Tony Judt (2010) The Memory Chalet, London: Penguin Books.
Tony Judt was one of the eminent public intellectuals and historians in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, but he reached the pinnacle of his achievements in an outpouring of writings in the first decade of this century. In 2010 he died from a neurodegerative disorder, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. While losing his ability to write, then move, then talk, and when he was “condemned to long hours of silent immobility”, heroically and with steadfast determination and imaginative innovation, he wrote The Memory Chalet. In that decade he had published Ill Fares the Land (2010), a polemic on behalf of social democracy, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008) and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), perhaps his best and most important book after his famous book on French intellectuals in WWII. In 2012, Thinking the Twentieth Century was published posthumously.
I have previously written of the differences between Memory and History so it is compelling to discuss a famous historian who discusses memory and the “nostalgic recollection of happier days” using mnemonic devises even to store what he has recalled since he could no longer write or record what he thought without assistance. The mimetic, for Judt, entailed mutuality and symmetry rather than mimicry. Recollection was construction. For Judt not only recovered old memories, but had to remember and organize them for easier recovery and composition. So he created a “Memory palace as a storehouse of infinitely reorganized and regrouped recollections.”
Though he claimed to interweave the private and the public, there is actually very little of the truly private in the book; Judt was clearly still a reticent Englishman. We see his intellectual passion, his keen sense of observation and his lively and combative intellect at work, but we only get a glimpse of his gut desires and no insight into his heart. He claimed to interweave the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt; but, again, there is far more reason and far less of sensibility, far more recollection and a surprisingly small amount of feelings, except about his condition as he lay in a cockroach position immobilized on his back “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy alone in my corporeal prison”. In response to this state of suspended despair, The Memory Chalet became his escape. But it was also his challenge and the new foe he was obliged to engage in heroic battle.
Judt never once discussed having the option of Dying with Dignity at the time of his choosing. This was raised as a question in Michael’s talk at Massey College, and he answered that he had asked himself the same question. So it obviously was a question not only for me but for very many others. Michael answered that he did not know, but he speculated that Judt may have pulled the plug. Knowing Judt’s personality, the actual suddenness of his death, and the fact that he had just finished delivering the final version of his manuscript to his publisher, this was a real possibility. The Memory Chalet was not simply an escape, nut may have also been a farewell message. In it, Judt provided us with a window into his life. It is an act of sharing and a reaching out for community.
If memory is the effort of reasoning to reach back and comprehend personal experience, if it is a phenomenology of oneself, it is the very opposite of history, for historiography is the effort to record and understand collective events and actions as time sweeps forward. It is not Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu nor Tony Judt’s recollection of his personal journey through time and space. Though running on different train tracks that often criss-cross one another, what memory and history both have in common is not only reaching back into the past, but an effort to understand both change and differences. Both memory and history recognize the role of chance without reducing either one’s personal life or the collective one to caprice. Judt certainly recognized that if he had not by luck or a fluke been born in England and then been admitted into King’s College in Cambridge, everything might have been different. Falling into the career he did as an historian was the most precarious experience of his life. Living the final two years of his life as he did showed the degree to which a human can take command of time and even battle caprice.
In reflecting on a life lived, in fact, through reflection on another’s life and recollection of it, we gain a more acute understanding of our own. Further, by comparing the two experiences, you also obtain a more acute understanding of the other’s, particularly when the key categories and concerns of each life overlap – a concern with education, with the zeitgeist, with globalization, modernity and national character, and with lies and the difference between appearance and reality. But the recognition of fundamental differences is also important. And the unique focus of Judt’s memoir for me is its scattered expressions concerning contempt and humiliation, a point which Michaeldid not take up yesterday evening but which intrigued me.
But first the more mundane differences and similarities! Tony Judt was 10 years younger than myself; he was born after WWII in 1948 while I was born just before it. He also had an academic career but one far more illustrious than my own. He was and remained to the very end a wonderful writer. He went to an English direct grant independent self-governing school subsidized by the local authorities in London open to any boy who did well at the examinations for eleven-year olds. Though Emanuel did not have the snob appeal of Eton, Winchester or Westminster, it nevertheless offered an excellent education. Unlike the high school that I went to in Toronto, Harbord Collegiate, where the Jewish population exceeded 95%, in Emanuel there were only 10 Jews amongst the 1000 students. There Tony Judt encountered endemic anti-Semitism which I only experienced when I crossed the turf of enemy gentile gangs in the exogenous world outside my parochial Jewish world.
