A Requiem for Tony Judt

New York- Back in March, I’d read a piece in a New York magazine entitled “The Liveliest Mind in New York” that NYU historian and author of Postwar: A History of Europe Sine 1945, Tony Judt was on his deathbed suffering from what used to be called Lou Gehrig’s diesease, now known by its clinical abbreviation A.L.S. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Judt’s histories of both Western and Eastern Europe (and the two of them together) struck me as remarkable though I had put off reading them until a someday, later, quieter period in my life that may never come, obsessed as I am by the religious and ideological schisms of the Third World that the withered hands of empire left bare. Judt turned up on the radar of a mostly entirely new audience when he jumped into the Israel lobby debate spurred by the Stephen Walt & John Mearsheimer book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy most memorably at a debate with Israel firsters Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk at New York’s Cooper Union in the fall of 2006. Judt called out Ross and Indyk as “the core of the Israel Lobby” rather than as the dispassionate policy wonks they pretend to be.

I traveled around Central and Southeast Asia this past summer working on my own history of the present day and was not aware that Tony Judt died on August 6. My impression from the New York article was that Judt was only months away from death at best beset by an incurable degenerative disorder that affects the brain. I saw this op-ed with great interest today thinking, “oh wow, he must still be alive” until I got to the bottom. The debate over the Levants most tortured corners will be that much less nuanced without him (not to mention his precision critiques of the European Union’s tiresome faults). I am reprinting this article without permission (obviously). Apologies to Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

My Endless New York


Published: November 7, 2010

I CAME to New York University in 1987 on a whim. The Thatcherite assault on British higher education was just beginning and even in Oxford the prospects were grim. N.Y.U. appealed to me: by no means a recent foundation — it was established in 1831 — it is nevertheless the junior of New York City’s great universities. Less of a “city on a hill,” it is more open to new directions: in contrast to the cloistered collegiate worlds of Oxbridge, it brazenly advertises itself as a “global” university at the heart of a world city.

But just what is a “world city”? Mexico City, at 18 million people, or São Paulo at near that, are unmanageable urban sprawls; they are not “world cities.” Conversely, Paris — whose central districts have never exceeded three million inhabitants — was the capital of the 19th century.

Is it a function of the number of visitors? In that case, Orlando, Fla., would be a great metropolis. Being the capital of a country guarantees nothing: think of Madrid or Washington (the Brasília of its time). It may not even be a matter of wealth: within the foreseeable future Shanghai (14 million people) will surely be among the richest places on earth; Singapore already is. Will they be “world cities”?

I have lived in four such cities. London was the commercial and financial center of the world from the defeat of Napoleon until the rise of Hitler; Paris, its perennial competitor, was an international cultural magnet from the building of Versailles through the death of Albert Camus. Vienna’s apogee was perhaps the shortest: its rise and fall coincided with the last years of the Hapsburg Empire, though in intensity it outshone them all. And then came New York.

It has been my mixed fortune to experience these cities at twilight. In their prime they were arrogant and self-assured. In decline, their minor virtues come into focus: people spend less time telling you how fortunate you are to be there. Even at the height of “Swinging London” there was something brittle about the city’s self-promotion, as though it knew this was but an Indian summer.

Today, the British capital is doubtless geographically central, its awful bling-bloated airport one of the world’s busiest. And the city can boast the best theater and a multicolored cosmopolitanism sadly lacking in years past. But it all rests precariously on an unsustainable heap of other peoples’ money: the capital of capital.

By the time I got to Paris, most people in the world had stopped speaking French (something the French have been slow to acknowledge). Who now would deliberately reconstruct their city — as the Romanians did in Bucharest in the late 19th century — to become “the Paris of the East,” complete with grand boulevards like the Calea Victoria? The French have a word for the disposition to look insecurely inward, to be preoccupied with self-interrogation: nombrilisme — “navel-gazing.” They have been doing it for over a century.

I arrived in New York just in time to experience the bittersweet taste of loss. In the arts the city led the world from 1945 through the 1970s. If you wanted to experience modern painting, music or dance, you came to the New York of Clement Greenberg, Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine. Culture was more than an object of consumption: people thronged to New York to produce it too. Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered — drawing others in their wake. Nothing else came close.

Jewish New York too is past its peak. Who now cares what Dissent or Commentary says to the world or each other? In 1979, Woody Allen could count on a wide audience for a joke about the two magazines merging and forming “Dissentary” (see “Annie Hall”). Today? A disproportionate amount of the energy invested in these and certain other small journals goes to the Israel question: perhaps the closest that Americans get to nombrilisme.

The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.

And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.

Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.

All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.

Such variety is doubtless available in London. But the cultures of contemporary London are balkanized by district and income — Canary Wharf, the financial hub, keeps its distance from the ethnic enclaves at the center. Contrast Wall Street, within easy walking distance of my neighborhood. As for Paris, it has its sequestered quarters where the grandchildren of Algerian guest workers rub shoulders with Senegalese street vendors, while Amsterdam has its Surinamese and Indonesian districts: but these are the backwash of empire, what Europeans now refer to as the “immigrant question.”

One must not romanticize. I am sure that most of my neighborhood traders and artisans have never met and would have little to say to one another: at night they return home to Queens or New Jersey. If I told Joseph and Sal they had the good fortune to live in a “world city,” they would probably snort. But they do — just as the barrow boys of early 20th-century Hoxton were citizens of the same cosmopolitan London that Keynes memorialized in “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” even though they would have had no idea what he was talking about.

We are experiencing the decline of the American age. But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city? Modern-day Berlin is a cultural metropolis on the make, despite being the capital of a medium-sized and rather self-absorbed nation. Meanwhile, Paris retained its allure for nearly two centuries after the onset of French national decline.

New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the European Union’s semi-detached British satellite, and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.

To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was.

Tony Judt, who died in August, was the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming collection, “The Memory Chalet,” from which this essay is adapted.

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