- Purchase/rental options available:
diacritics 34.2 (2006) 62-84
[Access article in PDF]
The reception of Georg Lukács's theorizing of realist narratives has been complicated and controversial, often relying on an artificial division of Lukács's oeuvre. On the one hand, the widely admired History and Class Consciousness stands as the mouthpiece for anything philosophical or political in Lukács. On the other, one finds a generalized dismissal of Lukács's "reactionary" defenses of realism. But the role of realism in Lukács's oeuvre cannot be trivialized or rejected as "doctrinaire" or "outmoded"—two of the most common charges against Lukácsean literary criticism—without damaging an understanding of his political and philosophical contributions to Western Marxism.
I thus propose a revisiting of Lukács's writings on literature during the 1930s. I consider them to be a development of the philosophical insights of History and Class Consciousness and as a corrective to the aesthetic theory of Theory of the Novel in the form of an axiological understanding of literary change and preservation. One cannot accept the outcome of Lukács's philosophical investigations and dismiss his often authoritarian radical advocacy of realism—for they are mutually inclusive. Lukács's project takes shape through his use of the aesthetic to salvage ideological and epistemological issues raised by his critical adoption of Marxism. What I propose is similar to what has become a trademark of Gramscian studies.1 In the same way that one does not begin an analysis of Gramsci's philosophy without addressing his molding and obsessive study of the Italian language, his twisting and redefinition of words ("hegemony," "intellectual," and so on), one should not, indeed cannot, embark on the exegesis of Lukács's philosophical writing without addressing his use of literary criticism and of nineteenth-century realism to rethink philosophical Marxism and to rename some of his terminology; "naturalism" and "realism" became, from the 1930s onward, codewords for a reworking of his earlier "reification" and "totality." After History and Class Consciousness, the superstructure, culture, and its changing values, not only became the condition of possibility for a Lukácsean/Marxist philosophy but, in a move against determinism, the only, quasi-utopian transformative force able to explain Marxism to itself. After Lukács, it comes as no surprise that Marx's last, never completed, project was a critical study of Balzac's La comédie humaine.
I will focus on two moments of Lukács's "turn to literature": his famously controversial intervention in the Expressionism Debate and his less prominent entrance into the realm of "literary criticism," the essays "Narrate or Describe" and "The Intellectual Physiognomy in Characterization. " I will also read Lukács's failure to theorize contemporary realism in terms of his own insights regarding the historicity of subjective standpoints. Paradoxically, this failure functions as an example and proof of the Lukácsean narrative of literary change.
While the first critical work to acknowledge the philosophical implications of Lukács's defense of realism, Fredric Jameson's 1971 Marxism and Form, remains [End Page 62] widely read, it did not bring about a reconsideration of Lukács's literary criticism. It is Jameson's contention that Lukács's entire oeuvre can be accounted for through an epistemology of narrative. Thus, Lukács's numerous writings emerge as part of a coherent and single-minded project. According to Jameson, "Lukács's work may be seen as a continuous and lifelong meditation on narrative, on its basic structures, its relationship to the reality it expresses, and its epistemological value when compared with other, more abstract and philosophical, modes of understanding" .2 If one agrees with Jameson's statement, one is also forced to acknowledge the sustained coherence of the Lukácsean project together with its enforced complexity. The chronology of such a lifelong project (1885–1971) began with the ambiguities of "fin-de-siècle" aestheticism and ended shortly after May '68. Lukács's recantations, revisions, and contradictions play against the backdrop of historical and institutional pressure. Yet one cannot help...