What Sorts of Intellectuals Should There Be?

by John Holbo on August 5, 2009

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 [18]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.



Henri Vieuxtemps 08.05.09 at 11:11 am

It could be agonizing, I suppose. Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms wrote a whole bunch of short humorous stories about Russian great writers, and in every one of them at the end Turgenev gets petrified by something or other and immediately leaves for Baden-Baden. Here’s one I found on the web:

Lev Tol’stoy and F.M. Dostoyevsky quarreled about which of them could write a better novel. They invited Turgenev to arbitrate.

Tol’stoy sprinted home, locked himself in his study, and began to write. About children, of course (for he greatly loved them).

But Dostoyevsky sat by himself and thought “Turgenev is a cautious type. He’s sitting by himself and thinking “Dostoyevsky is a temperamental type! If I say his book’s worse – he might stab me! What should I do?” That’s what Dostoyevsky thought. “I’ll deliberately write a worse book. Even so, I’ll win the dosh!” (They had bet a hundred roubles on the outcome).

But Turgenev, at the same moment, was sitting by himself, thinking: “Dostoyevsky is a temperamental type. If I say his book is worse – he might stab me! On the other hand, Tol’stoy – is a Count! Another one not to mess with. Oh, drat the both of them!”

And on the same night, veeery quietly, he left for Baden-Baden.


Russell Arben Fox 08.05.09 at 1:22 pm

Obviously, I’m a Scialabbaian, and I just didn’t know it. My loss! But anyone who can nail the perfectly enlightened (and Enlightened), perfectly liberal and pluralistic and tolerant and urbane and wise, perfectly (and infuriatingly) comfortable Isaiah Berlin is on the side of the angels, as far as I’m concerned.

Incidentally, John, does any of this strike close to home to you? I’m not trying to play gotcha, just wondering how those who feel willing to defend the whole vaguely Whiggish (vaguely Berlinesque?) “liberal sack of garbage” line of thought–remember that old discussion with Tim Burke?–against the radicals ought to situate themselves in regards to Scialabba’s claims. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of recognizing that both forms of critique are important, and pushing back against those who lambast the former as somehow necessarily playing into the hands of the Powers That Be. I find myself, in somewhat different contexts, often caught between both forms of critique, and I’m not sure I do a very good job at adjudicating when one is more appropriate than the other.


Arion 08.05.09 at 2:34 pm

I only came on Sciallabba a month back, to my immense delight, and relief. And it was wonderful to find at least one other living person who takes such delight in the old New York School. I’ll second Holbo’s nod to his gracious genrosity, and add -even more important- how infused every sentence is with moral fervor. It reminded of of a pamphlet: THE COMMITMENT OF THE INTELLECTUAL, BY Paul Baran, (Monthly Review Press, 1966, Lib of Cong cat. #
66-20065) where he essentially distinguishes between intellect workers and intellectuals.


Thomas Wood 08.05.09 at 8:29 pm

I was looking through my commonplace book entries from George’s book and I found this:
“Modernity may be considered the joint accomplishment of skeptics and visionaries. The skeptics can be seen as clearing a space for the utopian imagination, for prophecies of a demystified community, of a solidarity without illusions. The skeptics weed, the visionaries water.” (WAIGF, p.123).
In short intellectuals at their best are good for “cultivation.” In Berlin’s enthusiasm for tearing down the utopian aspirations of his subjects, he neglects to really be promote anything. The sage of “negative liberty” is too negative. He doesn’t,as John points out, agonize over the proper balance between vision and reality.

You could probably compare his view of Berlin with his view of the contributors to McDonald’s “Politics”:
“…morally fastidious, ideologically heterodox, fed up with brutality and propaganda, both official and oppositional. They made a program and an ideology of honesty; it was an impractical program and they accomplished nothing, but their writing illuminated those dark times better than anyone else’s.” (WAIGF, p.42).
Berlin lays claim to being a partisan of the practical and a votary of truth but lacks the agonistic heterodoxy of these radicals. Berlin needn’t struggle for the truth because he has positioned himself from the comfort of a position external to radical ideas. He needn’t grapple with the vision and the reality of an ideology because he can just reject the vision and its appeal altogether. Berlin commits the same sin that Scialabba attributes to Bill Buckley:
“In its “theoretical depths,” modern conservatism affirms values that cannot be reconciled: on the one hand, social stability, sustained by an immutable moral order and religious orthodoxy; on the other, the minimal state and the unregulated market. Competition creates new needs, which undermine old solidarities and deferences. Buckley celebrates capitalist abundance but frets over the lack of popular militancy in America vis-à-vis the welfare state and the Communist threat. It seems not to have occurred to him, or to many of his ideological comrades, to consider seriously whether these two phenomena are related.” (WAIGF, p.140)


jholbo 08.05.09 at 9:32 pm

“Incidentally, John, does any of this strike close to home to you? I’m not trying to play gotcha, just wondering how those who feel willing to defend the whole vaguely Whiggish (vaguely Berlinesque?) “liberal sack of garbage” line of thought—remember that old discussion with Tim Burke?—against the radicals ought to situate themselves in regards to Scialabba’s claims.”

Oh yes, I feel myself to be personally pegged pretty effectively, as a Berlin-type, who has helped himself to moderate wisdom as an excuse for complacency. That’s a gotcha and I am got.


Tom Hurka 08.06.09 at 12:38 am

Surely Berlin and Walzer are very different figures. Berlin did indeed write mostly about grand abstractions, so “The concrete situation is just what he has rarely had a word to say about” is a fair complaint about him. But hardly about Walzer. Agree with his conclusions or not, Walzer has always tried to analyze concrete situations and do precisely the weighing of competing values in them that Berlin talked in the abstract about. That they both occupy some supposedly comfortable moderate-left position shouldn’t obscure that large difference.


jholbo 08.06.09 at 12:54 am

That’s fair, Tom. In the post I didn’t actually assert the contrary, I think. But it’s true that Walzer and Berlin are not intellectually interchangable, albeit temperamentally akin.


nnyhav 08.06.09 at 4:00 am

Something about this (and on professionalism otherthread) brings to mind another distinction


john c. halasz 08.09.09 at 12:54 am

“I’d like to develop this thought to the tune of about 8,000 words in one direction, at least 5,000 in another.”

Oh, no! Let Holbo be Holbo?!?

(In fairness, this is one of my shorter subaltern blog comments).

Comments on this entry are closed.