We also shared another similarity in the language we both chose to study – German. We both had superb German teachers. Joe, who taught Judt, had a sardonic sense of the absurd, and though he praised first-rate work, he scathingly characterized those who fell below his high standards of perfection as “absolute rubbish” and the “scum of the earth”. He reminded me of one of my own excellent teacher of algebra who would bark at fumblers and dissemblers and tell them to grow drive a truck. We both had the delight of experiencing politically incorrect but brilliant teachers.
But our experiences in learning a language were very different. While Judt in just two years of intensive German study achieved a high level of linguistic competence to enable him to read quite sophisticated books in German, I struggled and struggled with the study of another language. Though I was not as exposed to Yiddish as he was, and that probably was an assist for him, it was clear that he was very adept at languages. I am surprised upon reflection that my gentle and very supportive German teacher did not imitate my algebra teacher’s advice to others and tell me to go drive a truck. For in my select form of high achievers where everyone in the class received over 90 marks on the first German exam, I received a 62 in stark contrast to the series of perfect or near-perfect marks I received in science and my mathematical subjects throughout high school. And those subjects I barely had to study outside class. I studied German 3 hours a day — every moment I could spare from my paper routes and other means of earning money. I finally became proficient enough to read detective stories in German and earn a 92, but the sweat and tears! Judt got the second to top grade with ease. Our recollections both left us with the belief that, “being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school”.
Judt was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge and it made his life. He went to university in the dying days of in loco parentis whereas I was an undergraduate a decade earlier when enforcement was more deliberate and effective but when we too found many means to get around the strictures. He eventually became a fellow and was even briefly associate dean. I briefly taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto and swore after that experience that I would never teach at a university again; the students I happened to get were just not serious. Several years later I returned to university because of the opportunity to teach mature students at Atkinson College at York University and ended up staying there thirty-seven years before retiring and taking up research professorships at Princeton and at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. I also had a brief stint as an associate dean very near the beginning of my academic career.
Though living as a resident student in the Oxbridge system was radically different than being a commuting student and then living outside the colleges in student cooperative housing, we both attended university when “liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances” were among the manageable contradictions that pervaded both Cambridge and the University of Toronto. We were both on the social democratic left. We also went to university well before political correctness, identity and other forms of gender and identity politics permeated the curriculum and before hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments became a dominant norm concerning conduct. Judt begrudged what has happened to the university and blamed his generation for leaving that residue as its legacy. In a very early book, The Holiversity, I was, surprising to myself, reasonably prophetic in anticipating both the emergence of the social service university into pre-eminence and its successor that is currently on the rise, the supermarket consumer dominated version of higher education.
Unlike Judt, I took no personal responsibility for that outcome but attributed it to the contradictions within the university and the forces of history. Judt emerged as much more of an elitist than I and he totally disparaged the effort to give everyone a chance when hypocritically the talented were privileged anyway. Judt and I both, nevertheless, bemoaned the emergence of post-modernism and we both had “little tolerance for self-expression as a substitute for clarity”. Effort was no substitute for achievement. Judt’s teachers at King’s College at Oxford expunged his nascent Marxism and imbued him with the conviction that history as a discipline was “dependent in the first instance upon facts, not theory”. They taught empiricism “by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.” The teachers at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford did the same for my son and cured him of his nascent Gramscian propensities and turned him into a committed empiricist. I was never cured of my affair with abstract dialectical forces, but also never subscribed to the simplistic and reductionist Marxist version.
Though I am ten years older than Judt, he comes across as much more of an old fogey when dealing with contemporary culture. He writes in The Memory Chalet that, “The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.” I love contemporary entertainment and especially movies. I also think that politics has not been reduced to meaningless talk even though politics is also awash with ideologues, now on the right rather than the left. Though I am very critical of some politicians (and ever more critical of some members of the chattering class) I celebrate and admire the way many others practice the art of politics.
