I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days, I know. That’s what happens when a lot of years thinking about Albert Einstein brings one an invitation to the city of Medellin, Colombia to talk Big Al to the public.
Medellin is a fascinating place, as it happens, though I didn’t get that much time to explore. I was struck throughout my visit at the oddness of the mix of circumstances that brought me to a place I’d truly never imagined I’d go, to speak of relativity, Hitler, and all kinds of things. Funny old life and all that.
It’s not that complicated to get to Medellin from Boston — a hop to Miami and then a direct flight from there — but the plane rides and the layovers added up to the longest stretch of uninterrupted pure reading time I’ve had in a while. On the way down, I finished Tom Bissell’s really interesting Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter — I may write about this non-gamer’s reaction to Bissell’s attempt to locate the game-specific artistic core of the genre — but what has me captivated from a couple of days ago is my re-entry into Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.
That book, a memoir written from deep within the consuming fact of Judt’s last illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is really a collection of short essay/memories. Judt was a historian — his work centers on post-war Europe — and a public intellectual, the author of essays that detailed the flaws and follies of politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic with bite — even ferocity. The Memory Chalet touches on such concerns only obliquely. But even so, in the midst of this exercise of recollection, flashes of connection arc across time and wit to produce sudden, wonderful set pieces.
Like the one prompted by a remembrance of Britain’s end-of and post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee — so precisely rendered as to strike switchblade slash of political observation that makes me wish (again) that this particular wit were still unsheathed:
Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography: hard to define but you know it when you see it. It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibilty. All politics is the art of the possible. But art too has its ethic. If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Atlee would be the Vermeer of the profession: precise, restrained — and long undervalued.
Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing — and cupidity — of Damien Hurst.
Blair as Hurst. Perfect.
See what I mean, though? Would that Judt were around to wrap mind and apply pen to the freak show of contemporary Republican politics!
One more thing. Given that it’s Sunday, and we should not live by politics alone, here’s a bonus bit of Judt, pure memory here, in a brief passage that tries to capture an identity formed through a childhood transected by warring cuisines: the postwar English assaults against food; his grandparents’ resistant strain of Eastern European Jewish Sabbath meals; the first hints of a world of food beyond Land’s End. What did all this add up to for the grown up Judt, that sophisticated citizen of Intelligentsia? This:
As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory? Naan dunked in matzohball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras. We are what we ate. And I am very English
For me, it would be the wonton soup from the long lost Yee’s Canton Café — the consequence of having a Jewish historian of China for a father, who declared that the Chief Rabbinate’s writ ended at the door to a Chinese restaurant — followed by my mothers’ leg of lamb with red currant jelly. You?
Image: J. Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669.