Georg Lukács 1885–1971
(Also transliterated as György) Hungarian critic and philosopher.
Lukács is now recognized by many critics as the leading Marxist thinker of the twentieth century. However, he was engaged in a lifelong struggle; despite his antagonism toward capitalism, the nature of his approach and his subject matter were often in opposition to socialist thought. As Susan Sontag has written: "By concentrating on 19th century literature and stubbornly retaining German as the language in which he writes, Lukács has continued to propose, as a Communist, European and humanist—as opposed to nationalist and doctrinaire—values; living as he does in a Communist and provincial country, he has remained a genuinely European intellectual figure."
As an undergraduate student in Germany, Lukács was inspired by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophy informs Lukács's earliest works, especially Die Theorie des Romans (The Theory of the Novel). In this book Lukács described the novel as a "bourgeois epic" in which the writer attempts to depict the alienation and homelessness of the individual in modern society. These theories were much less metaphysical than those of his earlier work, Die Seele und die Formen (Soul and Form). In Soul and Form Lukács concentrated on what Lucien Goldmann called "the relation between the human soul and the absolute" and "the tragic significance of Kantianism."
In 1918, two years after the publication of The Theory of the Novel, Lukács joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Within five years he was to publish Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness), which Ferenc Fehér would later call "the single major event in the history of Marxism as philosophy since the death of Karl Marx." According to George Lichtheim, History and Class Consciousness "owes its enduring relevance to the manner in which Lukács recaptured the Hegelian dimension of Marx's thought."
In 1933, Lukács denounced History and Class Consciousness and all his previous works and, for over a decade, wrote sporadically. Lukács's work after this time, most notably Essays uber Realismus (Studies in European Realism) and Der historische Roman (The Historical Novel), were discussions of such writers as Balzac, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Mann. For this reason, Lukács was again subjected to disapproval from the Communist Party. Although several theories have been proposed concerning his conflicts and compromises with the Party, Lukács himself commented on his recantations by asserting that "a critic must always re-examine his work, and reject what is false and outmoded; otherwise he is dishonest."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101 and Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary].)
The Times Literary Supplement
Lukacs is, in Dr. Thomas Mann's view "perhaps the most important critic of literature to-day"; a judgment which, com-ing from such a source, must carry weight. Fortunately, the republication of many of his papers and the appearance of the first English translation of any of his books [Studies in European Realism] make it possible conveniently to survey the work of this remarkable man….
It is not easy for English readers to judge his work…. Lukacs is essentially the "philosopher-critic" (the only type of "fruitful" criticism he admits beside that of the "poet-critic"). Complex, coherent and tightly knit intellectual structures which, to the Continental intellectual, are what philosophy means, have rarely been to the taste of the modern English literary world. But the chief hurdle which the English reader must clear before he can judge Lukacs is the unfamiliarity of his critical idiom. Oddly enough, its strangeness is only partly due to the fact that it is Marxist.
For Lukacs literature is "a special form of mirroring objective reality." But the supreme objective reality of the artist is man, necessarily man in society, inevitably man in a changing, developing society. This, therefore, must be the great writer's subject. At the same time this fact removes, or ought to remove, literary creation and criticism from the realm of the arbitrary and subjective:
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[George Lukács's] importance as a critic was first made clear to me by the late Karl Mannheim, who had known him well in Hungary, and who … did not agree with the Marxist basis of Lukács's criticism. What one was made to realize after the reading of a single essay by this critic (and to envy), was the formidable superiority of any polemicist who combines dogma with sensibility. It is the same kind of formidability that one finds in certain Catholic writers (such as Jacques Maritain), and it makes one realize, rather ruefully, that sensibility is not enough: our humanist or libertarian criticism must have an equally strong foundation in faith. (p. 156)
[Lukács is different from most Marxist critics.] He is saved, not only by his innate sensibility, which leads him to respect those elements of form and style so often contemptuously dismissed by Marxist critics, but also by his passionate humanism, which leads him to concentrate on Balzac and Tolstoy and to present their essentially humanitarian ideals with sympathy. All this leads …, to a certain amount of "doublethink"; but how refreshing, for example, to find a Marxian critic expatiating on "the extraordinary concreteness of poetic vision" in Tolstoy, or, more generally, seeing in romanticism, not one more form of bourgeois escapism, but "the expression of a deep and spontaneous revolt against rapidly developing capitalism." (p. 158)
There can be no question of...
