[Reviews] | What a Piece of Work, by William Deresiewicz | Harper's Magazine

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[Reviews]

What a Piece of Work

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Mark Greif’s intellectual excavations

Discussed in this essay:

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, by Mark Greif. Princeton University Press. 448 pages. $29.95.

The journal n+1 began publication in 2004. Its intention was immediately clear: to revive the little magazine as an intellectual presence in American culture. The midcentury stalwarts were long since moribund. Commentary was a right-wing rag. Dissent staggered on in obscurity. When Partisan Review folded its tent the year before, people were surprised to learn it still existed. More recent pretenders, like Lingua Franca, had come and gone. The New York Review of Books, true heir to the literary energies of postwar progressivism, having followed the intelligentsia into the academy, was still immensely worthy but increasingly sclerotic.

N+1 was a blast of new blood, smart and clever in every direction. Its editors were young and hungry. Its writing was cheeky and wise. Its thinking came at you from unexpected angles, agile and brilliant and deeply informed. If the magazine was also sometimes coyly self-regarding — a little insular, a little pompous, a little too pleased with itself — then these were forgivable vices of youth. It largely cashed the promise tendered by its title. The editors initially declined to gloss the journal’s name in public, but the reference seemed to be to mathematical induction (think back to eleventh grade), where for any number n, n+1 represents the next term in the sequence of integers. The project was to go a step beyond — beyond, to borrow the name of the journal’s editorial column, the intellectual situation. The ambition was to think the next thought: to think a novel thought.

Photograph by Daniel Gordon, whose work was on view in April as part of Under Construction: New Positions in American Photography, at Pioneer Works, in Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy the artist and Wallspace Gallery, New York City

Photograph by Daniel Gordon, whose work was on view in April as part of Under Construction: New Positions in American Photography, at Pioneer Works, in Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy the artist and Wallspace Gallery, New York City

Ten years on, n+1 has established itself as the bellwether of a new generation of literary intellectuals. Its enterprises now include a website, a line of books, a sister journal of the visual arts (Paper Monument), frequent panels and readings, and, as of last September, a tenth-anniversary anthology, Happiness. The journal was among the first to publish Elif Batuman, Wesley Yang, Nikil Saval, and Emily Witt, among others. It’s safe to say that many bright young aspirants, in Brooklyn and beyond, now daydream of joining their ranks.

As for the founders, most have moved on from day-to-day operations (though all remain affiliated with the magazine). Three have won recognition as novelists: Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision), Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men), and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding). Marco Roth has published a memoir, The Scientists. Allison Lorentzen is an editor at Viking.

Then there is Mark Greif. From the first issue, almost the first word, Greif was unmistakably the journal’s cleanup hitter, the biggest slugger in its lineup. Of ten essays in n+1’s inaugural number, Greif accounted for five. One, “Against Exercise,” is a modern classic. (“Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today,” it begins, “Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.”) All were intensely assured, minutely observed, imperiously eloquent, pitilessly frank. Mainly, they were really fucking smart. The tone, the wit, were something to behold:

We leave the office, and put the conveyor belt under our feet, and run as if chased by devils.

At last the doctor takes his seat, a mechanic who wears the white robe of an angel and is as arrogant as a boss.

His reign speaks of a time of perfection [this was George W. Bush], when even an idiot might rule. His ascension to the throne is the gesture of a completed democracy.

Greif wrote like a master. He was all of twenty-nine.

Other pieces followed in the years to come: “Afternoon of the Sex Children,” “Radiohead, Or the Philosophy of Pop,” “Octomom, One Year Later,” “Cavell as Educator,” pieces on Sarah Palin, punk, tattoos, a brace of essays on the contemporary fetishization of experience — or rather, in the current idiom of self-fulfillment, of “experiences.” That there is no collection is a minor scandal. (There is one in German.) The website has them all, though you’ll need to subscribe.

What unites Greif’s essays — and this is also true of The Age of the Crisis of Man, his first book — is an insistence on maturity, which finally means on self-overcoming. He mocks the tattoo’s fake rebellion. He abjures the unearned identification with the other that our popular music so often invites. He laments the contemporary eroticization of youth that takes place in the name of an illusory innocence and an unattainable freedom. He asks that we challenge ourselves: not physically, as the culture expects us to do (in the road race or the yoga studio), but morally and intellectually. His work is an attempt to reassert the values of adulthood — dignity, responsibility, restraint, civilization — in an age of perpetual immaturity.