There are other curious and coincidental though perhaps not very revealing similarities. My father, like his, in keeping with their generation, was obsessed with motor cars – the relatively expensive and ostentatious Citroën in his father Joe’s case. My father loved Chevrolets, though in 1948, the year Judt was born, my father slipped up and bought an Austin. That purchase demonstrated why the British automobile industry would virtually vanish in the next few years. However, my generation was perhaps not obsessed but was certainly preoccupied with cars. I stood out in my deliberate indifference. Perhaps it was because, although both our fathers were most at home in their cars that symbolized new found freedom and prosperity and stood for “individualism, liberty, privacy, separation, and selfishness in their most socially dysfunctional forms”, his father took the family on road trips and only left his unhappy marriage later. My father used his car to escape his family and his obligations.
We both used the public transportation system in our respective cities before we reached our teens to explore its various dimensions and pathways. Though both Judt and I found walking pleasurable and enjoyed our bikes, we both love trains, especially Swiss trains. As Judt wrote, “To travel in Switzerland is to understand the ways in which efficiency and tradition can seamlessly blend to social advantage.” Trains can be heavenly bliss. Though I loved taking the commuter train back and forth to Princeton every week for a year, Judt was much more critical of American and the changes in the British train service over the last two decades. “In later years, as Britain’s rail system fell into decline, train travel lost some of its appeal. The privatization of the companies, the commercial exploitation of the stations, and the diminished commitment of the staff all contributed to my disenchantment—and the experience of travel by train in the US was hardly calculated to restore one’s memories or enthusiasms.”
Though both of us despise ideologues of the left or right and are both versions of social democrats, where we differ is very basic. Judt had “lots of homes and I don’t consider my heart to be attached very firmly to any of them.” As he wrote, “I suppose I’ve always been homeless.” In contrast, I was born and educated in Toronto and lived in one home virtually for 42 years – for most of my academic career. And when we downsized recently, we only moved next door. Judt was a baby-boomer; I preceded the baby-boomer generation and enjoyed even more fully what Judt described as the benefits of growing up “in an age of prosperity, comfort and security” and knowing that I could do whatever I wanted in life.
Secondly, we experienced our mid life crises at slightly different ages travelling along different trajectories. I was a hard working kid living with two brothers and supported by a single mother. By the time we were fifteen, my older brother and I had saved enough money to buy my mother a house. Judt, at the same age was busy being indoctrinated with what I presume were his father’s Zionist beliefs rooted in Labour Zionism and Judt in 1963, 1965 and 1967 went to live in Israel and work on an Israeli kibbutz. He was at the time an ideologically committed conformist true believer and an articulate proselytizer. I was at that time a rebel against my orthodox Jewish beginnings, a universalist and an anti-Zionist, though a quiet rather than a noisy one. He then believed in what was widely known as muscular Judaism, in “health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency and proud separatism.” I was a cosmopolitan who had broken away from what I regarded as my parochial upbringing. “Is Jewish Survival Necessary?”, my first publication in 1960 in Reflections (24-31), focused on a number of assimilated “Jewish” intellectuals – Simone Weil and Henri Bergson among them.
We are both born again intellectuals. Judt’s immersion in East-Central Europe, specifically Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, brought him back to life. Judt wrote about the double near death experience of Jews – the Holocaust and the feared elimination through assimilation. The events leading up to the Six Day War took me through a third near death experience. Judt does not write about how the Six Day War affected him, but when it arrived he had already become disabused with Zionism as well as Israel. I at the time in the period leading up to the war noticed the huge chasm between my fears that Israel would be wiped off the map and my supposed indifference to the fate of any expression of Jewish particularism, whether in the form of a state or through the Jewish religion.
Though I was not exalted by Israel’s enormous victory in 1967 and participated in none of the euphoric celebrations, I was very relieved and quietly determined to resolve the contradictions between my professed intellectual positions and my deep emotional concern with the fate of Israel. For the first time, in 1973 I finally took my whole family there for three weeks. I was reborn as a Zionist and thence celebrated the recovery of Jewish self-determination. I am extremely proud that two of my grandchildren grew up in Israel and served with distinction in the Israeli armed forces in stark contrast to my strident pacifism as an undergraduate.
