Friday, May 21, 2010

Tony Judt: The liveliest mind in New York

"We need to rediscover a language of dissent. It can’t be an economic language since part of the problem is that we have for too long spoken about politics in an economic language where everything has been about growth, efficiency, productivity and wealth, and not enough has been about collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour. We have thrown away the language with which to do that. And until we rediscover that language how could we possibly bind ourselves together? ..... We need to rediscover our own language of politics.
Tony Judt, London Review of Books
Tony Judt has long been a historian, writer, thinker and public intellectual I greatly admire. His essays in the New York Review of Books are always erudite, well argued , beautifully written and politically engaged. His book of essays Reappraisals:Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century is one of the finest collections of essays I have read (A fine review of the book by English philosopher John Gray can be read here).

His 900 page history of Europe Post War: A History of Europe since 1945 is a work of epic proportions and acknowledged as one of the great works on European history.

Judt has been living for 2 years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) a terrible disease that has left him a quadriplegic. He describes himself as "just a bunch of dead muscles thinking". His intellectual and written output since then is remarkable. He dictates deeply moving and beautifully written essays for the New York Review of Books, including essays like Night where he describe his illness, as well as profound essays for other publications such as the London Review of Books.

There is a long piece about Judt , his illness and his writing in the New York Magazine where he is quoted as saying:
"The meaning of our life is only incorporated in the way other people feel about us. Once I die, my life will acquire meaning in the way they see whatever it is I did, for them, for the world, the people I’ve known. I have no control of that. All I can do is do the best, now".
Tony Judt's new book Ill Fares the Land has recently been published in Australia. The book is a lament for a lost vision of a better society and an impassioned plea to reclaim values, ideas and public policy that is socially democratic and politically progressive.

In the Weekend Australian Review magazine (May 15 2010) Richard King (a Perth based critic and writer) has written an intelligent review of Ill Fares the Land. Although I appreciate King's review I think he has missed the power of Judt's critique of contemporary political , economic and corporate systems and his assault on the ideology of "free market" fundamentalism.

Other reviews, with quite different views of the book, can be read here and here.

If you read only one non fiction book this year read this one.

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