Last night at Massey College, Michael Marrus gave a superb talk on Tony Judt’s book The Memory Chalet, the memoir he managed to finish just before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010. Michael not only placed the book in its social context and within the intellectual timeline of Tony Judt’s output, he very evocatively placed us into the experience Tony went through as a person suffering from a terrible debilitating condition. It was a brilliant talk, thematically summarizing Tony’s experiences and themes and bringing Tony Judt very much to life through the words he left behind.

In preparation for the talk, I, or at least my wife Nancy, bought the book on line on Sunday noon so I could avoid searching in the bitter cold of a Toronto winter for a bookstore that had the book. For the first time, I read a book on a kindle. (It was wonderful, but more of that at another time.) Michael came to dinner that night with his wife Randi, but we only had a chance for a glancing discussion of the book. I went to his talk yesterday evening with eager anticipation. His talk was truly brilliantly composed and delivered and was thoroughly empathetic with Tony Judt’s efforts. But it did not answer the two questions that were bothering me. Why was Tony Judt as a committed cosmopolitan adamantly opposed to nationalism or any other version of identity politics so consumed with the identity of the nation? Second, why was humiliation such a scattered but, to me, an important theme in the book?

Michael did not provide an answer. He had not had a chance to mull over the questions. Further, his approach, while contextualizing the book, was one of getting inside Tony Judt’s head. He did a wonderful and elegant job. But I had read the book with a different perspective, and, inspired by Michael, I spent the rest of the evening and early this morning composing my own response and trying to answer the two questions I posed. It is not as elegant as Michael’s take. It is dialogical rather than empathetic. And it came out as rather long. So if you are interested in Tony Judt, you may want to save it for a leisurely moment.

[tag history, memory, identity politics, humiliation]