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[In Georg Lukács'] works two beliefs are incarnate. First, that literary criticism is not a luxury, that it is not what the subtlest of American critics has called "a discourse for amateurs." But that it is, on the contrary, a central and militant force toward shaping men's lives. Secondly, Lukács affirms that the work of the critic is neither subjective nor uncertain. Criticism is a science with its own rigor and precision. The truth of judgment can be verified. Georg Lukács is, of course, a Marxist. Indeed, he is the one major critical talent to have emerged from the gray servitude of the Marxist world. (pp. 327-28)
[The] Marxist critic cherishes the conviction that he is engaged not in matters of opinion but in determinations of objective reality. Without this conviction, Lukács could not have turned to literature. He came of intellectual age amid the chaotic ferocity of war and revolution in central Europe. He reached Marxism over the winding road of Hegelian metaphysics. In his early writings two strains are dominant: the search for a key to the apparent turmoil of history and the endeavor of an intellectual to justify to himself the contemplative life. Like Simone Weil, of whom he often reminds me, Lukács has the soul of a Calvinist. One can imagine how he must have striven to discipline within himself his native bent toward literature and the aesthetic side of things. Marxism afforded him the crucial possibility of...
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[A] consideration of Lukacs' actual present-day views on contemporary literature shows that he is indeed a good Leninist—hence incapable of making those critical distinctions which have enabled Marxist writers in Western Europe (and the genuine "revisionists" in Poland) to say something sensible about the quite real problems of intellectual sterility and pointless literary artifice which confront European and American literature at the present time.
Ideally it ought to be the critic's task to demonstrate all this in detail, taking as one's text both the essay on Contemporary Realism and the earlier volume entitled The Historical Novel. Although (or because) twenty years lie between their writing, the two books complement one another. The Historical Novel was composed in the winter of 1936–7: at the very height of the Great Purge, and some two years after Lukacs—in an address to the philosophical section of the Communist Academy in Moscow—had performed the first of a long sequence of public acts of self-abasement by denouncing his own pre-Leninist writings (notably the famous History and Class-consciousness of 1923) as "idealist" and "objectively" Fascist…. Though less frenzied in tone, Lukacs' critical writings during this period, including The Historical Novel, faithfully reflect the temper of this remarkable pronouncement, notably in their determination to re-write the history of...
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The distinction of Lukács's Studies in European Realism—despite certain passages of obeisance to the Lenin-Stalin cult and some mechanical flattery of the Russian literary tradition itself (the book was written in Russia during the terrible purges of the 1930's)—is that it brings an essentially philosophic and moral vision of man's necessary destiny to bear on the great age of the novel; the book puts into a new and dramatic focus the sources of realism in the nineteenth century. Lukács's studies in realism bring home to us certain sources of the imaginative power of such towering figures as Balzac and Tolstoy. Lukács is exceptional among students of nineteenth-century realism because he is both a philosopher with great gifts of critical analysis and a critic who can marshal his points with logical rigor. He always writes in the perspective of a philosophical system. He is not, admittedly, the kind of critic that great writers become in discussing the work of their equals in imagination—Balzac greeting Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme or Tolstoy pointing up the weaknesses of Dostoevsky are often partisan and selective in their judgments, but they have a kind of insight that professional and therefore hopefully judicious critics do not share. Indeed, Lukács is too theoretical (and I would say even visionary) a writer to be able to express his judgments with the blend of suppleness and plasticity and irony which makes novelists...
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PAUL de MAN
The Theory of the Novel is by no means easy reading. One is particularly put off by the strange point of view that prevails throughout the essay: the book is written from the point of view of a mind that claims to have reached such an advanced degree of generality that it can speak, as it were, for the novelistic consciousness itself; it is the Novel itself that tells us the history of its own development, very much as, in Hegel's Phenomenology, it is the Spirit who narrates its own voyage. With this crucial difference, however, that since Hegel's Spirit has reached a full understanding of its own being, it can claim unchallengeable authority, a point which Lukács's novelistic consciousness, by its own avowal, is never allowed to reach. Being caught in its own contingency, and being indeed an expression of this contingency, it remains a mere phenomenon without regulative power; one would be led to expect a reductive, tentative and cautiously phenomenological approach rather than a sweeping history asserting its own laws. By translating the work in a less exalted language, one loses its moving and impressive philosophical pathos, but some of the preconceptions become more apparent.
