Modernity and its Discontents: George Scialabba’s The Modern Predicament

January 24, 2012 | 4 5 min read

cover I’m going to wager that George Scialabba is the best political critic you’ve never heard of. I certainly felt the satisfying click of a missing piece when I stumbled on him a year and a half ago. And this is a guy whose essays and book reviews — wide-ranging and widely learned, unhampered by the temporary pull of fads or fashions — have held their own in the pages and columns of the left-wing press for the better part of three decades; in Dissent, in The Nation, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice. He is to some extent a critic’s critic, noisily lauded by the likes of Richard Rorty, Norman Rush, James Wood, and Vivian Gornick, yet unread by the larger reading public. This is less a result of his own modesty than it is the inevitable fate, these days, of the “generalist” critic. The long-form intellectual essay, I gather, is considered by many a dead genre, a cultural relic of the twentieth century easily bullied by the twenty-first. In his last book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, Scialabba himself warned that the “political culture has changed in a way that undermines not merely the viability, but also the authority, of the generalist.” He worried about the “intellectuals’ incorporation en masse” into power elites (read: News Corp.), and wagered that the “cultural conversation has grown and now includes too many voices and perspectives, too much information.”

But Scialabba’s eloquent prose and boundless literary-intellectual reserves shrug off these claims to redundancy. He is a natural heir to the critics whose lives, works, and careers he explicated so sympathetically in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Trilling, Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe. He is a counterargument to his own claims about generalists. Reading George Scialabba emphasizes the need for more George Scialabbas.

cover The Modern Predicament, his latest collection of essays and reviews, shifts our focus from the vocation of the intellectual to the legacy of modernity. In fifteenth-century Europe, according to Scialabba, “a critical, experimental, libertarian spirit began to flourish, which came to be known as ‘humanism.’” Before that, you’ll remember, it was all superstition and church and feudalism, and people generally seemed to be having a pretty bad time. Then came Modernity, with its radical scientific breakthroughs, its unfettered geographical exploration, and its febrile artistic innovation, and what happened? Enlightenment. “Humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority,” in Kant’s famous words.

This sounds great but, as Scialabba sensitively shows, the gradual and then sudden erosion of traditional constellations of belief and community had particularly adverse effects on people’s happiness. “A short definition of modern intellectual history might be,” he suggests, “the progressive undermining of all firm distinctions, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical.” Many of the writers and thinkers addressed in these pages are individuals whose ideas were in part reactions against modernity. And though Scialabba is no friend of conservatism or antimodernism, he is clearly sympathetic to their rattled nerves and shocked intellects.

And so he returns again and again to Christopher Lasch (“the most important American social critic in recent decades”), admits that D.H. Lawrence’s “ideas are an embarrassment” but considers him a great diagnostician of nihilism, and finds uncomfortable the thought that Nietzsche — “neither an optimist nor a democrat” — was “the person who saw most deeply into the meaning of modernity.” He also weighs in on antimodernists like Kierkegaard, prophetic raconteurs like Foucault, and contemporary critics like Michael Ignatieff and Barbara Ehrenreich.

In a scant 149 pages Scialabba probes questions that are eerily, exhaustively, familiar: Can we be good without God? What does it mean to be a moral person? How do we pursue a viable and fair social arrangement? His answers and conclusions are fresh and invigorating. These essays may well be, as Scialabba suggests, “highly compressed” summaries of “enormously complex arguments,” but in his hands they are transformed into a kind of running commentary on modern intellectual history, agreeably and rigorously narrated by George Scialabba.

cover This achievement is the result of an intellectual caution, a suspicion of sweeping narratives and ideologies. Take his essay on Charles Taylor, the Canadian communitarian philosopher. Responding to Taylor’s 1989 study of modern identity, Sources of the Self, Scialabba says of his own “moral heroes” — Godwin, Bentham, Mill, Marx, Morris, Luxemburg, Orwell, Russell — that although you could argue they may have been better off with “a proper metaphysical foundation,” the likes of which Taylor seems to champion,

maybe the fact that they scraped along pretty well without one means that the question “Why care about others?” and the larger question “Why act right,” which Taylor thinks can only be answered definitively by invoking some “constitutive good” can’t be answered definitively at all. And needn’t be.

