George Scialabba: the untethered, untenured mind

Ideas as a life, not a living.

Ideas as a life, not a living.

In this world of overrated pleasures and underrated treasures, as the songwriter said, I’m glad there is George Scialabba. In the din, that is, of over-caffeinated wonks and touts who pass for thinkers, I rejoice in a modern guy from the old neighborhood who reads around the clock in Matthew Arnold’s realm of “the best that has been said and thought in the world” and keeps writing what he thinks. What Are Intellectuals Good For? is his new collection. The first answer to the question is his subtitle: “Essays and Reviews by George Scialabba.” With a vocation but not a speciality, George Scialabba meets the Irving Howe standard of the public intellectual: “By impulse, if not definition,” Howe wrote of the New York circle in the 1950s, “the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” No tenure, either. No tank to think in, no social circle, no genius grant (yet), no seat in the opinion industry or on cable TV — “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson — not even a blog. Though yes, a website. George Scialabba’s “credentials” are only the steady heart and critical pen he brings to the ecstatic discipline of ideas. Ideas seduced George as a Catholic kid in the Italian-American working class precincts of East Boston, the harbor neighborhood often mistaken for an airport. Affirmative action brought him to Harvard (Class of 1969). A half-conscious zeal to be a “divine secret agent” brought him into the narrow way of the lay order, Opus Dei. “Intellectual concupiscence, I guess” brought him out of the church onto the wide path of modernism.

The gods and demi-gods in George’s cast include Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Orwell; in America, Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald, Susan Sontag, Walter Karp and Ralph Nader. The tilt is often but not always to the left. George’s deeper enthusiasm is for self-conscious humanists in the public square. “By that,” he writes, “I mean that their primary training and frame of reference were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and that they habitually employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics… Their ‘specialty’ lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts but in penetrating especially deeply into the common culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force.” Scott McLemee says it well in Inside Higher Ed: “If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty’s skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky’s geopolitical worldview — and it’s a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this — then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba’s own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.” My conversation with George Scialabba is about whatever happened to the Williams James lineage of public intellectuals — to Emerson’s ideal of “Man Thinking” in his “American Scholar” essay. I ask him toward the end for his own specifications of the post-modern intellectual, a description of the ideal he’s seeking today:

GS: I think post-modernity is premature. I think we ought to postpone post-modernity for a few centuries, at least. I don’t think that modernity has exhausted its potential and the very sad fact is that nine tenths of the world, or eight tenths, or seven tenths, hasn’t yet entered modernity. This is a great, terrible indictment of us who have. We need to stop improving our lifestyles and just start inviting, at least pulling up, people who are trying to climb into the modern political and literary and intellectual and scientific culture. When nobody is getting less than two thousand calories of food or culture a day, then we can take off into the post-modern future—together. But now it just looks like we are really heading for a species division: some people are on such a fast-track to the future that, when other people are sunk in pre-modern misery, and its just not a healthy prognosis for the species.

CL: So who, then, are we looking for in the way of an example?

GS: Well, culturally I would say Wendell Berry and Sven Birkerts. People who have the sense of the vast, unexplored riches in the printed word, in the case of Birkerts, and in the natural world, in the case of Berry. People like Ralph Nader, who have a sense of the vast riches of the civic realm. They seem to be the exemplary modern men, and I don’t think that we should try to extend or go beyond their example so much as we should try to emulate it.

George Scialabba in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Boston, May 6, 2009.

It’s easy to see George Scialabba as the exception that proves the rule that “public intellectualism” is dead — stifled by the “power elite” in corporate universities and government, by television and the tyranny of advertising — “the modern substitute for argument,” as Santayana said; “its function is to make the worse appear the better.” But I don’t buy the line. I don’t even buy George’s discouragement. The open architecture of the Web has diversified and, at many sites, enriched and intensified the play of accessible ideas, beyond our imagining, say, ten years ago. Among the exemplary great ones: edge.org, which keeps freshening the argument that biologists and brain scientists are now the critical source of public ideas; 3 Quarks, the best of global magazine racks; George’s favorite, Crooked Timber; my favorite, perhaps: Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, where a Middle East historian at Michigan became the Thucydides of the Iraq War. Yet clearly something is missing — some point of connection, some contemporary version of Chatauqua. Our moment of crisis and broad popular disillusionment might be a dream time for independent thinkers, but it isn’t yet. Is the fault in our stars or in ourselves, that we don’t have a bolder, more robust public culture?

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