Georg Lukács

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Lucien Goldmann

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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 error engender any valid "forms", if only on the aesthetic or philosophic level? These are the only problems which Lukacs' book raises and even then, not on the level of general theoretical reflection but as an essayist, who, "at the right moment" treats a certain number of great literary and philosophical realizations: Montaigne, Plato, Kierkegaard, Stefan George, Kant, Pascal and Racine.

In this sense it is probably with The Soul and Forms that the philosophic renaissance in Europe which followed the first World War, and which would be later designated as existentialism, began. (pp. 167-68)

Let us emphasize, however, that Lukacs' book is not a sudden creation without antecedents: the author had the merit—or the good fortune—to find himself present at the meeting of the three great currents in German academic thought of his time: the neo-Kantism of Heidelberg, Dilthey's examination of the concepts of significance and understanding, and Husserlian phenomenology; and it is perhaps in part this situation which allowed him to rediscover the tradition of classic idealism, by defining significance as the relation between the soul and the absolute, while, having denounced this relation, the three currents mentioned above had in fact broken with the great philosophic tradition….

As for Lukacs' book, it appears first to be a synthesis of two essential ideas of phenomenology and of the Diltheyan current, that of atemporal essence and that of significance, a synthesis which permits the author to elaborate the concept which he will later modify and make more precise, but which will remain the central element of his thought, i.e., essence as significant structure.

Moreover, the encounter between the phenomenological concept of atemporal essence and neo-Kantianism would result in the elaboration of the concept of tragic vision and in the rediscovery of the authentic meaning of Kantian philosophy, a meaning which the neo-Kantians had totally deformed. (p. 168)

By joining, to the vague and fluid ideas of Dilthey in regard to significance and understanding, the methodological demand for precision which characterized phenomenology, Lukacs made at once a step forward and a step back. A step forward, to the extent that he replaced the vague Diltheyan concept of significance by the idea of rigorous and precise description, such as phenomenology had demanded and the possibility of which...

(This entire section contains 4142 words.)

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it had demonstrated, a description which alone allowed the concept of significant structure to become an operable scientific instrument. A step backward, however, to the extent that, under the influence of this same phenomenology, he resolutely abandoned the historic conception of Dilthey in favor of the Husserlian idea ofatemporal essence.

Lukacs thus arrived at the idea of significant atemporal structures, of "forms" as expressions of different and privileged modalities in the relationship between the human soul and the absolute.

Finally, it is this atemporal conception of significant structures which explains the fact that, contrary to Dilthey and to his masters of the neo-Kantian Heidelberg school who were oriented towards Hegelianism and history, Lukacs resolutely returned to the Kantian position, the authentic significance of which he rediscovered.

At the center of this book is the description of a particular atemporal significant structure, the tragic vision, which Lukacs considers at this time as the only true one and which he opposes to the other inauthentic forms of escape and pseudo-rejection of daily life.

We will see later that this position in The Soul and Forms is not rigorously coherent; let us stress, however, that in rediscovering the tragic significance of Kantianism and in presenting it, not as a historical fact but as a universal human truth, Lukacs touches on a problem which will dominate the philosophical renaissance of the twentieth century.

In fact, he is the first to pose in all its acuteness and force the problem of the relation between the individual, authenticity and death. (p. 169)

Lukacs' rediscovery of the tragic vision represented a total break with the scholars of the academic world. Neither Husserl nor Dilthey nor the neo-Kantians of Heidelberg had even been touched by the eventuality of the oncoming catastrophe. The conflict would erupt in an unforeseen and brutal way for moralists and official philosophers. Some years after its end, a new period would begin in western philosophy, and no one would again take the nineteenth century professors seriously. The values of individualism having been profoundly shaken, thinkers and writers would declare with horror that their predecessors had been totally blind to a fundamental and disquieting problem, death.

In effect, whatever were the individual values on which one claimed to found human existence, they now appear insufficient and outdated by the very fact that they were individual and that their foundation had to disappear with the limit of the individual and his inevitable disappearance. Pascal in the seventeenth century, Kant is the eighteenth, had made of this limit the very center of their philosophic thought. The nineteenth century, especially in its second half, had completely eliminated it from the consciousness.

