Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

When Georg Lukács was arrested for his participation in the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, a KGB official asked him if he had a weapon. Lukács calmly reached into his pocket and handed over his pen.

It is no small irony that the legacy of Georg Lukács, genealogist of the antimonies of bourgeois thought, has come to rest upon two supposedly divergent concepts: that of totality and that of realism.  Fredric Jameson has ably condensed the biographical narrative which underlies this bifurcation: the strident Hegelianism and workerist militance of the young Lukács, which culminated in the essays collected in History and Class Consciousness, gave way under criticism from the Comintern to an aesthetic focus that represented a retreat from politics and an accommodation with Stalinism.  The key texts of this narrative are essays which are often reduced to slogans: “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method,” the proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history,” or “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art.”  One reads “What is Orthodox Marxism,” then “The Ideology of Modernism,” and meditates on the gulf that separates them.

It is perhaps because The Historical Novel does not fit neatly into this categorization that it has suffered a relative neglect when compared with Lukács’ more well known texts.  This obscurity has unfortunately led to the Marxist tradition’s under-utilization of an exceptionally wide-ranging work.  Indeed, the sheer breath of topics covered in this work, which significantly opens up our picture of Lukács as a Marxist thinker, should mark it as a resource for a whole host of streams of Marxist thought.

For example, the book opens with a discussion of the formation of modern historical consciousness.  For Lukács,  modern historical inquiry began with the struggle against absolutism.  Enlightenment thinkers, particularly in France, endeavored to portray the unreasonableness of absolutist rule, its arbitrary and capricious nature.  Historical inquiry became a weapon in this battle, as ‘the lessons of history provide the principles with whose help a “reasonable” society, a “reasonable” state may be created’ (Lukács 20).  This was the role played by historical works such as Voltaire’s Henriade.

In Germany, the situation was much different.  Living in a land fractured into competing princedoms, the philosophers of the German Enlightenment found need not only for a historical explanation of their current state, but also a “national past greatness” which could “giv[e] strength to hopes of national rebirth” (22).  While Lukács is vague as to whether this past national greatness refers to some real past state or, in the mode of present studies, something imagined, he is clear that the invention of the modern nation was an act of tremendous intellectual labor, and not some inevitable form of social existence.  There is thus an intimate relationship between the emergence of nationalism as a modern structure of feeling and the emergence of historical consciousness.

The French Revolution transformed this process in two ways.  First, the rise of a reactionary historical tradition (de Maistre, Burke) forced progressive Enlightenment thinkers to deepen their historical method.  The reactionary historians countered the critique of absolutism by arguing that history evinced a slow logic of change, a gradual accumulation of shifts in tradition which were beyond the control of any one generation.  The great sin of the French Revolution, for these thinkers, was its dramatic severing of the traditions  holding the nation together.  To respond to this critique, Enlightenment historians were forced to move beyond a story of history as reason versus unreason, and instead comprehend the historical necessity of various forms of seemingly unreasonable society (this is the historical consciousness which reaches its apogee, in idealist form, in the philosophy of Hegel).  Here the French Revolution appears not as some catastrophic break from previous history, but instead as the rational form of a society which had outgrown the constraints of feudal rule.

The second transformation was of a more material nature.  The wars which followed the French Revolution resulted in the creation, for the first time, of mass armies on a European scale.  The involvement of broader layers of the population in the making of history “enormously strengthens the feeling first there there is such a thing as history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual” (23).  Later, Lukács argues that this popular involvement in history was a vital precondition of the historical novel, insofar as it furnished a means of narrating world-historical changes.

The preceding summary only covers the first twenty pages or so of The Historical Novel.  Yet I hope it is clear that Lukács’ discussion of nationalism and historical consciousness, despite its brevity, constitutes a real resource for Marxist discussions of the topic.  Its neglect is obvious in the fact that two excellent (relatively) recent articles on nationalism, both from writers sympathetic to Lukács, ignore his contributions in this area[1].

If The Historical Novel broadens our picture of what Lukács was a philosopher of, it also transforms our received image of his method.  For  example, the Althusserian concept of overdetermination has oven been deployed against Lukács as a critique of his supposed “expressive totality,” in which every level of reality is nothing but the expression a single, primary contradiction.  But compare Lukács discussion of social upheaval (in the context of a discussion of historical drama) with Althusser’s own:

Lukács: “A real popular revolution never breaks out as a result of a single, isolated social contradiction.  The objective-historical period preparatory to revolution is filled with a whole number of tragic contradictions in life itself.  The maturing of the revolution then shows with increasing clarity the objective connection between these isolatedly occurring contradictions and gathers them into several central and decisive issues affecting the activity of the masses.  And, in the same way, certain social contradictions can continue unresolved even after a revolution or, indeed, emerge strengthened and heightened as a result of the revolution” (98).[2]

Althusser: “How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis ‘, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.”

It is only the relative neglect of texts such as The Historical Novel that has allowed homologies such as this between Lukács and Althusser to go unnoticed in most discussions of Marxist theory.

One could go on in describing how The Historical Novel upsets our image of  Lukács (the extended discussion of drama, which complicates the image of the critic concerned only with novels, or the concluding section on the anti-fascist novel, which surely clashes with the narrative of a critic who has retreated from politics), but the main argument of the book also deserves considerable attention.  Lukács’ task is to anatomize the historical novel as a genre, trace its evolution, and explain its decline.

