“Man”-Splaining: Talking with Mark Greif, Author of The Age of the Crisis of Man

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I spoke with Mark Greif about his new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933-1973, and we covered topics ranging from Flannery O’Connor’s antipathy toward James Baldwin, to the role of novelists in our current era, to the plurality of “truth.” Greif’s book—which holds the singular distinction for me anyway, of being one of the only books that I have continued to carry around for easy reference long after I finished it—is one of the most accessibly intelligent and provocative looks at a fascinating period in American intellectual life. Read it, if only for Greif’s exploration of white Americans’ appropriation of the phrase “The Man.” But also, read it for so much more; it will stay with you for a long time.

Mark, yours is the rare book which had me grappling with some pretty unwieldy ideas before I even cracked the cover, because its title—The Age of the Crisis of Man—feels at once incredibly pertinent to what’s going on in the world today (crisis!), and yet also distinctly like an artifact from an earlier time of discourse (man!). So before talking about anything else, let’s talk about that title! Even though your book focuses on the time period between 1933-1973, what about the idea of “the age of the crisis of man” is going to speak to people today?

Yes, I wanted that title to sound a little bit like an artifact—like, you’ve dug up this dirt-encrusted vase, what are you going to make of it?  It has the marks of a time when people took themselves so seriously, seemed really solemn, talked about momentous things.  But those two “ofs” I hoped would be a tip-off that my book was standing at a remove from that pomposity—or they’d just make for a terrible title!  The time I’m talking about is less than a hundred years ago, but it’s when a lot of our crises and fears seemed brand new.  When they were worrying about the “death of the novel,” or the “end of culture,” or “technology’s barbarization of humanity,” and not for the umpteenth time, but for the first, or second, or at most the tenth time.  When people started saying—uh-oh, we might have done it, we might be at risk of destroying human nature forever.  My book is about: Where does our current era come from?  Who set the terms, in art and literature and debate?  Did they have more to fear then, or are we worse off now?  Have we really lost anything, that we can’t get back?

It seems like the concept that we are living through a time of “crisis” has only grown more entrenched, whereas the concept of “man” has somewhat disappeared, or been dismissed. In the beginning of the time period you discuss in your book, “man” and “crisis” are inextricably linked, and the existence of both is assumed. Now, however, with the decades-long devaluation of the concept of a universal human spirit, the import of “man” has diminished, with “crisis” is still as strong as ever. Do you think there could ever be any return to the idea of a universalist point of view, or has that been firmly relegated to the dustbin of history?

I don’t really think it’s been relegated.  We’re still trying to come up with a fundamental human nature, now with brain scans and evolutionary psychology and economists’ regression analyses.  Still today when somebody really wants to praise a novel, it “reveals our essential humanity,” and so forth.  But you’re right that the old universalism that took Man with a capital-M as normal and unitary and male has been shown up for its limits and blindnesses—it’s a good thing, too.  But in a story that often says, “once we had consensus and homogeneity and a common culture, and then we had fracture and diversity and identities” —whether people are arguing that was bad, or that was great—I did want to tell a different story.  Of how energy for the identity movements of the 1960s came from earlier suppressions.  How universal, consensus-building impulses survive in diversity.  How culture is never just one thing or the other, and you don’t have to say either “oh, we’ve all declined” or “oh, we’ve progressed!”  I wanted to find a way to tell the story of our recent past that’s neither a fall nor an ascent to truth.  Instead, you can trace our specific fears, and idols, and shibboleths nostalgias, to their sources.  Once you see where we’ve come from, in our sense of human nature and art, then you can decide what you believe twenty-first century literature and controversy should be doing.

I loved the incorporation of fiction writers and the novel as a means to explore the crisis-of-man discourse. I particularly liked the assessment of Flannery O’Connor, who is embraced by pretty much every liberally minded reader I know, despite holding such resolutely religious beliefs that run contrary to most liberal viewpoints. (And her antipathy toward James Baldwin! More people need to know about that, I think.) Why was this time period such an important one for fiction? What impact did this work have in the culture at large?