Compared to a formalistic work such as, for instance, Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction, or to a work grounded in a more traditional view of history such as Auerbach's Mimesis, The Theory of the Novel makes much more...
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Georg Lukacs already appears as one of the most influential figures in the intellectual life of the 20th Century. (p. 165)
In 1910, 13 years after having clarified in History and Class Consciousness the concept of significant dynamic structure, Lukacs, after having published in Hungarian a work which to our knowledge has never been translated in any western-European language, became known to the German public through a book, The Soul and Forms [also translated as Soul and Form], which seems to us for several reasons to mark an essential date in the history of contemporary thought. First of all because, after long years of academic philosophy, Lukacs rediscovered in this work the great tradition of classic philosophy by placing at the center of his preoccupations the problem of the relationships which exist between human life and absolute values. This was an important intellectual event, for this tradition seemed entirely forgotten. (p. 166)
Explicitly, The Soul and Forms is uniquely concerned with the relation between the human soul and the absolute, and those "forms" which express the different and privileged modalities of this relation.
Under what conditions can human life be authentic? What are the circumstances and the attitudes which make it lose its authenticity? Are there, between the authentic and inauthentic, the true and the false, any intermediary values? Can...
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At a time when Shklovsky in Russia and Lubbock in Great Britain were successfully banning metaphysics from literary criticism, Lukács' Theory of the Novel appeared as a late and stubborn attempt to reconstruct the most characteristic genre of modern literature from pure thought. To young Lukács, the theory of any genre coincides with its history, which, in true German fashion, he believes begins with the inimitable art of Greece…. Lukács does not tolerate any history of the mind before that of Greece; the Greeks are the nation whose inevitable destiny in the intellectual development of mankind it was to give birth to the great "forms" of the creative mind: the epic, tragedy, and philosophy. In the dawn of history we perceive the absolute immanence of the heroic age of Homer; as time progresses, however, integral substance withers (entweicht) more and more until, finally, the irremediable development toward philosophical alienation results in the most rigid opposition of meaning and being confirmed by the unfortunate transcendence of Platonic thought.
Tragedy, according to young Lukács, develops precisely between the time of the great epic and Plato. While the epic is still fortunate enough to be able to deal with the magnificent essence of life, tragedy (in a moment of progressive alienation) has no other chance but to question reality. "The great epic gives form to the extensive totality of life; the drama to the...
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[To] understand Lukács' concept of totality, we should start from the Ästhetik [Aesthetics], where its general principles are elaborated incomparably more fully and clearly than in his earlier writings, and largely in agreement with his earlier usage of the term.
Art is for Lukács one of the great instruments by which man grapples with reality. Reality is man's dialectical being in nature, his self-preservation and self-evolution through work. Science and art are continuing efforts of the mind to contribute to this total anthropological process, through which man changes himself as well as the world in which he lives. Both are rooted in the mental operations involved in all human 'Praxis', in 'everyday life' as he calls it, and are means of developing this Praxis. Both mirror ('wiederspiegeln') the reality of which man is part…. (pp. 147-48)
Both science and art start from experience, from the particular, and both seek a general principle within this particular. The method of science is 'de-anthropomorphization', the elimination of personal immediacy in the search for general laws, for what Lukács calls 'the extensive and intensive totality' governing any particular. (p. 148)
The method of art is on the other hand 'anthropomorphic'. It seeks totality in a double sense. First: Its task is to make a 'totality' out of the reality it is reflecting…. Like science it has 'to reproduce...
