Narration vs. Description in Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness
Pizer, John, Intertexts
Georg Lukacs's essay collection Probleme des Realismus (Problems of Realism, 1955) includes a provocative piece entitled "Erzahlen oder Beschreiben?" ("Narrate or Describe?" 1936). Though Lukacs's question implies that the writer of prose fiction may choose between these two categories as dominant structural modes, he makes it clear from the outset of the essay that good (realistic) writing is governed by narration, while bad (naturalistic) writing is marked by description. Although Lukacs recognizes that even realists must describe and naturalists must narrate, he defines "narration" in this essay as a kinetic stylistic approach to imaginative prose which weaves a plot's discrete elements into a dynamic totality and allows the reader to experience ("mitieben") the action. By contrast, "description" focuses on minute detail at the expense of temporal movement, creating static texts marked by dissolution, fragmentation, and ennui, which turn both narrator and reader into mere observers ("Zuschauer"). 'While, f or example, Zola's Nana and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina both depict horse races, the race in Nana, despite its vivid, virtuosic description of horses, riders, track, and audience, is not convincingly bound up with the novel as a whole, and thus turns these elements into lifeless objects, things. By focusing on the human conflicts central to Anna Karenina, the novel's race scene is imbued by dynamic tension and successfully integrated into the work as a whole. While Zola presents us with a mere dead image, Tolstoy's race is movement, action, a genuine living moment, and experienced as such by the reader. (1)
Lukacs's hostility to Zola and to other naturalists--for whom he nevertheless felt political sympathy--and his positive aesthetic reception of realists such as Tolstoy and Balzac--who aroused his political antipathy--are well established. (2) The outdated, indeed antediluvian character of Lukacs's attempt to portray narration and description as antithetical categories and to establish the former as aesthetically superior to the latter has been demonstrated by Laurent Stern. Less recognized in the analysis of Lukacs's aesthetics is the remarkable consistency with which he used the fundamental features of the narration/description dichotomy in his literary criticism. To be sure, the terms used in expressing these antinomies vary; other manifestations include stasis vs. progress, atomization vs. inclusiveness, contemplation vs. action, even life vs. living. Nevertheless, only rarely does one come across the recognition that these essentially parallel sets of binary oppositions are Lukacs's primary vehicle for di stinguishing between what he felt was good and bad literature, which is to say between realism and everything else. Fredric Jameson is one of the few Lukacs scholars who have recognized the centrality of the opposition between narration and description in Lukacs's discussion of prose fiction. He notes that "the principal characteristic of literary realism is seen [by Lukacs] to be its antisymbolic quality; realism itself comes to be distinguished by its movement, its storytelling and dramatization of its content; comes, following the title of one of Lukacs' finest essays, to be characterized by narration rather than description" (196).
Jameson's use of the contrast between narration and description to implicitly subsume all the other antipodes through which Lukacs territorializes realism as the exclusive domain for creating estimable prose literature is appropriate because these categories alone define such praxis in aesthetic terms. Lukacs's preference for conservative realists (Balzac, Tolstoy) over leftist naturalists (Zola, Hauptmann) is obviously aesthetic rather than political in nature, though his preference is grounded in a belief that realist authors--often in spite of their own intentions--are alone capable of microcosmically mirroring an epoch's genuine sociopolitical landscape. What prior writing on Lukacs has failed to establish, however, and what this paper will attempt to demonstrate, is that Lukacs's most consistent aesthetic dichotomy is a tacit but seminal structural element, a key dialectical tool, in his most well-known nonaesthetic work, History and Class Consciousness (1923). We will see that the lifeless, static reson ance of the objects frozen into the images of naturalistic description pilloried by Lukacs in "Narrate or Describe?" is delineated in terms quite similar to those used in analyzing effects of capitalist reification in History and Class Consciousness. I will also argue that Lukacs's articulation of the vibrant, organic totality experienced by the reader of great realist novels and associated with narration in the 1936 essay is prefigured by his delineation of the dynamic, evolving coming to consciousness of the proletariat in the sociohistorical essays first published collectively in 1923. In other words, Lukacs's critique of reification in History and Class Consciousness will be shown to anticipate the contrast between narration and description in his later aesthetics.
To be sure, this fundamental antinomy was subtly operative in Lukacs's work even before he wrote his most famous political treatise. Therefore, before looking at the aesthetics of History and Class Consciousness, it will be useful to examine how the various oppositions subtended by the narration/description dichotomy are operative throughout a broad range of critical analyses penned by Lukacs before he composed the essays which constitute his most influential book. In the famous first treatise in Soul and Form (1911), written in the form of a letter to Leo Popper and entitled "On the Nature and Form of the Essay" (1910), Lukacs posits a spiritual distinction between life and living. He is deliberately vague in drawing this distinction, for the immanent character of these domains does not allow them to be experienced as discrete. Roughly speaking, he equates this division with the separation between universal ideas or categories and concrete objects, between names and things. Here Lukacs seems to distinguish, in an embryonic form, between interconnectedness and isolation in the objects of the phenomenal world and how we experience them. More specific is the subsequent distinction: "The same duality also separates means of expression: the opposition here is between image and 'significance.' One principle is an image-creating one, the other a significance-supposing one. For one there exist only things, for the other only the relationships between them, only concepts and values. Poetry in itself knows of nothing beyond things; for it, everything is serious and unique and incomparable" (Soul and Form 4-5). The pure image, expressed in purely descriptive terms and not bound into a cognitive context through a signifying act, is without life; it reflects an object disconnected from dynamic living, human contexts. The young Lukacs sensed that poetry cannot go beyond "things," and he was only consoled by the circumstance that image and signification are inseparable in genuine human experience (Soul and Form 5-6). Indeed, a s Gyorgy Markus has noted, all of Lukacs's early works speak of the human individual as condemned to fatal isolation, set adrift in a chaotic world of externally dead objects. Only the "constancy of experiences