Naturalizing the Purges

This is a talk I gave at the Historical Materialism Conference a few years ago. It represents a first approach of sorts to some of the issues raised in my current book project, The Intellectuals Who Failed Better.

Attentive as always to the capacity of style and idiom to embody ideational content, Theodor Adorno infamously took aim at the late works of György Lukács in the 1961 essay, “Reconciliation under Duress,” by affiliating Lukács’s latter-day infelicities of compositional form and expression with his capitulation to real existing socialism.  After reviewing a number of instances of slovenly writing in Lukács’s 1958 book, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Adorno confessed that “one may well wonder whether a man who can write like this, in such obvious ignorance of the craft of the literature which he treats in such a cavalier manner, has any right at all to an opinion on literary matters” (154).  Clearly, Lukács had taken too much “Soviet claptrap” to heart because by the 1950s the “brilliance and profundity” evoked by his remarkable early essays—specifically those collected in Soul and Form, The Theory of the Novel, and History and Class Consciousness—had become twisted, impaired, and degraded, leading Adorno to insist that “in the stylistic amalgam of pedantry and irresponsibility to be found in Lukács, who was once able to write well, one senses a certain malice aforethought, a truculent determination to write badly, evidently in the belief that this sacrifice on his part will demonstrate by some magic trick that anyone who does otherwise and who takes pains with his work is a good-for-nothing.  Indifference to style, we may remark in passing, is almost always symptomatic of the dogmatic sclerosis of content” (154).  To read Lukács after the 1920s, in other words, was to be a spectator to the crushing transformation of one of the most significant dialectical materialists of the early twentieth century into the undialectical apologist of Stalinism and, later, Cold War Communism.

Consequently, to speak in any way for Lukács today, as the title of this panel asks that we do, presupposes that, despite what Adorno once trenchantly claimed, not everything has in fact been decided about or by Lukács in advance, least of all the relationship of his style of writing to its political content.  Nor does this deferral of Adorno’s peremptory judgment require we merely take Lukács at his word instead.  After all, according to his own retrospective account of his development as a thinker and writer following the late 1920s, Lukács’s eventual reconciliation with the reality of Stalinism comprised something far more than an act of uncritical submission before inexorably totalitarian constraints.  If anything, this reconciliation was said to be predicated upon his continued expression of principled dissent with Party policy in his essays of the 1930s, thus at the height of the Great Purge and Moscow Show Trials.  As Lukács put it at the beginning of his revised 1970 Preface to Writer and Critic, “It is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time.  Stalin and his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to their current political policies.  Accordingly, all art was to be subordinated both in the positive and negative sense, to these needs. [. . .] As everyone knows, no open polemics were possible during that period.  Yet I did protest consistently against such a conception of literature” (7).  Far from being the stooge of Stalinism that Adorno made him out to be, Lukács would have us know that the aesthetic theory intimated in his writing of the 1930s was in fact “rich in contradiction,” suggesting that a properly applied dialectical method was required in order to disclose the clandestine dissidence of his position with respect to the Party line.  In this view, it seems that Lukács’s compositional techniques were so subtle that no less eminent an interpreter of texts than Adorno ended up mistaking his subversions of Stalinism for tokens of complete acquiescence.  Thus, we seem to be left with a situation in which Party functionaries were better readers of Lukács than the co-author of The Dialectic of Enlightenment happened to be:  “As many documents attest,” Lukács goes on to write, “those I criticized were well aware of what I was doing” (7).