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A. G. Lehmann
Lukács' main writing as a Marxist critic of literature falls largely within [the] period in which it was most difficult, or even dangerous, to air venturesome thoughts that might not quite fit in with the canon of rigid and fixed rulings about what one should or should not think. (p. 173)
To recall these facts of history and to append to them these conjectures is not to exculpate the philosopher, let alone to applaud him. But Lukács' critical activities did not happen in a void, and they reflect certain facts about the world he lived in. During his stay in Moscow, Lukács did not announce his views through participation in the polemics on Socialist Realism, the new Russian orthodoxy exported to the rest of Europe via the network of party organs. He wrote of Tolstoy or Gorky, but not much of the successors of Sholokhov. He gave as a reason for this his defective knowledge of the Russian language. He gave keen attention to the novels of Heinrich Mann, as examples of a new democratic humanism in the making; but he steered clear of the entirely orthodox, copy-book 'socialist realist'—even programmatic—early socialist novels of Aragon in France (1935 onwards), though these were written in French. If he had pronounced their sentiments, treatment of themes, and value systems to be 'correct', he would no doubt have had difficulty in explaining why the novels, as novels, are unremarkable and tedious; but if he had attempted such an...
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The motto of the late Georg Lukács' Ästhetik, 'Sie wissen es nicht, aber sic tun es', a quotation from Marx, bears strange resemblance to the thesis of T. S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent. Both suggest that artists may not be aware of what they artistically do, that they represent a medium through which transindividual forces become manifest. Of course here the analogy ends: Eliot's 'tradition' is in no way comparable to the social, economic, and historical forces which, according to Lukács, are shaping art. Still, Lukács' motto ambiguously incorporates idealistic, as well as materialistic, strains, and one notes with curiosity that the very man who wrote a virulent indictment of irrationalism and its rise in Germany, should regard the distinction between artistic intuition and cognitive thinking as the innermost principle of aesthetics.
Separating the artistic from the empirical self, Lukács can shield from dogmatist Marxist criticism those great novelistic achievements of the nineteenth century which were written by authors that adhered to reactionary political views. In the works of Walter Scott—as well as Balzac, Tolstoy, and others—the artist speaks the truth malgré lui: 'Scott ranks among those great writers whose depth is manifest mainly in their work, a depth which they often do not understand themselves, because it has sprung from a truly realistic mastery of their material in...
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[Solzhenitsyn] is a remarkable book, far more so than the theoretical writings of Lukacs's earlier years, which in their recent translations have given rise to a wavelet of Marxist scholasticism. Perhaps because he found it easier or more prudent to express his deepest convictions through the mediated discourse of literary criticism than through direct political speech, Lukacs releases, with a fervor he had never before shown in print, the disgust he felt for Stalinism, at least Stalinism as the terrorist phase of the party-state dictatorship, if not as an integral sociopolitical system…. (p. 88)
Lukacs's admiration for Solzhenitsyn clearly went beyond the latter's literary achievement; it had much to do with his moral stature, his independence and courage. And it is precisely here that we encounter a painful problem. For between the absolute candor of Solzhenitsyn's work and the deviousness of Lukacs's career there is a startling difference, so much so that one senses in this little book a measure of discomfort and defensiveness. A man as intelligent as Lukacs could hardly have been unaware that he kept praising Solzhenitsyn for precisely the virtues he himself had rarely shown. (pp. 88-9)
One source of his admiration for Solzhenitsyn seems to be the Russian novelist's deliberate refusal of "tactics," the whole stale jumble of "dialectics" by which thinkers like Lukacs have persisted in justifying their...
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As a philosopher, Georg Lukacs demanded totality; as a personality, he seems to defy it. If his reputation—on both sides of the Danube—has fluctuated over the years, it may be because no one quite knows which Lukacs to assimilate. Is he the revolutionary of 1919? The "romantic anti-capitalist" of 1923 (a current Western favorite)? The Stalinist "hack" of the 1930s? The vitriolic Cold Warrior? The Freedom Fighter of 1956? Or the "mellow" Marxist-Humanist of the late '60s? Considering this capacity for historical intervention and personal survival, the least one can say is that Lukacs was the most successful Marxist intellectual of the 20th century….
Whatever was Lukacs's subjective experience of [his] remarkable career, it vanished with him. His writings are relentlessly objective, willfully depersonalized. He had a lifelong aversion to psychology. "I can say that I have never felt frustration or any kind of complex in my life," he told an interviewer the year of his death. "I know what these mean, of course, from the literature of the twentieth century, and from having read Freud. But I have not experienced them myself." Lukacs placed all of his faith in reason; he was utterly dismissive of instinct, and we may assume that he correspondingly valued expediency over sentiment. (It is well to remember that Lukacs was not just a philosophical Marxist but a Party member of 40 years and twice a revolutionary Commissar.) But this is not...
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