The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by Georg Lukács
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have always been attracted to the idea that art was about more than taste. Tabooed by postmodernism, which understands art and its appreciation to be wholly contingent social constructs serving various and sundry vested interests, this intuition that art could be not merely pleasing or instrumental but actually true has the allure of the illicit. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes contemptuously of
those who will converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry. Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.
The aesthetic is often attacked in the name of morality, but “morality,” in its association with moeurs and mores—local, relative, and even provincial customs—is just another way of saying “taste.” Victorian morality proscribed unpunished adultery; ours proscribes unpunished racism; a century from now, it will be something else. Morality’s doubles in today’s critical discourse are compassion or empathy, but these are less reliable even than taste, as they are little better than moods—capricious, evanescent, blown hither and yon by every propagandist with a tearjerking photo or a few resonant phrases. Ethics and politics are higher than morals, which is to say also that principle is superior to compassion. One point of aesthetics, so Wordsworth implies above, is to bring principle (or truth) alive in the heart through passion. If art’s passionate incarnation of truth is made subject to the merely moral, is put to the test of making us feel better about each other or—what is actually being asked for in most moralistic criticism today—feel pity for our inferiors, then its actual service in bringing our human emotion into accord with the truth will be obviated. To make art about morality, no less than making it about taste, is to cleave truth from passion.
Can I really believe this? I would have to believe in some prior security for truth—God is the most popular—to believe that art could incarnate reality and not someone’s or some group’s self-serving notion of what reality is. In other words, I find the above as untenable and intolerable as you do, riddled with metaphysics and implicitly imperial. But I am, as I said, attracted to it. It has for me the forbidden, almost erotic glow exhibited by many forbidden ideas, often for no better reason than because they are forbidden, and sometimes rightly so. This is the basis of my long dalliance with the literary criticism of Georg Lukács, which I was reminded of when I added the early Lukács to my personal canon; but it was not necessarily only the early Lukács that fascinated me. My joke in graduate school was, “Lukács is my Heidegger.” In other words, while all the other theory boys were worrying over their affinity for the Nazi philosopher, I—who found and find Heidegger disagreeable-to-incomprehensible, his vatic abstractions and woodland divagations totally at odds with my urban, novelistic sensibility—was worrying over my affinity for the Stalinist critic.
One of the ironies of the last century is that the defense of art as truth—which will scan to most younger western readers today as a conservative or reactionary position—was most ardently upheld by Marxist critics, none more than Lukács in his later work, after he had abandoned the revolutionary romanticism of his early criticism and philosophy. Without the “right-wing anti-capitalism” (Lukács’s own later term of self-reproach) of The Theory of the Novel and perhaps even History and Class Consciousness, the Western Marxism of Benjamin and Adorno would not have been possible. But Benjamin’s and Adorno’s negative dialectic, their insistence that wholeness can only be intuited through the inspection of ruins, their identification of culture as both the flower of and the justification for oppression, would be abandoned in the name of progressive and humanist optimism by the older Lukács.
If modernist Marxists like Adorno and Benjamin saw art as the photo negative of truth, the classical Marxist Lukács, in his hatred of modernism, believed art could be the photograph itself—or, to vary the metaphor and allude to the classics, “a mirror up to nature.” Communist criticism in the middle of the 20th century inherited the traditional aesthetic canons of western civilization; liberal and fascist aesthetics, intersecting at any number of points from Nietzsche and Wilde to Sontag and de Man, were far more revolutionary in their sundering of art and truth.
The Meaning of Contemporary Realism perfectly illustrates this communist conservatism. It was written in the mid-1950s: the Stalinist era had ended, and Lukács, who had been a communist loyalist since the 1930s, finally felt free to criticize both Stalin and socialist realism as fatally out of touch with the realities of Soviet life. The purpose of the book is twofold, largely because it is addressed to both Western and Eastern audiences.
For the Westerner, Lukács arraigns literary modernism as, at best, an evasion of history or, at worst, an adjunct of fascism or nuclear war (Lukács argues in this book that the peace movement must take precedence over the struggle of the world proletariat if World War III is to be avoided; hence his overture to Western European audiences). Modernist literature, he claims, upholds a pessimistic worldview, promotes a distorted and ahistorical sense of time, champions the morbid and eccentric at the expense of the typical, and makes artistic form—rather than truth or progress—an end in itself. Whether the meaningless subjectivism of Joyce and Faulkner or the nihilistic surrealism of Kafka or Beckett, modernism enervates the historical subject just when he should be readying for historical struggle toward, first, peace, and second, communism. His case to the Eastern audience can be put more shortly: Lukács stresses that socialist realism, with its utopian fantasias of unreal communist achievement, is no less vitiating to true progressives than is modernism; not unlike Kafka, socialist realism also puts a subjective fantasy in place of reality.
