Good Literary Criticism: On the Crisis of Man

By Mark GobleSeptember 4, 2015

Good Literary Criticism: On the Crisis of Man

The Age of the Crisis of Man by Mark Greif

I DOUBT I’M ALONE in confessing that my earliest awareness of “literary criticism” as an enterprise and institution comes from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. You know the scene: earnest, middle-class Tom Townsend makes his move on Audrey Rouget with some exquisitely awkward name-checking of Lionel Trilling. Their exchange turns on Audrey’s disagreement with Trilling’s notion that, as she says, “nobody could like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” But Tom is not really interested in Austen, or in Audrey’s response to Fanny Price. “I like her,” Audrey insists, yet Tom is unpersuaded. “She sounds pretty unbearable,” he continues to declare, “but I haven’t read the book.”

With this remark, Tom signals many things — his arriviste awkwardness with works of culture, despite his intellectualism; his slightly condescending insecurity in the face of class pretensions he desires for himself. But more importantly, in the context of Mark Greif’s new book, Tom’s preposterous and charming bit of ventriloquism invokes the talismanic power of “ideas,” taken in their abstracted form. Novels and novelists that is, might have ideas, but critics seem better at delivering them for consideration, or put more plainly, for consumption. When Audrey presses Tom to justify his strong opinions in his readings of the text, he will have none of it, at least in part because that’s how many Jane Austen novels he has read: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.”

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 is good literary criticism in this respect — and others too. In its emphasis on abstracted ideas, as much or more than the fiction that delivers them, it recalls the great critics that Tom Townsend brings to life in Metropolitan, even as it expresses a knowing appreciation for the limits and the aspirations of the language they once spoke. Greif has studiously and powerfully recovered what he terms “the discourse of the crisis of man” across a range of midcentury writing. This body of literature and criticism, he demonstrates, was preoccupied with questioning what “Man” is and ought to be, and was ambitious enough to think it had the answers. This is the “thought” behind the “ideas” that, as Tom Townsend would say, we get from fiction by Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon in the decades after World War II.

We have largely forgotten about all this rumination on the ethics, character, and ontology of the human, and Greif understands, of course, that much of the reason why is that in capitalizing (on) the figure of “Man” in various forms of existential crisis, writers of the period reified the exclusion of most men and women on planet Earth from whole departments of academic inquiry — particularly in the humanities and in literary criticism — as it was practiced in and out of the university. By squarely placing Ellison and Invisible Man at the center of his book, to cite just one especially strategic move, Greif addresses the impossibility of using “categories and abstractions [that] have no real existence” to resolve the politics of violence that kept black men, much less an “Invisible Man,” from being the sort of universal “Man” whose fate was supposedly at issue in debates about the Great Books curriculum at the University of Chicago, or about hiring priorities at Columbia’s philosophy department after John Dewey’s retirement. Greif does not provide a similarly crystallizing account of feminism along these lines, but does later ask “Are Women Included in ‘Man’?” when he surveys how the ’60s first modified and then effectively exploded an intellectual consensus about the priorities of humanism that had obtained for 40 years.

In other words, Greif knows that for all the obvious intimations of angst and dread that came with this sense of “crisis” of “man,” it was, like the Oscars, something of a privilege just to be nominated for the category. “Man.” The affective history of modernity is the story of how we all, in different ways and with radically unequal resources with which to struggle, come to terms with the unending economic rationalizations of the human. But only a precious few — who seemed quite regularly to cross paths in Hyde Park or Manhattan — could feel centuries of Western philosophical inquiry somehow emerging in a new postwar moment of ideological vertigo, religious impasse, and technological uncertainty. For men and women such as Robert Maynard Hutchins, Lewis Mumford, Karl Mannheim, Dwight Macdonald, and Hannah Arendt, the rhetoric and consciousness of crisis was a sign of distinction, a form of capital itself. In Sartre’s famous introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he writes that “not very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it.” Far fewer still had “the crisis of man,” and this was precisely one measure of its value for postwar intellectuals seeking to professionalize their status and aestheticize their expertise. What others had the use of it?

Greif most clearly explicates his central idea’s political sociology in his chapter on “Criticism and The Literary Crisis of Man,” which traces how the novel comes to be reconciled as a “nationalist or American humanism” by scholars working in the years immediately following World War II. Here Greif captures something of the seriousness about literature that Tom Townsend offers up in Metropolitan, which is primarily a seriousness about various class, social, and technological transformations that literature was made to index in the 1950s, especially when it wasn’t being read. Indeed, Greif points out that Trilling was important not simply because he “represented ascent into the highest culture,” but also because “he could quite conspicuously make it his job to translate the highbrow for ‘the people.’” As the preeminent literary academic in the United States at the moment of higher education’s greatest period of sustained expansion, Trilling performed a style of “cultural authority” that was an essential aspect of the novel’s claims to “national and moral import” in the 1940s and after.

