I snagged the title of this post from a Robert Lowell poem, “Fall 1961,” which was published in his collection For the Union Dead. It is the poem that contains the relatively famous and unforgettably eerie, arch-Eliotic sentence, “We are like a lot of wild / spiders crying together, / but without tears.” The punning sentence quoted in the title, however, seems to me to express unaccountably well some of the ambivalence about the “age of the crisis of man” which pervades Mark Greif’s new study, already reviewed here thoroughly and insightfully by Patrick Redding and Daniel Wickberg. Greif’s book is, I think it’s fair to say, well worth this kind of extended coverage on the blog; not only is it clearly an important book historiographically but it is also an exceedingly rich book with which to think. Few first books, I believe, balance the different modes of historical exposition, cultural criticism, and conceptual innovation as well as this book does.
Adding to the complexity of the book is the consistently ambivalent tone it takes to its subject. One of the more interesting of such moments of ambivalence in the book comes early in the introduction. “These intellectuals attempted to wrench the question [‘What is man?’] free of the context of homiletics, invest it with the utmost urgency, and answer it inductively in a single book, sometimes of 300, 600, or 700 pages. Their seriousness was not a hoax” (8, emphasis added), Greif writes, anticipating an accusation few intellectual historians ever consider a likely rejoinder to their project. Greif is striking out not just at the possibility that critics might ask, “So what?” or “Why bother?” but at the potential for a more thoroughgoing skepticism: “Surely you can’t be serious.”
I am not so sure that Greif’s preemption isn’t a form of shadowboxing: it is not clear to me that Greif’s readers are likely to be as skeptical of the value of the “discourse of the crisis of man” as Greif himself is, as uneasy as he is of the low intellectual status of the “twenty-five-cent or fifty-cent reprints [of] worthy and earnest paperbacks that my parents’ generation inherited” which constitute the piebald ranks of titles comprising Greif’s archive (x). Certainly there are few individual thinkers with whom Greif deals who require apology or extenuation: Mumford, Arendt, Marcuse, Niebuhr, Trilling, Bellow, Ellison, Macdonald are far from unconventional figures.
Even as we acknowledge that Greif’s signature contribution—the exhumation of a diagram of discourse reconnecting these conventionally disparate figures—may strike the reader at first as unlikely or as excessively synthetic, can it really be that we will ultimately disbelieve what Greif himself seems to think should become self-evident: that there really was a discourse of the crisis of man, readable from across the room, on the very spines of these yellowing paperbacks? If all Greif really has to do is quote the titles of these books to us to summon an immediately palpable mood of intellectual argument and agitation, why worry so much about potential reader distrust that this mood was in earnest, was “not a hoax?”
I’d like to hazard a theory: the problem is with the titles, and the problem is that “man” is not at the center of the discourse that Greif has so brilliantly disinterred, and perhaps is not even at the center of Greif’s book.
Consider the titles quoted by Greif as exemplary entries in the Preface: The Nature and Destiny of Man, The Condition of Man, “The Root Is Man,” Existentialism is a Humanism, The Human Condition, One-Dimensional Man, The Family of Man, Man the Measure, Modern Man is Obsolete, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, Education for Modern Man, Human Nature and the Human Condition, Who Is Man? along with some of the titles he or others added to the list, such as Man’s Search for Meaning, An Essay on Man, Problems of Men, The Dignity of Man, The City of Man, and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. What is interesting to me is that the conventional shape of these titles—with some exceptions—places “Man” so seldom in the nominative. “Man” is almost always either genitive (“Man’s” or “of Man”) or dative (“for Man”); where it is in the nominative, it often appears in the predicate (“‘The Root Is Man,’ Who Is Man?). Even more telling is the fact that the appearance of the non-gendered language of the “Human” appears only when an adjective or an ism is called for, as “man-ism” has never been popular and “manly” has mostly inapposite connotations for this context.
But these, a sharp-eyed reader might protest, are just the non-fiction titles: what about A Good Man Is Hard to Find, The Man without Qualities, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Dangling Man, or Invisible Man? Here “man” is definitively the subject, fully in the nominative case. And here I think we find an interesting split which perhaps goes to the heart of what both Redding and Wickberg have pointed out as the unusualness of the structure of Greif’s book: as Wickberg says, “it consists of a center of literary criticism set within a frame of intellectual history.” Wickberg suggests that the literary criticism “appears to be where Greif’s strongest interest lies,” while Redding points out that this unorthodox structure requires that fiction—and the literary criticism which set forth the challenge that Bellow, Ellison, et al. tried to answer—bear not only an analytical load but a sort of causal one as well, serving as the prime vector of this discourse as it was conveyed to a new generation who would eventually repudiate the universalism of “man” for various gendered and racial particularisms.
