the hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.”
Part Two begins with an essay about a tough teacher, Joe Craddock, a man who “put the fear of God” in him; but he has affection for him because was the best teacher he ever had. He ends the commentary on Joe with,”…being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school.”
As a youth, his experiences as a Zionist, and then living in an Israeli Kibbutz was revealing for the leftist Judt. He says, “Before even turning twenty, I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” He was thus “immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left” and remained “suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all.”
The essay on bedders (maids for the lads in school) was culturally educational (for me) and I found his criticisms of French intellectualism a learning experience as well. In Revolutionaries, he writes of the 60s and real work going on behind the Iron Curtain. He ends the essay with a clear recognition of naivety: “In our own eyes at least, we were the revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.”
In Meritocrats, he complains about the dumbing down of education in the name of equality, he sounds almost conservative: “Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state a system of enforced downward uniformity.”
He concludes his essay on Words with, “No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic, not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”
In Part Tree, he shares his impressions of traveling in the U.S., briefly mentions divorcing his first two wives, describes his efforts to learn Czech and that it led him to Czechoslovakia and Czeslaw Milosz. He writes with some disdain of the new feminism, sexual harassment (or race, ethnicity, class) taking center stage, and says, “Why should everything be about ‘me’? Are my fixations of significance tot eh Republic?…What on earth does it mean to say that ‘the personal is political?’” And he quotes Gertrude Stein: “Not everything can be about everything.” And then: “We—the left, academics, teachers—have abandoned politics to those for whom actual power is far more interesting than its metaphorical implications. Political correctness, gender politics, and above all hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments (as though there were a right not to be offended): this will be our legacy.”
And later on he writes more on the dangers of identity politics, the uneasiness of labels, and that it was all alien to him: “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.”
His last chapter is about the Swiss chalet where his family spent time during his youth, in the village of Mürren. It was for him, “the happiest place in the world.”
Judt wrote that America’s three strongest assets were Thomas Jefferson, Chuck Berry and the New York Review of Books. Therefore, I’ll close with this comment from Timothy Garton Ash, who reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books: “There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of polemical intellectuals. There are those for whom the taking of controversial positions is primarily a matter of personal peacock display, factional or clique positioning, hidden agendas, score-settling, or serial, knee-jerk revisionism. Then there are those who, while not without personal motivations and biases, are fundamentally concerned with seeking the truth. Tony Judt was of the latter kind.”
Tony Judt died in August 2010 at age 62.