George Lukacs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. by John & Necke Mander (London: Merlin Press 1963), "The Ideology of Modernism" [Chap. 1], pp.17-46.

Also: 'Realism in the Balance’, in Aesthetics and Politics (London 1977) [extract].

It is in no way surprising that the most influential contemporary school of writing should be committed to the dogma of "modernist" anti-realism. It is here that we must begin our investigation if we are to chart the possibilities of bourgeois realism. We must compare two main trends in contemporary bourgeois literature [.] What must be avoided at all costs is the approach generally adopted by bourgeois-modernist critics themselves: that exaggerated concern with formal criteria, with questions of style and technique [.] In fact it fails to locate the decisive formal problems and turns a blind eye to their inherent dialectic. We are presented with a false polarisation which, by exaggerating the importance of stylistic differences, conceals the opposing principles actually underlying and determining contrasting styles. / To take an example: the monologue intérieur. Compare, for instance, bloom’s monologue in the lavatory or Molly’s monologue in bed, at the beginning and the end of Ulysses, with Goethe’s early-morning monologue as conceived by Thomas Mann in his Lotte in Weimar. Plainly the same stylistic technique is being employed. [.] yet is is not easy to think of any two novels more basically dissimilar than Ulysses and Lotte in Weimar. [.; 17] I am not referring to the - to my mind - striking difference in intellectual quality. I refer to the fact that with Joyce the stream-of-conscious technique is no mere stylistic device; it is itself the formative principle governing the narrative patter and the presentation of character. Technique here is something absolute; it is part and parcel of the aesthetic ambition informing Ulysses. (pp.17-18.)


It would be absurd, in view of Joyce’s artistic ambitions and his manifest abilities, to qualify the exaggerated attention he gives to the detailed recording of sense-data, and his comparative neglect of ideas and emotions, as artistic failure. all this was in conformity with Joyce’s artistic intention; and, by use of such techniques, he may be said to have achieved them satisfactorily. But between Joyce’s intentions and those of of Thomas Mann there is a total opposition. The perpetually oscillating patterns of sense- and memory- data, their powerfully charged but aimless and directionless - fields of force, give rise to an epic structure which is static, reflecting a belief in the basically static character of events. [18]

These opposed views of the world - dynamic and developmental on the one hand, static and sensational on the other - are of crucial importance in examining the two schools of literature I have mentioned [.] What determines the style of a given work of art? [.] it is the view of the world, the ideology or weltanschauung underlying the writer’s work, that counts. And it is the writer’s attempt to reproduce this view of the world which constitutes his "intention" and is the formative principle underlying the style of a given piece of writing. Looked at in this way, style ceases to be a formalistic category. Rather, it is rooted in content; it is the specific form of a specific content.

Content determines form. But there is no content of which Man himself is not the focal point. [.] the basic question is, and will remain, what is Man? [.] Man is zoon politicon, the social animal. The Aristotelian dictum is applicable to all great realistic literature [.] Achilles, Werther, Oedipus, Tom Jones, Antigone and Anna Karenin: their individual existences - their Sein an sich, it the Hegelian terminology; the "ontological being", as a more fashionable terminology has it - cannot be distinguished from their social and historical environment. Their human significance, their specific individuality cannot be separated from the context in which they were created. [19]

[Of the solitariness of such characters:] But it is always merely a fragment, a phase, a climax or anti-climax, in the life of the community as a whole. The fate of such individuals is characteristic of certain human types in specific social or historical circumstances. Beside and beyond their solitariness, the common life, the strife and togetherness of other human beings, goes on as before. In an word, their solitariness is a specific social fare, not a universal condition humaine [contra Thomas Wolfe ['inescapable, central fact of human existence’].

Cites Heidegger’s 'throwness-into-being’ [Geworfenheit ins Dasein] A more graphic evocation of the ontological solitariness of the individual would be hard to imagine. Man is 'thrown-into-being’. This implies, not merely that man is constitutionally [20] unable to establish relationships with things or persons outside himself; but also that it is impossible to determine theoretically the origin and goal of human existence.

