Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tony Judt, R.I.P.

Three feet away from me, as I sit writing this, is my still-unread copy of Postwar, Tony Judt's book about Europe following the devastation of the second world war. I bought it as soon as I heard about it, because years of reading his essays in The New York Review of Books have taught me to expect good work, serious thinking, and interesting facts and stories from Judt.

Now we'll get no new work from him, but I still can read his previously published book for the first time. Tony Judt is dead.

The New York Times reports that Judt, suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, died at the age of 62 yesterday. The paper notes:
Mr. Judt (pronounced Jutt), who was British by birth and education but who taught at American universities for most of his career, began as a specialist in postwar French intellectual history, and for much of his life he embodied the idea of the French-style engaged intellectual. An impassioned left-wing Zionist as a teenager, he shed his faith in agrarian socialism and Marxism early on and became, as he put it, a “universalist social democrat” with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.
In an age when even supposedly independent intellectuals have broadly sold out to ideologies and money, Judt embodied something that's rare today. I still appreciate a recent essay in which he embraced being called a rootless cosmopolitan, because it was what helped him see things from outside the groupthink of the rooted.

Judt was independent, smart, human and humane, and controversial. I'll miss him not only because I always found something of interest in his essays, but also because there are too few people like him today.

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