Against these dominant but decadent aesthetics of the Western and Eastern blocs, Lukács champions “critical realism”—the attempt to capture the complexity of real social life through the portrayal of socially typical protagonists engaged in dynamic struggles. That the great critical realists were bourgeois or even aristocratic—his literary heroes are Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann—is no obstacle, provided the bourgeois novelist understands that socialism is the future, at least in the sense that it is the logical, even if it will not be the phenomenal, outcome of the class struggle.
Lukács’s 20th-century canon will look absurd to the contemporary reader. To prefer Mann to Kafka is certainly arguable, but to elevate Sinclair Lewis over Joyce is, ultimately, not. Admirers of Joyce and Kafka will boggle at Lukács’s insensitivity to their political insight; admirers of Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann will laugh at his inability to recognize their own perversity.
My question, though, is the following: are we as far from Lukács as we might think we are when turning his pages, laden as they are with a largely bygone and rebarbative jargon? Sontag, in her brisk review of this very book when it was published in the U.S. in the early 1960s, understood the stakes well; to the review she appended this more sweepingly dismissive postscript in Against Interpretation:
What all the culture critics who descend from Hegel and Marx have been unwilling to admit is the notion of art as autonomous (not merely historically interpretable) form. And since the peculiar spirit which animates the modern movements in the arts is based on, precisely, the rediscovery of the power (including the emotional power) of the formal properties of art, these critics are poorly situated to come to sympathetic terms with modern works of art, except through their “content.” Even form is viewed by the historicist critics as a kind of content.
But we have recently been informed by the social justice movement that art as autonomous form is an idea that has been abandoned and discredited. Freedom in the liberal sense—the individual’s freedom from organized social interference—is the political premise of apolitical, i.e., autonomous art.
If you are skeptical of the social justice movement, you might say: to scrutinize aesthetic objects as political, to insist that all art is propaganda and that the personal is the political, is unavoidably to advance a totalitarian position. To politicize everything is to designate everything as subject to centralized control. (This is, among other things, what it means to “descend from Hegel and Marx,” as the left does. Reading Lukács, by the way, I notice how many words are unproblematically circulated in liberal discourse today, such as “humanist” and “progressive” and “oppression,” that have their proximate origin in the lexicon of communist propaganda.)
To this, the political critic will reply that the warrant for this anti-liberal totalization of art is clear enough: liberalism leaves so many unfree, perhaps as the condition of its own possibility, that the freedom it does provide is either a sham or the ethically unjustified enjoyment of an elite class. Lukács defines freedom very differently from the liberal:
‘[F]reedom’ [is] understood here, of course, as conscious acceptance of historical necessity—a necessity which subsumes much that is apparently arbitrary.
It follows logically from this that the purpose of art, for Lukács as for Wordsworth and Aristotle, is not to be free but to provide images of the necessity to which we are subject, so that we may accede to it. On the nature of this necessity, they differed; my point is their shared conception of the purpose of art. This is what it means for art to be about more than taste; it has to be about knowledge or faith or else a certainty of the truth that the facts portend, which makes knowledge and faith indivisible. Call it God or History, it helps you write your plot and tells you who the hero is. That art could have no purpose, no plot, no hero, was once a new idea and is now considered a superseded one. But so far, as I have said above, it has only been superseded—admittedly, at times, intelligently—by appeals to moral judgment, itself as arbitrary as autonomous aesthetic criteria.
Am I saying that contemporary political critics should shut their Rorty and open their Lukács? Only for the sake of their intellectual consistency, and not because I want to disseminate communist ideals. For myself, reading this book was enough to glut my illicit appetite for now. I return to my defense of art’s autonomy, which is either the effect or, more radically, the cause of the individual’s autonomy—even if I too have days where my answer to Lukács’s question, “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” is for the latter. (Was I the only person lured to Marxism by a preference for the classics?) One virtue of individualism, though, is that it always allows you to reply to a forced choice like that not with an answer but with a question of your own: who says I have to choose?
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