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Divided Mind

Divided Mind

August 9, 2006

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. (I'll give contact information for the press at the end of this column, for anyone willing to put a check in the mail the old-fashioned way.)

In any case, it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba's work. That it's only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called the "the familiar style," and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.

Scialabba has his admirers, even so, and one of the pleasant surprises of Divided Mind is the set of comments on the back. "I am one of the many readers who stay on the lookout for George Scialabba's byline," writes Richard Rorty. "He cuts to the core of the ethical and political dilemmas he discusses." The novelist Norman Rush lauds Scialabba's prose itself for "bring[ing] the review-essay to a high state of development, incorporating elements of memoir and skillfully deploying the wide range of literary and historical references he commands." And there is a blurb from Christopher Hitchens praising his "eloquence and modesty" --  though perhaps that is just a gesture of relief that Scialabba has not reprinted his candid reassessment of Hitch,  post-9/11.

One passage early in the collection gives a roll call of exemplary figures practicing a certain kind of writing. It includes Randolph Bourne, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. "Their primary training and frame of reference," Scialabba writes, "were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and they habitually, even if only implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics.... Their 'specialty' lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force."

The interesting thing about this passage -- aside from its apt self-portrait of the author -- is the uncertain meaning of that slashmark in the phrase "contemporary moral/political relevance." Does it serve as the equivalent of an equals sign? I doubt that. But it suggests that the relationship is both close and problematic.

We sometimes say that a dog "worries" a bone, meaning he chews it with persistent attention; and in that sense, Divided Mind is a worried book, gnawing with a passion on the "moral/political" problems that go with holding an egalitarian outlook. Scialabba is a man of the left. If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty's skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky's geopolitical worldview -- and it's a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this -- then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba's own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.

A certain amount of gloominess goes with holding these principles without believing that History is on the long march to their fulfillment. But there is another complicating element in Divided Mind. It is summed in a passage from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, from 1930 -- though you might find the same thought formulated by a dozen other conservative thinkers.

"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity," Ortega y Gasset declares, "is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."

Something in Ortega y Gasset's statement must have struck a chord with Scialabba. He quotes it in two essays. "Is this a valid distinction?" he asks. "Yes, I believe it is...." But the idea bothers him; it stimulates none of the usual self-congratulatory pleasures of snobbery. The division of humanity into two categories -- the noble and "the masses" -- lends itself to anti-democratic sentiments, if not the most violently reactionary sort of politics.

At the very least, it undermines the will to make egalitarian changes. Yet it is also very hard to gainsay the truth of it. How, then, to resolve the tension? Divided Mind is a series of efforts -- provisional, personal, and ultimately unfinished -- to work out an answer.

At this point it bears mentioning that Scialabba's reflections do not follow the protocols of any particular academic discipline. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard (Class of 1969) and has read his way through a canon or two; but his thinking is not, as the saying now goes, "professionalized." He is a writer who works at Harvard -- but not in the way that statement would normally suggest.

"After spells as a substitute teacher and Welfare Department social worker," he told me recently in an e-mail exchange, "I was, for 25 years, the manager or superintendent of a mid-sized academic office building, which housed Harvard's Center for International Affairs and several regional (East Asian, Russian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, etc) research centers. I gave directions to visitors, scheduled the seminar rooms, got offices painted, carpets installed, shelves built, windows washed, keys made, bills paid. I flirted with graduate students and staff assistants, schmoozed with junior faculty, and saw, heard, overheard, and occasionally got to know a lot of famous and near-famous academics."

As day jobs go, it was conducive to writing. "I had a typewriter and a copy machine," he says, "a good library nearby, and didn't come home every night tired or fretting about office politics." When the "homely mid-sized edifice" was replaced with "a vast, two-building complex housing the political science and history departments as well," the daily grind changed as well: "I'm now part of a large staff, and most of my days are spent staring at a flickering screen."

More pertinent to understanding what drives him as a writer, I think, are certain facts about his background that the reader glimpses in various brief references throughout his essays. The son of working-class Italian-American parents, he was once a member of the ascetic and conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei. In adolescence, he thought he might have a religious vocation. The critical intelligence of his critical writings is now unmistakably secular and modernist. He shows no sign of nostalgia for the faith now lost to him. But the extreme dislocation implied in leaving one life for another gives an additional resonance to the title of his collection of essays.

"For several hundred years," he told me, "a small minority of Italian/French/Spanish adolescent peasant or working-class boys -- usually the sternly repressed or (like me) libido-deficient ones -- have been devout, well-behaved, studious. Depending on their abilities and on what sort of priest they're most in contact with, they join a diocese or a religious order. Among the latter, the bright ones become Jesuits; the more modestly gifted or mystically inclined become Franciscans. I grew up among Franciscans and at first planned to become one, but I just couldn't resist going to college -- intellectual concupiscence, I guess."

Instead, he was drawn into Opus Dei -- a group trying, as he puts it, "to make a new kind of religious vocation possible, combining the traditional virtues and spiritual exercises with a professional or business career."

He recalls being "tremendously enthusiastic for the first couple of years, trying very hard, though fruitlessly, to recruit my fellow Catholic undergraduates at Harvard in the late 1960s. It was a strain, being a divine secret agent and trying at the same time to survive academically before the blessed advent of grade inflation. But the reward -- an eternity of happiness in heaven!"

The group permitted him to read secular authors, the better to understand and condemn their heresies.

"Then," he says, "Satan went to work on me. As I studied European history and thought, my conviction gradually grew that the Church had, for the most part, been on the wrong side. Catholic philosophy was wrong; Catholic politics were authoritarian....On one occasion, just after I had read Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, I was rebuked for my intellectual waywardness by a priestly superior with, I fancied, a striking physical resemblance to the terrifying prelate in Ivan's fable. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."

The departure was painful. The new world he discovered on the other side of his crossing "wasn't in the slightest degree an original discovery," he says. "I simply bought the now-traditional narrative of modernity, hook, line and sinker. I still do, pretty much." But he was not quite ready to plunge without reserve into the counterculture of the time -- sex, drugs, rock and roll.

"I was, to an unusual degree, living in my head rather than my body," he says about the 1970s. "I had emerged from Opus Dei with virtually no friends, a conscious tendency to identify my life course with the trajectory of modernity, and an unconscious need to be a saint, apostle, missionary. And I had inherited from my working-class Italian family no middle-class expectations, ambitions, social skills, ego structures."

Instead, he says, "I read a lot and seethed with indignation at all forms of irrational authority or even conventional respectability. So I didn't take any constructive steps, like becoming a revolutionary or a radical academic.... In those days, it wasn't quite so weird not to be ascending some career ladder."

So he settled into a job that left him with time to think and write. And to deal with the possibility of eternal damnation -- something that can occasionally bedevil one part of the mind, even while the secular and modernist half retains its disbelief.

Somewhere in my study is a hefty folder containing, if not George Scialabba's complete oeuvre, then at least the bulk of it. After several years of reading and admiring his essays, I can testify that Divided Mind is a well-edited selection covering many of his abiding concerns. It ought to be interest to anyone interested in the "fourth genre," as the essay is sometimes called. (The other three -- poetry, drama, and fiction -- get all the glory.)

As noted, the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling.

Arrowsmith
11 Chestnut Street
Medford, MA  02155

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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