Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Evan Kindley reviews The Age of the Crisis of Man

Mark Greif. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. 448 pp.

Review by Evan Kindley

Mark Greif’s first book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, stakes an ambitious claim. The book, Greif writes in its preface, “is meant to furnish a new philosophical history of midcentury” (p. xi). Its thesis is simple: Greif posits a varied and far-reaching but chronologically delimited trend in American and European intellectual life, which he calls “the discourse of the crisis of man.” “The world had entered a new crisis by 1933,” Greif contends, “not just the crisis of the liberal state, or capitalist economy generally, and not only the imminent paroxysm of the political world system in world war. The threat was now to ‘man.’ ‘Man’ was in ‘crisis’” (p. 3). This apparently abstract threat was taken quite seriously by some very serious people. Philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and literary critics alike were concerned for the fate of an abstract, universal “Man”: “Man became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the ‘root,’ and released for ‘what was in’ him” (p. 8).

Greif admits that much of this discourse hasn’t aged well. “One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes . . . is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful,” he writes (p. 11). But the discourse’s sententiousness, he argues, served a function: “The discourse of man was somewhat empty in its own time, even where it was at its best; empty for a reason, or, one could say, meaningful because it was empty” (p. 11). To make this point, Greif develops a useful and original distinction between “empty discourse” and “cant discourse”: “A cant discourse is one in which the words deliberately do not mean anything that can be questioned, argued about, or refined by disagreement. . . . An empty discourse is one that behaves as if it wishes to be filled with a single inductive or deductive answer . . . but in fact generates the continuation of attempts, or tacitly admits to unanswerability” (pp. 11–12) The emptiness of the concept of “the crisis of Man” was an encouragement to try to fill in the blank; all that was needed to spur intellectual participation was the assertion that Man existed, was in crisis, and needed help.

The first section of The Age of the Crisis of Man is a fast-moving but impressively detailed account of the origins of this discourse, encompassing texts by Reinhold Niebuhr, Ernst Cassirer, Erich Kahler, Karl Mannheim, Franz Boas, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Lewis Mumford, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, and many others. The second and third sections shift focus from “thought” to fiction. Here the argument is that, during the age of the crisis of Man, it was “the novel—not the tract, not the poem, not the sermon, not the academic report . . . [that] had the obligation to humanize a fallen mankind” (p. 104). In one of the book’s most ingenious moments, Greif proposes that critics of the 1940s constructed a “double canon,” simultaneously enshrining the “American renaissance” of the 1850s and the modernism of the 1920s as the pinnacles of American literary achievement (p. 109). Postwar novelists were expected to meet the standards set by these two golden ages, while at the same time shouldering, somehow, the burden of “Man” and his crisis. This put enormous pressure on novelists, and provoked a “rage of disappointment” that contemporary American fiction wasn’t living up to the expectations that crisis of man-minded critics had for it (p. 116) Greif makes this case by offering nuanced readings of a set of canonical authors: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon.

The book’s final section chronicles the end of the age of the crisis of Man. In Greif’s telling, this was hastened by the discourse’s “domestication” (p. 257)—its overfamiliarity, as it became popularized and its suppositions gradually became shibboleths—and its inability to absorb the shocks of civil rights, identity politics, and new philosophies of difference. The 1960s, Greif suggests, were a “Big Bang” that blew the existing intellectual cosmos to bits, “breaking apart the idea of abstract man itself” (p. 252). Race and gender were the catalysts for this explosion, especially race, which has been largely ignored by the white crisis-of-Man critics even as the evils of racism in the Jim Crow South stared them in the face. “The essential flaw in the American discourse of man had always been race,” Greif writes. “The discourse of man turned out not to be capacious enough to contain the divisions of racial identity and racial inequality” (p. 261). He shows how crisis talk was picked up and subverted by black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and, in a brilliant if slightly fanciful aside, suggests that a turning point came in the late sixties when white sophisticates, following African-Americans and the countercultural avant-garde, stopped venerating “Man” and started lambasting “The Man.” This “disaffiliation” with Man-ness signaled “an exclusion from the tyrannical universal, as an attribute of the mainstream or unitary culture itself.” In the linguistic shift from Man to The Man, “the universal and unmarked, as such, loses its appeal” (pp. 269–70).

The conclusion of The Age of the Crisis of Man presses on into the late 1960s and early 1970s, offering a new account of the rise of “theory” in America. In Greif’s account, all of what Americans experienced as a bewildering info dump of Continental arcana can be united under the heading of antihumanism (or, to put it more technically and less provocatively, the critique of the philosophical subject). In the United States, antihumanist theory was warmly welcomed in literature departments but kept rigorously apart from the (equally European) tradition of analytic philosophy, which, after a period of apolitical hyperrationalism, was used to help develop the language of humanitarianism and human rights. This has brought us to our strange current impasse, what Greif calls an “intellectual tragedy,” in which the European philosophical tradition is split between humanists and antihumanists, each of whom “[think] the other naïve” (p. 316).

These sections contain some of Greif’s most provocative and lively arguments. Arguably, though, they should have been part of a whole other book. For many reasons, “Theory” is too much a can of worms to open toward the very end of a history like this, not only because of the ambiguity and complexity of the texts and trends themselves, but also because our intellectual and disciplinary investments in them are still so great (albeit probably on the wane).

Greif would probably answer that this is the point: he wants to connect his “philosophical history of midcentury” to our theoretical present. But Greif, alas, doesn’t do quite enough to bridge the gap. Even if he’s right that today’s theory is limited by the conceptual horizons of sixties antihumanism, he’s too peremptory in his treatment of recent trends in academic thought to be fully persuasive. The few contemporary theories that are mentioned (the burgeoning philosophical literature dealing with “the Anthropocene,” for instance) are dismissed almost immediately as fads or throwbacks; you can practically see Greif rolling his eyes as he types.

This is related to the book’s one substantive flaw, from an academic standpoint: its lack of engagement with other professional literary scholars. Certainly Greif is a careful and generous reader of other people’s criticism, but the writers he engages with are almost always of the era under discussion (and, not to put too fine a point on it, dead). Occasionally he will cite a historian or sociologist, and perhaps The Age of the Crisis of Man really is better understood as a work of history, as opposed to literary criticism. Yet there is no question that the admirable chapters on Bellow, Ellison, O’Connor, and Pynchon could have been still further improved by an acknowledgment of the voluminous critical literature that has built up around these figures.

I hope Greif’s lack of engagement with his peers won’t keep them from arguing with him, and testing his conclusions against their own experience of the relevant texts. This exceptional book, which synthesizes five decades of thought so cleanly and elegantly, deserves to inspire some bold new thinking of its own.