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Tony Judt's warning

March 23, 2010 | 12:24 pm

TonyjudtHistorian Tony Judt is, Tim Rutten writes, "a scholar of remarkable breadth and erudition and one of the West's foremost and most outspoken public intellectuals. That alone would be enough to make his new book, "Ill Fares the Land," something that merits attention.

That Judt composed the book while suffering from the pain and paralysis of ALS makes it particularly remarkable. Diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gehrig's Disease -- at around age 60, Judt, a professor at NYU, has continued writing as the disease progressed. He breathes with the aid of a machine, and, apart from some marginal movement, is, he wrote in a January essay for the New York Review of Books, "effectively quadriplegic." Yet:

...this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory --already quite good -- has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the "memory palace" so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably -- as it now appears to me -- by those not exclusively dependent upon them.

"Ill Fares the Land" combines Judt's personal essays such as this with his historian's eye for analysis. Grounding his argument in a reading of Austrian economists and their (mis)interpretation, he cautions: 

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.... The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor.

Rutten finds the book, "a deeply learned, deeply humane heart's cry for the rediscovery of the language and values" that would enable, at Judt's urging, a new discussion of justice and equality.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Archive photo of Tony Judt. Credit: Penguin Press.