The Sound of Cracking

Pankaj Mishra

  • The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-73 by Mark Greif
    Princeton, 434 pp, £19.95, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 14639 3
  • Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers by Edward Mendelson
    New York Review, 216 pp, £12.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 59017 776 1

Mark Greif’s book is a bracingly ambitious attempt at a ‘philosophical history’ of the American mid-century, a chronological account of writers and their ideas. It begins in 1933 with an apparently widely perceived ‘crisis of man’ in American intellectual culture and is cut off, equally surgically, in 1973, with academic theory’s announcement of the ‘death of man’. Greif, a founding editor of n+1, one of the consistently excellent periodicals of the last decade, was drawn to his subject after noticing the number of mid-century American book titles that refer to ‘man in crisis’: a genre of literature that filled the basement shelves of his childhood, ‘the worthy and earnest paperbacks that my parents’ generation inherited to educate themselves for the responsibilities of their era’.

A lot of books were indeed published in the United States with the word ‘man’ in their title (though a taxonomy of crisis literature would also show much anxiety about ‘civilisation’ and the ‘West’). Revealingly, most of these were written by European exiles and expatriates in the US (Fromm, Cassirer, Marcuse, Arendt, Voegelin): their formative intellectual experience was of the economic and political crisis of Europe, and of middle-class attachment to right-wing or downright fascist palliatives. In the US, they observed the domestication of European technologies of control and organisation, and the rapidly changing relationship between machines and men, politics and economics. Greif shows that the crisis of man discourse resonated in America in such diverse forms as the postwar cults of Kafka, existentialism and human rights, and in the writings of Dwight Macdonald and Susan Sontag. Thomist theologians were as much a part of it as New York’s Jewish intellectuals. ‘Man,’ Greif writes, ‘became at mid-century the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognised, helped, rescued, made the centre, the measure, the “root”.’

Some American writers responded to anxieties about the enfeebling of European liberal humanism with cultural tonics of their own. Lionel Trilling declared after the war that ‘the great work of our time is the restoration and reconstitution of … the great former will of humanism.’ Greif writes insightfully about the canonisation of Hemingway and Faulkner, and the careful packaging of US soft power: the ‘nation’s individualism, its energy, its religious darkness, its democracy, its philosophical depth to rival Europe, and its fecundity’. He examines The Adventures of Augie March, The Crying of Lot 49 and Wise Blood, books ‘in which the new authority of unmarked, universal man could be borrowed and spread, and yet where its contradictions and gaps would come into relief’. His analysis of Invisible Man is particularly original. And ending his philosophical history in 1973 makes sense, even though the American idea of man as Homo economicus has accumulated more ideological power in the four decades since. In the 1960s European structuralists and deconstructionists were already expressing doubts about a ‘tyrannical universal’, doubts which were then amplified on Ivy League campuses and in some American literary fiction. In the broader countercultural revolt, women and members of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities denounced the premises behind universal manhood – progress, sovereignty, free will, moral truth, reason – as exclusivist and self-serving creations of white, heterosexual bourgeois males. In the regime of deindustrialisation and globalised financial capitalism that followed the oil crisis of 1973, man would be increasingly deprived of his work ethic (and self-worth) and burdened by unprecedented professional risk and existential uncertainty, to the point, now reached, where only Davos Man – the hyper-connected embodiment of capitalism – appears to possess a special being and authority.

Greif moves nimbly from Being and Nothingness to Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition at MoMA and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet his way of weaving a network of resemblances and discontinuities together, along with his evident gift for paraphrase and summary, might lead the reader to expect something less dispassionate and more focused: a controlling argument rather than a series of episodes and vignettes. The Age of the Crisis of Man seems at first to be a rich genealogy, like Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia (2010), which describes the way the concept of ‘human rights’, beginning in the 1940s, eclipsed social and economic rights before becoming part of the rhetorical arsenal of freedom-promoters and humanitarian interventionists. Or like Udi Greenberg’s recent book, The Weimar Century: German Emigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War, which blends intellectual with political history in its account of the making of the government-academic nexus in mid-century America. But Greif turns out to be an inquisitive and nostalgic curator of his family’s bookshelves and graduate seminar texts, and a stimulating literary critic, rather than a social historian or intellectual archaeologist. He refuses to judge whether the discourse of the crisis of man was ‘wise, or either good or bad’, and says he is more interested in ‘the proliferation of answers, not their conclusion’. But only a reader attuned to the parochial assumptions of American exceptionalism will find anything remarkable in the fact that so many mid-century Europeans or Euro-Americans were obsessed with the crisis of man.

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