Georg Lukács 1962

Preface to The Theory of the Novel

Source: The Theory of the Novel. A historico-philosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature. by Georg Lukács, translated from the German by Anna Bostock, published by Merlin Press.

THE FIRST draft of this study was written in the summer of 1914 and the final version in the winter of 1914-15. It first appeared in Max Dessoir’s Zeitschrift fur Aesthetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft in 1916 and was published in book form by P. Cassirer, Berlin, in 1920.

The immediate motive for writing was supplied by the outbreak of the First World War and the effect which its acclamation by the social-democratic parties had upon the European left. My own deeply personal attitude was one of vehement, global and, especially at the beginning, scarcely articulate rejection of the war and especially of enthusiasm for the war. I recall a conversation with Frau Marianne Weber in the late autumn of 1914. She wanted to challenge my attitude by telling me of individual, concrete acts of heroism. My only reply was: ‘The better the worse!’ When I tried at this time to put my emotional attitude into conscious terms, I arrived at more or less the following formulation: the Central Powers would probably defeat Russia; this might lead to the downfall of Tsarism; I had no objection to that. There was also some probability that the West would defeat Germany; if this led to the downfall of the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs, I was once again in favour. But then the question arose: who was to save us from Western civilisation? (The prospect of final victory by the Germany of that time was to me nightmarish.)

Such was the mood in which the first draft of The Theory of the Novel was written. At first it was meant to take the form of a series of dialogues: a group of young people withdraw from the war psychosis of their environment, just as the story-tellers of the Decameron had withdrawn from the plague; they try to understand themselves and one another by means of conversations which gradually lead to the problems discussed in the book — the outlook on a Dostoevskian world. On closer consideration I dropped this plan and wrote the book as it stands today. Thus it was written in a mood of permanent despair over the state of the world. It was not until 1917 that I found an answer to the problems which, until then, had seemed to me insoluble.

Of course it would be possible to consider this study simply in itself, only from the viewpoint of its objective content, and without reference to the inner factors which conditioned it. But I believe that in looking back over the history of almost five decades it is worth while to describe the mood in which the work was Written because this will facilitate a proper understanding of it.

Clearly my rejection of the war and, together with it, of the bourgeois society of that time was purely utopian; nothing, even at the level of the most abstract intellection, helped to mediate between my subjective attitude and objective reality. Methodologically, this had the very important consequence that I did not, at first, feel any need to submit my view of the world, my scientific working method, etc., to critical reassessment. I was then in process of turning from Kant to Hegel, without, however, changing any aspect of my attitude towards the so-called ‘intellectual sciences’ school, an attitude based essentially on my youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dilthey, Simmel and Max Weber. The Theory of the Novel is in effect a typical product of the tendencies of that school. When I met Max Dvorak personally in Vienna in 1920 he told me that he regarded my book as the movement’s most important publication.

Today it is no longer difficult to see the limitations of this method. But we are also in a position to appreciate the features which, to a certain extent, justified it historically as against the petty two-dimensionality of Neo-Kantian (or any other) positivism in the treatment both of historical characters or relations and of intellectual realities (logic, aesthetics, etc.). I am thinking, for example, of the fascination exercised by Dilthey’s Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (Leipzig 1905), a book which seemed in many respects to open up new ground. This new ground appeared to us then as an intellectual world of large-scale syntheses in both the theoretical and the historical fields. We failed to see that the new method had in fact scarcely succeeded in surmounting positivism, or that its syntheses were without objective foundation. (At that time it escaped the notice of the younger ones among us that men of talent were arriving at their genuinely sound conclusions in spite of the method rather than by means of it.) It became the fashion to form general synthetic concepts on the basis of only a few characteristics — in most cases only intuitively grasped — of a school, a period, etc., then to proceed by deduction from these generalisations to the analysis of individual phenomena, and in that way to arrive at what we claimed to be a comprehensive overall view.

