I AM POSTING THIS TODAY, THURSDAY 13 JULY, BECAUSE I AM AWAY FOR THE WEEKEND.
Some of you may have read or read about Mark Greif’s recent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton University Press, 2015). It belongs to what I think of as one of a later generation of New York Intellectuals’s attempts to get the big picture, then give it both a polemical universalist thrust and a specialist, coterie vocabulary. In order to do this, though, Greif’s argument has to pass through the theory-years of the later 1960s and 1970s — the years of post-humanism, deconstruction, and those punitive analytical determinisms of Foucauldian genealogy. Greif builds an argument that on the one hand shows that the proliferation of that mid-century question, “What is Man?” was of value only to the extent that it produced thought without conclusions. And on the other hand, Greif invents a “theoretical” vocabulary to explain the function of asking questions that elicit no actual answers, but that open up towards as yet uncertain and unknown projects. I found his book to be just as havering as the books and articles he has read and has declared evasive and not really worth reading. The study has the air of discovery and excitement about it but it doesn’t explain or aswer anything, except to invent vocabulary to describe books that aren’t really worth their arguments. As Greif writes, “Many of the explicit ‘crisis of man’ books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to!” Scholarly martyrdom is an strange road for an intellectual to take..
Why have I brought up this book here and now? Mostly because I find its sententious pretentiousness hard to take — a house of cards, say — and I also think it makes a good foil for the piece we are looking at in this post, William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,” which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review, Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938.
Thomas Mann was a liberal anti-fascist hero to his readers and followers, and his experience of exile in California made him an American anti-fascist hero. He had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and had written Death in Venice, Buddenbrooks, and The Magic Mountain by the time he went to the USA in 1939, first to teach at Princeton, and then to move to the Pacific Palisades, near to Los Angeles. He and his family moved back to Europe in 1952.
William Phillips, [who featured in this blog’s post of 13 April, 2017] was, you may recall, Philip Rahv’s partner in editing of Partisan Review. If you read the post on him, you will see that his colleagues felt that though he was lively and clever and witty in conversation, those fluid graces were never brought to the desk, and this essay is interesting less for Phillips’s argument, than for the way he manages what he calls the contemporary “intellectual crisis.” He begins:
“Let us not be hypnotised by the drum-beats of progress… by the propaganda of hope. We have heard them before, especially on dark days; and they have come from governments and parties that wish to conceal some perfidy. If so many intellectuals have fallen prey to these deceptions, it is out of desperation; it is because they are ready to seize upon any escape from their terrible fears and doubts. These are the symptoms of intellectual crisis.” Phillips generalises the idea of the intellectual as betrayed by their own traditions and values:[“the intellectual]’s normal condition, today, seems to be that of a liberal, anti-fascist, etc. Yet it is he who in the name of progress suppresses insurgency, in the name of peace clamours for war, in the name of truth condones lies.” Against this malaise, Phillips announces the intellectual’s ‘vital function in society’: “to safeguard the dreams and discoveries of science and art, and to champion some political movement insofar as it fulfills the requirement of an intellectual. ideal.”
Phillips quotes from Mann’s polemical manifesto published in 1937, that “an infamous pragmatism has been set up in the heart of Europe today. It refuses to make distinctions between truth and lies; it denies mind and spirit in favour of interest; it unscrupulously commits or condones crimes if they forward it’s interest– or what it conceives to be so; it shrinks not at all from falsification, rather it calls falsification truth, provided it is useful, in its interpretation of the word……” (hmmmm….sounds like a fair presentation of the Trumpocracy.)
Phillips starts by praising Mann for his Humanism; and argues against the mechanical apparatus of fascist ideology. It is an early version of the contest between humanism and constructivism, The language of revolution, of polemical politics, says Mann, “is hopelessly discredited and compromised, it is utterly worn out, having served these the years and more to persuade the herd-minded citizen to think of himself as a revolutionary.” Phillips wants to argue as well that Mann’s Enlightenment values are saturated with the decay of culture and the end of the figure of the Artist as Saviour. Phillips tries to write carefully about Mann’s universalist Christianity as if it were a politics and not a slogan of the Fascist Crusade.
Having given credit, he then argues that Mann is forced to posit the decay of Artist and culture as a function of his refusal to understand that ‘Science’ is what modernity offers us, and with science comes both knowledge and truth. Central to this is the project of Scientific Socialism, Phillips’ answer to the ‘crisis of the intellectual.’ “The Imagination of modern art bursts through the world-culture of Einstein and Freud and teems with the multitude of ideas and events that fill our days. We dream of socialism, but we do not come empty-handed to the threshold of a new world. We come with the riches of science.”
So, his discussion becomes one in which Mann is the exemplary self-deluding voice of the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. For Phillips, Mann’s anti-fascism becomes a way of not facing the struggle for Socialism. There is a kind of over-heated enthusiasm in Phillips’ dream of Science that can’t really carry the drive of Phillips’s desire.
The obituary writer for the New York Times wrote of Phillips: “As an occasional writer for the magazine, Mr. Phillips was overshadowed by his contributors. He was so able to see a question’s many sides that he found it difficult to chisel a tidy position”.
I think maybe Mark Greif could do something with this.