The historian Tony Judt says being paralysed by a wasting disease has made his mind sharper





Tony Judt is dying, cruelly. Eighteen months ago the British historian — a professor of European history at New York University and the author of Postwar, a bravura history of the continent since 1945 — was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Known in the US as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a motor neurone disorder. It is a hideous condition. Imagine the human body is a house, filled with lit rooms. ALS turns off the electricity, switch by switch. First you lose the use of your fingers, then your limbs, then the muscles in your torso and so on.

“It is”, Judt says, “like being in a prison which is shrinking six inches every day.”

In the spring of 2008 Judt, who was then a sprightly 60-year-old, noticed that he was having difficulty manipulating corkscrews and occasionally missed the keys while typing. He thought nothing of it. Three months later he threw a baseball, which went nowhere despite “immense effort”. Short walks uphill, he noticed, were also becoming a struggle. In August 2008 Judt went to see a doctor, who ran tests and gave him the news. Now 62, he is quadriplegic and needs assistance to breathe.

There is no pain associated with ALS, nor any loss of mental function. “One is”, he wrote in The New York Review of Books, “left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.”

Oh yes, I should have said — Judt still writes, brilliantly. Because he can still talk (with a microphone to catch his weakening voice) he can, with the help of an amanuensis, publish. His angry new book about the failure of wealth-obsessed western democracies, Ill Fares the Land, was written that way, as was his recent series of hilarious and nostalgic essays for The New York Review of Books. This past week, Judt has been corresponding with The Sunday Times by email.

I ask him whether his mental sharpness is a blessing or a curse.

“It’s not as though I could try being dumb and compare the two sensations,” he says. “But I have to assume it’s a blessing ... [although] I’m not sure that it’s mental sharpness that has kept me going so much as sheer bloody-minded willpower — or else the sort of ego that adapts well to overachieving.”...

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