Georg Lukács

Start Free Trial

Roy Pascal

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 the intensive totality, the totality of the essential determinants ("Bestimmungen") of the object', and therefore is not limited to the external appearance of reality; unlike science, however, it does not seek abstract, de-personalized laws, but reproduces the sensuous individuality of objects (events, etc.). Its peculiar characteristic is that it reproduces in an enhanced form the uniqueness, the particularity, of existence. Like science, it uncovers at the same time a generality within this uniqueness, but its form of generalization is 'the sensuous ("sinnfällige") generalization of the whole man', in that what is represented appears as typical—typical of a mode of being, of feeling, etc., typical of a group, class, etc. This typicality is achieved not through intellectual abstraction, but through the form, the order, the style of the work of art.

The work of art is 'total' through another characteristic…. It is an imitation, an artefact; it is a totality in that it is complete in itself; it is self-enclosed. It can be experienced only by the contemplative mind, temporarily withdrawn from direct engagement in the world…. [Its] object is truth, an insight and understanding that enables the enjoyer 'to change and deepen' his personal participation when he returns from the world of aesthetic contemplation to the practical world.

But totality appears in art in yet another form: as a quality of the 'subject', by which term Lukács means both the creative artist and the recipient, the enjoyer of art. Art brings 'an intensification of subjectivity', and he quotes with approval Klopstock's statement that 'it sets the whole soul in motion'…. It is 'a basic need of man' for man to feel himself a whole, a more and more urgent need as the division of labour separates his faculties and separates men from one another. Religion and ethics both seek to restore the wholeness of the individual, but the 're-unification of the personality', the 'acknowledgment of the totality, the continuity of the individuality of man' is truly fulfilled only in art. Just as man becomes himself only by engagement in the outside world, so too he becomes a whole only through the creation of the objective totality of art; the two totalities are simultaneous and condition one another. (pp. 148-50)

(This entire section contains 1555 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

But totality appears in art in yet another form: as a quality of the 'subject', by which term Lukács means both the creative artist and the recipient, the enjoyer of art. Art brings 'an intensification of subjectivity', and he quotes with approval Klopstock's statement that 'it sets the whole soul in motion'…. It is 'a basic need of man' for man to feel himself a whole, a more and more urgent need as the division of labour separates his faculties and separates men from one another. Religion and ethics both seek to restore the wholeness of the individual, but the 're-unification of the personality', the 'acknowledgment of the totality, the continuity of the individuality of man' is truly fulfilled only in art. Just as man becomes himself only by engagement in the outside world, so too he becomes a whole only through the creation of the objective totality of art; the two totalities are simultaneous and condition one another. (pp. 148-50)

Art is for [Lukács] a criticism of the real world through the contrast it establishes between the totality, the wholeness of experience, achieved through the experience of the artefact of the imagination, and 'the narrow and particular sphere of the merely daily'. Repeatedly, in his practical criticism, he asserts that the standard of criticism immanent in the great writers is their vision of wholeness—Balzac for instance is 'inspired with the ideal of the whole man'. But I believe it is true to say that while Lukács' practical criticism expounds systematically the one meaning of totality—the aesthetic reflection of external reality—it only fitfully and gropingly grasps the implications of the second.

In some respects, the distinction Lukács draws between science and art is also that between ideology and art, and some of his most striking criticism demonstrates how, in great writers like Balzac or Tolstoy, their imagination corrects the errors of their ideology. At times, indeed, Lukács suggests that the artistic consciousness is an alternative and corrective to the 'scientific' conclusions even of Marxism, but this elevation of imagination over reason provoked collisions with the Party and with himself. He therefore tends to place dialectical materialism, Marxism, in a unique position, not subject to his general comments on science; or, to put it practically, he accepts the claim of the Party to tell writers what sort of things they should write. (pp. 150-51)

[This is] a summary indication of what I believe to be the main advantages and disadvantages of the concept of totality and what is implied by it.

1 Underlying the term is a complete aesthetic, itself embedded in a general philosophy, an 'anthropology' in Feuerbach's sense. The nature and function of art in relation to the other main forms of human activity are defined. The great advantage of a comprehensive system of this kind is that it makes judgments possible; without it one is at the mercy of prevailing interests and fashions or private taste, and cannot securely distinguish between art and non-art, great and small art. The disadvantage is, of course, that the validity of judgments depends to some extent on the validity of the general system.

2 I say 'to some extent' because Lukács' aesthetic is not simply deduced from the general tenets of Marxism, but is informed by an alert response to the great works of literature. It was indeed Lukács' keen response to literature that led him in several respects to challenge orthodox Marxism and to correct ideological deductions by empirical experience. In some major instances, however, he is not able to incorporate this direct aesthetic experience into his system—notably lyric poetry, and works like Goethe's Iphigenie. The constant reference to the great works of the past also promotes in him a tendency to conservatism, traditionalism, a blindness to new forms and styles; it led him to underestimate the significance of minor works and experimentation, and hence to be a chilling influence on young and experimental writers, whether socialist or bourgeois.

3 If one accepts the general principles of Lukács' historical materialism and of his aesthetic, and accepting too the general intention of his concept of 'totality', there is I believe a central flaw in his use of the term…. [There is] the utopian element in this term as it is used to denote a glory achieved in the historic past (in Greece or the Renaissance for instance). The utopian element is still more marked in respect to the future, when Lukács believes that with the disappearance of the 'social division of labour' the all-sided man will re-emerge. It is a deep characteristic of Lukács' work as a Marxist that this dogma hinders any concrete analysis of the existing or future socialist society, and in particular any consideration of the position of the individual in the gigantic organizations within this society. This utopian dogmatism rests on an almost exclusively historical-social interpretation of the term totality, and this is also the great weakness of his use of it as an aesthetic category. What is missing is adequate attention to the ontological function of art, a thorough inquiry into the meaning of art in reference to the self-purpose, self-fulfilment of the individual. (pp. 168-69)

It is the lack of understanding for this self-purpose of the individual that underlies the crudely political or propagandist character of some of Lukács' interpretations of modern bourgeois and socialist-realist writers, and that makes his conception of totality too limited. It is also, I believe, at the root of his failure to provide an adequate theory of the artist himself, for while he does justice to the mysterious workings of the imagination as a mirror of the external world, and often subtly demonstrates the links between the artist and society, he disregards the artist as a person trying to make a meaning out of personal existence. This concern must promote 'inwardness', and it is true that such inwardness has often led poets to antisocial attitudes and to metaphysical, mystical beliefs; we might sympathize with Lukács for combating these as distorting or limiting the achievement of totality. But he had no right to ignore this function of art, or to condemn it as hostile to art. The great question is: might his general theory have been modified and expanded to embrace it? But, of course, if he himself had tried to do so, it would have meant alienation from orthodox Marxism and from the Party. (p. 170)

Roy Pascal, "Georg Lukács: The Concept of Totality," in Georg Lukács: The Man, His Work and His Ideas, edited by G.H.R. Parkinson (© 1970 by The Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, University of Reading), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970, pp. 147-71.

Previous

Peter Demetz

Next

A. G. Lehmann