PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

On Tony Judt's Endless Train

Be suspicious of romantic narratives, Judt reminds us, for they will only derail our understanding, and take us nowhere.


When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 386 pages
Author: Tony Judt
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01
Amazon

The value of remembering the past is contentious. This is seen in disruptive forces throughout the world, throughout time, that continuously destroy the artifacts of civilizations past. What can the past teach us, if anything? What’s the value of things dead and gone? If we forget history, as the old saw goes, are we doomed to repeat it? The analgesic of forgetting, as soothing as it can be for some, is to lose a part of ourselves and our collective culture, no matter how painful remembering can be. This is what Tony Judt, the late historian and essayist, returns to again and again in a collection of essays and book reviews, When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010.

As explained in the book’s introduction, written by Judt’s former student and later, wife, Jennifer Homans, the title sums up the author. Judt is interested in what happened and why. Romantic narratives held little interest, as well as “postmodern fashions of textual fragmentations or narrative disruption, especially in historical writing.” The facts mattered. History matters. As Judt put it: “When we ransack the past for political profit—selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons—we get bad morality and bad history.”

When the Facts Change ranges in scope and subject. Along with essays on Israel, globalization, the Balkans, social democracy in Europe, and the growing War on Terror, Judt’s love of trains and railroad timetables is clear and established. That’s a glib way to end a list, but it's perhaps the best summation of what the author cares for, beyond the facts of what happened. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The job of a historian, in Judt’s estimation, is perhaps more important today, and perhaps more thankless and laborious, than ever. Here he examines how easy it is to forget the facts of the past:

During the nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.

Nothing exists in a void. To forget, fully, is to become detached from humanity, to become stuck in a pocket of the eternal present, with no roots and no future. Of course, Judt doesn’t advocate we shouldn’t forgive, his essays on Israel are insistent that the only way forward is to set aside the grudges of the past and to work together. Set aside, but do not forget.

As with any essay collection, the tone of each entry can waver. Judt can elucidate the promises and shortcomings of social democracy in Europe. In the next essay, he becomes a polemicist against the War on Terror, spilling ink and invective in equal measure:

Today we align ourselves with the world’s most brutal, terrorizing tyrants in a way ostensibly against brutal terror and tyranny. We are peddling a simulacrum of democracy from an armored truck at fifty miles per hour and calling it freedom. This is a step too far. The world is losing faith in America.

Such declarations can be jarring, yes, but they're not off-putting. This is because the author cares so much for the mission of a historian. The subject can often appear passionless, a collection of facts and figures about remote and abstract events and forces, things that are dead. It’s like weighing in on VHS versus Betamax. At this point, what’s the point? In our 4K era of media-less, streaming content, what could be less relevant? Look to the here and now. Of course, those technologies are equally due for the dustbin, at some point, laughed at by our future robot/alien/ape overlords. As Faulkner wrote, though it’s been misquoted or paraphrased so much, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Judt’s passion, and how he often inserts his moral indignity in his essays, enlivens the subject. He's moralistic, yes. But he's not a moralizer.

That brings me to the author’s love of trains. Here Judt finds an apt metaphor, though he never states it as such. Trains are a collective endeavor, something agreed upon, whether it’s the public space of a station, the time it departs, or the communal aspect of travel. This represents society at possibly its best, I infer from Judt’s writings. It's the melding of the private individual with the public space. Unlike the car, which is a wholly private, commercial conveyance (albeit on the collective roads provided), the train cannot go without a level of collective deliberation. Much like the ordering, agreement, and cohesion of society, which Judt cherishes, the train is equally so.

Though that makes for an apt metaphor, what makes it perfect is the train, like history, is in some parts of the world largely out of fashion. It’s still used, but often under a specter of impending privatization and route cuts. Margaret Thatcher once remarked that there is no such thing as society. Judt’s writing reminds us not only to remember what happened, but also to remember how we’ve gotten where we are in this place and time on the historical continuum. The choices and forces of the past shaped our present, as our time, of course, shapes the future. That’s a fact. And sometimes new facts about the past appear, and our understanding must change with it. Look to what did happen, not what we think should have happened.

Be suspicious of romantic narratives, Judt reminds us, for they will only derail our understanding, and take us nowhere.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.