Man, thus conceived, is an ahistorical being. (The fact that Heidegger does admit a form of "authentic" historicity in his system is not really relevant. I have shown elsewhere that Heidegger tends to belittle historicity as "vulgar"; and his "authentic" historicity is not distinguishable from ahistoricity). This negation of history takes two different forms in modernist literature. First, the hero is strictly confined within the limits of his own experience. There is not for him - and apparently not for his creator - any pre-existent reality beyond his own self, acting upon him or being acted upon by him. Secondly, the hero himself is without personal history. He is "thrown-into-the-world": meaninglessly, unfathomably. He does not develop through contact with the world; he neither forms nor is formed by it. The only "development" in this literature is the gradual revelation of the human condition. Man is now what he has always been and always will be. The narrator, the examining subject, is in motion; the examined reality is static.

Of course, dogmas of this kind are only really viable in philosophical abstraction, and then only with a measure of sophistry. A gifted writer, however extreme his theoretical modernism, will in practice have to compromise with the demands of historicity and of social environment. Joyce uses Döblin, Kafka and Musil the Hapsburg Monarchy, as the locus of their masterpieces. But the locus they lovingly depict is little more than a backcloth; it is not basic to their artistic intention.

This view of human existence has specific literary consequences. Particularly in one category, of primary theoretical and practical importance, to which we must now give our attention: that of potentiality. Philosophy distinguishes between abstract and concrete (in Hegel, 'real’) potentiality. These two categories, their interrelation and opposition, are rooted in life itself. Potentiality - seen abstractly or subjectively - is richer than actual life. Innumerable possibilities for man’s development


Modern subjectivism, taking these imagined possibilities [i.e., abstract rather than concrete potentiality] for actual complexities of life, oscillates between melancholy and fascination. Then the world declines to realise these possibilities this melancholy becomes tinged with contempt [.] (pp.22.)

Abstract potentiality belongs wholly to the realm of subjectivity [23]; whereas concrete potentiality is concerned with the dialectic between the individual’s subjectivity and objective reality. The literary presentation of the latter thus implies a description of actual persons inhabiting a palpable, identifiable world. [.]

[T]he ontology on which the image of man in modernist literature is based invalidates this principle. If the "human condition" - man as solitary being, incapable of meaningful relationships - is identified with reality itself, the distinction between abstract and concrete potentiality becomes null and void. [.] Thus Cesare Pavese notes with John Dos Passos, and his German contemporary Alfred Döblin, a sharp oscillation between "superficial verisme" and "abstract Expressionist schematism". [.]

The problem, once again, is ideological. [.] As individual character manifests itself in life’s moments of decision, so too in literature. If the distinction between abstract and concrete potentiality [24] vanishes, if man’s inwardness is identified with an abstract subjectivity, human personality must necessarily disintegrate. [Quotes T. S. Eliot: "Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion."] The disintegration of personality is matched by a disintegration of the outer world. Certain leading modernist writers, attempting an apology, have admitted this quite frankly. Often this theoretical impossibility of understanding reality is the point of departure, rather than the exaltation of subjectivity. But in any case the connection between the two is plain. (pp.23-25.)

[Goes on to quote and discuss Gottfried Benn ('there is no outer reality, there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity’), and Robert Musil (Subjective existence 'without qualities’ is the complement of the negation of outward reality), Kafka, and Wolfgang Koeppen]. (pp.25-26.)

A similar attenuation of reality underlies Joyce’s stream of consciousness. It is, of course, intensified where the stream of consciousness is itself the medium through which reality is presented. And it is carried ad absurdum where the stream of consciousness is that of an abnormal subject or that of an idiot - consider the first part of Faulkner’s Sound and Fury or, a still more extreme case, Beckett’s Molloy. (p.26.)

Kierkegaard first attacked the Hegelian view that the inner and outer world form an objective dialectical unity, that they are indissolubly married in spite of their apparent opposition. Kierkegaard denied any such unity. According to Kierkegaard, the individual exists within an opaque, impenetrable "incognito". (p.27.)

[He goes on to link this 'philosophy’ with the Nazi regime, given Heidegger’s glorifying Hitler’s seizure of power in his inaugural speech as Rector at Freiburg and other instances.] (p.27.)

