Goethe and his time

Image: Joan Miró


Presentation of the newly published book by György Lukács


Em My way to Marx (1933) – whose composition was very close, in temporal terms, to the essays included in Goethe and his time –, György Lukács maintains that the relationship with Marx is the true touchstone for every intellectual “who takes seriously the elucidation of his own conception of the world, social development, in particular the current situation, his own place in it and the its own position in relation to it. The seriousness with which the intellectual dedicates himself to this question “indicates to what extent he wants, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid a clear position in relation to the struggles of current history”.

A good part of the essay consists of a biographical review of the particular assimilation that the author had made of Marxian work up to that point; an assimilation that, at that moment, was by no means concluded and should present productive modifications during the more than 35 years of philosophical and political work that the Hungarian philosopher would have ahead of him. Regarding this book that we are presenting, it must be said that, in Lukács, there is a path for Goethe that is no less important and fruitful than the one linked to Marx in the 1933 essay.

As a final point of this trajectory, it would be possible to mention the conference “ Tuex und Goethe” [Marx and Goethe], given on August 28, 1970 and in which Lukács, in the last months of his life, reviews some of the fundamental inflection points of his appropriation of Goethe and points out, above all, the meaning that this has come to have in his later philosophy. As one of the aspects that bind the author of auspicious to the The capital, old Lukács mentions the genericity, that human dimension in which we can find “a solid parameter for the decisions of our interiority, which becomes fruitful in the field of praxis and, in this sense, essential for a truly human life”. The coincidence between skepticism about the cult of “originality” and the adoption of genericity as a measure influences “the human sketches of all of Goethe's important works; its constructive principle for the configuration of the world is based on these formulations related to life”.

Lukács himself rehearses some traits of his personal relationship with Goethe, which begins very early and follows a long (and intense) trajectory, in such a way that the philosopher can say: “My occupation with the lifestyle and configuration of the world proper to Goethe Goethe has never lost importance in my thinking and my work”. In an authentic process Remembrance, Lukács emphasizes that the historical mutations in his way of understanding the German writer arose from “fundamental changes in the position he takes in relation to the time and the world” and that, among these changes, is the passage to Marxism, which raises the question on how “a Marxist should deal with Goethe's work as a whole”.

As a starting point, Lukács cites his “first essay worthy of being taken seriously”: the 1907 article on Novalis, later included in The soul and the forms* (1911), in which the idiosyncrasy of the romantic poet is defined based on a contrast with the Goethean poetic work and philosophy of life. Faced with the frustrated desire for infinity of the romantics, Goethe would embody the image of the consummate artist, capable of creating a work opposed to vital chaos and of renouncing, as a result of it, a life that anarchically decomposes into fluctuating states of mind. The dialogue “Wealth, chaos and form”, included in the same compilation of essays, also presents Goethe as a positive – and “classic” – counter-image of Laurence Sterne, which, in turn, would constitute a precedent for the dissolution and formal elimination of all the barriers between art and life that characterize contemporary literature.

Also in Entwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Dramas [History of the Evolution of Modern Drama] (1907-1909; published as a book in 1911), Goethe has a leading role; German drama is presented there as organized around two poles of attraction: Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. The first expresses the aspiration to totality and, with it, the devotion for the richness and brightness of life, the taste for the realization of individual existences and for the freedom of autonomous subjects, the interest in the historical specification of the place and time. The other pole seeks, in a different way, unity, and this explains its distinctive properties: the condensation of life in a limited number of symbols, the concentration on great tragic destinies, the pre-eminence of destiny, the absence of a hic and nunc specific.

Both poles find a definite expression in Goethe: the aspiration to Shakespearean fullness is a founding principle for the Gotz von Berlichingen and, by extension, for the entire theater of the Sturm und Drang [Storm and Rush]; the ideal of dramatic concentration is represented by Torquato Tasso e Iphigenia in Tauride by Goethe. However, of both currents, only the second developed consistently and had important followers. The fact that the “Shakespearean line” did not find succession was due, in part, to the problem that the project contradicts the essence of the drama, bringing this genre closer to a vital fullness that corresponds to the epic; in order not to break the dramatic condensation, men and events have to find themselves devoid of any chance and transmuted into symbols of destiny.