I will not insult Greif by calling him a public intellectual. He is an intellectual, full stop. The problem with the formulation “public intellectual” is that it is, or ought to be, redundant. An intellectual is not an academic who can write plain or a journalist who can write smart, but something else altogether. The self-consciously anachronistic element implicit in the launch of n+1, the effort to revive a moribund tradition, is most conspicuous in Greif. He speaks of “the obligations of intellect,” sounding like no one so much as Lionel Trilling, the standard-bearer of the postwar cohort. There is much of Trilling in Greif (a talent for surprising conjunctions, an eye for the moral pretensions of the liberal class), much also of Susan Sontag (a certain dry disdain, a taste for low forms). But what he shares with both, and with the line they represent, is precisely a sense of intellect — of thought, of mind — as a conscious actor in the world: something that places obligations on itself, that understands itself to have a public role and a public mission.

The nature of that mission is defined in negative in Greif’s brief essay on George W. Bush, his opening salvo in the first issue:

He makes up orders that are assembled from the bric-a-brac of instruction, correction, remembered adage, childhood experience, assumed law, scripture, in a collection of string, paper trash, and bits of bright foil. . . . He is not facing reality and trying to think; he is squinting and trying to remember his lessons.

Facing reality and trying to think: the matter in a nutshell. But the most important word is not “reality” or “think”; it’s “trying.” Thinking is hard enough. Trying to think — overcoming the comfort of not thinking, which tempts us everywhere at every moment — is even more difficult. To be an intellectual is not merely an intellectual activity; it is a moral one as well.

The essay on Octomom, from the Spring 2010 issue, begins to give a sense of what this means, and also of the way Greif’s essays tend to work. We start with a cultural artifact — Nadya Suleman, the mother of octuplets as well as of six previous children, all conceived through in vitro fertilization; unemployed and on public assistance; obsessed with emulating (or becoming) Angelina Jolie; an object of horrified public fascination throughout the early months of 2009 — that is glimpsed especially through its filters in the media. We watch Suleman, but even more, we watch the way she’s being watched (on Fox or NBC, by Ann Curry or Judge Judy), the meanings that accrete around her, the beliefs that they reflect.

Connections begin to be made. Octomom enjoyed her fifteen minutes in the midst of the financial crisis. It was she who was shamed and blamed for abusing public resources, rather than the bankers:

In the language we were all then coming to learn: Nadya had leveraged her disability payments into six babies, collateralized them (as a state liability likely to pay revenues for years to come), and then quite brilliantly leveraged those six babies into eight more.

The piece extends its reach, sweeping in an ever-greater range of relevancies. Through Jolie, “America’s most famous baby-getter,” to the politics of abortion, with its rhetoric, on the right, of “the saved (and salvational) baby,” to a pair of reality shows, the upper-class My Super Sweet 16 and the working-class 16 and Pregnant, to “the overdiscussed Juno,” with its twinning of teen mother and infertile professional woman, the essay arrives at its ultimate target: the emergence, in recent years, of “a class-stratified baby economy.” Reproductive technology has come to mean that having children now, at least at the advanced age that is the norm among the educated upper-middle class (the result of delays that are intended to secure one’s membership in that class), is both a “right” and capital intensive. In other words, like sending your kids to a fancy college, it’s a right so long as you can pay for it. In other words, it’s a privilege. Suleman’s sin was to obtain at public expense what the affluent of all political persuasions feel properly belongs to them alone.

Greif is showing us what economic status means, in its rawest and most basic form: the power to spend more money on your children, including on having them in the first place, than other people can on theirs. The essay makes me think of William Burroughs’s gloss on “naked lunch”: it’s the moment when you get to see what’s on the end of everybody’s fork. Liberals are only liberal until it counts, until it hits their kids. The piece is stunningly self-implicating. It finally points its finger not at the bankers or the journalistic hacks, not at Suleman or Jolie, but at the writer himself — which also means, in this case, at the reader.

Look across the multiplicity of Greif’s concerns, and a pattern begins to emerge: a piece on exercise, a piece on sex, a piece on food, a piece on reproduction; the pieces on experience, which largely deal with the desire to seek out or, conversely, to protect oneself from stimulation. Greif does not write personal essays in the usual sense. He seldom tells us stories about himself, is barely present on the page as more than the occasional pronoun. But his work, at its most characteristic, is an attempt to convey what it means to have a body at the current moment in the development of technological capitalism.

