Thursday, April 16, 2009

1938: "Realism in the Balance" by Gyorgy Lukacs

The Author:
Gyorgy Lukacs
Born in Budapest in 1885, Lukacs (pronounced: loo KOTCH) earned a Ph. D. in law and philosophy from the University of Budapest in 1906. In 1918, he joined the Communist Party of Hungary and when the Party took power in 1919, he was appointed the People’s Commisar for Education and Culture and political commissar for the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army. When the Soviet Republic of Hungary fell after a mere five months in power, Lukacs fled to Vienna, where he lived until 1929. While in Vienna, he published his best-known essay collection, History and Class Consciousness (1924) which was subsequently censured by the Stalinists who seized control of the Russian government following Lenin’s death. Though Lukacs opposed the leadership of Hungarian Communists supported by Stalin, he moved to Moscow in 1933 and remained there until the Communists came to power in Hungary at the end of World War II. In 1956, he became a minister in Hungary’s Anti-Soviet Communist government, but after the Soviet Union crushed the Revolution, Lukacs publicly retracted the anti-Soviet positions he had previously advocated. He remained loyal to the Party until his death in 1971.

The Text:
“Realism in the Balance"
Written while Lukacs lived in Russia and first published in a German literary journal, “Realism in the Balance” accuses modernist art of alienating “an already alienated audience” and champions realist art that reveals “the economic system responsible for reducing human beings to things.”(Leitch et al, 1164)

“If literature is a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected, then it becomes of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is, and not merely to confine itself to reproducing whatever manifests itself immediately and on the surface.” (1037)

The goal of every major realist is “to penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society.” (1041)

“When the surface of life is only experienced immediately, it remains opaque, fragmentary, chaotic and uncomprehended.” (1042)

Photomontage, the “pinnacle” of the symbolist movement, “is capable of striking effects, and on occasion it can even become a powerful political weapon. Such effects arise from its technique of juxtaposing heterogeneous, unrelated pieces of reality torn from their context. However, …the final effect must be one of profound monotony. …After all, a puddle can never be more than dirty water, even though it may contain rainbow tints.” (1045)

“…the realist must seek out the lasting features in people, in their relations with each other and in the situations in which they have to act; he must focus on those elements which endure over long periods and which constitute the objective human tendencies of society and indeed of mankind as a whole. Such writers form the authentic ideological avant-garde since they depict the vital, but not immediately obvious forces at work in objective reality.” (1049)

“Great realism . . . does not portray an immediately obvious aspect of reality but one which is permanent and objectively more significant, namely man in the whole range of his relations to the real world, above all those which outlast mere fashion….[It] captures tendencies of development that only exist incipiently and so have not yet had the opportunity to unfold their entire human and social potential. To discern and give shape to such underground trends is the great historical mission of the true literary avant-garde . . . [O]nly the major realists are capable of forming a genuine avant-garde.” (1049)

“…even the most passionate determination, the most intense sense of conviction that one has revolutionized art and created something ‘radically new’, will not suffice to turn a writer into someone who can truly anticipate future trends, if determination and conviction are his sole qualifications. This ancient truth can also be expressed as a commonplace: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (1050)

“…in contrast to the one-dimensionality of modernism[,] Cervantes and Shakespeare, Balzac and Tolstoy, …Thomas and Heinrich Mann—all these can appeal to readers drawn from a broad cross-section of the people because their works permit access from so many different angles. The large-scale, enduring resonance of the great works of realism is in fact due to this accessibility, to the infinite multitude of doors through which entry is possible….The process of appropriation enables readers to clarify their own experiences and understanding of life and to broaden their own horizons.” (1056)

“A campaign against realism, whether conscious or not, and a resultant impoverishment and isolation of literature and art is one of the crucial manifestations of decadence in the realm of art.” (105)

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