The Theory of the Novel. Georg Lukács 1914

2. The Problems of a Philosophy of the History of Forms

AS A result of such a change in the transcendental points of orientation, art forms become subject to a historico-philosophical dialectic; the course of this dialectic will depend, however, on the a priori in ‘home’ of each genre. It may happen that the change affects only the object and the conditions under which it came be given form, and does not question the ultimate relationship of the form to its transcendental right to existence; when this is so, only formal changes will occur, and although they may diverge in every technical detail, they will not overturn the original form-giving principle. Sometimes, however, the change occurs precisely in the all-determining principium stilisationis of the genre, and then other art-forms must necessarily, for historico-philosophical reasons, correspond to the same artistic intention. This is not a matter of a change in mentality giving rise to a new genre, such as occurred in Greek history when the hero and his destiny became problematic and so brought into being the non-tragic drama of Euripides. In that case there was a complete correspondence between the subject’s [i.e., the creator’s, the artist’s] a priori needs, his metaphysical sufferings, which provided the impulse for creation, and the pre-stabilised, eternal locus of the form with which the completed work coincides. The genre-creating principle which is meant here does not imply any change in mentality; rather, it forces the same mentality to turn towards a new aim which is essentially different from the old one. It means that the old parallelism of the transcendental structure of the form-giving subject and the world of created forms has been destroyed, and the ultimate basis of artistic creation has become homeless.

German Romanticism, although it did not always completely clarify its concept of the novel, drew a close connection between it and the concept of the Romantic; and rightly so, for the novel form is, like no other, an expression of this transcendental homelessness. For the Greeks the fact that their history and the philosophy of history coincided meant that every art form was born only when the sundial of the mind showed that its hour had come, and had to disappear when the fundamental images were no longer visible on the horizon. This philosophical periodicity was lost in later times. Artistic genres now cut across one another, with a complexity that cannot be disentangled, and become traces of authentic or false searching for an aim that is no longer clearly and unequivocally given; their sum total is only a historical totality of the empirical, wherein we may seek (and possibly find) the empirical (sociological) conditions for the ways in which each form came into being, but where the historico-philosophical meaning of periodicity is never again concentrated in the forms themselves (which have become symbolic) and where this meaning can be deciphered and decoded from the totalities of various periods, but not discovered in those totalities themselves. But whereas the smallest disturbance of the transcendental correlations must cause the immanence of meaning in life to vanish beyond recovery, an essence that is divorced from life and alien to life can crown itself with its own existence in such a way that this consecration, even after a more violent upheaval, may pale but will never disappear altogether. That is why tragedy, although changed, has nevertheless survived in our time with its essential nature intact, whereas the epic had to disappear and yield its place to an entirely new form: the novel.

The complete change in our concept of life and in its relationship to essential being has, of course, changed tragedy too. It is one thing when the life-immanence of meaning vanishes with catastrophic suddenness from a pure, uncomplicated world, and quite another when this immanence is banished from the cosmos as though by the gradual working of a spell: in the latter case the longing for its return remains alive but unsatisfied; it never turns into a hopelessness rooted in certainty: therefore, the essence cannot build a tragic stage out of the felled trees of the forest of life, but must either awaken to a brief existence in the flames of a fire lit from the deadwood of a blighted life, or else must resolutely turn its back on the world’s chaos and seek refuge in the abstract sphere of pure essentiality. It is the relationship of the essence to a life which, in itself, lies outside the scope of drama that renders necessary the stylistic duality of modern tragedy whose opposite poles are Shakespeare and Alfieri.

