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The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973
The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973
Mark Greif
Princeton University Press, 2015
448 pp., $30.95

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Alan Jacobs


Man in Crisis

"Who are you and why?"

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In O'Connor's work, and in Bellow's—and even Ellison's, in a bitterer vein—comedy constitutes a chief form of critique of the hubris of man. Auden once commented that "A sense of humor develops in a society to the degree that its members are simultaneously conscious of being each a unique person and of being all in common subjection to unalterable laws"—the laws that govern rakes, and alarm clocks, and my neighbor, whose bondage to those laws I laugh at until I am forced by events to acknowledge that the same laws also afflict me. As Auden puts it, "No one … can claim immunity from the comic exposure"—this is a point relentlessly emphasized in the stories of O'Connor (where people usually respond to such exposure with rage), in the novels of Bellow (where the response is usually exasperation), and in the novels of Pynchon (where it is usually befuddlement). We seem never to learn what we need to learn from this exposure, from this relentless evidence that we are not the captains of our fate or masters of our destiny, but subject to the same dreary old physical forces that dogs and plants and stones must contend with. The nature of man, these writers tell us, is to be comically unable to accept constraints upon Being, comically insistent that we can somehow take charge of our lives and our worlds. There is of course a tragic side to this insistence as well.

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At the beginning of his book, Greif, while he admits finding the discourse of man "tedious" and "unhelpful," disavows more stringent judgments: "Having dug through this material, I will argue that the discourse it reveals from the midcentury age of the 'crisis of man' is historically indispensable. I will not, however, be arguing that the discourse was wise, or either good or bad. Exhuming history should not require that we venerate it, only understand its constitution and effects." Yet by the end Greif is willing to say, at the very least, that any attempt to employ such a discourse now is simply and utterly wrong:

Speaking as a layperson, or a contemporary, a mind within the flow of time and decision—in simplest terms, outside the guise of scholar—my feeling from investigating the efforts of the mid-twentieth century to reopen a fundamental philosophical anthropology, bearing upon the most urgent crises, under the question "What is man?," is that, for my own time, I want to tell my contemporaries: Stop! Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, "At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are, our solution and salvation must lie in a new picture of ourselves and humanity, this is our profound responsibility and a new opportunity"—just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. Your answers will be preprogrammed in ways you can't even begin to imagine or see, which the future will unhappily exhume. Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring "who we are" distinct from what we say and do, and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim. Important investigations of "who we are" can exist and are conceivable, but you can be sure that they transpire somewhere else than here in our sermonizing about responsibility, urgency, and hapless prescription.

I have quoted this passage at length because it seems to come from a place very close to Mark Greif's heart, and because, unlike many scholars, he has a heart and isn't afraid to show it. I want to give my readers every chance to hear what he says here—and I would encourage you all to read it again, and think about it.

Do I agree with it? I'm not sure I do. I see no reason to think that my actions will be any less "preprogrammed" than my reflections. I think I want to say that theoria and praxis need not be so nearly severed, and perhaps cannot be. I may even want to say that man is the creature who simply cannot avoid asking "What is man?" But in any event this much is true: I am commanded to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with my God—whether or not I have a theory of man.

1. I have discussed at some length Greif's theological misunder-standings in a blog post: http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com/2015/04/mark-greif-and-mrs-turpin.html.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University. His The Year of Our Lord 1943 will be published by Harvard University Press.

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