and moods" in human life enables that life to constitute a reflexive whole. The dynamic, "authentic" individual is able to transform the tangle of external events (and alienated objects) into destiny and make his/her life into a meaningful totality (196). In History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs's efforts to overcome the reified object world in order to actualize coherent human existence and engagement take on a class-based, socioeconomic dimension. Jameson has correctly summarized the tendency of History and Class Consciousness to see the dilemma of a detached object world as a specifically bourgeois problem. The middle classes regard the objects of the external world from an alienated, motionless perspective; things are thereby wrenched from the flow of time and authentic experience by the static b ourgeois gaze: "The dilemma of the thing-in-itself becomes, then, a kind of optical illusion or false problem, a kind of distorted reflection of this initially immobile situation which is the privileged moment of middle-class knowledge" (185). In other words, the middle class can only describe external objects, for the bourgeoisie is not narratively bound to these objects through use and experience. In early works such as Soul and Form, poetry itself is regarded as seemingly incapable of going beyond things, and only the "authentic" individual can (narratively) bind them into a meaningful whole through activity and the capacity for the deed ("Tat"). (3)
To be sure, even the essays of Soul and Form decry bourgeois resignation and passivity. Particularly in an essay on Theodor Storm, "The Bourgeois Way of Life and Art for Art's Sake" (1909), Lukacs excoriates the putative spiritual enervation and asceticism of this class, which are opposite to what life should be: intoxicated, even orgiastic, movement and change. Lukacs found in Storm one of the last great poetic craftsmen, a member of the old German bourgeoisie and thus not yet a victim of the later middle-class rending of the bonds between life's spiritual and empirical, material dimensions. Writing in a transitional age, before what Lukacs will later describe as the stage of absolute reification of all productive forces, Storm's depiction of solid, confident, yet lonely, isolated, fatalistic burghers living gray, monotonous lives still has the capacity to touch the reader. Only later will Lukacs come to the conclusion that the development of capitalism has led to the triumph of "capitalist prose" over the " inner poetry" of active human life to such a degree that description has largely effaced narration by the mid-nineteenth century ("Erzahlen" 118). Lukacs sees in Storm's prose a reflection of that fatalism of the bourgeoisie which ultimately gives rise to what the Hungarian termed descriptive mannerism and the creation of artificial, aestheticized worlds in imaginative fiction, worlds cut off from real life. However, Lukacs finds that the Northern German writer's images display the cohesive signifying power, totalizing effect, and orientation toward character development Lukacs would come to associate with narration (Soul and Form 55-78, esp. 75).
While Lukacs's delineation of reification in History and Class Consciousness uses Marx's treatment of this concept as a methodological starting point, its prehistory as a seminal term in Lukacs's vocabulary is anchored in the category of Versachlichung. Both Versachlichung and the term used by Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness to denote the rendering of people into static, despiritualized and deindividuated objects, Verdinglichung, can be translated as "reification." However, as Paul Breines has indicated, Versachlichung as employed by Lukacs in his pre-Marxist phase was gleaned from the oeuvre of Ferdinand Tonnies, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, and is most fully elucidated in one of Lukacks's early aesthetic works, a 1914 essay entitled "Zur Soziologie des modernen Dramas" (Toward a Sociology of the Modern Drama). Thus, Breines's translation of Versachlichung as "the transformation of life and culture into things" (480) is particularly apt, for it tacitly distinguishes the early Lukacs's life-philosop hical, indeed romantic bent (4) from the more resolutely socioeconomic analysis guiding the development of Verdinglichung as a seminal category in History and Class Consciousness.
The essay on the sociology of the modern drama actually reflects an even earlier phase in Lukacs's thought than the 1914 publication date would indicate, for it is excerpted from a book on the history of the modern drama, written in Hungarian, which he completed in 1909. Thus, Lukacs's earliest treatment of reification unsurprisingly resonates with the life-philosophical aestheticism evident in the essays of Soul and Form. To be sure, Lukacs's determination of the cause and effect of Versachlichung in the early drama essay is similar to his historical analysis of Verdinglichung in History and Class Consciousness: capitalism is seen to "objectivize" production, to wrest it from the personality of the workers who bring forth goods. Extrapolating from the vocabulary of the Storm essay in Soul and Form, this alienation of producers from the objects they produce through the effects of capital is what makes them mere workers rather than the "craftsmen" organically linked to their labors in feudal days. Indeed, Luka cs regards the evisceration of any organic link to the work performed by laborers under capitalism as designed to eliminate irrationalism and the workers' subjective personality in the production process. He sees a parallel between the objectivization of production and the impersonal, detail-focused methodology of modern sciences. Lukacs's critique of impersonal rationalism and rationalization in modernity is a consistent theme in his early literary studies (see McCormick). In the essay on the sociology of modern drama, Lukacs sees this process and its attendant Versachlichung as leading to the creation of tragedies virtually stripped of their dynamic social element. The lack of a cohesive bond between individuals and social groups is reflected dramatically through the predominance of isolated protagonists, superfluous plots, and an overintellectualization in dialogue which attempts to compensate for these defects. The extreme subjectivity of a hero is replaced by simple point-of-view. What remains of tragic content is the mere contemplation ("Anschauung") of life in the form of innately unresolvable tragic conflicts. The premodern "direction of will" ("Richtung des Wollens") is replaced by a static "fact of will" ("Tatsache des Wollens") in contemporary tragedy ("Soziologie" 665-83). Though Lukacs articulates the economic consequences of reification in both this essay and in History and Class Consciousness, the early focus on its effects on dramatic composition allows its initial aesthetic dimension to emerge. The tragic genre prior to the age of capitalist reification is marked by cohesion, organic totality, and dynamic (directed) volition bought into play by a strong-willed hero. Tragedy in Lukacs's age is characterized by atomization, heroic solitude, will as empirical fact rather than directed energy, a merely contemplative perspective. In other words, tragedy prior to the onset of all-encompassing reification is connected by narration, while it has fragmented into description in the era of omnipresent capit alization.
