During the past decade, Tony Judt emerged as one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He’s combative, often controversial (especially when talking about Israel), and sometimes disliked. But he’s taken seriously. And many have had nothing but sheer praise for his master work, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. The NYU historian had built up a career that many envied. But then things started going wrong … physically, not intellectually. In 2008, Judt was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. And he made his diagnosis widely known earlier this year, when he published an essay, “Night,” in The New York Review of Books. The article is short, but it brings you right inside his daily experience. He writes:
During the day I can at least request a scratch, an adjustment, a drink, or simply a gratuitous re-placement of my limbs—since enforced stillness for hours on end is not only physically uncomfortable but psychologically close to intolerable. It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.
But then comes the night. … If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night. I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed…and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.
This experience hasn’t slowed down Judt a bit. In fact, quite the opposite, Judt has been ramping up his publications, proving even more prolific than before. (His latest book, Ill Fares the Land, will be published this week.) Judt’s battle with ALS and his sense of intellectual urgency get discussed in the latest edition of New York Magazine. It’s a piece well worth reading. So also is the large profile that ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January. Above we feature an interview with Judt posted by The Guardian.