György Lukács – aesthetics and literary criticism

Pae White, Morceau Accrochant, 2004


Aesthetics It is the work of maturity, safe reference to retrospectively evaluate the steps taken in Lukács' trajectory

Since the 1930s, György Lukács has been involved in fierce controversies defending realism, a method that would receive its most complete formulation in Aesthetics. Controversies involving literature and politics are not always calm: it is common for an author, in the heat of the discussion, to exaggerate his arguments to defend his point of view, to go beyond what prudence advises, to not pay attention to the arguments of his opponents, etc. It is not the case of Aesthetics, a work of maturity, a safe reference for retrospectively evaluating the steps taken in Lukács's trajectory – both those that prefigure mature reflections and those that diverge from them.

We will then see some examples.


At several points in his extensive work György Lukács resorted to Friedrich Engels' thesis about the “victory of realism”. The work of art, Engels recalled, is an objective reality that often contradicts the ideological preferences of the author. The typical example is Balzac, who ideologically identified with the gentry, but whose loyalty to realism led him to show the parasitic character of this social segment, condemned to disappear with the development of French society. Reality, therefore, imposed itself, contrary to the author's ideological preferences: victory of realism.

György Lukács, however, was not always faithful to Engels' thesis, as the book proves Critical realism, today.[I] In it, the entire analysis is based on the philosophical opinions expressed by different writers (Joyce, Kafka, etc.) and not through the immanent study of the texts. György Lukács, in this case, contradicted his own method. At Aesthetics, warned: “artists’ ideas should be inferred from the nature of their works, instead of understanding works based on the expressed opinions of their authors”.[ii] This disobedience in relation to the method itself is not the privilege of György Lukács. Another author who always defended immanent analysis, such as Theodor Adorno, had the same generalizing procedure when criticizing jazz without having analyzed a single piece of music to support his convictions.

In the case of György Lukács there is an attachment to the great realist writers of the first half of the 1930th century taken as models. But realism in Aesthetics is an attitude towards reality that prevails from the Greeks to this day, and not a model to be used in criticizing authors who distance themselves from it, as Lukács had done in the XNUMXs. Aesthetics, things are put differently: “there is nothing so varied, so radically variable as the set of expressive means, systems of references, etc. that historically enable a realistic style in each given circumstance.” Next, a warning: “The margin of movement of this change in the refigurative medium is so great at times that one era can discover that another's expressive means are obstacles for it to face in its own realistic expression”.[iii]

At other times, fidelity to the method presented surprising results, such as when, for example, György Lukács came across the work of ETA Hoffmann and his short stories traditionally considered by critics as belonging to fantastic literature, and not to realism. Lukács' analysis starts from the so-called “German poverty”: unlike France and England, Germany was a country in which backward capitalism coexisted with feudal structures and, therefore, the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production had not fully developed. , coexisting with the personal relationships inherited from feudalism. In such an economic-social context, social classes and their struggles were not yet fully visible.

How then can we realistically portray the links between this reality and the fate of literary characters? How to move from average to typical? How to use the narrative method? Lukács reaches a surprising conclusion: Hoffmann is a realist, because his fantastic realism is the appropriate way of portraying that society in which “The phenomenal forms of social life, in their immediate disfigurement, still showed themselves to be rebellious to any direct representation”.[iv] In another text, he added: “It is not absolutely necessary that the artistically figurative phenomenon be captured as a phenomenon of everyday life and not even as a phenomenon of real life in general. This means that even the most extravagant game of poetic fantasy and the most fantastic representations of phenomena are fully reconcilable with the Marxist conception of realism. […]. The fantastic novels of Hoffmann and Balzac represent culminating moments in realistic literature, because in them, precisely by virtue of the fantastic representation, the essential forces are placed in special relief”.[v]

