“To Celebrate the Best Parts of His Nature:” Fiction and the Discourse of Man – By Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone on Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973

Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton University Press, 2014, 448pp., $29.95
Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton University Press, 2014, 448pp., $29.95

William Faulkner began his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in appropriately grand fashion: “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” His sentences become more abstract and poetic as the speech continues. The address is a stark contrast to his sometimes acerbic, often dismissive responses seven years later as the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia.

Stockholm and Charlottesville are quite different venues, and an acceptance speech is not the same as question-and-answer sessions with undergraduates, but I have always found Faulkner’s Nobel speech pure performance. Mark Greif, author of the expansive The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, agrees. Before Faulkner reached worldwide acclaim, he had first been “reclaimed by the South as an honorable son, not a gutter-minded embarrassment.” His finest cheerleader was Robert Penn Warren. Unlike most writers who undergo a midcareer renaissance, Faulkner “was available to join in this recasting and act out the role of grand old gentleman and house writer for the crisis of man.”

This is not to say that Faulkner was being fake in Stockholm. Greif, co-founder of n+1 and a professor at The New School, notes “the speech was extremely meaningful to those who encountered it in 1950.” Meaningful, and as Greif shows, inevitable. Similar connections and larger epiphanies pepper Greif’s comprehensive volume. I am typically wary of works of literary-historical criticism that draw direct lines and lead to unified theses, but Greif’s approach is measured and credible. The Age of the Crisis of Man offers a master narrative for a major theme of midcentury American fiction.

This crisis of man “had been a thundercloud continually forming new shapes since World War I.” Greif deftly traces multiple strands of thought, including the neo-Thomistic thought of Jacques Maritain and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the Protestant theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Partisan Review, “the journal of the New York intellectual core.” The New York intellectual cadre enabled French existentialist thought to reach American publications. Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas brought existential thought “toward a moral responsibility represented in the figure of Man and the vexing relations between each individual specimen and an abstract ideal.”

Greif’s comprehensive background for the discourse of man ends with what he calls the “one true masterpiece” of this early period, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Greif uses the 1951 publication of Arendt’s book as the moment when “pressures from the discourses of man had been transferred to other spheres of representation — including the demand that artists answer the problems of the age.” The discourse of the crisis of man was about to reach the pages of fiction. Whereas critical considerations of the crisis of man ranged from sentimental liberalism to the allegorically religious, the novel had an “obligation to humanize a fallen mankind.” Greif is skeptical that we would place such a humanist responsibility on contemporary novels. Yet the midcentury was plagued by “excitement and almost desperate expectations for individual novelists (with the near-religious belief in the novel’s office), coupled with unremitting pessimism about new novels as a group.”

Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway filled that space first. Like Faulkner, Hemingway used the “parameters of the novel” as a way to “render an abstract, universal man, and then celebrate the best parts of his nature.” “Tantalizing biographical evidence” suggests that “Faulkner’s Nobel speech may in fact been at the origins’” of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Despite their lofty goals, Greif argues that both writers failed not as storytellers, but as prophets of the crisis of man; their protagonists become mere “imitation[s] of Christ.”

William Faulkner, 1954. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
William Faulkner, 1954. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Greif’s reading of Faulkner and Hemingway is imperfect. He frames Faulkner with a heavy-handed presentation of his brief, knowingly obtuse Nobel speech and implies that Faulkner the novelist manipulated his characters in the same way. Hemingway’s Catholicism is curiously never mentioned; his own fragmented faith makes his representations of Christian archetypes feel more inevitable than Greif suggests. These are minor missteps, as Faulkner and Hemingway are only transitions to fuller discussions of Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Bellow’s Dangling Man makes “progress on the abstraction ‘man’” but is “vastly outdone” by Ellison’s Invisible Man, which supplants abstraction with dramatization. In Ellison’s novel, “black normalcy, black perspicacity, intelligence, and complexity” are assumed.

