Tony Judt is one of the names that, I’m terribly afraid, will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. But if his memoria are terrible representations of the man he only has himself to blame. Ill Fares the Land is everything he isn’t. It’s loud, emotional, unsourced and speaks from a place of desperation, perhaps even regret. I can’t help but wonder if his LS had anything to do with the unseemly (forced?) exuberance.
Orwell once explained the implosion of Kipling’s vitality as a result of history. It simply hadn’t turned out the way Kipling was certain it would. I cannot find the exact quote here, but is there a better example of this dynamic than Ill Fares the Land?
We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
Have we learned this trick? I’d argue no, but I let you dear reader come to your own conclusion. Will we, ever again? I’m less certain but I believe that Judt was not entirely oblivious to this eventuality especially considering how likely it was. Our generation has left politics behind even though, I’m sure, it will still continue to pay some of the Baby Boomers’ salary. The cathedrals the last generations have built to politics will be frequented–and has been frequented–less and less by this generation. They’re preaching to an increasingly gentrified and isolated parish. Thank goodness, goodbye to good rubbish. Perhaps that makes me an apolitical leftist? I’m not sure. I do not care about labels.
But this is supposed to be a short post.
My main concern is that if Judt is reduced, in the popular imagination at least, to Ill Fares the Land then the left will lose a great man.
I look at, for example, this shining passage in Thinking the Twentieth Century.
Once again, other people’s ordeals are being justified as History’s way of delivering a new world, and thereby assigning meaning to events that would be otherwise unforgivable and inexplicable.
He calls it the ‘sin’ of the 20th Century and while he doesn’t use it in a real descriptive sense it is refreshing to read the word without bookends of a exculpatory nature. Honestly, who doesn’t get a slight shiver of excitement from the dual usage of un- and in-? Unforgivable and inexplicable. How tempting is it to overuse that phrase! What a mind.
I’d recommend all of his work, from start to finish, with the sole removal of Ill Fares the Land. No matter where one is intellectually or where their knowledge base is, he’ll entertain. He will educate. He should be remembered for his climb and not his descent.