The other tradition, marked by the search for unity, sees in formal stylization and the use of idealized characters the adequate formula to distance drama from chance and free it from the ballast of earthly prose; what is sought here is not the resurrection of ancient theater, but the restoration of classic tragedy french. Everything that is individual and characteristic must be eliminated so that only the symbolic, the ideal, remains. However, this idealism implies a danger: the loss of immediate and sensible effect on the masses; as the classic drama of Goethe and Schiller “was an aesthetic drama […] the greatest aesthetic drama”, its most successful manifestations faced the indifference of the public. The Goethean project of founding a theater in Weimar was an unsuccessful attempt to educate a public devoid of education and interest, and classicism was relegated to a condition of a dream full of ambitions, but lacking in reality, due to its lack of ties with the community. All these characteristics explain, for the young Lukács, that the essence of modern drama is synthesized in the classic work of Goethe and Schiller; a drama whose abstraction and intellectualism refer to a society in which, as Marx wrote, quality no longer matters and quantity decides everything.

Also in The Theory of Romance (1914-1915; published as a book in 1920), Goethe plays a central role, although Lukács's image of the German poet is different from that which emerged in earlier books. In this, Goethe appears linked to some ethical and aesthetic postulates that we will find in the mature production of Lukács. The resignation promoted by the German poet is now understood as a tertium datur between extreme positions; a strategy that would later be employed by the Marxist theorist for his other main references: Hegel, Balzac, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann. The Learning Years of Wilhelm Meister, as a novel of education that transcends the antithesis between romance of abstract idealism and the romanticism of disillusionment, is an attempt to reconcile and overcome the opposition between those characters who surrender to pure action and those who prefer to merge into passivity.

The Goethean hero understood that the responsibility for the discord between the soul and the world should not be attributed to either party. It does not dedicate itself to a justification of the status quo nor to a unilateral protest against it, but makes its own an experience “that strives to be fair to both sides and glimpses, in the soul’s inability to act on the world, not only its lack of essence, but also its intrinsic weakness of that”. The protagonist of the novel tries to find in social formations a suitable setting for the development of his own soul. Each member of the Tower Society agrees to renounce part of his ideals in order to facilitate contact with his fellow men; however, this renunciation does not imply a relegation, but the acquisition of new wealth. This community existence is the result of a search and a struggle, the work of individuals who could not rely on a non-antagonistic reality and who dedicated all their efforts to the recomposition of the lost totality.

When speaking of Goethean drama, the young Lukács had already drawn attention to the anti-tragic character of all progression: “The human being who is still developing, who is still on the way to something, or for whom development is life itself (Goethe), cannot be dramatic, for the simple reason that, for him, every individual event can only be be a state, an episode”. These reflections, which Lukács develops in his book on modern drama and which seem to refer to auspicious, anticipate the analysis of wilhelm meister included in The Theory of Romance. The image of Goethe that emerges from this work bears little resemblance to the portrait of the ascetic and formalist enemy of life, outlined in the essays present in The soul and the forms. We envision a Goethe interested in establishing a certain mediation between immanence and transcendence, between individual and society. What draws attention is that wilhelm meister, in addition to everything that Lukács finds positive in it, is not presented as the true overcoming of the dilemmas typical of a genre that, like the novel, belongs to an era of dislocation and decadence identified with the bourgeois world. The Theory of Romance ends with the exaltation of the Russian community and its “new Homer”: Dostoevsky, whose works could present an overcoming of the novel in the direction of the epic.

Early Marxist production includes few approaches to Goethean work. An exception is Nathan und Tasso [Nathan and Tasso] (1922), who subjects the aforementioned works by Lessing and Goethe to a reductionist analysis that has little correspondence with the exceptional earlier and later essays. Aesthetic qualities are neglected at the same time that the political and cultural positions represented by both dramas are highlighted as what is truly important. These “designate two tendencies which – despite Goethe's immeasurable literary superiority – make his work appear as a dangerous deviation, a phenomenon of ideological decadence in relation to Lessing”. The author of the article believes that all Goethean literature means, “for German spiritual evolution, a wrong tendency; that the fact of following some of their paths must lead to a sad philistinism, to a gray petty-bourgeois pettiness”; the revolt against this tendency expresses 'a healthy class instinct in the bourgeois intelligentsia'.

Torwhatthe tasso, one of the most striking dramatic pieces of German literature of the classical period, is here reduced to a desire for reconciliation with the reality of Germany torn apart into small states. Goethean stylization is “merely poetic: it clothes all the petty misery of its age in the faintly passionate splendor of its verses to make the indignation against that misery seem 'one-sided', 'exaggeratedly subjective', unwarranted”. Just a comparison between this approach of the classic Goethe with later ones in Goethe and his time or in Fortschritt und Reaktion in der deutschen Literatur [Progress and reaction in German literature] (1947) to highlight the reductionism of the 1922 essay, which does not do justice to the richness or complexity of Weimar classicism, nor does it emphasize in its authentic magnitude the literary and cultural dimension of Lessing, which, in addition to enthusiastic praise, presents in Nathan and Tasso a physiognomy of scarce and superficial features. The analysis does not approach the depth of the brilliant 1963 essay on Minna von Barnhelm.

