George Steiner: An Aesthetic Manifesto[1]


Many charges can and have been pressed against Georg Lukács. But parochialism is not among them. The geography of his spirit is large. He is one of the last of the “central Europeans” with their passionate distinctive knowledge of classical culture and European languages and literature. He has kept faith with the original Marxist commitment to an international vision, and to the legacy of the classic, radical past. Like Marx himself, Lukács is steeped in post-Kantian philosophy, in Hegel and Feuerbach. His sphere of immediate reference extends from the pre-Socratics and Aristotle to Vico, Spinoza and Lessing. It includes the philosophes, the French novel from Lesage to Zola, the historical sensibility of European romanticism – Scott, Manzoni, Pushkin –, Russian fiction of the nineteenth century. Above all, he is intimate with Goethe, with Goethe’s rational lyricism and perception of organic energy.

In Lukács’s career, as in that of Brecht, there are stretches of dogmatic intolerance; there are moments of fear and indignity. The destruction of Weimar and the utter defeat of the German Communist Party – a defeat in which the cynical follies of Stalinism played a large part – drove Lukács into long exile. But it was precisely in Moscow, isolated and under constant suspicion, that he wrote on Shakespeare and Balzac rather than on Fadeyev. It was there that he reasserted the essentially European, humanistic origins and structure of Marxist thought.

In that thought there has long been an acknowledged gap. Though he intended to do so, Marx never wrote a formal aesthetic. The numerous theoretic and practical observations he and Engels made on art and literature have been gathered by Mikhail Lifschitz in a standard compendium. They amount to an engaging miscellany of dialectical argument and personal taste. In the writings of Mehring, Plekhanov and Kautsky there is further material towards a philosophy of art. Through the individual, often heretical, speculations of Caudwell, Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Marxist aesthetics have been related to anthropology, psychology and certain elements in modern linguistics.

But as a whole – and this is true of much of Lukács’s best work – the Marxist critic has operated with the tools of nineteenth-century historicism. Where he has not been mouthing party propaganda or merely dividing art into progressive and decadent in a parody of last judgment, he has applied, with more or less talent and finesse, those criteria of historical condition and cause already implicit in Herder, Sainte-Beuve and Taine. In so far as it locates the artist and his achievement in a material setting of economic and social forces, in so far as it insists on the essentially social and historically determined character of artistic perception and public response (an insistence vital also to the argument of such historians of art as Panofsky and Gombrich), Marxist criticism is part of a larger Historismus.

To this tradition it has brought important refinements: Lukács’s discrimination between realism and naturalism; Benjamin’s insight into the influence of technology and mass reproduction on the individual work of art; the application of the concepts of alienation and dehumanization to twentieth-century literature and painting. But in essence Marxism has contributed to aesthetics a disciplined historical awareness and a general radical optimism – witness Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution – rather than a coherent epistemology. There has been no Marxist Longinus, no Laokoon setting out a complete theory of aesthetic form in the framework of dialectical materialism.

The difficulties are obvious. Concepts of spontaneity, of irrational or subconscious formulation, of despair and “reaction”, which are relevant to art, fit awkwardly into “scientific materialism”. There is the puzzle of anachronism with which Marx wrestled: why is it that some of the most mature, definitive art forms spring from societies whose economic and class structure is archaic or morally inadmissible? How does Sophocles, whose Antigone meant to Marx something of what it had meant to Hegel, accord with slavery? Like Einsteinian physics, moreover, modern literature, art and music have proved intractable to Marxist assumptions of humanistic realism. A vocabulary of feeling developed in relation to Rembrandt and Balzac, a canon in which reciprocities between ordinary sensory perception and artistic realization are explicit, will find it difficult to deal, except by abuse, with the world of Klee or Beckett.

Lukács is aware of this, though he may not grasp the full contradiction between the commitment of Marxism to an historical mode of judgment and the inability of the Marxists to come to terms with the modern. Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen, whose 1,700 closely printed pages are only the first part of an intended summa, seeks to establish a comprehensive philosophy of art, an epistemology of art forms and artistic creation on a rigorous basis of dialectical materialism and Hegelian phenomenology. In effect, this means the foundation of a coherent aesthetic in accord with Marxist historicism, with Pavlovian psychology, and with Marxist-Leninist theories of language and society. It is Lukács’s merit that he has set out to do the whole job. He fully realizes that a Marxist aesthetic must be a cogent, integral part of a total Marxist world-view and analysis of human behaviour. Otherwise Marxist criticism will remain an aggregate of partisan or ideological polemic, local insights and borrowed jargon.

The aim of achieving a systematic Ästhetik has been discernible in nearly all Lukács’s work. There are hints of it as early as 1911 in Die Seele und die Formen. It is treated from a comparative, historical point of view in the papers collected in 1954 as Beiträge zur Geschichte der Ästhetik. Lukács’s Prolegòmeni a un’estetica marxista appeared in Rome in 1957. In fact, the initial design of the present enterprise goes back to Florence and the winter of 1911–12; Lukács’s argument retains distant echoes of visual impressions gathered at that time. He himself would say that the large corpus of his practical criticism, and the incomplete but major study of Hegel, have been logical preliminaries to a formal, systematic statement of values.

