the historical novel

Paul Klee, Asleep, 1938


Thoughts on the Book of György Lukács

“Time rusts the sharpest sword” (Walter Scott).

György Lukács's defense of realism in the 30s and 40s is broad and complex. This defense, most of the time, is accompanied by repetitive adjectives: “classicist”, “anti-avant-garde” and “anti-modernist”. However, an analysis is enough to show that the relevance of his defense of realism should not be reduced to the postulated adjectives. An understandable attack, but no less problematic. In the theme of “anti-fascism” in culture and the arts, let us look not only at an aesthetic debate from the 1930s, where names such as: Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, the writer Anna Seghers, etc. were involved. (Machado, 2016).

In the recent book published by Arlenice Silva, entitled Aesthetics of resistance – the autonomy of art in the young Lukács (Boitempo), whose central problem lies in the in-depth investigation into the aesthetics of youth (1908-1918), states that there is an “understanding of the arts and the repeated statement that all arts are equivalent in the effect produced, the young Lukács” , although close to the formulations of the romantics – especially the approach to Schelling –, “dares to deduce a universal and formal principle for the philosophy of art history, which is the principle of style (Stils), deduced from the timeless idea of ​​the work, but anchored by historical reality” (Silva, 2021, p. 378). Here, we can see the continued importance of the element of historicity in Lukacsian aesthetic theory that remains.

Review the book the historical novel (1936) can serve as an aid to thinking about the present time, where it talks about resistance to neo-fascism and far-right movements, and allows us to observe some questions: (i) can art acquire “anti-fascist” aesthetic content? (ii) Is art also a product of the intricate relationship between the “autonomy of art” and “political engagement”? Finally, given the current context we live in, the advance of economic imperialism, the political power of the extreme right and the neo-fascist discourse, it would also be a question of investigating, according to the arguments in the writings of György Lukács, whether there is a role or function of aesthetics, of which art is the object, from the perspective of the anti-fascist struggle. Navigating the historicity of literary genres, György Lukács establishes the relationship between “art’s autonomy” and its “partisanship”. As you can see, the issue is profound.

Em the historical novel we see the objective intention of use regarding the poetic categories (drama, epic and lyric) – a certain continuity of The soul and the forms (1911) and romance theory(1916), his renowned “youth” works. His analysis is historical-philosophical of these aesthetic categories. In the theoretical dimension of maturity, the work represents the first major work in the 1930s (Tertulian, 2008). The “historical novel” is linked, roughly speaking, to a narrative type that György Lukács conceives, within limits, the phenomenon of epic totality, through a relational pair in the literary totality between the epic and the drama.

With a notably Hegelian influence, the problems of the novel form gain new contours with social contradictions and the concrete conceptual reference in literary studies. As Ana Cotrim argues, in her work entitled Literature and Realism in György Lukács, the period of the 30s is known for its “turn towards realism”, that is, “the central determination of realism, action, is already thematized […] and the different ways in which it emerges in the texts of this period show that it is of a non-linear process” of aesthetic and cultural issues. The double distance (avant-garde and “socialist realism”) placed him on a reversed path, which would lead him to the 2016th century and realism (Cotrim, 115, p. 6-XNUMX).

In this context, György Lukács' assumption is that fascism was not a simple phenomenon of “collective dementia”, or a convulsion of passing hysteria in a sick society; or, even, some anomaly in the metabolism of capital, but it was a reality that laid deep roots in the structure of bourgeois society, in which its “extensive” and “intensive” development in culture is present. György Lukács' book is circumscribed in the context of the fight against Nazi-fascism and the Spanish Civil War, as well as in the debates on avant-garde art and proletarian or socialist art, which linked Moscow to Berlin through this literary route.[I]

At the same time, György Lukács moved away from “socialist realism” – a successful thesis at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 – and from the formalist tendencies present in the course of Central European literature, which goes from naturalism to surrealism, passing through expressionism . Here comes the question: why, in that context, do you focus on aesthetics, on the intertwining between art and culture, as a presupposition for denouncing the crisis of a time? The problem that emerges here is that of the idolatry of the average human being and the manipulation of everyday life, whose objective social basis consolidated a “preparatory field” for the advent of Nazi-fascism.