These comments are particularly relevant to us, because in Latin America this particular form of realism – “fantastic realism” was, perhaps, the most characteristic of our literature. Ultimately, we can think that Machado de Assis, our greatest realist writer, if not the greatest in our literary history, also made use of a form specific to Realism, in which the omniscient narrator was replaced by the “voluble narrator” (the poisoned husband due to jealousy, the “deceased author” etc.). In this way, he literary expressed the specific conditions of a provincial, slave-owning society, where human relationships were mediated by favor.[vi]

With these examples, one can observe the predominance of the ontological perspective, for which the method is not a set of defined precepts beforehand, an epistemological resource culminating in the static construction of a model, but a surrender to the always surprising self-movement of reality. This tension between epistemologism and ontology accompanies the conception of realism and reflection in the work of György Lukács at all times. One of the most representative texts of the 1930s, “Art and objective truth”, already announced in the title itself the initial difficulties faced. Objective truth, truth as an object that seems alien to the subject. This “hard” conception of reflection, however, coexisted in the text with the creative emphasis of fantasy, already announcing the conceptual refinement that will materialize in Aesthetics, when mimesis is seen as a defining category of the specificity of aesthetic reflection.[vii]

Kafka and Brecht

The “softening” of the reflex theory in Aesthetics relativized several severe and dogmatic judgments made about some artists, such as Kafka and Brecht.

Carlos Nelson Coutinho observed that “Before 1956, Lukács had never spoken about Kafka; neither in his literary essays of the 1930s nor in his Brief History of German Literature (1945), Lukács makes the slightest reference to Kafka” [viii]. In The destruction of reason, published in 1954, Kafka appears at a certain moment in which the author made connections between vulgar economic theories, which advocated capitalism, and literature. The comment could not be more unfortunate: “Today, on the contrary, we have as parallel literary phenomena, that is, as literary representatives equivalent to direct apologetic economy and semantic philosophy, names like Kafka or Camus (we speak here of literature as an indicator of currents social; questions of aesthetic value are not important for the present discussion)” [ix].

The Lukacsian text that received the most criticism was initially published in Italy, in 1957, with the title The current meaning of critical realism (translated in Brazil as Critical realism today). György Lukács wrote an entire chapter offering the reader a Manichaean choice: “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” The author of The Metamorphosis is presented as a precursor to the anti-humanist and anti-realist tendencies represented by the aesthetic avant-gardes. These are criticized not through the immanent analysis of the works, as György Lukács did not bother to carefully examine any of them, but taken only as expressions of the expressed or underlying “conceptions of the world”. This type of interpretation, more consistent with Lucien Goldmann's methodology, is in flagrant opposition to the Engelsian thesis of the “victory of realism” and to everything that György Lukács would affirm in Aesthetics.

Much of the ill will of literary critics towards György Lukács comes from this clumsy avant-garde critic. Consequently, Lukács's great literary studies were relegated to oblivion and our author ended up being better known for his “bad reputation” than for his vigorous work.

More attentive intellectuals, such as Adolfo Casais Monteiro, a Portuguese literary critic exiled in Brazil and a reference in studies on Fernando Pessoa, realized that Lukács contradicted his own method by attacking the avant-garde based on the scattered declarations of the “empirical self” and not the analysis of work (in which the “artistic self” expresses itself). But, he admitted: “for the first time in the entire history of Marxism, György Lukács approaches literature as literature.”[X]

Carlos Nelson Coutinho, in turn, took forward “the challenge of trying to understand in the light of Lukács an author that Lukács did not understand”. The use of allegory, the basis of György Lukács' criticism of the avant-garde, would be restricted to Kafka's minor texts and not in books such as The Metamorphosis e The process. In the first book, says Coutinho, “the absorption of fantastic techniques should not be confused with anti-realism; it is, rather, a continuation of the legacy of Hoffmann and Gogol's fantastic critical realism, that is, the intensification of real processes to better break the crust of phenomenal alienation and penetrate the essence of real behaviors. In the second, through the irruption of an exceptional fact, but an exceptionality that is also the intensification of real possibilities, Kafka demystifies the criticism of the false ideology of “security” on which the bourgeois manipulation of consciences is largely based. and its conservation in alienation; and equally denounces, with a high aesthetic universality, the forms of capitalist alienation embodied in the technical-bureaucratic organization of society”.[xi]

