In one of my earliest memories, I’m about five years old, fully awake during kindergarten nap time, eavesdropping on the teacher and aide as they discuss their plans for the next few days. “I think tomorrow we’re going to do some…”—here the teacher pauses, scans the dark classroom, notices my open eyes on the mat next to them, and begins spelling out a word, pronouncing each letter quietly and deliberately. With an excited gasp I leap up, and in a loud, hoarse whisper declare, “Oh, I love macramé!” My teachers were flustered, and I hummed with joy: less for the promise of a favorite activity than for the fact that I’d decoded one of the secrets of my little world.
I was a bright, curious youngster. In my earliest years, these qualities inspired me to do things like take apart and reassemble household objects to figure out how they worked, and to read random encyclopedia entries and countless young adult science-fiction novels. As I got older, my inquisitiveness made me an object of suspicion for most of my peers (“nerd” was not a term of endearment in the Nineties). I had become one of the “gifted kids,” those all-too-predictable creatures of the late twentieth century, marked by their quick wit, penchant for half-assing and smug self-assurance.
Unlike many of my similarly gifted peers, however, I grew up poor. My classmates dwelled in suburban cul-de-sacs that curled labyrinthine about the gardens skirting Orlando; I inhabited a double-wide in a swamp. The muddy lot where our trailer sat on cinder blocks had previously been a patch of palmetto and cypress trees, and our tap water was full of sand on account of a poorly-dug well. (Though it collected in our hair after showering and forced us to fill jugs of water at my grandmother’s trailer every week for cooking, it gave us a wonderful excuse to drink nothing but Coca-Cola.) Nothing I learned in school mapped easily onto my home life. Our household was organized around television, not learning. Sundays were spent contemplating NASCAR and not, say, the mystery of God in Christ. But all the while I wondered—albeit in an indefinite, directionless way—what lay beyond the limits of my environs. I reflected upon the things my family talked about, wondering how much of what they referred to was real or not, what was or wasn’t important. I wondered, as all young people do at some point, whether life had a purpose.
As I grew into adolescence, intellectual dissatisfaction transformed into a melancholy that gripped me through the entirety of high school. I won’t bore you with all the messy details. But although I was a promising student, I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing classes while paying barely any attention and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading unassigned books. After graduating, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose higher education was supposed to serve. I spent the next few years as an anarchist agitator and environmental activist, traveling the country hitchhiking and riding freight trains, before eventually moving to a farm in southern Kentucky to retire from politics.
I never stopped thinking, of course, although most of the time it didn’t do me any good. Asking the wrong sorts of questions (or too many questions) frustrated innumerable coworkers and supervisors, strained my relationships with friends and family, and made me bad at activism. So in 2016, I went back to college—in part because I could do it for free, but more importantly because I wanted to talk to people who thought about things the same way I did. And yet even in this world I found myself a stranger. For the most part, I discovered peers who were concerned with the acquisition of prestige and profit, beleaguered professors forced to justify their positions solely in terms of metrics and outcomes and careerists of all kinds. The lesson, it seemed to me, was that curiosity has no home. Thinking is at best a liability, something that destabilizes the solidity of a life and rips one from fellowship of other people. At worst it’s poison, a fatal and ineradicable dose of melancholy and doubt. In either case, the only rational course is to avoid it.
I found myself reflecting on these memories while reading Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis. At once an exhortation to the “splendid uselessness” of the contemplative life and a polemic against an increasingly technocratic academia dedicated to narrow, abstract research, the book is made up of equal parts autobiography, philosophical treatise, criticism and a kind of Plutarchian assembly of lives meant to demonstrate the diversity and breadth of committed thinking: Dorothy Day, Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, J. A. Baker, the Virgin Mary, W. E. B. Du Bois, Socrates, Augustine, Elena Ferrante. For Hitz, figures like these exemplify an intellectualism that encourages the development of a rich and gratifying inner life, as well as being an occasion for communion with others. Perhaps more unusually, Hitz insists that—rather than being a pastime for aristocrats—the real value of the life of the mind is most evident to those marked by marginalization, disenfranchisement and poverty. The person who is denied dignity and togetherness in this world needs only to lose themselves in thought in order to find these riches on another plane.
