Georg Lukács was, first and foremost, an essayist. His career as an essayist was established primarily in the Nyugat (The west) and Huszadik Század (The 20th century), the two leading journals of radical intellectuals in fin-de-siècle Budapest. Lukács’ essayist period of 1908 to 1911 yielded A lélek és a formák (1910; Soul and Form) and established his European reputation. The object of these essays is Lukács himself: engaging, ingenious, elusive, a virtuoso in flirting with roles—an ascetic, Faust, or Silenic-featured Socrates. Inspired by Lukacs’ tragic love affair with Irma Seidler, his immortal beloved, Soul and Form revolves around life, art, Eros, and philosophy—the compass points of the soul. In his essays, he appears a worthy disciple of Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. In Montaigne, man’s life—the random personal life as a whole—became problematic in the modern sense. Whereas Montaigne never transposed the problematic into the realm of the tragic, Lukács, caught between Eros and knowledge, celebrates the fatal, tragic solitude of Socratic souls, who, despite Eros, remain “servants and fanatics of their own development.”
On a more intimate level, the essays in Soul and Form contain Kierkegaard’s attitude of fascinated terror toward Eros. To Lukács, the object of Eros was not so much seduction or consummation as it was experimentation. In Socratic fashion, he approached Eros for the conquest of spirit rather than the conquest of the flesh. He faced the seductive possibilities of both Nietzsche, who claimed that none of the great philosophers—Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer—was married because marriage is an obstacle to fulfillment, and Goethe, whose love, as Lukács never failed to point out, gave birth to his spiritual drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (1802; Iphigenia in Tauris).
Not surprisingly, Lukács’ essay “Über Sehnsucht und Form” (1911; “On Longing and Form”), reflecting on Plato’s Eros, Dante’s great love, Don Quixote, and the scorned heroes of Flaubert, caught Thomas Mann’s attention. In Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice), Mann disputed Lukács’ notion that “Socrates transformed his longing into a philosophy whose peak was eternally unattainable, the highest goal of all human longing: intellectual contemplation… In life [however], longing has to remain love: that is its happiness and its tragedy.”
It may sound paradoxical that the essay, despite Lukács’ renown as a Marxist system builder, remained his representative genre. In his essay on Kierkegaard, Lukács declared, “There is no system in life. In life there is only the separate and individual, the concrete.
To exist is to be different.” Influenced by Kierkegaard, Lukacs the essayist disputed Hegel’s claim that only art, religion, and philosophy reveal the absolute. In his famed triad, art-religion-philosophy, where art expresses the same “content” as religion and philosophy, but in a different “form,” Hegel accords no recognition to the essay as a genre. By contrast, Lukács elevates the essay to an art form, designed to capture the absolute or permanent in the transitory, fugitive, and contingent, and distinguish it from the icy, final perfection of philosophy. Dissenting from Hegel, Lukács believes that the essay, as an art form, mediates between art and philosophy. The essayist, he said, poses questions: what is life, what is man, what is destiny? But questions are simply posed, not answered—the essayist does not supply “solutions” like the answers of science or, at purer heights, those of philosophy.
Like Montaigne, Lukács the essayist adapts his lofty intellect to the everyday detail of life, emphasizing it with ironic modesty. He sees the same irony, though in different form, in every text by every great essayist. In Plato, the greatest essayist in Lukács’ definition, philosophy is underlined by the irony of the realities of life. According to Lukács, the life of Socrates, whose profound philosophical thoughts are interrupted by humor and irony, typifies the essay form. The essayist, modeled on Socrates, is preeminently a critic who, sent to proclaim and bring to light ideals and values, must judge every phenomenon by the scale of his own values. The essayist’s right to create his judgment values from within himself, while offering no clear-cut answers, leads to Lukács’ exalted claim: “The essay is a court, but (unlike in the legal system) it is not the verdict that is important, that sets the standards and creates precedent, but the process of examining and judging.”
It is not surprising that some of Lukács’ seminal essays, notably that on Laurence Sterne in Soul and Form, and “A lelki szegénységrol” (1911; “On Poverty of Spirit”), are written in the form of Socratic dialogues. This approach presented problems when Lukács decided to pursue an academic career at Heidelberg. His friend and mentor, Max Weber, addressing the question whether Lukács was really an essayist and not a systematic thinker, was forthright: “I must be frank with you. A very good friend of yours, Emil Lask, is of the opinion that as a born essayist you will not be content with a systematic work, and that hence you should not habilitate [i.e. become qualified as a university lecturer]. The essayist is not one hair less of a disciplined systemizer, perhaps on the contrary. But he does not belong to the university, and he writes his work for his own salvation.”