Judt was correct when he wrote that, “Many American [and Canadian] Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz.” Except I actually even knew very little about the Shoah. Judt mastered the Czech language and I studied a great deal about not only Zionism and the Middle East but even subsequently revived an interest in Judaism that had been systematically expunged from my soul when I attended Jewish school six days a week. So it is surprising that in spite of these very basic differences, we are both entranced by identity politics in its traditional form focused on the nation state and, in particular, the nation in that state. It seemed paradoxical to me that Judt as a professed cosmopolitan would be mesmerized by traditional identity politics focused on the nation rather than gender or ethnicity and, further, that he would so vividly and succinctly depict key characteristics of each nation and very near come to reifying those characteristics.
In The Memory Chalet, Judt characterizes seven national cultures; American, English, French, German, Czech, Swiss and Jewish, though he clearly revoked his earlier belief that Jews had a “national” culture and deserved to have the responsibility of self-determination to have their own state. (See his infamous 2003 controversial essay on a one state solution in the New York Review of Books.)
For Judt, “America herself is a mistress, rebuffing and seducing by turns”. Judt loved living in New York because, like many Americans themselves, he bought into the myth that New York was on the edge and not really part of America. He observed, loved and depicted the inter-cultural multicultural street life of New York city. Judt was appalled and repelled by the contemporary ostentatious patriotism of contemporary America, and its bellicosity and nostalgic triumphalism, its creation of community through consumerism and its hyperventilated moralism. He was appalled as more and more Americans became hyphenated in their identities and envisioned further decline, not only for America, but for European states as well when, “Intolerant demagogues will demand ‘tests’ – of knowledge, of language, of attitude – to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch of French ‘identity’. They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals, the edge people. My people.”
In his first but relatively late contact with the United Sates, he was overwhelmed by America’s obsession with size, with cleanliness and, especially in the heartland, for him its sole reliance on church and religion for creating community. Judt obviously knew nothing about the role of sport in America, especially American football. He was also amazed by the huge libraries found in the land grant colleges of the midwest with their multi-million book collections. One gets the impression that his discovery as a reticent Englishman startled him even more, that “Americans are shamelessly confessional”. He implied that the style emerged from the power of the Christian religion. I myself believe it has more to do with American mobility, the open frontier and American desire to be efficient even in getting acquainted with another. More generally, it also has to do with more current attempts to end the apartheid between thought and feelings, between the mind and the heart and between the expressed and the repressed. But certainly Judt is right that, America is “an old-new land engaged in perennial self-discovery”.
Contrast the abundance of America with the austere Britain of Clement Atlee in which he grew up in an attitude of grin and bear it after WWII. Austerity was also personal. His mother was a Jewish Cockney who lived in East London at the edge of both the Jewish-English world in Bethnal Green and the core of Dickensian London. She was so assimilated that she had almost no knowledge of Jewish cuisine and cooked like most English mothers with the absence of any flavour in food whatsoever even though his grandmother was a magician in preparing chicken, beef, fish and vegetables. And Judt declared, “We are what we ate. And I am very English.” Does that explain his rejection of Judaism even though he declared “whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise”. We will have to return at the end to Judt’s sense of shame.
Judt was so English (and so culturally conservative) that he rejected the next generation’s “ersatz classlessness” as epitomized by the bar that the subsequent cohort of students to his own had installed at Cambridge. He criticized the next generation because they were “most readily mobilized against injustice committed many thousands of miles away.” “The difference between us (the two generations), elective cultural affinities aside, lay in our future prospects, not our contemporary condition.” Judt was an open elitist and meritocrat, loved King’s College, celebrated its record of embracing change and disruption by accepting with bemused nostalgia the governance through archaic rules while breaking them in practice. Though he said he understood why subsequent generations of graduates went into commerce and private banking and the more remunerative reaches of the law rather than public service and the unprofitable end of the liberal professions, he really bemoaned their choice.
Judt’s harshest words were saved for the French of which he knew a great deal. My own research and publications on the head scarf issue confirmed Judt’s allegations (2011 “Contrasting Commissions on Interculturalism: The Hijȃb and the Workings of Interculturalism in Quebec and France,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32:3, June 2011, 245-259), but they were also informed as a result of reading Judt, though I question his interpretation that “in French films: indecision rather than plot drives the action.” As Judt described French intellectuals, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” In my study of the introduction of the ban on head scarves in French public schools, the commission included several famous French philosophers and sociologists. They recommended the ban even though they had never undertaken any empirical research on the subject It took an American sociologist to reveal that, out of over a million Muslim girls in the French educational system, only fewer than a thousand wore the head scarf and only two, daughters of a Jewish man married to a Muslim woman, wore the headscarf for the reason the commission recommended a ban, that is, because they were wearing the scarf to make a political statement.
