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Mark Greif’s Brilliant Contribution to the History of Ideas

‘The Age of the Crisis of Man’ traces the fall and rise of individualist pragmatism in America

Adam Kirsch
January 08, 2015
Rondal Partidge, FSA/National Archives
Job applicant at Lockheed Employment, Los Angeles, 1940.Rondal Partidge, FSA/National Archives
Rondal Partidge, FSA/National Archives
Job applicant at Lockheed Employment, Los Angeles, 1940.Rondal Partidge, FSA/National Archives

The title of The Age of the Crisis of Man, the new book by Mark Greif, has a curious sound to it. In the 21st century, we are subject to no end of crisis-talk: We know about the Ebola and AIDS crises in Africa, the geopolitical crisis in Syria and Iraq, and the climate crisis everywhere, which threatens to render all those local crises irrelevant. (The one we no longer hear about so much is the nuclear crisis, which has receded since the end of the Cold War, though it could flare up again any time.) The word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats, each demanding total attention in order to ward off catastrophe. This sense that humanity is living close to the edge of extinction might, in fact, be a constant for our species—perhaps the Middle Ages felt about Judgment Day the way we feel about global warming—but to interpret this apocalypse as a “crisis” is distinctively modern, a creation of the 20th century. For a crisis is something urgent, about which steps must be taken, rather than a fate that simply looms over us. It implies a problem of our own creation that demands our own solution.

Despite all this crisis-talk, however, it has been a long time since people worried about “the crisis of man.” Indeed, to talk of “man” at all now sounds old-fashioned, for several reasons. The obvious one is that the term is gender-restrictive; since the rise of feminism, the absurdity of referring to all human beings simply as “men” or “man” or “mankind” has become undeniable. On a more profound level, however, we no longer feel comfortable using the word “man” because we have lost a certain confidence in the unity of the human species. “Man” implies a common nature and an irreducible essence, something that all of us have always had in common. But the whole trend of philosophy, anthropology, and critical theory since the 1960s has been in the opposite direction, toward an emphasis on difference, diversity, historical and cultural pluralism. To speak of “man,” rather than human beings, now has a bombastic and even imperialistic sound.

Greif’s goal in The Age of the Crisis of Man is to chart this evolution: to show how, between the years mentioned in his subtitle, “Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973,” intellectuals and novelists first embraced, then questioned, and finally abandoned the concept of “man.” There is, then, a kind of pun lurking in Greif’s title. “The crisis of man” was a commonplace of the 1930s, when the rise of Fascism and Communism seemed to threaten the very idea of human nature as it had been understood since the Enlightenment. This is Greif’s starting point; but he goes on to explore the crisis of “man,” that is, of the word and concept itself. In the course of this exploration, he draws connections between exceptionally diverse books and thinkers, showing a mastery of mid-century American intellectual history that few writers of his generation can match. Greif’s story takes in everyone from Reinhold Niebuhr to Ralph Ellison to Franz Boas to Jacques Derrida to Thomas Pynchon. In this way he demonstrates the power, and also the peril, of the concept of man: It includes everything.

In a famous essay, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” Lionel Trilling wrote that the element of the past that literature can’t recapture is “the culture’s hum and buzz of implication”—the penumbra of ideas and understandings that give artworks their meaning. Greif begins by attempting to conjure up that hum and buzz for the 1930s and ’40s, the era when, as he writes, “American intellectuals of manifold types … converged on a perception of danger.” This danger was not just to individuals, nations, or even whole races, but to “man”: “their fear, above all, was that human nature was being changed.” This was the era of books with titles like The Nature and Destiny of Man (Niebuhr), The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis), Man the Measure (Erich Kahler), and The Condition of Man (Lewis Mumford). As Greif summarizes, “Man became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the ‘root.’ ”

One of the challenges facing Greif is that, while he necessarily begins with this material, which falls at the chronological beginning of his period, it is in fact some of the least interesting and important in his study. Indeed, he writes about the whole “crisis of man” period from a certain intellectual remove, as if unsure that these books—most of which are now entirely unread—deserve serious scholarly attention. The question of man was asked over and over again, Greif shows, usually in similar terms. Writers on the subject lamented the decline of Enlightenment ideals, asked where society had gone wrong, and often found the culprit in technology. They called for what Greif calls “re-enlightenment,” a return to the ideals of freedom, reason, and individualism that modern Europe seemed to have abandoned.

Yet he finds this discourse generally unimpressive, lacking originality and profundity. The best way to understand it, Greif argues, is as “maieutics.” The word comes from the Greek for “midwife,” and a maieutic argument like the crisis-of-man discourse is less concerned with establishing truth than with eliciting certain responses in the audience. By talking about man, in other words, these mid-century writers hoped to will him into being, at a time when he seemed about to disappear.

