Strong and Soft Opinions: Tony Judt, Public and Private

by Robert Loss

10 Mar 2011


The writer protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year, referred to as Senor C by his typist, struggles with his editor to define the political opinions he is contributing to a book commissioned by a German publisher. Should they be called Meinungen, “opinions subject to fluctuations of mood”, he wonders, or Ansichten, “by contrast…firmer, more thought out”? Ansichten, Senor C decides, and indeed this seems the accurate description of what we have read so far in Coetzee’s graceful, formally experimental novel. 

But Senor C, a self-exiled South African novelist now living in the modern-day Australia of Bush/Blair acolyte John Howard, is self-conscious of his right to assert himself on political matters. Anya, the woman he has hired to type his dictation, adds to his doubt. Senor C’s political thoughts are boring, she says, outdated and irrelevant. She suggests: “Write about cricket. Write your memoirs. Anything but politics… Politics is about shouting other people down and getting your own way, not about logic”. In our age of celebrity worship and the clashes over collective bargaining, her argument sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Senor C persists, and his 30 short essays on politics and society are gathered as Strong Opinions, at least in Coetzee’s book. In the novel’s second half, Senor C writes the ‘soft opinions’ Anya has requested. Mortality, the author’s father, the French region of Languedoc, and, most beautifully, Dostoevsky: these are his private wonderings. Thus Coetzee explores the ways in which we perceive the meaning and worth of opinion and memory. The critic James Wood astutely wrote of Diary of a Bad Year that, “Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas”. It’s not just the differences that are important, nor the similarities, but the way they converse over the border lines we draw. We have a tendency to shove a person onto one side or the other: politicians and historians work in the public terrain of social policy and strong opinions, while novelists and memoirists dwell in the private, “soft” land of memory and thought. (Even my verb choices, “work” and “dwell”, hint at our perception of these occupations.)  But the truth is, of course, more complicated.

cover art

The Memory Chalet

Tony Judt

US: Nov 2010

Latter Days
You will find in Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, alongside quotations from and meditations on Hobbes, Rene Girard, Machiavelli and Jorges Luis Borges, a reference to the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by the late Tony Judt. Postwar will continue to be a highlight of the historian and independent intellectual’s career, but I suspect the two, slimmer books published two books in 2010— the political diagnosis Ill Fares the Land and the essayistic memoir The Memory Chalet—will occupy a significant place as well. Both were written quickly under the duress of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which eventually took his life in August of 2010; Ill Fares the Land, based on a lecture given at New York University in late 2009 and a subsequent essay in the New York Review of Books, was written in an astonishing eight weeks. You’d never know it. That Judt continued crafting his thoughts into the written word during the advanced stages of his disease is a testament to his willpower; that each book is superb will remain evidence of his sober yet lively intellect and of his concern for the world he was forced too soon to leave behind.

Ill Fares the Land is a polemic about history’s lessons for contemporary policy decisions and social democracy, and it’s seemingly written with Flannery O’Connor’s advice in mind, that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”. Judt begins bracingly:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.

The Memory Chalet, a collection of brief essays—most of them originally published, again, in the New York Review of Books—is no less immediate. Before its recollections of Judt’s youth, education, and early professional life, the book draws an exacting, painful but brutally unsentimental portrait of living with the paralytic condition of ALS. In order to fend off the prison of night, Judt employs the mnemonic device of “the memory palace”, preferring instead a beloved Swiss chalet from his youth. By this method he is able to create his essays, store them until the morning, and then dictate them, gaining some measure of victory: “The alm-uncle and his dyspeptic reminders of the world I have lost weigh as nothing: the past surrounds me and I have what I need”.

The similarities between Coetzee, his protagonist, and Judt—the precise writing style, the fierce but accessible intellectualism, moral concern, the shadow of mortality—are matched by too many dissimilarities to justify criticism I’d find either appropriate or tasteful. But like Coetzee’s novel, Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, taken together, do reveal the diverse cross-pollination of public and private speech. Ill Fares the Land ostensibly contains the strong opinions, The Memory Chalet the “soft” opinions. Yet motifs and themes resound, connect: the dignity of work; moralism and social justice; Judt’s love for trains and public transportation; intellectualism and the contemporary resistance to it; the decline of egalitarianism and, in Ill Fares the Land, the rise of “Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty”. As a political thinker, Judt never loses sight of abstract public policy’s effect on the individual’s private world, and as a memoirist he continually frames his private joys, defeats and lessons in the larger context of the world around him, from Great Britain of the ‘50s to the New York City of today.

The books may be remembered separately, but I hope not. It is a risk for a respected intellectual to embrace the invective or the memoir; both expose the subjectivity and emotion at the heart of any argument. Judt ought to be remembered for opening up in his latter days and leaving us with an honest, vulnerable portrait of his deepest worries and loves.

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