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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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Adler was in many ways an odd person to speak, as he did, of education more or less as Thomas Aquinas would have conceived of it, according to a hierarchy of the disciplines in which theology governed philosophy and the Beatific Vision hovered over all. Adler was a nonobservant Jew who converted to Christianity only decades later. Yet he insisted that without a sound metaphysical grounding, "Western Man" would be helpless against the onslaught of a German National Socialism that knew exactly what it believed and why. This argument seemed to the agnostic Hook a recipe for "religious intolerance" and a move toward theocracy, and he made this case repeatedly throughout the war years in the pages of Partisan Review, occasionally soliciting the assistance of John Dewey—at that point, in his eighties, the Grand Old Man of the American secular left. Greif tells this story very well, and rightly understands that the anxieties of the war years intensified these arguments and gave them a kind of template that would govern much writing on human nature for decades to come.

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One of the great merits of Greif's book lies in its understanding that the discourse of man worked its way out not just in polemical articles and books composed by public intellectuals but also in fiction. (I will have to forgive him for not noticing that poetry also participated in this discourse, especially the poetry of Auden, whose work is not mentioned here. Auden was a very prominent critic within this discourse as well.) Some novels indicate in their titles their involvement—Saul Bellow's Dangling Man (1944), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952)—while others do so more subtly. Greif is especially good on the ways that Thomas Pynchon (a writer whom one might not immediately think to associate with these themes) pursues them relentlessly in his early fiction. Because Greif ends his narrative in 1973, for highly defensible reasons, he doesn't get into the later Pynchon, but I hope that some enterprising critic takes up Greif's terms and analyses and applies them to Gravity's Rainbow and subsequent works.

The Pynchon chapter may be the best one in the book, and the one on Bellow and Ellison (who were good friends for decades) is fine as well, but Greif's treatment of Flannery O'Connor, as I have already suggested, is deeply inadequate; and that is not just because of his failure to understand her theology, but also because of a more general inadequacy in his treatment of all his novelists: he almost completely fails to notice that they are funny. And the comical tone of many of the works he discusses is actually central to their contribution to the debates about the nature of man.

For instance, Greif laboriously explains that some passages in O'Connor are supposed to be comical: "In one vein it is comic when the country grandfather and grandson bend down to drink from a suburban lawn sprinkler as if it were the town pump—that is local color humor." But it's clear that he's in uncomfortable territory here; moreover, he simply doesn't grasp how much of the irony in O'Connor's letters is directed at herself. (He refers to a passage in which she describes how she and the conservative writer Russell Kirk had trouble finding things to talk about but ended up achieving a "spurt of successful uncharitable conversation" about the death of John Dewey. " 'John Dewey's dead too, isn't he?' … 'Yes, thank God. Gone to his reward. Ha ha.' " Greif treats this as a straightforward expression of deep revulsion at liberal secularism; he might have been alerted to the tonal complications by attending to the "Ha ha.")

More generally, Greif is relentlessly sober and earnest about writers who eschewed sobriety and earnestness. He acknowledges "mockery" and "irony," but I don't know whether he ever acknowledges the importance of this fact about most of his chosen fiction writers: that they think "man" is, all things considered, a pretty ludicrous figure. For instance, he acknowledges that in Pynchon's V Benny Profane is a schlemihl—Pynchon's spelling; more commonly, "schlemiel"—because he "cannot get along with objects. Objects are always slipping from his hands, hitting him in the face, failing to work. Alarm clocks won't ring on time, spades will turn, electronics won't run." This is all true, but it's important to note that this affliction puts Benny in the same general class as (if I may venture a Simpsons reference) Sideshow Bob when he steps on the rakes. One of Pynchon's constant themes is that technology makes schlemiels of us all, even as we try to convince ourselves that we are becoming more and more masterful because of all the clever machines we can make and buy.

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