Georg Lukács

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Alfred Kazin

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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 like Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann such delightful essayists in criticism. On the other hand, Lukács's whole strength as a critic is that he has carried out to the limits, with intellectual passion, the literary scholar's ability to speak for literary tradition, for the tradition of a country, of a language, of a specific national culture. For Lukács European realism, the modern literature he loves most in the world, is the highest expression of a continuing ambition of the human spirit that he finds in the great writers of the past. The literary tradition of Europe is his intellectual patrimony, his culture, his faith…. [A] critic like Lukács shows that the literary tradition of the nineteenth-century novel is not a continuum of writers and works and "schools," but a moral and philosophic tradition with urgent consequences for our own generation.

Lukács's Studies in European Realism is a work based on tradition and makes up a study in tradition. Its perspective is different from that of a great creative writer, who probably would not admire Balzac and Tolstoy so absolutely, and from that of a professional literary scholar, who would value more for their own sake the details of literary history. Lukács writes as a good European who venerates the highest achievements of his culture in great works of literature. As a Marxist, Lukács of course wants to show that the best promise of continuing this tradition is the international working-class movement. But quite apart from the fact that Lukács is obviously enthusiastic about the great nineteenth-century novels and not interested in or even encouraging about twentieth-century literature (one of whose major problems, how the individual writer can be creative in a collectivist society, Lukács never considers), it must be said that Lukács' very distinction and even his stimulating powers as a critic depend on his profound involvement with the literary tradition of the nineteenth century. A deep and urgent sense of tradition is what makes the good critic…. [Though] Lukács lacks the creative wit and ease of the great critics, he does write as a humanist with their tradition "in his bones"; he embodies the spiritual and intellectual values of the literature he loves; he can...

(This entire section contains 2199 words.)

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make these values necessary issues to us today.

The great value of Lukács's book—and this despite the sycophancy that shows what it is like to write a book in the repressive atmosphere of Stalin's "Socialism"—is the way in which his deep and earnest sense of literary tradition operates in relation to realism. Though a century now separates us from the great masterpieces of Balzac and Tolstoy, "realism" as a literary idea is still associated with the materialism and vulgarity of our own society. But Lukács, who thinks that writers like Flaubert and Zola did surrender to capitalism (hence their aesthetic weakness of trying to reproduce society literally), values in Balzac and Tolstoy exactly their superiority to contemporary society, which he thinks sprang from their positive and "older" ideals. Speaking of the great passage in the Iliad where, as Lessing said, Homer describes the making of Achilles's weapons and not just their appearance, Lukács goes on to say—in a passage that expresses better than any other in the book the creative and liberating meaning he gives to realism—"The really great novelists are in this respect always true-born sons of Homer. True, the world of objects and the relationship between them has changed, has become more intricate, less spontaneously poetic. But the art of the great novelists manifests itself precisely in the ability to overcome the unpoetic nature of their world, through sharing and experiencing the life and evolution of the society they lived in. It is by sending out their spontaneously typical heroes to fulfill their inherently necessary destinies that the great writers have mastered with such sovereign power the changeful texture of the external and internal, great and little moments that make up life."

A "typical" hero to Lukács is not a hero like others but one who concentrates in himself all the forces of change at a particular time; as a character he brings certain influences to the point of action and becomes himself a determining influence. This positive conception of realism as necessarily in conflict with the acceptance of capitalism as "reality," this conception of the hero as one who brings to dramatic focus the social forces that are embodied in himself and thus opposes them, explains why Lukács's book has meaning for those who, like himself, think of the novel as carrying on the epic and dramatic tradition of Western literature. Lukács is always critical of naturalism, for he feels that with the eclipse of revolutionary faith among intellectuals after 1848, pessimism and resignation became the order of the day and deprived even the most gifted writers of the necessary weapons against society. For Lukács it is the dynamic opposition of the human spirit to a given social order, as shown by the gigantic figures of Balzac, who despise a society they feel to be unworthy of their creative power, that makes "true" realism so bracing and exciting. And although, as a good Communist, he evades the vital point in this book and in his writings on contemporary writers, it is obvious that Lukács's admiration for "true" realism, by which he means the example of Balzac, is not likely to extend to the "positive" hero of "Socialist" realism. In Soviet literature, not only is "realism" prescribed for all writers as if it were an offense against one's neighbors to write in any other literary spirit, but the "positive" hero is usually a cipher, a slogan in human form, and is valued as "typical" only in the sense that he is average. For Lukács the "typical" means the concentration of all the forces already moving to social change; for Soviet literature, it means the common. The essence of Lukács's admiration for realism is that it produced the heroes of Balzac and Tolstoy—men who are exceptional not because they are isolated, like the heroes of romantic literature, but because all that is seething in the social conflicts of their time has come to dramatic consciousness. To Lukács, indeed, the heroes of Balzac and Tolstoy are made heroic through their more resolute and heroic consciousness; they are heroes in the grand authoritative style of the nineteenth century. Like Balzac and Tolstoy, and of course like Marx above all, these heroes make themselves forces equal to the force of the society they resist and seek to transform. For Lukács, the hero of a literary work must in some sense be equal to the achievement of a new society; the individual, though in his social character "determined" by society, must as an individual have the curious view and larger vision that lead to a new society. The creative tension of this resolution and opposition is what makes literature dramatic to Lukács—and what makes realism the favorable ground of this drama is the resolute marshalling of social detail which is the modern version of what Hegel valued so much in classical epic—the "totality of objects" it brings into play.

