Saturday, April 17, 2010
A treatise on our present discontents
Today’s literary discovery – thanks to one of my favourite websites - - is an essayist called Joseph Epstein who muses about the approach of death in a very elegant yet simple essay - Symphony of a lifetime - . And some civilised reactions from readers
I googled him but found only one of his 19 books - On Friendship – which looks delightful. Amazon has a few – and I have put a couple of his collections of essays on writers in my basket.
The day has dawned bright – but still chilly. No signs here of the volcanic ash (from an Iceland volcano) which has grounded half of Europe’s planes. Political leaders are stuck all over the place – Angela Merkel having to drop into Lisbon (shades of Candide) on her way back from the States; the Portugese President in Prague; the Swedish PM apparently ruling the country by twitter in another airport! John Cleese makes a 3,500 euros taxi journey. The UK running out of fruit. Shows you the vulnerability of our systems these days.
Tony Judt’s ILL fares the Land – a treatise on our present discontents is a stunning essay by one of our best historians on how far western societies have fallen in the last 30 years in the pursuit of efficiency. Doom and gloom books are ten a penny these days – full of ecological disasters, commercial greed, academic simpletons and political pygmies. Prescriptions are rather more rare (Will Hutton and David Korton are exceptions). Probably only a historian can give us this sort of perspective on how the model of “social democracy” which seemed to have emerged a stunning victor in the ideological struggle of the 20th century so quickly was consigned, in its turn, to the waste basket. And with what catastrophic results. Of course, we have heard the story of neo-liberalism and its legacy many times before. But, generally, from journalists, economists or campaigners in a fairly strident manner. Judt suggests the story is a bit more complicated – with the new left having to shoulder considerable blame for its stress in the 1960s on “rights”. However legitimate the claims of individuals and the importance of their rights, emphasising these carries an unavoidable cost; the decline of a shared sense of purpose. Gated communities are the result.
The book’s language is simple to the point of elegance – probably because his debilitating illness required it to be transcribed from his spoken word. But the words (and chapter headings and sub-headings) reflect the vast range of his reading and knowledge. This is a very rare book in which a highly intelligent and sensitive historian takes stock of what he has learned in his life - in an effort to give the younger generation both a memory and some hope.
I was initially disappointed at the smallness of the book – but its contents and message and the format given to it by the publisher make it a book to treasure and consult for a long time to come.