Certainly, Lukacs himself would have objected to employing the narration/description dichotomy, which he drew upon in "Narrate or Describe?" to analyze modes of prose fiction, to characterize his discussion of the distinction between premodern and modern drama. Indeed, in "The Metaphysics of Tragedy" (1910), one of the essays in Soul and Form, he depicts this genre as inherently static with respect to temporal flow and flux. It is concentrated into a single moment, crystallized into life itself rather than signifying it (such signification in literature would inevitably subtend diachronic development). However, such life is quite contrary to ordinary life; it is life in its synchronic fullness: "Tragic drama has to express the becoming-timeless of time. To fulfil all the conditions of unity is actually to unite the past, the present and the future." Thus, tragic drama "is completely and rigidly static" (Soul and Form 158). In Lukacs's Theory of the Novel (1920), time is seen both to imbue the novel with the m ajesty of epic poetry and to generate its immanent action by constituting the object against which protagonists strive. However, common to Lukacs's critiques of both modern drama and naturalistic prose is the belief that they reflect the collapse of forward-directed will in the middle class, obfuscating human struggle and the dynamic contestation of overarching but historically situated ideas. Regardless of genre, Lukacs's term "description" is linked to aimless, reified depiction in imaginative literature, while "narration" signifies its overcoming through cohesive, human-focused action and movement.
Indeed, in his brief essay "Gedanken zu einer Asthetik des Kinos" (Thoughts Concerning an Aesthetics of the Cinema, 1913), Lukacs expresses the hope that this new medium's quality as pure, soulless movement and externality will help the theater overcome its collapse into a genre-mixing form of trivial entertainment. In the essay on the sociology of modern drama, Lukacs bemoaned the rise of a "tragicomic" genre resulting from the contemplative perspective in modern theater attendant to reification, a circumstance which nullifies tragic experience and reduces the tragedy to the banal, trivial, or grotesque ("Soziologie" 683-84). He hopes the emergence of the cinema will allow the theater to return to its mission of cultivating great tragedy and great comedy as discrete forms. The paradoxical nature of theatrical temporality, its immanent reposed stasis as it depicts a flow of events on stage, allows Lukacs to characterize it as absolute presence in its essential, pure form. He is optimistic that the cinema, wit h its blending of generic attributes, its mission of beguiling mass audiences through silent, pure, ever-changing movement, and its fairy-tale like representation of a homogeneous, harmonious yet ever-varied world will allow tragedy and comedy to reemerge in their formal purity. Lukacs draws a subtle distinction in this essay between what he terms the "movement in itself" ("Bewegung an sich") of movies and the centrally controlled, dynamic yet mediated action on the stage, a mediation which allows the "flow of great moments" to take on the qualities of absolute presence and near coagulation. This immanently directed quality of the theater in Lukacs's definition imbues it with a sense of narrative weave and control, whether or not this was Lukacs's intention. As a theorist for whom action and movement were seminal elements in conceptualizing aesthetic reflection (see Kiralyfalvi 59-60), Lukacs found the pure exterior, superficial locomotion in early cinema highly valuable in mirroring the essence of urban mode rnity (see Gleber 141, 144, 160), but he was at pains to disassociate this motion from what might be called the immanently narrated action of genuine theater.
To a certain extent, The Theory of the Novel articulates in broad historical terms the contrast between narration and description Lukacs would depict as the definitive distinction between sequential movements, realism and naturalism, in "Narrate or Describe?" Of course, it would be a drastic oversimplification to assert that The Theory of the Novel finds epics to be imbued with narrative unity and novels marked by descriptive fragmentation. However, this book draws a clear distinction between the epic world's putative ethical unity, its holistic, organic totality, its self-enclosed value system which prevents its agents from emerging as autonomous and alienated, and the homelessness and isolation of the modern novel's protagonists. In the novel, abstract but patently manifest structure takes the place of the epic's immanent, natural but dynamic cohesion. Dante is described as constituting the historical bridge from the earlier form-engendering world view to the later one: "Dante is the only great example in w hich we see the architectural clearly conquering the organic, and therefore he represents a historico-philosophical transition from the pure epic to the novel" (Theory 68). The notion that form begins to externalize itself, make its presence materially manifest as organic totality recedes, presupposes a petrifaction, where flow stops and individual structures stand out. This is the same sort of virtuosic yet fracturing, totality-destroying concentration on discrete, episode-bound details Lukacs would later associate with naturalistic description. Though Lukacs can still discern a "totality" in Dante, it becomes systematized "into hierarchically ordered, autonomous parts" (Theory 68). Precisely such centrifugal autonomy reaches its greatest extreme, and acquires its most negative valence, in the writings of authors like Zola. According to "Narrate or Describe?," totality recedes completely in their works.
Dante, with his faith in a transcendental order, was for Lukacs the last true epicist. What Lukacs sees as emerging in his stead is, according to J. M. Bernstein, a "reified world from which God has departed." This is "the world of the novel" (95). Reification is not an explicit concept in The Theory of the Novel, but the fragmentation of the world, its people, and its material objects into autonomous, qualitatively disconnected entities, into quantified details--details only connected in the writings of a novelist through the adroit narrative shaping of time and memory into an aesthetic depiction of life in its immediacy and fullness--comes to the fore in this book. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs would employ the term "reification" (Verdinglichung) not only to signify this postfeudal condition, but to connote its socioeconomic causes and suggest the means for its overcoming. In The Theory of the Novel, Flaubert's supposed disinclination to aesthetically overcome what Lukacs would later call Verdi nglichung, Flaubert's putative failure to narratively "counteract the disintegration of outside reality into heterogeneous, brittle and fragmentary parts by some process of unification" in L'Education sentimentale (Theory 124) is contrasted with Balzac's ability in the Comedie humaine to create a temporal flow which imbues characters with an "essential quality." These characters are bound through the element of time in Balzac's sweeping novel cycle into a "life totality," an immanently organic, harmonized "living and dynamic thing" (Theory 125). Though Lukacs praises L'Education sentimentale as the only successful nineteenth century novel of disillusion (Theory 124-25), the distinction he draws between Flaubert and Balzac prefigures the narration/description dichotomy he would draw in "Narrate or Describe?" The same binary oppositions are evident in both instances: flow vs. fragmentation, totality vs. disintegration, harmony vs. heterogeneity.