It’s very possible that I’m making far too much of this rather meager pattern—non-fiction’s “Man” primarily in the genitive or dative; fiction’s “Man” primarily in the nominative. Maybe if we keep adding more titles the pattern will entirely disappear. But I think of the way that “democracy,” for instance, so often has appeared generally in the pattern Democracy and X (e.g., Democracy and Social Ethics, Democracy and Education, Democracy and Distrust, Democracy and Leadership, Democracy and Its Critics). I don’t see a similar pattern of Man and X, at least not among the works which Greif cites.
If this is a pattern, I think it gives some basis for Greif’s characterization of the discourse of the crisis of man as an “empty discourse” and also gives a rationale for why Greif obviously considered the section on fiction so necessary to the structure of the book: fiction is almost the only source for “man” in the nominative, and thus the only hope for filling in, at least partially, the “empty discourse” “of man.”
What I take Greif to mean by an “empty discourse” is precisely that we look for “man” to take the nominative case but consistently find “man” somewhere else: we expect to find “man” as the yolk of this particular egg but we find him scribbled on the shell or maybe spread thinly in the albumen. But is there really no yolk at all?
I would not say so. Instead, I would look to Greif’s own title—The Age of the Crisis of Man—and ask, what if “man” is not the subject of the book but, most centrally, “age” and then “crisis” and only lastly “man?” What if “Man” is simply a sort of—let’s switch up the metaphor—electron cloud: mostly empty space, but the site of collisions, of bonds with other atoms, and of changes in energy: the action most detectable to observers. But the nucleus of the discourse is really the protons and neutrons of “age” and “crisis.”
It is, in short, less the “philosophical” or “fundamental anthropology” of the “discourse of man” that I find to be the unifying impulse among the dense network of texts and intellectuals covered in this book but rather a particular consciousness of temporality, a sort of ultra-historicist consciousness obsessed with pinching Benjamin’s “empty, homogeneous time” into discrete lumps: periods or ages or cycles, conveniently separated by “crises,” of which the figures involved saw their own moment as one.
Has there really been a period as anxious about periodizing as the mid-twentieth century? Has there been an era as supremely confident in not just the heuristic utility but the genuine existence of decades, generations, and centuries as cohesive bundles of events united by a common temper or character? It is that kind of consciousness of the essential uniformity in spirit or mood suffusing a unit of time that makes the title of Lowell’s poem “Fall 1961” comprehensible: the poem exudes the names “Kennedy,” “Cold War,” “Khruschev,” “Castro” and the atmosphere they create. The same effect comes off in Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” with its sloughing off of a “low dishonest decade.”
It is that desire to capture an atmosphere, the temperature of an era or the “climate of opinion” that I want to isolate as something completely characteristic of this midcentury moment. Let us, then, not think of Man the Measure or The Nature and Destiny of Man; let us think of The Brown Decades and American Renaissance, of The Mauve Decade and The End of American Innocence (subtitled “The First Years of Our Own Time”), of The Age of Jackson and Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age, of The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Let us think of both Carl Becker and—a holdover of mid-century—the late Peter Gay.
And that is, I think, where a very full discourse can be found at midcentury: not in “man,” but in “mind” or “civilization” or “temper” or “character,” as in “American mind” or “Roman civilization” or “modern temper” or “Victorian character,” all of which were in a strong sense periodizing gestures as much as they were essentializing notions: they were all the equivalents of “The Age of X.”
This post has now gotten very long, but I hope I have introduced some ideas which may prove fruitful for discussion. I urge you to read The Age of the Crisis of Man; I know it’s a book I will continue to think with for a long time.
 Obviously, Man the Measure and One-Dimensional Man are the outliers here; The Organization Man, Modern Man Is Obsolete, and Moral Man and Immoral Society are other instances in which “Man” appears both in the nominative and not in the predicate.
 An important exception is André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, translated into English as Man’s Fate.
 “Fall 1961” is not, as far as I can tell, a specific reference but rather a sort of intimation of the gathering storm; the Cuban Missile Crisis would break in the next year.