To Know the Revolution
Tony Judt was one of the best historians and writers on history in the last generation. British-born and -trained, fluent in French and German, he published influential studies of the history of the French Left, taught at Cambridge and Oxford, and moved to an endowed professorship at New York University in 1987. His masterpiece was Postwar (2006), a sweeping, enormously knowledgeable history of Europe from 1945 to 2005. A runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, it was named as one of the ten best of 2005 by the New York Times Book Review. In 2009, the Toronto Star named it the decade's best historical book.
Judt died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2010, after enduring a horrible, gradually increasing paralysis of all his motor functions. He was able to dictate his last two books to an assistant, one of which, The Memory Chalet, was a series of memoirs, some of them originally published in the New York Review of Books. Here are two excerpts from The Memory Chalet, slightly abridged.For real revolution, of course, you went to Paris.
Like so many of my friends and contemporaries, I traveled there in the spring of 1968 to observe --- to inhale --- the genuine item. Or, at any rate, a remarkably faithful performance of the genuine item. Or, perhaps, in the skeptical words of Raymond Aron, a psychodrama acted out on the stage where once the genuine item had been performed in repertoire. Because Paris really had been the site of revolution --- indeed much of our visual understanding of the term derives from what we think we know of the events there in the years 1789-1794 --- it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between politics, parody, pastiche...and performance.
From one perspective everything was as it should be: real paving stones, real issues (or real enough to the participants), real violence, and occasionally real victims. But at another level it all seemed not quite serious: even then I was hard pushed to believe that beneath the paving stones lay the beach (sous les pavés la plage), much less that a community of students shamelessly obsessed with their summer travel plans --- in the midst of intense demonstrations and debates, I recall much talk of Cuban vacations --- seriously intended to overthrow President Charles de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic.
By any serious measure, nothing at all happened and we all went home. At the time, I thought Aron unfairly dismissive --- his dyspepsia prompted by the sycophantic enthusiasms of some of his fellow professors, swept off their feet by the vapid utopian clichés of their attractive young charges and desperate to join them. Today I would be disposed to share his contempt, but back then it seemed a bit excessive. The thing that seemed most to annoy Aron was that everyone was having fun --- for all his brilliance he could not see that even though having fun is not the same as making a revolution, many revolutions really did begin playfully and with laughter.
What does it tell us of the delusions of May 1968 that I cannot recall a single allusion to the Prague Spring, much less the Polish student uprising, in all our earnest radical debates? Had we been less parochial (at forty years' distance, the level of intensity with which we could discuss the injustice of college gate hours is a little difficult to convey), we might have left a more enduring mark. As it was, we could expatiate deep into the night on China's Cultural Revolution, the Mexican upheaval, or even the sit-ins at Columbia University. But except for the occasional contemptuous German who was content to see in Czechoslovakia's Dubcek just another reformist turncoat, no one talked of Eastern Europe.
Looking back, I can't help feeling we missed the boat. Marxists? Then why weren't we in Warsaw debating the last shards of Communist revisionism with the great Leszek Kolakowsi and his students? Rebels? In what cause? At what price? Even those few brave souls of my acquaintance who were unfortunate enough to spend a night in jail were usually home in time for lunch. What did we know of the courage it took to withstand weeks of interrogation in Warsaw prisons, followed by jail sentences of one, two, or three years for students who had dared to demand the things we took for granted?
No one should feel guilty for being born in the right place at the right time. We in the West were a lucky generation. We did not change the world; rather, the world changed obligingly for us. Everything seemed possible: unlike young people today we never doubted that there would be an interesting job for us, and thus felt no need to fritter away our time on anything as degrading as "business school". Most of us went on to useful employment in education or public service. We devoted energy to discussing what was wrong with the world and how to change it. We protested the things we didn't like, and we were right to do so. In our own eyes, at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.
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Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one's youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, "different" is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as every other man --- that, after all, is how you know it's a midlife crisis. I was the right age, at the right stage (divorcing Wife #2), and experiencing the usual middle-aged uncertainties. What's it all about? But I did it my way. I learned Czech.
And so, beginning in the early 1980s, I learned a new language. I began by purchasing Teach Yourself Czech. Taking advantage of the lengthy (and increasingly welcome) absence of Wife #2, I devoted two hours a night to this book. Its method was old-fashioned and thus reassuringly familiar: page upon page of grammar, with the emphasis on the complicated conjugations and declensions of the Slavonic family of languages, interspersed with vocabulary, translations, pronunciation, important exceptions, etc. In short, just the way I had been taught German.
Learning Czech led me to Czechoslovakia, where I travelled in 1985 and 1986 as a foot soldier in the little army of book smugglers recruited by Roger Scruton to assist lecturers and students expelled from Czech universities or forbidden to attend. I lectured in private apartments to attentive roomfuls of young people, hungry for debate and refreshingly ignorant of academic reputation and fashion. I lectured in English, of course (though older professors would have preferred German). To the extent that I had occasion to use my Czech, it was to respond to unconvincingly casual questions from plainclothes policemen who stood under lampposts outside dissidents' apartments and asked visitors what time it was, to establish whether or not they were foreigners.
Prague in those days was a gray, sad place. Gustáv Husák's Czechoslovakia might have been well-off by Communist standards (second only to Hungary), but it was a grim and depressed land. No one who saw communism in those years could harbor any illusion about the prospects for a dead dogma immured in a decaying society. And yet I spent my days there in a whirl of enthusiasm and excitement, returning to Oxford each time energized and pulsing with ideas.
I began teaching East European history and --- with some trepidation --- writing it. In particular, I became deeply interested and engaged with the informal, underground opposition there. Reading, discussing, and (eventually) meeting men like Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, János Kis, and their friends, I rediscovered political passions and scholarly and intellectual interests of an urgency unfamiliar --- at least to me --- since the end of the 1960s...and far more serious and consequential than anything I could recall from that decade. It is only a slight exaggeration, and perhaps not even that, to say that my immersion in East-Central Europe brought me back to life. Learning Czech, in other words, made me a very different sort of scholar, historian, and person.
Without my Czech obsession I would not have found myself in Prague in November 1989, watching Havel accept the presidency from a balcony in the town square. I would not have sat in the Gellert Hotel in Budapest listening to János Kis explain his plans for a post-Communist but social democratic Hungary --- the best hope for the region but forlorn even then.
Above all, I could never have written Postwar, my history of Europe since 1945. Whatever its shortcomings, that book is rare for the determination with which I set out to integrate Europe's two halves into a common story. In a way, Postwar echoes my own attempt to become an integrated historian of Europe rather than a disabused critic of French historical fashion. My Czech adventures did not get me a new wife (until much later and only indirectly), much less a new car. But they were the best midlife crisis I could have wished for. They cured me forever of the methodological solipsism of the postmodern academy. They made me, for better or worse, a credible public intellectual. There were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our Western philosophy and I had --- belatedly --- seen some of them.--- From The Memory Chalet
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