Judt tells the story of being encountered in the very prestigious École Normale Supérieure by another student who asked how he did on the strenuous tests for admissions. Having heard that Judt had been admitted as an Englishman without writing the exams, the student remarked, “C’est impossible.” As Judt summed it up, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” Thus France had made Paris marginal to the international conversation. (Cf. Howard Adelman (2011) “Religion, Culture and the State,” in Howard Adelman and Pierre Anctil (eds.) Reasonable Accommodation and Minority Cultures: Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,100-116)
Germans still had a large residue of anti-Semitism. “If French politics were intensely – even absurdly – theoretical and dry,” German politics was about sex. Though a nice throwaway line, I suspected that Judt’s view of Germanic repressed sexuality was as much a product of inherited British prejudices as of any direct experience. Judt clearly preferred “the distinctively Czech qualities of doubt, cultural insecurity, and sceptical self-mockery” and Zeslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind was and remains “by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” For Judt, it was much more incisive than Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that had such a great impact on the formation of my own views. Though Judt loved the Czechs, he admired the Swiss even though they were obsessed with cleanliness and with an uncluttered regularity for everything. For a historian interested in change, the irony was that, for Judt, in Switzerland, and Mürren in particular, “Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world.” It is no surprise that at the end of the book and contemplating his immanent death, he envisioned traveling up and up a train to the highest reaches of Switzerland “for ever and ever”.
Judt’s most complex and contentious as well as most extensive remarks were on Israel and Judaism, surprising for someone who claimed to have left all of that behind over forty years earlier. When he served in the Israeli army on the Golan Heights, he “encountered young, prejudiced, urban Jews.” In the kibbutz before he was even twenty he had discovered “how limited the kibbutz and its members really were; collective self-government or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others but contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard and reinforces the worst kind of solipsism and insularity.” One cannot tell how the oppressiveness of the experience had been exaggerated over the years so that the kibbutz came to be a doppelganger for his state at the time of his writing. “Israel felt like a prison in those days, and the kibbutz like an overcrowded cell.” Whatever the experience, he came to identify Israel wit the dogmatism of his youthful Zionist indoctrination which he grew to not only actively dislike but to hate.
His criticism extended to the Jewish community in America, Israel’s strongest supporter. Judt queried, “Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected, and influential than at any place or time in the history of the community. Why then is Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection – and anticipation – of its own disappearance?” And if Emil Fackenheim suggested a 614th commandment be recognized that a Jew is commanded not to give Hitler a posthumous victory by disappearing as a nation or through assimilation, Judt asked, “Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents?” Judt declared that, Holocaust memory is a “vicious abuse of memory used to justify uncompromising Israelphobia and to service lachrymose self-regard.” Judt considered the question and the assertion taken together as capable themselves of dealing a knock out blow, but, of course, the answer is that this is far from the whole story. For there are assuredly more than two compelling reasons! And Judt should b ashamed, though he clearly is not, for failing to acknowledge this fact. This is especially so because Judt believed that, “Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable self-questioning.”
Lies and delusions may arise from omission and distortion as well as deliberately telling a falsehood. And Judt, though a truth-teller, also “had the talents of a silver-tongued orator”. Judt loved not only the many languages he had mastered, but talking, for “talking was the point of adult existence” and he believed it was not merely evidence of intelligence, but intelligence itself, a conclusion he himself belied in writing the book. But he also admitted that, “words may deceive” and be mischievous and untrustworthy. Further, articulacy was a way of conveying proximity while maintaining distance so that language could be used to fend off intimacy, a characteristic he attributed to Barack Obama. Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses he was a champion and master of the use of the English language but not glib talk, which he hated, as well as the kind of theory and methodology that favoured obscurantism where language is used to mystify rather than inform. He always remained contemptuous of garbled language.
When the misuse of language becomes a part of deliberate state policy to exercise and retain power, then we have an Orwellian world. So why get caught up in a a wholesale conveyer of lies if you did not live in a totalitarian society? That is the lesson men who dissected what it was to live in such a society taught. That is what Zeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind revealed more generally, “the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” How could they say one thing and do another?