Trilling outlined a series of positions linking postwar liberalism to the very idea of the literary imagination, which in its most “humane” forms Trilling saw as a self-correcting hedge against the strictures of programmatic ideologies, both Left and Right. He also in Greif’s telling, provided a crucial model for turning the “crisis of man” — still very much a discourse of philosophy and sociology in America at the time, and increasingly dominated by European émigrés and former refugees — into a narrative, if not a fictional genre of its own. One of the most fascinating sections of Greif’s book thus shows how Faulkner’s A Fable and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea — two warhorses of American modernism that are pretty hard to redeem, even as models of late style — operate with almost algorithmic predictability as myths of “Man” in crisis.

Greif extends this discussion with persuasive readings of Ellison and Bellow. The story of their friendship is well known, but Greif makes the contours of their shared affinities feel acutely relevant for understanding how their respectively iconic careers unfolded in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Beginning with Bellow’s Dangling Man and “Looking for Mr. Green,” and then continuing on to Invisible Man before returning to Bellow with The Adventures of Augie March, Greif spends two chapters demonstrating the coherence of their literary projects and their skepticism about any language of identity, Jewish or black, that did not articulate the “crisis of man” as rooted in the particularity of the individual’s life, and in the larger patterns of influence and cultural sensibility that informed it.

But Greif ultimately comes to contrast Bellow and Ellison, and not just for all the ways that Ellison refuses to let “race” be treated as a lesser subject than “humanity.” In a brief yet devastating reading of Bellow’s 1998 essay “Ralph Ellison in Tivoli,” Greif suggests that Bellow’s remembrance is perhaps so ostentatiously cryptic in its evocation of racial resentments between the one-time roommates because Bellow realizes — or maybe just as powerfully can’t — that race was why he was able to write novels about human beings who just happened to be Jews while Ellison couldn’t do the same with his African Americans and, more importantly, didn’t want to.

The chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon must travel further to connect the dots back to “crisis” discourse in the mode that Greif discovers almost effortlessly in Ellison and Bellow. O’Connor’s staunch Catholicism led to her to Heidegger, but Greif pursues an even trickier pattern of references to dismembered or constructed bodies in her fiction that, he argues, demonstrated her belief that nothing of a human being could be “inviolable” within the precincts of a merely secular society. From here, he turns to look at how O’Connor’s fictions imagine scenes of racial stigma to press her theological (?) case against “contemporary, progressive history.” Greif wants to move past the fine equivocations and perspectival games that O’Connor used to transubstantiate the politics of the Civil Rights movement into quiescent moral dramas.

He comes close to calling her revanchist pure and simple, but at last equivocates himself by letting Pynchon be the writer who must contend with the full consequences of the ’60s and their “chaos of disordered energies.” Greif’s accounts of V. and The Crying of Lot 49 are particularly fascinating for the ways that they show Pynchon grappling less with the emergence of the new, and more with the persistence of old values and technologies that his characters are always running out of time to comprehend. The Crying of Lot 49 always looms large in literary histories and syllabi as a harbinger of what is coming next to America in the ’60s with its invocations of the counterculture, its resistance to interpretation in the face of endless information, its image of lived reality taking on the structure of the “printed circuit.” But Greif provocatively locates Pynchon at the end of older cultural formations, and situates his fascination with technology within a more brooding, humanist concern with “technics” understood as challenging, and perhaps primordially warping, “Man’s” very nature from the beginning of the species.

Even when Greif’s readings of literary texts are good — which they almost always are —they are not what makes The Age of the Crisis of Man “good literary criticism.” Tom Townsend in Metropolitan doesn’t much care whether Trilling’s account of Mansfield Park is good or bad — felicitous to his own experience or not, logical or fallacious, fair or unjust — because there is a grandeur to the “ideas” that he can get from Trilling that literature on its own somewhat inefficiently provides. This isn’t to say that his or our extrapolations from fiction are unfounded, or that fiction does not rest on or require ideas: who Fanny Price will marry is also a question about the nature of desire, the limits of human knowledge, and the networks of power and class that effectively comprise her (and Austen’s) society. And in other cases, the “ideas” of literature are closer to the surface, if not all but unmistakable and ostentatious in their presence. Greif appropriately ends his book with some lines from Moby-Dick, a work so ferociously intent on allegorizing its own version of “the crisis of man” that there is no mistaking the sheer tonnage of “ideas” it wants to land. Greif appreciates that the intellectual history his book is after was a field full of outsized personalities prone to flights of rhetoric and blindness; and for the most part he himself remains in the role of latter-day Ishmael, commenting with complicit irony even as he chases many of the same whales.

