Matthew Reisz interviews George Scialabba, the Harvard provocateur with independent views who fears the death of the public intellectual
George Scialabba has, he says, "been working at Harvard for 29 years". He is also a superb writer and a master of the extended review essay addressing the latest big book on cultural, educational or political themes.
His second collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, brings together some of his best pieces: sharp personal responses to everybody from philosopher Richard Rorty and journalist Christopher Hitchens to film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
None of this would be particularly surprising, except for one thing: although he once studied there, Scialabba now holds an administrative and not an academic post at Harvard University.
For a quarter of a century he was "a combination of receptionist and building manager at the Centre for Government and International Studies", he explains.
"I would greet and direct visitors, schmooze with junior (sometimes even senior) faculty, flirt with graduate students, and arrange for all necessary repairs and renovations."
Although Scialabba "fell into the job, with no idea that it would facilitate an intellectual career", things turned out surprisingly well. "I was very much at a loose end in 1980 when I began it, and hadn't yet any idea of a freelance writing career. But at just the time I began the job, my first piece appeared in print, and I was launched. The fit between day job and evening avocation was perfect but fortuitous."
Coolidge Hall, the centre's home, proved "a very convenient perch for a budding freelance intellectual" and gave Scialabba the opportunity to slip into talks given by many academic stars and stars-to-be. "And of course, the best university library in the world, and one of the liveliest academic communities, was right outside the door," he adds.
Eventually, however, "the old building was knocked down and rebuilt on a much bigger scale, incorporating several more departments and research centres. The new building required someone who actually knew something about facilities management, so I became, and remain, the room scheduler and events co-ordinator.
"Unfortunately, I'm now stuck in a basement office, facing a computer screen all day and removed from the flow of conversations and events. But of course, my 'productivity' has been enhanced, and I'm doubtless far more 'efficient'."
Much of Scialabba's writing focuses on the tradition of the politically engaged public intellectual - one of his great heroes is Noam Chomsky - but he fears that tradition is under threat.
The problem, he argues, is "the subjection of university life, and the rest of professional life, to the disciplines of the market. When universities have to market themselves, their facilities and their activities, in competition with other universities, to potential funders envisioned as 'educational investors', and to potential students envisioned as 'educational consumers', then the result is going to be just what we see in the corporate world: top-heavy management structures, armed with the idiotic ideology of 'management science', continually fretting about 'productivity' and demanding measurable results from their 'personnel'.
"The ideal of the public intellectual is a civic ideal; and civic ideals are always endangered by capitalist rationality, even if they're sometimes supported by enlightened (or vain or clueless) capitalists."
Scialabba grew up in east Boston, "the child and grandchild of poor, uneducated southern Italian immigrants", and he "never knew a Protestant or, with one exception, a Jew until I went to college".
He served as an altar boy, joined Opus Dei and took courses in theology, but lost his faith after majoring in European intellectual history, deciding that he "had never encountered, in life or in print, a Catholic at once intelligent, honest and fully modern".
He remains nonetheless grateful that "Catholicism, by being a millennia-old tradition, helped me live for part of the time in the past. That's essential for deepening a young person's imagination, which surfing, shopping, texting and tweeting don't do."
Another possible influence on Scialabba's writing is his history of severe depression, which he has written about with poignant frankness.
"On several occasions, for weeks or months at a time," he recalls, "my mind and body failed me so radically and inexplicably that I felt utterly hopeless and wanted to die.
"How I recovered each time, I never knew - it seemed a gift. I've been depression-free for some years now - have never felt better, in fact - but I still have a vivid memory of complete helplessness."
So how has this affected his general outlook on life?
"Depression is a very difficult and grudging teacher," he replies. "If I've learnt anything from it, I suppose it's humility, or a sense of contingency."
Perhaps something of this emerges in his characteristically precise self-description as a "Utopian and radical democrat (both of which I still consider myself, though on fewer days of the week than formerly)".
Is such a political stance mainstream or marginal within the American academy?
"From the outside," Scialabba responds carefully, "there seems to me a pretty sharp division. Among literary and cultural studies folk, perhaps also anthropologists, there are still a fair number of people who would call themselves radicals or Utopians.
"Historians and philosophers are too much concerned with their disciplines' pretensions to rigour and respectability to profess any radical hopes. Political scientists and economists are too much concerned with their disciplines' scientific pretensions not to profess vigorous scepticism about all radical hopes."
As something of an outsider looking in, Scialabba has no great respect for academic reputations.
Although Isaiah Berlin's philosophical work won him "the Erasmus, Lippincott, Agnelli and Jerusalem prizes" as well as "a knighthood for academic distinction", he "will not, I'm afraid, win the Scialabba Prize", Scialabba comments.
What particularly annoys him is how Berlin's frequent attacks on Marxist and other Utopian political ideals blinded him to the injustices all around us.
"He devoted himself to addressing continual reminders about the unattainability of perfect harmony to a civilisation that cannot arouse itself to legislate a decently progressive income tax or do more than gesture fitfully at homelessness, global hunger or a score of other evils for which a doubtless imperfect posterity will doubtless curse and despise us," he says.
This is essentially a political judgment, but Scialabba's collection would be far duller if he simply praised the people he agreed with and criticised his right-wing opponents. Fortunately, he is equally incisive when savaging radical writers one might have expected to be in his camp.
"Although (Edward Said's) Culture and Imperialism is a pretty unappetising pudding - soggy here, lumpy there, overspiced throughout - it is not utterly lacking in nutritional value," he reports. "Said introduces us to some interesting and unfamiliar history; he's a good quoter, at least... But about literature, which is his main subject, though he's sometimes thought-provoking, he's usually just provoking.
"'The extraordinary formal and ideological dependence of the great French and English realistic novels on the facts of empire,' Said announces, 'has never been studied from a general theoretical standpoint.' This is an understandable omission, because there is no such extraordinary dependence. There is not even an ordinary dependence."
As this suggests, Scialabba is never going to let anyone get away with clumsy writing. When dismissing Martha Nussbaum, the political philosopher, for her "bland and contentless cosmopolitanism", he adds: "Of course, there's no harm in restating (in good prose, that is; bad prose always does harm) even the most respectable and uncontroversial ideal."
Given the many other evils in the world, can a bad prose style really do much harm? Scialabba believes so.
He says: "In very large quantities - which we all get daily from print and electronic advertising, television, tabloids, the web, trash novels, etc - bad prose makes us dull and undiscriminating.
"And that makes the job of those charged with engineering popular consent - consent to militarism, to government secrecy, to economic inequality, to hyper-consumption, to irrational policies and arbitrary authority of every kind - much easier. Style manuals can't change the world by themselves. But they're a help."
So, given a choice, does Scialabba prefer bad writers who are politically congenial or good writers whose politics he dislikes?
"It's a complex question," he says, "leading in all sorts of directions. I'm going to offer a simplified and peremptory answer. Better good writers with bad politics than bad writers with good politics. The former teach us how to think (and feel and imagine); the latter merely what to think. Knowing how to think is incomparably more important. Unless most people know how to think, there can't be genuine democracy."
George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? was recently published by Pressed Wafer.