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.

Crisis in general defined the decades from the First World War to the Holocaust – closing time for many in the gardens of the West. Intellectual and artistic modernism emerged in Europe out of an attempt to describe, diagnose and often celebrate the breakdown of the 19th century’s verities about post-Enlightenment man. By the early 20th century the aggressive bourgeois ego which George Santayana saw emerge in the industrialising US – the go-getting American with no higher aim than diligent imitation of the rich – was already under siege in Europe by oversized and complex political and economic systems. Sociologists had identified fresh threats to human autonomy in capitalist rationalisation and bureaucratisation. ‘Each man,’ Weber warned, ‘becomes a little cog in the machine,’ pathetically obsessed with becoming ‘a bigger cog’. Karel Čapek invented the word ‘robot’, deriving it from the Czech word for forced labour, to evoke the growing superfluity of man in the regime of technology. The slaughter of the First World War seemed to confirm that, as Franz Rosenzweig put it, ‘reason’ had ‘devoured’ man. An artilleryman in the war, he had seen ‘man creep like a worm into the folds of the naked earth’: ‘His I would be but an It if he died.’ Embracing the ‘god of destruction’, Count Psanek in D.H. Lawrence’s postwar story The Ladybird expresses the nihilistic rage that overcame many superfluous men then and since. ‘God has put the hammer in my breast,’ Psanek announces, sounding like one of Islamic State’s flashy executioners and vandals. ‘It hits on the world of man. It hits, it hits! And it hears the thin sound of cracking.’

This sound, echoing among disaffected masses in Europe and Asia throughout the 20th century, didn’t reach the US until early in the 21st century. What fatefully isolates the American experience, and much American reflection on it, is that the US enjoyed an extraordinary growth in military and economic power during the two world wars that levelled much of Europe and Asia. This national expansion at a time of worldwide trauma and mayhem is what makes the US truly exceptional (and explains, among other things, the striking absence of a sense of tragedy and limit in its geopolitical schemes, and the invincible can-doism of its politicians and publicists). In Europe, the 19th century’s certainties – primary among them Western universalism, the old Jewish-Christian claim to be able to create a life of universal validity now transposed into secular millenarianism – had been undermined by historical calamities and blistering critiques from across the ideological spectrum. Lévi-Strauss and Sartre both concluded that Enlightenment universalism had turned into a form of racism, ‘an attempt to wipe out the diversity of cultures while pretending to accord it full recognition’. Carl Schmitt claimed that whoever invokes humanity, ‘an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion’, ‘wants to cheat’. Yet the postwar years in the US witnessed the ideological redefinition of such abstract concepts as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and indeed ‘man’; the restored will of liberal humanism, boosted by American capitalism, tried to rescue Europe’s universalist philosophies of history and progress from discredit.

Modernisation along American lines now became the creed that glorified the sovereign liberty of the autonomous rights-bearing man and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. A century and a half after Stendhal denounced the materialism of the French bourgeoisie, economic growth in general was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide. Unlike in the 1820s, those who claimed that a culture of money-making advanced the freedom of man could now depend on a useful enemy. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom. This evangelical Americanism was assisted not only by the ‘militant Christian’ belief, as Norman Mailer described it, that America is ‘the only force for good that can rectify the bad’. America’s presumed leadership of the free world also bred an atmosphere of solemn conformity among many of its expensively educated middle-class and secular-minded beneficiaries. In no other country did a generation voluntarily read worthy and earnest books to learn about its responsibilities to man.

Many writers after 1945 reflected searchingly on the murky ambiguities of unprecedented national and individual success. Greif engagingly discusses some of these (Niebuhr, Baldwin, Chomsky) while puzzlingly omitting, among others, Christopher Lasch, who offered sustained critiques of the peculiarly American reconfigurations of the idea of universal man. Those capable of really examining the power elites and the culture of narcissism – and the oracles warning against the fire next time – were always going to be marginal in a society designed to maximise productivity and profit. The truly influential texts about human possibility in this period weren’t Dwight Macdonald’s The Root is Man or even the widely read The Organisation Man by William Whyte, but Walt Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto and Daniel Boorstin’s The Genius of American Politics. What happened in such journals of modest circulation as Politics and Partisan Review was politically negligible compared to the efforts of the New Republic, whose eloquent mea culpa in January about its dishonourable treatment of racial inequity doesn’t quite obscure the fact that generations of boosters of American exceptionalism flourished in its pages, in convenient proximity to the Pentagon. ‘The American discourse of the crisis of man in general was surprisingly oblivious to colonial thinking,’ Greif writes, and to the futures after the Second World War of the ‘colonial, soon-to-be postcolonial, peoples’. The word ‘surprisingly’ is superfluous here. The crisis of man in postwar America was almost exclusively a white man’s discourse, an affirmation of his privilege to define the ends and means of life without being bothered by women and non-whites; the rare outsider they listened to, such as Ralph Ellison, concluded, as Greif points out, that universal humanity in a universal history ‘makes ruined buildings, and dead men’.