Greek tragedy stood beyond the dilemma of nearness to life as against abstraction because, for it, plenitude was not a question of coming closer to life, and transparency of dialogue did not mean the negation of its immediacy. Whatever the historical accidents or necessities that produced the Greek chorus, its artistic meaning consists in that it confers life and plenitude upon the essence situated outside and beyond all life. Thus the chorus was able to provide a background which closes the work in the same way as the marble atmospheric space between figures in a relief closes the frieze, yet the background of the chorus is also full of movement and can adapt itself to all the apparent fluctuations of a dramatic action not born of any abstract scheme, can absorb these into itself and, having enriched them with its own substance, can return them to the drama. It can make the lyrical meaning of the entire drama ring out in splendid words; it can, without suffering collapse, combine within itself the voice of lowly creature-reason, which demands tragic refutation, and the voice of the higher super-reason of destiny. Speaker and chorus in Greek tragedy are of the same fundamental essence, they are completely homogeneous With one another and can therefore fulfil completely separate functions without destroying the structure of the work; all the lyricism of the situation, of destiny, can be accumulated in the chorus, leaving to the players the all-expressive words and all-embracing gesture of the tragic dialectic laid bare — and yet they will never be separated from one another by anything other than gentle transitions. Not the remotest possibility of a certain nearness-to-life such as might destroy the dramatic form exists for either: that is why both can expand to a plenitude that has nothing schematic about it and yet is laid down a priori.

Life is not organically absent from modern drama; at most, it can be banished from it. But the banishment which modern classicists practise implies a recognition, not only of the existence of what is being banished, but also of its power; it is there in all the nervous words, all the gestures outbidding one another in the endeavour to keep life at bay, to remain untainted by it; invisibly and ironically, life nevertheless rules the bare, calculated severity of the structure based a priori on abstraction, making it narrow or confused, overexplicit or abstruse.

The other kind of tragedy consumes fife. It places its heroes on the stage as living human beings in the midst of a mass of only apparently living beings, so that a clear destiny may gradually emerge incandescent from the confusion of the dramatic action, heavy with the weight of life — so that its fire may reduce to ashes everything that is merely human, so that the inexistent life of mere human beings may disintegrate into nothingness and the affective emotions of the heroic figures may flare up into a blaze of tragic passion that will anneal them. into heroes free of human dross. In this way the condition of the hero has become polemical and problematic; to be a hero is no longer the natural form of existence in the sphere of essence, but the act of raising oneself above that which is merely human, whether in the surrounding mass or in the hero’s own instincts. The problem of hierarchy as between life and essence, which, for Greek drama, was a formative a priori and therefore never became the subject of dramatic action, is thus drawn into the tragic process itself; it rends the drama into two completely heterogeneous parts which are connected with one another only by their reciprocal negation and exclusion, thus making the drama polemical and intellectual and so disturbing its very foundations. The breadth of the ground-plan thus forced upon the work and the length of the road which the hero must travel in his own soul before he discovers himself as a hero are at variance with the slenderness of construction which the dramatic form demands, and bring it closer to the epic forms; and the polemical emphasis on heroism (even in abstract tragedy) leads, of necessity, to an excess of purely lyrical lyricism.

Such lyricism has, however, yet another source which also springs from the displaced relationship between life and essence. For the Greeks, the fact that life ceased to be the home of meaning merely transferred the mutual closeness, the kinship of human beings, to another sphere, but did not destroy it: every figure in Greek drama is at the same distance from the all-sustaining essence and, therefore, is related at his deepest roots to every other figure; all understand one another because all speak the same language, all trust one another, be it as mortal enemies, for all are striving in the same way towards the same centre, and all move at the same level of an existence which is essentially the same. But when, as in modern drama, the essence can manifest and assert itself only after winning a hierarchical contest with life, when every figure carries this contest within himself as a precondition of his existence or as his motive force, then each of the dramatis personae can be bound to the destiny that gives him birth only by his own thread; then each must rise up from solitude and must, in irremediable solitude, hasten, in the midst of all the other lonely creatures, towards the ultimate, tragic aloneness; then, every tragic work must turn to silence without ever being understood, and no tragic deed can ever find a resonance that will adequately absorb it.

