Narration vs. Description in Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness

By Pizer, John | Intertexts, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

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 (2) The outdated, indeed antediluvian character of Lukacs's attempt to portray narration and description as antithetical categories and to establish the former as aesthetically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). …

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