On the whole, a great book. A real pleasure to read. I’ve never read Scialabba’s stuff before (or I haven’t noticed his byline, to remember it). My loss. But better late than never.
What’s so great about Scialabba? Temperamentally, there is his gratifyingly steady exhibition of generous severity to his subjects. (I can’t imagine anyone could object to being drubbed so fairly. With the possible exception of Christopher Hitchens.) Stylistically, there is his facility for cramming breadth into small literary packets, without recourse to cheap space-saving devices. Intellectually, there is his forthright evenhandedness—his awareness of what other people think—that never forgets, or neglects to mention, what he thinks. (Everyone else is praising George as well, so I won’t lay it on thick. But no kidding. Good stuff.)
Full disclosure: I left my copy of his book in Maryland – but only after reading it completely – then wrote this post in New York, from stuff on his website, with the TV blaring in the background. And now I’m in Singapore, polishing up a little.
What are intellectuals good for?
The cover seems to suggest the answer might be: nothing. Nothing good. ‘We fool you,’ announce the symbol-manipulating professionals, snug between those who rule and those who shoot. But no. The correct answer is: several things, surely. Two, for starters. Scialabba’s review of Michael Walzer’s In The Company of Critics makes the point that we probably need both ‘internal’ critics (the sort Walzer favors) but also ‘external critics’. You can guess what the distinction comes to from the long passage I am about to quote; or you could just plain guess. But—in case you are unaccountably dull, hence incapable of guessing—‘internal critics’ are those pragmatist meliorists, incrementalists, moderates, two-side-seers, tactical trimmers and prudent ‘yes, but’ foot-draggers who ‘measure critical distance in inches’, rather than in terms of all that hard, lonely ground you have to cover, crawling all the way out of the Cave. ‘External’ critics are the ones who leave the Cave. Walzer’s idea is that the former fare better (achieve more, and maybe live longer) because (to reverse a famous formula) prophets without honor in their hometowns tend not to do much better when they take their weird show on the road.
If you want to appeal to people, you have to appeal to what appeals to people. Those who have been outside the Cave too long tend to be lousy persuaders. They don’t know how to draw on local troglodyte traditions in making their reform proposals. (Plato noticed this long ago, yes of course.)
Still, even granting (at least for the sake of argument) that internalist strategies are on the whole sounder and more secure, more steadily profitable, it hardly follows that all critics should be internal critics. This is Scialabba’s point (or part of it). I’ll quote at length, because it’s lovely writing and—I’ll stick my neck out an inch—expresses a Scialabban (Scialabbesque? Scialabbayan?) critical creed:
Concerned not to cut himself off from his fellow-citizens, the internal critic will be tempted to moderate, if not his indignation, then at least the expression of it: his rhetoric. And sometimes — usually — he will be right to do so, to set political effectiveness above literary effect.
But indignation is not always manageable. And however conscientiously the critic tries to reiterate, to reconstruct the moral history of those in other communities, it will always be difficult for him to give their suffering due weight. We are properly skeptical of the habitually enraged critic; but we are also disappointed on occasion — and they may be the most important occasions — by the invariably judicious one. Perhaps this is why, though I largely share Walzer’s political positions, I have seldom been profoundly moved by his own social criticism — enlightened, yes, but rarely inspired. The young Kafka wrote: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Walzer is, alas, far too polite ever to have hammered on anyone’s skull. Other connected critics have done so, it is true, including same of those Walzer discusses. But if the connection is not to be endangered, the tact required is extraordinary and the critic’s inhibitions will therefore be considerable.
Kafka went on: “What we must have are books that come upon us like ill-fortune and distress us deeply. . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” I have often exclaimed with pleasure while reading Walzer’s graceful prose, but never with distress. Inside every citizen of a state responsible for so much misery in the rest of the world there is, one must assume, a frozen sea. In normal times, for ordinary purposes, the temperate, scrupulously nuanced, moderately forceful criticism of the typical connected critic — of Walzer himself— is appropriate. But sometimes maximum intensity — an axe, a charge of verbal explosives, a burst of white heat — is required, whether for immediate effect or in helpless, furious witness. A sense of the simultaneous urgency and futility of much social criticism — i.e., the tragic sense — is a necessary part of the critical temperament. To resist this sense is the critic’s everyday responsibility. To give in to it, to risk excess, loss of dignity, disconnection, may also, on occasion, be his duty.
