American Dissolve

Mark Greif
The Age of the Crisis of Man:
Thought and Fiction in America, 1933 – 1973

(Princeton University Press, 2015)

We’ve become highly conversant in the language of crisis, we anxious souls of the 21st century. The shrinking postnational world has come to resemble the native catastrophe of a DeLillo novel, and we’ve taken to its new vocabulary and phrasing like paranoid savants—not least because of a creeping sense of familiarity, the roteness of calamity. For crises, it would seem, are everywhere. They multiply like shivering rabbits in our domestic discourse, a motley company of threat levels and record-setting droughts, fractious insurgents and rising seas. In our post-9/11 world, the crisis has become less localized problematic than pervasive mode of being. Crisis has insinuated itself into broad genre entertainments (witness the proliferation of purgative fantasies), highbrow critique (the work of John Gray, to name just one), pop culture (man-child apocalypse, This Is The End), comedy (Louis CK’s moral antimatter), and countless other artistic and intellectual endeavors whose relation to the world is mediated primarily by an intimation or examination of disaster. In this sense, crisis has become a kind of permanent expectation, an associative layer laid upon our cultural disquiet. But how and why did this apprehension arise? These questions—mapping the antecedents to the ubiquitous crisis discourse of the present day—are the provenance of Mark Greif’s new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 19331973. In Greif’s compelling study, he locates the genesis (and lexicon) of our fragmented angst in a largely forgotten American cultural episode wherein the tensions between historical unity and a newly assertive pluralism seemingly heralded the death of a shared, universal nature.

The Age of the Crisis of Man presents a rich and idea-intensive prehistory of our fraught contemporary moment as viewed through the prism of midcentury American intellectual history. Unlike our current narrative of pervasive micro-crises, American intellectuals in the 1930s anticipated a singular catastrophe that threatened the very soul, or purpose, or possibility of an essential, universal “Man.” In the wake of Hitler’s rise to power, the looming threat of totalitarianism, Hiroshima’s atomic tragedy, and what was perceived to be a troubling mechanization of man’s spirit by way of technology, the “crisis of man” was a kind of intellectual consensus on the vulnerability of both human nature as such and the broader Enlightenment projects of historical progress and the dignity of the human subject. “Man,” says Greif, “became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the ‘root’.” His book explores how American novelists and intellectuals confronted (and, eventually, relinquished) this problem of “Man,” in the process energizing a new American literature as well as the socio-political ferment of the ’60s and the coming revolution of structuralist practice. Within this process of monolithic cultural struggle (and its attendant fragmentation), one is tempted to see the aesthetic and political denouement of modernity: the difficult birth of an anxious and articulate new individualism.

If the title of Greif’s book sounds a little earnest, or even antiquated, it is of a piece with the weightily named works typical of the crisis discourse, each striving after a manifest “Man”: Erich Kahler’s Man the Measure; Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition; Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man; Lewis Mumford’s The Condition of Man. These works (and countless others) were in search of what Greif calls “re-enlightenment”—that is, a regenerative reimagining of Enlightenment doctrine providing multiple paths toward progress; essentially, a universal history without teleology. But in order to achieve this intellectual salvation—nothing less than a total reorientation of (or recommitment to) “Man”—fundamental questions had to first be clarified. They were numerous, fascinating, and often of ponderous moral seriousness. To wit: Was “Man” something permanent? An essence that stood immutable through the vagaries of historical chance and consequence? Or was he malleable? An expression of biological compulsions modified by social conditions? What, if anything, unified our species? In short, as so many of the works within the crisis of man discourse grandiosely began: “What is Man?” (As a quick aside: the irony of the ostensibly universal question leaving out half the world’s population is not lost on Greif. His book uses the gender-prohibitive “Man” only as an emblematic phrase in keeping with the work of the time.)

The varied answers to the fundamental “What is Man?” question could fill several equally ambitious books but are handled nimbly here by Greif. We are offered Martin Buber’s mystical-theological explanation (a “semimystical relation between man and man”), Erich Fromm’s humanistic-psychological take (a “physico-spiritual nature, which existed primarily for the better, peaceful realization of a permanent happiness”), C.S. Lewis’s conservative-apologist mushiness (the necessity of “the unity of religious-moral knowledge that underlies all human nature”), Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist manifesto (“man is nothing else but what he makes of himself”). The number of deftly explained and smartly argued ideas on each page can seem both intellectually generous and mildly overwhelming, and this not unpleasant sensation was a nearly constant companion throughout the book—a kind of effervescent idea-drunkenness (even given the often dense subject matter). One tends to believe Greif when he says early on that he isn’t necessarily interested in whether or not a given idea is right or wrong, true or untrue; rather, “the proliferation of answers, not their conclusion” seems to be the underlying point of his study.

And here is where Greif proves especially, even thrillingly, able: as a vivid cartographer of the generative nature of crisis discourse. With lucid prose and deep erudition, he shows how the crisis of man galvanized thought and creativity across multiple antagonistic intellectual disciplines and movements: anti-Deweyan Chicago proto-conservatives, Thomist theologians decrying modernity’s failed optimism, the secular genius of the New York Jewish intellectual milieu, the “final forms of myth” denounced in émigré dialectics. The mastery on display here—the sheer diversity of thinkers explored—is staggering. Some of them will no doubt be familiar to you: Adorno, Jaspers, Foucault, Arendt. Others might prove a little fuzzier: Mortimer Adler, Shulamith Firestone, Sidney Hook. All are deftly woven into the fabric of crisis discourse—both the juicy rivalries and strange bedfellows—often with dazzling results.