What it means, to put it simply, is that you’re never left alone. “A description of the condition of the late 1990s,” he remarks, “could go like this: At the turn of the millennium, each individual sat at a meeting point of shouted orders and appeals, the TV, the radio, the phone and cell, the billboard, the airport screen, the inbox, the paper junk mail.” And that was fifteen years ago. But what those orders principally superintend is our physical self. From liberation, as he puts it, we have come to liberalization, the investment of the body by the market. Sex is the least of it. In our “medicalized culture,” “a hedonistic order divided against its own soft luxuries,” pleasure is secondary or worse. Hence the gym, the organic grocery, the vitamin pill, the clinic. You’re never left alone, and you never leave yourself alone. “We have no language but health,” he says, but health “means having health produced for us, by prevention and treatment.” It means producing it ourselves, by discipline and vigilance.

The pathos of Greif’s writing lies in this: that within his mighty prose, as if protected by its bold sophistications, lies a vulnerable, breathing human body, seeking shelter from the technics that beset it. His approach is first of all phenomenological. He starts from where he is, one person alone in a room trying to make sense of what he sees around him, and of what it makes him feel within him:

“The Sexual Revolution Hits Junior High,” says my newspaper, reporting as news what is not new. Twice a year Newsweek and Time vaunt the New Virginity. No one believes in the New Virginity. . . . My newspaper tells me that menstruation starts for girls today at 11, or as early as 9. No one knows why.

His goal is to reclaim that very sense of privacy his essays give, the ability to be alone with oneself and one’s thoughts, one’s body and its needs. This is not a retreat from politics; for Greif, it’s the beginning of their possibility. Citing Hannah Arendt on the Greeks, he puts it like this: “A hidden sphere, free from scrutiny, provides the foundation for a public person — someone sure enough in his privacy to take the drastic risks of public life, to think, to speak against others’ wills, to choose.” But he knows that we are very far from the conditions of the polis. In the essay on Radiohead, glossing their 2001 song “Life in a Glasshouse” (“Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat / But someone’s listening in”), he stakes out a fallback position — not participation but defiance, not privacy but self-enclosure. “You live continuously in the glare of inspection . . . so you settle for the protection of this house, with watchers on the outside, as a place you can still live.” Live, we might add, and also look out, look back. Face the watchers and attempt to think.

Radiohead: yes, Radiohead. To intellectualize about pop music is neither novel nor courageous. What is both is that Greif is willing to emotionalize about it: to confess the feelings that it makes him feel, and to stand by them. To keep faith with the teenage belief (even while scrutinizing it) that pop can make a difference, if only to you. Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism. He is willing to be earnest, because — it’s perhaps his most privileged word — he insists on being “serious.” He insists, that is, that art and thought should bear on life. That art is not for art’s sake, nor thinking a perpetual deferral of commitment. That both should change the way you act, the way you are.

“We know the real target of philosophy is life,” he writes. “Everyone feels it who has not been irreparably debauched by learning.” The statement appears in his essay on Stanley Cavell, the Harvard philosopher who was, the piece explains, Greif’s great pedagogical encounter. Following Cavell following Thoreau, Greif expounds the concept of “perfectionism,” by which he means something very different than a neurotic relationship to external expectations. Perfectionism, for Cavell, means “the call to a next self,” a “different, new, and better” self. The doctrine, Greif acknowledges with some chagrin, “resemble[s] the enterprise called self-improvement.” But, he adds, “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.” The only difference between perfectionism and self-improvement, though it’s not a little one, is that the latter aims at “fixity,” the attainment of a completed or successful self, whereas perfectionism understands that the next self is never the final one. Around every circle another can be drawn. For every n there is an n+1.

The process sounds a lot like growing up. Projected on a larger scale — embodying the hope that we can all grow up together — it amounts to a desire for a different, new, and better world. “Let the future, at least, know that we were fools,” he says in his essay on the cult of youthful sexuality. “Make our era distinct and closed so that the future can see something to move beyond.” Yet he confesses not to know entirely what such a future might resemble. What would remain, he ends his essays on experience by asking (this was in 2007, when Facebook was still in its early stages), if we stopped aestheticizing our existence, stopped trying to turn it into a series of framable moments? “Circling life from the cluttered outside, one asks its meaning again and again,” he remarks, but “meaning starts to seem a perverse thing to ask for, when what we are really asking is what life is when it is not already made over in forms of quest or deferral. Could this life be reached — unmediated? Would there be anything there when we found it?”

