Memory Chalet – A Review

Tony Judt died in August 2010 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  He was perhaps one of the world’s last public intellectuals who could be described as a moralist.  A Briton of Jewish extraction, who ended up living in New York, he was brought up Marxist and had a youthful flirtation with Zionism.  But what made Judt significant was that he came from that line of moralists who allowed experience to dictate their understandings – or as he put it, he ‘preferred the facts to theory’.  Like Camus and Orwell his personal engagement with ideologies made him aware of their moral bankruptcy. That is to say that belief in a monist ideological structure would inevitably lead to violent repression: the idea that ‘to make an omelet one would always have to break a few eggs’.

Judt was a pluralist who, like his colleague and friend Edward Said, believed in a one state solution for the Israeli/Palestinian problem. He was also harsh critic of many of the moral hypocrisies of certain twentieth century French intellectuals and he spoke out vehemently against the crimes committed in Cold War Eastern Europe.   But his arguments weren’t merely the abstract ideas of an observer.  They were the pronouncements of man who had lived on a kibbutz, served in the Israeli army, who had taken part in the 1968 Paris uprisings and someone who could claim many of the Eastern European intellectual dissidents as his friends.

The Memory Chalet is a collection of personal essays, written while Judt struggled through the last years of his debilitating illness.  In the first sections Judt, although he spent much of his life extolling the moral virtues of Albert Camus (if not his intellectual ones), reveals himself to be more an Orwell than a Camus.  Judt’s interests in British cooking, in trains and bus routes display a touching nostalgia for a country that is all but lost.  He goes some way to describe how the continentals managed their drive into the contemporary world with more of a feeling for heritage than their British contemporaries. The essays are in many ways the final hammer blow to Orwell’s essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, which suggested that Britain would somehow have more of a feel for its identity than the rest of the world.  And you just have to take the exorbitantly priced tube ride from Heathrow into central London to realize that Judt is on the money.

As for the other essays they are Judt’s final pronouncements on his generation – a generation that fixated on Theory, identity politics and gender studies. Here a tone of clear distain for many of these subjects, that now dominate our universities, resonates.  Again and again he reflects on just how the much-vaunted social transformation of the sixties could have led us to the world we encounter today.  Judt whimsically questions just how the ‘sexual revolution’ could have manifested itself into the set puritanical attitudes that are seemingly espoused at the very institutions who were supposedly at the center of the ‘revolution’. He questions why there seems to be a commonly held belief at universities that behind every male lecturer there lies a lecherous sexual predator. Lecturers can after all, as he did, fall in love with and marry their students, without moral turpitude.

In other essays he questions the bamboozling meta-languages of many academics today, suggesting that they arise from ‘an intellectual insecurity’ rather than from a desire to convey anything like an understanding of the subjects at hand.  He decries the current role of public intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek (spelt in the book, ‘i ek’) who are no longer the touchstones of moral and political ideas but are famous merely because of their ‘rhetorical incontinence’.

However, perhaps it must be said that, for all their interest, the essays of Memory Chalet are certainly not as intellectually engaging as the ones in his last collection Reappraisals. All to often they intimate at ideas, rather than explaining them, and unhappily they are a little too brief – sometimes seemingly written in a kind of shorthand.  They certainly lack the intellectual weight and the exacting prose of much of his previous work.  But Judt was,  at the time of writing, a dying man with progressively extreme disabilities – he movingly describes these at the beginning.  However the essays are for the most part are both charming and engaging.  Sadly for many of us they were the ‘goodbye to all that’ of an intellectual whose humanity preceded his intellect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s