Home > Poetry > What Is George Scialabba Good For?
Published: Wed Jul 1 2009
Anne Neely, Summer Cycle (detail), oil on linen, photographed by Julia Featheringill
What Is George Scialabba Good For?

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Scialabba. 250 pages. Pressed Wafer. $15.00.


George Scialabba, the critic, essayist, and conspicuous polymath whom I have met only once and whose writing I have edited for a couple of ignominious journals, is a clerical worker, a building manager at Harvard, the school from which he graduated in 1969. And I think the facts of his vocational life are quite relevant, in a very homely, obvious way, to the splendid work that he does.

I’ll put it more precisely: there are almost no professors who do Scialabba’s kind of work, nor any journalists. It is not the case today, nor has it ever really been the case, that one got tenure by knowing the collected works of thinkers like Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Walter Karp, George Orwell, Leszek Kolakowski, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, both Trillings, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Academia is simply too segmented by disciplines, and besides, many of these writers matter not for any scholarship they wrote but because of how their writing influenced a broader audience. Macdonald and Bourne, for example, matter not because their ideas are still current but because they are actors in American intellectual history. And since that subject is scarcely taught in our universities—try finding Mencken on a syllabus—there are few academics who would have the time for them today. Political scientists would read Gray, philosophers in certain specialties MacIntyre, but do any of them also read Lionel Trilling? Diana Trilling?

No, the only people who read public intellectuals current and past are professional journalists or book critics, and obsessive, usually left-wing amateurs. The book critics stop at a certain level of difficulty—Times critics might review the English political philosopher John Gray, but would their readers be interested in Kolakowski? So it’s largely left to the obsessive amateurs.

What most amateurs lack, however, are the skills. George Scialabba has the time, the freedom, and the passion of the amateur—and he also has the perspicacity, and the pen, of the Harvard alumnus. To use a word that my Massachusetts paisano would know well, it’s a wicked combination.

So the first reason to read What Are Intellectuals Good For?, Scialabba’s new collection of essays and reviews, is that it’s as succinct and companionable a tour through major American thinkers of the past century as you’re likely to get anywhere. Taken together—and one should take them together, for reasons that I’ll make clear—these short pieces constitute a one-volume lecture series on the great books. Not all the great books, of course: conservatives would rightly complain, for example, that a fuller canon would include Hayek, and for his sheer pressure on the life of the American mind one would need to include Mencken (and Gladwell—seeing the skeptical social democrat Scialabba get in the ring with the pop-psychologizing Malcolm Gladwell would be tasty). And of course the point, after reading Scialabba, would be to actually go read the great books—Scialabba would insist that his précis is no substitute for an actual reading of Bourne, Stanley Fish, or Nicola Chiaromonte (whom I hadn’t heard of). But it’s because I’ve read this book, pulled together from twenty years’ writing in Dissent, AGNI, The Nation, Boston Review, and elsewhere, that I have the courage to read onward. Scialabba makes me want to use my library card.


What does Scialabba want, besides that you read good, important books? Just turn to the book’s dedication, which reads: “For Chomsky, Rorty, Lasch—three answers.” I can’t imagine there are too many people who would be willing to spend their lives sitting on that three-legged stool. First, as noted, there are very few people alive who know the works of all three writers well. What’s more, while I am attracted to both Rorty and Lasch, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s allying with both Rorty and Chomsky—the former with his affirming, and ultimately patriotic, pragmatism and the latter with his curdled, bitter skepticism. I don’t think that Scialabba ultimately makes it all cohere, but then again coherence is not the only, or even the major, virtue of an intellectual.