Lask’s characterization of Lukács as a born essayist proved prophetic. His academic hopes dashed at Heidelberg, Lukács ultimately sought his own salvation in Budapest by joining the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. His leap of faith stunned his friends, above all Weber. In his famous lectures entitled “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (1917; “Science as a Vocation”) and “Politik als Beruf” (1919; “The Vocation of Politics”), delivered in Munich in January 1919, Weber took issue with Lukács who, he claimed, in turning Marxist failed to distinguish between the “ethic of responsibility” and the “ethic of ultimate ends.”
What is instructive in the relationship of Weber and Lukács is that, despite their political differences, both remained essayists at heart. As one leading commentator of Weber put it, “If we regard the essay as the art-form suited to the twentieth century, then Weber is immediately placed alongside authors such as Georg Simmel, Robert Musil, and Georg Lukács, among others. They all shared the attempt to ‘mediate,’ to build bridges, and thereby open up new pathways” (Dirk Käsler, Max Weber, 1988).
Even as a Marxist, Lukács continued to write essays; in many ways, his Marxism constitutes the keynote of his character as a thinker. Thomas Mann, having read Soul and Form, observed that we have a particular right to “knowledge which we ourselves helped to create merely by our own existence.” Lukács’ own troubled existence in the hellish world of Stalin’s Russia found relief, if not escape, in the essay. As Mann so perceptively put it, in response to Lukács’ essays on Goethe’s works in Goethe és kora (1946; Goethe and His Age), and on Mann’s own intellectual and artistic development in A polgár nyomában: A hetvenéves Thomas Mann (1947; Essays on Thomas Mann), ‘This Communist [Lukács] who is deeply concerned with the ‘bourgeois heritage,’ and who can write fascinatingly and intelligently about Raabe, Keller, or Fontane, had earlier discussed me with intelligence and respect.”
During the Great Purges in Russia, where he had lived for many years, Lukács wrote essays on the tradition of the novel as exemplified in the works of Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoi, Zola, and Gor’kii. These essays, written in the 1930s, appeared in Essays über Realismus (1948; Studies in European Realism and Essays on Realism), a landmark in 20th-century literary criticism. Whether Lukács writes on Balzac or Tolstoi, invariably he writes as an essayist from the perspective of a philosophical system. In his literary essays, he displays little of the subtlety and plasticity of Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf. On the other hand, few modern critics can match Lukács’ intellectual passion and philosophical vision for the literary tradition of European realism which he so admired and championed. Not unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T.S.Eliot, or Edmund Wilson, intent on creating a new literary taste in conformity with their own artistic ideals, Lukács not only carried the torch for European realism, but became the uncompromising custodian or conscience of literary tradition. It is not without irony that Lukács—whose Marxist literary essays are steeped in German philosophy and metaphysics consisting of vocabulary and arguments the Anglo-Saxon literary world finds alien—accepted Eliot’s dictum in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) that the poet and artist must transform the past in the light of the present.
In his greatest pre-Marxist essay, Die Theorie des Romans (1920; The Theory of the Novel), Lukács delineated the relationship between prose fiction and social reality, between the novel and time treated as a concrete historical medium. Lukács’ historicalphilosophical essay, formulating a new conception of time in the novel based on the Bergsonian concept of durée—the duration and expanse of time which the novel covers, dividing men into generations and integrating their actions in an historical-social context—also illustrates the formidable challenge Lukács the essayist presents to his English or American readers. The problems are twofold. For one thing, Lukács is rooted in the classics, especially Aristotle, his heritage is central European, and, reflecting his Jewish background, he approaches literature and writers from a universal, humanistic perspective, disregarding national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. Moreover, there are Lukács’ own convictions and tenor of thought, as well as his style of writing, which is complex, uncompromising, abstract, and displays little sensitivity or feeling for language and poetry. His profound intellect and erudition, which prefers the enunciatory style, full of gravity and depth, conveys finality and authority. Though Lukács’ range of interest is immense, his essays are grounded in the conviction that criticism and philosophical discourse must establish a distance from belles-lettres, that an essayist who, like Nietzsche, turns his essays into a dazzling artistic performance betrays his vocation.