It is not easy to give a summary of these two volumes. The underlying programme is analytic: Lukács proposes to discriminate and thus define the specific category of the aesthetic from the totality of human functions, and more particularly from other modes of perception and mental action such as religion and the historical and natural sciences. Starting from the primary Marxist law that being determines consciousness – die Priorität des Seins – and from the materialist axiom that all human understanding mirrors objective reality, Lukács seeks to define the peculiar “objective-subjective” nature of artistic creation and response. Art is a ‘mirroring’ of objective realities, but there is in it a vital, irreducible subjective component. Beneath the epistemological arguments runs the assertion that religion “from Tertullian to Kierkegaard” is fundamentally and necessarily anti-aesthetic. The religious sensibility has recognized in art a mortal enemy. “From Epicurus through Goethe, until Marx and Lenin” art presents a radical, humanistic alternative to the claims of revelation.

Lukács’s method is primarily historical. Arguing along lines established by Marx, Lévy-Bruhl and Gordon Childe, he seeks to demonstrate the historical genesis of the aesthetic function. He agrees with Ernst Fischer (Kunst und Menschheit) that the subject-object relationship is itself the result of long historical processes, that our sense of personal identity and “outside” reality is a gradual resultant of the need to labour, to use tools, to recognize and perfect divisions of skill in our senses and, finally, in the social group. The perception and uses of reality in the particular focus of art are, in turn, the product of a long process of specialization and sophistication of consciousness. It is this process and, more particularly, the severance of aesthetic realization from anthropomorphic religious imaginings on the one hand, and from “objective science” on the other, which Lukács analyses in much of the first volume. Both religion and science make demands of positive assent which art does not.

Five chapters are devoted to a study of the origins and evolution of mimesis. Proceeding from evidence offered by Aristotle’s Poetics, by Frazer, and by Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself, a book by which he has been heavily influenced, Lukács seeks to show how the gradual dissociation of mimetic representations from an immediate utilitarian purpose (magic) led to the development of a specific art condition and art sense. At the same time he emphasizes the extent to which the space-time conventions of even the “purest” art are linked to material needs and possibilities, to the social and economic données of human evolution.

The first volume concludes with an intricate examination of the subject-object relationship in the particular light of catharsis, of the effects and after-effects of the work of art on the “receiver”. Here Lukács is at his finest. He traces the notion of catharsis from Aristotle to Goethe and Lessing, and argues the universal relevance of the “cathartic process” to the very definition of art, of how it shapes our feelings and thoughts. The argument ends in a frankly Arnoldian formula of art as enacted criticism of life. Indeed, there are frequent points of contact between Marx and Matthew Arnold in this closing section, a reminder that they, like Lukács himself, are in many respects Victorian moralists and common heirs to classical humanism.

The second volume sets out to modify and enrich Pavlovian psychology with particular reference to artistic invention and response. Lukács rejects Pavlov’s tendency to identify the artist with a purely sentient organism. He puts forward the hypothesis of a mode of linguistic and plastic communication located be- tween the world of objective data and that of determined mental reflexes. This middle language or “signal of signals” (das Signalsystem), with its subjective, non-utilitarian character, is the particular matrix of art. Between the conditioned reflex and the associated verbal abstraction lies a special zone of spontaneity and recreation. Man’s recognition and exploitation of this aesthetic domain is the result of a lengthy process of division of mental and emotional labour. A notable excursus in this section deals with the breakdown of logic and control in Hölderlin’s late poems. The history of the case suggests that plastic mimesis survives longer than linguistic mimesis when the more complex centres of conditioned reflex are impaired.

After an analysis of the work of art as Fürsichseiendes – an integral activity directed wholly to the world of man and not to that of natural phenomena (a distinction first drawn by Vico and taken over by Marx) – Lukács examines several “border areas” of mimesis. The chapter on music is indebted to Adorno and contains a number of stimulating ideas. Musical mimesis would be an imitation of our interior realities of consciousness by analogy of rhythm, key and change of tonality. The discussion of film reasserts a distinction vital to Lukács’s entire critical theory, that between realism, with its creative ordering and selection of values, and naturalism with its inert, serial accumulation of detail. The argument follows on the brilliant pioneer work of Benjamin. The volume concludes with a set of all but impenetrable post-Kantian considerations on natural beauty and its role in aesthetic canons.

