The Future Comes by Itself. Progress does not.
Georg Lukacs to his students, Budapest, October 1956.
(Sketch of Georg Lukacs’ intellectual development, written as a late Tribute to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956)
In the Man Without Qualities Robert Musil lets his hero wonder what Thomas Aquinas might think when just after having finished his new order of things in the Summa he stepped out of his cell into Vienna’s bustling traffic. And how would Lukacs feel after neatly arranging things human — art and conduct — along the slow upward trajectory toward the terminus of all desire, if he found himself suddenly exposed to an Oldenberg happening, the electronic circus, the din of popular culture, rock concerts, concrete poetry, or non-fiction novels? Would he only see large-scale destruction? the chaotic break-up of his beloved forms? the great flood of trivia posturing as art which drowns genuine aspiration? mass society’s necrophagous orgy? Or would he perhaps intuit life’s reassertion over the strangle-hold of conventions? The possible prelude to a new, more flexible and more adequate arrangement between eros and the products which issue from this energy: The making of a less tortuous, more organic and joyous civilization?
Philosophy for him is the form which results from the powerful passion driving man onward in search of a universal home. Nostalgia, said Novalis, Heimweh. And if the home cannot be found in the world and shared with all others, then the philosopher-poet has to create it, like Plato. One trouble with such an imaginative-intellectual structure, no matter how splendid , is that it makes for a thus far unresolved conflict: That which ought to be tends to preempt life. Yet is not this very conflict present whenever a form is created and proclaimed and accepted as paradigm?
Heimweh, unlike nostalgia, is a yearning and pain the future may yet alleviate. Meanwhile, restrained by the experience of time wasting away called by Hegel spurious infinity’, the mind struggles for a way out. An available way. In love with the nineteenth century German version of Hellenism, Schleiermacher’s Plato, Burckhardt’s Renaissance, Goethe and Montaigne, cognizant of the Pre-Raphaelites and the earlier Romantics, in touch with the best minds of his day, Lukacs, in his early twenties, begins to chart a way for himself. He starts an experimental theater to perform the new plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hauptmann; is received at the Weber household as Wunderkind’ and starts to write essayistic articles on cultural events for the Budapest avant-garde magazine “The West.” Literature rather than philosophy seems to be his calling. Letters about letters. New forms about forms.
In the subtly refined, deceptively simple lyrical prose of his first real book’, The Soul and the Forms (1911), he asks: Can the essay , the purely intellectual poem tracing the structure of essences behind the palpable shapes of appearance, be a form unto itself? Occasioned by external events to which intellectual sensibility responds, can it be substantial in itself or is it too elusive-ephemeral? Artistic in origin and scientific in goal, can literary criticism arrive at a method? Something reliable, based on sound principles? And why form at all? Why order over anarchy? Because without his soul man is not man; and the soul is but the power which must realize itself in one’s lifetime to create forms from and for life. What else does it mean when Aristotle says that the soul is man’s formal cause but that we must give form to ourselves, individually and collectively? And form is achieved when the flux is arrested, and experience is distilled into its lasting significance.
Man’s form, whether as individual or as species, is the tragic defiance of which he is author and victim. Lucifer, Prometheus, Faust, the main heroes. Lyrical poetry, once it passed beyond the stage of collective incantation, is the form of concentrated subjectivity: the form for feeling and the intuitions about the mind’s origins together with the power to translate the old codes of arch-types into new canons of experience. Only the epic — the Homeric epic that is, or the one still to come — embraces all of life as it is and it cannot be written when life falls short of its own form: the great rhythm of striving and yielding in which individual and community are conjoined by meaningful distances and endowed with total being. But the essay is far from the plains of Troy! Here the mind is reduced to intellect which takes the empirical-sensuous only as pretext. The priority and self-sufficiency of an intellectual point of view has to be daringly asserted. The intellectual’s fate, precariously balanced on the intensity of personal vision, is seen as coming to pass in the encounter with the forms themselves: latter day Platonists, mystics of the mind aloof from fumbling humanity.
Thus runs one line of Lukacs’ early inquiry, semi-dogmatic assertions and self-justification. But he is too practical, too attuned to the times replete with discontent, as well as too sensitive not to apprehend how inadequate the relation is between thought and life and how knowledge fails to inform action. Thus he cannot remain in the esoteric refuge of the platonizing world he made.- And how could he have stayed after he had so convincingly shown in his essay on Kierkegaard that the mind’s desperate gesture alone cannot solve the existential dilemma: that the subjective connection to a presumed transcendent presence — in the absence of shared, hence objectively available, contents of faith — is but a delusion?