This was the method of The Theory of the Novel. Let me quote just a few examples. Its typology of novel forms depends to a large extent on whether the chief protagonist’s soul is ‘too narrow’ or ‘too broad’ in relation to reality. This highly abstract criterion is useful, at most, for illuminating certain aspects of Don Quixote, which is chosen to represent the first type. But it is far too general to afford full comprehension of the historical and aesthetic richness of even that one novel. As for the other novelists placed in the same category, such as Balzac or even Pontoppidan, the method puts them into a conceptual straitjacket which completely distorts them. The same is true of the other types. The consequence of the abstract synthesising practised by the ‘intellectual sciences’ school is even more striking in the treatment of Tolstoy. The epilogue in War and Peace is, in fact, an authentic conclusion, in terms of ideas, to the period of the Napoleonic Wars; the development of certain figures already foreshadows the Decembrist rising of 1825. But the author of The Theory of the Novel sticks so obstinately to the schema of L'Education sentimentale that all he can find here is ‘a nursery atmosphere where all passion has been spent’, ‘more melancholy than the ending of the most problematic of novels of disillusionment’. Any number of such examples could be supplied. Suffice it to point out that novelists such as Defoe, Fielding and Stendhal found no place in this schematic pattern, that the arbitrary ‘synthetic’ method of the author of The Theory of the Novel leads him to a completely upside-down view of Balzac and Flaubert or of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, etc., etc.

Such distortions must be mentioned, if only to reveal the limitations of the method of abstract synthesis practised by the ‘intellectual sciences’ school. That does not mean, of course, that the author of The Theory of the Novel was precluded in principle from uncovering any interesting correlations. Here again I will give only the most characteristic example: the analysis of the role of time in L'Education sentimentale. The analysis of the concrete work is still an inadequate abstraction. The discovery of a ‘recherche du temps perdu’ can be objectively justified, if at all, only with regard to the last part of the novel (after the final defeat of the revolution of 1848). Nevertheless we have here an unambiguous formulation of the new function of time in the novel, based on the Bergsonian concept of ‘durée’. This is the more striking as Proust did not become known in Germany until after 1920, Joyce’s Ulysses not until 1922, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was not published until 1924.

Thus The Theory of the Novel is a typical product of ‘intellectual science’ and does not point the way beyond its methodological limitations. Yet its success (Thomas Mann and Max Weber were among those who read it with approval) was not purely accidental. Although rooted in the ‘intellectual sciences’ approach, this book shows, within the given limitations, certain new features which were to acquire significance in the light of later developments. We have already pointed out that the author of The Theory of the Novel had become a Hegelian. The older leading representatives of the ‘intellectual sciences’ method based themselves on Kantian philosophy and were not free from traces of positivism; this was particularly true of Dilthey. An attempt to overcome the flat rationalism of the positivists nearly always meant a step in the direction of irrationalism; this applies especially to Simmel, but also to Dilthey himself. It is true that the Hegelian revival had already begun several years before the outbreak of the war. But whatever was of serious scientific interest in that revival was largely confined to the sphere of logic or of the general theory of science. So far as I am aware, The Theory of the Novel was the first work belonging to the ‘intellectual sciences’ school in which the findings of Hegelian philosophy were concretely applied to aesthetic problems. The first, general part of the book is essentially determined by Hegel, e.g. the comparison of modes of totality in epic and dramatic art, the historico-philosophical view of what the epic and the novel have in common and of what differentiates them, etc. But the author of The Theory of the Novel was not an exclusive or orthodox Hegelian; Goethe’s and Schiller’s analyses, certain conceptions of Goethe’s in his late period (e.g. the demonic), the ‘young Friedrich Schlegel’s and Solger’s aesthetic theories (irony as a modern method of form-giving), fill out and concretise the general Hegelian outline.

Perhaps a still more important legacy of Hegel is the historicisation of aesthetic categories. In the sphere of aesthetics, this is where the return to Hegel yielded its most useful results. Kantians such as Rickert and his school put a methodological chasm between timeless value and historical realisation of value. Dilthey himself saw the contradiction as far less extreme, but did not (in his preliminary sketches for a method of a history of philosophy) get beyond establishing a meta-historical typology of philosophies, which then achieve historical realisation in concrete variations. He succeeds in this in some of his aesthetic analyses, but, in a sense, he does so per nefas and is certainly not aware of inventing a new method. The world-view at the root of such philosophical conservatism is the historico-politically conservative attitude of the leading representatives of the ‘intellectual sciences’. Intellectually this attitude goes back to Ranke and is thus in sharp contradiction to Hegel’s view of the dialectical evolution of the world spirit. Of course there is also the positivist historical relativism, and it was precisely during the war that Spengler combined this with tendencies of the ‘intellectual sciences’ school by radically historicising all categories and refusing to recognise the existence of any suprahistorical validity, whether aesthetic, ethical or logical. Yet by doing so he, in turn, abolished the unity of the historical process: his extreme historical dynamism finally became transformed into a static view, an ultimate abolition of history itself, a succession of completely disconnected cultural cycles which always end and always start again. Thus with Spengler we arrive at a secessionist counterpart to Ranke.

