Fresh Air Remembers Historian Tony Judt The historian and author died Friday from complications of Lou Gehrig's disease. Judt discussed his diagnosis on Fresh Air in March 2010, explaining what he'd learned living with ALS -- and how he hoped his family would remember him.
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Fresh Air Remembers Historian Tony Judt

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Fresh Air Remembers Historian Tony Judt

Fresh Air Remembers Historian Tony Judt

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

We were saddened to hear about the death of historian and essayist Tony Judt. It was only five months ago that Judt appeared on FRESH AIR to talk about his struggle with the neural muscular disease ALS.

Tony Judt died on Friday at the age of 62. He led a distinguished career as an academic historian. His 2005 book, "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reviewer Alan Ryan said it had the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.

Judt was born in East London in 1948 and grew up in a secular Jewish home. As a young man he spent time in Israel and became a passionate Zionist. But he later changed his views about Zionism and wrote essays sharply criticizing the state of Israel and American foreign policy. In the last months of his life, Judt wrote personal essays about his illness and his memories. He described ALS as progressive imprisonment without parole. First, he wrote, you lose the use of a digit or two, then one limb, then almost inevitably all four.

When Terry spoke to him in March, he was effectively quadriplegic. His voice needed an amplifier and he was attached to a pump that assisted his breathing, because, he explained, his diaphragm was no longer strong enough to handle the task alone. He spoke to Terry from his home in Manhattan.

TERRY GROSS: Tony Judt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for doing this. I know it takes a lot of effort for you to do an interview now, and I appreciate you making the effort to talk with us.

Mr. TONY JUDT (Historian): Thank you for inviting me on the program.

GROSS: I really like what you've been writing about having ALS, and it's like you're functioning as a reporter, telling us what you're experiencing and what you're thinking. One thing you haven't been doing is offering life lessons. Are people expecting life lessons from you?

Mr. JUDT: 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 why, 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.

GROSS: Well, your mind is intact, and you have such a sharp, agile mind. Is it sometimes dangerous to turn your mind onto the subject of your body because your body is so fragile and nonfunctional now?

Mr. JUDT: I think it would be if I were a very depressed sort of personality type. But what it does to me is make me angry, angry not at anyone, of course, but just at fate. As long as I'm angry, I'm productive because I look at the body with some sense of detachment and say you've let me down. I can't do this. I can't do that.

Then in time, what can I do? I think, well, I can still boss people around. I can still write, admittedly with the help of an assistant, can still read. I can still eat, and I can still have very strong views. But what it does do is mean that you mustn't, mustn't, mustn't - and I would give the same advice to anyone in any remotely similar disease - you mustn't focus on what you can't do.

If you sit around and think, I wish I could walk, then you'll just be miserable. But if you sit and turn around and think, what's the next piece I'm going to write, then you may not be happy, but you certainly won't wallow in misery. And so it's an active choice every day to renew my interest in something that my head can do, so I don't think about the body.

GROSS: Your wife is a dance critic.

Mr. JUDT: That's right.

GROSS: So her life is about watching perfectly tuned, strong, flexible bodies moving in ways that most normal human beings couldn't possibly conceive of moving. So can you enjoy watching dance now?

Mr. JUDT: Well, I can enjoy watching my wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDT: But I imagine that the answer is yes by extension. I remember when we got married, we got married in 1993, and many of the guests were ballet dancers, because of course Jennifer knew many, and I remember thinking, you know, we can't dance in this wedding, I'll look like an idiot. I mean, it's just full of people who are world-famous ballet dancers.

And so I was hesitant to dance. Then someone said, look, it's because you're just clunky Tony and they are professional ballet dancers, so it doesn't matter. No one's going to laugh at you for not being them. Everyone's going to look at them and say, boy, they're gorgeous. They won't even notice you.

And in a way, that's how it is now. I can't be physical in the way that my wife is physical and indeed my kids are physical or most of my wife's friends are physical, but I so much can't be it that it doesn't hurt.

