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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., 33.0

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Alan Jacobs

Man in Crisis

"Who are you and why?"

I must begin this review of Mark Greif's The Age of the Crisis of Man by declaring an interest. I am currently at work on a book tentatively titled The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism and Total War. In it I describe a series of figures who discerned that a time of global conflict required them not just, or even primarily, to oppose the Axis powers but more crucially to emphasize the need for the spiritual renewal of the Allied nations, primarily through an educational system grounded in the Christian, or, generally, the biblical, understanding of human nature and human potential.

But Christians and Jews were scarcely the only people arguing, at that time, that the war (first as anticipated, then as suffered) required from the Allied nations a thorough rethinking of their cultures' answer to what W. H. Auden, in a postwar poem, calls "the pantocratic riddle": "Who are you and why?" There were liberal-secularist answers to these questions, Trotskyist answers, Stalinist answers, European-aristocratic answers; and none of the thinkers offering them were very pleased with the religious answers. As I pursued my research, it soon became clear to me that I would need to outline these controversies and debates, which took place on prominent stages, especially in the United States. I set to work; I drafted long chapters and wished I could make them shorter; I grew more absorbed in the research, which seemed to ramify endlessly and to take me farther and farther from the writers whom I had planned to write about.

So when Mark Greif's book arrived on my desk and I saw that he had explored just these debates—in great detail, buttressed with deep research, presented with great analytic and synthetic skill—my heart sank like a stone. All that work for nothing! That was my first response. My second was: Wait; now I don't have to worry about my book growing misshapen from those long scene-setting chapters: I can just cite Greif. And so my heart re-ascended. Then, as I read the book with care, I discovered that while Greif was reading all the right texts, his interpretations of them often diverged quite dramatically from my own, which was both fascinating and annoying.

Thus my declaration: I'm deeply invested in what Greif writes about here. I am therefore a knowledgeable reviewer but, perhaps for that very reason, not the most fair-minded one.

Here are the titles of some widely read and well-regarded books that appeared in English in the middle of the 20th century: The Nature and Destiny of Man; The Abolition of Man; The Condition of Man; Man the Measure; Education for Modern Man; Who is Man? There are others bearing similar titles, and many, many others pursuing similar concerns under less explicit titles: Greif refers to them all as involved in the "discourse of man," and understands most of them as arguing, or simply assuming, that "Man" is "in crisis," poised at some distinctively challenging point in human history. In part because the great powers of the world—the United States and Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan—were understood to embody different conceptions of human nature and human destiny, these controversies were not private, academic, or merely technical debates: "For a long period in the mid-twentieth century, fundamental anthropology—the problematic nature of 'man'—became a main rhetorical and contemplative current in the streams of thought and writing that shape a public philosophy."

It is because these debates were so widely followed, and so potentially consequential for public policy and for the cultural self-understanding of the Western nations, that Greif writes about them; certainly not because he finds the debates compelling. Indeed, early in the book he explains that they hold no intrinsic interest for him whatever: "One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful." I almost envy the easy confidence with which Greif identifies his eyes with the "modern"; with which he identifies whatever he finds "tedious" and "unhelpful" with the tedious and unhelpful as such. (Almost.) That confidence emerges from his unquestioned assumption that the "discourse of man" is over, "finished off by different claims."

But Greif's own historical framing of his subject disputes that very assumption:

Philosophers had contemplated man's nature for three thousand years. "What is man?" as a discrete phrase is a cliché twice over, and belongs to two different points of origin. One is the Bible: "What is man?" is heard in both Job and Psalms. But "What is man?" held a hallowed place, too, in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. It is remembered from the handbook to Kant's Logic, where he says that there are only four true questions of philosophy in its universal sense: "What can I know?," "What ought I to do?," "What may I hope?," and "What is man?"

Greif could go further with this: "What is man?" is one of the chief questions animating Lucretius' De rerum natura; Thomas Aquinas pursues it with great vigor and detail, especially in De ente et essentia; Hobbes' Leviathan begins with a long section, in 16 chapters, called "Of Man"; the most central concepts of Confucian thought, ren and li, have defined the human in that tradition for millennia. I could continue these citations for quite some time. It does not seem immediately obvious to me that a mode of inquiry that has persisted on and off (largely on) for the past three thousand years or so throughout the world can be said to be "finished off" because American and Western European academics have for the past few decades found it tedious. Such a notion is both historically and culturally myopic.

Nor is Greif's claim true even if we confine ourselves to recent history: not only are discourse-of-man books still being written—see, for instance, Pierre Manent's much-discussed The City of Man (1994)—but our multifarious debates about the posthuman depend wholly on concepts of humanity remaining in play. Books like N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman (1999) and Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future (2003) are as deeply implicated in the discourse of man as anything by Niebuhr or Lewis Mumford. Oddly enough, a passage from the conclusion of his book suggests that Greif knows this: "We insist that we come just after the moment of break or fracture with normalcy and tradition, that we are the first to discover a new mutation just coming into being—more Columbuses of the near at hand, to paraphrase Bellow." But he doesn't allow this point to disturb his belief that the discourse of man is "finished."

In another deployment of the same logic of after-ness, Greif writes: "The discourse of man unrolled a welcome for the last great era in which theologians (Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) would be taken seriously as intellectuals by intellectuals in general." Not "the most recent," but "the last." Maybe he's right; but the idea that intellectual history is moving with a ceaseless linear drive towards pure secularity is one that people hold to by faith more than by evidence. Greif's belief that religion is on its way out leads him to be less than scrupulous in his research on Christian thinkers and writers, so in dealing with Christian intellectuals, he is never on firm ground—his knowledge is spotty and skimpy, and his readings of Flannery O'Connor are quite uninformed by the necessary theological context.1 But unlike many academics of our time, he understands that Christian writers matter to the discourse of man, and for this he deserves commendation.

Following several other historians of ideas—James Gilbert's Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (1998) is especially helpful—Greif tells the story of how in America the great debates about the nature of man were contested by what one might call a Chicago school and a New York school. The Chicago school was led by Mortimer Adler, who had been brought to the University of Chicago in the 1930s by its charismatic president Robert Maynard Hutchins in order to bring a Great Books model of thought to that institution. When Adler came to a conference in New York in 1940 and declared that "Democracy has much more to fear from the mentality of its teachers [by which he meant its university professors] than from the nihilism of Hitler," left-secularists were appalled. The political philosopher Sidney Hook—perhaps the most vocal proponent of the New York school—recorded in his autobiography that as he listened to Adler, he was so outraged that the convener of the conference, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the president of Jewish Theological Seminary, stamped on Hook's feet to try to get him to shut up. Hook cried, when he got a chance to respond, "We have just been told that American democracy is in greater danger from its professors than from Hitlerism. Such a statement is not merely false but irresponsible, and at the present time doubly so."

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.

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.

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.

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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