A turning point on the path for Goethe occurred in 1932, when Lukács, settled in Berlin, wrote a series of scathing articles on the occasion of the centenary of the German poet's death, with the aim, in particular, of dismantling the various attempts by Nazism to appropriating the Goethian legacy. Elsewhere, we deal with the analysis of this succession of essays, of which the most important is “Goethe und die Dialektik” [Goethe and the dialectic]; we will only say here that, in them, not only is the conservative justification of the philistine aspects in Goethe challenged, but also the global condemnations and the attempts to separate merits and demerits in a Solomonic way are questioned: “It is not enough to unmask the falsifications of Goethe made by bourgeois literati. to combat Goethe's philistine traits. At most, this would lead to a Proudhonian – and not a dialectical – opposition between its 'good' and 'bad' aspects”.

The life and work of the German writer should not be seen as a harmonious totality, but as a unity of contradictory forces that cannot be surgically separated. The Marxian affiliation of this approach is noticeable: in terms similar to those employed by Lukács, Marx opposed the left neo-Hegelians' attempt to draw a distinction between an esoteric Hegel, who, read "correctly", would be an atheist and revolutionary, and another exoteric, which would have agreed with the political powers of his time; Hegelian philosophy is a unity of contradictions. This approximation between the Marxian interpretation of Hegel and the Lukacsian characterization of Goethe helps to understand why the affinities between these two central exponents of the classic period of German culture are highlighted by Lukács: both represent, along with English political economists, the highest degree of consciousness achieved within the limits of the bourgeois worldview.


Once this path has been traced, it would be opportune to ask what is particular and distinctive about the essays contained in Goethe and his time. Written between 1934 and 1936, they coincide with a turning point in Lukács' positions towards bourgeois culture, marked by a reassessment of the relationship between it and the rising fascism. During the first years of that decade, under the influence of the theory of “social-fascism” promoted by the Comintern, Lukács had understood fascism as a necessary fruit of bourgeois society, which led him to derive a Manichaean opposition between the bourgeois world and the communist world. The philosopher who, in “Theses by Blum”, quoted Lenin to argue that “there is no wall in China between the bourgeois revolution and the revolution of the proletariat”, began to show himself obstinate in erecting this wall.

In the middle of the decade, and along with the consolidation of anti-fascist popular front policies, positions changed substantially. An expression of this change is the effort, largely inspired by the young Marx, to rescue some of the most important categories promoted by the bourgeoisie in its ascendant stage – reason, democracy, progress – as a legacy to be assumed by socialist philosophy and ideology, marking an opposition to the barbarously irrationalist, despotic and reactionary orientation of the fascist dictatorship. The essays in this book, as well as those of Balzac and French Realism (with the exception of the last one, dedicated to Zola), are important milestones in this change of direction. they are too the historical novel (1936-1937) and The Young Hegel – the two most ambitious undertakings carried out by Lukács during the fascist period.

Anticipating the theses of the second major monograph on fascism, the manuscript How did Germany become the center of reactionary ideology? (1941-1942), which coincides in many aspects with the preface of 1947, all these publications address important moments and figures of the bourgeois past as an incisive attempt to, partially, rescue and appropriate them by socialist culture, rejecting the appropriation efforts of the drivers of Nazi cultural policy. The explicit marks of this strategy appear in the different essays in the volume.

A peculiarity of the book, already suggested in the title, is the decision to place the different authors in a relationship with your time and, more specifically, with political and social conditions, in a more intense and complex way than in previous and other contemporary studies. If, in some cases, the emphasis on this relationship seems excessive, it would have to be justified as a response to the obstinacy of many other critics in erasing this connection. This is the case, for example, when Lukács argues that the difference between the young and mature stages of Goethe and Schiller is not explained by psychological or formal issues, but from a point of inflection between two periods in the development of bourgeois society. Or when he says that Goethe's “flight” to Italy was not due to a sentimental crisis, but to the failure of attempts to introduce economic and political reforms in Weimar on enlightened grounds. Or when he explains that the friendship between Goethe and Schiller was not based exclusively on personal sympathy or aesthetic taste, but, above all, on a “political fraternity”, on the formation of a bloc in the political-cultural field.