The 1922 foreword to History and Class Consciousness reveals Lukacs's tendency to employ Hegelian dialectics for his methodological foundation. However, he argues that the architecture of these dialectics, their constitution as a closed system, must first be smashed in order that they may attain a vital, contemporary relevance (Geschichte 167). (5) In simultaneously engaging Hegel to reveal the groundwork of his book's historical-philosophical procedure and refuting Hegel's teleologically predetermined, self-enclosed historiographic complex, Lukacs seeks to reestablish Hegelianism's fundamental link to Marxism while ridding it of a tendency to delineate past and future socioeconomic developments and sites of class-driven contestation as preordained. In other words, he tries to strip Hegelian dialectics of their fundamentally descriptive character, of the static resonance innate to an approach to history when even its future course is treated as predetermined. Instead, he wants to make these dialectics relevan t to narrating a seminal event still in the process of unfolding and whose future course cannot be predicted: the coming to consciousness of the proletariat. In order to do so, Lukacs must come to grips with a general problem of dialectics: the conceptual falseness they acquire in their guise as one-sided, abstract, fixed intellectual shapes or forms ("gedankliche Gestalten"). He draws on Hegel's preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit in order to overcome the falsity of the abstract philosophical concepts employed to describe dialectics. Lukacs acts to temporalize these concepts. If they are false as fixed shapes, they attain truths as moments in the dialectical totality: "If concepts are only the intellectual shapes of historical realities, their one-sided, abstract, and false shape belongs as a moment of the true unity precisely to this true unity itself" (Geschichte 168). As temporal moments rather than as spatial forms, the philosophical concepts used to characterize, to describe dialectics are sublated i nto the dialectics' unity and totality. Lukacs can then use this transcendence of the static spatial character of Hegelian Marxist concepts to refute those who criticize Marx's use of images ("Bilder") in place of conceptual precision, to indeed assert they cut as sorry an image ("Bild") as did Schopenhauer in his critique of Hegel (Geschichte 169). In Lukacs's early literary criticism, the adroit use of time, the evocation of both temporal flux and fullness, are described as seminal to successful prose narration. The forward to History and Class Consciousness reveals that dynamic time, time inscribed by unity and totality, is to be seen as both the methodological core and evocative telos of the book's own subsequent narrative.
What impedes the unified narrative thrust of History and Class Consciousness is the circumstance that it is composed of essays written at various times for various occasions. For the early Lukacs, precisely the non-holistic nature of the essay enables its ironic intermediate position between science and art, and distances it from philosophical closure. Though the essay subtends a yearning for eternal values and verities, its own greatest value lies not in rendering verdicts (which Lukacs associates with system), but as a "process of judging" (Soul and Form 18). Indeed, "the essay can calmly and proudly set its fragmentariness against the petty completeness of scientific exactitude or impressionistic freshness" (Soul and Form 17). Precisely the essay's fragmentary character ironically establishes discursive connections and reveals paths to metaphysical truth. As Peter Uwe Hohendahl has noted, History and Class Consciousness is imbued with a view antithetical to the perspective on the essay evident in "On the N ature and Form of the Essay"; in the later work "the critic speaks in the name of Marxist theory, which asks him to identify with a collective subject, that is, the proletariat. The path from the essayistic position of 1910 to a Communist position a decade later was, for Lukacs, a question of commitment and responsibility" (222). Nevertheless, as Nicholas Vazsonyi asserts, the essay was, consistently, Lukacs's primary formal vehicle; it became early on "his lifelong medium of communication" (18). Despite Lukacs's reversal of attitude, the perspective of Soul and Form can be brought to bear on the form of History and Class Consciousness; because the consciousness of the collective proletarian subject is in a state of becoming, the essay can most adequately express this becoming as process, and illuminate its path through historical time. For the later Lukacs, this was certainly a desideratum of prose narration.
In "Narrate or Describe?" Lukacs draws a clear distinction between authors who give artistic shape to the rise of bourgeois society, reflecting its emergence, its crisis-ridden transitions, and those who merely describe such phenomena as discrete episodes. Authors such as Balzac, Dickens, and Goethe actively experienced this coming-into-being of modern capitalism, and their narratives represent this unfolding in its sometimes abrupt, often catastrophic, but cogent flux. Authors of the subsequent generation, such as Flaubert and Zola, writing in an age when capitalism has attained its completed form, are simply "critical observers" of capitalist society; they are specialists like all those whose work is marked by the capitalist division of labor ("Erzahlen" 111). Lukacs makes a similar distinction in his analysis of dialectical and non-dialectical historiography in History and Class Consciousness. Without dialectical methodology, history cannot be grasped as a unified, coherent process. The difference between history as fragmentary description ("Beschreibung") and history as "unified process" is rooted in point-of-view (Geschichte 184). The essay "What is Orthodox Marxism" (1919), in which the issue of historiography is treated, makes it clear that dialectically informed historiography's point-of-view is fully attuned to history's eruptions and reversals, to the non-uniform character of its individual moments. To be sure, even without the dialectical method, individual personalities can be more or less "exactly described" ("genau beschrieben") (Geschichte 183). However, historical moments become frozen in non-dialectical, descriptive historiography into static objects. Lukacs advocates a methodology which considers such moments in their uninterrupted volatile relation to each other. Without such attunement to dialectical totality, phenomena become fetishized. Lukacs favors authors and historians who narrate their subjects into a conflicted but dynamic whole, who, like the proletariat itself, do not act like a "dis passionate observer ('unbeteiligter Zuschauer') of this process" (Geschichte 194). He disparages "specialist" authors, historians, sociologists (Geschichte 183) and, for that matter, Zola, (6) who, according to Lukacs, describe from a detached, dispassionate perspective and have no feel for synthetically informed temporality.
