What Are Intellectuals Good For
by George Scialabba
Reviewed by Philip Christman
"I find conscientious qualification much sexier than resonant exaggeration," writes George Scialabba, and he's not kidding. This book, culled from nearly thirty years' worth of reviews for magazines like the Boston Review and Agni, is proof. For a writer as intelligent as Scialabba, forced by inclination or happenstance to chart his intellectual evolution in 400-3000-word chunks, polemical distortion must present an appalling temptation, but he has mastered it. Once in a while his scrupulous care with others' arguments is even a little exhausting: reading his magisterial takedown of William F. Buckley, for example, I felt a simultaneous admiration and dismay, as if I were watching the world's greatest epidemiologist patiently explain disease-causation to a mountebank.
Scialabba writes as if he's trying by sheer example value to will a smarter, more honest, more aesthetically and morally sensitive Left into being. Such a Left would replace the one whose twentieth-century failures -- of omission and commission -- bedevil this book, and which leads him to ask the question: What are intellectuals good for? One thing they're not good for, argues Scialabba, is constructing secular substitutes for religion. Whether they're Marx's, Kant's, or someone else's, accounts of justice, human nature, or rights that try to specify once and for all the nature of human life are doomed to failure. This theme emerges again and again. His considerations of various political thinkers are judicious, quotable, and clear, conforming to his own description of the book reviewer's task -- he "limns the relevant controversies," "hazards an original perception or two," and "causes fifteen to forty five minutes' reading time to pass almost unnoticed."
One could quibble with one or two of his critical judgments. (Is Alexander Cockburn really that good a prose stylist?). One could question the short shrift that he gives to some thinkers, and in particular to multiculturalists. (He laments especially their jargon. Point taken, but, as a Walt Whitman enthusiast, Scialabba should know that you simply can't tell the story of the United States honestly without reference to the works and days of its varied constituents.) My more serious objection would be that, throughout the book, Scialabba, a non-tenured thinker in the Dwight MacDonald mode, nevertheless indulges in a number of annoying seminar-room habits. He grants entirely too much explanatory power to conjure-words like "modernity" and "modernization" (this latter term, essentially meaningless, has caused especial problems for historians). He is a victim of that process of socialization that seems to make all tenured people fans of Nietzsche, despite his cruelty, and of Freud, despite his analytical near-uselessness. (Freudians positively exult in the Great Man's unfalsifiability, while insisting that we receive Freudian critiques of shopping malls or amusement parks with the same guess-that's-settled shrug we give the New Scientist.) "The most compelling and influential account of morality yet produced is Nietzsche's," he writes, astonishingly, of the man who considered ethical obligation an invention of scheming Jews.
The bad habit that contains all these others is Scialabba's devotion to the most hackneyed of academic folktales: that of a human race progressing through one false god after another (pagan, Christian, Enlightened, Marxist) only to arrive, somewhere on or about December 1910, at the abandonment of metaphysics. (Cue choir.) This story, to me, absolutely drips with metaphysics; it reeks of religion, and thus of self-refutation. Who, for example, is the grandiose "We" of whom Scialabba frequently writes (in sentences beginning, "We can no longer believe …")? Is it the Universal Mind? The World-Soul? The Spirit of the Age on horseback? It sure as hell isn't me. (I attend church, and am thus, from the point of view of "We," languishing in self-imposed minority.) This "We" is either an implicit metaphysical claim, according to which the anti-metaphysics of a few million well-read university graduates represents a Truth of the Age while the varied metaphysics of billions of others don't, or else it's a bit of that resonant exaggeration Scialabba usually foregoes.
It is, in any case, adherence to this story that leads Scialabba, in the book's long middle section, from championing the good example of certain non-affiliated leftists (Noam Chomsky, Dwight MacDonald) to praising the anti-metaphysics of Richard Rorty, whom he considers profounder than Plato. Philosophy, he agrees with Rorty, is not prior to democracy. There is no "human nature," let alone any God or gods, and if you've a taste for sublimity, pursue it on your own time. The book's many Rorty-centered essays won't convince those who aren't already sympathetic. They don't offer -- they can't offer -- any argument but repeated assertion: There are no metaphysics; what else you gonna do? The fact that a statement like "Democracy must come before philosophy" is already philosophical -- neither Rorty nor his fervent seconder Scialabba can really respond to this objection. Nor can they respond to any other. Doing so, after all, might involve them in metaphysics. Thus Rorty, despite Scialabba's best efforts, thus continues to remind me of Leonard Nimoy's character in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- a cool, persuasive voice raised against the human project itself.
But if I dislike the philosophy he espouses, I'm moved by the rigor with which Scialabba thinks it through. The most characteristic thing that can be said of this writer is that, having declared his allegiance to the groundless, skyless progressivism of Richard Rorty, he spends nearly the last third of this book in loving inspection of Christopher Lasch, progress's dedicated opponent. I only wish Scialabba had been even more dialectical, and finished up this book with the astonishing essay on C.S. Lewis that appears in his out-of-print 2006 collection Divided Mind. Scialabba not only praises that conservative Anglican's works of Christian apologetics, but, in a moment of truly shocking self-abandonment, he turns on his own hero with a sci-fi simile much harsher than my own: "I revere Rorty," he writes, "but thanks to Lewis, I have never been able to leave off mentally comparing him to Wither" -- the evil philosopher-bureaucrat of Lewis's space trilogy. "And when I heard Rorty lecture for the first time, the physical resemblance I saw -- or fancied -- between him and Wither made the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
Early in the book, Scialabba writes of a "book reviewer's hall of fame" whose first inductees might be James Wood and Christopher Hitchens. Whether one's sense of justice is metaphysically real or not, it outrages mine to think of Scialabba not capturing first place.
Phil Christman is finishing his MFA in fiction at University of South Carolina-Columbia. His work has appeared in Annalemma, Paste, Books and Culture, Mercy Review, the NWSA Journal, and Christian Century, among other places.