George Steiner: In Respect of Georg Lukács[1]


Mr. George Lichtheim declares (Encounter, May) that Georg Lukács “has failed altogether as a responsible writer, and ultimately as a man”. There is no need to comment on the arrogant insensitivity of such a judgment, passed from complete safety on an aged man who has lived, and continues to live, in persistent danger. What needs to be shown is that this judgment is impertinent to the facts.

Lukács is one of the great literary critics of the 2oth century. Heir to Lessing and Sainte-Beuve, no less than to Hegel and Marx, he has produced a body of theoretic and practical criticism which can be compared, for tenacity of influence, with that of T. S. Eliot, and for breadth of compass with that of Edmund Wilson. The range of those to whom he has been master or incitement is large: it extends from Thomas Mann to Ernst Bloch, from Holthusen and Adorno to Sartre. To numerous intellectuals in eastern Europe, as well as in the west, Lukács’s personal survival, his achievement of work of the first magnitude under conditions of appalling private and public torment, has been a touchstone of hope.

As only one of Lukács’s books, and two small collections of essays, have so far been translated into English, a reader who lacks German can have no just estimate of the facts. This allows Mr. Lichtheim to ignore the bulk of Lukács’s actual performance. The latest bibliography lists twenty-five books and some forty essays. Among the earliest, there are classics of philosophic criticism, arguments which have profoundly modified our entire conception of the problems of genre and literary form. They include A dráma formája (Budapest, 1909), Die Seele und die Formen (Berlin, 1911), and Die Theorie des Romans (Berlin, 1920).

Mr. Lichtheim points out Lukács’s “insensitivity to the German language”. The relevant fact is that Lukács fled from Nazism and spent long years of exile in Moscow. There he was cut-off from all but artificial or cȏterie contact with the language. His stiff, grey style, moreover, has both a moral and a tactical effect: it implies that the time is too grim for the pleasures of belles-lettres, and like Dr. Leavis’s prose, it seeks to show, by example, the technical responsibility, the toughmindedness required for criticism. (I have touched on this question in more detail in my essay “Georg Lukács and his Devil’s Pact”, Kenyon Review, Winter I960).

It was in exile that Lukács wrote several of his books that make of him the only major German literary critic of our epoch. No one seeking to understand either the achievements or the peculiar disasters of German literature after Goethe can ignore Goethe und seine Zeit, Gottfried Keller, the monograph on Thomas Mann, and Deutsche Realisten des 19 Jahrhunderts (with its superb essays on Kleist and Fontane).

Equally distinguished is Lukács’s study of the French novel from Balzac to Zola. (The relevant texts are to be found in Balzac und der französische Realismus and in Probleme des Realismus.) No brief allusion can give an adequate notion of the radicalism and intricacy of Lukács’s conjecture. The argument, ultimately rooted in Lessing’s and Hegel’s observations on Homer, turns on the discrimination between erzählen (narration) and beschreiben (description, from “outside”). The realist, such as Cervantes, Balzac, and Tolstoy, makes of physical objects and the world’s furnishings an integral, dramatic element in the human action; hand and sword or hand and plough are in live interaction. The naturalist (Zola, the modern novelists of reportage), severed by the increasing chaos of industrial specialisation from an organic intimacy with his surroundings, seeks to create an illusion of reality by technical description, by accumulation of detail. The distinction is that between the dramatic “realisation” of a house-door in Eugénie Grandet and the inventory of cheeses in Zola’s Ventre de Paris. By means of Lukács’s theory, we may argue that there is a decline in the French novel after Balzac and Stendhal; we may seek to show the pre-eminence of Anna Karenina, with its deep-breathing, organic form, over the brilliant, but strangled tactics of Madam Bovary. The flaw in Lukács’s view of the French novel is the omission of Proust. Here Mr. Lichtheim’s point about Victorian notions of propriety is valid (he will find it put, in precisely the same way, in the Kenyon Review essay mentioned above).

The picture of a servile Lukács, seeking to please Stalinism, is palpably false. Despite intense pressures, despite his precarious, hardly tenable personal situation in exile in the Soviet Union, despite his unwavering conviction that the defeat of Nazism was the supreme task of all decent men, Lukács refused to write the large-scale, eulogistic studies of Soviet writers demanded of him. Instead, he continued to write about Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy. This refusal to compromise with his aesthetic standards has made Lukács vulnerable to constant Stalinist and Zhdanovite attack. The charge hurled against him by Joseph Reval, in 1956, is typical:

“What could Hungarian literature gain from the password given it by Lukács in 1954: ‘Zola? No, Balzac!’? And what could it gain from the slogan put forward by Lukács in 1948: ‘Neither Pirandello nor Priestley, but Shakespeare and Molière’? In both instances – nothing.”

There are timidities, indirections, and even moments of abjection in Lukács’s career (one thinks of the bow to Stalin’s theory of linguistics in the paper on Literatur und Kunst als Ueberbau, delivered as a lecture in Budapest in June, i951). But no outsider, delivering moral sentence from the safety of the west, can have an adequate realisation of the solitudes and torments endured by those who live in a police state, yet seek, somehow, to guard their lives and carry on their work.

Mr. Lichtheim attacks Die Zerstörung der Vernunft. He is right; it is a bitter, often silly book (probably Lukács’s worst). But the question it poses is valid and of deep urgency: what went wrong in the history of German thought to permit the rise of barbarism? In many respects, the question dominates Lukács’s intellectual life – as it must that of any thinking man of his background. His belief that the answer may be found in the tradition of irrationalism from Schelling to Max Stirner is, at least, worth serious investigation. And if he attacks Bertrand Russell, the reason is (and Lichtheim surely knows it) that Russell had, temporarily, raised the possibility of a preventive war against Russia.

Lichtheim asserts that Lukács “has failed to write the Marxist aesthetics”. How does he know? The prolegomena to that aesthetics are set out in a number of important works he does not even mention (Der lunge Hegel, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Aesthetik). The Aesthetik itself, moreover, is thought to be either in progress or completed (there is some evidence that the latter is the case). Perhaps Mr. Lichtheim is right, and it will not be a satisfactory book. But that will not be because of Lukács’s cowardice or personal failures. Is there a liberal or post-Kantian aesthetic of any kind that can, at present, be regarded as coherent? Is there, one would nearly ask, any since Plato?

So long as Lukács’s works are not available in English, many interested readers will find it difficult to judge for themselves. But a number of good introductions to the problems and achievements of Lukács’s criticism are now available. These may be worth listing: Peter Demetz: Marx, Engels und die Dichter (Stuttgart, I959); Lucien Goldmann: Introduction aux premiers écrits de Georges Lukács (Temps Modernes, August, 1962); H. Althaus: Georg Lukács (Bern, 1962); and, above all, the thoroughly documented and annotated anthology of Lukács’s writings published by Peter Ludz under the title Schriften zur Literatursoziologie (Neuwied, 1961).


[1] Encounter (London), June 1963, 92–93. – Editors note: Mr. Lichtheim’s article has provoked considerable controversy. Further comment will be appearing in subsequent issues.