Reviews — From the June 2015 issue

What a Piece of Work

Mark Greif’s intellectual excavations

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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.

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’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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