In his greatest works, therefore, Kafka was a realistic author and, to be more precise, “the novelistic precursor of the new form of the novel”,[xii] necessary form to account for the new modalities of alienation produced by late capitalism. Coutinho's brilliant interpretation was later revived and expanded in Lukács, Proust and Kafka. Literature and society in the 20th century.[xiii] In addition to the refined analysis, which now included Marcel Proust, Coutinho made a detailed survey of later texts in which György Lukács outlined retreats and self-criticisms not only in relation to those three authors but also to Robert Musil by The man without qualities. Attached, the book brings the correspondence between Coutinho and Lukács, in which the then young critic questioned some of the old master's formulations.

Subsequently, in Aesthetics, Lukács reevaluated his judgments, starting to affirm the “superiority of Franz Kafka over other contemporary authors”. The contrast, now, is no longer with Thomas Mann, but with Beckett: Kafka's humanism and realism against the capitulation to reification and irrationalist nihilism in Beckett: “This distinguishes, for example, The process by Kafka molloy by Beckett; in The process the absolute incognito of the particular man appears as an outrageous, indignation-evoking abnormality of human existence (…) while Beckett settles self-satisfied in the fetishized and absolutized particularity”.[xiv]

Another author who deserves a reevaluation of Lukács is Bertolt Brecht. The long and conflictive relationship between them, which began in the debate over expressionism in the 1930s, was strained for political and aesthetic reasons. Both were communist intellectuals who defended, each in their own way, realism, but differed on issues of political strategy. György Lukács, since the “Blum Theses”, written in 1929, defended the “popular front” policy: the alliance of progressive forces as a way to confront Nazi-fascism, an alliance that included the democratic sectors of the bourgeoisie. Brecht, on the contrary, aligned himself with the leftist sectors that defended the “class against class” policy – ​​therefore, no alliance with the bourgeoisie.

The “popular front” policy was reflected in the cultural issue through the Lukacsian valorization of high bourgeois culture and realism, understood as a “cultural heritage” to be taken up and developed by the proletariat. Furthermore, György Lukács contrasted the art of a bourgeoisie in its democratic and revolutionary period (before 1848) with all the irrationalist and anti-humanist tendencies represented by the so-called aesthetic avant-gardes, as well as by the adherents of Proletkult with his contempt for bourgeois culture.

Brecht, who had initially worked with the political theater of Piscator and was influenced by expressionism in his first plays, was always close to the leftist sectors involved in the experiments of proletarian theater. Although he also defended realism and the cognitive function of art, Brecht constructed his conception of epic theater in opposition to the Aristotelian conception. Hence his refusal to mimesis and catharsis.

Consequently, György Lukács' appreciation of critical realism contrasted with Brecht's creative spirit, committed to discovering new forms of expression to replace the old realism, which, according to him, had already exhausted its possibilities. The proposal for a new art designed to critically reflect reality and fight for its revolutionary transformation should not take bourgeois art as its paradigm – art that not even the bourgeoisie was interested in preserving anymore.

The confrontation between the two authors became explicit during the “Debate on Expressionism”. Lukács’ criticism of this aesthetic aspect, announced throughout the essay “Greatness and decadence of expressionism”, [xv] 1934, was the starting point of a controversy involving Ernest Bloch and Hans Eisler. György Lukács' stance of generic condemnation of the movement attributed the failure of expressionism to its inability to artistically express the new reality formed by the advent of imperialism, the world wars and the revolutionary period opened by the 1917 revolution.

