In an essay on the voluble New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald, George Scialabba cites Lionel Trilling’s assessment of Orwell, who, for Trilling, exemplified “the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”
Much the same could be said of George Scialabba. For forty-four years, he has made a gift of his “direct, undeceived intelligence”—I would not say “simple”—to those fortunate readers who, as Richard Rorty once recommended, “stay on the lookout for [his] byline.”
Scialabba’s new collection, Only a Voice, contains twenty-eight previously published essays, the earliest from 1984, the latest (from this magazine) in 2021. They’re gathered here with a new introduction that takes up a perennial question for Scialabba—“What are intellectuals good for?”—and an apposite epigraph from Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”
Rorty isn’t alone: Christopher Hitchens, Norman Rush, James Wood, and Vivian Gornick have all, at various times, proclaimed their membership in the informal Association of Scialabbians. Scialabba, it has been said, is a “critic’s critic,” which, like being called a “songwriter’s songwriter” or a “comic’s comic,” is a way for more successful peers to laud his singular talent—as another admirer described it, “skeptical without being cynical, earnest without being sanctimonious, and truthful without being a scold”—while thanking him for remaining courteously unfamous.
We love geniuses, Trilling says, but they are discouraging. “We feel that if we cannot be as they, we can be nothing. Beside them we are so plain, so hopelessly threadbare.” In the decade-and-a-half that I have been reading Scialabba, I have often envied a piquant turn of phrase, marveled at the economy of a synthesis, wished to be so well-read, to possess his daunting breadth of reference, his ease and unsentimental sincerity; and I have, at times, quailed at the plainness (or else, the needless flamboyance) of my own prose by comparison. But never, not once, has reading Scialabba made me feel discouraged.
What I have felt most consistently is gratitude. Scialabba toiled for thirty-five years at a desk job in the windowless basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, writing book reviews in his spare time; he has much to say about the economic conditions that enable or disable the life of the mind. (A sufferer from chronic depression, Scialabba credits his union for enabling him to take several paid medical leaves. “This is one of many ways in which strong unions are a matter of life and death,” he writes in How To Be Depressed.) And yet, for Scialabba, the essence of intellectual and creative exchange remains a gift economy: “When we’re young, our souls are stirred, our spirits kindled, by a book or some other experience,” he once said, “and in time, when we’ve matured, we look to pay the debt, to pass the gift along.” Gratitude, deeply felt, enables generosity. And never has a writer of such enviable talents displayed such undiminishing patience for his reader, such evident and unpretentious pleasure in the pedagogical function of good prose.
In this way, Scialabba models another virtue: the virtue of not being scornful—or only sparingly so. (He permits himself a special dispensation when it comes to mendacious architects of war like Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.) In almost every other instance, Scialabba adheres to Matthew Arnold’s standard of disinterestedness, which Scialabba summarizes thus: “To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponents; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problems that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing.”
It would not be wrong, exactly, to call this sensibility “liberal.” (Arnold certainly would.) Scialabba shares with figures like Trilling, Rorty, and Irving Howe the constitutive liberal trepidation: the fear that he might be mistaken. (In my experience, conservatives are much less afflicted by this anxiety.) Scialabba distinguishes himself, however, from the run of self-doubting liberals by refusing to allow such fear to paralyze his judgment or extinguish his passion. Political commitment, after all, cannot be ignited or sustained by skepticism alone. Of Howe’s Dissent magazine, Scialabba writes, “[it] aims to produce a refined and complicated political awareness among its readers. It’s a noble aim. But someone or something else must first have produced an elemental political awareness.” Quite so. As Scialabba insists in the introduction to Only a Voice, a man or woman of the Left must cultivate “discrimination” and “democratic passion” both. Without a comparable measure of each, one will starve the other.
One can imagine Scialabba, had he not abandoned his youthful theism, reciting in earnest John Stuart Mill’s prayer for his opponents: “Lord, enlighten our enemies…. Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.” When Scialabba encounters folly in the arguments of his interlocutors—whether they be agonized Cold War liberals like Isaiah Berlin, despairing conservatives like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, or fellow travelers of the fretful, beleaguered Left, like Christopher Lasch, Howe, and Trilling—he does so with an air of disappointment rather than disdain. Put simply, he is fair. And to be treated fairly by George Scialabba, as, for example, Christopher Hitchens was in the pages of n+1 in 2005, can be a far more devastating fate than being treated shabbily by a thousand less scrupulous critics.