The author of The Theory of the Novel did not go so far as that. He was looking for a general dialectic of literary genres that was based upon the essential nature of aesthetic categories and literary forms, and aspiring to a more intimate connection between category and history than he found in Hegel himself; he strove towards intellectual comprehension of permanence within change and of inner change within the enduring validity of the essence. But his method remains extremely abstract in many respects, including certain matters of great importance; it is cut off from concrete socio-historical realities. For that reason, as has already been pointed out, it leads only too often to arbitrary intellectual constructs. It was not until a decade and a half later (by that time, of course, on Marxist ground) that I succeeded in finding a way towards a solution. When M. A. Lifshitz and I, in opposition to the vulgar sociology of a variety of schools during the Stalin period, were trying to uncover Marx’s real aesthetic and to develop it further, we arrived at a genuine historico-systematic method. The Theory of the Novel remained at the level of an attempt which failed both in design and in execution, but which in its intention came closer to the right solution than its contemporaries were able to do.

The book’s aesthetic problematic of the present is also part of the Hegelian legacy: I mean the notion that development from the historico-philosophical viewpoint leads to a kind of abolition of those aesthetic principles which had determined development up to that point. In Hegel himself, however, only art is rendered problematic as a result of this; the ‘world of prose’, as he aesthetically defines this condition, is one in which the spirit has attained itself both in thought and in social and state praxis. Thus art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic. The idea put forward in The Theory of the Novel, although formally similar, is in fact the complete opposite of this: the problems of the novel form are here the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint. This is why the ‘prose’ of life is here only a symptom, among many others, of the fact that reality no longer constitutes a favourable soil for art; that is why the central problem of the novel is the fact that art has to write off the closed and total forms which stem from a rounded totality of being — that art has nothing more to do with any world of forms that is immanently complete in itself. And this is not for artistic but for historico-philosophical reasons: ‘there is no longer any spontaneous totality of being’, the author of The Theory of the Novel says of present-day reality. A few years later Gottfried Benn put the same thought in another way: ‘... there was no reality, only, at most, its distorted image. Although The Theory of the Novel is, in the ontological sense, more critical and more thoughtful than the expressionist poet’s view, the fact nevertheless remains that both were expressing similar feelings about life and reacting to the present in a similar way. During the debate between expressionism and realism in the 1930s, this gave rise to a somewhat grotesque situation in which Ernst Bloch invoked The Theory of the Novel in his polemic against the Marxist, Georg Lukács.

It is perfectly evident that the contradiction between The Theory of the Novel and Hegel, who was its general methodological guide, is primarily social rather than aesthetic or philosophical in nature. It may suffice to recall what has already been said about the author’s attitude towards the war. We should add that his conception of social reality was at that time strongly influenced by Sorel. That is why the present in The Theory of the Novel is not defined in Hegelian terms but rather by Fichte’s formulation, as ‘the age of absolute sinfulness’. This ethically-tinged pessimism vis-á-vis the present does not, however, signify a general turning back from Hegel to Fichte, but, rather, a Kierkegaardisation of the Hegelian dialectic of history. Kierkegaard always played an important role for the author of The Theory of the Novel, who, long before Kierkegaard had become fashionable, wrote an essay on the relationship between his life and thought.’ And during his Heidelberg years immediately before the war he had been engaged in a study, never to be completed, of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. These facts are mentioned here, not for biographical reasons, but to indicate a trend which was later to become important in German thought. It is true that Kierkegaard’s direct influence leads to Heidegger’s and Jaspers’ philosophy of existence and, therefore, to more or less open opposition to Hegel. But it should not be forgotten that the Hegelian revival itself was strenuously concerned with narrowing the gap between Hegel and irrationalism. This tendency is already detectable in Dilthey’s researches into the young Hegel (1905) and assumes clearly-defined form in Kroner’s statement that Hegel was the greatest irrationalist in the history of philosophy (1924). Kierkegaard’s direct influence cannot yet be proved here. But in the 1920s it was present everywhere, in a latent form but to an increasing degree, and even led to a Kierkegaardisation of the young Marx. For example, Karl Lowith wrote in 1941: ‘Far as they are from one another (Marx and Kierkegaard, G.L.), they are nevertheless closely connected by their common attack on existing reality and by the fact that both stem from Hegel’. (It is hardly necessary to point out how widespread this tendency is in present-day French philosophy.)