But a paradox attaches to loneliness in drama. Loneliness, is the very essence of tragedy, for the soul that has attained itself through its destiny can have brothers among the stars, but never an earthly companion; yet the dramatic form of expression — the dialogue — presupposes, if it is to be many-voiced, truly dialogical, dramatic, a high degree of communion among these solitaries. The language of the absolutely lonely man is lyrical, i.e. monological; in the dialogue, the incognito of his soul becomes too pronounced, it overloads and swamps the clarity and definition of the words exchanged. Such loneliness is more profound than that required by the tragic form, which deals with the relationship to destiny (a relationship in which the actual, living Greek heroes had their being); loneliness has to become a problem unto itself, deepening and confusing the tragic problem and ultimately taking its place. Such loneliness is not simply the intoxication of a soul gripped by destiny and so made song; it is also the torment of a creature condemned to solitude and devoured by a longing for community.

Such loneliness gives rise to new tragic problems, especially the central problem of modern tragedy — that of trust. The new hero’s soul, clothed in life yet filled with essence, can never comprehend that the essence existing within the same shell of life in another person need not be the same as his own; it knows that all those who have found one another are the same, and cannot understand that its knowledge does not come from this world, that the inner certainty of this knowledge cannot guarantee its being a constituent of this life. It has knowledge of the idea of its own self which animates it and is alive inside it, and so it must believe that the milling crowd of humanity which surrounds it is only a carnival prank and that, at the first word from the essence, the masks will fall and brothers who have hitherto been strangers to one another will fall into each other’s arms. It knows this, it searches for it, and it finds only itself alone, in the midst of destiny. And so a note of reproachful, elegiac sorrow enters into its ecstasy at having found itself: a note of disappointment at a life which has not been even a caricature of what its knowledge of destiny had so clairvoyantly heralded and which gave it the strength to travel the long road alone and in darkness. This loneliness is not only dramatic but also psychological, because it is not merely the a priori property of all dramatis personae but also the lived experience of man in process of becoming a hero; and if psychology is not to remain merely raw material for drama, it can only express itself as lyricism of the soul.

Great epic writing gives form to the extensive totality of life, drama to the intensive totality of essence. That is why, when essence has lost its spontaneously rounded, sensually present totality, drama can nevertheless, in its formal a priori nature, find a world that is perhaps problematic but which still is all-embracing and closed within itself. But this is impossible for the great epic. For the epic, the world at any given moment is an ultimate principle; it is empirical at its deepest, most decisive, all-determining transcendental base; it can sometimes accelerate the rhythm of life, can carry something that was hidden or neglected to a utopian end which was always immanent within it, but it can never, while remaining epic, transcend the breadth and depth, the rounded, sensual, richly ordered nature of life as historically given. Any attempt at a properly utopian epic must fail because it is bound, subjectively or objectively, to transcend the empirical and spill over into the lyrical or drama tic., and such overlapping can never be fruitful for the epic.

There have been times, perhaps — certain fairly-tales still retain fragments of these lost worlds — when what today can only be reached through a utopian view was really present to the visionary eye; epic poets in those times did not have to leave the empirical in order to represent transcendent reality as the only existing one, they could be simple narrators of events, just as the Assyrians who drew winged beasts doubtless regarded themselves, and rightly, as naturalists. Already in Homer’s time, however, the transcendent was inextricably interwoven with earthly existence, and Homer is inimitable precisely because, in him, this becoming-immanent was so completely successful.

This indestructible bond with reality as it is, the crucial difference between the epic and the drama, is a necessary consequence of the object of the epic being life itself. The concept of essence leads to transcendence simply by being posited, and then, in the transcendent, crystallises into a new and higher essence expressing through its form an essence that should be — an essence which, because it is born of form, remains independent of the given content of what merely exists. The concept of life, on the other hand, has no need of any such transcendence captured and held immobile as an object.

The worlds of essence are held high above existence by the force of forms, and their nature and contents are determined only by the inner potentialities of that force. The worlds of life stay as they are: forms only receive and mould them, only reduce them to their inborn meaning. And so these forms, which, here, can only play the role of Socrates at the birth of thoughts, can never of their own accord charm something into life that was not already present in it.

The character created by drama (this is only another way of expressing the same relationship) is the intelligible ‘I’ of man, the character created by the epic is the empirical ‘I’.