In 1932, György Lukács wrote the essay “Trend or Partisanship?” In it he warns that this is not just “a terminological issue”. In fact, the opposition between “pure art” and “trend art” reveals that the bourgeois essence of conceptions is a false dilemma. Therefore, “it shows that the deep apprehensions of the driving forces of society in bourgeois thought take place despite their necessary false consciousness” (Cotrim, 2016, p. 187). For György Lukács, in this aspect, the “trend art” that manifests itself in literature acquires a “'tendency' [that] could be subjectively opposed to the reality portrayed in a moralizing and preaching way, which meant bringing a strange element to the literary portrait” (Lukács, 1981). In contrast to this, he writes as follows: “[p]racticism defends precisely the position that acquires possible knowledge and the portrayal of the global process as a synthetically apprehended totality of its driving forces, as the constant and intensified reproduction of the dialectical contradictions that give rise to it. underlie. This objectivity, however, depends on a correct – dialectical – definition of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, the subjective factor and objective development and the dialectical unity of theory and practice” (Lukács, 1981, p. 42).

In short, György Lukács' argument is built around the case that the literature produced by the writer presents itself as a possibility of apprehension of reality, that is, that it is not limited to the immediate determinations that the class imposes on the artist in his subjectivity. “Partisanism” is, therefore, the way to grasp reality, because this partisanship is not a simple personal position in the productive aspect, but has to do with wealth – the humanist dimension – which, engendered in the social environment, internally composes the work artistic. This is why partisanship is not a simple personal position in the productive aspect, but has to do with the compositional richness of the artistic work and its insertion in the social environment. In this way, partisanship opposes the pseudo-problem of “art for art’s sake” and “trend art”, since “the artistic apprehension and configuration of reality do not require as a condition and do not necessarily lead to a radical break with the bourgeois class and adherence to the proletarian perspective” (Cotrim, 2016, p. 189).

An example of this appears very clearly in Goethe and his time [Goethe und seine Zeit], a book composed of essays written during this period in the 1930s (published after the Second World War). In a more panoramic view constructed in the essay on The Learning Years of Wilhelm Meister, György Lukács captures the movement of partisanship in the German writer. Before being an “anti-capitalist” or a “socialist” (which would make no historical sense), György Lukács argues that, in Goethe, there is a transition in literature between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. For György Lukács there would be a humanist development in the formative novel, especially in The years of learning, because the vicissitudes faced by the characters is, among other things, facing the new bourgeois culture.

Em The years of learning [by Wilhelm Meister], the exposition and criticism of the different classes and the types that represent them always start from this central point of view. For this reason, criticism of the bourgeoisie is not only criticism of specifically German narrow-mindedness and narrowness, but, at the same time, also of the capitalist division of labor, [...] the tearing apart of man by this division of labor (Lukács, 2021 , p. 64).

The relatively common accusation regarding György Lukács' theory refers to the one that says his aesthetic conceptions have “preferences” for XNUMXth century works (especially literary ones), culminating in the rejection of modernism and the avant-garde. Our author's “choices” are not a “conservative” rejection, or just a comfortable theoretical path, as one can see. In fact, the questions here are summary, ranging from the opposition between rationalism and irrationalism, as well as the constitution of the Popular Anti-Fascist Front, on the bridge established in an attempt to circumvent the Soviet bureaucracy. They therefore encompass both aesthetic and political issues, but without one overlapping the other.

For Carlos Machado, in A chapter on aesthetic modernity: the debate on expressionism, György Lukács “appears in the cultural debate of democratic and left-wing (anti-fascist) emigration as a politician ['active' intellectual] of the original culture”, and that during his emigration his “interventions within the scope of the political discussion on culture are accompanied by a systematic theorization, that is, they return to their youthful projects to found an autonomous aesthetic” (Machado, 2016, p. 23). A more detailed investigation that emerges from the aesthetic theory of György Lukács in the Marxist phase is that for him art is not simply an epistemological tool; its primary value is also not immediate “social utility”. In his understanding, art is human “self-awareness” and “the memory of humanity” that goes beyond the time of creation itself (Kiràlyfalvi, 1975).