And even more so: how could he have stayed after he nearly committed intellectual suicide in his essays on Stefan George and on his friend the neo-classicist tragedian Paul Ernst? Here his platonic predilection is so strong that it led him to repudiate life in favor of the normative power of forms: aesthetic ones in George, the norms of an abstract ethics of greatness in Ernst. In his letter to Leo Popper — incidentally written in the same year (1911) he completed the Metaphysics of Tragedy — he says: “The soul has two types of reality: living is one and Life is the other. Both are equally real but cannot be equally real at the same time.” Here the problem is simply stated as an incompatibility in time. But in the Metaphysics of Tragedy Lukacs opts for a Life beyond life based on a proto-Nietzschean ethics only the greatest of the great can incarnate. For him the most difficult question of Platonism is raised in the Parmenides: “is there also a form for mud?” With Ernst’s new tragedy, however, the question seems to turn to a less innocent one: when do forms cease to be redemptive — or simply evocative, as the later Lukacs maintains — and turn into the instruments, even systems of brutalization in the guise of aesthetic and ethical perfection? But Lukacs is too enthralled by the high canons of Western culture ever to deal with this question.
Moving beyond the youthful excess of neo-romantic subjectivity, forms become for him in a Hegelian but psychologizing fashion the symptoms by or in which a civilization discloses its time-bound collective state of mind. Europe is seen as ailing since the late Renaissance and the increasing severity of the ailment can be discerned in the development of the form of the novel. This may sound a bit abstract, yet it is part of the thesis from which Lukacs writes — surrounded by World War I like Boccaccio by the Plague — his Theory of the Novel (1916). The title, purposely taken from the Schlegels’ conversation in the Atheneum, conceals more than it tells: Lukacs presents us here with a philosophic interpretation of the West’s three main cultural stages to which the three literary forms of epic, epopee, and novel are said to correspond. Indeed, the book contains a splendid synthesis across three thousand years, resuscitating memories about the lost locus of all human fulfillment and leading to the threshold of a new promised land. The epic is for him the proof that human life admits of immanence: that action can be simple and complete, knowledge naive as well as efficacious, life and being identical, and that desire can come to fruition. In short, that man and his idea can coincide in time and place. The bond between the hero and his people is still mutual rather than problematic (exploitative), as it becomes in Shakespearean and modern times. Man’s metaphysical intuition is also unimpaired: from Arjuna to Aeneas the hero knows his all-importance as well as his insignificance, balancing faith in himself with faith in some guiding and impelling power. The ultimate assertion of his will is the point of intersection with the complete surrender to what is termed providence or fate. Necessity and justice are felt as coinciding in the long run: tragic defiance has not yet replaced acceptance.
The epopee, i.e. Dante’s Divine Comedy, no longer arises spontaneously, or organically’, from collective experience and consciousness but is a masterly structure of individual genius. Its significance lies in the fact that one man’s agonizing ascent pre-figures and illumines the process by which the species through all its members eventually will emerge. Immanence’, though located above the world, is constant and fully available in the present through the concrete experience of anticipation. Every moment lived is lived on the temporal as well as on the eternal plane. The medieval synthesis of faith — though more complex and demanding in its intellectual, emotional, and social arrangements — is as real’ as was the organic totality of the Iliad.