Politically, expressionism was interpreted by him as a cultural expression of a petty bourgeoisie linked to the Independent Social Democratic Party, whose ideological horizon was limited to opposing the bourgeoisie and war in an abstract way based on a romantic and irrationalist anti-capitalism. Such an aesthetic current, he concluded, ended up being incorporated by fascism. Reality, however, contradicted Lukács' verdict: in Germany, in 1937, the “Degenerate Art” exhibition was held with great fanfare, in which expressionist works were ridiculed.

György Lukács' dogmatic criticism, anticipating what he would do in Critical realism today, in addition to being a generalizer, does not analyze a single work, limiting itself to considering all expressionism as a mere illustration of a petty-bourgeois and irrationalist vision of the world. The obligation of the immanent study of artistic production, as stated in the future Aesthetics, was not followed. Furthermore, the conviction in total did not take into account contributions today considered classic in the history of art. Carlos Eduardo Jordão Machado mentions, by the way, “Musil, Kafka, Brecht and Döblin, in literature; the painting of Klee, Kandisky and Chagall; Schöenberg’s music, etc.”[xvi]

Brecht followed the debate on expressionism, evidently indignant at the ideas of György Lukács. He then wrote a set of texts criticizing Lukács' formalism and his disregard for formal innovations (montage, interior monologue, etc.). These texts were not published because, according to Brecht, aesthetic differences should not harm the unity of the forces that fought Nazi-fascism. [xvii]. The central objective of these writings was the defense of realism, a new realism far from that practiced by the bourgeoisie in the previous century and which served as a reference for Lukács.

The price of taking nineteenth-century literature as a model was the absence, among other things, of the class struggle: “On the part of a man committed to the class struggle, like György Lukács, it is an astonishing understatement of history that he considers the history of literature almost completely isolated from the class struggle and viewing the decline of bourgeois literature and the rise of proletarian literature as two totally independent phenomena. In reality, the decadence of the bourgeoisie is revealed in the miserable emptying of its literature, which formally remains realistic: and works like those of Dos Passos, despite their disintegration, and through them, show the emergence of a new realism, become made possible by the rise of the proletariat.”[xviii]

Likewise, in your Work Diary, György Lukács appears in several references in the notes made in 1938 and 1939. In the leftist circles frequented by Brecht there was distrust towards Lukács: his texts written in Moscow were wrongly interpreted as an endorsement of Stalinism. Brecht, who never minced words, noted: “Lukács, whose importance lies in the fact that he wrote directly from Moscow” [xx]. Comments like this were accompanied by ironic expressions, calling him “good”, “fearless” and “bold” Lukács and then highlighting his “obtuseness”.

György Lukács's affiliation with popular front politics, according to Brecht, would have led to the replacement of the proletariat by humanity (“the latter settles wherever the proletariat abandons a position”). In the literary field, therefore, there would be “no contradiction between bourgeois realists and proletarian realists”.[xx]

In both moments, therefore, Brecht highlighted his differences with the Hungarian thinker and reaffirmed the defense of a “new realism” centered on compenetration and reason, and the critique of bourgeois realism focused on compassion and emotions.

György Lukács, in turn, paid little attention to Brecht in the 1930s. Brecht, as we have seen, felt affected by criticism of expressionism and also of the proletarian literature of his friend Ernst Ottwalt. In the essay “On Necessity, a Virtue”, both were placed side by side by Lukács: “Ottwalt says: “Our literature is not supposed to stabilize the reader’s consciousness but rather to modify it”. Brecht also opposes the “unchangable man” of the old theater to the “changeable and changing man” of the new. Can this be said to be correct? It seems not to me. If we observe the class struggle in a concrete way (…) we must clearly see that the political and economic situation of any class changes uninterruptedly, that because of this every class was always obliged – under penalty of disappearing – to constantly change the consciousness of its members ” [xxx].

