Georg Lukács

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John Neubauer

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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 conflict with their personal views and prejudices.'

This general view informs Lukács' approach to Thomas Mann. He recognizes the strong conservative note in the politics of the young Thomas Mann, but claims that the outstanding artistic works of that period—Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, or Death in Venice—represent a more progressive, and therefore more accurate, view of the world than the non-fictional utterances of these years. (p. 202)

In Lukács' view, the trajectory of Mann's development is the inversion of Goethe's path. As Goethe aged he became gradually more isolated and alienated from the historical and social milieu around him, while Mann moved in the opposite direction. The central experience of his maturity was the crisis in the world which led to a personal crisis and an eventual break with his own youthful outlook. 'His old age was taken up with a ceaseless publicist struggle against fascism'…. In the end, 'Mann's development leads beyond democracy to an acknowledgement of the inevitability of socialism'….

I do not wish to raise here the sensitive and complex question about Mann's commitment to socialism, partly because I believe it eludes categorical answers. In the absence of documentation it is difficult to know on which pronouncements Lukács bases his assertion that Mann came to believe in the inevitability of socialism, though in general terms Lukács' thesis about Mann's gradual move to the left seems unassailable. Yet according to Lukács' own artistic credo we still have to ask what this shift in public attitudes and political sympathies meant for the fictional works. Does it mean, as Lukács implies, that the dissociation of political and artistic sensibilities during Mann's early career gradually disappeared towards the end of his life? More concretely, do the last works, especially Doktor Faustus, give expression to a belief in the inevitability of socialism?

In marked contrast to his unequivocal assertions about Mann's political convictions, Lukács is quite hesitant and ambiguous when it comes to a demonstration that these attitudes are embodied in Doktor Faustus . One gets the distinct impression that Lukács' gentle criticism of Mann for not providing a fictional perspective on socialism—as well as his half-hearted attempts to show that such a perspective is nevertheless implied—is merely a gesture to preempt more doctrinaire Marxist criticism....

(This entire section contains 2202 words.)

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Lukács admits that Mann's socialist perspective is 'abstract', that it says 'little or nothing about the nature of socialism' and 'leaves undiscussed the problems of transition from present-day society to a future one'…. But this criticism is countered by Lukács himself with a threefold defense which is based on (1) the unique aspects of German history, (2) the nature of Mann's artistic talent, and (3) the authority and example of Shakespeare.

German history is characterized by a traditional cleavage between the public and the private realms. As Lukács puts it, the social, historical, and economic forces gradually disappear in the 'power-protected inwardness' of German intellectual and artistic history, and the works of the nineteenth-century German artists reflect merely the 'small world', the anxiety and uncertainty of individual minds and lives. Instead of the panoramic canvases of a Tolstoy or a Balzac, German readers were nurtured on the claustrophobic world of a Wilhelm Raabe. This tradition is evident in Mann's Doktor Faustus…. Lukács admits that Doktor Faustus is dominated by a 'Raabe-like' atmosphere which is characterized 'by the absence of any attempt, even a fruitless one, at a breakthrough to life',… and yet he simultaneously attempts to show that Mann consistently departs from this small world to reveal the underlying encompassing one. Thus, as Lukács sees it, the multiple levels of time in Doktor Faustus emphasize the truth that though Adrian Leverkühn has no external ties with the political currents of his day, his art and life is an objective reflection of the historical situation. (pp. 203-04)

Lukács' second argument, that Mann's art is completely lacking in utopian elements, is equally important. Modern German history is characterized by the absence of serious revolutionary situations created by great middle-class intellectual ferments: Lukács believes that the actual revolutionary struggle of workers in Germany falls beyond the horizon of the bourgeoisie. Since Thomas Mann could portray only the world of his experience, which was limited to the middle-class, he could express only the loneliness of middle-class characters. The 'abstract perspective' in Mann's works is then due both to the perspectivelessness of his class and the nature of his artistic talent.

The final argument establishes an analogy between the ending of Doktor Faustus and the closing scenes of Shakespeare's dramas. Shakespeare portrayed individual tragedies in worlds 'out of joint', without fully illuminating the better worlds that emerge at the end of his plays. In Hamlet or King Lear 'the light of a new world gleams in the tragic darkness at the end', but we have no right to demand of Shakespeare 'to provide an accurate social description of this new world'…. Lukács sees a similar light in the closing words of Adrian Leverkühn…. According to Lukács these words 'give clear expression to what is new: the transformation of the real, the economic and social, basis of life as the first step towards healing of mind and culture, thought and art. Thomas Mann's tragic hero has here found the way which leads to Marx'….