There is a fascinating epilogue on art and the liberation of the human spirit from anthropomorphic religiosity. Here Lukács takes up the problem of Stalinism which has engaged his principal moral energies since 1956. By compelling art to be programmatic and ideologically didactic, Stalin made impossible the cathartic effect – the impulse towards a deepening and clarification of consciousness which will free the mind from irrational religious hopes and bonds. Through the cathartic shock, man comes to discern in life the complex struggle for higher values. He comes to see reality as a process of dynamic crisis, a notion close to Ernst Bloch’s utopian dialectic, Das Prinzip Hoffnung. By simplifying reality and imposing on it a fiat of accomplished truth, Stalinism made man’s place in history static and, literally, without need of hope. In Stalinist art man was not a concrete being endowed with contradictory impulses and possibilities, but a cipher in an equation with a single right solution. In short, the Stalinist régime was an ultimately irrational attempt to arrest the Hegelian, dynamic process of human experience. Nevertheless, and characteristically, the book ends with the observation that the Stalinist period resulted in “the greater strength and security of Socialism”. History is mightier than those who would violate its laws.

Such a summary does inadequate justice to the centrality and range of Lukács’s argument. In a style of vision which recalls that of Auguste Comte, Lukács is attempting to record the liberation of the human psyche from religious fantasies, from the intellectual and moral servitude that come of vain reliance on a “transcendent void”. In that record art and the evolution of creative objectivity play a dominant part. But there are few areas of metaphysics, epistemology, social history and psychology not pertinent to the general brief. The breadth of exact reference is formidable. Lukács draws on Wagner and Tolstoy, on Strindberg and Tertullian. He has taken for his province a major part of classical European and Russian thought. As nearly always in his work, the essential bias is one of subversive, radical conservatism. He solicits the revolutionary future in the name of classic humanistic ideals many of which belong to the leisured civilization and generosities of the bourgeois past. These ideals imply a range of literacy which makes much of western criticism after Taine and Saintsbury look parochial.

But Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen is an uneven work. Long stretches are turgid to the point of being almost unreadable. The book is monstrous in prolixity. It suffers from a compulsive outpouring of words. Attention drowns in a grey deluge of print. The Germanic tradition of philosophic amplitude, of the exhaustive, crowning Werk, has left its mark. Moreover, the deepening solitude of Lukács’s life, its long isolation from the living current of German speech, seems to have provoked an immense monologue. The printed word has become his sole weapon and companionship.

As a Marxist, Lukács is committed to historicism, to the location of consciousness in a setting of concrete temporal fact. Yet hardly anywhere, in this great scaffolding of generalization and axiomatic proposal, is there a contour of specific reality. Where actual historical considerations appear, as in the chapters on magic and primitive mimesis, the evidence is often vague and second-hand. Lukács scarcely ever allows himself reference to a particular site or work of art. He would say that this is not the job in hand, that he is trying to give inclusive, systematic guise to the ideas and sensibility implicit or scattered throughout his performance as a practical critic. But the result is an uneasy compromise between detailed abstraction and generalized proof. Paradoxically, this austere, colourless array of philosophic arguments comes to resemble the fireworks of Malraux’s Les voix du silence. Lukács blurs with generality, Malraux with rapturous singularity. Neither persuades. There is often more of general substance, scrupulously focused, in a short essay by E. H. Gombrich than in this vast torso.

Lukács’s remarks on literature carry the weight of obvious, renewed intimacy. But his vision of art, of architecture, of modern music is indistinct and lifeless, as if it drew, almost wholly, on distant memories and second-hand witness. When, one wonders, has Professor Lukács last seen a movie? Until very recently, the eye and imagination of eastern Europe were rigorously cut off from the tradition of the new. Some of the necessary names appear in Lukács’s index, but most – Klee, Webern, Frank Lloyd Wright – do not. The equipment of emotional awareness and response with which Lukács approaches the visual arts hardly goes beyond 1935. There is in him, as in other rear-guardsmen of European philosophic Marxism, an exile from the present.

Can one embark on a vast compendium of abstract propositions about language, art and consciousness as if Wittgenstein had not existed (he is one of Lukács’s darkest aversions)? As if no challenges had been issued to the authority and verifiability of linguistic description? Is it possible, in 1964, to dismiss Freud in a curt aside – which, absurdly, equates his work with that of Jung – and to ask that one’s own psychologizing be taken seriously? Is the design of a formal Ästhetik not itself an anachronism, a charnel house of metaphysical bones?

These are unpleasant questions to ask of a man who has accomplished a tremendous intellectual labour under political and private circumstances of acute difficulty, and who has done so at an age when most men rest. But as one compares the hollow immensities of the Ästhetik with the bite and vitality of Lukács’s actual criticism, a feeling of waste is inescapable. The very audience for which this leviathan is conceived, the young artists and intellectuals of eastern Europe who are asking whether there is anything left of life and incitement in the Marxist legacy, will close Lukács’s book bewildered. There is hardly anything in it that fits the landscape of their needs. It belongs to the world of Richard Hamann, the embodiment of academic aesthetics in the 1920’s, and the countless, forgotten treatises on le vrai et le beau; not to that of Kafka and Jackson Pollock. Nor, indeed, to that of Brecht.


[1] Times Literary Supplement (London), June 25 1964, 541–542. (s. also in: George Steiner: Language and Silence, Faber and Faber, London 1967, 371–378.