Lukacs, in The Soul and Forms, once more takes up the problematic of Pascal and Kant in its most radical form. He affirms the absolute nonvalue of the social world for the individual, his inauthenticity and that of all life which participates in it in the least way or has the slightest illusion as to the possibility of a valid intra-mundane existence. Man is mortal and by that alone the only authenticity which could be accessible to him resides in the unequivocable consciousness of his limits, of the nonvalue of the world which these perforce entail, and of the necessity of his radical refusal. The distinction between the life which is conscious of limits, solitude and refusal, and the life which is on the contrary illusion, weakness and acceptance of quotidian reality, corresponds rigorously to the distinction Heidegger would later make between authentic and inauthentic existence. (pp. 170-71)

Lukacs' thought, in this book, is not rigorously coherent, for if on the one hand he defends a tragic Kantian position, opposing the authentic and radical refusal of the world to all inauthentic forms of pseudo-refusal and evasion that he studies, he also defends from another aspect the existence of intermediary values between the true and the false, the authentic and the inauthentic, values which are situated on the level of philosophic and esthetic creation, and which he calls "forms." Along with the Essay on Tragedy, the Essay on the Essay constitutes ore of the pillars of his work.

Lukacs defines the essay (and in this sense he himself has always been a great essayist) as an autonomous "form" situated between literature and philosophy. The first expresses coherent attitudes of the soul on the level of the imaginary creation of individual beings and particular situations; the second expresses the same attitudes on the level of conceptual creation…. [It] is an intermediary autonomous form. A conceptual work like philosophy, it can only raise conceptual problems (for it deals only with problems and never categorical answers) at the "instance" of a concrete and individual reality; and as conceptual problems cannot be posed separately from the complex and inexplicable confusion of daily life, the essayist must do this at the instance of those privileged aspects of this life which are "forms."… The essay is thus necessarily an ironic work having two dimensions. It seems to treat such and such a book, and such and such a person or concrete reality; in fact the book, the person or reality is only an "instance" which permits the author to pose the fundamental problems of human existence on the conceptual level. But, because of this, all these "forms" represent for the essayist privileged, and in part, positive realities.

Now, there is a contradiction between the tragic attitude categorized by all or nothing which only admits to the existence of true or false, or authentic and inauthentic without intermediary, and that of the essayist for whom all the coherent attitudes which he is analyzing (even when he does so only to expose their insufficiency) are privileged realities and thus constitute on the esthetic or philosophic level complementary values in relation to those of truth and error. (pp. 171-72)

Lukacs had only studied the forms of refusal or evasion; that is why he could entitle his book The Soul and Forms…. [In] the Theory of the Novel, he studies the great epic forms which, contrary to those he had chosen before, are realistic, i.e., are based, if not on an acceptance of reality, at least on a positive attitude toward a possible reality, the possibility of which is founded upon the existing world. That is why, in spite of the analogous conception of essence as an atemporal significant structure, this book could not have had the same title. For, if the exterior milieu was not essential for the "forms" studied in the preceding book—romanticism, essay, tragedy, etc.—in epic literature the "forms" are the expression of complex and multiple relationships between the soul and the world which thus become, alongside of the soul and on the same level with it, their essential and indispensable foundation. (pp. 172-73)

The novel is for Lukacs the principal literary form of a world in which man is neither completely at home nor altogether a stranger. For an epic literature to exist (and the novel is an epic form) there must be a fundamental community; if there is to be a novel there must be a radical opposition between man and the world, between the individual and society.

Between the epopee which expresses the sufficiency of the soul and of the world, of the interior and of the exterior, the universe in which the answers are presented before the questions are formulated, where there are dangers, but no threats, shade but no shadows, where the significance is implicit in each aspect of life and asks only to be formulated, not discovered,—and tragedy, which is the literary form of pure essence, of solitude and negation of all life, the novel is the dialectic form of the epic, the form of solitude within the community, of hope without future, of presence and absence. To use one of Lukacs' images, between that literature of consciousness and death which is tragedy, the novel is the literary form of virile maturity. (p. 173)

In the realm of scientific esthetics, and of a positive study of forms, the first non-Marxist works of Lukacs have the merit of having succeeded in describing, by a series of brilliant intuitive insights, a certain number of significant structures corresponding to different literary genres, structures that it has been possible to insert later into a genetic and global analysis of the societies in which they had developed.

Nothing, in effect, seems at first glance further from Marxism or from all sociology than the conception of essences as significant atemporal structures. And yet, it is on the basis of these works that a certain number of analyses have been elaborated which have permitted the construction of the first elements of a positive sociology of literature and of philosophy. (pp. 173-74)

It has been clear for a long time that the novel was the principal literary form corresponding to bourgeois society and that its evolution was closely linked to the history of that society. No one, however, to our knowledge, has better succeeded in exposing the intelligible link which engenders this correspondence….

Let us begin by tracing schematically the Lukacsian analysis of the novel as a significant structure, an analysis which Lukacs himself limits to a portion of romanesque literature, eliminating what he calls decadent forms, escape literature (littérature de divertissement), but in which he tries, wrongly it seems to us, to include one of the most important romanesque forms, i.e., the work of Balzac.