Trained at Cambridge, the University of Chicago and Princeton, Hitz was a rising star in American professional philosophy until the horrors of 9/11 jolted her into a newly intense awareness of human suffering. This experience, joined to a “simmering discontent” with academia, eventually drove her out of the academy and into a Catholic religious community in Canada. There, she hoped, she could make activity into the primary focus of her life. “I had had things the wrong way around,” she tells us. Rather than devoting herself to a life of dispassionate thought, “I had to love my neighbors and find a mode of intellectual life that expressed that. To do that, I had to put above everything the form of love that goes under the rather cold English name of ‘charity.’” Nonetheless, after three years of toil she began to feel the pang of loss. Life in the community had been a celebration of human togetherness. Within it, one could enjoy “a full, ordinary human life: work, service, friendship; leisured time in nature; conflict, frustration, and suffering; swimming, crafts, singing in the choir, and radiant, lovingly prepared liturgical celebrations.” The only thing missing—the “only one human good that was treated more haphazardly than the others” —was a space for thinking, in which one could “study and learn, in depth, for its own sake.” Hitz began to reconsider her work as a teacher. Academia may have been a theater of “grinding competition and relentless banality,” but thinking itself could be a source of joy, solace and dignity. What if intellectual life looked less like the restless busy-ness of academics, and more like “ordinary people—library users, taxi drivers, history buffs, prisoners, stockbrokers—doing intellectual work without recognizing it as such or taking pride in it”? Inspired by this insight, Hitz returned to teaching, this time at her alma mater St. John’s College—and it is from there that she launches her call to an intellectual life of dignified impracticality.
What Hitz found in the figures she surveys is a love of learning for its own sake and an openness to the transformative potential of thought, qualities that define her own attitude toward education (and serve as a foil to the obsession with competition and “knowledge production” that characterizes modern academia). “When I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels,” Hitz confides, “and their account of the lifelong friendship between two women from girlhood, I recognize features from my own friendships with other women.” One gets the impression that in Du Bois and Day, Hitz sees individuals who, like her, discovered the world-expanding power of books, which can serve as a hidden passageway leading beneath the perilous and hostile world to a rare and precious truth.
Just as Hitz sees parts of herself reflected in these thinkers, her own story felt familiar to me. Like her, my propensity toward contemplation has often been entangled with frustration, disappointment and pain. Like her, my attempts at rejecting contemplation served only to eventually reinforce its necessity. Like her, when I finally found philosophy—genuine philosophy concerned with the question of how one should live, after years of wrestling with academic critical theory—I took to it like a desert wanderer to an oasis.
Unlike Hitz, though, my acceptance of philosophy as a way of living never transformed into a source of worldly comfort, and the unsettling gap between thinking and living never closed. This has been the case for many people I’ve befriended over the years, in fact: the contemplative life hits them as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping them out of the fabric of life they were previously woven into, driving them into libraries, bookstores and open-to-the-public campus events in a desperate effort to make connections with others who speak the same language. But often, they find that their eccentricity, roughness and lack of training in academic gentility makes them alien to their potential fellows. Letters go unanswered, invitations withheld, applications rejected. For every Socrates—calm and satisfied, capable of coaxing the good out of others—how many more are like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, bitten by the viper of philosophy and left desperately struggling to soothe its sting?
Another recently published book presents a similar story, but with a more ambivalent ending. For 35 years, George Scialabba worked as a building manager at Harvard and in his spare time he wrote book reviews for the Village Voice, Harvard Magazine, the Nation, the Boston Globe and many others. Raised in a working-class Italian family in Boston, he went on to earn degrees from Harvard and Columbia. He also fought a lifelong battle with clinical depression. His story is recounted in How To Be Depressed, told largely through a collection of unembellished medical records generated by more than fifty years of in- and outpatient psychiatric treatment. What emerges is a picture of a man broken by poverty, doubt and the fragility of his own psychology—and at the same time one driven by an unquenchable urge to think.