The ‘should be’, in whose desperate intensity the essence seeks refuge because it has become an outlaw on earth, can objectivise itself in the intelligible ‘I’ as the hero’s normative psychology, but in the empirical ‘I’ it remains a ‘should be’. The power of this ‘should be’ is a purely psychological one, and in this it resembles the other elements of the soul; its aims are empirical, and here again it resembles other possible aspirations as given by man himself or by his environment; its contents are historical, similar to others produced in the process of time, and cannot be severed from the soil in which they have grown: they may fade, but they will never awaken to a new, ideal existence. The ‘should be’ kills life, and the dramatic hero assumes the symbolic attributes of the sensuous manifestations of life only in order to be able to perform the symbolic ceremony of dying in a sensuously perceptible way, making transcendence visible; yet in the epic men must be alive, or else they destroy or exhaust the very element that carries, surrounds and fills them.

(The ‘should be’ kills life, and every concept expresses a ‘should-be’ of its object; that is why thought can never arrive at a real definition of life, and why, perhaps, the philosophy of art is so much more adequate to tragedy than it is to the epic.)

The ‘should be’ kills life, and an epic hero constructed out of what ‘should be’ will always be but a shadow of the living epic man of historical reality, his shadow but never his original image, and his given world of experience and adventure can only be a watered-down copy of reality, never its core and essence. Utopian stylisation of the epic inevitably creates distance, but such distance lies between two instances of the empirical, so that the sorrow and majesty created by this distance can only make for a rhetorical tone. This distance may produce marvellous elegiac lyricism, but it can never, in itself, put real life into a content that transcends being, or turns such content into self-sufficient reality.

Whether this distance leads forward or backwards, upwards or downwards from life, it is never the creation of a new reality but always only a subjective mirroring of what already exists. Virgil’s heroes lead a cool and measured shadow-existence, nourished by the blood of a splendid ardour that has sacrificed itself in order to conjure up what has vanished forever: while Zolaesque monumentality amounts only to monotonous emotion in face of the multiple yet simplified complexity of a sociological system of categories that claims to cover the whole of contemporary fife.

There is such a thing as great epic literature, but drama never requires the attribute of greatness and must always resist it. The cosmos of the drama, full of its own substance, rounded with substantiality, ignores the contrast between wholeness and segment, the opposition between event and symptom: for the drama, to exist is to be a cosmos, to grasp the essence, to possess its totality. But the concept of life does not posit the necessity of the totality of life; life contains within itself both the relative independence of every separate living being from any transcendent bond and the likewise relative inevitability and indespensability of such bonds. That is why there can be epic forms whose object is not the totality of life but a segment of it, a fragment capable of independent existence. But, for the same reason, the concept of totality for the epic is not a transcendental one, as it is in drama; it is not born out of the form itself, but is empirical and metaphysical, combining transcendence and immanence inseparably within itself. In the epic, subject and object do not coincide as they do in drama, where creative subjectivity, seen from the perspective of the work, is barely a concept but only a generalised awareness; whereas in the epic subject and object are clearly and unequivocally distinct from one another and present in the work as such. And since an empirical form-giving subject follows from the empirical nature of the object seeking to acquire form, this subject can never be the basis and guarantee of the totality of the represented world. In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.

In the minor epic forms, the subject confronts the object in a more dominant and self-sufficient way. The narrator may (we cannot, nor do we intend to establish even a tentative system of epic forms here) adopt the cool and superior demeanour of the chronicler who observes the strange workings of coincidence as it plays with the destinies of men, meaningless and destructive to them, revealing and instructive to us; or he may see a small corner of the world as an ordered flower-garden in the midst of the boundless, chaotic waste-lands of life, and, moved by his vision, elevate it to the status of the sole reality; or he may be moved and impressed by the strange, profound experiences of an individual and pour them into the mould of an objectivised destiny; but whatever he does, it is his own subjectivity that singles out a fragment from the immeasurable infinity of the events of fife, endows it with independent life and allows the whole from which this fragment has been taken to enter the work only as the thoughts and feelings of his hero, only as an involuntary continuation of a fragmentary causal series, only as the mirroring of a reality having its own separate existence.