When I led the Combined University Campaign Against Nuclear Arms as a student at the University of Toronto, how could one member of the executive who was also Communist Party member campaign against nuclear arms and then defend the USSR resuming testing? How could he live with the contradiction of saying one thing and believing another? I had to resign as Chair and demand his resignation. The committed deluded idealist, the fellow traveler and the cynical time server who adhered to this secular faith participated in an ideological self-delusion and a refusal to imagine or consider alternatives. If communists were the foremost self-deluded political group as we began our careers, the worshippers of the free market, in minimum or no regulation, in reduced government, have joined in voluntary servitude to the new right rather than left orthodoxy.
However, one theme is repeatedly mentioned but not highlighted and is perhaps the most revealing part of the book. Judt describes his father “as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him.” Humiliation is that theme. His mother too suffered from shame. “Mother was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness versus the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of his extended family.” When his father drove their Citroën to visit relatives in a poor area of London, Tony Judt “wanted to disappear down the nearest manhole because of “the envious attention his new car was attracting”. When he lived on the kibbutz in Israel, he recognized that its functioning was based on the “successful deployment of physical intimidation and moral humiliation.”
When he became a fellow at King’s and had some authority, the student cohort who now came, not from the aristocracy and private schools, but from excellent state schools, were discovered by one of the “bedders” (women form town who served as surrogate mothers to the young boys and girls for King’s had become co-ed by that time), she witnessed a group of then cavorting on college grounds nude. Three factors explained her reaction: the presence of girls; when she came upon them, they made no effort to dissimulate or even cover up; worst of all, they laughed “at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement and she felt humiliated.”
As Judt explained the situation, previous cohorts of students brought up in privilege recognized her station and respected her class and its values. They knew better than to treat a servant as an equal sharing their values. Those gentlemen “would have apologized, expressed their regret in the form of a gift and offered an affectionate, remorseful embrace”. Treating the bedder as an equal had “as much as anything hurt her feelings”. She had lost a claim on their forbearance and respect: her role had been reduced to mere employment rather than surrogate mother. The new rich bourgeois class shared none of those sensibilities but shared the same ignorant principle amongst themselves: “all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest”. This was the reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: “the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention”. They have no “understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests.” They spouted and said that they revered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations probably not having read it but certainly not having read his volume, A Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Why was Tony Judt so mesmerized by the Lordship/Bondsman relation? Why did he interpret it in terms of mindblindness and self-deluded voluntary or involuntary subjection to tyrannical authority? And why was humiliation and shame the most evident by-product of this difference in class? Since his tutor showed him respect in his criticism, he learned. If contempt was forthcoming, the student was ashamed. So respect and recognition are the proper antidotes to class and economic conditions. Why was humiliation so important to Judt and a window through which he experienced the world?
Tony Judt only hints at all the humiliations he suffered on growing up. When he was an established academic in London and went in to launch a complaint about mistreatment of a Czech acquaintance by the authorities and learned that he was totally ignorant of the circumstances and problematics of the case, he was offended and embarrassed “to be thought both unimportant and uniformed”. And, of course, his humiliation at needing help all the time to do almost everything must have been the pinnacle of humiliation for him at the end of his life. But then why was humiliation so central to Judt’s historical experience? At this time I can offer only the briefest possible answer.
In 2010, Maggie Smith published a book, Asylum, migration and community which probes the experience refugees fell when they exit a country and then the double humiliation they experience in their country of asylum. Their loss of status is more embarrassing than anything else they experience, especially if they come from middle class roots. Humiliation is almost always about failure of recognition.
Tony Judt was a famous scholar but before that government bureaucrat he appeared to be an ignorant dolt. Tony’s father was an informed and articulate reader, thinker and believer but he worked in a hairdressing parlour. Tony’s mother was a died-in-the-wool English woman ashamed of her Jewishness and the European accents of her social circle. After all, they were “greenies”. Tony was embarrassed and humiliated at the kibbutz because they saw him as jus a grunt when he really was a very successful student who had achieved entry into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Britain but the kibbutzniks had no appreciation of that accomplishment. Judt just generalized on that ignorance and branded them provincial for not recognizing his achievements. And the “bedder” at Cambridge was embarrassed and humiliated, not because the students did not recognize the class to which she belonged and rules of discourse long established in dealing with class relations, but because they did not see her as an independent Other with sensibilities and responsibilities. The previous privileged classes at least had the decency to give her the semblance of respect and recognition.
