Biography and the 20th Century Tony Judt's Project of a Political Death

By Blesznowski, Bartlomiej | Polish Sociological Review, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Biography and the 20th Century Tony Judt's Project of a Political Death


Blesznowski, Bartlomiej, Polish Sociological Review


Abstract: The aim of this article is to analyse the political and mnemonic programme to be found in the last books of the British historian and thinker Tony Judt. The author of this article assumes that the final period of Judt's writing, in which he produced Ill Fares the Land, The Memory Chalet, and the posthumously published discussion with Timothy Snyder entitled Thinking the Twentieth Century, is dependent on a kind of 'art of memory'. For Judt, being terminally ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and thus condemned to immobility, this method became not so much-as in the case of its classic varieties-a technology of remembering, as a manner of recognizing and analyzing the contemporary world by turning to his own biography. The purpose was to construct a 'political testament' for the Western world in a time of crisis whose roots, according to Judt, can be found in the supremacy that 'economic' thinking has achieved over traditional political thought. In a gesture reminiscent of the Stoic 'techniques of the self' described by Michel Foucault, Judt, by exploiting his own no less complicated biography and identity, tries to throw light on the complicated history of the 20th century, containing the sources of 'our contemporary ills'. Biography and history thus meet here in a 'work of memory' whose horizon and catalyzer is the perspective of death, and whose stake is the idea of a political community experiencing, according to Judt, a period of inertia.

Keywords: intellectual biography, political biography, history of the 20th century, politics, social memory, death.

The Entity: Memory and History

Tony Judt's last book undoubtedly falls within the tradition of thinking about the entity as a lonely and nontransparent individuum, the individual exposed to eternal misunderstanding and divided by a wall of consciousness from other, like individuals. Judt appears here to approach Leibniz's monadology or Locke's concept of the consciousness as an inward turn (Ricoeur 2006: 102). However, these same books of Judt's also treat of something quite different-the problems of our contemporary Western political community, the economic crisis of welfare states, and the decline of former ideals and social values. As we shall see, the dialectic of the self-conscious entity and the community forms the central point for Judt's final considerations, in which the individual dimension of his thoughts and memory become the foundation for the political testament he wishes to transmit to the Western world.

The illness from which Judt suffered while creating his last texts was incurable and unusually vicious in nature.1 A person with myopathic lateral sclerosis slowly suffers increased immobility, becoming dependent on the help of family and nurses. Judt's difficult situation as an invalid tied to his bed led him to believe that in such extreme conditions immersing himself in his own T would maintain his mental alertness and would become something even more-a constantly renewed task, arousing his intellect. A person who unwillingly suffers the torment of immobility remains alone every night with the complexity of his reflections, memories, and desires. The journey that occurs around the labyrinths of his own memory organizes their depths and maintains the identity of the entity. It thus protects the T from the harassing thoughts of disintegration that accompany the illness-the confusion of the senses, and even death, as the ultimate 'loss of consciousness'.

But if you must suffer thus, better to have a well-stocked head: full of recyclable and multipurpose pieces of serviceable recollection, readily available to an analytically disposed mind. All that was missing was a storage cupboard. That I should have been fortunate enough to find this too among the trawlings of a lifetime seems to me close to good fortune (Judt 2010a: Kindle Ed. 226-229).

Judt appears in these words to be close to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of viewing the individuum as that which is identified with the 'person' in general, and at the same time, as a creation of specific work, of the effort of turning toward the self in the act of consciousness. …

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