The socio-philosophical basis of such theories is the philosophically as well as politically uncertain attitude of romantic anti-capitalism. Originally, say in the young Carlyle or in Cobbett, this was a genuine critique of the horrors and barbarities of early capitalism — sometimes even, as in Carlyle’s Past and Present, a preliminary form of a socialist critique. In Germany this attitude gradually transformed itself into a form of apology for the political and social backwardness of the Hohenzollern empire. Viewed superficially, a wartime work as important as Thomas Mann’s Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918) belongs to the same tendency. But Thomas Mann’s later development, as early as in the 1920s, justifies his own description of this work: ‘It is a retreating action fought in the grand manner, the last and latest stand of a German romantic bourgeois mentality, a battle fought with full awareness of its hopelessness ... even with insight into the spiritual unhealthiness and immorality of any sympathy with that which is doomed to death’.

No trace of such a mood is to be found in the author of The Theory of the Novel, for all that his philosophical startingpoint was provided by Hegel, Goethe and Romanticism. His opposition to the barbarity of capitalism allowed no room for any sympathy such as that felt by Thomas Mann for the ‘German wretchedness’ or its surviving features in the present.

The Theory of the Novel is not conservative but subversive in nature, even if based on a highly naive and totally unfounded utopianism — the hope that a natural life worthy of man can spring from the disintegration of capitalism and the destruction, seen as identical with that disintegration, of the lifeless and life-denying social and economic categories. The fact that the book culminates in its analysis of Tolstoy, as well as the author’s view of Dostoyevsky, who, it is claimed, ‘did not write novels’, clearly indicate that the author was not looking for a new literary form but, quits, explicitly, for a ‘new world’. We have every right to smile at such primitive utopianism, but it expresses nonetheless an intellectual tendency which was part of the reality of that time.

In the twenties, it is true, attempts to reach beyond the economic world by social means acquired an increasingly pronounced reactionary character. But at the time when The Theory of the Novel was written these ideas were still in a completely undifferentiated, germinal phase. If Hilferding, the most celebrated economist of the Second International, could write of communist society in his Finanzkapital (1909):

‘Exchange (in such a society: trans.) is accidental, not a possible subject for theoretical economic consideration. It cannot be theoretically analysed, but only psychologically understood'; if we think of the utopias, intended to be revolutionary, of the last war years and the immediate post-war period — then we can arrive at a historically juster assessment of the utopia of The Theory of the Novel, without in any way modifying our critical attitude towards its lack of theoretical principle.

Such a critical attitude is particularly well suited to enable us to see in its true light a further peculiarity of The Theory of the Novel, which made it something new in German literature. (The phenomenon we are about to examine was known much earlier in France.) To put it briefly, the author of The Theory of the Novel had a conception of the world which aimed at a fusion of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (ontology, etc.). In so far as Wilhelminian Germany had any principled oppositional literature at all, this literature was based on the traditions of the Enlightenment (in most cases, moreover, on the most shallow epigones of that tradition) and took a globally negative view of Germany’s valuable literary and theoretical traditions. (The socialist Franz Mehring constitutes a rare example in that respect.) So far as I am able to judge, The Theory of the Novel was the first German book in which a left ethic oriented towards radical revolution was coupled with a traditional-conventional exegesis of reality. From the 1920s onwards this view was to play an increasingly important role. We need only think of Ernst Bloch’s Der Geist der Utopie (1918, 1925) and Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution, of Walter Benjamin, even of the beginnings of Theodor W. Adorno, etc.

The importance of this movement became even greater in the intellectual struggle against Hitler; many writer, proceeding from a ‘left’ ethic, attempted to mobilise Nietzsche and even Bismarck as progressive forces against fascist reaction. (Let me mention in passing that France, where this tendency emerged much earlier than in Germany, today possesses an extremely influential representative of it in the person of J.-P. Sartre. For obvious reasons, the social causes of the earlier appearance and more prolonged effectiveness of this phenomenon in France cannot be discussed here.) Hitler had to be defeated and the restoration and the ‘economic miracle’ had to occur before this function of ‘left’ ethics in Germany could fall into oblivion, leaving the forum of topicality open to a conformism disguised as non-conformism.

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (Die Zerstörung der Vernunft, Neuwied 1962, p. 219). The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Philosophische Grundfragen I, Zur Ontologie des Noch-Nicht-Seins, Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.

Thus, if anyone today reads The Theory of the Novel in order to become more intimately acquainted with the prehistory of the important ideologies of the 1920s and 1930s, he will derive profit from a critical reading of the book along the lines I have suggested. But if he picks up the book in the hope that it will serve him as a guide, the result will only be a still greater disorientation. As a young writer, Arnold Zweig read The Theory of the Novel hoping that it would help him to find his way; his healthy instinct led him, rightly, to reject it root and branch.

Georg Lukacs Budapest,
July 1962.