The romanesque form analyzed by Lukacs is at once characterized, as we have already said, by the community and by the radical antagonism between the hero and the world: the community has its basis in the common decadence of both in regard to the authentic values which govern the work to the absolute, to the divinity; the antagonism is based on the different and opposed nature of this decadence.

In regard to authentic values, the world is conventional and radically decadent, devoid of all which might be a homeland, a hearth for the soul; the hero, on the contrary, remains bound to these values even though in an indirect and decadent manner, a manner which Lukacs will call "demoniac" as opposed to an immediate bond, to the positive, the divine. (p. 174)

[The] values which govern the work are nowhere explicitly manifested: neither in the world, nor in the consciousness of the hero. That is why the romanesque structure analyzed by Lukacs is a literary form of absence. And yet these values act effectively within the universe of the work which they govern implicitly.

Their only manifest presence is in the consciousness of the author, where moreover, they are only presented in the peculiar and insufficient manner of conceptual, ethical, "should-be" necessity, and not as realities entirely and effectively lived; without which, the author would probably have written an epic poem and not a novel.

No writer could, in effect, create a valid work by posing problems which he himself had already resolved. That is why, if the novel were only the testimony of past experience, if the values were presented in a non-problematic way in his own consciousness, the author could and should have presented them in the work itself. It is thus the insufficiency, the problematical character of the values, not only in the consciousness of the hero, but also in that of the author, that explains the birth of the romanesque form.

A history of a problematic and demoniac search which cannot end because the end would exceed the rupture between the hero and the world and by that, exceed the romanesque universe, the novel is a biographical form par excellence and at the same time a social chronicle to the extent that this search takes place within a given society.

There is, no doubt, a necessary and organic end in any authentic novel. But this end, of which the death of the hero is only the symbolic expression, results from the latter's awareness of the vain and demoniac character of his earlier hopes, and not from any effectively discovered harmony.

This is a common element of the three fundamental types of novels which Lukacs distinguishes in his work. The novel of abstract idealism, of the demoniac character with too narraw a consciousness for the complexity of the world, (Don Quixote or Le Rouge et le Noir); the psychological novel with the passive hero whose soul is too broad to adapt itself to the world (Education Sentimentale); and the educative novel of conscious renunciation which is neither resignation nor despair (Wilhelm Meister or Der Grüne Heinrich). The romanesque form thus implies what Lukacs calls the irony of the author in regard to his work, an irony which results from the fact that this author is at once aware of the vain and demoniac nature of the search of the hero, the conventional character of the world in which this search takes place, the insufficiency of the final conversion, and the conceptual aspect of the values as they exist in his own consciousness. (pp. 174-75)

The hero of the novel is a problematic being, a fool or a criminal, because he is always looking for absolute values without knowing them and without living them integrally and without being able, as a consequence, to approach them. A search which is always progressing without ever advancing, a movement which Lukacs has defined by the formula: "The road has been covered, the journey begins."

In the analysis of the second type of novel, that of the passive hero with too vast a consciousness in relation to the narrow world in which he lives, Lukacs introduces a problematic which will have a primoridal importance for philosophic thought in the twentieth century: temporality. There also it is not a question of an original discovery, and Lukacs does not present it as such, but refers explicitly to Hegel and to Bergson.

And yet, there is a notable difference between the thought of these two philosophers and Lukacsian analysis, a difference which is all more worthy of note as it is the most important point which separates this eminently Hegelian book from the effective thought of Hegel. While time has a positive and progressive significance for Hegel and Bergson in that it is a means of accomplishment and realization, Lukacs envisions it in the Theory of the Novel only as a process of continuing decadence, as a screen which is interposed btween man and the absolute.

However, like all the constitutive elements of that dialectical structure which is the romanesque structure, temporality also has a nature at once negative and positive. A progressive degradation of the hero, it is at the same time a passage from a first inferior form to a more authentic and clearer form of the consciousness of the problematic and mediated relations of the soul with values and with the absolute, from authentic and illusory hope, which guided the search to the memory, conscious at once of the vanity and the authenticity of this hope, an authenticity which is itself problematic and contradictory because it resides in the nature of the search and not in the possibility of accomplishment.