In tackling this refractory material, Greif spends less time explaining the actual contents of the crisis-of-man books than he does exploring the intellectual networks by which ideas spread. Often The Age of the Crisis of Man is reminiscent of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which likewise looked at how individuals and institutions underlay the transmission of ideas. But where Menand’s focus was pragmatism at Harvard, Greif’s subject embraces everything from Robert Maynard Hutchins’ Great Books program at the University of Chicago, to the “moral anthropology” of the German Jewish intellectuals who fled Hitler for America, to the creation of UNESCO after the war. In all these ways—and even in a middlebrow phenomenon like the blockbuster photo exhibition “The Family of Man”—Greif sees the premises and contradictions of crisis-of-man discourse being worked out.

In the second of the book’s three sections, Greif turns from intellectual history to literary criticism. For it wasn’t only social scientists who wrote about man in the 1940s and ’50s: Think of titles like Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. These books, along with Thomas Pynchon’s V. and The Crying of Lot 49, represent for Greif the laboratory in which the idea of man was tested and, for the most part, found wanting. In particular, they show how “the crisis of man ran into complexities … when it encountered the daily experience of race in the postwar era.”

The key text here is Invisible Man, which for Greif shows how the universalizing concept of man proved unable to capture the complex, mediated nature of African American identity. Man, for Ellison, was not something we automatically are, but something we arduously become, or fail to become, through a process of mutual recognition. “Categories and abstractions have no real existence,” Greif writes of Invisible Man, “one tries to apply universal names to people and clasps the air. Only individuals exist—and the categories that would cover more than one of them are illusory.”

Of all the fiction Greif explores, it is Bellow’s Dangling Man that seems to have the closest connection, thematically and biographically, to the crisis-of-man discourse. Like many exponents of “man,” Bellow was Jewish, but Jewishness as such plays only a minor role in the story he tells in his debut novel. (Indeed, one question that Greif opens but doesn’t fully explore is whether the flight from Jewishness was, for many Jewish intellectuals, one of the motors that drove them to embrace the abstraction of man.) Rather, Joseph, the novel’s protagonist, confronts the problem of man when he finds himself waiting to be drafted during World War II. Without a job or purpose in life, he is forced to discover whether it is possible for an individual to be an abstract “man,” without any mediating social role; and the answer Bellow gives is negative. Like Ellison, Bellow finds no route to the abstraction “man,” only individual men with their particular roles and problems.

It is in the last and most engaging part of The Age of the Crisis of Man that Greif returns to intellectual history and connects his subject matter to the present. Why is it, he asks, that starting in the 1960s American intellectuals so ardently embraced structuralism and deconstruction, those Parisian imports that dominated the academy for decades? The answer he proposes is that “theory” was correctly understood as an “antihumanism”: that is, a discourse about human beings that steered away from the abstraction and sentimentality of “man.” (Not coincidentally, Greif remarks, the 1960s was the time when “man” become a slang pejorative, in the form of “the man,” the representative of class and race oppression.) Instead, theorists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and Derrida focused on the structures of thought and society that produced our subjectivity; substituting structure for nature, they denied the idea of a permanent human essence and so opened the possibility of revolutionary change. Here Greif once again proves himself a master of intellectual genealogies, tracing the paths that led from the logical positivism of the early-20th-century Vienna Circle down to the French theorists of the 1960s.

By the end of The Age of the Crisis of Man, it becomes clear just how urgently contemporary its lessons really are. As one of the founding editors of n+1, the premier literary-intellectual magazine of its generation, Greif has been a participant in our own political debates, as well as a chronicler of debates past. And as a writer on the left, Greif has encountered what he describes as a continual dialectic between the universal and the particular, man and the individual, human rights and political struggle. In the terms of his study, this is the debate between the 1940s and the 1960s—that is, between the discourse of man and its literary and political critics. “These antinomies,” Greif writes in his conclusion, “turn round and round, until they resemble a pinwheel, exerting a hypnotic attraction. The needful thing, it seemed to me, would be to arrest the ceaseless spin, anatomize the parts, and see the construction as a whole.”

Today’s inheritors of the rhetoric of man, he suggests, are the rhetoric of human rights and the rhetoric of environmental crisis, each of which employs the tools of “maieutics” to shock us into a new kind of self-recognition. But Greif has learned to distrust this kind of totalizing language, and he warns: “Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, ‘At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are …’ just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment. … Answer, rather, the practical matters … and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” In embracing this kind of pragmatism, Greif aligns himself with an American tradition older than the crisis of man—the tradition of William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, which The Age of the Crisis of Man subtly sets out to reinvigorate. Even readers who find themselves on the opposite side of the debate from Greif—who see some value in the language of man and humanity, in foundational concepts and essential truths—will recognize The Age of the Crisis of Man as a brilliant contribution to the history of ideas, one of the rare books that reshapes the present by reinterpreting the past.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.