Modern times, the novel’s times, however, are quite different. The second coming, immanence’, seems to have been postponed indefinitely; the Pascalian sensibility laments God’s absence; and the new heroes who want to prove their souls in this strange inhospitable place must do so against all odds, forced into hyper-subjectivity. The novel, Lukacs tells us, using Fichte’s phrase, is the true form for our age of sin. Of homelessness, despair, and for our fear of non-existence. Two types distill the symptoms: The hero of the narrow soul — clearly descending from the chivalric romances — is pure activity possessed by an abstract ideal. Demonic and grotesque, the rift between his soul and the world drives him from collision to collision, thus making him expose the mutual inadequacy. Lukacs attempts to prove that things get worse as time advances by letting the severe pathology of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas devolve from Don Quijote’s spiritual adventurism. (1605 D. Qu. 1808 M. K.) The hero of the broad soul, e. g. Goncharov’s Oblomov, shuns the contact, not to say the contamination, of the world. Aiming at the ultimate perfection of his inwardness he ironically finds himself faced with dissolution. Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister, goes beyond the sinful and subjective state. His hero can arrive at reconciling self and world in a community, due to exceptionally lucky circumstances. But this is clearly not enough when the rest of man is still in bondage. In Tolstoy there are exceptional moments where a new life can be glimpsed; but the disillusionment to follow is even greater agony than was experienced before. In Dostoevsky, however, Lukacs feels the promise of a new and adequate humanity brought closer. His own hopes, personal and theoretic, reach a peak: (in his new world) “man will no longer be divided between his social surface and his pure, isolated, and therefore abstract inwardness. For the new man the world will be the image of his spirit and his spirit — soul or self — the image of the universal man. In the new age soul and world will be integrated and man will build and live in a true totality incorporating everything of substance. This new world will extend above our divided lives even as we surpass dumb nature.” (Theory of the Novel, p. 157)
How enviable does his position Lukacs took in 1916 look from today’s perspective! Revolutionary political forces were gathering momentum to achieve the transformation art and philosophy can but desire and at best delineate at times of stagnant war and peace! Marx was the way Lenin was about to take and Lukacs — commissar of culture under Bela Kun — gladly followed. For the next ten years his energy was released into political theory and action. But the success of fascist reaction and the ideological shifts in Stalinism with their dreadful repercussions forced him already in the 1920’s into exile and a productive form of inner emigration. Sentenced to death in absentia by the Horthy regime while writing History and Class Consciousness in Vienna (1928), he was narrowly saved from extradition by letters from European intellectuals, among them Thomas Mann, to the Austrian government. Berlin and Moscow were the next stations on the way which was to lead him back to his native Hungary after the war; back to eleven days of political appointment as a member of Imre Nagy’s revolutionary government in October 1956; back to an impending death sentence by communist reaction in June 1957 when all the other members of the revolutionary government were executed. Ultimately his way led forward to the culmination of his thought in his Aesthetics and Social Ontology in the 1960’s. It also led to world fame.
Dialectical Marxism had proven for Lukacs a durable creed, shock-proofing him against the vicissitudes, even the atrocities, of the second quarter of the century. It also provided him with the method he had been looking for all along: a method which, he felt, entitled him to speak, and speak a lot, in the name of science’ and objective truth’ and place the burden of proof, or refutation, on the disbelievers. In addition, Marxism as Weltanschauung and method enabled him to use his considerable gift of empathy without having to succumb to the psychologizing tendencies rampant in Budapest as well as in the West. The ideological confines increased his productivity by giving it definition and direction, forcing, however, Aesopian evasions to deceive the censors. But it did not permit him to reconcile official Leninist epistemology and Pavlovian psychology — two doctrines he rhetorically adopts — with his shrewd adaptation of an Aristotelian-Hegelian ontology. This discrepancy pervades his Marxist writings on realistic literature’ and figures prominently in his last work on aesthetics.
This major work is not an aesthetics in the customary sense. Encyclopedic in scope, it is rather in its content an evolutionary anthropology concentrating on the making and the use of artifacts loosely classed as artistic’. In its intent it constitutes a sturdy and not too tolerant ethics for humanity’s progress-in-process. Like Plato, Lukacs distrusts the free imagination and puts his faith in the kind of anticipatory memory which revives in our minds the knowledge of who we really are. The strength and clarity of this memory and the reliability of a mimetic rendition of the world are for him the measure of the artist. The power with which a work of art can cathartically evoke this memory in the audience, the measure of the work. Art, though special, is neither apart from nor above life. It rather is man’s most enjoyable and efficacious educator on his way to affirming his essential nature and, ever so slowly, reaching his full individual and universal stature. Being the midwife to hamankind’s moral development is seen as art’s true purpose within the total configuration of life and history.
Lukacs’ own development, as objectified in his work, follows the desired line from transcendence to immanence, from fragmentary insights almost cast adrift to the solid monumental totality of his humanistic oeuvre. The exemplary unity of his life and work, founded on the intellectual love of man, led him from the old Platonic stance of sacrificing life to forms to the more compassionate and hopeful view of making our self-made forms into vehicles of compassion and liberation.
— Elfie Raymond, SLC, Easter 1997 (second version).