Completeness in the minor epic forms is subjective: a fragment of life is transplanted by the writer into a surrounding world that emphasises it and lifts it out of the totality of life; and this selection, this delimitation, puts the stamp of its origin in the subject’s will and knowledge upon the work itself : it is, more or less, lyrical in nature. The relativity of the independence and the mutual bonds of all living beings and their organic, likewise living associations can be superseded, can be elevated into form, if a conscious decision of the creative subject brings out an immanent meaning within the isolated existence of this particular fragment of fife. The subject’s form-giving, structuring, delimiting act, his sovereign dominance over the created object, is the lyricism of those epic forms which are without totality. Such lyricism is here the last epic unity; it is not the swallowing of a solitary ‘I’ in the object-free contemplation of its own self, nor is it the dissolving of the object into sensations and moods; it is born out of form., it creates form, and it sustains everything that has been given form in such a work.

The immediate, flowing power of such lyricism is bound to increase in proportion with the significance and gravity of the life-segment selected; the balance of the work is that between the positing subject and the object he singles out and elevates. In the short story, the narrative form which pin-points the strangeness and ambiguity of life, such lyricism must entirely conceal itself behind the hard outlines of the event; here, lyricism is still pure selection; the utter arbitrariness of chance, which may bring happiness or destruction but whose workings are always without reason, can only be balanced by clear, uncommented, purely objective depiction. The short story is the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood, as the very sense and content of the creative process, but it is rendered abstract for that very reason. It sees absurdity in all its undisguised and unadorned nakedness, and the exorcising power of this view, Without fear or hope, gives it the consecration of form; meaninglessness as meaninglessness becomes form, it becomes eternal because it is affirmed, transcended and redeemed by form. Between the short story and the lyric-epic forms there is a clear distinction. As soon as an event which has been given meaning by its form is, if only relatively, meaningful in its content as well, the subject, falling silent, must again struggle for words with which to build a bridge between the relative meaning of the event and the absolute. In the idyll such lyricism merges almost completely with the contours of the men and things depicted; it is this lyricism that endows these contours with the softness and airiness of a peaceful seclusion, of a blissful isolation from the storms raging in the outside world. Only when the idyll transcends its form and becomes epic, as in Goethe’s and Hebbel’s ‘great idylls’, where the whole of life with all its dangers, although modified and softened by distance, enters into the events depicted, must the author’s own voice be heard and his hand must create the salutary distances, to ensure that the hard-won happiness of his heroes is not reduced to the unworthy complacency of those who cravenly turn their backs on an all-too-present wretchedness they have not overcome but only escaped, and, equally, to ensure that the dangers of life and the perturbation of its totality do not become a pale schema, reducing the triumph of deliverance to a trivial farce. And such lyricism develops into a limpid, generously flowing, all-embracing message only when the event, in its epic objectivation, becomes the vehicle and symbol of unbounded feeling; when a soul is the hero and that soul’s longing is the story (once, speaking of Charles-Louis Philippe, I called such a form ‘chantefable’); when the object, the event that is given form, remains isolated as indeed it should, but when the lived experience that absorbs the event and radiates it out also carries within it the ultimate meaning of life, the artist’s sense-giving, life-conquering power. This power, also, is lyrical: the artist’s personality, conscious and autonomous, proclaims its own interpretation of the meaning of the universe; the artist handles events as though they were instruments, he does not listen to them for a secret meaning. What is given form here is not the totality of life but the artist’s relationship with that totality, his approving or condemnatory attitude towards it; here, the artist enters the arena of artistic creation as the empirical subject in all its greatness but also with all its creaturely limitations.

