Monday, 10 January 2011

The infuriating wisdom of Tony Judt


Tony Judt was, for me, one of the most impressive historians I have ever read. Until his tragic recent death from Motor Neurone Disease he'd been stirring things up, infuriating people and generally writing excellent history for many years. His magnum opus may always be Postwar, his history of post-war Europe that crossed borders, languages, religions and societies with dizzying and dazzling ease. It's just a breathtaking work of synthesis, learning - and wisdom.

His last book, The Memory Chalet, was for the most part written as Judt experienced the terrifying last stages of his disease - trapped in a body that would no longer do his bidding. It's a historical memoir of sorts, meditating on his life and times, as well as their meaning.

It is, among other things, a spirited counterblast to the 'new cultural history' and the 'linguistic turn', as well as postmodern and gender histories:

We have taken the '60s altogether too seriously. Sexuality (or gender) is just as distorting when we fixate upon it as when we deny it. Substituting gender (or 'race' or 'ethnicity' or 'me') for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a reflection of self onto the world at large.

Judt's views are infuriating - not because I don't agree with any of this, but because the kernel of truth, and the area of agreement with other social democratic historians such as myself are lessened by over-statement. Yes, perhaps our emphasis on gender, racial and 'identity' histories may be an overblown game of manners when compared to the real materialistic (and financial) determinants of who has power - and who, in Lenin's words, does what to whom. Just ask any City bankers or Russian oligarchs busy buying up London as if it's a Monopoly board.

But is it always the case that 'substituting gender for social class' is distorting, or just about the 'me' in the 'me generation'? I don't think so - as excellent histories of male medicine and women's bodies, or homosexual experiences in twentieth century London, or of free black people's experience in the eighteenth century British Empire (for instance) attest.

It's wisdom - but it's infuriating. Infuriating enough to show why he was such an enormous wit, mind and presence. History will be the poorer without him.

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