Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Monday, October 19, 2015
More on George Scialabba
Some of you may recall my post a couple of weeks ago about George Scialabba, the writer and cultural critic who spent most of his adult life working a clerical job in a basement office with no windows at Harvard University. I would encourage you to read his stuff. Today The New Yorkerhas published a piece on Sciaballa. Here is a taste:
...His idols are Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, and Christopher Lasch; Scialabba’s book“What Are Intellectuals Good For?” is dedicated to them. He has also, it’s worth noting, written about feminism—in essays on Ellen Willis and Vivian Gornick, for example—with a sympathetic self-awareness rare among men. He has published three collections and about four hundred pieces, sustaining a life of freelance criticism with years of punching the clock. On August 31st, he retired from the day job.
A week and a half later, the magazine The Baffler threw him a campy retirement party, “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge. There were toasts by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Rick Perlstein, and Nikil Saval. The Cambridge City Council had just passed Resolution 658, making that day, September 10, 2015, George Scialabba Day. The whole idea was a cackling jab at the pomp and officiousness Scialabba himself so utterly lacks. The City Council’s resolution noted that Scialabba had “diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years” and asked Cambridge residents “who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks” and celebrate his marvelous deeds.
“I really don’t see any justification for it,” he’d told me the day before. To his admirers, Scialabba is something of a literary monk, shuffling virtuously in the background, spurning public attention. His writing completes the portrait: his measured essays generally concern better-known thinkers, more roaring, titanic writers whose own work stomps imperiously down the page. “As far as I know, I’ve never had a genuinely original idea,” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t a boast.
Scialabba’s monastic reputation may stem in part from his personal history. At the end of high school, he joined Opus Dei, an extreme Catholic prelature. He wore a hair shirt, spent some nights sleeping on the floor, and devoted hours to silent prayer. He forswore, as he later put it, the “delicious excesses” then being touted by his generational cohort. (This was the nineteen-sixties.) Scialabba grew up in East Boston, in a working-class, Italian family; then he went to Harvard. There, he submitted some of his syllabi to the local chapter of Opus Dei to be inspected for heresy. (He dropped a few courses deemed unacceptable.) But the split between his orthodoxy and his burgeoning interest in European philosophy became unbearable. He broke down, then burst out, abandoning the Church with a flourish of uncharacteristic theatricality: just after graduation, he marched into a meeting of his chapter of Opus Dei and announced that he no longer believed, that he was through with the whole medieval, benighted Church. Then he clammed up, frozen and flabbergasted by his own outburst. He was led gently out of the room. Modernity had claimed another soul. “Voltaire and Rousseau have corrupted better men than me,” he said.
What followed was a crushing depression that forced him to drop out of graduate school, at Columbia, and blocked his intellectual labor for about a decade. “I couldn’t sit reading a book for more than ten minutes,” he told me. The first depression was followed by others, and the academic career that the he had fantasized about ended before it began. He became a social worker, which, in his case, largely amounted to processing monotonous paperwork in the Boston suburbs. He did it for six years, then he got the job at Harvard, seeing to the clerical needs of academics whose ranks he would never join.