The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973
Mark Greif
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

What a ponderous question to end a book with: “What should be the starting point for twenty-first-century thought?” Soon after asking it, and after a long disquisition into thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Jean Paul Sartre, Claude Levi-Strauss, numerous post-war novelists, and I won’t complete the list since it is quite long, after all this, Mark Greif slams the brakes to a screeching halt. Sounding like Delmore Schwartz’s arm-waving anti-hero in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Greif writes, “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! . . . just stop.” Strange after tracing out a lineage to warn others not to go down that road. But I suppose it is the job of this intellectual historian, who explains, “Many of the explicit ‘crisis of man’ books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to!”

Before publishing The Age of the Crisis of Man, Greif served as founding editor of a small literary and political magazine, n+1. (He’s still there but now also a professor at the New School.) Some believed n+1 would replace Partisan Review, which shuttered its windows a year before Greif’s magazine got up and running. In the pages of n+1, Greif wrote on an array of topics, everything from exercise equipment to the band Radiohead to the contemporary hipster and urban gentrification. And no doubt most important, the war in Iraq. n+1 formed just a year after George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech could be seen for the impulsive idiocy it was.

This “intellectual situation”—a term that adorns n+1’s opening pages—was motivation for Greif. Attempts to make Iraq into a liberal war for human rights were dropping like pebbles into desert sands. Besides the brazen essays that got Christopher Hitchens evicted from the pages of The Nation, there were two ur-texts of liberal hawkism: The Fight is for Democracy (2003), edited by George Packer, and even more so Terror and Liberalism (2003), by Paul Berman. Berman’s book is especially pertinent because it hoped to revive mid-century social thought as ammunition in a battle of ideas against a new enemy—Islamic extremism—that was, as Berman saw it, much like the old enemy of totalitarianism. He hoped for “a war of the newsstands and the bookstores.” The journalist and historian Josh Marshall wrote, sympathetically yet critically, that Berman had succumbed to the “Orwell Temptation”: the desire among intellectuals for a frame of mind where everything is clear, where the “cause” doesn’t blur, where there are absolute values to defend. 9/11 made the anti-fascist, humanistic mindset of Cold War liberals seem appropriate for revival, a project that haunts Greif’s book.

It is not just the universalism of the crisis-of-man discourse that feels gaseous, it is also the high-minded, sonorous quality of it all.

“At midcentury,” Greif explains, man became “the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center.” From this, he spins out a story that moves through big debates about John Dewey’s pragmatism and human nature, the Great Books tradition of the University of Chicago and its idealization of a universal human reader, and Niebuhr’s theological disquisitions on the sin of man. This sort of self-assumed universalistic discourse then showed up in French existentialism, especially the humanist version expounded by Sartre, whose thoughts turned toward the “moral responsibility represented in the figure of Man.”

But this discourse swiftly came under scrutiny from postwar novelists. Compared to the novel, with its particular story, there was no better venue in which to break down universalism. This was especially true of stories by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow, rich with particularistic identity. Consider the conclusion of Invisible Man (1952): “Categories and abstractions have no real existence. One tries to apply universal names to people and clasps the air.” Or take Thomas Pynchon, who used postmodern fiction to break “apart the idea of abstract man itself.” Greif discusses these novels with verve and insight and then tells a standard story of decline—without the moralizing that term might conjure—terminating in a not terribly surprising observation: universalist rationalism was mugged during the 1960s and gave way to the anti-humanism today associated with post-structuralism and post-modernism. Then Greif’s conclusion: there is no going back, no “usable past” that the original humanist discourse offers today.

Here is Greif’s major struggle. In talking points for the book he admits, “It’s very hard to look at these moments when ‘ideas mattered,’ and novels answered ‘the big questions,’ so to speak, and not be nostalgic. . . . At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the ‘discourse of the crisis of man’ gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older.” So we’re left with a history that’s not terribly helpful in guiding our future, right? That’s what sends Greif to his pronouncement, “Stop!”

That sounds confusing—we wouldn’t need to stop if you hadn’t started, I can imagine some readers complaining—but I think it’s actually illuminating of the intellectual situation Greif and all of us inhabit. For it is not just the universalism of the crisis-of-man discourse that feels gaseous, it is also the high-minded, sonorous quality of it all. It is hard to imagine this sort of tone or style would pay off now. “Stop” becomes the right starting point for thought today, weird as that sounds.

“Stop” means: don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t look for foundations of knowledge when there are none to look for, when there are—following Richard Rorty, whose ideas touch this book in many ways, though they receive little mention—just stories to go on. Better to focus on particular people in peculiar times, who still manage to teach us something about our lives, just nothing that allows us to escape the contingencies of the history we live in.

Reading Greif prompted me to crack open a classic defense of the intellectual’s vocation, Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Hofstadter arrays the intellectual against the pragmatic, provincial, religious, and business mindsets that constitute our country. In defining the intellectual’s role, Hofstadter discusses the need for “piety,” but he immediately qualifies that with an attitude of “playfulness.” Playful, not dour. That is, play with ideas freely without any expectation that they might have use to those who demand solutions or road maps. Contrary to what some might expect from a serious intellectual historian, Hofstadter had a great sense of humor, was a wonderful mimic, and could make fun of himself and his intellectual colleagues even when making important points.

That is perhaps the lesson of Greif’s “Stop!”: know your past, for sure; know that people have tried things that didn’t pan out; know your way about contemporary theory, but wear that knowledge lightly; and, most of all, remain playful. Big ideas and abstract concepts and taking yourself too seriously present many dangers. We need only go back to the serious pronouncements of the liberal hawks promising us something they could never deliver to remember that. Having big ideas doesn’t mean that you are intelligent.