Working Up The Absurd

Sooner or later, in our excessively redactive age, it was bound to happen. Unfortunately it is this long book which, like a shadow in a hall of mirrors, marks the final disappearance of a great subject. The subject itself is the “image of man” to be found (to readapt a convenient phrase) in “the crisis literature” of the modern age from Dostoevsky and Melville to Kafka and Camus and in the crisis theology and philosophy from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Martin Buber. Out of these, particularly as they appear in the fictional works of the first four, Professor Friedman (who, among other things, has done extensive translations of Buber’s works, as well as a book on Buber’s thought) hopes to fashion a master “depth-image,” as he calls it, in which modern man may find, at last, his full reflection. In a mixed mode all his own which runs together the extreme individualism of existentialist “anthropology” with the holism of much traditional ethics and the artistic ideal of imagist criticism and aesthetics, Mr. Friedman wishes to make “a decisive break with the universal ‘human nature’ of earlier philosophy and attain a picture of man in his uniqueness and his wholeness…” In order to do this, so he alleges, “one must move from concepts about [sic] man, no matter how profound, to the image of man.” How the philosopher-critic is to do this he does not explain; in fact what he says on this score suggests that it is impossible. “Our primary source of understanding man,” so he says, “is not (for example) Berdyaev’s systematic presentation of Dostoevsky’s thought on man, but Dostoevsky’s novels themselves with their completely unsystematic, paradoxical, contrary, but infinitely rich presentation of individual men.”

But of course the Dostoevskys have done their work. What is there left or even possible for Mr. Friedman to do? It is a bit hard to put into words. One way is to say that he does not, like the philosopher, offer a clear conception of man, nor, like the creative artist, true images of men and women, but rather, as it were a composite image that turns out to be, after all, only a fuzzy concept.

Something may be learned from all this: Never before, really, had I supposed that the abstract general images (he called them “ideas”) against which George Berkeley railed so harshly were more than the straw creatures of his own over-heated philosophical imagination. Now I know better: he was preparing us for Mr. Friedman.

But let us turn from Mr. Friedman’s aspirations to the realized substance of his book. The “depth image” of modern man which Mr. Friedman tries to define is a cross between Prometheus and Job. To this end he presents in Part I thumbnail sketches of the images of man as Exile and as Rebel that we have inherited from Greek and biblical sources along with sketches of the transitional medieval-renaissance figures of the Faust legend. Common to both classical prototypes is a view of…

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