David Blackburn

There is always an alternative

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The late twentieth century was blessed with brilliant academic historians whose writing had a common touch; Tony Judt was one of them. Postwar was his crowning achievement. As Europe’s divided halves were conjoined politically and economically after the Cold War, Judt united their conflicted histories. For instance, 1968 was about more than students in Paris and Prague; it was a continental mass of common causes and misunderstandings – a thwarted dash for freedom of expression and thought, from which stronger collective identities must eventually emerge.  

He was also an essayist, whose work merited the over-used label of ‘polemic’ – a form that seeks truth in confrontation, not ad hominem for its own sake. The last piece he wrote was for The New York Review of Books on Czeslaw Milosz, author of The Captive Mind. Judt argued that the age of pure ideology did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall: the market prevailed and it has since subjugated minds that are born free. History and the causation of life are never determined by a single idea.

The essay is included in his last collection, The Memory Chalet, dictated through the long nights as he waited, immobile, for galloping amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to kill him. A now grubbily-thumbed copy sits on my bedside table. It’s an awe-inspiring book, despite the grim circumstances of its creation. It is totally unlike anything else he ever wrote, but would serve as the perfect introduction to his thought. The essays drift from autobiography to memoir, through to academic or political polemic - the record of a life lived predominantly as a public intellectual, a rare beast in Britain.

It’s nothing but a treat to read, albeit a moving one. Judt’s brief prose, self-effacement and charismatic mind were spared from degeneration. Loss is loss, as Judt says, but we must be thankful for small mercies. Refuge can be found in logic and imagination; even when something seems certain, the mind is never captive; there is always an alternative.