Lukács' reading of Leverkühn's testament is open to serious questions. For the way to Marx can be indicated in the archaic language of Luther only if 'progression' is also 'regression', if the new is ironically old and tainted with barbarism, if the call of Marx recalls the voice of Ignatius of Loyola (as, indeed, the two voices are fused in Naphta of the Magic Mountain, a figure that was partly modelled after Lukács). The failure to appreciate the unique linguistic ambiance of Adrian's testament can only be described as a critical short-circuit due to ideological bias. While Lukács is generally not insensitive to aesthetic criteria, in this case the crucial misinterpretation is a logical result of his intent to prove that the socialist perspective is embodied, however faintly, in Doktor Faustus. (pp. 204-05)

Lukács disregards the artistic context of Doktor Faustus by sharpening the novelistic themes into ideological concepts. In the final analysis this amounts to nothing less than a negation of the critical principle which Lukács places at the head of his Ästhetik—a principle which he finds valid for the young Thomas Mann. Lukács perceives the incongruity of political expression and artistic sensibility in the early years of Mann's career (where art appears more 'progressive' than the voice of the citizen), while he denies that a similar but inverted cleavage exists also in Mann's final years. Lukács believes that Doktor Faustus expresses a political and historical view that coincides with certain public utterances of the old Mann.

Yet, I would like to argue, the motto of Lukács' Ästhetik holds better than Lukács himself would care to admit: the shifts in Mann's political convictions and affiliations stand in contrast to the consistent political ambiguity of his fiction. As Thomas Mann clearly recognized, the conservative stance became a political impossibility in post-World War I Germany; but, as Leverkühn's music and Doktor Faustus itself testify, it persisted as an aesthetic possibility within his novels to the end of his life.

Whatever one's feelings about the moral and political ambivalence of Mann's fiction, whatever troubled conscience à la Tonio Kröger he himself might have had about the ethical neutrality of his art (and the sheer volume of his speeches and essays is a proof of his uneasiness), he was more at home and infinitely more effective in the aesthetic confrontation of ideas than in their unequivocal affirmation. While one admires the courage and sincerity of Mann's political stand, one cannot but sense in it a certain sanctimonious stiffness which he himself so frequently parodied in his fiction. The split between the aesthetic and the ethical stance was surely as irksome and burdensome to Thomas Mann as a citizen, as it was fruitful for his artistic creations. To put it in different terms, the alleged socialist perspective might have been a political hope for a world where the public and the private, the artistic and the moral dimensions were no longer separated; but the problematic notion of a 'breakthrough' in Doktor Faustus shows that within the context of his fiction Mann well realized the dangers of such a reintegration. To return the artist into the fold of the community was, after all, an aim common to Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. Hence one may argue that the 'abstractness' of Mann's perspective on socialism was by no means due to lack of experience and knowledge, but to a reluctance to give direct artistic embodiment to political commitments. (pp. 205-06)

Though Mann's recipe to cure the ills of Germany included the reading of Marx, there is little evidence that he himself did so, and, if, the impact was negligible: both in the fictional and non-fictional writings of Mann history remains primarily the history of pure- and not of class-consciousness. The 'real basis' of life, inasmuch as it lies beyond individual minds, is the Zeitgeist and tradition—not the modes of production. From the Buddenbrooks—whose destiny is at least as much a function of their self-consciousness as it is dependent on social and economic factors—down to Felix Krull, whose mind is in total control of his body, Thomas Mann's characters are shaped by genetic, constitutional, and mental forces rather than by the socio-economic environment. At times—as in the case of the 'flatland' home of Hanno Buddenbrook and Hans Castorp—the world contributes nothing to their 'Bildung', at times—as with Felix Krull and Joseph—merely what they internally anticipated, and sometimes—as with Castorp on the Magic Mountain and Leverkühn—a worn-out intellectual and artistic tradition. In the portrayal of his characters Thomas Mann remains clearly in the idealist-romantic tradition of German letters, with hardly a trace of dialectical materialism or any other philosophy that sees man primarily as a product of his socio-economic environment. This remains true even if one recognizes that Mann replaced the metaphysics of the romantics with a vaguely defined humanism, and repeatedly repudiated the idealist-romantic heritage under the pressure of political developments during his lifetime.

This is the point where, in spite of Lukács' failure to fully appreciate Mann's art, the critic and the artist meet: in their ill-concealed admiration for the idealist-romantic tradition. Though it was Lukács' lifelong ambition to replace Hegelian aesthetics with a philosophy in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, time and again he was justly attacked from the radical left for attributing to individual consciousness and the 'superstructure' a much too important role in history. Lukács would no doubt protest, but there are reasons to agree with Georg Lichtheim that 'the centrality of art in the work of Georg Lukács testifies to a commitment which places him within the tradition of German idealism'.

Indeed, the tension between aesthetic sensibility and political action was all too evident not only in Lukács' preoccupation with Mann (always a suspect infatuation in the eyes of doctrinaire Marxists), but, alas, even more dramatically, in Lukács' rather unglorious efforts to accommodate himself to the political systems that harboured him. In the end, Lukács, no less than Mann, will prove to be inadequate to those radical minds on the left who demand that the notion of aesthetic integrity be surrendered, that aesthetic contemplation yield to political action, that the individualism of the 'small world' disappear in the 'revolt of the masses'. (pp. 207-08)

John Neubauer, "The Artist as Citizen: On Georg Lukács' View of Thomas Mann," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, April, 1973, pp. 202-08.


A. G. Lehmann


Irving Howe