What is What is Man? On Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man

Few recent works of academic cultural criticism have received such rapturous, widespread, and indeed almost universal acclaim as Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man has over the last several months. Lorin Stein in The Paris Review calls it “exhilarating.” Adam Kirsch, in The Tablet, says that it’s “a brilliant contribution to the history of ideas, one of the rare books that reshapes the present by reinterpreting the past.” In The Guardian, Brian Dillon calls it “a revelatory study of mid-20th-century humanism.” Christopher Benfey writes in the New York Review of Books that The Age of the Crisis of Man exemplifies, in “dark times for the humanities…what a fresh contribution to humanistic study might look like today.”

GreifGreif is a founding editor of the esteemed intellectual journal n+1 and a dazzling, sharp and funny essayist – which may have contributed to the adulatory reception this much less entertaining, over-extended and dauntingly serious work, a revision of his PhD thesis, has received. Greif’s purpose here is to explore why the decades from 1930 to 1970 were so dominated by books with titles like The Condition of Man, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Who is Man?, The Family of Man, The Science of Man in the World Crisis and so on, and where this “discourse of Man” went.

You probably recognize the kind of book he means. These are “the worthy and earnest paperbacks,” he says, “that were on the basement shelves of my childhood.” We see them nowadays, bent-spined maybe, on used bookstore shelves. They all seem to start, unapologetically, with the same three portentous words: “What is Man?” Greif’s basic question is a beguiling one. Once, the books he’s examining were part of a completely natural way of thinking and talking. Now, they seem pompous, tedious, and basically unreadable. What happened?

It’s worth clearing something up first, however. Greif doesn’t offer up any staggeringly original answers. As such the language with which the book has been received—when it’s called a profoundly philosophical and bracing history of ideas, say—is untrue to The Age of the Crisis of Man itself, and its more muted ambitions (in spite of its grand title). Greif explores the mid-century sense that there was something wrong with the human condition (now that it’s not so clear that there is one human condition at all—and certainly not one that can be addressed by asking “What is Man?”) mainly by tracking its rise and fall. When he does seek to grapple with the meaning of this discourse or the mechanism of its decline, he uses a familiar explanatory apparatus.

The book’s basic premise, that “Man” was a false universal that excluded whole categories of people, is well known, indeed part of the atmosphere of contemporary thought (even if socially it’s something that continues to be fought for and challenged) – not a scintillating discovery. Greif doesn’t add much to our understanding of the ideas; he doesn’t really even aim to. His book is more valuable as a history of the ebb and flow of a way of talking and thinking, a scrupulous and often-times minutely detailed work of historical reconstruction that only reveals its true intellectual and political motivations at the very end.

The period Greif is writing about is often considered an interim time, at least in a certain narrow view of Anglo-American literary history. It’s thought of as a mostly nameless non-period after high modernism, before the onset of the postmodern, where nothing of great interest happens. Greif wants to redefine it as an American moment distinguished by its big questions about “Man.” After tracing the philosophical origins, growth, and eventual ubiquitousness of this “Man” talk, he starts to examine its erosion over time – which happens principally through fiction.

Novels put flesh on ideas, Greif notes, and in doing so they show these ideas’ limitations. In the 1950s the work of then-young writers like Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison showed how narrow a universalist rhetoric that leaves, as Greif puts it, “basic forms of exclusion unthought,” really was. Saul Bellow’s novels indelibly added Jewish experience to the notion of “Man,” and at once explored the idea that, rather than there being a permanent human nature, there is a limited stock of repeating human types. Portraying black lives, Ralph Ellison’s work asked which human attributes were allowed to make the term “man” meaningful in America. Later, Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional and critical work, along with Susan Sontag’s, made nonsensical any use of the term “Man” that effaces women’s lives. Novelists, Greif argues, made the whitewashing, generalizing “discourse of Man” untenable, in a process that continued on into the 1970s and beyond.

Greif is a brilliant close reader, with particularly interesting things to say about a constellation of mid-century writers, including William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, and, more surprisingly, Kafka.

He also dwells with admirable subtlety on the graininess and sponginess of knowledge, the personal and social factors that affect which ideas and books get taken up and which don’t. Derrida’s good English helped him make a splash at the Johns Hopkins conference of 1966 that introduced French theory to the United States, for example. New York intellectuals had what can only be described as a love affair with Jean-Paul Sartre. Anthropologists were marginalized in American intellectual life by some bizarre institutional politics involving UNESCO.

The book is terrific at tracking the human interactions and come-and-go of books and ideas. Admittedly, you have to care a lot about the subject to follow every shift, such as Greif’s microscopic recreation of the debates between an advocate for the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and an acolyte of a follower of the philosopher John Dewey.

Near the end, though, The Age of the Crisis of Man takes an odd turn. Greif reveals that his motive in writing the book wasn’t just historical interest. More explicitly, sharply, and with greater political inflection than anywhere else in the book, he makes an open accusation against the turn-of-the-century liberal intellectuals who became neo-con apologists—essentially useful idiots who ended up supporting American policy in the Middle East by claiming that it was fundamentally connected to human rights. To avoid any such use of the discourse of Man to support narrow political aims in future, Greif makes an unusual suggestion, in unusual terms:

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 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.

The discourse of Man matters, Greif says, because we live in its wake. After its collapse in the 1960s, we are left with two incomplete and contradictory ways of conceiving the human: a humanitarian approach premised on the inviolability of the soul, versus a critique of the always constructed, always deceived subject. The real question Greif cares about is, “What should be the starting point for twenty-first century thought?” And his answer is pretty clear. Whichever option you choose, don’t talk about “Man.” What he says we need instead is a weird kind of putting your head down and getting on with things without worrying too much about what they might mean:

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.

The problem, of course, is that this apparent pragmatism falls apart as soon as you, well, think about it. Where is the dividing line between “concrete questions of value” and questions about “who we are”? There is an obvious sense in which deciding concrete questions of value about what to do does require us, explicitly or implicitly, to make decisions about who we are – the kind of people who do x or y. And, you want to ask, is there really no way for us to talk about these issues without becoming zealots? If there isn’t, then it would seem to be the critical intellectual’s job to develop one.

Grief has a dilemma. He counsels against using anything like the discourse whose rise and fall he has reconstructed so minutely, lest he fall into some kind of fundamentalist discourse about “Man.” But doing so leaves him deliberately hanging back from the political questions that, he says at the last minute, motivated his discussion. The result is curiously deflating and dissatisfying. And this is the problem with his approach in the book as a whole, which is a scrupulous attempt to trace and perhaps imply, rather than openly argue and retort—let alone find new ways of talking and thinking.

The dazzling reception the book has received is more indicative of a critical hunger for something whole and new and satisfying than an indication that this longed-for dish has been served up. And in a way the universally positive response is a contemporary instance of something Greif writes about in the book. It’s an idea spreading and becoming fashionable, maybe even going a little bit viral, in a smallish community of thinkers and writers. But the critical reaction is premised on a basic misunderstanding of the book in question. The whole spectacle would make a good subject for a hefty or satirical novel of intellectual life, if anyone still wrote books like that.