This negative point is made again in Scialabba’s review of an Isaiah Berlin volume. (Berlin, like Walzer, is a temperamental ‘internalist’ and, like Walzer, an advertiser of the virtues of that temperament.) Again I’ll quote at length. The first bit of what follows refers to unspecifed ‘urgent and obvious questions’. Again, the reader can guess—urgency and obviousness are wonderful assistants. But, in case the reader truly is a dull person: the questions in question revolve around the degree to which we can make the world a better place. (Yes, of course we can’t make it perfect. But it doesn’t have to be such a mess, surely.)
Notwithstanding his famously varied interests and extraordinary range, Berlin has never found the occasion to raise, much less come to terms with, these urgent and obvious questions. He has instead devoted himself to addressing continual reminders about the unattainability of perfect harmony to a civilization that cannot rouse itself to legislate a decently progressive income tax or do more than gesture fitfully at homelessness, global hunger, and a score of other evils for which a doubtless imperfect posterity will doubtless curse and despise us. Berlin will not, I’m afraid, win the Scialabba Prize.
He will survive that disappointment; for all his frequent and graceful self-deprecation, he evidently enjoys, along with everyone else’s, his own good opinion. Near the end of his splendid essay on Turgenev is a passage of what is unmistakably self-description:“… the small, hesitant, not always very brave band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of center, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left. Like the men of the 40s, for whom Turgenev spoke, they are at once horrified and fascinated. They are shocked by the violent irrationalism of the dervishes on the left, yet they are not prepared to reject wholesale the position of those who claim to represent the young and the disinherited, the indignant champions of the poor and the socially deprived or repressed. This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition (Russian Thinkers, p. 301).
This is a perfectly honorable position, but it is not, as far as I can see, an agonizing one. It seems, in fact, quite a comfortable one. Turgenev, it is true, was not comfortable. But then, he tried long and hard to find common ground with the “indignant champions of the poor,” rather than merely informing them that not much, alas, can be done. Berlin is, of course, in favor of whatever can be done; but what in particular that might be, and why not more, never seems to be his immediate concern. “The concrete situation is almost everything,” he advises, concluding an essay entitled “The Pursuit of the Ideal.” The concrete situation is just what he has rarely had a word to say about.
Forty years ago Irving Howe wrote: “But if the ideal of socialism is now to be seen as problematic, the problem of socialism remains an abiding ideal. I would say that it is the best problem to which a political intellectual can attach himself.” So it was, and still is. And Berlin still hasn’t.
Scialabba’s got Walzer and Berlin dead to rights. But his point isn’t that Walzer and Berlin are good for nothing. Rather, in a healthier intellectual ecology, you would have relatively more Kafkaesque ice-axe-style skull smashing. Not just that, of course. And, of course, not literally. Berlin is not, pace the cover of Scialabba’s book, fooling us. But it isn’t exactly an accident that his undeniably attractive persona has expanded to fill a particular niche in the intellectual ecology; nor that the niche turns out to be so comfortable.
The fervent gratitude he inspires is, in a way, the most remarkable thing about Berlin’s career. He has written comparatively little; it obviously strikes exactly the right chord. “People are pleased,” observes Russell Jacoby (“Isaiah Berlin: With the Current,” Salmagundi, Winter 1982), “to find a man of learning who does not accuse them or their society of unspeakable crimes. … Berlin reassures his readers in a prose studded with the great names of Western culture that complexity is inevitable, solutions, impossible; the threat is from the utopians and artists who imagine a better world.”
Ouch. The more so for taking such mild note of the symptomatic absence of agony.
It isn’t that Berlin is wrong. What Scialabba is saying, in effect, is that Berlin lacks a sense of proportion. He can’t strike a balance between the ideal and the possible. Which, of course, ironically undercuts Berlin’s self-presentation as, precisely, the down-to-earth balancer of competing claims and values. Scialabba’s point is that any true sense of proportion would be a tragic sense—an agonized sense. It is Berlin’s equilibrium that shows he’s off-balance.
Now: how much have I just said? Not so much, really. Still, a lot follows from it, potentially. I’d like to develop this thought to the tune of about 8,000 words in one direction, at least 5,000 in another.
But what I’ve said will do for starters. Let me conclude by remarking that a more accurate title for the collection might be: What Sorts of Intellectuals Should There Be? In What Social Mixes and Ecological Proportions? When? And How Can You Tell?Except that’s not a very good title.