Rethinking the role of humanist literature from the bourgeois revolutionary period, the Hungarian philosopher consolidates his notion of “realism”, not based on formal rules, but on a type of artistic-literary practice. For György Lukács, the artistic work gains its relative autonomy without its creative content being lost amidst the subjective impositions of its creators. The difficulty is to think of a realism that goes beyond the formal dimensions of creative subjectivity. Literature, for example, in the philosopher's view, which does not begin with the concrete man with his own internal contradictions, but, instead, “decorates” his characters with the relatively abstract features of the picture of a great social conflict current for the literary and poetic configurations, in fact, is not a realism, nor can it be consolidated in the effective fight against the reifications from which it emerges (Kiràlyflavi, 1975, p. 143).

On the other hand, it would not be a case of “classicism” on the part of the philosopher. In the words of Guido Oldrini: “On the one hand, [Lukács] is concerned that a concept of militancy widely used in politics does not end up devaluing ideological-cultural issues; on the other hand, that ideological-cultural issues do not get lost in a limbo disconnected from class struggles” (Oldrini, 2017, p. 430). Thus, the philosopher was interested in the sense of recognition that ideology and political praxis must create for culture the concrete effectiveness of its inherent role without overcoming or dynamiting the specificity of artistic elements; and, in this case, the ideological conditioning that culture and the arts suffer as a result of class position and choices is also not forgotten. These elements go against the grain of “trend literature”, described in the historical novel, as “vulgar sociology”, that is, Stalinized Marxism:

In the debate over the historical novel in the Soviet Union in 1934, vulgar sociological theories appeared whose content was in essence the complete separation between history and the present. One current considered the historical novel a “science of rudiments” and, therefore, saw absolutely nothing in history that could exert a living influence on the present (Lukács, 2011, p. 290).

According to interpreter Nicolas Tertulian, “the presence, in the composition of historical novels, of the perspective commanded by popular moral values ​​seems indispensable to him, as the only one capable of giving them the aesthetic dimensions of density and depth” preluded (Tertulian, 2008, p. 186). György Lukács analyzed, in the historical novel, with a certain level of optimism, the transitional character of the literary form, confident in a true assimilation of the democratic and revolutionary spirit that would allow the integration, in the aesthetic matter, of the “expression of popular life”. In other words, the literary richness of the historical novel is due to the historical breadth of conflicts and social dilemmas without the tragic “greatness” of one or another of another class.

In short, in these brief words we maintain that György Lukács did not try to create a “model” of criticism that was not one that understood the movement of the object (Lukács, 1993). Before giving definitive answers to the questions we raised about the relationship between “art autonomy”, “artistic engagement” and “anti-fascism” in bourgeois culture, we try to dwell on the idea of ​​a role or function of art – a kind of “aesthetics”. anti-fascist” – that would provide a critical diagnosis of the present as a point of arrival.

Here, Peter Bürger's words are appropriate. For him, in different and even antagonistic ways, both Theodor Adorno and György Lukács defended the “autonomy of art”. However, while “the work manages to organize itself around commitment, its political tendency faces a new danger: that of neutralization by the art institution. […] The art institution neutralizes the political content of particular works” (Bürger, 1993, p. 151).

However, in a provocative way of saying it, two of our examples are relevant to understanding the two fronts of Lukacsian combat: Bacurau (2019) – limited to “trend art” – does not survive earth in trance (1967), by Glauber Rocha, and, in the same way as Crooked Plow (Itamar Vieira Jr.) – a typical schematic model of Soviet Zhdanovism – will not survive Dried lives, by Graciliano Ramos.[ii]

If it is not possible to provide definitive answers here, it is at least acceptable that the accusations cited to the philosopher at the beginning are considered limited. Before being an “anti-avant-garde”, or an “anti-modern”, the supposed “classicism” of Lukacs is, first of all, the defense of authentic realism for the humanist reconfiguration towards its emancipation, which involves the anti-fascist struggle at the level of culture (Lukács, 2011; Lukács, 2021).

