Georg Lukács The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:

The great assurance with which the classics shape their men, present their relations and unfold their conflicts is based on the fact that a profound understanding of reality has given them really objective, socially objective, standards of measurement.

As a Marxist, Lukacs does not of course believe these standards to be absolute and unchanging (though there are moments when the reader cannot be sure). He has, however, no doubt that in any period of history the scientific (i.e., Marxist) analysis of society (or, by another road, the creative understanding of the great writer) can discover the essential structure of the situation which art, in its special way, mirrors.

Seen in this light literature takes its place among the tools with which man explores, knows and changes the world….

Of course, literature can and must do more (besides moving the reader, the beginning but not the end of its work). The writer must believe in men and life, and love both; even Swift's Yahoos are drawn with such bitterness because they are contrasted with what men might be. He must, and the highest writers do, aim at the harmonious development of the free individual in the free society…. He must be, above all, "a champion of social progress and a participant in the social life of his time." The special problem of the writer under capitalism is precisely that the system raises ever greater barriers between man and this ideal, forcing the writer either into lower (and hence artistically less valuable) forms of creative activity, or into active opposition to it. The special virtue of socialism is that it will bring about the rebirth of humanism on a higher level than any hitherto attainable. (p. 589)

Most Western literary critics have …, for Lukacs, declined from a serious, if necessarily imperfect grappling with the main tasks of criticism to superficial trifling. How have they … got themselves into this position? Lukacs's analysis … closely follows Marx's. The great ideals of the progressive middle class, in its revolutionary phase, cannot be realized under capitalism, and must indeed be frustrated. The gigantic release of material and intellectual forces by socialism alone makes possible the truly humanist man, his individual faculties brought to full flower, his social relationships under conscious, planned, social control. At the same time the mechanics of capitalist production disintegrate and de-humanize man's personality…. In what Lukacs calls the "heroic" period of the middle class, this is mitigated by the intellectual élan—and the intellectual honesty—of a class, confident that the stars in their courses are on its side; by the fact that the fight against feudalism is at that stage of history the fight for truth. But there comes a moment when the bourgeoisie ceases to be revolutionary and becomes conservative, fearing the new forces of labour which it has brought into existence. At this point—in western Europe 1848 marks it—"les capacités de la bourgeoisie s'en vont." In Marx's words, "the weapons forged by the bourgeoisie against feudalism, turn their points against it; the means of education,...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)