GROSS: You know, many people, when afflicted with a disabling disease, turn away from God. You were brought up in a secular Jewish home.

Mr. JUDT: That's right.

GROSS: And you remained secular. So has being sick changed any of your personal views about religion?

Mr. JUDT: No, but the no is very straightforward. I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in a single or indeed multiple godhead. I respect people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big but which enters in here.

I am much more conscious than I ever was, for obvious reasons, of what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything to me. But it will mean a lot to them. And it's important for them, by which I mean my children or my wife or very close friends, that some spirit of me is in a positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginings and so on.

So in one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife as a place where I still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life, except that I can only exercise them before I get there. Once I'm there, it'll be too late. So no god, no organized religion, but a developing sense that there's something bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and that we have responsibilities in that world.

GROSS: Are you talking about memory here, acting in a responsible way so that memories your loved one have of you will be good ones?

Mr. JUDT: Well, that's - I'm certainly talking about that. That is absolutely true. But I think it's something slightly different. The risk with something like ALS, where you sit on a wheelchair all day, where you're looked after by professional nurses because it's way beyond anything your family could do, where you live in one space, your back room, while other members of the family live their normal lives, and you encourage them to - the risk is not that you do mean or bad things. It's that they lose a sense of your presence, that you stop being omnipresent in their lives. And of course to the extent that you are present, you are surrounded by nurses, equipment, a sort of smell of a hospital, so to speak.

So it seems to be my responsibility, particularly to my children, also to my wife and friends, is not to be Pollyanna and pretend everything's okay - no one would take me seriously if I said that - but it's to be as present in their lives now as I can be so that in years to come they don't feel either guilty or bad at my having been left out of their lives, that they feel still a very strong - not a memory of particular actions but a memory of a complete family rather than a broken one. That seems to be something I can do or try to do.

DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in March.

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with historian Tony Judt, recorded in March. Judt died Friday from complications of ALS. When they spoke, Judt's voice needed an amplifier and he was connected to an apparatus to assist his breathing.

GROSS: Now, you've written extensively over the years about European history. You've written about the European left. Now that your body is immobile, and your physical world has shrunk, does history matter to you as much?

Mr. JUDT: Yes, I think it does. I know that sounds funny, but it really does. I believe the reason is this - that all I ever wanted to do in life, professionally, occupationally, was teach history and read and write it.

You know, there are times I've thought: My God, you're a dull man, Judt. You know, since the age of 13 you've wanted the same thing, and now you're 62 and you still want it. But the upside of that is that I get as angry at bad history writing, or the abuse of history for political purposes, as I ever did.

I think, however, probably, that I am more also - not instead of but also focused on where we go now than I was 10 years ago. You know, 10 years ago, or whenever it was, I might be criticizing Clinton or Bush or Blair for some ridiculous policy, but it was very much in the sort of, the sense of that I'm doing what I can do, which is to write about politics in the public space.

But I think now I'm more worried about the future. The past is always going to be a mess. It's going to be a mess because it was a mess and because people are going to abuse it, get it wrong and so on. But I'm reasonably confident that with each generation of historians, we keep fighting hard to get it right again. But we could get the future very seriously wrong, and there it's much harder to get it right.

GROSS: Is that why your new book, "Ill Fares the Land," is, in a way, a letter to young people about applying the past to the future?

Mr. JUDT: Well, it's absolutely, deliberately a letter to young people, though it's not written down at all. And I would hope that a young person, aged 16, would want to read it. But it's about not forgetting the past, about having the courage to look at the present and see its faults without walking away in disgust or skepticism.

It's about believing, I think, really, I've been teaching for forty years now -I'm encountering the first generation of young people in colleges and schools who really do not believe in the future, who don't think not just that things will get evidently and permanently better but who feel that something has gone very badly wrong that they can't quite put their finger on, but that is going to spoil the world that they're growing up into.