The central objective of the classicist program was to liquidate the feudal remnants, affirming the expectations of France in 1789, but without carrying out a revolution, starting from a – utopian – confluence between certain progressive sectors of the German aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Along the same lines, Lukacs' affront to fascist critics who hide the socio-historical tragedy of Hölderlin's life and work moves in order to make him an illustrious predecessor of the Third Reich.

No less important is the attention that Lukács devotes to the historicity of literary and critical works. Cesare Cases wrote that the historical novel is “one of the greatest products of the historical thought of our time” and that, since Hegel, “it had not been possible to read pages in which the historicity of aesthetic categories emerged with such evidence”. Something similar can be said of Goethe and his time; and we could condense our convictions into a thesis: Lukacsian analyses, on this and on other occasions, are more incisive and provocative the more consistent their historicist perspective is and the less they are oriented towards the search for universal principles. It is suggestive that, in relation to some of the writers examined, he questions the abandonment of historical consideration in favor of a generalizing and abstract point of view.

For example, when he attributes to Schiller and Hegel the common error of passing immediately from historical categories to universal philosophical ones, or when he opposes the author of The aesthetic education of man for deriving, starting from the specificities of work under capitalism, a condemnatory judgment about work in general, as if it were a hostile practice to culture. In keeping with the elementary Marxist imperative to always historicize, Lukács explains how the differences between Schillerian aesthetics and Hegel's respond less to personal discrepancies than to divergences between two evolutionary phases of bourgeois humanism: the period of Thermidor and Napoleon and the period after the fall of the latter. Or do you point out that the relatively different position of wilhelm meister and from Hegel's Aesthetics in relation to the prose of the capitalist era, it refers to two distinct moments in the development of bourgeois society.

Evidence of the dialectical – and therefore non-linear, non-mechanistic – character of Lukács' approach is the way he justifies the guiding role that Germany had, on the philosophical and aesthetic levels, during the classical period, despite the conditions of deprivation. economic and political. In concrete terms, the same situation of extreme misery which made a practical transformation impossible favored the genesis of the dialectic, to the extent that, far removed from the development experienced by bourgeois society in countries like England and France, but deeply interested in it, Hegel was able to access a vision whose complexity and breadth surpass that of intellectuals in other countries. more advanced, who were understandably more attached to the surface of capitalist modernity. Something similar occurs on the aesthetic level, as shown by Lukács regarding the “realistic” reactions of Goethe and Schiller to the French Revolution: while in France the literary representation of the great revolutionary upheavals begins only after the end of the period – right after the fall of Napoleon – , and in England even later, in backward Germany the repercussions are almost immediate.

It is expressed in the consolidation of intellectual elites who, on the literary level, produced works that accompanied the process of preparation for the Revolution of 1789 (Othe sufferings of young Werther, the bandits) or elaborate their derivations (wilhelm meister, Faust II). The other side of this ability to abstract the essence of an entire era is, on the philosophical and aesthetic levels, the idealism; an idealism which, in Weimar classicism, manifests itself in the illusion, shared by Goethe and Schiller, of believing that the “ills” of the modern world can be cured by artistic means.

Lukács' historicist perspective proves no less productive when examining the evolution of aesthetic forms – and, in particular, that of the form of the novel, which is of central interest in Goethe and his time, similarly to what happens in Balzac und der französische Realismus [Balzac and French realism]. Attentive to the double character of the literary work as an autonomous structure and a social fact, Lukács explores the formal mutations of novels without losing sight of their complex and contradictory connections with the contemporary social and ideological context. Thus, he shows in specific terms how Werther it is not only a continuation of the great narrative of the Enlightenment – ​​by Goldsmith, Richardson and Rousseau –, but also a turning point in the history of the genre, which makes it possible to identify it as the first precursor of the problematic novel of the XNUMXth century; the configuration of Wahlheim's small world already heralds the dramatism that Balzac would later affirm as a defining characteristic of the XNUMXth century novel.

The study of wilhelm meister highlights the particularities that differentiate this novel, on the one hand, from Defoe and Lesage; on the other, of Balzac and Stendhal. In historically more concrete terms than in The Theory of Romance, Lukács is in a position to explain the absolute uniqueness of Master in the development of the genre, as a product of a crisis of epochal change, of a very brief transitional era. He also asks the reasons that justify the differences between The years of learning and the first draft of this work, Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission; In other words, the passage of a artist novel to a education novel. the exam of Hyperion or the Hermit in Greece reveals the specific physiognomy of this novel in comparison with Master of Goethe and Heinrich von Ofterdingen of Novalis, especially with regard to the ways of configuring the “prose” of modernity.