In his perceptive introduction, Scott McLemee avers that if Scialabba were to write a manifesto, “it would probably call for more economic equality, the dismantling of the American military industrial complex, and the end of metaphysics. To hold such an ideal without any very robust confidence that History is the record of mankind’s long march towards its fulfillment—well, that can make for gloominess.” Indeed, gloomily seems to be the only way anybody could sit for long on the Chomsky/Rorty/Lasch stool. Not that Scialabba doesn’t try to force a smile. In his essay “The Sealed Envelope,” Scialabba says there are two paths that lead, “if not altogether out of despair, at least toward endurance and a provisional hope.” One, Rorty’s path of “renunciation,” insists that democratic societies “should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives.” The other path is a “frankly tenuous, even willful, faith in the utopian visionary tradition.” He offers Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” as one “hearteningly plausible utopia.”

But the utopian in Scialabba is, I think, most present in his affection for Christopher Lasch, whose complicated views he explains more clearly, and more sympathetically, than anyone else has. “How does industrialization produce a culture of narcissism?” Scialabba asks in “A Whole World of Heroes,” from 1995:

Lasch argued that the evolution of capitalism has affected family structure and the socialization of children in a number of ways. In reorganizing the production process, it has removed the father from the child’s everyday experience and deprived him of the skills that formerly evoked the child’s emulation and gratitude. . . . In encouraging geographic mobility, it has uprooted families from kin communities and replaced intergenerationally transmitted folk wisdom about child-rearing with social-scientific expertise dispensed by professionals. . . . In promoting mass consumption, advertisers . . . have convinced parents that their children are entitled to the best of everything but that, without expert assistance, parents are helpless to determine what that might be.

For the left, Lasch’s critique of capitalism was profoundly discomfiting, because it posited “progress” as anything but. “For Lasch, then,” Scialabba writes, “modernization was not the solution but a new form of the problem—the problem, that is, of domination.”

To this modern, post-industrial world Lasch counterposed the pre-modern world of guilds, villages, and the church. They had their dominators and their oppressed, too, but paradoxically they had better resources, several centuries before anyone would realize it, for popular resistance. With their ethos of the artisan and the yeoman farmer, of civic virtue and the broad diffusion of wealth and competence, these pre-modern communities had a “moral economy” (Lasch’s term) that modernity has shredded. People in such communities had a stolidity and virtue that made them better custodians of their own best selves, and even girded them for participation in popular movements. It’s no accident, Lasch believed, that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was led not by suave elites but by men and women grounded in rural towns and old-fashioned churches. Lasch was careful to say—and Scialabba is careful to say that Lasch was careful to say—that we can’t go back to the past, nor should we try. But the reclamation of virtue, in some new, updated form, that Lasch wished for is also, I think, the utopia that Scialabba comes closest to thinking possible.

Scialabba doesn’t say as much, but his other utopian pleas seem half-hearted at best. In these essays one finds the occasional mention of Wilde or Bellamy, but far more prominent are his admissions that an anti-utopian prejudice does make a certain sense. After all, he writes, “we all want to see the plans. And there are no plans.” Scialabba ultimately sides with Matthew Arnold (whom he gracefully reclaims for the left), who called himself a “liberal of the future.” Scialabba decides that he is a “25th-century utopian,” unwilling to give up the hope that the world can be improved drastically, if not this year or next then certainly in the next five hundred years. “The wisdom and generosity of the corporate boardroom and the Wall Street Journal editorial page may be the best we can do in 1999,” he says, tartly. “But by 2500?” By that time we could indeed be much closer to the democratic socialism that Scialabba hungers after, although never defines. After all, “there are no plans.”

Actually, I don’t expect my naive utopian dreamers to offer plans; I’m suspicious when they do. I’d prefer they model joy. What’s so compelling about Scialabba’s praise of Lasch is that he seems genuinely excited. He truly believes that Lasch’s world of virtue is achievable—if not in a twelfth-century way, then in a twenty-fifth. At one point, in his review of a book by John Gray, Scialabba has an occasion to describe his version of the good life: “singing in harmony at least once a week; having a body practiced in graceful movement; taking part in frequent and lively political (or aesthetic or metaphysical) argument; knowing many poems and prose passages by heart; having wilderness nearby or at a moderate distance; and above all, having useful and (at least part of the time) stimulating work. . . . [E]veryone could have these things without spoiling the planet.”