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Greif knows that the American interrogation of the crisis of man was programmed to receive ‘a single inductive or deductive answer’. But his aims are both too ambitious and too modest. Based on a limited selection of mid-century figures and texts, his history neither traces the crisis of man to its roots in Europe nor broadens out to show how a fundamentally derivative discourse was diffused, translated and consumed in another socio-economic and geopolitical context – that of an imperial power making the world safe for consumer capitalism. ‘What the mid-century intellectuals really tried to launch,’ he writes, ‘was an autochthonous humanism – human respect giving its grounds entirely to itself, without God, natural law, positive fiat, or even anything identifiable about the human person like “rationality”.’ Thus also spoke Zarathustra in 1882. However, the Übermensch in postwar America was too prone to simulate an autochthonous humanism in patriotic mode, and too keen to press it on other countries. Or – the alternative – to retreat, in the neoliberal age, into the care of the self through yoga, meditation and diet programmes. Edward Mendelson, a practitioner of the nearly lost art of biographical criticism, has shrewd things to say in Moral Agents about white male writers struggling with the inflated sense of national and individual capacity in the land of the free. American intellectuals, Van Wyck Brooks claimed in America’s Coming of Age (1915), are a ‘race of Hamlets’, ‘acutely conscious of their spiritual unemployment and impoverished in will and impulse’. Many artists and intellectuals who came of age in a wealthy and powerful country after the Second World War found themselves released from spiritual unemployment; they suddenly had an unprecedented freedom to realise personal ambitions, forge identities and control their destinies.

But such beneficiaries of America’s postwar plentitude were also condemned to the psychic strain of managing public personas, assessing self-images and calibrating their place in a society ceaselessly on the make. Saul Bellow’s fiction repeatedly bemoans the haplessness of eggheads in the garish drama of American-style freedom and democracy. Mendelson shows how some prominent writers actually enacted, as well as writing about, the crisis of man in America. The most surprising victim in Moral Agents is Lionel Trilling, the putative rebuilder of American humanism, whose ‘amoral, nihilistic inner self kept resolving to repudiate his outer self’s “character of public virtue”.’ Mendelson, who has read Trilling’s unpublished journals, hints that his reservations about a complacent liberal imagination may have emerged from painful self-awareness – even self-disgust. The thought that he had ‘one of the great reputations in the academic world’ made him ‘retch’. Envious of Hemingway, and harried by his wife, Diana, Trilling confessed periodically to ‘the panic and emptiness which make their onset when the will is tired from its own excess’.

With delicate precision, Mendelson traces similar private confusion and anxiety in Trilling’s coevals. Alfred Kazin marvelled in his journals at his own social and intellectual eminence – its high-water mark a lunch invitation to the White House – and sexual success. Unlike Trilling, he sublimates self-contempt into scorn for the neocons dying to break bread with the president. Numerous prizes, marriages and affairs didn’t prevent Bellow from being driven, according to Mendelson, ‘throughout his life by his search for some ultimate and invisible spiritual reality’. Augie March, commonly assumed to be a self-made American hero, appears in Bellow’s own conception as a classic authoritarian personality, eager to serve external authority and discipline: ‘To me,’ Bellow wrote in one of his letters, ‘Augie is the embodiment of willingness to serve, who says “For God’s sake, make use of me, only do not use me to no purpose.” … Surely the greatest human desire … is to be used.’ In his own quasi-masochistic reverence for the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, Bellow achieved a startling resemblance to Allen Ginsberg prostrate before Tibetan lamas.

Indeed, the most intriguing revelation in Mendelson’s book is how often his ‘moral agents’ turned from secular temptations of wealth, fame and sex to religious consolations and interpretations. Auden’s Christianity was ‘a product of his deracinated life in America, at first deeply interior and intellectualised’. As for Mailer, the ‘mystical prophet thundering against technology’, human beings always appeared to him as embodiments of ‘quasi-divine forces’, rather than as agents of rational self-interest. He saw ‘authority and nihilism stalking one another in the orgiastic hollow of this century’, and predictably took a theological view of 9/11: ‘Gods and demons were invading the US, coming right in off the TV screen … It was as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.’ But what – apart from the debasing inescapability of money and the temptation of power – explains the fact, revealed in his recently published journals, that Kazin was engrossed ‘from adolescence’ in ‘a spiritual and sometimes mystical inner life’? Marcuse had argued in the 1960s that alternative values to triumphant capitalism, which had eliminated the possibility of revolution, could only emerge from desires – for inner peace, for instance – that were manifestly frustrated by capitalist rationality. It seems that spirituality became, in late capitalist Manhattan as much as in the Shah’s Iran, the heart of a heartless world – the opium of an intellectual elite as well as the people.