György Szegedy von Lukács. Born 13 April 1885 in Budapest. Studied at the University of Budapest, Ph.D., 1906; studied privately with Heinrich Rickert in Heidelberg, 1912– 15. Joined the Hungarian Communist Party, 1918. Married Gertrud Bortstieber, 1919.
Commissar of Public Education, 1919: exiled from Hungary as a result. Associated with the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1919–30; researcher, Institute of Philosophy, Soviet Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1933–44. Returned to Hungary, 1945. Professor of aesthetics and cultural philosophy, University of Budapest, 1945–56. Minister of Culture, 1956.
Awards: Kossuth Prize, 1955; Goethe Prize, 1970. Died in Budapest, 4
Essays and Related Prose (Lukács wrote in Hungarian and German; most works were published in both languages, but only first published edition listed here, regardless of its language)
A lélek és a formák (Kisérletek), 1910; enlarged edition, as Die Seele und die Formen, 1911; as Soul and Form, translated by Anna Bostock, 1974
Esztétikai kultúra, 1913
Taktika és ethika, 1919; as “Tactics and Ethics,” in Political Writings, 1919–1929, translated by Michael McColgan, 1972
Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der grossen Epik, 1920; as The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Form of Great Epic Literature, translated by Anna Bostock, 1971
Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein: Studien über marxistische Dialektik, 1923; as History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1971
Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, 1945; part in Studies in European Realism, translated by Edith Bone, 1950, and in Essays on Realism, translated by David Fernbach, 1980
Goethe és kora, 1946; as Goethe and His Age, translated by Robert Anchor, 1968
Irodalom és demokrácia, 1947
A polgári filozófia válsága, 1947
A polgár nyomában: A hetvenéves Thomas Mann, 1947; as Essays on Thomas Mann, translated by Stanley Mitchell, 1964
A történelmi regény, 1947; as The Historical Novel, translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, 1962
Schicksalswende, Beiträge zu einer deutschen Ideologie, 1948
Existentialisme ou marxisme?, 1948
A realizmus problémái, 1948
Új magyar kultúráért, 1948
Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels als Literaturhistoriker, 1948
Der junge Hegel: Über die Beziehungen von Dialektik und Ökonomie, 1948; as The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations Between Dialectics and Economics, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1975
Essays über Realismus, 1948; part in Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others, translated by Edith Bone, 1950, and in Essays on Realism, edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach, 1980
Der russische Realismus in der Weltliteratur, 1949; enlarged edition, 1952; part in Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others, translated by Edith Bone, 1950, and in Essays on Realism, edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach, 1980
Deutsche Realisten des 19. Jahrhunderts, 1951; as German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, 1993
Puschkin-Gorki (Zwei Essays), 1952
Nagy orosz realisták; Kritikai realizmus; Szikra, 1952,
Adalékok az esztétika történetéhez, 1953
Die Zerstörung der Vernunft, 1954; as The Destruction of Reason, translated by Peter Palmer, 1980
Schriften zur Literatursoziologie, edited by Peter Ludz, 1961
Deutsche Literatur in zwei Jahrhunderten, 1964
Die Grablegung des alten Deutschland: Essays zur deutschen Literatur des 19.
Writer and Critic, and Other Essays, edited and translated by Arthur D.Kahn, 1971
Political Writings, 1919–1929: The Question of Parliamentarianism and Other Essays, edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by Michael McColgan, 1971; as Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays, 1919–1929, 1975
Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture, and Revolution, edited by E.San Juan, 1973
Politische Aufsätze, 1975
Kunst und objektive Wahrheit: Essays zur Literaturtheorie und Geschichte, 1977
Theory, Culture, and Politics, edited by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tarr, 1989
The Lukács Reader, edited by Arpad Kadarkay, 1995
Collected works edition: Werke, 15 vols., 1961– (in progress).
Hartmann, Jürgen, in Festschrift zum achtzigsten Geburtstag von Georg Lukács, edited by Frank Benseler, Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1965:615–96
Bernstein, J.M., The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukács, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, and Brighton: Harvester, 1984
Congdon, Lee, The Young Lukács, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983
Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990
Feenberg, Andrew, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory, Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, and Oxford: Robertson, 1981
Jameson, Frederic, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectial Theories of Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971
Kadarkay, Arpad, Georg Lukács: Life, Thought, and Politics, Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991
MacIntyre, Alasdair, Against the Self-Images of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy, London: Duckworth, and New York: Schocken, 1971
Steiner, George, George Steiner: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984
Wellek, René, Four Critics: Croce, Valéry, Lukécs, and Ingarden, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981
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