Lukacs's preference for categories such as "moment" over temporally frozen object ("Gegenstand"), becoming over static, fixed being, "process" over "appearance," is rooted in the utopian dimension of his thought. As Martin Jay has noted, the concomitant overcoming of capitalism and Kantianism, of reified life and the inaccessibility of the thing-in-itself, would imbue life with cohesion, temporal flow, and collective identity: "Being would then be understood as Becoming, things would dissolve into processes, and most important of all, the subjective origin of those processes would become apparent to the identical subject-object of history" (111). It must be noted, however, that Lukacs did not regard becoming ("Werden") as a goal to be achieved in a still distant post-capitalist future. Rather, he treats the category of becoming as itself a conceptual tool to mediate between the "concrete" historical past and "concrete" historical future. In order to realize this possibility, Lukacs suggests that thinking itse lf must be comprehended as a moment of process in its totality, and that one must conceive of the present as becoming, that is to say, as not fixed and static, as it would appear in its superficial reified guise (Geschichte 392). In his later literary criticism, Lukacs attributes such mediational skills to great realist authors such as Walter Scott ("Erzahlen" 131). The ability to narratively mediate between and among fictive representatives of class conflict infuses the realist novel with the synchronic dynamics, but also with the sense of the historically concrete, attributed by Lukacs to dialectical thinking in History and Class Consciousness; past, present, and future are linked for the reader through the novel's investment with the resonance of becoming as process.
Of course, authors who lack point-of-view, who merely stand outside the episodes and phenomena they describe, are incapable of creating works inscribed by synchronic becoming. As we noted, Lukacs describes these writers as "critical observers" ("Erzahlen" 111). In History and Class Consciousness, the term which tends to substitute for "observation" as the negative pole in Lukacs's antinomic scheme is "contemplation" (Kontemplation). As Andrew Arato has indicated, Lukacs's rejection of this category has its roots in the Marxist elucidation of German idealism's inability to concretely transcend Kantian oppositions. Furthermore, as Arato notes: "The Marxian critique of Hegel always pointed out that given the reintroduction of alienation, of the subject object duality into all of history past, present, and future, reconciliation becomes possible only in thought. Lukacs fits this critique into his analysis and draws the conclusion: within the realm of philosophy contemplation could not be transcended after all. Th e only aspect of German classical philosophy that points beyond a contemplative stance vis a vis reification is the dialectical method" (51, Arato's italics). More precisely, Lukacs sees in reification the cause of a contemplative perspective toward the world in place of an active engagement with it. In the face of all-encompassing mechanization, of humanity's subjection to the machine and a concomitant conflation of time and space as time loses its variegated flux and existence becomes atomized, helplessness and detached contemplation become seemingly inevitable responses (Geschichte 264). In this context, it is worth noting that Lukacs doesn't blame writers like Zola and Flaubert for their putative isolation from lived experience, their contemplative, detached stance, their fixation on atomized details. "Narrate or Describe?" makes it clear such writers, members of a generation who composed after bourgeois society had reached its final, closed form ("Erzahlen" 110-11), are as much victims of reification as the proletariat analyzed in History and Class Consciousness. The investment of narration with manifold temporal flux by the realist generation of writers is possible only because time itself could still be experienced by them as qualitative, for capitalism was still in a state of becoming. When this flow is shut off, the appearance of "isolation and atomization" predominates (Geschichte 266), affecting not only the proletariat's engagement (or lack thereof) with life, but the writer's ability to narrate rather than merely describe.
One of the essential elements separating narrative and descriptive prose is organization informed by totality, or, respectively, its absence. In both his literary criticism and in his political writing, Lukacs established an ineluctable link between organization and totality. More precisely, he believed that political issues and imaginative writing lack organization unless the phenomena they investigate are grasped in a methodology marked by perspectival totality. When Zola makes the contemporary theater a theme in his work, he achieves a completeness ("Vollstandigkeit") with respect to material detail. The physical dimensions and elements of the theater receive a description marked by comprehensiveness, but the rich mass of discrete components is not organized into a contextual totality. With Balzac, for whom the theater serves as a mere backdrop to the portrayal of human conflict, such full albeit amorphous detail is nonexistent, but theatrical life emerges in its complex socioeconomic totality; his theater is organized and constituted within the entire web of institutions which generate and sustain it ("Erzahlen" 105-6). In the last essay in History and Class Consciousness, on "Methodology and the Question of Organization" (1922), organization is seen to mediate between theory and practice. Lukacs asserts that all kinds of perspectives seem to exist in harmony theoretically, but that their formal organization will reveal their antinomies. Without organization, every action is marked by discordant, fragmented individual deeds as well. However, proper organizational method must subtend a perspective marked by historical totality. That is to say, organization mediates not only between theory and practice, but between past and present (Geschichte 475-76). Whether one is organizing the Communist Party and coordinating its links to the proletariat, or organizing the elements of a novel into a cohesive form, one must have a firm grasp of economic and social relations in their historically-grounded totality, and consc iously, actively engage this perspective, in Lukacs's view. Istvan Meszaros has shown that Lukacs's totality concept is "dynamically mediated" in both his aesthetics and in History and Class Consciousness. In the latter, working through the problem of "ultimate aim," Lukacs argued that individual moments attain genuine meaning only in conscious relationship to the whole. Thus, mediation must be active (dynamic rather than merely contemplative) and historically aware. Meszaros indicates that Lukacs consequently, in his literary criticism, denigrated such movements as aestheticism and naturalism because of "their inability to produce the picture of a coherent whole" and because of their "missing mediation" (66-67). In literature, this inability and this lack lead to prose marked by mere description. In politics, they lead to anarchy and defeat, or, at the very least, to impediments to the development of the proletariat's historical consciousness.