Neither can a totality of life which is by definition extensive be achieved by the object’s being annihilated — by the subject’s making itself the sole ruler of existence. However high the subject may rise above its objects and take them into its sovereign possession, they are still and always only isolated objects, whose sum never equals a real totality. Even such a subject, for all its sublime humour, remains an empirical one and its creation is only the adoption of an attitude towards its objects which, when all is said and done, remain essentially similar to itself; and the circle it draws round the world-segment thus selected and set apart the limits of the subject, not of a cosmos complete in itself. The humorist ‘s soul yearns for a more genuine substantiality than life can offer; and so he smashes all the forms and limits of life’s fragile totality in order to reach the sole source of life, the pure, world-dominating ‘I’., But as the objective world breaks down, so the subject, too, becomes a fragment; only the ‘I’ continues to exist, but its existence is then lost in the insubstantiality of its self-created world of ruins. Such subjectivity wants to give form to everything, and precisely for this reason succeeds only in mirroring a segment of the world.

This is the paradox of the subjectivity of the great epic, its ‘throwing away in order to win': creative subjectivity becomes lyrical, but, exceptionally, the subjectivity which simply accepts, which humbly transforms itself into a purely receptive organ of the world, can partake of the grace of having the whole revealed to it. This is the leap that Dante made between the Vita nuova and the Divina commedia, that Goethe made between Werther and Wilhelm Meister, the leap Cervantes made when, becoming silent himself, he let the cosmic humour of Don Quixote become heard; by contrast, Sterne’s and Jean Paul’s glorious ringing voices offer no more than reflexions of a world-fragment which is merely subjective and therefore limited, narrow and arbitrary.

This is not a value judgement but an a priori definition of genre: the totality of life resists any attempt to find a transcendental centre within it, and refuses any of its constituent cells the right to dominate it. Only when a subject, far removed from all life and from the empirical which is necessarily posited together with life, becomes enthroned in the pure heights of essence, when it has become nothing but the carrier of the transcendental synthesis, can it contain all the conditions for totality within its own structure and transform its own limitations into the frontiers of the world. But such a subject cannot write an epic: the epic is life, immanence, the empirical. Dante’s Paradiso is closer to the essence of life than Shakespeare’s exuberant richness.

The synthetic power of the sphere of essence is intensified still further in the constructed totality of the dramatic problem: that which the problem decrees to be necessary, whether it be event or soul, achieves existence through its relation to the centre; the immanent dialectic of this unity accords to each individual phenomenon the essence appropriate to it depending on its distance from the centre and its relative importance to the problem. The problem here is inexpressible because it is the concrete idea of the whole, because only the polyphony of all the voices can carry the full wealth of content concealed in it. For life, the problem is an abstraction; the relationship of a character to a problem can never absorb the whole fullness of that character’s life, and every event in the sphere in life can relate only allegorically to the problem. It is true that in the Elective Affinities, which Hebbel rightly called ‘dramatic’, Goethe’s consummate art succeeded in weighing and ordaining everything in relation to the central problem, but even these souls, guided from the start into the problem’s narrow channels, cannot attain to real existence; even this action, narrowed and cut down to fit the problem, fails to achieve a rounded totality; to fill even the fragile shell of this small world, the author is forced to introduce extraneous elements, and even if he were as successful throughout the book as he is in certain passages of supremely skilful organisation, the result would not be a totality. Likewise, the ‘dramatic’ concentration of Hebbel’s Song of the Nibelungs is a splendid mistake which originated pro domo: a great writer’s desperate effort to rescue the epic unity — disintegrating in a changed world — of an authentically epic text. Brunhilde’s superhuman figure is here reduced to a mixture of woman and valkyrie, who humiliates her weak suitor, Gunther, and makes him completely questionable and feeble; only a few fairy-tale motifs survive the transform ation of Siegfried the dragon-killer into a knightly figure. The work is saved by the problem. of loyalty and revenge, that is to say by Hagen and Kriemhild. But it is a desperate, purely artistic attempt to create, with the means of composition, structuring and organisation, a unity that is no longer organically given: a desperate attempt and a heroic failure. For unity can surely be achieved, but never a real totality. In the story of the Iliad which has no beginning and no end, a rounded universe blossoms into all-embracing life. The lucidly composed unity of the Nibelungenlied conceals life and decay, castles and ruins, behind its skilfully structured façade.