Lukács locates the emergence of the historical novel in the ideological matrix described above.  While authors of the eighteenth century and before had produced works which took place in historical settings, Lukács argues that these texts contained no true historical consciousness, but merely a projection of contemporary attitudes back in time.  The true historical novel emerges with the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels of the Scottish clans portray the disintegration of archaic social forms in the face of capitalist transformation.  Scott went beyond dressing modern characters in kilts, and instead drew his characters in such a fashion that the various details of their personalities were linked with the basic conditions of their existence.

This change in the content of the novel necessitated changes in form as well.  While the historical dramas often focused on ‘world-historical individuals’ (think of Shakespeare’s histories), Scott’s protagonists were often persons rather removed from the centers of historical conflict.  Lukács argues that this choice allowed Scott to investigate all sides of historical change with detail, where choosing a figure closely linked with any faction of the struggle necessitated a reduction in depth of portrayal of the opposing factions.  Scott’s average protagonists, unburdened by historical responsibility, could plausibly interact with different sides, and thus allow the novel to attain a fuller representation of social totality.

This choice of protagonist also allowed world-historical individuals to appear in the novels with proper mediation.  The varied  experiences of the protagonist across the social landscape creates a portrait of social forces so that, by the time major figures such as kings and the like appear, it is clear that their importance arises not from their extraordinary personal characteristics in abstract, but from the way they represent the important social forces of the day.  Lukács combines this critique of a great man theory of literature with a critique of attempts to write “literature from below” which ignore the goings on of the higher levels of society.  In a critique of anarchist mistrust of official politics, he argues that “[t]he appeal to the immediate, material existence of the people, which had been the starting-point of a really enriched picture of the social world, is transformed into its opposite, if it remains in this immediacy” (210).  For Lukács, the best novels narrate neither from above nor below, but with an aspiration towards totality.

Though Scott was the first to articulate the historical novel, he is joined by a host of other novelists who Lukács sees as upholding its classic tradition.  Among these are Alesandro Manzoni, James Fenimore Cooper, Leo Tolstoy, and above all, Honore de Balzac.  These authors all wrote during the ‘heroic’ period of the bourgeoisie, when representatives of that class fought against absolutism and were compelled to defend themselves against reactionary romanticism.

After 1848, however, the situation changed dramatically.  Confronted by the insurgent proletariat in the revolutions of that year, the bourgeoisie began its long retreat from the modes of thought which gave rise to the historical novel.  For Lukács, that retreat would mark the aesthetic of the historical novel with two key tendencies: archaeologization and modernization.  As capitalist reification and alienation became more intense, writers turned to the past not in order to explore it, but as a means of escape from the brutalities and banalities of modern life.  To fulfill this ideological function, history had to become a zone decisively severed from modern life.  Such a conception of the past resulted in a historical portrait which was essentially static, bereft of its own dynamics of change.  Lukács named this tendency archaeologization.

Lifeless portraits of the past do not make for good reading, however, and as such, novelists turned to other means to inject life into their novels.  The subjects of these novels contain the psychology of the present, regardless of whether the mode of life of the past implied anything resembling present subjectivities.  For writers in this mode, “it is really quite immaterial  whether one attributes to Hannibal’s sister the psychology of a French petit bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century or of a Spanish nun of the seventeenth” (188).  Modernization is the dialectical other of archaeologization.

A further means of enlivening the archaeologized past is the explicit portrayal of brutality and pathology.  Lukács argues that this attempt to achieve the aesthetic effects of true historical novels without their methods ends up short-circuiting: instead of producing outrage in the reader over the tortures and executions of the past, their explicit narration only numbs the reader, further reproducing the anesthetized past (one thinks of the ubiquitous torture scenes in New Historicist texts when reading Lukács’ argument here.)

These ideological tendencies are combined with a tendency in modern life for the further development of the division of labor to isolate writers more and more from what Lukács, in good Popular Front fashion, refers to as ‘the popular classes.’  This isolation from the progressive classes of the day further impoverishes the historical imagination, as writers are further separated from the lived experience of contemporary historical forces.

While there is something to this, Lukács’ consistent use of Popular Front terminology is one of the weakest points of the book.  In describing the popular classes, Lukács too frequently blurs the line between different subaltern classes, from peasants to wage workers to artisans.  Indeed, the working class as such is by and large absent from the book.  While the presence of concepts like reification and totality point towards convergences between History and Class Consciousness and the aesthetic works, the absence of the proletariat does form a key difference.

Overall, however, the similarities clearly outweigh the differences.  The Historical Novel displays a striking degree of continuity with Lukács’ early work, especially in light of a narrative which has, to use a favorite phrase from the work, placed a Chinese wall between the two.  These links are even more significant when one considers that Western Marxism has often been characterized by its focus on aesthetic questions and its relative distance from direct political matters.  Given that Lukács is something of a progenitor of this tradition, The Historical Novel, as a text which closely combines his political and aesthetic philosophies, provides a touchstone for rethinking Western Marxism with an eye towards the key political questions of the day which Lukács, for all his faults, always kept at the center of his work.

[1] See Chris Harman “The Return of the National Question,” International Socialism 56, 1992. (http://www.marxists.de/theory/harman/natquest.htm) and Neil Davidson “Reimagined Communities” International Socialism 117, 2007. (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=401&issue=117#117davidson_35)

[2] This last sentence also puts in doubt the picture of Lukacs as a mouthpiece of Stalinism.

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