Greif does not dive deeply into this source material; rather, he skims and dips, excises and juxtaposes with an intellectual surgeon’s steady hands. Total explication is almost beside the point, as Greif seems far more interested in mapping the various strains of discourse where they grappled and cross-pollinated, transforming the geography of midcentury thought in the process. These intellectual efforts—brilliant and far-reaching, though (as Greif notes) often repetitive, even tedious—each attempted to surmount the crisis vision in order to discover new cultural wellsprings of regeneration and renewal.

In a tour de force of literary criticism, the second part of Greif’s study (even more satisfying than the first) shows how that effort was taken up, questioned, rejected, and therein transformed by America’s hungry young novelists, most significantly by friends and peers Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. In this charming odd couple (they even lived together for a time, a literary sitcom practically begging for adaptation) Greif finds the most prominent answer to Lionel Trilling’s challenge to midcentury writers, that “the great work of our time is the restoration and reconstitution of the will […] reconstituting the great former will of humanism.”

Whereas themes of identity and recognition were often agonized over in crisis discourse and fiction, Saul Bellow’s titular protagonist in The Adventures of Augie March avoids the anxiety of recognized belonging dramatized in Bellow’s earlier crisis novel Dangling Man (there’s that “Man” again), realizing (or merely accepting) that recognition is no longer necessary for meaningful engagement. In place of that anguished yearning, Augie possesses an electric variety of American energy invigorated by community, in which a comforting rubric of social organization speaks to an edifying historical truth: “the great ones are already around you.” In this way Bellow confronts a central fear of the crisis of man discourse—that civilization had lost its constancy—by joyfully affirming “you find the same fixed possibilities of human character in each category of people […] and that the larger civilization carries on its ‘history,’ with perfect continuity, because of it.” In what Greif calls “type idealism,” Bellow shatters moribund universalism for a reflexive (and historical) recognition found in lasting common types, thereby wedding traditionalism with the budding possibility of diverse identifications.

While Greif also offers compelling takes on Flannery O’Connor’s and Thomas Pynchon’s work, it is his brilliant reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man that becomes the critical centerpiece of the literary transformation of crisis discourse. In showing the inability of a universalizing impulse to discern the complexities of African American experience, Ellison constitutes a new direction for the crisis of man—one forged and transmuted in the difficulties of black social reality. For Ellison, identity is something worked at, a kind of becoming that must “locate a self that isn’t […] made a marionette.” Greif reads Ellison’s classic novel as a nominalist statement: “Only individuals exist” and universal humanity in a universal history “makes ruined buildings, and dead men.” Ellison sees history as something to be learned and then left rather than restructured. This emphasis on radical individuality, crystallized so powerfully in Ellison’s work, is both a refutation of the crisis of man and a coming out party for the crises of men: a shattering sentiment that echoed continuously in the cultural politics of the coming decades.

The third and final section of The Age of the Crisis of Man explores the impetus behind the explosive growth of “French theory”—that is, the Continental imports of structuralism and deconstruction—within American universities in the 1960s. Greif sees the rise of theory as the final transformation, or turning away from, the crisis discourse. In dissolving “Man” within a complex network of systems—superpersonal structures of difference—theory became an attractive alternative for intellectuals weary of an increasingly flabby moral humanism. The “antihumanist” work of Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and Foucault helped to “give meaning to the end, death, and dissolution of the sealed, self-sustaining Man that the earlier discourse of the crisis of man had tried to conceive.” The revolution occurred not only within the lecture hall—these new means of analyses engendered new forms of cultural and intellectual demolition in the politicized consciousness of the 1960s. As Greif says: “a previous era had made the human closed, for safety’s sake”; now, armed with the power and promise of theory “the lattice was made, again, open.”

And that lattice, having been open half a century or more, situates us within our current cultural discontent with its militant brand of pluralism: the postmodern acceptance of crisis-as-lifestyle. Greif, co-founder of the frequently brilliant literary and political magazine n+1, is no stranger to this continued animosity between secular and religious worldviews, conservative and progressive ideologies, the plutocrats and the proverbial 99%. In his brief and clear-eyed concluding remarks, Greif advises a cautious pragmatism that feels well-earned: “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.”

If I have a bone to pick with Greif’s book, it is only that I wanted more of it—an exploration of how the crisis discourse was reflected in and complicated by the towering figures of modern art, Nietzsche, developments in the bebop school of jazz. The crisis discourse vis-à-vis the LGBTQ community, too, is given somewhat short shrift. Still, these seem like petty complaints when weighed against the embarrassment of intellectual riches Greif offers. After finishing the book, I kept returning to his pragmatic advice for our crisis-ravaged age: “find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” No grand statements here; or, rather, perhaps when crisis becomes a cultural fixture, practicality is invested with a new kind of eloquence—or even elevated to a necessary radicalism.


Dustin Illingworth

DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.