According to the records, Scialabba’s inaugural bout of depression arrived following his decision to leave the Catholic Church. As a young, zealous believer, he had been a member of Opus Dei. But after his first year at Harvard, he began to feel a puzzlement at the world, which rapidly transformed into doubt over church teachings and then an intense excitement at the idea of beginning to search for the truth. Immediately after his departure from the Church, however, he found his excitement collapsed into a restless sense of dread. As he explains to Christopher Lydon, in a conversation about depression in a later section of the book:
Before I left Opus Dei and the Church, I thought it was a great gain rather than a great loss. I thought I had discovered the truth about the universe, and that by leaving I would be placing myself in the ranks of a great army of liberation going all the way back to the first modern philosophers and especially the philosophes of the Enlightenment. I felt tremendously lucky and proud to be a drop in that great wave of progress and truth. And then, when I actually did it, walked out the door, I discovered that religion had been a kind of drug for me, or a safety net or scaffolding. And the reaction I felt was one of agitation and anxiety. Now I was to be on my own for a time—and possibly eternity, just in case I happened to be wrong. I was terribly frightened. I forgot all of the pride and all of the joy and discovery and so on. It just vanished, evaporated. For decades after that, mostly what I felt was the withdrawal.
Religion, it seems, had been a source of self-protection for Scialabba: what it provided wasn’t so much the answers to big questions, but rather corks for the intellectual dike through which these questions might otherwise burst. Without it, he began to panic.
Operating mostly outside of the academy and unable to synthesize his thinking with his day job, Scialabba found his intellect a source of isolation instead of wonder. The life revealed by the records in How To Be Depressed is one of constant desperation and turmoil, often connected to his self-doubt about his place in the intellectual world. An encounter with a friend’s book in a store sends him into a week-long bout of depressive worry over what his friends and girlfriend will think about “how little he’s accomplished by comparison.” When he wins a writing award, his therapist notes he was “only partly able to enjoy this success; also kept devaluing and minimizing it.” In 1988, nearly a decade after beginning regular treatment, he’s offered teaching positions at Boston University and Boston College but becomes “so anxious and agitated at the prospect that he declined.”
After working for several decades, Scialabba retired from his day job and continued writing articles. His work found a limited audience—Richard Rorty and James Wood count among his admirers—but for the most part he exists in obscurity, a writer read mainly by other writers, published by a defunct indie press. In April of 2016, he returned to McLean psychiatric hospital after another episode of crushing depression. “Reports moving from feeling ‘zero percent like himself’ to ‘ten or fifteen percent,’” notes his therapist, two days after this admittance (the last of those recorded). Five days later, on the day of his dispatch, the final entry in the book reads: “Reports good mood. Some anxiety reported over next steps and aftercare. Attended no groups prior to discharge. Observed alone @ end of hall reading, also at meals and other activities.”
I’ve known men like Scialabba most of my life. (And yes, for whatever reason, mostly men.) They are among the most voracious readers and deepest thinkers I’ve ever encountered, and also among the most inured to pain and sorrow. For all of them, the intelligence they were burdened with has caused far more pain than pleasure. Every one of them has struggled with money, some of them drifting into homelessness. One friend who read upwards of six books at a time—with a particular fondness for twentieth-century histories and nineteenth-century philosophy—dropped out his first semester of college and took to riding freight trains, drinking heavily and eventually to the heroin that killed him at the age of 27. Another, who wrote a lexicon for an invented language that syncretized elements of Quechua and Proto-Indo-European, lived with his mom and worked at a gas station while dealing with social isolation exacerbated by autism. Another developed aggressive cancer at a very young age, the treatment for which permanently reduced the functioning of many of his major organs: an encounter with Schopenhauer as a teenager revealed that he wasn’t alone in understanding suffering as the basis of human existence.
