Friday, November 15, 2019

Gyorgy Lukacs "The Ideology of Modernism" and everyday aesthetics

This work, first published in 1962, is often anthologized in books about continental aesthetics.  I will be working from the version in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism:  An Anthology.  ed. Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen.  This piece could just be seen as a rant against the modernist novel, particularly Joyce, Beckett, Musil, Faulkner, and Kafka.  It might seem simply a matter of taste:  Lukács preferring "realist writers" such as Mann to these others.  But of course there are deeper issues of competing ideologies here.  And then there are issues of competing Marxist ideologies too! Lukács' Marxism is very different from that of Marcuse and Adorno.  As I do not label myself a Marxist I see no need to determine who among the Marxist aestheticians are truly Marxist.  What really interests me about Lukács is relevance to my leitmotif of everyday aesthetics. 

The issue of everyday aesthetics for Marxists is pretty straightforward.  In capitalist conditions everyday life is alienated.  This alienation is based, of course, on exploitation both in the workplace and via manipulation of needs through advertising and marketing.  Everyday life, especially for the working class, is aesthetically deprived.  In an ideal, communist, society everyone would produce in a non-alienated way according to "laws of beauty" as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts.  


For Lukács the issue of the everyday comes up in two contexts, first in reference to life in a capitalist society and second in relation to Freud's notion of the psychopathology of everyday life.  Although he is mainly interested in criticizing a certain type of novel he is also interested in the main problems of Marxism, i.e. in how to explain the world in materialist terms and how to promote socialist revolution, and he situates his critique within that other interest.  


So the modernist text is based, he argues, on an ideology that stresses a static notion of human nature over a dynamic one.  It does not allow for a portrayal of human development in conditions of a dialectic between the subjective self and objective conditions.  In particular, Modernism (the name I will use here for the ideology of modernist literature) argues, implicitly, that humans have an unchanging human nature, and this human nature is that which is described as thrownness or being "thrown-into-being" by Heidegger.  It is the experience of being ontologically alone:  our essential and existential solitariness.  Of course the view is not only that one is alone in relation to others but also that one is abandoned by God (since there is no God).   (I would note that although I often enjoy modernist literature and find Heidegger intriguing, I join Lukács in rejecting this view of human nature.)


This view is also combined with a view of the nature of possibility.  For the Modernist, possibility is only abstract:  it is never concrete.  But the realist novelist (and also Lukács) wishes to stress the need for both abstract possibility and concrete possibility.  Concrete possibility is based on the historical conditions of our being.  Abstract possibility seems infinite, concrete possibility much more limited.  So, for the Realist (we will use this term here as referring to the theory that competes with the Modernist:  interestingly, the Realist does not have to be a Marxist), man and human culture are both historically situated.  The realist novel then stresses not subjective time alone (unlike the Modernist) but a dialectic of subjective and objective time.  Similarly the Realist stresses a dialectic of the subjective and the objective in general.  We should avoid the mistake, a form of vulgar Marxism, that would reduce the subjective to the objective.  Retaining subjectivity allows for the possibility of human choice:  Lukács is no determinist.  


One of the problems Lukács finds with Modernism is that it offers as a solution to alienation a retreat into psychopathology.  Psychopathology is no solution to the problems posed by capitalist society.  For a Modernist like Musil, if you do not "run with the pack," i.e. join in the capitalist rat race, your only alternative is becoming a neurotic.  Modernism, Lukács thinks, naturally leads to naturalism, i.e. a literary style that stresses sordid details of everyday life.  As Alfred Kerr put it, "what is poetic in everyday life?  Neurotic aberration, escape from life's dreary routing." And, as Lukács observes, this implies "the poetic necessity of the pathological [deriving] from the prosaic quality of life under capitalism."  Lukács sees a continuity between this older naturalism and contemporary modernism: "Kerr's description suggests that in naturalism the interest in psychopathology sprang from an esthetic need, it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism."  (227)  Lukács sees this as evolving from "merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality" into a "moral protest of capitalism."  (227)  


The second point of contact with the everyday comes up a couple paragraphs later.  There, Lukács turns to Freud, whose psychoanalysis he sees as an obvious expression of this obsession with the pathological.  He sees Modernism and psychoanalysis as essentially the same.  And Freud's starting point was 'everyday life.'  Freud explains slips of the tongue, daydreams (and dreams as well) in terms of psychopathology.  Lukács thinks rather that one should see mental abnormality as a "deviation from a norm."  


