George Scialabba spoke in the President’s Lecture Series at the University of Montana on Monday, 12 March. He gave this year’s Ezio Cappadocia Memorial Lecture in Politics and History in the series. An essayist and critic, Scialabba has a highly unusual background for an American intellectual. As a high school student and then at Harvard University, he spent more than four years as a member of Opus Dei. His personal aspiration toward the holiness and sanctity prescribed for its members by this devout Catholic organization did not survive the influence of his training in literature and history at Harvard (B.A. 1969). He became converted to the rational values of the Enlightenment. In graduate school at Columbia University, he studied European intellectual history and earned an M.A. degree, but decided not to pursue a Ph.D. He found employment as a substitute teacher, social worker, and building manager at his alma mater in Cambridge.
Scialabba’s intellectual life for the past thirty-five years has been devoted to freelance book reviewing and political commentary. His reviews have appeared in Agni, The Boston Globe, Dissent, the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Nation, The American Conservative, Commonweal, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The American Prospect, and many other publications. In 1991, he received the Nona Balakian Excellence in Reviewing Award from the National Book Critics Circle. In 2007 and 2008, he taught in the Bennington College Graduate Writing Seminars Program. Since retiring from Harvard, he has been writing a book column for The Baffler. When he retired, on August 31, 2015, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, declared the date “George Scialabba Day.” Speakers converged on Harvard Square to pay tribute to him, including Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Noam Chomsky.
A collection of Scialabba’s reviews appeared in his first book, Divided Mind (2006). William Corbett’s publishing house, Pressed Wafer, brought out four subsequent collections of his essays: What Are Intellectuals For? (2009), The Modern Predicament (2011), For the Republic (2013), and Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015 (2016). In The New Yorker’s year-end roundup of the best books of the year for 2011, James Wood selected The Modern Predicament and said of Scialabba: “he has an enviably wide range: he writes superbly about D.H. Lawrence, the philosopher Charles Taylor, about Michel Foucault, Philip Rieff, Kierkegaard, and many others…. [He is] a shrewd, learned, undogmatic guide to contemporary debates about theology and postmodernity.” According to historian Jackson Lears, “George Scialabba is one of a handful of public intellectuals who are keeping the critical spirit alive in a time of stupefying complacency. His essays are unfailingly fresh, provocative, and pleasurable.”
In Scialabba’s afternoon faculty-student seminar preceding his town-gown lecture, he began with a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of the last man. Nietzsche could see nothing in all of modernity but an obliterating cultural catastrophe for mankind. Creating works of artistic and intellectual genius no longer would be possible for the diminished race of men and women now appearing in a denatured world, and the future would beget even more pathetic specimens who would be incapable even of recognizing genius. Scialabba critiqued some of the illiberal prescriptions for the problem raised by Nietzsche and agreed with the philosopher Richard Rorty about the superiority of modern democratic societies, for all their desolating problems, over the other social models on offer.
Yet Scialabba conceded an enormous amount of ground to those critics of Enlightenment rationalism who see in the martial virtues a necessary moral antidote to the corruption and decay caused by the breakneck hedonism of modern consumer society. On this point, he found a valuable insight in a 1910 essay by philosopher and psychologist William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James condemned war and imperialism on principle, but judged the martial virtues of strenuousness, hardihood, self-sacrifice, and valor to be “absolute and permanent human goods.” The great question of the day, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American and Filipino-American wars—both of which James implacably and publicly opposed—concerned the discovery of methods for preserving the martial virtues, but without war. James offered as a suggestion the creation of a universal national service system, an “army without weapons,” that would be the moral equivalent of war.
Writing after the First World War, D. H. Lawrence came to similar conclusions about the tragic waste of war but recognized its inevitability. In the posthumously published “Education of the People,” he called for an end to the mechanized ghastliness of modern warfare and a return to “the real war, the real fight, the sheer immediate conflict of physical men.” Scialabba could not be sure if Lawrence’s recommendation were “quixotic nonsense or one of the greatest antiwar statements I know.” Warfare under modern conditions had become unmanly, a contest of machine operators and their victims in hecatombs unprecedented in all history for their technological fiendishness. Aerial bombardments, submarine warfare, poison gas, and dumdum bullets seemed to Lawrence signs that humanity had reached a terminal stage in its degradation.
Scialabba also talked about the modern crisis of what he called the yeoman virtues, those standards of “self-control, self-reliance, integrity, diligence, and neighborliness” that characterized the best part of culture in the early American Republic. To explain what he meant by this crisis, Scialabba brought up ideas found in the work of Christopher Lasch and Steven Fraser about the ways by which modern industrial and technological society had transformed the American character. In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch judged American society to be an incubator of collective bromides and fads of ever-increasing absurdity. There would be no place for rugged individualism, either of thought or deed, in a land of raging narcissists.
In The Age of Acquiescence (2015), Fraser portrayed the life and death of American resistance to organized wealth and power. Like Lasch, he thought that a cultural collapse had made the country helpless before its real enemies, the lords of finance who control the economic system that rules the world. Fraser explained how during the First Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century the American people fought back magnificently against their oppressors. The Populist movement of the 1890s remains the most powerful and articulate expression in our entire history of democratic assertiveness against the money power that everywhere and always seeks absolute dominion over the commonwealth of mankind. In today’s Gilded Age, which is even more obscene in its inequities than the first one, we hear very little about overturning the vampire-like status quo. The American people insouciantly go on about their customary business, just as if history were not preparing a reckoning of accounts for the ravaging corporate capitalism headquartered on Wall Street and fostered in Washington by the military-industrial complex. The culture of consumerism and its mutually reinforcing spawn of metastatic narcissism, have deprived Americans of the rude strength of mind and character possessed by their nineteenth-century forbears. We live in an age of lost virtues. Paradoxically, the modern ideology of liberation has produced the greatest enslavement of all time, with mental and moral hygiene things of the past and the planet itself brought to its knees.
Scialabba closed on a moderately hopeful note, citing the utopian novel Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach as a moral and ecological rallying cry. For a people under relentless assault from propaganda networks designed and funded by consummate masters of evil, it is meritoriously subversive to be reminded of moral imperatives inimical to the conventional wisdom distilled by the media on behalf of the country’s power elites. Books like Callenbach’s permit us to hope that the wholesome influence of past American virtues might yet penetrate our carapace of clichés about global capitalism and its militaristic and imperialistic support systems. One likely alternative to the liberation provided by virtue is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s prediction about the elimination of all humanity in the last men and women.
16 March 2018