[T]he interest in psychopathology sprang from an aesthetic need; it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism. [.] With Musil - and with many other modernist writers - psychopathology became the goal, the terminus ad quem, of all their artistic intention. [.] it is an escape into nothingness. Thus the propagators of this ideology are mistaken in thinking that such a protest could ever be fruitful in literature. In any protest against particular social conditions, these conditions themselves must have the central place. The bourgeois protest against feudal society, the proletarian against bourgeois society, made their pint of departure the criticism of the old order. In both cases the protest - reaching out beyond the point of departure - was based on a concrete terminus ad quem: the establishment of a new order. [29]


This obsession pathology is not only to be found in literature. Freudian psychoanalysis is its most obvious expression. (p.30.)

Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare. Beckett’s Molloy is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this development, although Joyce’s vision of reality as an incoherent stream of consciousness had already assumed in Faulkner a nightmare quality. In Beckett’s novel we have the same vision twice over. He presents us with an image of the utmost human degradation - an idiot’s vegetative existence. Then, as help is imminent from a mysterious unspecified source, [31] the rescuer sinks into idiocy. The story is told through the parallel streams of consciousness of the idiot and of his rescuer. (pp.31-32.)

Allegory is that aesthetic genre which lends itself par excellence to a description of man’s alienation form objective reality. Allegory is a problematic genre because it rejects that assumption of an immanent meaning to human existence which - however unconscious, however combined with religious concepts of transcendence - is the basis of traditional art. Thus in medieval art we observe a new secularity (in spite of the continued use of religious subjects) triumphing more and more, from the time of Giotto, over the allegorising of an earlier period.


Allegory, in modernist literature, is clearly of the latter kind [product of a reject of tendencies towards immanence]. Transcendence implies here, more or less consciously, the negation of any meaning immanent in the world or the life of man. we have already examined the underlying ideological basis of this view and its stylistic consequences. To conclude our analysis, and to establish the allegorical character of modernist literature, I must refer again to the work of [.] Walter Benjamin [.] a very contemporary definition of allegory. [.] In so doing Benjamin became the first critic to attempt a philosophical analysis of the aesthetic paradox underlying modernist art. He writes:

In Allegory, the facies hippocratica of history looks to the observer like a petrified primeval landscape. History, all the suffering and failure it contains, finds expression in the human face - or, rather, in the human skull. No sense of freedom, no classical proportion, no human emotion lives in its features - not only human existence in general, but the fate of every individual human being is symbolised in this most palpable token of mortality. This is the core of the allegorical vision, of the Baroque idea of history as the passion of the world; History is significant only in the stations of its corruption. Significance is a function of mortality - because it is death that marks the passage from corruptibility to meaningfulness.

Benjamin returns again and again to this link between allegory and the annihilation of history:

In the light of this vision history appears, not as the gradual realisation of the eternal, but as a process of inevitable decay. Allegory thus goes beyond beauty. What ruins are in the physical world, allegories are in the world of the mind.

Benjamin points here to the aesthetic consequences of modernism - though projected into the Baroque drama - more shrewdly and [41] consistently than any of his contemporaries. He sees that the notion of objective time is essential to any understanding of history, and that the notion of subjective time is a product of a .period of decline. "A thorough knowledge of the problematic nature of art" thus becomes for him - correctly, from his point of view - one of the hall-marks of allegory in Baroque drama. It is problematic, on the one hand, because it is an art intent on expressing absolute transcendence that fails to do so because of the means at its disposal. It is also problematic because it is an art reflecting the corruption of the world and bringing about its own dissolution in the process. Benjamin discovers "an immense, anti-aesthetic subjectivity" in Baroque literature, associated with "a theologically-determined subjectivity". (We shall presently show - a point I have discussed elsewhere in relation to Heidegger’s philosophy - how in literature a "religious atheism" of this kind can acquire a theological character.) Romantic - and, on a higher plane, Baroque - writers were well aware of this problem, and gave their understanding, not only theoretical, but artistic - that is to say allegorical - expression. "The image," Benjamin remarks, "becomes a rune in the sphere of allegorical intuition. When touched by the light of theology, its symbolic beauty is gone. The false appearance of totality vanishes. The image dies; the parable no longer holds true, the world it once contained disappears."

