January 12, 2010

Some readers may know Tony Judt from his writings in the New York Review of Books and/or his excellent book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). In 2008, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). As of October 2009, he was paralyzed from the neck down. He has begun to write about this at NYRB and the first installment is here.

I suppose I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And it is true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the “memory palace” so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably—as it now appears to me—by those not exclusively dependent upon them. Much the same can be said of well-meaning encouragements to find nonphysical compensations for physical inadequacy. That way lies futility. Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.

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