György Lukács, in this way, criticizes voluntarism and the claim to magically change, through art, the public's consciousness. An ontological criticism is insinuated here: consciousness reflects the developments of reality, necessarily, and cannot be modified by subjective, voluntaristic intrusion. Brecht's theater, according to a critic close to Lukács, Andor Gábor, would therefore be “a theater of consciousness and not of being”.[xxiii]

At other times, Brecht appears alongside other avant-garde authors as a representative of the art of decadence, that which moved away from critical realism. In 1944-5, Lukács also stated that the “attack” on “art in general” was the central axis of Brecht’s argument, which used “a harsh and crude expression – “culinary” – to name this “magical” effect described with irony; and so it is proposed to defame, with this term taken from culinary art, all forms of artistic enjoyment, all experience a posteriori of an artistically shaped world” [xxiii].

From 1952 onwards, the two authors finally met and became friends. Aesthetic divergences continue, but without leading to new confrontations. In your Autobiography in dialogue, Lukács recalled: “At that time in Berlin I considered Brecht sectarian, and there is no doubt that his first plays, the didactic plays, had a very strong sectarian character. Therefore, I assumed a certain critical position in relation to Brecht's orientation, which later became much more accentuated. (…). I simply made the mistake of, in the 30s, when I was very busy, not even writing an article in a German newspaper about the great difference between Brecht's last dramas and his first ones.”[xxv].

This division between Brecht's first and last works reappears in Aesthetics. The success of mature works was due, according to György Lukács, to the fact that they contradicted the method followed by epic theater. Brecht, therefore, would have approached Aristotelian theater, old realism, catharsis. The new thing here is that catharsis no longer appears as opposed to distancing and estrangement. “Empathy”, in turn, came to be interpreted by Lukács as a “specifically petit-bourgeois” artistic theory far from that practiced by the great realistic art of the past. In this, the reflection of reality asserted itself in opposition to empathy, as what prevailed in it was a conscious experience that was not restricted to subjectivity, to introspection, but referred to a world independent of it.

Having made this division between apparent form and existing reality, György Lukács proposed a generalization of the concept of catharsis and, with it, a surprising compliment to the Brechtian “estrangement effect”. Unlike the first didactic pieces, in mature works catharsis occupied a central place: “in a great moralist artist like Brecht, the preservation of the core of catharsis is as visible as the deep distrust in the face of the merely emotional effect of art. The estrangement effect (…) aims to destroy the merely immediate experiential catharsis to give way to another that, through the rational commotion of the entire everyday man, imposes on him a real conversion” [xxiv].

When Brecht died, György Lukács was invited to give a funeral speech. He then read a text highlighting, above all, the importance of the last plays: “Brecht is an authentic playwright. His deepest intention remains to transform the masses, the spectators and the listeners of his poetry. They must leave the theater not merely moved, but transformed: practically turned towards goodness, consciousness, activity, progress. The aesthetic effect must produce a moral change, a social change. This was the deepest meaning of Aristotelian “catharsis”. It should – as Lessing understood correctly – elevate commotion to a skill for the ethical.” [xxv].

Theodor Adorno, ironically, stated that György Lukács made a “posthumous recognition” of Brecht. Interestingly, Theodor Adorno followed a path opposite to that of György Lukács, concerned with keeping Walter Benjamin away from the communist influence exerted on him by Brecht (“that barbarian”, as the playwright referred to him). Praise for the formal innovations created by Brecht were replaced by virulent attacks on the plays, when not extended to the author himself.

Adorno and Lukács, with opposing positions in the interpretation of avant-garde works, had an unexpected meeting point in accepting the thesis of ideological decadence – a thesis always defended by György Lukács and belatedly endorsed by Theodor Adorno in his famous text on the “aging of music” .

*Celso Frederico He is a retired professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Ed. Morula). []


[I] LUKACS, G. Critical realism today (Brasília: Coordinate, 1969).

[ii] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 4, cit., P. 398

[iii] Same, pp. 542-543.

[iv] LUKACS, G. Critical realism today, cit. p. 85.