Whether it's climate change or political cynicism or overreaction or lack of reaction to external challenges, whether it's terrorism or poverty, the sense that it's all got out of control, that they, the politicians and so on, media people, are neither doing anything nor telling us the truth, that sense seems to have pervaded the younger generation in ways that were not true in my experience.

Maybe the last time that might have been true was in the 1920s, where you had the combination of shock and anger from World War I, the beginnings of economic depression and a terrifying realization that there might very well be a World War II. I don't think we're on the edge of World War III or IV. But I do think that we are on the edge of a terrifying world. That's why I wrote the book.

GROSS: You compare that in your book to the attitude of young people in the '60s. You compare this sense of helplessness that you think a lot of young people have today to the '60s. And you say back in the era of self-assured, radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the '60s was that of overweening confidence. We knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed.

Do you feel that you shared in that sense of confidence and arrogance?

Mr. JUDT: Oh, absolutely. I don't think I would have felt comfortable writing that if I had been either born earlier or later because it would have sounded smug and a bit sanctimonious, an outsider, you know, dumping on the '60s and so on.

But in practice, that's my generation. I grew up with the idea that you only had to worry about ideas and change because things like jobs, things like physical security, could all be taken for granted. And that's, I think, a common Western position in those years, so that we had the luxury of sitting in comfortable colleges or with parents who would support us if the time came to it, looking at the world and saying it's terrible, it's terrible, we must change everything and we know how.

There was the residue of Marxism, which was still very much alive, kicking in the '60s, but in the worst possible sense in that Marxists were now young people, with the exception of a few old people, who thought that well, the West was a lost cause, liberalism was a fraud, the proletariat had disappeared. So let's focus on blacks or colonial, minority victims or someone outside ourselves. So we never looked hard at ourselves to ask what was wrong with our own society.

GROSS: So was there a particular dogma or philosophy that you felt you became, that you feel now in retrospect that you were overzealous and overconfident about?

Mr. JUDT: Well, in my case, there were two. I think most of my contemporaries were bound up, to a greater or lesser extent, with what they thought of as Marxism, the revolutionary critique of capitalism, changing the world in China or Cambodia or Africa or wherever it might be. I shared some of that coming out of an East European, self-taught, Jewish-Marxist background - both of my parents left school at 13, my grandfathers as well. But my particular form of ideological overinvestment came with Israel. I went to live on a kibbutz, and I'd idealized the world of collective agrarian work, where everyone was equal, everyone contributed, that all this awful European intellectual stuff just fell away.

And I didn't realize at the time that I was completely blinded by this. I didn't see an Arab, didn't speak to one even though I lived in Israel, right next-door to them. I believed profoundly in Zionism in the way that my contemporaries believed profoundly in Maoism or Castroism or whatever. It took a while for me to break clear of that.

GROSS: You decided in the past few years you think that Israel should actually be one state with the Palestinian territories and that in one state, everybody should have an equal vote, which really outraged a lot of your readers...

Mr. JUDT: Right.

GROSS: ...because it would mean Israel would cease to be a Jewish state and the majority voting population would be Palestinian. So what was it like for you to alienate so many of your readers - to outrage so many of your readers?

Mr. JUDT: Well, I mean my wife, who is not Jewish, was amazed. She said that why can't people see how reasonable your essay was? I said look, what I did was break outside of a very big circle - the circle of Jews who believe in Israel -and speaking as a Jew, stood outside it and said the emperor has no clothes. And that is not calculated to please people. But I would say, by the way, that although I made a lot of enemies, some of whom probably still see themselves as my enemy, they were nearly all in the United States.

My essay was republished all over the world, the essay on what was called "The Alternative to the Present Situation." In Israel, it aroused a lot of critical commentary but also a lot of approving commentary.

GROSS: Being sick now, how has your taste for being controversial been affected? I mean it's nice when you're sick to be, you know, admired and comforted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDT: Right. Well, of course, you know, I still get admired and comforted by people either who never read The New York Review or else who don't see anything wrong with what I wrote. But you're absolutely right, people don't stop being angry with you if you say things that provoke them just because you're in a wheelchair. I think most of them don't know I am.