It’s probably the case that novels were never before taken as seriously as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, and they may never be again.  And that’s okay.  Religion no longer asserted the binding power of moral instruction and prophecy.  In a pluralistic society, there were too many religions, and life was too secular and scientific.  As a democratic public poured into universities on the GI Bill, and as the middle-class had become more democratic and diverse, you couldn’t educate people just in Greek or Latin classics or a “gentleman’s” curriculum—you needed new art to teach that would also do the job of instilling virtue and culture.  And as Hollywood and broadcast culture and mass culture threaten from below, the novel no longer looks like a junky entertainment—it seems pretty classy by contrast.  Novels from the American nineteenth century get drafted to be our source of “deep thinking” and our calling card in Europe—Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, plus these new classics, of Hemingway, Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot.  So young writers in the 1950s and 1960s are in a weird spot: Their art form, the novel, is said to be democratizing and culturing and profound and all that, and there’s a huge commercial market for their books, but they have to try to compete with Melville or Eliot—these settled classics.  Writers who rise to the top, and that includes O’Connor and Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow and others I write about, are incredibly energetic but also kind of schizophrenic—they have such a huge burden to shoulder. I think it’s hard to say if their work has an impact on the culture directly—it’s the hardest thing in the world to prove. My interest in their fiction is more that they show how ideas collide with practical facts of American life, with all a novelist’s obligations to character, setting, detail, verisimilitude—even when they’re trying to answer big philosophical questions. A novelist kind of has to view lofty concepts down at street level.

What role do you think novelists play right now in terms of the crisis-of-man conversation Is there the same kind of impetus for fiction writers today to engage with that level of discourse as there was 50 or 60 years ago?

I think novels aren’t expected to provide moral or social prophecy now.  They’re just not where you look either for the most immediate rendering of our daily life, nor for truth.  That leaves novelists less burdened, I think.  But it also makes the art form not very urgent.  You might still look for a slower, or more sustained, or deeper rendering—the sheer length of novels, their relation to interior consciousness, and their consumption in silent privacy, make them capable of amazing effects, which no other art form attains.  But that’s kind of a different issue. 

The time period you explore is an interesting chunk of the 20th-century; many people, I think, would view the 60s as being disruptive, and thus narratively exclusive to any discussion of “man.” But, of course, that’s the whole point, right? That the idea of a universal man as posited decades before, needed to be confronted by the idea of “men” (and women!) and the whole anti-universalism movement of the 60s. And yet, that happened, and here we are now, 50 years later, still grappling with the value of universalist versus relativist (i.e. identity politics-driven) ways of looking at humanity and its woes. All of which is not to say, as you write in your conclusion, “that nothing is new under the sun,” but rather that all of our struggles and crises are part of a continuum. And, in a way, there is something comforting about that? Knowing that the problems we deal with are part of something so large and complex that they are incapable of being seen through one huge lens? And that, instead, the truly radical way of approaching crises is to just approach them one-by-one? I guess, my question is, despite the fact that there is no “right” (or “wrong”) way of grappling with the problems we face, is there a particular methodology that you wrote about that you think would be instructive in terms of the issues we face today? 

I find it comforting.  I mean, the “everything is new, our world is dissolving, we’re in uncharted waters” attitude to present challenges is alarmist and bogus.  And the “we’ve heard this all before, our answers lie in the past” attitude is boring and stifling.  I think if you’re prepared to say, “look, all things have origins, we come from somewhere, we were shaped by past conditions, and still—spontaneity, new ideas, new hopes and desires enter the world, so let’s figure them out, one by one,” then you’ll actually make progress.  You’ll live in balance between the determinations of the past and the openness of the future.  That’s what I’d counsel from all of the crisis talk I had to read through—but maybe I’m also biased because it’s something I believe in generally.  Take a deep breath.  Slow things down rather than speeding them up.  Figure out where you’ve come from and where you want to be going.  And give yourself the freedom to find, for different questions, different tools of explanation that help you move forward.  Truth, like most things, is plural.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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