The humiliator generally is indifferent or has contempt for the position or the person of the other. The one humiliated is not only embarrassed but can develop a repressed anger and urge to retaliate for that non-recognition, an attitude exemplified by Cain when God recognized Abel and not him. The humiliatee wants the injustice corrected and can become a demon in the pursuit of his or her version of social justice. At the extreme, humiliation, revenge and the desire for social justice can be found to be a pervasive theme in the actions of mass killers at schools and at places of work. (Cf. Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman, James Jones and Katherine Boyd, The Fundamental Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History)
Now in none of the cases cited by Judt did the possibility of violence and revenge ever appear to come up. No one became an evangelist for justice. The failures of recognition were relatively mild. Further, when Tony Judt experiences the opposite of non-recognition when his King’s College tutor ignored his youthful theoretical pontification and, by respecting his opinions and examining him closely, allowed him to recognize his own need to undertake empirical work, Judt reciprocated with respect and appreciation.
Since Ruth Benedict in the year of Tony Judt’s birth characterized Japan as a shame culture and America as a guilt culture, and since then others have characterized Jewish culture as a guilt culture par excellence, and still others have built on and revised and improved on that distinction so that one broad consensus emerged. Shame cultures grant low cultural value to the individual and shame can then be used as an effective tool of social guidance. Guilt cultures grant low cultural value to the community and guilt must be instilled within each individual to ensure a degree of social conformity to social norms. Why then was shame so preeminent in Judt’s psyche?
No culture relies solely on shame or guilt. Cultures use an admixture of both, though the high degree of one versus the other allows one to characterize a culture as predominantly one rather than the other. But a culture can have high value placed on both individualism and community. This is true of the Jewish culture and contributes to its “schizophrenic” frenzy. It is both a shame and a guilt culture. Tony Judt was driven by a search for community in Zionism, in the kibbutz, in Cambridge University college life and in his intellectual devotion to social justice. In his behaviour and in his intellectual pursuits and writings, he was the consummate individual with an original voice. But in the value given to social order, a shared community was a prerequisite to enjoyment of public life. Guilt is expressed greatest if an individual like Tony Judt fails to grant adequate credit, recognition and acknowledgement to an Other. But shame becomes the main descriptor when social norms rather than individual achievements fail to be recognized. Tony Judt had very little sense of guilt but was enormously sensitive to humiliation.
The problem was not that the bureaucrat failed to recognize him as an esteemed intellectual but that Tony Judt had let down his intellectual community in revealing his ignorance and had let down his acquaintance in failing to achieve social justice. Tony experienced a life crisis and took up the study of Czech, an initiative that gave him a lead in uncovering the underbelly of the communist system that was the shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercut any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual. Tony Judt’s father was aware of the gap between his capacities and his economic role. His guilt was that he had not been personally able to surmount those limitations and realize his potential. His shame was that he let down the expectations off him by the community. In this case, the guilt and shame were reinforcing.
Tony Judt’s mother was an edger, the group to which Tony belonged. Her inability to cook well necessarily made her a subject of shame among the community of Jewish women at that time. At the same time, she was ashamed to associate with the inferior accented Greenies that formed her social circle. As the object of shame and as a subject feeling shame for the other, it was no surprise that she does not seem to have provided either Tony or his father with a happy home life.
So Tony Judt had to find another people to which he could belong. His desperate effort in his Zionist days failed miserably. His intellectual efforts freed him from any guilt, but the aggregate of intellectual eccentrics at King’s College could not provide the membership in the social community he craved and that he had experienced to some degree in the arguments around the kitchen table when he was a youngster. So he went to New York and joined the edge people. Israel as a divine icon had been a god that failed. Judaism had left him bereft but he was too proud to bury that identity. So he became the scourge of Zionism and of American Jews determined to turn the tables and humiliate both as he also expunged any guilt and became the brilliant writer, historian and critic so widely admired. As an equal opportunity provider he had time to distribute the product of his criticism to America, the English, the French and others. Only the Czechs get off and that is because they were the vehicle for his rebirth and rejuvenation. The despiser of identity politics becomes its exemplar when applied to nations
[tags judt, history, memory, national identity, humiliation]