“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’’
— Oliver Goldsmith (1770)
Today I learned of the death of Tony Judt, eminent historian, scholar, and, if there were such an official capacity, vigilant keeper of our society’s moral compass. I am not prone to tears, but I burst out weeping when I read of his dying. I felt as if the entire species had lost one of its most precious resources: an indefatigably good and just man. Tony Judt fought two seemingly impossible battles: one with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and one with our culture’s decreasing capacity to choose virtuous action over moral decay in its lurch towards material gain and efficiency.
It may seem odd in a column that largely focuses on the brain to dedicate this brief essay to Tony Judt’s memory. I want, however, to extract two themes in Tony Judt’s living and dying, which are in varying degrees very much related to the human brain and to its highest achievement, the use of language. The first theme involves Judt’s personal response to the overwhelming tragedy that neurodegenerative diseases represent to the individuals and families they affect. Some of you may have heard Tony Judt on an interview on National Public Radio that he gave a few months before his death. During the interview one heard the incessant whirl of the breathing machine that Judt required to live, and looked upon with great gratitude, rather than with more human emotions like frustration and resentment. I can remember pulling to the side of the road to listen to him, with an increasing realization that this was no ordinary dialogue from an author about a book. This man was using every breath he laboriously took to help the rest of us appreciate our own alloyed mix of joy and sorrow, and even more so, to hand over the torch of attending to what is clearly right and clearly wrong about our society’s treatment of other human beings — in our homes, our towns, our states, our countries, our world. Human actions can change our world for ill or good, and we are slipping, he said. Describing the goals of his book, Ill Fares the Land, Judt’s diminished voice could not have been clearer: we all need to examine what has become of our intentions, our “interests’’, our selves. Whom have we become, while we failed to examine ourselves these last three “methodically unraveling and destabilizing’’ decades, he asked. Whom could we become if we do?
In his book there are two simple passages in which he tries to give direction to that examination process. In one he asks, “How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else?’’ In the book’s closing he ends, “As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.’’
One of the ways Judt sought to “act’’ involved his complete belief in the power of words in a life, the second theme I wish to note. Although there may seem no redeeming feature to be grasped at in the debilitating course of ALS, Judt felt intensely grateful that while other faculties were lost first, his capacity for thinking and for speaking remained, with the greatest struggle, almost to the end. Few lives provide greater testimony to the unique gift that language represents to each of us. As Liesl Schillereger described in a recent Boston Globe article, Judt wrote about the privilege and power that language imparts to humans, “I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them.’’
Tony Judt was never reduced to words. In his living, he elevated and illumined their capacities for human goodness and virtue. In his last days he showed us what it would mean to lose them. In his living and his dying Tony Judt made each word matter, and in the process showed us the infinite possibilities for good our words contain, and “we beside’’.
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