The result of Hölderlin's artistic experimentation, as well as his political and social convictions and experiences, is the greatest and most objective epic of the citizen (cytoenepik) that the bourgeois era has already produced: a unique epic-lyrical style, which, given the particular coordinates in which it was gestated, could not have successors. By confronting prosaic reality, without poetizing it (as Novalis wants to do) nor reconciling with it (as he proposes Master), but confronting it with the model of citoyen, Hölderlin configures a lyrical-elegiac action, at the same time objective: never has a writer from the bourgeois era been able to represent internal conflicts in a way that is so little intimate, so little personal, so immediately public, as the author of Hyperion.

Attention to individual examples does not end the vision of the structural characteristics of the genre. Resuming the approaches of The theory of romance, but also in coincidence with the contemporary article “O romance” (1934), written for the Literaturnaja Enciklopedija in Moscow, Lukács defines the novel – as a “bourgeois epic” (Hegel) – as the form of artistic configuration adequate to an essentially contradictory subject and era. That is, a form whose greatness and whose limits consist in taking the problematic that is at its base to the ultimate consequences. With this, Lukács relates the extreme difficulty that the novel finds, unlike the epic, to create positive heroes; Don Quixote, by Cervantes, offers a precise satire on how the impossibility of chivalric heroism in a prosaic age and even representations of the heroic resistance of bourgeois characters to the persecutions and temptations of the corrupt representatives of the aristocracy, as in pamela Richardson, can only be achieved through intense idealization, which violates the inherent realism of the novel as a genre.

One of the strong theses of the book is that both the Sturm und Drang and Weimar classicism represent a continuation, not an antithesis, of the European Enlightenment. At the time Lukács formulated it, with Nazism installed in power and determined to impose a cultural policy according to which Romanticism was such a substantial feature of the German “spirit” and its special way historical as to apoliticality and irrationalism, the thesis was not only original, but also had a polemical bias. Meanwhile, studies on Sentimentalism (Empfindsamkeit), understood as a cultural turn within the Enlightenment, in response to a first stage of a basically rationalist character, advanced to the point that it is no longer necessary to justify that the Goethe of Werther and that of The elective affinities, as well as Schiller's the bandits and that of wallenstein, are followers of a movement whose pioneers were authors such as Rousseau and Diderot.

In the mid-1930s, when Lukács enunciated it, this proposal was new and controversial. This can be seen right at the beginning of the essay on Werther: Lukács is aware that, by claiming that Goethe's novel is one of the masterpieces of the German Enlightenment, he is confronting an irrational and chauvinistic Germanism – in some cases, such as that of Hermann August Korff, directly identified with fascism – who had made an effort to understand the young Goethe and the young Schiller as enemies of the Enlightenment and immediate precursors of Romanticism (which would appear in Germany only a quarter of a century after the publication of Werther). These comments require some clarification: in the cultural context of the German language, it is evident that there is a separation between the classicism of Weimar and the various romanticisms – that of Jena, Heidelberg, Berlin, or that embodied by radical individualists such as Kleist.

The reception conditions of German literature of the classical period in Spain and Latin America gave rise to a unique phenomenon: from the considerable influence exerted by the essay D'Allemagne by Madame de Staël (published in 1813), in which the romantic aesthetics and cosmovision are proposed as a master key to understanding the entire German political, intellectual, religious and artistic development, the idea of that Goethe and Schiller – who not only wrote some of the harshest criticisms of the Romantic movement, but developed a poetics substantially antagonistic to it – were prominent figures in Romanticism. This way of reading, which could be curious for the context of central Europe (it would be unusual to find a history of German literature published in Germany in which Werther ou auspicious appear classified as romantic works), marked our reception of Weimar classicism.

These types of reception should deserve less a categorical criticism than an analysis that highlights the extent to which the philological “error” allowed a productive reception; in a generically similar way, Goethe's insufficient or erroneous knowledge of Greek art favored the writing of Iphigenia, Pandora or the third act of the second auspicious. After all, Lukács himself investigated the aesthetically fruitful effect of misunderstandings, and Marx argued, in a letter to Lassalle dated July 22, 1861, that "every realization of an earlier period adopted by a later period would be the misunderstood past". ”, so that, for example, the different reinterpretations of Greek tragedy “interpreted the Greeks as corresponding to their own artistic need”. In line with these positions, Lukács will say that every great writer, when he proposes to re-elaborate the past, puts into practice Molière's well-known maxim: Je prends mon bien où je le trouve. A relevant point when facing Goethe and his time from a historicist perspective is to understand the affinities and divergences between the context in which Lukács wrote his book and the particular point of view from which we read it today.