In History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs identifies those who passively--contemplatively--describe history's course as preordained, and thus view economic and social development under the guise of inevitable "natural" laws, as bourgeois philosophers and scientists and "opportunistic" politicians. Among the latter are Social Democrats, who consider even the contemporary state of affairs from a teleologically fixed "organic" perspective (to which, according to Lukacs, even Rosa Luxemburg fell prey) rather than from a "dialectical-revolutionary" angle marked by what we would call today nonclosure (Geschichte 460). Who, then, is the narrator of genuine, concrete, synthesized history, history as fulfilled time and dynamically realized potential? The answer, of course, is not Georg Lukacs; he can only express this possibility. Instead, the proletariat must be the author of social transformation, if and because it comes to consciousness as both narrator and chief protagonist in the epic of history. Nevertheless, o ne of the constant themes in History and Class Consciousness is the need for the party to actively mediate this process. If history does not develop organically, if its course cannot be charted according to even the dialectical model established by Hegel, then the party cannot sit by in a disengaged manner like Lukacs's naturalists, passively observing and commenting on unfolding events and describing the phenomena accompanying them. Quoting Marx, Lukacs argues that "the educator must himself be educated," that the ever increasing obviousness of the antinomies structuring bourgeois society as capitalism reaches a crisis stage only enables the proletariat to achieve revolutionary change, but does not guarantee this change. The working class, without proper guidance, could just as easily adapt to the hollowest forms of bourgeois culture, to a process of reification undergoing its most extreme point of development ( Geschichte 397).
How would this pedagogical mission function? In aesthetic terms, how could the party play an active role in shaping proletarian consciousness and thereby help to narrate the revolution? Lukacs does not provide a direct answer; he is mainly concerned to demonstrate, in the face of increasing fatalism in leftist circles, that such intervention is necessary. In later years, however, Lukacs came to see in Goethe a model for showing how immanent evolution could be balanced with external mediation in the educational process. In "Narrate or Describe?," Goethe is shown to be the paradigmatic active "creator" of literature vis-a-vis Zola, the passive "observer" ("Erzahlen" 111-12). Goethe and his Age (1947) locates in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship a masterful equilibrium between articulating the discrete elements and unique experiences which narratively come together to create an individual life (a life thus given expression in its material immediacy) and those outside forces which broadly guide its development. Lu kacs emphasizes that the pedagogical vision impelling this guidance is not at all self-understood and utopian, not an organic background principle inherently informing and spontaneously shaping a heroic life. Rather, Goethe's "way of expressing humanist ideals by no means implies the elimination of the conscious element. On the contrary, in this respect Goethe is a consistent continuator of the Enlightenment; he attributes remarkable importance to the conscious guidance of human development, to education" (Goethe 57, Lukacs's italics). Lukacs's attempt, in History and Class Consciousness, to show how active, external party influence was vital in developing proletarian consciousness, his difficulty in creating a consistent, effective concept of mediation between impulsive individual acts and mass spontaneous uprisings on the one hand, and the external steering of these inchoate events toward ultimate aims and ends on the other, is unquestionably linked to his admiration for Goethe, an admiration which became e ver more profound with the passing of years. For in Wilhelm Meister, Lukacs came to see the imaginative synthesis of the individual with the social, the spiritually ideal with its conscious external directedness, precisely the sort of synthesis he hoped would come to fruition in and through the relationship between the proletariat and the party. In Wilhelm Meister, "the antithesis of inwardness and activity" is overcome, and "the poetry of the harmonious human being who daily masters life through action" is given expression (Goethe 58). Great narrators, in Lukacs's view, are precisely those who dynamically mediate antitheses through the portrayal of active individual human conflicts grounded in class-based antagonisms. Though Lukacs felt that the proletariat would have to serve as its own narrator, he seems to have wished the Communist Party could have functioned as a kind of Tower Society, the organization which surreptitiously guided the development of Wilhelm Meister in Goethe's novel.
When Lukacs praises Goethe for his ability to show how "all the problems of humanism--positive as well as negative--arise out of the concrete conditions of life, out of the concrete experiences of particular persons" (Goethe 57), a certain confusion may emerge with respect to his preference for narration over description. For in everyday usage, one tends to associate the "concrete" with the factual, with what Heidegger would term Vorhandensein, being present-to-hand and materially manifest. Thus, there would seem to be a link between the concrete and the nakedly, disconnectedly phenomenal. If this were the case, then there would seem to be an inevitable affiliation in the literary realm between the concrete and "the intensive life of objects," "the poetry of things," and "the poetic truth of these descriptions" Lukacs associated with naturalistic style in "Narrate or Describe?" "Erzahlen" 126). However, as Martin Jay has indicated, the concrete in History and Class Consciousness cannot be seen as a synonym fo r the factual. Indeed, Lukacs ridiculed denigrators of Marx such as Eduard Bernstein for their putatively slavish adherence to the domain of facts. Lukacs was as disparaging of the "passive fetishism of facts" (Jay 104) as he was later of the naturalists' obsession with isolated, albeit historically "real" facts and details. Only the concrete has meaning, because it is a dialectically-mediated concatenation of discrete facts, a synthesis of immanentiy "diverse elements." Thus, "the totality" itself "could be concrete precisely because it included all of the mediations that linked the seemingly isolated facts" (Jay 104-5). Indeed, a "concrete investigation" signifies a "relation to society as a whole." It goes beyond the factually-based but simplistic describing ("Beschreiben") of what people thought in specific class and historical situations, for it heuristically unites both the subjective and objective domains of socially-mediated class consciousness (Geschichte 223, Lukacs's italics). In other words, like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister but with respect to class as a whole rather than to one member of the (bourgeois) class, concrete analysis takes into account and fuses both objective developments and conditions and subjective responses to them. Concrete analysis begins with disparate objective facts and subjective reactions and narrates them into a totality. This emphasis on dialectical mediation underscores the Hegelian provenance of Lukacs's concept of the concrete.