[v] LUKÁCS, G. “Introduction to the aesthetic writings of Marx and Engels”, in Art and society. Aesthetic writings 1932-1967 (Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ, 2009. Collection organized by Carlos Nelson Coutinho and José Paulo Netto), p. 107.

[vi] A classic study on social relations in the 19th century was done by Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco, Free men in the slave order (São Paulo: Ática, 1974).

[vii] The concept of aesthetic mimesis, heir to the theory of reflection, would harbor within it “an unresolved tension between a materialist ontology, which finds its systematic foundation in the dialectics of nature, and a conception of mirroring that is completely based on the specificity of human subjectivity ”, according to the interpretation of Hans Heins Holz in “The sound of her mimesi in the aesthetics of Lukács" in LOSURDO, Domenico, SALVUCCI, Pasquale, SCHIROLLO, Livio (eds.), György Lukács on her 100th birthday (Urbino: QuattroVenti, 1986), p. 256.

[viii] COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson. “Introduction” to Critical realism today, cit., p. 10.

[ix] LUKACS, G. The destruction of reason (São Paulo: Instituto Lukács, 2020), p. 680.

[X] CASAIS MONTEIRO, Adolfo. “The sociological critique of art”, in Brasiliense Magazine, number 45, 1963.

[xi] COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson. "Introduction", in Critical realism today, cit., pp. 14-15.

[xii] COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson. “Kafka: historical assumptions and aesthetic replacement”, in Human Sciences Themes, number 2, 1977, p. 23.

[xiii] COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson. Lukács, Proust and Kafka. Literature and Society in the 20th Century (Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2005).

[xiv] LUKACS, G. aesthetics, Vol. 2 (Barcelona-Mexico: Grijalbo, 1966), p. 343 and 484.

[xv] LUKÁCS, G. “Greatness and decadence of expressionism”, Problems of realism (Mexico-Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1966.

[xvi] MACHADO, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. Debate on expressionism (São Paulo: Unesp, second edition, 2016) p. 39.

[xvii] “I therefore propose not to make the issue of expanding the concept of realism in our magazine of the vast anti-Hitlerist front the subject of a new debate.” Afterwards, he highlighted the “virulent” form of an article published in the magazine International Literature in which Lukács denounced “certain dramas by Brecht” as formalistic”. BRECHT, Bertolt. “About the realistic style” [Observations on my article] in The Commitment to Literature and Art (Barcelona: Península, 1984), p. 249.

[xviii] BRECHT, Bertolt. “Observations on formalism”, in Debate on expressionism, cit., P. 308.

[xx] BRECHT, Bertolt. Work Diary, Vol. 1, 1938-1941 (Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2002), p. 15.

[xx] Idem, P. 5 and p. 6.

[xxx] See LUKCÁCS, G. “Report or configuration? Critical observations on the occasion of Ottwalt’s novel”, in Sociology of Literature (Barcelona: Península, 1968), p.142. Another author from this current was the target of Lukacsian criticism in the essay “Las novelas de Willi Bredel”, published in the same book.

[xxiii] GÁBOR, Andor. “Zwei Bühneereignisse”, in Die Linkskurve, 1932/11-12/29, p. 29, apoud GALLAS, Helga. Marxist theory of literature (Mexico: Siglo Veinteiuno, 1977), p. 116.

[xxiii] LUKACS, G. A new history of German literature (Buenos Aires: La Pleyade, 1971), p. 175-176.

[xxv] LUKÁCS, Thought lived. Autobiography in dialogue, cit., P. 93-94.

[xxiv] LUKACS, G. Aesthetics, Vol. 2 (Barcelona-Mexico, 1977), p. 514-5.

[xxv] LUKÁCS, G. “Speech given on the occasion of Bertolt Brecht’s funeral. Berlin, August 18, 1956”, in Carlos Eduardo Jordão Machado, Debate on expressionism, cit., P. 284.

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