Cloistered piety was definitely a better option, in America at least, than the intoxicant of power: the ‘allure of joining the powerful’, which, Greif observes, can feel ‘superior to the satisfactions of being undeceived and critical (and struggling always from the margins)’. During the Cold War, many intellectuals, on the left as well as the right, chose to become members of a privileged class, even eager dispensers of technocratic wisdom to financial and political power, and rationalisers of imperial warmaking. The most egregious examples of the Beltway sage today seem to be the neoconservative exponents of deregulation at home and freedom in the Middle East: ‘arrivistes’, in Mendelson’s judgment, who ‘identified their own success’ in postwar America with ‘eternal moral truths’. The trend actually dates back to the mid-century highpoint of American liberalism. Kazin was already worried during the Vietnam War about ‘the stake that so many intellectuals now have in the inequalities of our society,’ and ‘the extent to which we are implicated in our wars as in our prosperity’.

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Though doused in Saigon in 1975, a retro 19th-century craving for universal mastery and control was rekindled in 1989 among many members of what Tony Judt called the ‘crappy generation’ – the one that ‘grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political’. Judt’s indictment extended beyond Bush, the Clintons, Blair and neocon publicists to intellectuals at the ‘traditional liberal centre’ – the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post and the New York Times – who, he wrote, had turned into a ‘service class’. Researching his book in 2003, Greif seems to have been troubled by this spectacle. Liberal intellectuals who might have been interested in his book about the crisis of man were, he writes, ‘busy preparing the justification of the US invasion of Iraq … on the basis of a renewed anthropological vision of “who we are” (in the West) against a new “they” figured as totalitarian’. Greif, who spent his intellectually formative years watching liberals applaud Clinton’s triangulations and Bush’s crusades, knows that the crappy generation’s grand self-images can no longer be sustained. Over the last decade, military setbacks, political turpitude and economic disasters have inadvertently completed the provincialisation of universal man undertaken by post-humanist theory. The old fantasies about man as the maker of history and the master of nature now return as parody among the gaudily virile American centurions and climate change deniers of Republican presidential primaries. And so Greif cautions gently on the last page: ‘Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, “At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are …” just stop.’

But Greif has not built a solid case in the preceding, politically neutral pages; many of his would-be interlocutors are likely to misidentify him as a reluctant liberal. Praising The Age of the Crisis of Man in the New York Times, Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of the New Republic, came out for old-style liberal universalism: ‘Don’t just stop,’ he exhorted, ‘Think harder. Get it right. (Why are liberals so afraid of their own philosophy?)’ Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent, recently issued a call to arms against radical Islam even though the US has already helped ignite wars in several Muslim countries: ‘So here I am, a writer, not a fighter,’ he urged, ‘and the most helpful thing I can do is to join the ideological wars.’

Greif is wary of precisely this kind of ‘sermonising about responsibility, urgency and hapless prescription’ that has long made liberal universalists indistinguishable from neocon arrivistes. Nevertheless, intellectuals who portentously embraced their responsibilities to man during the Cold War can’t but depend even more on negative definitions – of Islam now – as Iraq and its environs descend deeper into havoc, and as aspects of the 20th century’s much despised communist states resurface in the free world: inefficient and uncontrolled economies; expensive and failing welfare systems; vast surveillance mechanisms; and a state that has subordinated civil liberties to perpetual warfare against real and imagined enemies. The legal limbo of Guantánamo and extra-judicial murder by drone has realised the most vivid nightmares dreamed during the mid-century American cult of Kafka. The fact of deepening and irreversible inequality is aggravated by the awareness that there is nothing on offer to replace an ideology that promises freedom and progress through endless economic expansion and technological innovation. American pathologies – extreme concentrations of wealth, criminalisation of the poor, rogue security establishments, corrupted and dysfunctional politics and a compliant media – have been universalised, much more successfully than democracy and human rights.

Homo economicus, who seeks to replace all other human values and interests with cost-benefit calculations, rampages across the globe: in personal relations as well as the workplace, higher education and political institutions. Pulverising the welfarist state, and even a sense of community, and contemptuous of history and tradition, he sentences hundreds of millions to economic and psychological insecurity and isolation in an opaque and hostile world. This scorched-earth universalism incites, as Santayana warned, ‘a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’. Many putative Augie Marches, whether in India, Russia, Japan or Israel, seem keen to surrender their onerous individuality to demagogues and to be used by them. Elsewhere, those excluded from a degraded world of man, or condemned to join its burgeoning precariat, are prone to embrace the god of destruction rather than of inner peace. The thin sound of cracking is heard from many more parts of the world as exhausted authority surrenders to nihilism.