As with philosophical concepts (Geschichte 168), Lukacs attempts to divest facts of their fragmentary, discrete character. He would narrate them into a dynamic, concrete totality by temporalizing them, by grasping them as moments constituting transitional points on the way to totality, and thus not to be analyzed and described in their rigidified, individuated character (Geschichte 354-55). As in good realistic novels, moments must be dialectically linked and mediated by consistently organizing them epically, in their relationship to a whole in the process of becoming. Thus, even Lenin's authoritative categories of revolutionary discipline are treated in History and Class Consciousness as historical moments (Geschichte 499). Also as with the epic, Lukacs believes every individual action attains "sense and reality" ("Sinn und Wirklichkeit") only when grasped in the context of its historical (narrative) totality (Geschichte 476). Without such a dynamic narrative grasp of the parts in their relationship to the w hole, social analysis will become static, taking on the contingent, "purely descriptive" character of bourgeois historiography (Geschichte 336). As with the naturalist novels critiqued in "Narrate or Describe?," such historiography fails to mediate the relationship between individual facts and the "totality of history" (Geschichte 334) because of its exclusive attention to the former. In "Narrate or Describe?," the facts are the novel's details and the historical totality is to be equated with the novel as a heterogeneous but coherent, formally indivisible structure, as the sum of its narrative parts when those parts are cogently organized. With respect to Lukacs's overarching Weltanschauung, the distinction between historiography and novel-writing is rooted in genre, in the contrast between reality and fiction. This distinction does not apply to certain basic principles of technique.
Lukacs continued to contrast authors and poetic movements through the positing of antinomies between descriptive and narrative modes in his works of literary analysis written after History and Class Consciousness, and it is worth briefly examining a couple of them in order to establish the consistency of this vein in Lukacs's criticism. In The Historical Novel (1947), he draws a broad distinction between exemplars of this eponymous genre which focus painstakingly on historical details or seek to depict accurately the external facts of actual historical events, and those novels which reflect the important, dialectically-grounded human struggles of various epochs microcosmically in poetically portraying clashes between fictional but representative members of key social groups. Broadly speaking, the former approach is descriptive and the latter (naturally favored by Lukacs) is narrative. However, Lukacs is very careful to show what he believes can weaken the dynamic motive force of even those works focused on hu man contestation rather than accurate external detail, the battle of ideas rather than the factical battle of armies. For example, he finds that in Victor Hugo's novels "history is transformed into a series of moral lessons for the present" (Historical Novel 77). The term "series" here implies stasis, a lack of genuine historical movement, an absence of the coherent, unifying energy Lukacs associated with successful narration. In criticizing the naturalistic novels of Emile Erckmann-Chatrian, he actually cites the "Narration or Description?" essay in order to underscore the problem of peopling historical novels with "average" protagonists (Historical Novel 212). It is clearly implied that these protagonists are not to be equated with the figures representative of their class and milieu consistently praised by Lukacs in the oeuvre of Walter Scott. Specifically, Lukacs admires in Scott "the faithful portrayal of the popular conditions and popular movements, the crises in popular life" the accurate depiction of which Lukacs regards as "the only real approach to epic greatness" (Historical Novel 77). Lukacs admires the imaginative element in Scott's portraiture and disapproves of an obsession with accuracy in the delineation of historical detail. However, Lukacs's equation of "faithfulness" to reality in the historical novel with "epic greatness" reflects his inability (stemming from his somewhat narrow view of what constitutes narration") to see how this genre can creatively manipulate the time and space of chronological events to suggest more overarching historical truths. He also overlooks how the author of a historical novel can imbue it with a dialectic to explore the relationship between contingency and necessity and to illustrate the complex interaction between synchrony and diachrony in the events of the past. (7)
Despite Lukacs's reluctance to acknowledge the historical novel's potential to creatively rework the temporal flow of chronology in such a manner that profound historical-philosophical verities may be evoked, he believed this genre must reveal the synthetic links between the past and the present. In attacking what he feels is the historical subjectivism of Burckhardt and Nietzsche, he juxtaposes the treatment of history which genuinely captures its propulsive force as "the dialectic of contradictory development" with the jumbled, static, disconnected representations typical in literary and philosophical subjectivism: "History becomes a collection of exotic anecdotes. At the same time and again, inevitably, as real historical relations are less and less understood, wild, sensual, indeed bestial features come to occupy the foreground." Typical of this tend is Zola, whose approach is contrasted with the supposed organicism and objectivity of Balzac and Stendhal (Historical Novel 182). This passage from The Histo rical Novel underscores another dichotomy within the broad antinomies of what I am calling narration and description in Lukacs; the former is objectively compelling enough to establish the relevance of past events for present circumstances, while the latter is subjective and self-absorbed, making the past appear chaotic and disconnected from the contemporary age. As G. H. R. Parkinson has noted, Lukacs's exemplary historical novelist attempts "to understand the present, and his interest in the past is directed to the provision of a genuine prehistory of the present. In so doing, he portrays the totality of a process of social development." Only the "realist" is capable of this achievement (98); his dynamic objectivity establishes a synthetic link to the present, while naturalistic and Nietzschean subjectivity bog down in "exotic anecdotes" and sensual, extravagant description. The distinctions drawn by Lukacs between effective and ineffective historical novelists thus somewhat mirror his contrasts between nar rative and descriptive historiographers in History and Class Consciousness.
