I was asked by George Scialabba to make some introductory remarks at his Washington D.C. appearance at Busboys & Poets. He was in town to celebrate the release of his collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?
Here is what I wrote....
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I am delighted to be here tonight to introduce George Scialabba.
His latest book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has excited intense critical attention – and if you haven’t read it, or read the splendid seminar on it at Crooked Timber’s web site – I urge you to do so.
George would likely agree that he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to pose significant questions about intellectuals – and, in particular, so-called public intellectuals – and their role in American life. But he is among a select few who have thought most deeply about these questions and responded to them – not merely with the force of his words but with the courage of his example.
Indeed, the critical attention that George’s work has received in recent months makes it a daunting task to say something new about it by way of introduction.
But allow me to take a license granted, in part, by the fact that George’s book is published by “Pressed Wafer Press" -- with all the communion and agony attached to that name -- to draw on something that George and I share: our American Catholic heritage.
George has written wonderfully and movingly about his own deep encounter with that faith in his youth, and the struggles, gains and losses of his abandonment of it. He is being introduced tonight by someone who convinced a nun to lend him a Baltimore Catechism in the fifth grade. (This was 1976, by the way, when that once sturdy redoubt of American Catholic faith had been breached by the guitar mass.) I devoured it cover to cover before being pulled away from that particular state of grace by the writings of Hume, Nietzsche, James (William. Not Henry.) and Lowell (Robert. Not Amy or James Russell.) only a scant few years later.
As I say, George’s observations about his own religious life are deeply-felt and wonderfully-wrought. (I point you in the direction of his essay “An Honest Believer” in his first collection, Divided Mind.) But as any honest lapsed Catholic will acknowledge, deep structures of thought (foundations, even) stay with us despite the loss of faith and certainty. They are rooted too deeply to be entirely demolished. We build new annexes. Rearrange the furniture, perhaps. Plant some trees and shrubbery to hide it. But traces of the architecture remain upon deeper excavation.
If you read George carefully, for instance, you know that he has his own firmament of cultural saints – many of them thorny and unpopular figures who deserve resurrection – even apotheosis or beatification. (In his response to George on Crooked Timber, Rich Yeselson channels Jean-Paul Sartre to dub them “unsalvageable” – a most unCatholic notion, that.) Yet it is a tribute to George that he is most scrupulous in his critical canonizations, playing both advocatus diaboli and advocatus dei with equal zest. Resting nothing upon mere faith but insisting upon good works. And like anyone of our background, George finds power in tradition – even if that strength is a springboard to a dive into wider worlds.
But the Catholic value that I find most persistent and compelling in George’s work is a value that the Church itself seems to have downgraded to the point of demurral in recent decades: the hunger and thirst for justice. Social justice, yes. But George also hungers and thirsts for the just weighing of ideas that is the hallmark of the best literary and cultural criticism.
In his response to the Crooked Timber seminar, George approvingly quotes from a key moment of Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven. He also uses this quote in his recent book, but in his response to the online seminar, George liberates Lasch’s definition of justice from its previous veil of ellipses:
Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories – no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events – in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.
George writes: “I’m not sure I understand this, but I find it more illuminating than many things I do understand.”
Be prepared to be illuminated now, and join me in welcoming George Scialabba.