This concerns Lukács's critique of German Romanticism. A common mistake, when approaching the theme, is to consider Romanticism a kind of ahistorical entity or a Platonic idea, without doing justice to the enormous diversity of expressions – linguistic, cultural, geographic, generational – that it encompasses, nor to the innumerable ways in which has been interpreted over time. In the case of Lukács, it would be possible to reconstruct an entire history of his polemical dialogues with German Romanticism; a dialogue with different inflections, beyond the predominantly critical position. The belief that the young Lukács was a defender of Romanticism and that he later changed his position, after joining communism, is widespread. This version is very far from the truth: strictly speaking, Lukács was never as hostile to Romanticism as at the beginning. The essay on Novalis is a harsh and scathing critique against the romantic philosophy of life, and The soul and the forms is the work of a thinker convinced that neoclassicism offers the most adequate response to the aesthetic dilemmas of the early twentieth century and proposes to enunciate a dramaturgy inspired by the classicism of Racine, Alfieri and the contemporary Paul Ernst and hostile to the Shakespearean model, which not only inspired Lessing and the Sturm und Drang, but above all the romantic drama.

The Theory of Romance proposes an essential affinity between the novel (novel) and romanticism (Romance) to present the entire bourgeois era as an individualistic epoch whose decadent character contrasts with the ancient (Homer) and medieval (Dante) epic, as well as with the new epic that seems to shine in Dostoevsky's Russia. In a letter to Leo Popper dated October 27, 1909, Lukács, then 24 years old, states: “My life is, to a great extent, a critique of the Romantics”. And he adds: “It is not possible to separate a critique of the epic form from a critique of Romanticism […]. Oh no, it is not fortuitous that the words romance (novel) and Romanticism (Romance) are etymologically related! The novel is the typical form of the Romantic era… both in life and in art.” In this context, the reflections on Romanticism present in Goethe and his time, which are not reduced to mere rejection and which are more nuanced than those that appeared in previous writings. as in Balzac and French Realism, Lukács highlights the undeniable relevance and partial justification of the romantic perspective, which must inevitably be taken into account in the critical analysis of modernity.

Those writers who, at the beginning or in the middle of the XNUMXth century, set out to shape their own times could not be romantics in the scholarly sense of the term – since that would have prevented them from understanding the direction in which history was advancing – but neither could they fail to take advantage of the romantic critique of capitalism and its culture, at the risk of becoming apologists for bourgeois society. All of them “had to strive to make Romanticism an outdated factor of their worldview. And it must be added that this synthesis was not achieved by any of the great writers of that period entirely and without contradictions”; they produced their works “from the contradictions of the social and intellectual situation, which they could not objectively resolve, but which they courageously led to the end”.

In a similar way, in Goethe and his time, it is said that a tendency among the great writers of the period between 1789 and 1848 is to incorporate romantic elements – as necessary results of new forms of life – in their method and their conception of literature as a factor to be overcome in the triple Hegelian sense; that is, as a factor to be annulled, but only in so far as it is also conserved and raised to a higher level. In his studies of French realism, Lukács argues that one of the reasons for Balzac's superiority over Stendhal is that the latter “consciously rejects Romanticism from the beginning. In his ideology he is really a great conscientious follower of the philosophy of the Enlightenment”; at the same time, “it is notorious the literary recognition that Balzac, beyond all criticism, paid to all the important romantics, starting with Chénier and Chateaubriand”.

In other words, in the examined context, the incorporation of romantic components is a necessary element for the consolidation of a great realistic art; therefore, one of the reasons for Goethe's superiority over Schiller is that the former was much less intransigent than the latter in his rejection of romantic poetics.

Lukács detects in the progressive writer Stendhal a pessimistic rejection of the present that paradoxically associates him with Romanticism. But the French novelist's nostalgia does not miss the Middle Ages idealized by Novalis or Carlyle, but rather the “heroic” period of the bourgeois class, before that caesura that, in his opinion, would have produced the Restoration. Here we touch not only on an existential dimension, but also on a methodological one in Lukács' thought: for him, the framework for subjective action is delimited by the possibilities actually present in a given historical context. Any attempt to introduce an external logic into it could only lead to tragedy or, in the slightest of circumstances (as happens with certain later phenomena), fall into ridicule or ineffectiveness.

Both the escape and the subjectivist violence against history are frequent targets of criticism in Lukács' work and, in part, contain an implicit self-criticism by the mature and late author of his own youthful leftism. Lukacsian ontological thought proposes, in the wake of Hegel and Marx, an investigation of the latent possibilities of the object in order to determine the specific field for subjective action. Hence the questioning not only of conservative artists, intellectuals and politicians who would like to turn back the clock of history, but also those liberals or even Marxists who urge us to turn our backs on the present, opposing it to some positive parameter external to history.