The figures highlighted by Hitz—for whom thinking arrives as a source of happiness and comfort—are rare, exceptional. This is not to disparage her celebration of them. They serve as exemplars of an ideal, and such models are important. But I think it’s also important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can be, especially for those who are already locked out of the kinds of reified circles willing to receive psychological eccentrics. For those struggling toward truth outside the established channels, the stakes are often immeasurably high: a refusal or an inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy—to suck it up, turn the mind off and flip burgers—can mean isolation, institutionalization, addiction or something worse. (How many homeless guys have I spoken with who spend their days reading magisterial history books in the library, or wandering the sidewalks in rags contemplating the form of the good like out-of-place desert fathers?)
“There is a wisdom that is woe,” Herman Melville observed, “but there is a woe that is madness”—and for many disenfranchised contemplatives, wisdom, woe and madness are all too often inseparable. No scholar of philosophy worth their salt would argue that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom is meant to yield worldly goods. (The Athenians, of course, condemned Socrates to death.) But even so, far too few have written honestly about the enormous spiritual and psychic costs that the philosophical temperament can bring.
Is there a solution, beyond finding one of the few good jobs in academia, or endless therapy? Although Hitz makes a number of hints at politics in Lost In Thought, she largely sidesteps the particulars. The omission is forgivable: if your task is to promote the examined life as widely as possible, it is hard to know where to begin with concrete policy. As Hitz’s biography demonstrates, university humanities programs—no matter how meticulously designed and well-funded they may be—rarely produce genuine philosophers. Speaking very generally, it has always been unclear how institutions shape the character of their citizens, and the eternally fraught relationship between politics and philosophy means that the promotion of the one usually entails the neglect of the other.
Scialabba, by contrast, confronts political questions directly. The problem of wealth distribution is in the foreground of his inquiry into mental anguish. Famous depressives—artists like William Styron and Kate Millett and scientists like Kay Jamison, all authors of works on depression from which Scialabba claims influence—have in their darkest moments resources and friends to fall back upon. “But what about the unfamous, solitary, low-income depressed?” he asks. “No talent, no distinction; no charms, no love. Natural enough: how else could admiration and affection, and the consolations they entail, possibly be distributed?” Spiritual goods like these, apportioned according to a spontaneous and chaotic logic, could never be deliberately redistributed without immediately resulting in barbarity. But money is different. Depression is a compounding problem: psychological anguish can make the satisfaction of otherwise mundane obligations impossible, creating material crises out of mental ones. Scialabba’s records are full of worries about making ends meet; he credits a charitable boss and his labor union with preventing him from falling into homelessness. “Five thousand dollars a year would save a lot of ordinary people a lot of grief,” he wagers. “It might even save some lives.”
But there’s a wide territory, I think, where Hitz and Scialabba would agree. Human beings need to think; they also need to eat. One can never supersede, or come at the expense of, the other. But nor can possession of these goods ensure happiness. In the end, misery can find us regardless of circumstances. And yet there is a suffering that ennobles, and one that crushes; there’s a way of struggling for understanding that, even if ultimately unsuccessful, leaves one in better shape than when one began the journey, and one that leaves one ungrounded, derelict and afraid. Hannah Arendt described thinking as a “wind,” whose nature is “to unfreeze … what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought.” It “has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.” Some will be caught on this wind and transported to the highest reaches of heaven; others will find the solidity of their world blown away, leaving devastation and ruin. How, then, to prepare for its arrival, when the consequences are so impossible to predict?
Serious consideration of the asymmetry of conditions often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. But this response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school day and the gray walls of the classroom. I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. The pandemic, in addition to exacerbating the crisis of higher education, threatens a new outbreak of acute loneliness. As we begin to imagine—and, hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.
Image credit: Edvard Munch, “Melancholy”