But I would like to backtrack, Terry, and say that I don't think I'm a controversialist. In fact, as I was thinking about this when someone asked me, I've only ever published four little essays in a lifetime of book writing and lecturing and teaching, just four little essays which touched controversially on painful bits of other people's anatomies, so to speak. Two of them were about Israel. One of them in 1979 was a critique of the silliness of modern history writings. That nearly lost me tenure at Berkeley. It certainly made me a few enemies there too.

But apart from that and the essays on Israel, I have written thousands of pages of depressingly uncontroversial, boring history books, or written about foreign policy or other stuff. I think if I'm controversial it's not because I set out to be. It's because I've never felt comfortable being part of someone else's mainstream community.

I'm not in the middle of the left, even though I'm on the left. I'm certainly not part of a Jewish world, even though I've never been ashamed of being Jewish. I'm actually rather proud of it. I've never been English, even though I grew up there. So I always feel myself a little bit marginal. And the margin area that I'm on isn't affected by the illness. I would like everyone to love me - who wouldn't? But you don't want to be loved for the wrong things.

DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross recorded in March. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with historian Tony Judt recorded in March. Judt died Friday from complications of ALS. When they spoke, Judt's voice needed an amplifier and he was connected to an apparatus to assist his breathing.

GROSS: We've talked a little bit about what you find most productive and what takes your mind off of your physical inability now. What gives you pleasure?

Mr. JUDT: Well, how risque and personal would you let me be?

GROSS: Give me a shot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDT: Okay. All right. The thing about ALS is that there are only two things left beyond your head which still work. One is the reproductive apparatus, then the other is the excretory apparatus, to be very blunt, then you keep those until you die. So you still get pleasure from sex. And you can still get pleasure from anything you can see, anything you can say, and although this may not last much longer, anything you can eat. So it's sometimes I think, well, listen, all the good things in life are still with me: sex, food, videotapes. I've got it all. What's the problem? The only thing that I miss that I can't reproduce is travel.

I can pretty much do anything else but I can't travel very easily. And I miss that terribly because I was a person who moved all the time, whose history writing was based on what I saw in strange exotic places rather than just reading books. So I miss that. But all the other pleasures, to a greater or lesser extent, are still open to me.

GROSS: You know, you had referred to this earlier, but you wrote: I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And you're talking here about your ability to cope with the ALS.

Mr. JUDT: That's correct. Yeah.

GROSS: And your entrapment in your immobile body. Had you always asked yourself if you had that survival mechanism?

Mr. JUDT: No, I don't think I did. I think I knew in myself that I could do, as an exercise in willpower, anything that I wanted. But it would be about willpower rather than survival techniques or special skills, both of which I have. But I do recall, and it's kind of an eerie thought, that when I first read Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," thinking for many years as a child, teenager, what would it be like to wake up in your bed as a cockroach?

What would your parents say? What would your wife say? Would they run away? Would they pretend it wasn't happening? How would you handle it? And between that and a sense I always had that Lou Gehrig's disease was something terrible I ought to know more about because, of course, I'm interested in baseball and my kids are, I had a kind of - not premonition but a sense that of all the diseases that I might end up with, this would be the worst. Because it would be a challenge to my relationships with the outside world - could live in my head, that's easy, but dealing with people when you're in a wheelchair and a quadriplegic it's very hard, because you spend your time putting them at ease, rather than they spending their time putting you at ease.

And so I think the answer to your question is that I had no conception of what was about to hit me. I wasn't prepared for it. It's a new stage in life. You wouldn't ask for it but you've got to face it and do something.

GROSS: Tony Judt, I really want to thank you so much for talking with us. I appreciate it greatly.

Mr. JUDT: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: And I wish you the best. Thank you very much.

Mr. JUDT: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Historian Tony Judt speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in March. Judt died Friday of complications from ALS. He was 62.

You can hear the entire interview and see video of Judt talking about living with his illness at our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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