There is a sense of possibility here that is terrifically winning; and since I am attracted to brilliant criticism in part because it offers a compelling model to aspire to—time to read books! the intelligence to understand them!—it matters to me if the critic seems capable of wringing from his reading, and from his life, a workable happiness. That’s the impression I get of, say, James Wood or David Orr when I read their reviews; it’s less frequently the case reading George Scialabba, which is why the passage above really stands out. Incidentally, he suggests that authors who might help us think about this modest, cheerful utopia include Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, and Seamus Heaney—authors I was startled to see him mention. Forget Rorty and Chomsky—who else in the world loves both Stegner and Chomsky?

What I mean to say is not that the hopeful, frequently gentle novels of Stegner are politically incompatible with Chomskyism, but that they are temperamentally incompatible. And that’s more important, in a very concrete way, if we agree with Scialabba’s old-fashioned Marxist attitude that criticism should make things happen. A Stegner novel like All the Little Live Things (to take one example) is ultimately a testament to the wonderful weirdness of America; when it’s scolding, it scolds from love. In a fine essay about Michael Walzer, Scialabba actually admits the importance of this affectionate relationship between critic and criticized: “An effective critic, Walzer argues, is likely to be a member of the community he or she criticizes, formed within and by it, intimate with its traits and traditions, serious about its morality—more serious, in some important respect, than the community’s leadership or even membership.”

Sounds like a building manager—at Harvard, but not of Harvard—would be a perfect candidate for that job. Scialabba is, and when he comes to praise Rorty or Lasch, Stegner or Heaney, he really shows his usefulness. I don’t mean to say that his effusive praise for Chomsky is insincere or misguided. Rather, I am saying something more personal, which is that I can’t be both a Chomskyan and a Stegnerite. I can accede to the separate sets of facts they each present to the world, but I can’t put those two lenses into one pair of bifocals. It would make for too much gloominess, to go back to Scott McLemee’s word.

And I’m not ready to admit that gloominess is what the world needs more of. Extraordinary despair contains intrinsic truths missing from benedictory optimism, but the inverse is also true; neither has a priori privilege. They’re both imperfect, both necessary, although they differ in their anthropologies.

One doesn’t need to guess at why gloominess will never vanish from Scialabba’s world, why a muslin curtain will always screen light from his windows. Just go read “Message from Room 101,” an essay collected in Divided Mind, Scialabba’s only other book. “Message from Room 101” is about Scialabba’s severe clinical depression, one that he knows is caused by brain chemistry but which, he adds, is exacerbated by life’s trials—in his case, not enough money. The essay began as a suicide note, he confesses, but turned into this work of “fantasied blackmail.” So, he asks,

[w]hy risk bathos rather than keep a stoical and dignified silence? This was my third devastating depression, and probably not my last. I hope and intend to survive the coming ones, but already it seems urgent to try to salvage something from these ordeals. The conjunction of my pecuniary panic with a large-scale transfer of our national wealth [under George W. Bush] to the already rich seemed to make such an occasion. The vast majority of depression memoirs and manuals in recent years suggests that there must be tens or hundreds of thousands of others whose sufferings, as intense as mine, would also have been lessened by crumbs of that wealth. . . . Perhaps they would want someone to say all this, however ineptly and futilely. If so, I won’t have come back from hell empty-handed.

No, not empty-handed, George. It takes a depressive to recognize the need for a utopia, but it might take a sanguine novelist like Stegner, or a campy wit like Wilde, to describe one. You’re the depressive, and you can’t go it alone, you need the poet or the queen, the transcendentalist or the troubadour alongside you. Your conjunction of hope with despair, your indecision about utopia, your resistance to frivolity that occasionally, happily gives way—these are your footsteps. I don’t want to walk a mile in your shoes, but I will always want to read about your travels.

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