Lisa Maguire Fiction

Tony Judt

Posted on | May 6, 2012 | No Comments

I am reading Thinking the Twentieth Century, by my old teacher, Tony Judt. There will be no more books from Tony, who died in 2010 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking was dictated to Tim Snyder and takes the form of conversations between them, so you can really hear his voice on the page. But in conversation Tony sounded much the way he does in print: Complex ideas were taken apart and examined with elegance and precision. I have met few people who come close to Tony’s laser-like brilliance.

I was one of Tony’s students and graduate assistants at NYU in the early 1990s, when he was still relatively unknown but highly regarded. This was before he became a public intellectual, writing for the New York Review of Books, getting in the news for his controversial views on Israel, or guest hosting for Charlie Rose (!). When I arrived at NYU, Tony was my de facto advisor because I was studying modern France. Tony’s interests had by this time strayed far from France–he had become fascinated by Eastern Europe, and had just started research on a general history of Europe that became Postwar.

None of the eulogies really got across that Tony was a rough guy. He attacked colleagues when he believed they were wrong, and attacks in the name of intellectual integrity was (I think) an acceptable channel for a lot of innate aggression. But the ruffian inside him gave him guts to withstand his harshest critics. And I am sure it was also the grit he showed at the end of his life as he continued to write and lecture although he suffered from ALS.

As brutal as he could be to others, he was kind and encouraging to his students.  He taught a course on twentieth century France at NYU’s Maison Française. Most of the master’s candidates at the Maison had no background in history and many were not in a humanities graduate program, but working toward some sort of professional degree.  The level of discourse in the class must have tested his patience, but he never showed it. One classmate belonged to a Young Trotskyst group and mentioned Marx every time she raised her hand. We rolled our eyes, but even though Tony had broken with Marxism years before, he always let her speak, and then gently explained where her thinking went wrong.

I was never close to Tony. I think the reason was that the central drama of his life was the search for something to replace the totalizing idea systems that he had embraced as a young person (Marxism and Zionism). This was an intellectual project that I did not share. I am not fascinated by politics and have never been held captive by ideas. In direct contrast to Tony, my fundamental stance toward the world is one of agnosticism. I am not as engaged in the world as he was, and I know it made my life easier, if less meaningful, than his. Tony’s intellectual journey did however give him an incredible insight into the twentieth century. The Enlightenment belief that there was a political or social order that could drive us forward to human perfection was struck down in the trenches of the Great War and in Auschwitz. Its death knell was the end of the Soviet Union and ideals of Communism. We no longer seek out monolithic belief systems, since they have brought us misery, but neither do we see politics as a moral enterprise, and, in Tony’s view, we have been adrift ever since.

I had my dissertation topic rejected four years into the doctoral program (it was a poorly thought-out thing on travel writing that did not pose a remotely interesting historical question). I grew frustrated with graduate school and went to see Tony in his office on Washington Square. He launched into some problem solving on the spot, and, riffing on my subject, came up with a thesis topic that, had I bothered to take dictation, probably would have won me a grant.  But I was fed up with school, and broke, so I told him that I was quitting. I don’t know what I expected.  Did I think he was going to beg me to stay? He was annoyed that he had invested time in a student who chose to chuck the degree more than halfway through. He just shrugged. I flounced out of his office and thought I would never see him again.

I did see him again, some years later, at my dissertation defense. I went to work in finance, and ended up completing the doctorate in my spare time under the supervision of the French economic historian Herrick Chapman (to whom I will be forever grateful for his willingness to work with someone who would never be a full-time academic). NYU requires five readers, so I called on Tony to be on the committee.  At the time, I did not see the presumption in my request. He turned up that day in a foul mood. He began the proceedings by pointing out a foolish mistake I made early in the text (I think I called Jules Guesde an anarcho-syndicalist) and then spent the rest of the hour silently conveying his boredom and disgust. Clearly it was payback for my having been ungrateful and rude to him. But he let me pass. There was a reception for me at the Maison Française afterwards, which he did not attend. I never saw him again.

As I said, Tony was a rough guy, and when he was done with you, he made sure you knew it. I had seen him do it with other people, so it did not surprise me. At the time, I dismissed him as a jerk, but in hindsight, I probably deserved what I got. I have yet to complete the inventory of everything he taught me. It will probably take a lifetime of reading history to do it.


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