I have every intention of filling the vast empty spaces of my brain with useful stuff, like practical recipes and plant names. And pre-19th century music. And history. Esp history. But there is something about History as a subject that prompts the term ‘eye-glazing.’ Blame the teachers, of course.

(As a writer remarked, she avoided talking about her work by answering questions about her job with: ‘I’m a lecturer in Australian History.’ And watch the questioner politely slip away.)

And not to know history is just asking to be taken for a patsy. So it was with delight and gratitude that I came across Tony Judt’s book, Reappraisals. Judt is a historian who has been variously described as Magnificent, Magisterial, Marvelous, Melbourne. He wrote the magisterial and magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which had the most fantastic reviews (shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2005); I gave it a Christmas present, but never read it myself: it had an intimidatingly thick spine.

Reappraisals has the great benefit of being a compilation of his essays (for the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Ha’aretz etc) so each chapter is self-contained and an appetising portion of only 15-20ish pages. But it was the menu that had me salivating.

Check out these contents (I’m just typing out the chapters that grabbed my attention):

Ch 1: Arthur Koestler, the Exemplary Intellectual

Ch 2: The Elementary Truths of Primo Levi

Ch 4: Hannah Arendt and Evil

Ch 5: Albert Camus: “The best man in France”

Ch 7: Eric Hobsbawm and the Romance of Communism

Ch 9: A “Pope of Ideas”? John Paul II and the Modern World

Ch 10: Edward Said: The Restless Cosmoplitan

Ch 13: The Gnome in the Garden: Tony Blair and Britain’s “Heritage”

Ch 16: Dark Victory: Israel’s Six-Day War

Ch 17: The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up (Have a guess*)

Ch 19: The Crisis: Kennedy, Kruschev, and Cuba

Ch 20: The Illusionist: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy

Ch 21: Whose Story Is It? The Cold War in Retrospect

Ch 22: The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of LIberal America

Ch 23: The Good Society: Europe vs America

Anyway, I’ve started reading and it’s most edifying, and sort of thrilling, to feel that you’re attending a lecture, as it were, by one of the great historian-writers of our time. It’s history told as stories. In episodes, with stars and villains (Camus, Said, Pope John Paul II, Lissinger, Cuba) – making it a perfect bedtime book too.

(*No, not that one, it’s Israel.)


judtvideoThe wheelchair and Kafka’s cockroach:

Then there is Tony Judt himself. (The other famous intellectual in a wheelchair, iconically so, is Stephen Hawking.) Judt was diagnosed with ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease – in 2008; sufferers gradually lose control of their bodies, but retain complete brain function. One can only imagine the kind of trap that is. Judt is 62; he is paralysed from the neck down. He uses a respirator, what he calls his “facial tupperware.”

He gave a remarkable interview with Terry Gross of NPR just yesterday (29 March 2010) talking about his disease and his vision of history. It’s hair-raising to hear his wheezy, reedy, aspirated voice giving perfectly articulate answers.

You can see a short video, download or listen online to the interview, read highlights of same, and read the intrduction to his new book, Ill Fares the Land, on the NPR website story page here.

As it happens, Judt did imagine what kind of a trap something like ALS might be – as a teenager he had read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, that founding fable of modern writing, of how Gregor Samsa woke one morning “to find himself transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”

In the NPR interview at the 30:10 min mark Judt says: “But I do recall, and it’s kind of an eerie thought  … thinking for many years as a child, teenager, what would it be like to wake up in bed as a cockcroach, what would your parents say, what would your wife say – would they run away, would they pretend it wasn’t happening?

And between that and a sense I always had that Lou Gehrig’s disease was something terrible I ought to know more about – because I’m interested in baseball (Gehrig was a famous baseballplayer) … I had a kind of, not premonition, but a sense of of all the diseases I might end up with this would be the worst because it would be a challenge to my relationships with the outside world … dealing with people in a wheelchair when you’re a quadriplegic …”

Terry Gross: “You mean that before you had ALS you wondered what it would be like to have it?”

Judt: “Yes, I used to …”

Gross, interrupting, incredulous: “Why would you be wondering that?”

Judt: “I don’t know Terry, I wish I could tell you. I think because it probably appealed – if that’s the right word – directly to my sense of horror: claustrophobia, immobility, loss of capacity …”

Read his essay about ALS, at The New York Review of Books: Night.

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