Looking back twelve years to the inaugural issue of the literary journal n+1, what stands out is just how much the founders had to say. And no one more so than Mark Greif, who authored four of the volume’s essays (and co-authored a fifth). From an indictment of exercise to a discourse on the mutilation of American soldiers, the pieces show Greif as a ranging enthusiast rather than a cloistered scholar. It’s not exactly clear, however, what he’s so enthusiastic about.
Two of those early essays are included in Against Everything, a new collection that collates some of Greif’s work, mostly for n+1, with a couple of bonus pieces he’s apparently been too embarrassed to publish in English until now. In the book’s preface he explains that his admittedly trollish title harks back to childhood conversations with his mom — chattering “while kicking my sloppy sneakers against the dash. I taught myself to overturn, undo, deflate, rearrange, unthink, and rethink.” Everything is subject to the boy’s intellectual poking. His titular opposition is not the kind you find at protests or riots — more like how you’d approach a Rubik’s Cube. For Greif, to be “against” is not to fight, but to interpret.
In “Against Exercise,” Greif looks at the gym and determines that exercisers are being tortured by some unseen hand. “Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today,” he starts, “Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.” I admit I giggled, which has to be at least part of the point. Greif’s whole style is premised on the idea that critical thinking is a set of skills that can be learned and then applied effectively to any subject or object. The author need not be an expert in the topic at hand as long as they are an expert in thinking about stuff. Facts are subordinate to elegant formulations; Greif cites an imagined (and nonexistent) “rising incidence of smoking among young women” in order to compare the way women use cigarettes for “rebellious appetite suppression” to their use of the StairMaster for “obedient calorie burning.” The essay itself is little more than a vehicle for these flourishes of thought.
Along with exercise, subsequent essays against sex and food (though that’s not what they’re titled) form a triad of Greifian body discomfort. The implicit rules of all three, he writes, “give us ways to avoid facing up to a freedom from care that we may already have within reach.” Now that we — Greif is always defining his “we” — have plenty of food, we need to find new ways to worry about our bodies or else we’ll be forced to think about what we really want. But as his well-considered personal philosophy is, by all accounts, a combination of aestheticism and perfectionism, I’m surprised that Greif can’t see a parallel striving in his subjects. He clearly experiences the gym as metric-based
tyranny, but it seems obvious that other people approach working out with the same near-artistic intent he applies to thinking about them working out.
None of this would work at all if Greif weren’t funny, which he is. Not so much when he attempts a wry turn of phrase, but in the overall character he creates in himself — and it is a character. Here is a learned adult man who takes nothing for granted, which ends up turning him into a kind of guileless existential detective. He is a bona fide graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale who observes, while watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians, “Kim flaunts a booty of rare size.” In the four-part “Concept of Experience,” he writes, “Most travel is local: not only is there a Japan, but a Japanese restaurant, or Japantown in a big city. Each moment that you say to yourself, ‘This is how they do it,’ you feel another life, and the phantom extension of experience.” But, alas, such collected moments “gave me a depth of understanding of no one thing — I missed the experience of insight for diffuse ambition.” Foiled again!
One of the oddest pieces in the collection is “Learning to Rap,” an essay about trying to appreciate hip-hop that he first wrote in 2010. The image of the thirtysomething Greif on the subway listening to Illmatic on his headphones and failing to rap along is almost as funny as the fact that this essay was originally released as the German chapbook Rappen Lernen. What, exactly, was accomplished by Greif speculating to Germans about the meaning of his attempts not to blurt out the N-word on public transportation? Why, the search for truth! There is something clownish about trying to live according to existential principles in a world made of actually existing conflicts. But clowns serve many of the same purposes as philosophers, and sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. I think Greif, for one, is more Larry David than Slavoj Zizek.
In contemporary notes that appear after some of his essays, Greif shows increasing clarity of thought and purpose but is still able to maintain the shtick. He begins an update to his hilariously mistaken 2008 essay on YouTube: “I suspect I was wrong about vlogs.” Could this failure have larger implications? “My view of YouTube gets taken for the medium itself,” he worries, “but the way in which YouTube is always showing you previously unimagined uses casts doubt on the whole method of criticism, taking your individual experience as representative.”
It really makes you think.
Against Everything: Essays
By Mark Greif
320 pp., Pantheon