Quoting the historical novel: “The historical novel, as a powerful artistic weapon in the defense of human progress, has the great task of reestablishing the driving forces of human history and awakening them to the present. It was what made the classic historical novel. The historical novel of the anti-fascist humanists sets itself, from the point of view of content, the same task. He also defends the principles of human progress against slander and distortion, against fascist attempts to destroy them” (Lukács, 2011, p. 385).

How can we conceive these assumptions to think about art and literature criticism in the current context? After brief comments about the selected context, I would say that György Lukács' observations regarding particular (and in our case, peripheral) historical conditions allow us to recognize other achievements of artistic and literary realism. Which leads us to consider aesthetic problems that are also particular to our time and to give priority to investigation concretely in each case, György Lukács' critical content will not be dispensable. Research into György Lukács' aesthetic thought continues, and at some points in the theory there is a requirement for its critical review.

Here the reinterpretation of the historical novel, with a critical background to fascism (in this Lukacsian case), is to highlight how “mediocre men” are brought to literature not as heroes, but as participants in a social process of which they are products (in bourgeois culture). These are the most “typical” elements of character constructions and narratives from which the characteristics of a given society can be extracted. In short, if we want to know the “spirit of the times” of a given society or a specific historical time, we must then look at its individuals and their reciprocal relationships. The novel is the way in which bourgeois society is configured as a given artistic particularity (that is why it is its epic form).

Finally, what are the guidelines for talking about “anti-fascist aesthetics” today? More than that, how can we now understand artistic phenomena without suffocating the aesthetic creation of “engagement”, nor, on the other hand, decoupling art from the class struggle and imperialism (whose political engine is liberalism)? In artistic production (literary, in this case) would assimilation against the reified figuration of the social be sufficient, which would lead to the creation of the effective residual aspect of “popular life”? Or, if we want to say something about anti-fascism, does the question go against the critique of fetishism in bourgeois culture as a whole? Be that as it may, the historical novel by György Lukács, despite his mistaken predictions, he made a profound contribution to literary and cultural studies.

*Wesley Sousa instudying philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


György Lukács. the historical novel. Translation: Rubens Enderle. Presentation: Arlenice Silva. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2011, 440 pages.


BÜRGER, Peter. vanguard theory. Translation by Ernesto Sampaio. Lisbon: Vega, 1993.

COTRIM, Ana. Literature and realism in the aesthetics of György Lukács. Preface Miguel Vedda. Porto Alegre: Zouk, 2016.

KIRÀLYFALVI, Béla. The Aesthetics of György Lukács. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975.

LUKÁCS, György. “Tendency' or Partisanship?". In. Essays on realism. Edited and introduced by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981, p. 33-44.

LUKÁCS, György. German realists in the nineteenth century. Translated Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast. Edited with an introduction and notes by Rodney Livingstone. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993.

LUKÁCS, György. Goethe and his time. Translated by Nélio Schneider, Ronaldo Fortes. Review Ronaldo Fortes and José Paulo Netto. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2021 [Edición española. Translation Manuel Sacristán. Barcelona/Mexico: Grijalbo, 1968].

MACHADO, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. A chapter in the history of aesthetic modernity: the debate on expressionism. São Paulo: UNESP, 2014.

OLDRINI, Guido. György Lukács and the problems of Marxism in the XNUMXth century. Translated by Mariana Andrade. Maceió: Coletivo Veredas, 2017.

SILVA, Arlenice. Aesthetics of resistance: the autonomy of art in the young Lukács. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2021.

TERTULIAN, Nicolas. The historical novel. In. Georg Lukács: stages of his aesthetic thought. Translated by Renira Lisboa Lima. São Paulo: UNESP, 2008, p. 167-187.


[I] Certainly, Lukács' critical arguments regarding the avant-garde and “socialist realism” are distinct, but it is not the case here to explain them exhaustively.

[ii] For a better discussion on the subject, see: REZENDE, Claudinei. Canon of the identitarian pseudo-left: essay on Crooked Plow. In press. Lukács Yearbook, 2022. About “socialist realism” (Jdanovism).

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