Lukacs continued his attacks on Zola and naturalism in Studies in European Realism (1950). In this work, he accuses Zola of substituting "description and analysis" for "epic situations and epic plots," rejects Zola's view of the author's role in the narrative process as a "mere spectator," and repeats the accusation made in The Historical Novel that "average" characters in naturalism take the place of compelling "representatives of important class tendencies" found in the prose of realism (Studies 90-91). As usual, Lukacs finds the opposite, positive pole to Zola and naturalism in the personage of Balzac. The "pointed, explosive action" in Balzac's novels (Studies 57) provides a positive contrast to the "purely external, pseudo-universal descriptions of a superficially conceived social totality" evident in the work of Zola and his fellow naturalists (Studies 123). In the preface to Studies in European Realism, Lukacs enunciates his belief that Marxism examines all phenomena in "their historical connections an d movement" (Studies 1), a circumstance which helps to explain the political aspect of Lukacs's preference for narration over description, for the conservative Balzac over the leftist Zola. In spite of his politics, Balzac's cohesive narrative movement more nearly, if imaginatively, approximates the Marxist vision of real historical development than the static, atomized descriptions of the liberal, socially engaged Zola, according to Lukacs. In "Narrate or Describe?," observation and description are regarded as inadequate substitutes for a missing sense of the dynamic order ("bewegte Ordnung") of life that a great writer, a writer imbued with true "Weltanschauung," must possess ("Erzahlen" 134). Jameson notes Lukacs's belief that "description, as a dominant mode of representation, is the sign that some vital relationship to action and to the possibility of action has broken down" (201). Lukacs felt that this breakdown, and its concomitant evisceration of an integral authorial world view ("Weltanschauung)," ar e both caused by and reflect the dominance of capitalist reification in contemporary society, a process Lukacs most thoroughly and famously delineated in History and Class Consciousness.
Lukacs's obsession with the distinction between narration and description in his literary analysis and the related overarching focus on reification in History and Class Consciousness create a certain dogmatism in his critical thinking. Some time ago, two scholars eloquently articulated central problems of Lukacs's Zola criticism. Ira Neil Shor accurately uses the term "reification" in summarizing Lukacs's critique of naturalism on the basis of its putatively static, photographic freeze-frame representation of the external world (23). Shor notes that Zola's use of a "summary or situational icon" in such novels as Germinal in order micrologically to evince the narrative's sociohistorical ambience is quite effective in conveying a sense of positive revolutionary energy. Such icons as the castration in Germinal of the manipulative company grocer Maigrat by mining women whom he had sexually exploited reflect effective resistance on the part of the proletariat, a circumstance that Lukacs, obsessed with the abundant details employed by Zola in creating such icons, inevitably overlooked (30-33). Brian Nelson even more directly calls Lukacs's equation of stasis and description into question. He argues that Lukacs's extrinsic criticism of Zola, Lukacs's preoccupation with documentary, photographic derail in this critique, are caused by a failure to distinguish Zola's natural science oriented theory of the novel from his actual narrative practice. Nelson echoes Shor in summarizing Lukacs's refutation of naturalism and modernism on the basis of these movements' putative grounding in reified consciousness, and argues forcefully that Zola's novels are not primarily characterized by stasis. He focuses on La Curie rather than Germinal as an example of Zola's ability to create kinetic, cohesive narrative totalities. Nelson convincingly shows that Zola's descriptions in La Curie are fully integrated into its narration (251-55).
More recently, Vazsonyi has argued, as I do, for the presence of a consistent thread in Lukacs's political and aesthetic views, largely on the basis of the latter's Goethe criticism. Vazsonyi notes that Lukacs's refutation of Zola appears incongruous when one considers that Zola's powerful social critique reflects even the young Lukacs's perspective. The consistency of his views is rooted in his lifelong obsession with totality: "The only change in the later [Stalinist] Lukacs was that this totality had necessarily become politicized" (75). One can build on this insight by noting that the pre-Marxist Lukacs's nostalgic predilection for literature which formally reflected the lost harmony he saw in the epic age anticipates his embrace, in History and Class Consciousness, of historiography and political analysis able to break through reified bourgeois consciousness and to constellate the dynamic unity and totality he believed was latent in the proletariat. This tendency is consistent with Lukacs's preference, i n his later aesthetics, for what he perceived as integrated narrative flow as opposed to static, fragmented description in imaginative literature. As Galin Tihanov has noted, "Lukacs considers reification to be the historically generated incapacity of consciousness to see the totality of social life" (69, Tihanov's italics). Tihanov recognizes as well Lukacs's faith in the novel as the ideal imaginative medium for the overcoming of this incapacity (110). The correspondences between Lukacs's aesthetic and political views throughout the broad chronological range of his writing point to a basic analogy between reification and stylistic "description" on the one hand, and totality and stylistic "narration" on the other. The tenacity with which Lukacs clung to this dichotomy led to some unique insights, particularly with regard to historiographic and imaginative prose forms, but also reflects a dogmatism which blinded him to the effectiveness of Zola and others in whom he saw his political allies.
(1.) Given the centrality of this text for my argumentation, I have preferred to provide my own translations rather than use the published translation of Arthur Kahn.
(2.) A succinct analysis of Lukacs's ability to reconcile his cultural conservatism with his political communism is provided by Lee Congdon's essay, esp. 174-75.
(3.) See Markus (198), who finds "the conception of authenticity as activity" is but a latent tendency in the early Lukacs.
(4.) Another useful perspective on Lukacs's early romantic tendency and its impact on his later Marxism is provided by Michael Lowy's essay.
(5.) Rodney Livingstone's translation of Geschichte und KlassenbewuBtsein is highly serviceable. However, I found I could only demonstrate the nuances in this work key to my thesis by providing my own literal, if less graceful, translations.
(6.) In "Narrate or Describe?," Lukacs asserts that Zola's works were strongly influenced by the "prejudices" of bourgeois sociology ("Erzahlen" 114), and claims the "descriptive" method intends to turn literature into sociology ("Erzahlen" 130-31).
(7.) These sorts of creative possibilities have been increasingly articulated by modern analysts of the historical novel. See esp. Harro Muller's article.
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John Pizer is professor of German and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University. His principal teaching and research interests are German literature and thought in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. His books are: The Historical Perspective in German Genre Theory(1985); Toward a Theory of Radical Origin: Essays on Modern German Thought (1995); and Ego/Alter-Ego: Double and/as Other in the Age of German Poetic Realism (1998). His current book project is a history of "world literature" as a discursive concept in Germany and as a pedagogical practice in the United States.…
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Publication information: Article title: Narration vs. Description in Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness. Contributors: Pizer, John - Author. Journal title: Intertexts. Volume: 6. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 145+. © 2007 Texas Tech University Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.