The consequences for art are far-reaching, and Benjamin does not hesitate to point them out: "Every person, every object, every relationship can stand for something else. This transferability constitutes a devastating, though just, judgment on the profane world - which is thereby branded as a world where such things are of small importance." Benjamin knows, of course, that although details are "transferable", and thus insignificant, they are not banished from art altogether. On the contrary. Precisely in modern art, with which he is ultimately concerned, descriptive detail is often of an extraordinary sensuous, suggestive power - we think again of Kafka. But this, as we showed in the case of Musil (a writer who does not consciously aim at allegory) does [42] not prevent the materiality of the world from undergoing permanent alteration, from becoming transferable and arbitrary. Just this, modernist writers maintain, is typical of their own apprehension of reality. Yet presented in this way, the world becomes, as Benjamin puts it, "exalted and depreciated at the same time". For the conviction that phenomena are not ultimately transferable is rooted in a belief in the world’s rationality and in man’s ability to penetrate its secrets. In realistic literature each descriptive detail is both individual and typical. Modern allegory, and modernist ideology, however, deny the typical. By destroying the coherence of the world, they reduce detail to the level of mere particularity (once again, the connection between modernism and naturalism is plain). Detail, in its allegorical transferability, though brought into a direct, if paradoxical connection with transcendence, becomes an abstract function of the transcendence to which it points. Modernist literature thus replaces concrete typicality with abstract particularity.

We are here applying Benjamin’s paradox directly to aesthetics and criticism, and particularly to the aesthetics of modernism. And, though we have reversed his scale of values, we have not deviated from the course of his argument. Elsewhere, he speaks out even more plainly - as though the Baroque mask had fallen, revealing the modernist skull underneath:

Allegory is left empty-handed. The forces of evil, lurking in its depths, owe their very existence to allegory. Evil is, precisely, the non-existence of that which allegory purports to represent.

The paradox Benjamin arrives at - his investigation of the aesthetics of Baroque tragedy has culminated in a negation of aesthetics - sheds a good deal of light on modernist literature, and particularly on Kafka. In interpreting his writings allegorically I am not, of course, following Max Brod, who finds a specifically religious allegory in Kafka’s works. Kafka refuted any such interpretation in a remark he is said to have made to Brod himself: "We are nihilistic figments, all of us; suicidal notions forming in God’s mind." Kafka rejected, too, the gnostic concept of [43] God as an evil demiurge [.]

An atheist, though, of that modern species, who regard God’s removal from the scene not as a liberation - as did Epicurus and the Encyclopedists - but as a token of the "God-foresakeness" of the world, its utter desolation and futility. [.] On the other hand, religious atheism shows that the desire for salvation lives on with undiminished force in a world without God, worshipping the void created by God’s absence. (p.44.)


Kafka is not able, in spite of his extraordinary evocative power, in spite of his unique sensibility, to achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art. His aim is to raise the individual detail in its immediate particularity (without generalising its content) to the level of abstraction. Kafka’s method is typical, here, of modernism’s allegorical approach. [.] the particularity we find in Beckett and Joyce, in Musil and Benn, various as the treatment of it may be, is essentially of the same kind.

If we combine what we have up to now discussed separately we arrive at a consistent pattern. We seen that modernism leads not only to the destruction of traditional literary forms; it leads to the destruction of literature as such. And this is true not only of Joyce, or of the literature of Expressionism and Surrealism. [46; Discusses Gide’s Faux-Monnayeurs, in which 'suffered from a characteristic modernist schizophrenia [in that] it was supposed to be written by the man who was also the hero of the novel.] We have here a practical demonstration that - as Benjamin showed in another context - modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art. [End.]

Jeremy Hawthorn quotes Lukacs: '[the job of the artist is to] penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society.’ ('Realism in the Balance’, in Aesthetics and Politics, London 1977, p.38; quoted in Hawthorn, ‘Ulysses, Modernism and the Marxist Criticism’, in James Joyce and Modern Literature, ed. W. J. McCormack & Alistair Stead, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1982, p.113.)

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