A Self-Made Mind: Farewell to Tony Judt

“Who is Tony Judt?” a woman wanted to know. We were at a cocktail party at the offices of a left-wing publisher in Dumbo in March, and the name of the controversial British-born European historian and public intellectual was in the air.

A friend of hers who was hovering nearby, a man of British extraction, to judge by his accent, pitched in with the following epithet: “He’s an anti-Marxist scumbag.”

Not everyone was buying into the aura of sanctity that had attached to Tony Judt ever since amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had left him paralyzed from the neck down. And why should they? Judt himself was always bemused and irritated by it.

The disease that had ruined his body with terrifying rapidity, and which finally killed him on Friday, left his mind fully intact. And he used the life and the mind that was left to him to pursue the many polemics that had punctuated his career. He spent his life assailing other people’s cherished myths, in essays all the more annihilating for being so urbane. He remained the same proud and indomitable man-such was his tremendous force of will-while strapped into a wheelchair.

His life was a series of renunciations: goodbye to Marxism, to Zionism, to the political passions of the 1960s.

“I’m as generous or mean as I ever was, and as intellectually aggressive or pedagogically gentle as I have always been,” he told me this spring when I was profiling him for New York.

At other cocktail parties in other precincts of the city, one could easily imagine the question being answered differently: “He’s a self-hating Jew.” “He’s a radical Leftist.” “He’s a white male elitist.” “He’s an arrogant blowhard.”

But also: “He’s the most brilliant political writer of our time.” “He’s the most rigorous and caring teacher I’ve ever met.” “He’s the last great public intellectual of our time.”

In my own view, most of the attacks are plainly false; much of the adulation is substantially true. But to me he was, as a personality, a brilliant scholarship boy driven to exceed everyone in the acuity of his thinking, writing and speech.

Mr. Judt was the first member of his family to go to college-neither of his parents continued their schooling beyond the eighth grade. In a single generation, he had ventured from lower-middle-class London (his mother was “a qualified lady’s hairdresser in the age of big hair,” as he put it; his father a itinerant laborer) for the highest reaches of the Oxbridge mandarinate. The life he narrated to me was a series of renunciations: goodbye to the Marxism of his childhood, the Zionism of his youth and the political (and pseudo-political) passions of the late 1960s, followed by a career that was a long rear-guard action against the academic trends of his day.

He had always been, as he put it to me, “a difficult, disobedient and radical child.” At Cambridge, he exchanged the Cockney accent of his youth (which he readily lapses into for comic effect) for the richly cultured idiom he spoke as an adult. He acquired the supreme self-confidence that is inculcated there. It was the renunciation that made him into the remarkable self-made creation he became.

“All scholarship boys, all upwardly educationally mobile people, break, even if they don’t want to or don’t realize it, with their family, their class, their way of speaking, the world they grew up in,” he told me. “That’s what upward social mobility is all about. Education is a particularly wrenching version of it. Because you can get rich in business from a working-class background and remain yourself, but with more money. But when you progress through education, you speak differently, you have different references and you live in a different world. I certainly experienced that.”

Mr. Judt was a pure meritocrat, without inherited status or fortune to secure his place in the great world. He simply had to be smarter, more erudite and more verbally agile than everyone he confronted, in every setting he entered. And until the very end, he always was-and he knew it. Like many people who have had to earn their power, he was forthright about possessing it.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a benign despot; but I do crave autonomy and hate being obliged to people I don’t respect,” he told me when I asked him about the leadership style that had garnered controversy at New York University.

“I’m sure that’s true of most of us, but I am lucky: I get to act on my preferences.”

His preference was to defend his independence in thought against the blandishments of friends and the aggression of foes alike, and he acted on this preference with exemplary energy and wit until the very end.

editorial@observer.com A Self-Made Mind: Farewell to Tony Judt