As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?
The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:
You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?
MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.
Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?
MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation. And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.
So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?
MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.
Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?
MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier 1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.
What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?
MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.
I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity, which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.
You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?
MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?
Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.