Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Novelistic Interpretation: The Traveling Theory of Lukács's Theory of the Novel

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Novelistic Interpretation: The Traveling Theory of Lukács's Theory of the Novel

Article excerpt

Introduction1

In the essay "Traveling Theory" (1982), Edward Said suggests that the first time the understanding of a cultural event or phenomenon is filtered through a theoretical formulation, this formulation's strength derives directly from the source of a concrete, historical context. Focusing on Georg Lukács's theory of reification, Said argues that in later formulations of this concept - by Lucien Goldmann and Raymond Williams - the original force, emanating from the social upheavals in early twentieth-century Budapest, had been gradually domesticated, tamed and institutionalized. In a later essay, "Traveling Theory Reconsidered" (1994), Said revises his traveling theory in order to re-emphasize and re-actualize the revolutionary potential in Lukács's concept, but notably in a "decapitated" way. By now, what Said identifies as the element which gradually domesticates and thus "reifies" the original potential of Lukács's concept of reification is not so much an effect of its subsequent and geographically dispersed formulations, as much as something already implicit in the original formulation by Lukács himself; namely, what Said formulates as "the reconciliatory and resolvable aspect of his diagnosis," that is, Lukács's faith in the critical potential of class consciousness ("Traveling Theory Reconsidered" 438).2 In the revised version of Said's traveling theory, it is now precisely the geographical dispersal which allows for a renewed revolutionary potential to emerge.3

In the following, I want to explore the dynamics of both of Said's versions of traveling theory, albeit only indirectly, not in relation to Lukács's concept of reification, but in relation to the development from Lukács's early work Theory of the Novel to his realist theory in the thirties. My argument is that in the early work, Lukács theorizes what one can see as a utopian-interpretive project, which he identifies as the dynamic of the novel form itself; subsequently, this utopian-interpretive project "travels" on toward an extra-literary and theoretical discourse, namely Lukács's dogmatic realist doctrines from the thirties. Lukács's realist theory, in part shaped by his political concerns regarding the critical potential of literature in an increasingly polarized world during the thirties,4 is fundamentally at odds with the original idea of the utopian-interpretive project as formulated in Theory of the Novel. However, what is implied in this "traveling" is not so much that the project has radically changed (the dynamic underlying his realist theory is essentially a repetition of the dynamic theorized in his earlier work, only dressed in a different language), but rather that its authority in the meantime has been transferred to another location: from the work of the novelisüc form itself to a prescriptive set of extra-literary norms - norms to be legislated by the critic. To understand the development of this project as a "traveling theory," in the Saidian sense, is partly to stress the continuity between the early and later Lukácsian texts, and partly to examine and clarify the reasons for this development - many of which echo in different contexts today. Revisiting Lukács from our current "post-theoretical" point of view,5 I argue, can tell us something directly as well as indirectly - about institutional and political pressures, theoretical fetishization, as well as provide some suggestions for an interpretive framework which, after decades of anti-hermeneutic literary criticism, offers an approach that is receptive to the formal dynamic of the novel as a utopian-interpretive project in its own right. Such an interpretive framework also contributes vitally, I think, to a recent trend in literary criticism, namely a renewed interest in literary realism.6 As Christopher Prendergast has observed, "The connecting energies of realism may well be a value to hold on to in the continuing debate, in counterpoint to the fashionable emphases on dispersal and fragmentation" Triangle 132). …

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