Scialabba admits that Taylor’s doubts are “daunting” and that the contingency of virtue in a moral universe without God is worth troubling your mind with. But rather than drum up an exhaustive metaphysical foundation, Scialabba concludes, “I confess I see no alternative to living with this suspicion, perhaps permanently.”

This suspicion stems from the fact that although Scialabba is responsive to the protests of antimodernists, he remains skeptical of their political sympathies. Neither Lawrence nor Nietzsche, Kierkegaard nor Eliot, for instance, were lambent democrats hungry for majority rule. For similar reasons Scialabba is unmoved by the religious cant of Philip Rieff or the Victorian nostalgia of Gertrude Himmelfarb; he doesn’t want to see humanity enlisted in some sweeping ideological or theological prescription-plan. “Ordinary people must become heroes,” he writes, “and we can.”

It strikes the reader that Scialabba’s is a sympathetic temperament (much more Trilling than Macdonald), and that his intellectual and imaginative leaps are the foundation of his penetrating critical skill. In an essay on the little-known sociologist John Carroll, he entertains the thought that “perhaps modernity is a mistake” and goes along with many of Carroll’s arguments and conclusions about the need for “a new cultural myth” to replace the falsity of humanism (Carroll’s most famous book, Humanism, diagnosed the decline of Western culture). Yet he finds Carroll’s exhaustive religious interpretation of modernity “profoundly wrong” and hopes instead for a truce between believers and nonbelievers: “Why not lay aside questions of ultimate meaning for as long as there is unnecessary suffering in the world?”

Detractors will doubtless complain that Scialabba has little to offer in the department of viable alternatives. In this sense he is “good” for nothing. Though he hopes for “the solidarity of the hopeful” (“communitarian and individualist, republican and socialist”), he has no enchanting utopias to dazzle us with, no heaven on earth to erect. His purpose is not, as he writes, “to propose a policy” but merely to “sort out my feelings.” This is more generous and stimulating that it sounds. The qualities he celebrates in his favorite writers — intellectual humility, a strong moral imagination, a willingness to accept uncertainty — are qualities Scialabba embodies artfully. The comparison to Lionel Trilling is apt; in an essay on Trilling, collected in What are Intellectuals Good For?, Scialabba wrote of the former’s own intellectual caution:

Yes to greater equality, inclusiveness, cooperation, tolerance, social experimentation, individual freedom… but only after listening to everything that can be said against one’s cherished projects, assuming equal intelligence and good faith on the part of one’s opponents, and tempering one’s zeal with the recognition that every new policy has unintended consequences, sometimes very bad ones. But after all that… yes.

Like Trilling, Scialabba believes in the moral obligation to be intelligent. In “Crowds and Culture,” the closing essay of The Modern Predicament, he wonders if increasing the number of creative and critical human beings might not be possible through a “supreme effort of democratic pedagogy.” Clearly he pines for such a pedagogy — pines, in fact, for his own irrelevancy, for if such an effort were undertaken, the generalist would undoubtedly cease to be necessary.

But for the time being, despite Scialabba’s doubts and reservations, we need the generalist, the solitary voice whose diligence and range, intellect and literary verve, can guide us through the informational hodge-podge of the twenty-first century. We need, that is, George Scialabba.

is a freelance book critic. He has written for Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Quarterly Conversation, among others.


  1. Scialabba definitely has a gift for getting to the core issues and framing them concisely and eloquently. See for example, his brilliant essay on Philip Rieff in which he took Rieff to task for lamenting the decline of religion, and calling for something ‘sacred’ to fill the void, but not being able or willing to advocate for any particular new form of faith. Nevertheless, Scialabba takes Rief’s critique of modernity seriously as he should.

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