Greif’s treatment of Bellow and Ellison forwards his larger argument, but his investigation into the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Pynchon is noteworthy. Greif might be forgiven for his silence about Hemingway’s quiet belief, but O’Connor’s Catholicism is more complicated. Greif praises “her absolute resistance to secular answers — confounding, mocking, refusing them — and yet her four-square dependence on the discourse of man and the questions it assigned to fiction writers, made her etch an incomparably lucid tracing of what was and was not possible for ‘faith’ in her era.” O’Connor’s harried stories show the “complications of a return of religion to midcentury meditations on man’s ‘nature and destiny.’” In contrast to the typical identification of her as a Thomist (she self-identified as one in 1952), Greif thinks she is Augustinian, one heavily influenced by French and German theologians.

Treatises on O’Connor are legion, so why include her in this discussion? O’Connor was an intellectual enigma who “so frequently painted herself as a savage and an outsider that it is worth insisting on the sophistication of her knowledge as an intellectual.” O’Connor was one of the earliest American writers to examine Heidegger, but her program was not philosophy or theology. As a fiction writer, O’Connor was concerned with bodies, and Greif identifies her rise as a critical, almost paradoxical one: “she reached a very timely and modern question of the twentieth century by a supposedly untimely, off-kilter, and traditional means and rationale” — that of Catholic approaches toward the corporeal. O’Connor was not interested in perfect bodies. Rather, she “seem[s] to communicate a pure sense that only an opened body can let a Holy Spirit enter” such as the flayed husband in “Parker’s Back” and the dying family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor wrestled the crisis of man from abstraction and placed it in bedrooms, in automobiles, and on tractors.

O’Connor is followed by Thomas Pynchon. The sequence is chronologically reasonable enough: Pynchon’s seminal early story, “Entropy,” was published in the Spring 1960 issue of The Kenyon Review, a magazine in which O’Connor published often until 1956. Yet for all his useful examination of O’Connor’s idiosyncratic literary Catholicism, Greif does not mention Pynchon’s shared religion. Pynchon was raised Catholic in Glen Cove, Long Island. Former Cornell classmate Jules Siegel infamously told Playboy that Pynchon “went to Mass and confessed, though to what would be a mystery.” Like much of Pynchon’s life, his Catholicism is a puzzle (when Siegel queried the difficulty of V, Pynchon responded, “Why should things be easy to understand?”).

Pynchon’s literary Catholicism has received scant discussion. Pynchon is best understood as a Catholic jester writing in the tradition of John Kennedy Toole and, of course, O’Connor. That the two writers have great divergences of geography and content should not negate their shared interest in the union of the absurd and the mundane. Pynchon might be considered the synthesis of the Catholicism of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, whose communions of saints spanned the electric and artistic worlds. Whether Pynchon is practicing or lapsed is irrelevant to this particular discussion. His fiction is saturated with a Catholic comedic sense.

Pynchon is best understood as a Catholic jester whose fiction is saturated with a Catholic comedic sense

Greif examines Pynchon’s novelistic interpretation of technology, the final area of concern for the midcentury crisis of man. He contextualizes Pynchon’s rise as occurring when “high technology had come home from the factory and been domesticated.” Within those mundane spaces, “‘man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon … [through] the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” Production and consumption are supplanted with “‘cycling’ and recirculation.” The rise of communication technology creates “leftovers and remnants,” and this noise creates a “further denudation of values. Stories and personal relations mix with leftover or forgotten objects, and are leveled down to the same neutral status, out of human control.” Greif finds this occurring within V, but thinks Pynchon’s best dramatization of the technological transubstantiation with the crisis of man unfolds in The Crying of Lot 49.

Greif elevates Pynchon more than most, considering him “the major American author most affected by World War II” other than Norman Mailer and James Jones. Greif acknowledges that Pynchon criticism is its own maze, game, and fandom, but thinks his “work exists not primarily to be deciphered but to be experienced, and, if anything, situated.” I certainly share Greif’s anxiety that Pynchon criticism might sometimes be an exercise in remaking the author in one’s own image. That said, there are certain observations that I need to add to Greif’s discussion. As a cradle Catholic who practiced well into his college years (and possibly beyond), Pynchon’s appropriation and subversion of Catholic iconography, ritual, and symbolism would be consistent with his engagement of popular culture errata. The Crying of Lot 49, no matter one’s critical predilections, is a work that builds toward a unifying system, however parodic. Pynchon even published excerpts from the novel as “The World (This One), the Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity.”