Based on this, it would be necessary to interpret Lukács' judgments not only about romantics such as Novalis and Schelling, but also about the Jacobin, "Fichtian" tradition, which insists on idealistically imposing speculative normative schemes on a supposedly degraded reality. . That is why the criticisms of Stendhal and Schiller, but also of Ferdinand Lassale, who, despite his supposed devotion to Hegel, maintained a pathos ethics and a Fichtian activism that made him retreat even behind the author of the Phenomenology; or to Moses Hess, who promoted a purely intellectual and idealist dialectic in which a “return to Fichte” was also to be identified.

This context allows for a more complete understanding of the study of Hyperion. Reactions to the essay generally range from unreserved identification to obfuscated indignation—two attitudes that often make serious evaluation difficult. The fundamental thing is not to decide whether the critic's considerations point to a positive or negative evaluation of the German author and his novel – after all, we have already seen that Lukács celebrates Hyperion as a unique work in the history of the novel – but to examine the way in which the argument is articulated. To better understand this, the comparison with Hegel is productive: in his juvenile writings, especially those from the Berne period, the German philosopher celebrates the French Revolution and the model of citoyen a resurrection of the spirit of ancient polis Greek, as well as an interruption of the decay process that began with the Roman Empire. Here, the whole of history – once the only possible model of a fair and just society disappeared – is understood as a process of corruption and error that could only be corrected through the revitalization of the ideal of society. polis.

History, then, does not present an internal dialectic, and the truth could only be introduced from the outside, through the subjectivist violence promoted by the Jacobins. If the historical facts are not in accordance with the ethical-political principles of the republican doctrinaires, so much the worse for the facts. The discovery of dialectics was, in Hegel, hand in hand with the recognition that, after Thermidor, the end of the revolutionary period and the Napoleonic process, Europe entered a new era, and the German philosopher decided to build his philosophy based on the examination of latencies at that time. The great synthesis that constitutes the Phenomenology it is the product of this turning point; for not having revised his positions, Hegel would have remained attached to a dualistic and, therefore, non-dialectical confrontation between the “bad” historical and material conditions and a timeless ideal that opposes truth and lies. When Hegel decides to base his philosophy on the knowledge that a turning point has taken place in world history, he opens the way to an apprenticeship in reality that would have remained blocked if he had insisted on not correct their subjective convictions from the collision with historical reality.

The concept of education runs through the trials of Goethe and his time. In the study on The years of learning it is said that Goethe is considered a consistent follower of the Enlightenment insofar as he attaches extraordinary importance to the conscious direction of human development, to education. And the attention paid to the model of the educational novel (Erziehungsroman) – whose protagonists are forced, like Wilhelm Meister or Henrique, the Green, to exhaustively review all their convictions from a confrontation with social life that collapses their previous illusions – also ratifies an interest in pedagogy and training that runs through Lukács's Marxist work and which has some particularly striking moments, such as the essay on Makarenko or certain excerpts from the great Aesthetics.

In connection with this issue, one should examine this willingness to learn about reality that Lukács highlights in two of the most prominent figures of bourgeois culture: Goethe and Hegel. It is said in writings from moscow: “Goethe and Hegel believe that the totality of reality, such as it is, follows the path of reason. This faith is united, in them, with an insatiable hunger for reality; both want to assimilate and conceive the whole of reality, such as it is; they want to continuously learn from reality; they are deeply convinced that the hidden reason in the movement of the external world is above the individual thought of even the most brilliant personalities. Thus, they managed to conceive the concrete movement of contradictions as a unitary content of nature, history and thought”.

Different from them are those Jacobin writers and thinkers who refuse to establish mediations with the “bad” circumstances of the present and, therefore, to learn from them, facing with unwavering firmness the purity of Jacobin ethics. Taking up this last position in nineteenth-century Germany meant condemning oneself to desperate solitude; the brilliant essayist Georg Forster managed to find a space for action after his move to France. Even so, he remained in the history of German literature as an episodic figure, unable to insert himself effectively into philosophical or literary traditions. Hölderlin's case is, for Lukács, more arduous: he never found a homeland (Home), inside or outside Germany, and the marks of this uprooting can be traced both in lyrics and in Hyperion e The death of Empedocles.