Yet even if we accept Lukács's conception of realism as essentially a struggle between a superior individual and a society that he must master, not escape, it is hard to approve his marginal treatment of Stendhal (who is discussed in the context of Balzac) and his relative indifference to Dostoevsky and Dickens…. [Stendhal, Dickens and Dostoevsky] are not comfortable subjects for a Marxist critic to handle. Yet [Lukács] has space in this book for a chapter on the Russian nineteenth-century critics Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, who were less complicatedly concerned with realism than were Stendhal and Dickens, and for a chapter on Gorky, who in Stalinist days became (it was not entirely his fault), the figurehead of a "great" novelist.

This prizing of certain authors and books for their "tendency" only, and the automatic disparagement of valuable books because they do not clearly show the "right" tendency, is the besetting weakness of even the most intelligent Marxist critics. It follows from the habit of thinking in social categories; one sees in the weaker chapters of Lukács's book the fact that he, who responds to the classics with so much emotion, is not always aware of having substituted "progress" for excellence as the prime categories in his inner consciousness as a critic…. And the strength of this book, the chapters on Balzac and Tolstoy, is so clearly related to what these great writers represent of heroism and genius to Lukács's mind, that one can criticize the exaggerated emphasis he gives to the work of Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, not his concern with the social setting or his belief in criticism as a social instrument.

Yet this said, it has to be admitted that Lukács, like almost all Marxist critics, has not found the satisfying balance between his admiration for the achievement of certain writers and his evaluation of what writers represent in society that one does find in the comments on literature of Marx and Trotsky—the only two writers in this tradition whose judgments of literature seem to be entirely "free," and which are stimulating to writers themselves. In Marx and Trotsky literature is a kingdom of power related to social power but not identical with it. Lukács does not have their proud and easy capacity for judgment. By comparison with them he suffers, for brilliant as he is on his favorite, Balzac, the system of values by which he operates never gives space to autonomous aesthetic achievement: Balzac is not just the greatest modern novelist, but he is the greatest of a certain type. And Lukács, in the last analysis, will never take a chance on a writer who is of the wrong type, or on a writer who strays from being the right type. He does love the type more than he loves the individual—which does not mean that he is lacking in taste or in the capacity for making sustained and valuable analyses of the great books he loves. It is simply that his approach to literature is finally not to the work but to the scholarly and philosophical and perhaps "revolutionary" example that it serves.

You can see this lack of directness in the very awkwardness of Lukács's style, which can be associated with the fact that he emphasizes formulations about the nature of a school or style rather than insights into a particular style starting from a direct concern with the text. But the kind of direct aesthetic criticism that we value is usually written only by a handful of people in any generation—the primary figures in the creation of literature. Much of what passes for "aesthetic" criticism today is derivative and repetitive and has nothing of the aesthetic in its spirit or teaching. Criticism is interesting, after all, only to the extent that it is valuable, and much of what is published today is less pertinent than literary scholarship or the historical consciousness of those who guard a literary tradition. [Studies in European Realism] is imperfect as a study of realism and obviously incomplete. Yet it is a tribute to [Lukács] and to what is creative and enduring in Marxism as a philosophy that his book, with all its faults and expediencies, should suggest so much of the vitality and enduring hope in the great novelists whom he loves. (pp. 234-40)

Alfred Kazin, "Georg Lukács on European Realism," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1964 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Spring, 1964, pp. 231-40.


George Lichtheim