Pynchon’s jest is different than O’Connor’s, but he is still concerned with bodies. Oedipa Maas’s search for personal and spiritual meaning in the novel is muddled by the sheer amount of contemporary references, from Tupperware to Perry Mason to The Paranoids, a parody of the Beatles. The information entropy of the text matches the acronym of W.A.S.T.E., an underground mail-delivery system that appears connected with Tristero, a multinational postal conspiracy. Oedipa follows every lead, however absurd, with an almost religious devotion (she tries to track down the original script of a pornographic Jacobean revenge play for mention of Tristero, leading another character to ask, “Why is everybody so interested in texts?”). Words and signs are delivered outside of accepted channels, and like her husband Mucho’s used car lot, they result in “residue” and “loss.” Pynchon is an electronic prophet; Greif calls it “the problem of recycling … Pynchon’s unusual sensitivity to the survival and persistence of forgotten materials, to new technologies of ephemeral production and unmoored signs and simulations.”

That Pynchon places a woman at the center of this crisis of man — a crisis to communicate and find meaning — is significant. The other writers presented in this study, however progressive or experimental, still place men at the center of this crisis. While it is true that Oedipa appears under the distant pull of a man, her deceased ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity, she is the detective of the text, the character who makes meaning. Greif comments: “The question Lot 49 investigates but does not answer is whether there are other ways to use the systems of circulation, for those who have already been ‘disinherited,’ cut out of the hopes of man — or, for someone like Oedipa, where to turn when you are overincorporated within society and feel its unreality, and start to escape it … The problem of answering has everything to do with the way in which the mood of Lot 49, besides its sophomoric comedy, is one of unremitting anxiety — and why the unofficial systems of mere circulation seem malevolent at every turn.” The Crying of Lot 49’s anti-ending is the only appropriate conclusion to the wearied discourse of man. Rather than being a thin novel of nonsense, Pynchon’s book fits in the lineage of this significant discourse that “gives a picture of the people who are too poor or ethnic to be ‘recognized’ (as in Bellow), who had to plunge outside of history when it didn’t include them (as in Ellison), who find religious revelation (the ‘Word’) in broken-up bodies, artifacts, and prostheses, and not in any sanctioned church (as in O’Connor).”

The Crying of Lot 49, then, is a book of searching, a book of faith. Oedipa acts on the faith that not only do words matter, but that there is a Word, and that texts can lead her there. That she does not find what she seeks does not devalue the search. Greif explains that the “lot” of the book’s title extends to the “disposition, or fate, or humbled fatalistic destiny of persons and things and dreams that once began with the greatest hopes.” The malleability of Pynchon’s ending, the passing-off of meaning to the reader, is “as populist as the crisis of man’s search for universal man was not … It is enmeshed in the details of mundane technologies, wasted artifacts, daily communication, as the crisis of man’s grandiose discourse of technics was not.” Pynchon’s methods and non-meanings are the perfect counters to midcentury conversations whose collective reach was consistently rebuked by its own seriousness. Pynchon’s fiction helped evolve the discourse of the crisis of man from a concern with totalitarianism and over-mechanization to a lack of humanity, a “multiplicity” of self that is as worthless as the noise in Pynchon’s southern California. Pynchon, along with Bellow, Ellison, and O’Connor, took the “abstract discourse of man into the realm of practicality and discovered its missing portions.” Their answers “went far beyond its original exponents’ suppositions.”

Greif’s exemplary work is the best document of this midcentury evolution; an affirmation that despite the philosophical and historical origins of the discourse of the crisis of man, it was in the form of the novel that this crisis found its best laboratory.