Past Imperfect, Past Excellent – Tony Judt

In the late 1980s I completed a M.A. at New York University. My sense of disciplinary distinctions was not strong, foreshadowing other problems I’ve experienced staying within the lines.  Interested in politics and history, my first course was comparative political science.  It was not a good fit. Checking out the book store and course syllabi, I moved to history – the readings were much more to my liking. A number of truly outstanding professors: Carl Prince, McGeorge Bundy and Tom Bender – provided much-needed guidance.

Very early into my program I talked with another history student who told me about an exciting new faculty member, Tony Judt, who was slated to teach a course on post-WWII European political history. He was supposed to be very tough but really good. The reading list looked outstanding so I thought I would see about enrolling. The course required permission of the instructor; it was popular and oversubscribed. My friend did not get into the course.

I approached Judt with some noticeable drawbacks. My planned course of study was American history. I readily confessed being early in my masters and probably focused on American history (the divide between American and European history, as well as their respective faculty was fairly significant at that time in the department). I knew that I did not know all that much about the discipline of history and I shared that concern with Professors Prince and Judt. Prince told me that if I was interested, I should pursue it.

To obtain Judt’s permission, I had to write a short statement about why I wanted to enroll in the course.  It was a fairly common hurdle at NYU for popular seminars.  I dashed off a quick piece about the intersection of philosophy, political science and history. I was very pleased and somewhat surprised when he let me into the class.

We met one night a week in the History Department’s conference room, an interior room with large tables clustered together on the 5th floor of 19 University Place in the Village. I was working in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Budget Office during the day and usually had time for a coffee (not a very good one, either) before heading up to class.

The first night of class Judt talked.  He talked a lot, enjoying what he was saying at the attention he received. I enjoyed it, and him,  immensely.  He noted that most Americans think of Europe only in terms of the western nations. He wanted us to think of Europe as spanning the eastern part of the continent, and he emphasized this as essential to understanding politics after World War II. Stressing the connection between ideas – really a series of long intellectual discussions – and politics, Judt zipped across countries, centuries and disciplines. It made me sit up straight and pay attention. His scope and comfort around the table were wonderful. And he had no compunction at all at asking questions – tough questions – to keep the conversation moving.

The class was large for a seminar, too – I believe that we started with 18 students. Many were doctoral students, much far along in their studies. They also knew the rules of the game. I did not, but did not realize it. I read, read, and read some more, devouring the required and the recommended texts. And I talked in class, too, trying to jump in and compete. It brought out an intellectual competitive streak in me.

Responsibilities for the class were straightforward: a paper at the end of the term and each of us was responsible for leading a class discussion on one of the course’s readings. Most weeks one or two books were required and many of them, but not all, were new to me. Judt pulled heavily from Eastern Europe but also a mix of literature and history. Borowski, Wolfe, Koestler, and Kolakowski – but with them French intellectuals and Italian novelists. Judt started each session with a short presentation and then it was up to the student to talk, structure the discussion and lead us. It was extraordinary exhilarating.

My draw was Raymond Aron and Opium of the Intellectuals. I was very happy that I did not have to present until 9 or 10 sessions into the course. And after I read a bit on Aron, I was pleased.  His ideas resonated with me and he wrote with clarity and conviction.

I loved the class. Most of the students loved the class. Judt loved the class – and my instincts were confirmed many years later when he told me that we were a good group. He treated our ideas with a seriousness and intensity that brought out the best in our thinking and work. It was extremely demanding, extraordinarily somber – the Holocaust weighed heavily – but also simply great fun.

Judt hated my final paper, a critique of Foucault’s epistemology in The Order of Things. He complained, rightly, that it lacked a clear argument and development, though he thought my ideas were interesting. We argued, discussed and argued. After I gained a better sense of how he thought to improve the paper, how I could give it a clear argument, I rewrote it. Getting an A from him on that paper was very gratifying.

We stayed in touch as I worked through my masters.  Professor Judt became Tony and he was very helpful with my growth as a scholar. Even though I was interested in American history he wrote letters of application for me to doctoral programs. I distinctly remember a meeting when I asked him about what he thought would be a good intellectual experience for me. He leaned back, put his hands behind his head – a signature move – propped his feet and said “Cambridge.  I went to Cambridge and had a wonderful time.  You should go to Cambridge.”

I did. And did. I thanked him repeatedly and he shrugged it off. Tony was always generous.

A few years later I picked up Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956 and I recognized the class. Read the book and imagining a group learning it, arguing it and refining it – and you have a good sense of that course.

Tony Judt is very much missed. And I am very fortunate to have had him as a teacher, mentor and friend.

David Potash