George Scialabba

  • Mystery Cult

    In “Darwinism,” the impassioned polemic that opens The Death of Adam (1998), the first of her four philosophical-theological essay collections, Marilynne Robinson hurls a flaming spear at all of modern thought:

    Now that the mystery of motive is solved—there are only self-seeking and aggression, and the illusions that conceal them from us—there is no place left for the soul, or even the self. Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible. . . . There is little use for the mind, the orderer and

  • Darkness Visible

    IF A TREE FALLS in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Who cares? If a culture disappears and no one misses it, or even remembers it, does that make a tragedy? Hmm . . . surely a different, weightier matter? No, it’s not, say techno-libertarians. The market metes out our fates, and rightly so. Competition in the capitalist marketplace is the only fair and democratic way to determine which cultural practices will survive. Purchases are votes. If no one is reading War and Peace anymore, then it doesn’t deserve to be read. Whining about cultural decline is elitist; lack of effective

  • Dread on Arrival

    I always used to feel sorry for myself, having suffered four debilitating episodes of clinical depression and many years of moderate-to-severe dysthymia. No longer. In fact, I feel rather fortunate not to be Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, whose lifetime of psychic agony—suffering is too weak a word—is chronicled in excruciating, enthralling detail in My Age of Anxiety.

    The torments of Job were nothing compared with Stossel’s. Two-year-old Scott would throw “epic tantrums” in which he “lay on the floor, screaming and writhing and smashing my head on the ground, sometimes for hours at

  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Writing

    “People expect too much of writers,” Albert Camus lamented in the late 1950s. At the time Camus was writing, the Algerian rebellion had grown into a full-scale guerrilla war for independence, and while his initial sympathy for the uprising led the French Right and the French Algerian settlers to denounce him as a traitor, he also came in for frequent polemical attacks from the French Left for not energetically and unequivocally supporting the insurgents. Criticism also came from the Algerian militants themselves. Frantz Fanon, the best-known Algerian writer, derided him as a “sweet sister.”

  • culture August 29, 2011

    Which Scandal?

    According to Kinsley’s Law, first promulgated by New Republic editor and columnist Michael Kinsley: “The real scandal is what’s legal.” The wiretapping, bribery, and other criminal activities of News Corporation employees and their political patrons certainly deserve all the attention they’re receiving. It’s equally important, though, to take this opportunity to consider what Rupert Murdoch’s vast power and influence reveal about the civic health of the societies in which he operates.

    According to Kinsley’s Law, first promulgated by New Republic editor and columnist Michael Kinsley: “The real scandal is what’s legal.” The Watergate scandal – a bungled espionage attempt against the Democratic Party – unseated an otherwise popular President whose bombing of Indochinese civilians was one of the 20th century’s great barbarities. The Iran-Contra scandal, in which a not-yet-impotent Congress’s prerogatives were flouted, embarrassed an even more popular President whose foreign policy had turned Central America into a graveyard. Occasional vote-buying or procurement scandals pale

  • culture April 06, 2011

    Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld

    The great are a pretty mixed lot, especially in politics. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were among the great, each in his own monstrous way. Churchill was, too, for both good and evil, and Roosevelt as well, though mainly he was lucky. De Gaulle may or may not deserve to be included in such company, but he certainly behaved as if he was sure he did.

  • It's All Just Talk

    If all thinkers are either foxes or hedgehogs, then Kierkegaard was decidedly a hedgehog. By his own emphatic acknowledgment, everything he wrote had a single purpose: to arouse a certain state of mind, or soul, in each of his readers. He called this state of mind “the consciousness of sin.” What he meant by that is something like what Saint Augustine and Martin Luther meant, but not exactly. In the difference lie his originality and his importance for us.

    The Present Age was written in 1846 and is newly reissued with a midcentury introduction by existentialist philosopher Walter Kaufmann.

  • Onward and Downward

    Man was created a rebel,” Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor admonishes the silent Christ in his prison cell, “and how can rebels be happy?” The burden of freedom, the responsibility of finding—or creating—one’s own purpose and meaning without the guidance of authoritative, inherited creeds and values, is too heavy for all but a few. The rest of us cannot endure for long the tensions of uncertainty. We must, at some point, stop questioning, quiet our doubts, turn away from moral and metaphysical inquiry and toward life. Untrammeled skepticism ends in paralysis. This is true of societies as well as