So, on his view, "this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem.  It is an ideological problem, deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man." (228)  Lukács contrasts Modernism to Realism which is based on Aristotle's idea of man as a political animal, and which produces a new typology of humans "for each new phase in the evolution of society."  The value of Realism is that it sees contradictions both within society and within the individual in terms of dialectic.  In the realist literature of Shakespeare, Balzac, and Stendhal "the average man is simply a dimmer reflection of the contradictions always existing in man and society."  (228)  And this is made impossible if you believe man is thrown into Being. 


In talking about traditional realists Lukács is not necessarily talking about the kind of novel he would like to see today or the kind of ideology he most favors. (Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself part of the wave of the future is going to hold up much older writers as his ideal?  Wouldn't those writers, from a Marxist perspective, reflect Bourgeois ideology of their own time?)  Indeed he sees these writers as producing an "abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially average" and he believes that this "leads in modernism to a fascination with morbid eccentricity" which becomes "the necessary complement of the average." Further, this polarity "is held to exhaust human potentiality," which of course he would reject.  What is puzzling is how a realism he favors can lead into the modernism he does not.  


Another issue is one of competing approaches to sensuous details.  Although, in discussing naturalism, Lukács tends to focus on the ugly details of daily life under capitalism (especially for the worker), the naturalist can also be concerned about the aesthetics of everyday life in a positive way.   Tom Huhn quotes from Zola's Nana in connection with this issue:  "The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps shed a soft glow over the pink hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knick-knacks.  At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china..." and so forth.  Huhn, Tom (2000), "A Modern Critique of Modernism: Lukács, Greenberg, and Ideology." Constellations, 7: 178-196.  

Huhn suggests that for Lukács what is absent is cohesion, whicyh  is compensated by a "surfeit of stimulation...a smorgasbord of sensation"   (Huhn's essay is excellent on Lukács's Hegelianism:  I cannot do justice to that here.)  Huhn interprets Lukács as seeing naturalism in terms of mere sensation as opposed to rich experience.  But it seems to me that there is something redemptive in a positive everyday aesthetic as found in this naturalist description.

At the end of his essay Lukács says of Kafka (as paradigmatic modernist) that "He has emptied everyday life of meaning by using the allegorical method; he has allowed detail to be annihilated by his transcendental nothingness" and this "prevents him from investing observed detail with typical significance."  In short, Kafka cannot "achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art" since his aim is to raise the individual detail to the level of abstraction.  (234)


What are the implications of this for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Consider Modernism and Realism as competing approaches to that aesthetics (and not just towards the aesthetic valuation of novels that portray life).  Much of what Lukács says is true and yet one cannot follow him in outright condemning Modernist approaches to the everyday.  Modernism does seem to shed light on experience by focusing even more on the details of the everyday (only thinking in terms of the "typical" can blind us to the sensuousness of the particular).  If, as Huhn suggests, Lukács would reject the passage from Zola, it is because he would reject an approach to everyday life that is sometimes light, sometimes legitimately concerned with sensuous surfaces.  


Ultimately Lukács distinction between abstract and concrete possibility hides something more fundamental. Lukács is, finally, a moralist and a moralist requires that the concrete possibility be understood in a moralist way, and thus label any other approach to concrete possibility as "abstract."  There is a sense in Lukács that a novel cannot be good unless it in some way promotes a socialist revolution, and this seems severely limiting to the novel.  Similarly, he would no doubt require that we approach everyday life in a moralistic way as well.  I cannot join him there.




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Martin Reed said...
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