jump to navigation
  • Tony Judt: A Reluctant Historian? November 28, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    tony judt

    Tony Judt wrote twelve fine history books* before his untimely death in 2010, one of them ‘the unmatched and perhaps unmatchable’ (Snyder) Postwar (2005). When he died, after a courageous fight with an impossible illness, eulogiums rained down. But there was a minority opinion that Judt was something less than a new Gibbon. Dylan Riley wrote an occasionally obnoxious review of Judt’s life subtitled ‘a cooler look’ and others who knew Judt’s work were ambivalent about aspects of his history writing and particularly its argumentative and manipulative style. Tim Snyder, a Judt groupie, sidesteps this as delicately as he can, in Thinking the Twentieth Century: (xvi) ‘Tony was reaching in 1989… a crucial turning point. After one last polemic with another great polemicist (Jean-Paul Sartre in Past Imperfect), and despite the occasional one-sided essay still to come, he was turning to a more gentle, and a more fruitful idea of truth’. Eric Hobsbawm was franker describing (in perhaps the best obituary of TJ) a younger Judt as having a reputation as ‘an academic bruiser’: ‘His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s, whose objective is neither truth nor truthfulness, but winning the case’. Then, the person who undoubtedly knew best, Jennifer Homans, Judt’s third wife and the mother of his two children, could write: ‘Arguing with Tony was a real challenge because he was a master at the dialectical switchback and could turn any point you made against you. (When the Facts Change, 5).’ She managed to get around this by preparing a spreadsheet for her husband, a lesson to us all!

    Judt, to his very great credit, seems to have recognized this side of his personality and to have tried in some ways to compensate for it. He described how, at Cambridge, one of his supervisors (the WANW John Dunn) had called Judt a ‘silver-tongued orator’ ‘a barbed compliment, since it suggested that I spoke before I thought and seduced rather than convinced’ (Jukes interview). Judt himself looked back later with regret at his early works which showed ‘intellectual dexterity; a certain quick cleverness… but also a certain weakness for dialectical exhibitionism’ (Understanding 208-209). Judt, above all, makes a number of references to the fact that he did not see himself as a natural historian: one of the best writers and speakers of his generation, yes, but ‘I don’t mean I was the best historian, a quite different measure’ (Jukes interview). There are several other comparable comments in Judt’s work. Judt never perhaps got entirely used to the idea that he was studying the past. His real desire was to be ‘a public intellectual’, another Orwell or Camus. History was just a means to that end. He would have gone to pieces doing a doctorate on the Vikings, say.

    Judt, then, was often, by his own and by others’ account, more concerned with winning than getting things right. What did this look like on the page? Well, it is most in evidence in his polemical pieces against other scholars. There is a remarkable Judt essay ‘A Clown in Regal Purple’ (1979) where Judt writes off most of his colleagues in British social history for their stupidity (in their house review!). There is also an extraordinary series of book reviews in British and American papers, magazines and journals, from the 1970s to his death: if Judt did not like a book he would not move on, he would EXTERMINATE, in what can seem to an outsider an unnecessarily cruel fashion. But this habit of Judt is also there in his history writing, though it takes a different form. Judt did not do ‘we cannot know’, ‘we do not know’, ‘some say… others say’. He was interested in strong arguments and this meant certainties. One result of this was that his views on minor and major points changed in function of what argument he was attempting. So in 1995 in A Grand Illusion? the east-west line in Europe was the fundamental one in European history and the Cold War had frozen along that traditional divide (46). In 2005 in Postwar the fundamental line in European history was north-south, and the east west divide of the Cold War was unnatural (195): here Judt is teleological thinking of the future reunification of the continent.

    This is certainly not deliberate manipulation of ‘the facts’. Judt, when he sat down to write, had a case to make and he went after his argument with a ferret’s determination. Fingers flicked through the vast card index in his head and fished out this or that gobbit of information, which could be used to make the strongest possible case to the reading public. But that very way of looking at things is ahistorical: it is more typical in journalists (or better columnists) than among humble antiquarians, servants of the past. A historian is or should be like a child making its way down a dark corridor, feeling along with fingers and with bare feet, going gradually, trying to recreate the world around them and trying, above all, not to trip. Judt entirely lacked this mentality. He had studied modern history ‘because it had seemed self-evidently a path to intellectual engagement and civic investment (154 Thinking).’ In other terms, he believed the Marxist crock that history serves the greater good; our job is not to understand the world but to change it… whoops just killed ten million people in a terror famine. Richard Cobb perhaps had a point when he said that Judt was (in Judt’s words) ‘a disciplinary interloper with all the worst instincts of a French intellectual: writing politics under the guise of historical scholarship (Thinking 149).’

    Judt was an extraordinarily intelligent individual. At times he understood some of these difficulties and contradictions: e.g. in his comments quoted above. At times he tried to compensate, for example, in his laughable approval of Camus’ very unJudt-like phrase that ‘If there was a party of those who were not sure, then I would be a member (Burden, front leaf)’. At other times, he wallowed in his own mud: read anything he wrote on Thatcher’s or Blair’s Britain. So should his writing be described, as above, as ‘fine history’? Well, by writing on contemporary history Judt seems to have largely sated his need to intervene in political debate. He was honest and brave (a ‘bruiser’ to use Hobsbawm’s term, never a bully) and he was careful with details. But there are still embarrassing passages in his earlier works. For example, his, to this blogger, excruciating praise of Mitterrand at the end of Marxism and the French Left. (An aside: Judt was consistently wrong with predictions). But he got better as he got older, and this is surely true of most historians, who seem to peak in their fifties or sixties. (Bring it on, winged chariot!) Certainly, Judt appeared usefully world-weary by his forties and his rough edges were sanded down by his decade-long Calvary in writing Postwar (and a cancer in 2001-2002). Here the very scale of his task, in describing a continent, and one suspects the exhaustion from two newborn sons, kept his more polemical side in check. Sure this was ‘opinionated’ history, and all the better for it, but it was, perhaps for the first time, a historian’s history as well. A man who had probably chosen the wrong profession, found that he had come to write one of the great works in his discipline. And bang, three years later, just as he was enjoying his new fame and planning other projects, Judt found himself in a doctor’s office being diagnosed with motor neurons disease. And two years on? Tony Judt had, to quote Yeats, ‘withered into truth’.

    *Of which I know nine, ‘fine’ is by reputation in the case of three.