But some of the most revealing moments of The Age of the Crisis of Man are when its author clearly feels the pull of grander languages and critical motivations. “In each line of work I pursue,” Greif writes, “in this book and elsewhere, I understand the overarching project to be the attempt to constitute a history of morals understood as the construal of necessity and obligation.” Now this is what Tom Townsend meant by “good literary criticism,” and it is this style of intellectual seriousness — at once sincere and unimpeachable while just as surely verging on the grandiose — that makes that scene from Metropolitan, and I’d been lying if I didn’t admit it helped make me a critic too. I may have never wanted to inhabit the world of Stillman’s teenagers — and couldn’t have passed for one if I tried — but I will confess to being charmed by how they parody and pay tribute to the New York intellectuals they plainly aren’t. Greif often assumes a more direct relation to the idioms we associate with Trilling and his circle, and sometimes writes in ways that conjure up their spirits unironically.

There is a tone that comes with “oughts” and talk of “obligations,” and Greif is aware that to use it is at least anachronistic and perhaps more pointedly nostalgic for the “age” before theory — which Greif, not unfairly, makes synonymous with antihumanism in respect to “crisis of man” discourse — remade the academy and other domains of intellectual life that care at all what academics do. There is an aura that comes with jokes about the reception of existentialism in America, for example, that observe, “the long French tradition, not of superior culture but superior couture” as the reason why Sartre’s first appearances in the United States occurred in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. At moments like this, Greif can seem a throwback to a bygone intellectualism — with its enclosing frames of reference and codes of sophistication, even its sense of humor — and less of a historian standing after and outside a cultural moment that he knows has passed. There is something happily old-timey about a writer who can make a joke about Maynard Hutchins by noting that, “there is in his writings the Yankee pride of an austere house with the family Bible on the stand and two silver candlesticks on the sideboard.”

I think Greif’s ambitions for The Age of the Crisis of Man are inseparable from these affectations, and that the book finally does wear anachronism well. Maybe not as handsomely as Stillman’s teenagers in crinolines and tuxedos, but with a sense of purpose that exceeds the occasional indulgence or pretension. We are maybe more accustomed now to academics and professional critics scaling down their tastes and cultural priorities, trading just as readily on their playlists and their Netflix queues as on their dissertation topics and fields of research. Greif is decidedly not this sort of critic, at least not here. His book is consistent in its seriousness, and proceeds throughout with a formality that makes even its most personable turns of phrase and shows of feeling appear as artifacts of an intellectual habitus, to borrow from Bourdieu, that Greif in part admires for its untimeliness.

This does make for some lapses into trolling, as the kids might say, such as when he characterizes the “invocations of ‘the Anthropocene’” as “a bit like a public relations effort” that lacks “analytic significance.” His point is to remind us that there is a long history of 20th-century imperatives to think collectively about the fate of “Man” in the most global and epistemic contexts, but still it feels slightly unfair to dismiss the whole discourse of this ongoing crisis as so much “sermonizing” on the basis of a couple sources mentioned in the footnotes. I too sometimes find myself nostalgic for the pugnacity of a prior generation, but hesitated at the speed of Greif’s last aggressive turn against such forms of ecocriticism — especially since his broader discussion of the rise of theory resists the easy condemnations of poststructuralism and attacks on identity politics that often accompany calls to rediscover the “moral significance” of contemporary critique.

The Age of the Crisis of Man depends on the reader’s willingness to grant that there is a larger meaning to the book’s rectitude, or, in a language perhaps more resonant with Greif’s own, to have faith in both the form and content of its questioning. I think there is, which means I guess that I do. For the most part, we have outgrown “good literary criticism” in favor of other styles and strategies, some of which, if we are being honest, are getting to be almost as long in the tooth. When Tom Townsend parrots Trilling in Metropolitan it feels almost painfully hidebound, if not more suspiciously atavistic, even though he’s borrowing a voice that is no more “contemporary” than the Otis Redding that Ducky, so much cooler, lip-synchs in Pretty in Pink.

Mark Greif has written a book about a whole lost world of thought that, by training, ideology, and inclination, many would have a hard time taking quite as seriously as he does. We are right to wonder along the way when a book insists that there are things we ought to do, and that some ideas are more important than others. Some readers will, like me, disagree with Greif at one point here or there, while others could conceivably disagree with him at most every turn. Once upon a time — and not too long ago — it was still possible to write for “Man” in the abstract about “Man” as a universal and still assume that you were speaking to anybody who might be reading. Greif knows that this is history now, but wants us to remember the commitments that shaped this discourse and its ambitions. Even if he understands that most of us are finally glad that they were not for everyone.


Mark Goble is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

LARB Contributor

Mark Goble is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life.


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