Getting to the next thought is one thing; getting to the next world, even in thought, is something incomparably harder. But the possibility that the two are intimately linked — that ideas can be time machines — is the intellectual’s essential premise. There is at times an antiquated cast to Greif’s prose (“She played a version of the drama of our time in the marionette theater of her womb”), but his goal seems to be a style that carries in itself a knowledge of the necessary past. In his essay on Cavell, he has this to say about the undergraduate experience: “The challenge is to be curricular” — as opposed, that is, to extracurricular — “to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.” To learn the past so as to make the future.

Such is the point of The Age of the Crisis of Man, though it takes us the entire volume to discover it. The book’s ostensible ambition is to excavate a buried chapter in the recent history of American thought, but before long it seems that what we are rereading isn’t so much a chapter as the central one. Starting in the Thirties, moving through and past the war and into the Sixties, Greif describes the emergence, growth, transformation, and decline of what he calls the discourse of the crisis of man.

For about a quarter century, beginning roughly with the rise of Hitler, “man,” and the threats to “man” — from fascism right and left, from technology and organizational bureaucracy — were everywhere in American thought: highbrow and middlebrow, philosophical, literary, and journalistic. In the concentration camps and the factories, in the face of industrial violence and totalistic social control, was man now disappearing, effaced or reengineered beyond recognition? Without him, what would become of Enlightenment values — freedom, progress, democracy — to which man had been foundational? What was man, to begin with? Suddenly it seemed that everybody had to try to say. Man, Greif writes, “became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the ‘root.’ ”

Greif reminds us of the term’s ubiquity: The Condition of Man, “The Root Is Man,” One-Dimensional Man, God in Search of Man, The Human Condition — Lewis Mumford, Dwight Macdonald, Herbert Marcuse, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hannah Arendt — and, yes, The Family of Man, Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg’s traveling photography extravaganza. Greif would also have us add Dangling Man, Invisible Man, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and even The Old Man and the Sea. He reminds us that man, and specifically the notion of man in crisis, was central to the reception of Sartre and Kafka, the major philosophical and literary influences of the postwar years, by American intellectuals.

But beneath these points of reference Greif uncovers — well, he uncovers, it seems, the bulk of midcentury thought, magnetized into new configurations and relationships. Mumford lines up with the Frankfurt School. Pearl S. Buck, the middlebrow novelist, keeps company with Karl Polanyi, the economic historian. The cultural relativism of Franz Boas talks back to the universalizing rhetoric of UNESCO. William Faulkner’s “vaporous Nobel Prize speech,” with its “hortatory boilerplate,” turns out to be a central document in the recruitment of the novel to the cause of man. Moving into the Sixties, we watch the discourse of man, by now a tired cliché, get dismantled by the new critiques, Malcolm X sees humanism as “white-ism,” Betty Friedan wonders whether man includes her, and radicals take aim at someone whom they now refer to as “the Man.”

Greif observes the postwar decades with a mapmaker’s lofty eye. Difference, he notes, “was a matter for social identity in America,” but “the concept controlled deeper and more multiple locations in French theory.” Or again, “Committed as Sontag was from an early age to the glamour of thought, pieces of the crisis of man appear throughout her intellectual formation in broken, uprooted form.” As the latter passage indicates, the pleasures here are sociological as well as intellectual. Nowhere in the book does Greif advert to his experience as a student, writer, editor, and now professor (at the New School, no less, one of the postwar period’s key institutional scenes), but they everywhere inform his account. Lévi-Strauss “return[ed] to France to resume a metropolitan career.” Wittgenstein “forged a communicating link between Vienna and Cambridge.” Camus “was not a systematic thinker, but then he was not a mandarin as Sartre was, and he came to be beloved by the New York Intellectuals in a way that more philosophically demanding rivals were not.”

Still, I kept thinking, what exactly is the point? Who, beyond the specialist, should care? Is there a link between The Age of the Crisis of Man and Greif’s investigations as an essayist, or are his intellectual and academic projects simply separate things? Is there a link, in other words, to the present, and to the questions he puts to the present? The study’s subtitle suggests otherwise, restricting its horizons to an age that ended more than forty years ago.

