Sunday, October 30, 2011

The relentless writer under the tyranny of physical paralysis (Books - The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt)

This is the second book I have read in as many weeks in which the writing was a sheer act of will, the other being Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. The esteemed historian Tony Judt wrote the essays that became The Memory Chateau by dictating them, having become quadrapeligic due to ALS, a degenerative disease of the motor neurons that eventually killed him in 2010. What impressed me nearly as much as his perseverance while looking death squarely in the face was the fact that the form he chose was a new kind of writing for him - memoir. Given that the form of one's writing becomes a signature of our work and could be said to be integrated with our very sense of self, I thought a change in form a courageous leap so late in the game. Although one could say, that the starkly new circumstances of his disease and the mental state accompanying it necessitated such a shift. In any event, it was a highly successful one.

The book is at once warmly personal and learned. Judt lay imprisoned with the indignities of his medical diagnosis for two years. A state that could leave one obsessed with one's limits. Yet he used his memories of childhood, adolescence, and professional life to naturally integrate reflections on such broader subjects as train travel, French intellectuals, and class. This did not produce an experience of desultory musing in the reading, far from it. Rather, I felt as though a quality of mind was being revealed to me. For Judt thinking of personal history meant considering the movements of cultures - their rulers, thinkers, the quality of life they produced for their people materially and in their freedom of thought, and the value of that legacy. As he says:
In earlier days I might have envisaged myself a literary Gepetto, building little Pinocchios of assertion and evidence, given life by the plausibility of their logical construction and telling the truth by virtue of the necessary honesty of their separate parts. But my latest writings have a far more inductive quality to them. Their value rests on an essentially impressionistic effect: the success with which I have related and interwoven the private and the public, the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt...

It might be thought the height of poor taste to ascribe good fortune to a healthy man with a young family struck down at the age of sixty by an incurable degenerative disorder from which he must shortly die. But there is more than one sort of luck. To fall prey to a motor neuron disease is surely to have offended the Gods at some point, and there is nothing more to be said. 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...
Open this cupboard and diverse, multi-layered riches come tumbling out. I loved, for example, that in the midst of personal memories of Britain's post-war austerity we have access to Judt's historical analysis on the relationship of class and rulers as it changes in war and peacetime.
Austerity was not just an economic condition: it aspired to a public ethic. Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister from 1945 to 1951, had emerged - like Harry Truman - from the shadow of a charismatic war leader and embodied the reduced expectations of the age.

Churchill mockingly described him as a modest man "who had much to be modest about." But it was Attlee who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history - comparable to the achievements of Lyndon Johnson two decades later but under far less auspicious circumstances.
And, one paragraph later, this is followed by this series of wonderful metaphors, as imaginative as they are instructive.
All politics is the art of the possible. But art too has its ethic. If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Attlee would be the Vermeer of the profession: precise, restrained - and long undervalued. Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing - and cupidity - of Damien Hirst.
Isn't that fabulous? Learned, and apt, if slightly naughty.

With Judt's memory of London's Green Line buses of his youth we receive his clear-minded analysis of the relationship between city geography, class relations between drivers and riders, and how these produced a ride of different qualities from one on London's double-decker red buses. Judt writes lovingly of his life-long passion for train travel.
Thus to travel in Switzerland is to understand the ways in which efficiency and tradition can seamlessly blend to social advantage. Paris's Gare de l'Est or Milano Centrale, no less than Zurich's Hauptbahnhof and Budapest's Deleti Palyaudvar, stand as monuments to nineteenth-century town planning and functional architecture: compare the long-term prospects of New York's inglorious Pennsylvania Station - or virtually any modern airport. At their best - from St. Pancras to Berlin's remarkable new central station - railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life, which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the tasks for which they were first designed. As I think back on it - toutes proportions gardees - Waterloo did for me what country churches and Baroque cathedrals did for so many poets and artists: it inspired me. And why not? Were not the great glass-and-metal Victorian stations the cathedrals of the age?

...Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of my present disease - more depressing even than its practical, daily manifestations - is the awareness that I shall never again ride the rails. This knowledge weighs on me like a leaden blanket, pressing me ever deeper into that gloom-laden sense of an ending that marks the truly terminal disease: the understanding that some things will never be.
He is not explicit in making the double entendre, and yet the not-so-subtle double meaning Judt gives the word terminal is what I find most touching about this essay. How Judt uses words poetic word play to allow us to make a connection between his present moment of being (which we experience as the act of writing in a moment of loss) and the importance he attaches to a personal memory creates multiple layers of meaning.

The Memory Chalet allowed me to connect present social-political circumstances to personal history, despite the fact that that history was not my own. The quality of the writing stripped the reading experience of distance. Judt's reflections on the revolutionary movements in the late 1960s in France and Eastern Europe, for example, gave me opportunity to consider my thinking about the present Occupy Wall Street movement. Particularly strong was the essay on Czeslaw Milosz, Lithuanian thinker and writer and the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature, and his book The Captive Mind. Judt writes, for example, on the concept of the economy:
..."the market"... is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason ( it is not open to question). It has its true believers - mediocre by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers - who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.

Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives.
fighting words from someone unable to move, eat or breathe without assistance.
We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently "Washington consensus" in vulnerable developing countries - with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation - has destroyed millions of livelihoods...

I particularly enjoyed Judt's admiration of Milosz's writing about the Persian phenomenon of ketman. This is a type of elective identity permitting one to live with the contradiction of saying one thing and believing something else, a mechanism Milosz sees played out in the intersection of psychology and sociopolitics under totalitarian regimes, like those he lived in under the USSR. Milosz quotes Arthur de Gobineau's Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia extensively:
Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people's democracies. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors...

"There are occasions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one's true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one's adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith that can please him, one performs all the rites one recognizes to be the most vain, one falsifies one's own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit. Thus one acquires the multiple satisfactions and merits of having place oneself and one's relative under cover, of not having exposed a venerable faith to the horrible contact of the infidel, and finally of having, in cheating the latter and confirming him in his error, imposed on him the shame and spiritual misery that he deserves.
"Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king; to him who uses Ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!"
This way, Judt reflects, one can adapt freely to the requirements of the rulers who dominates one
while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker...
While reading this as the literate reflection of a thinker about history, politics, and class I could not help also seeing it as a metaphor for a free thinker subjected to the tyranny of physical paralysis. I tore through the 200-plus pages of these succinct, erudite and moving essays. I cannot advocate strongly enough for The Memory Chalet as a rich reading experience, perhaps the best I have had this year.

For those in hearing an informed appreciation of Tony Judt. Here is the obituary by Timothy Garton Ash from The New York Review of Books

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