More generally, the rejection of all German culture as slavish led German Jacobins, especially particularly late ones like Ludwig Börne, to extreme pessimism about the present and to dogmatic and even mystical positions (as both the desire to Hölderlin to reform the present by introducing a new religion as the late Börne's growing interest in the mystical theology of Lamennais). If the general line of the European progressive bourgeoisie, despite rejecting the plebeian dimension of the French Revolution (Goethe, Hegel, Balzac), was not only more influential but also more successful, this is largely due to the fact that it took up the challenge to investigate the possibilities of the present rather than look away from it in disenchantment. This commitment to the present, beyond all critical opposition, is the very core of Lukacs's concept of realism; in the philosopher's words, the great realist can react negatively on the political, moral, etc. levels, in the face of many phenomena of his time and historical evolution; but, in a certain sense, he is in love with reality, he always regards it with the eyes of a lover, even if he is eventually scandalized or indignant.

An important theme of the book is the discussion – intense at that time – around the problem of inheritance; that is, about the ways in which Marxism should (or should not) assume the intellectual, artistic and cultural traditions of the past as a legacy. The problem is suggested at various times through an analysis of the relationship that the German literature of the classical period established with the aesthetic and political models of Antiquity. The subject assumes an important role in the essay on Hyperion, but it is in the study of the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller and in “The Schillerian theory of modern literature” that it receives a more exhaustive treatment. What Lukács highlights is that, in its deepest and most productive moments, Greek art was not for Goethe and Schiller a fixed norm destined to be applied for all eternity, but a point of reference for solving problems of the present itself.

Thus, the German classical writers might have said, in the face of the legacy of antiquity: Je prends mon bien où je le trouve. Lukács explains that, in Goethe and Schiller, the way of reacting to this question was grouped around two main possibilities. One was to conform, based on ancient poetics, a system of ahistorical laws that would allow the production of classical art under the problematic conditions of modernity; this solution implied a certain distance from the present, as well as the search for a purified form that, with simplicity, clarity and conciseness, opposed the complex and immeasurable character of modern life. The other possibility consisted of examining ancient poetics with the aim of extracting rules and procedures aimed, above all, at expressing the peculiarity of modern life – this path leads to the theory of the novel, the configuration without any concessions of all modern life, including its qualities. more problematic; it supposes advancing in the analysis and literary treatment of the modern problematic taking them to the end. It is understandable that the second solution – preferred by Lukács – is the one adopted by Goethe in his most ambitious literary projects; between them, wilhelm meister e Faust.

At a higher level, the question is posed in relation to the point of view from which Lukács examines Goethe and his time in this book. One thing this book makes emphatically clear is that not it is neither recommendable nor, basically, possible to apply in mid-1930s Europe the same methods that Goethe and Schiller had used. With that, we return to the question with which we began this preface: a concrete reason to occupy ourselves with Weimar classicism, in times of fascist escalation, is to show the existence, in Germany itself, of progressive traditions that prevent any attempt to interpret Nazism. as an inevitable “destiny” and which, at the same time, point to lines of evolution in the past with which a present of struggle and a future of emancipation could be linked.

A more general motivation concerns questions of method as well as practical attitudes towards the historical circumstances with which we have to deal. Like Walter Benjamin, Lukács thinks that an essentially contradictory and, therefore, dialectical time, such as modernity, requires the procedure that consists of determining our field of thought and action from an immanent analysis of the historical conditions themselves, not from the violent imposition on these conditions of some ossified principles. This was the teaching that Lukács drew from Goethe and Hegel, as well as from Balzac and Marx, and it goes beyond the particular coordinates in which it was formulated.

And it is a teaching that has come to have particular relevance in our time. More than that: in our time, faced with the terrors inherent to the neoliberal phase of capitalism, the growing superficiality of the postmodern vulgate, the processes of academicization of knowledge, the fragmentation of struggles against capital, not a few Marxists have chosen to turn their backs on at the same time, cultivating pessimism about the present and repeating sclerotic formulas that have been stripped of all historical specificity. In this way, they managed to become typical exponents of “nostalgia Marxism”. Hi Rhodus, hic salta: Marx's exhortation at the beginning of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte remains valid as an invitation to update the heritage of emancipatory thought and art from a consideration of the immanent qualities of our present.

In this broad and generous sense, in this present in which we conclude the writing of this presentation, during the second year of a plague that continues to ravage humanity on a global level, we can say that, just as in the years when Lukács wrote his studies on Goethe and his time, “it is still about realism”.

*Miguel Vedda Professor of German Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of The theory of drama in Germany (Greeds).


Gyorgy Lukacs. Goethe and his time. Translation: Nélio Schneider and Ronaldo Vielmi Fortes. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 216 pages.


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