Jerome DonnellyFebruary 11, 2016
The Age of the Crisis of Manby Mark Greif

Princeton University Press. 448p $29.95

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

–Francis Bacon

In The Age of the Crisis of Man, Mark Greif sets himself the ambitious and “historically indispensable” task, a “philosophical history” focusing on a crisis in determining what is man and what he faces (I use Greif’s “man” for human). “The midcentury generation’s way of addressing the crisis of man represented a consensus that something specific had gone wrong and must be made right.” Traditional notions of man had been challenged, particularly by social scientists like Franz Boas and John Dewey, whose relativism was at odds with the traditional notion of a universal human nature. Social and political upheavals seemed to challenge all fixity. One sign of the crisis was a flurry of popular books with titles like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—now, Greif adds, “unreadable.”

Breaking with the past, “the midcentury intellectuals really tried to launch…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.’” But public events like the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (1948) intruded by evidently assuming a universal human nature.

Greif includes many writers but often only the sketchiest idea of their views. Some, like Jacques Maritain, are reduced to labels (“Catholic”). Treated in somewhat more detail are the French existentialist thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Their insistence that God was dead made them welcome among those New York humanist-intellectuals at The Partisan Review, who toward the war’s end had become less optimistic about the world’s progress. Hannah Arendt reminded them that what “totalitarian ideologies…aim at is…the transformation of human nature itself.” That Arendt became so revered even (or especially) by those who denied the existence of a human nature suggests that they may not have rejected it as completely as they had thought, though Greif does not entertain such a possibility. (The dates of his study apparently preclude mention that both Sartre and Camus eventually surmounted the crisis and turned toward religious belief.)

Writers in the 1950s “urgently wanted to know whether there was any such thing as a human being outside of social types, and, if so, what that abstraction would mean for them.” To deal with this question, Greif turns to the novel, the new “national scripture,” focusing on four specimen novelists: Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Pynchon. Ellison and Bellow were friends and once shared a house. Greif sees the two as dealing similarly with “the crisis” by linking it with race and ethnicity to determine if “the identity as Jew or black…was a hindrance or an aid to reaching the purely human state.” (What this “state” might be is not explained.)

Ellison, in The Invisible Man, asks whether any of the requests for the hope of an abstract, free humanity were honest in light of the “racial facts of American social life”—“the paradox of invisibility: whites don’t see [a black person], and blacks, seeing black, don’t see him.” Ellison “found ‘man’ in an individual’s interior quest to find the features of his own ‘face’…to become ‘human,’” while Bellow “found man in a communal jumping up of levels” that justified a claim to “belong to any milieu and be comfortable there.”

Since “the return of the fascination with man was often yoked to religion in the mid-twentieth century,” he includes O’Connor (Walker Percy, a prime candidate for the “crisis” goes unmentioned). Greif says that O’Connor “already knows what man is. What matters is that everybody who goes around declaring what man is in her stories…is deluded or else trying to put one over on somebody.” Nevertheless, he devotes more attention to her story, “The Artificial Nigger,” than to any other work.

O’Connor’s use of the artificial is magnified in the fictions of Thomas Pynchon, who sees artifice as a growing threat to man in the structure of modern life. In his novel, V, “we hear that someone truly human would be on the right side of the TV screen.” Knowing which is the right side is the problem. It is not simply a matter of technology, Greif argues, but “the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits,” and consequently “human values are sloughed off....” Pynchon’s post-60s fragmented man is filled with anxiety and dread, his characters “in search of an identity.”

Greif returns in the last third of the book to his philosophical history of the “crisis” and the introduction of ‘60s isms—structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism and post-humanism. They are mostly imports, riding on a wave of French anti-humanism in a reaction against humanism’s faith in technological and scientific progress as the replacement for religion. The anti-humanists gaze on a falling, if not a fallen world.

Greif’s grandiose project is not fully realized; the result is uneven and incomplete. The book fails repeatedly to define or explain notions of human nature as defined by the thinkers he cites, and ideas or positions too often fail to be developed. C. S. Lewis, for example, is dismissed with a nod. Greif makes several references to his 1947 classic, The Abolition of Man, only to label as “extreme” Lewis’s contention that scientists were seeking the power to alter human nature at will, even though Lewis’s prescient words have come true.

Greif is himself reluctant to assess the views expressed in connection with the question of “man.” His chosen “maieutic” approach eschews authorial judgment and leaves questions discussed but ultimately unanswered. He avers that the book is not the “different element of the history of morals” that he had started with. A subtext of authorial disappointment haunts the concluding chapter.

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