The novel thus presents itself as a dialectic structure characterized by the fact that nothing in it is unequivocal: neither the problematic hero who is searching, in an inauthentic, decadent way, for absolute values; nor the world which, while being conventional and fixed, retains a character sufficiently positive for the hero's search to be possible in it; nor time which, while being a proess of decomposition and decadence, retains a complex and mediated relation with the authentic values in the double form of illusory hope and conscious memory despoiled of illusion; nor the consciousness of the writer which is—and this is one of the particular characteristics of the romanesque form—a constitutive element of the work, a consciousness itself problematic, normative, a "should-be" in a structure of which the epic character denies the "should-be" and makes of it a non-value. (pp. 175-76)

Lukacsian description of the romanesque structure, a description written with no implicit or explicit reference to Marxism, is in effect rigorously homologous with the description of the free market as it has been elaborated in Das Kapital (notably in the passages on merchandise fetishism) in such a way that the relationship, long recognized, between the history of the novel and the history of the bourgeoisie becomes, if not entirely, at least partially comprehensible.

The romanesque universe is described by Lukacs as a world which could not have a positive hero for the simple reason that all the values which govern it are implicit and that, in regard to these values, all the people in the novel have a character at once negative and positive. To which must be added the existence of a radical opposition between the world, conventional and without significance, whose relation with the values is mediated in the extreme and just sufficient to permit the epic structure, and the problematic hero, whose life consists uniquely of the search, decadent and demoniac, for these authentic values.

The possibility of inserting the Theory of the Novel in a global Marxist analysis is justified by the later evolution of Lukacs himself who, after having joined the Hungarian Communist party in 1917 and having been the peoples' commissar in the Bela Kun government, published in 1923 one of the most important and most discussed of Marxist works: History and Class Consciousness. (p. 177)

[While] History and Class Consciousness defends political positions which have been later exposed as erroneous, this book has a capital importance far beyond these errors for all it has contributed to philosophic thought and especially to the methodology of the human sciences….

On the methodological level, the importance of History and Class Consciousness resides in the decisive progress which Lukacs made by replacing the phenomenological idea of significant atemporal structure which had dominated the preceding historical works, by the Marxist and dialectical concept of significant temporal structure and a dynamic founded on the idea of totality, and by developing from this the two other fundamental Marxist concepts of possible consciousness (Zugerechnetes Bewusstsein) and objective possibility, with which the human sciences acquired at last the status of operative and positive disciplines.

Totality, significant dynamic structures, the necessity of genetic study of these structures, the use of the future as an explicative factor of the present, the maximum of possible consciousness, objective possibility: no doubt none of these concepts in particular, nor their global synthesis represent new discoveries; these are constitutive concepts in the work of Marx, and Lukacs presents them, moreover, as such. (p. 178)

[It] is certain that even on the methodological level, Lukacs' work goes too far in the Hegelian sense by affirming the total identity between subject and object on the level of social life and knowledge of society. No doubt this idealistic and Hegelian formula, much too radical and difficult to defend on the level of positive science, is related to the faulty political judgments of the work….

Lukacs' idealism in History and Class Consciousness no doubt seems erroneous to us, but the error is much less serious than the scientistic and mechanistic position which has sterilized Marxist thought for the past thirty-five years.

On the level of concrete research, the work, like all Lukacs' books, contains a great number of remarkable analyses, the most important of which seems to us to be that of reification. (p. 179)

Finally, on the philosophic level, Lukacs, with History and Class Consciousness, arrives at Marxist positions which he will definitively retain thereafter….

If the consciousness of the limits of solitude and death seem to him the fundamental categories which permit the meaning of the human condition to be grasped at the time that he wrote The Soul and Forms, if absence, contradiction and problematic existence were the categories of The Theory of the Novel, study of revolution in History and Class Consciousness allowed him to formulate a philosophy based on the community, the future, and an objectively-founded hope of authentic values, values which could be realized through revolutionary action on the part of the proletariat and humanity….

For long years, during which he had disappeared from intellectual and philosophic life, the problems which he raised would be at the center of a powerful philosophic renaissance which would plunge its roots into the profound crisis of western bourgeois society and into the anguish that this would excite among the bourgeois thinkers.

It is certainly not accidental that the two most important thinkers of this renaissance, Heidegger and Jaspers, belong to the same generation as Lukacs and come from the same restricted academic milieu, the philosophic school of Southwest Germany.

We do not think that one can understand this philosophic renaissance, anguished and decadent as it was, if one does not take into account the fact that it was permanently formulated during the temporary absence of the one thinker who, forgotten and in the silence of retirement, nevertheless had foreshadowed it, tracing the framework and outlining the scope of discussion, and the problems which it would concern, but who had always affirmed the dignity of man, the value of a clear conscience, of courage and hope. (p. 180)

Lucien Goldmann, "The Early Writings of Georg Lukacs," translated by Joy N. Humes, in Tri-Quarterly (© 1967 by Tri-Quarterly), No. 9, Spring, 1967, pp. 165-81.




Peter Demetz