Only toward the end of the book do we start to see Greif’s bigger game. As the inquiry moves into its final years, a large, familiar structure comes into view: the split, so central to the intellectual life of the last four decades, between Anglo-American analytic philosophy and continental theory. “The duality belonged to the university, but it also rules in political and moral life, in spheres of policy, activism, charity, and law. Universalism or difference, human rights or political liberation, law or critique, normativity or the struggle for power and representation.” Greif’s achievement is to trace this opposition — “two separate and purportedly incompatible philosophical projects of justice and liberation” — to a common root: the discourse of man, in the age of the crisis of man.

But he also does more. In a bravura conclusion, he demonstrates the continuities between that age and ours: between modernism and the period whose very name proclaims that it has moved beyond it. Greif’s history turns out to be a prehistory — our prehistory. The discourse of man may be dead, but its ghost, he shows, continues to possess us. All its concerns, which seem so dated now, are ours as well — are ours as yet. Only our language is new, our panoply of proud and precious “posts,” which seek to set us against, set us above, our intellectual parents. The age of man worried about technology, about the shape of history, about the future of faith, and about the meaning of man as such. These are problems that we have not transcended but only translated, as the postmodern, the posthistoric, the postsecular, and the posthuman, terms that speak as if we’d just discovered them, intrepid spirits that we are, on the far side of some continental divide of consciousness.

Contemporary thought, Greif says — “the strata of philosophy and theory” as they exist primarily within the academy — “is a Frankenstein put together of spare parts cast off by modernity or the Enlightenment.” It represents not novelty but “compulsive repetition and illusory escape in the disguise of critical thinking.” We are still asking the same questions. We are still giving the same answers. We think we’ve gotten somewhere new, but so did those who came before us, in the age of the crisis of man. The situation, Greif writes, “scripts our novelties for us.” Postmodernism is not an n+1 to modernism’s n. Its name, in fact, bespeaks perseveration, the same thing again and again, in whatever different guises: n, N, ñ, n!

The challenge, once again, is to be curricular: “to read through the last century,” and, in particular, to provide “an alternative construction of mid-twentieth-century thought” in order to establish a “starting point for twenty-first-century thought.” Modernity, Greif says, is “a bit like the weather — everyone complains, but no one will do anything about it.” In other words, we’re stuck, and everybody knows we’re stuck: politically, ideologically, intellectually. The challenge is to do something about it: to face reality, and desperately, for all we’re worth, to try to think.

I’m not completely satisfied with Greif’s analysis. For one thing, he moves pretty fast across the past forty years. I’d have liked a fuller account, though granted that would probably have meant (and might mean still, one hopes) a second book. For another, his insistence that we’ve come around again to man — this time in the talk among environmentalists of the Anthropocene, a new geologic age defined by human activity and therefore calling for a grand new round of intellection on the history and meaning of the human, one that’s sure to be “preprogrammed” by the last one — requires, at the least, a little more flesh. Are we really headed quite so quickly off that mental cliff?

But I love his emphasis, in this connection and throughout the book, on the conditions and motives of thought. What really interests him about the question of man at midcentury is not what people were saying — everybody seemed to recognize that nobody was going to produce a satisfying answer — but that they felt compelled to say it. It’s not that the discourse of man did not provoke, as he shows, outstanding thought and art (in Bellow, Ellison, Arendt), or that “man” or the “human” hadn’t functioned as an organizing concept in other historical periods (most obviously, as he notes, the Renaissance).

Rather, for Greif — who studiously avoids discussion of “human nature” in his essays, concentrating always on historical particulars (“practical matters,” as he calls them, “concrete questions of value,” “what we say and do” as opposed to “who we are”) — the idea of man at midcentury, and of the human, potentially, now, is a kind of intellectual coercion, something that “rule[s] and regulate[s] what is thinkable, what must be spoken of and genuflected to, collecting participants and legitimacy rather than accomplishing consequential thought.” What these organizing concepts do accomplish, as he puts it in a fabulously useful term, is most often “autotherapeutic”: “work done by thinkers,” not upon the world but “upon themselves” — to help them feel superior to the past, or to make them feel like they’re doing something about the future. Before we can start to think better, we need to stop and think about the way we’re thinking in the first place.

Greif, it must be said, has managed to provide only a starting point: not the first step, even, but the zeroth. Still, it is a step. One eagerly awaits his next.

’s most recent book is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press).

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