Jun 7 2013

For the Republic by George Scialabba

Tim Barker

web exclusive

Essayist George Scialabba is a rare bird, the sort of independent general intellect whose disappearance is so often lamented. Noted for his distinctive voice, well-furnished mind, and dizzying range, Scialabba is a kind of writer’s writer, earning high praise from luminaries such as the late Richard Rorty and the ornery critic Russell Jacoby. He was also awarded the first National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. Remarkably, he has won his reputation without an academic imprimatur, maintaining a day job as a facilities manager at Harvard.

Despite these accomplishments, a volume of essays from Scialabba poses a challenge to a reviewer: His essays consist almost entirely of considerations of other people’s books. To be sure, Scialabba is a master of the form. But because Scialabba is so good at articulating the ideas of others, his own positions are hard to separate from those of the authors he writes about. And because his range is so wide, it is often hard to remark generally on his books. In Scialabba’s third collection, For the Republic, for example, only three essays are not book reviews, and his subjects span the history of literature to contemporary American politics.

Like his previous collections What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament, For the Republic collects “political essays.” Scialabba’s definition of “politics” is expansive, but everything he writes is united by his warm and uncompromising leftist humanism. Scialabba is convinced that America is “the greatest country in the history of the world,” but he also worries that the republic has been hollowed out by corporations and imperial abandon, and that an “allotment of grub and gadgets” is now enough to sate the masses. Most of all, he believes that the U.S. is suffering from a lack of moral imagination, the kind that might allow us to envision and enact a different way of living. Because of this, Scialabba can come off as unbecomingly grouchy. He doubts Americans will ever give up “several hours a week of television” to think about justice, and complains that “today's undergraduates… are scarcely able to sit still for philosophical argument.”

Despite this pessimism, Scialabba believes in social progress, and finds plenty of examples of it in literature. In For the Republic, he highlights scenes from D.H. Lawrence and Henry James that illustrate the moral and material squalor his ancestors inhabited a few centuries ago, and the progress humanity has made since then. In this early-twentieth-century fiction, Scialabba finds instances of “mini-heroic auto-emancipations” which he hopes may one day inspire “a grander scheme of liberation and collective advance.” His hope for humanity persists even in the face of his own severe depression, which he chronicles in his searing essay “Letter from Room 101.” The piece is certainly the most memorable in the book, not least because Scialabba reveals at the end that it started off as a draft of a suicide note. His portrait of the “unconsuming fire” of his melancholy poignantly reveals the personal stakes Scialabba invests in his writing.

For the Republic is probably not a book to read straight through. Rather, it’s a book to return to, particularly if you've just finished reading Christopher Lasch or Victor Serge and want a thoughtful take on either thinker. These essays shed light not only on the books at hand but also on the way we live in the actual world—befitting for a serious thinker who has for the most part avoided the confines of academia. In the title piece of one of his earlier collections, Scialabba asked “what are intellectuals good for?” His answer: they “hemmed in everyday barbarism a little.” He was referring to his heroes Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, whose small observations about the uncomfortable truths of power have made the world slightly less ugly. Though Scialabba certainly belongs in their company, he is not a muckraker so much as an invaluable model of intellectual citizenship. For decades now, Scialabba has persisted in not only reviewing books he likes or hates, but in writing about seemingly anything that feels relevant. It is tempting to imagine this written work as continuous with the conversations he has at work: “the office radical,” he describes himself, “usually humored or ignored,” but also tenacious and sometimes well-received. In the book’s forward, cultural historian Jackson Lears quotes a description of William James that could characterize Scialabba: “You felt that he had just stepped out of this sadness in order to meet you.” As Scialabba so aptly argues, sadness is easy enough to come by in this day in age. It is the willingness to step out, again and again, in search of conversation—and happiness—that impresses so deeply.

Tim Barker is an assistant editor at Dissent. He has also written for Jacobin and The New Inquiry.