The way in which we have come to reconcile these two views of Lukács (for and against) is to concede that he did in fact make regrettable (though exigent) compromises with an omnipresent Stalinist reality while nevertheless managing to carve out a space for himself in which a legible project of protest against and critique of that same reality could be effectively mounted.  For Ferenc Fehér, Lukács’s incessant attempts “to reveal the ‘ideal type’ of the system as he opposed its empirical reality, a procedure barely tolerated by the system itself [. . .], also entailed the acceptance of the final principles of the regime.  This critical distance was necessary, and at the same time sufficient, for Lukács to elaborate his classicism, to build up his personal Weimar, an island of culture in a world of power relations that were unambiguously hostile toward the outspokenness of any democratic culture” (77).  Alternatively, in the words of Rodney Livingstone, “We may conclude that if the authoritarian features in Lukács himself were powerful enough to induce him to submit to Stalinism, they were also strong enough to enable him to stand up for his own—bourgeois-democratic—version of Stalinism” (11).  Thus, in the opinions of these two tough-minded readers of Lukács, and in spite of what Adorno’s scathing criticisms might have contended, Lukács ought not to be spit out by us precisely because he managed the singularly tricky feat of somehow being neither cold nor hot in a situation in which no one could have possibly been lukewarm.  Or, to use the simile that Adorno’s “Reconciliation under Duress” applies to the post-Stalinist Lukács, the Hungarian critic was “like a parfait or a sundae—halfway between a so-called thaw on the one hand and a renewed freeze on the other” (153).

While the interpretations of Feher, Livingstone, and Michael Löwy from more than three decades ago have done an estimable job of giving us a more nuanced (indeed, dialectical) view of Lukács, not only in Moscow during the 1930s and most of the 1940s but also in Budapest following World War II, they nevertheless tend to leave unexamined the properly Adornian component in the evisceration of Lukács carried out by “Reconciliation under Duress,” which (after all) focused a great deal on the relationship of form to content in his later essays.  The opening up of a conceptual space in which an oppositional Lukács could finally be disclosed to sight among Western readers has been all well and good, but what does that have to do with the apparent badness of his writing after he threw his lot in with the Communist Party?  Rather than dispute Adorno’s gruff assessment by insisting, counterintuitively, on the shapeliness and roundedness of Lukács’s Stalinist and postwar essays, I want to concede that point to Adorno while nevertheless arguing that he failed to discern the degree to which his own critical methodologies offered (and continue to offer) a lens through which Lukács can be viewed in a way that gets us beyond his mere arraignment and prosecution for crimes against literature and humanity.  In particular, I want to suggest that what Lukács’s essays from the period criticized by “Reconciliation under Duress” provide us with are exemplary instances of a “late style” that Adorno cussedly refuses to recognize as such.

Interestingly, Adorno’s first articulations of what “late style” means were roughly contemporaneous with the objectionable turn in Lukács’s writing and thinking that was continuing to take place while the Hungarian writer and critic was in exile in Moscow following the rise to power of German National Socialism.  In the 1937 essay, “Beethoven’s Late Style,” Adorno tries to account for the apparent absurdity of the claim that the last works of the great German composer are both subjective and objective at the same time.  That is to say, Beethoven’s final compositions are often simultaneously claimed to be instances of unrestrained free personal expression and of the meticulous working through of materially given principles of construction.  Rather than resolve these two opposing tendencies into a melodious synthesis, however, the aged Beethoven is said by Adorno to have made the proto-modernist gesture of leaving these subjective and objective qualities of his last works in a state of unsettled dissolution.  In turn, Adorno understands this fluidization and dissociation of the integrity of the formal structure of the work of art to be one of the hallmarks of “late style” itself.  Thus, all sorts of unmetabolized conventions (like polyphony, in the case of late Beethoven) return in the final works of great artists, but they do so in ways that seem “bald, undisguised, untransformed” (565).  What the crudity of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major (1821) anticipates, then, is the twentieth century’s crisis of representation and the modernist compositional solution of Bruchstück, of the fragment, of incomplete art objects that, by virtue of their broken and unfinished form itself, resist the totalizing claims of rounded works of art:  “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which—alone—it glows into life.  [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis.  As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal.  In the history of art late works are the catastrophes” (567).  Therefore, far from being the unimpeded expression of an artist’s subjectivity, the fragmentary nature of Adornian “late style” refers us to works of art in which an imminent confrontation with mortality produces objects in which creative subjectivity as such gets temporarily rendered expressionless during those fleeting moments when the concatenated fragments are allowed to speak for themselves directly.

Obviously, to apply such a notion of “late style” to Lukács’s writing from the 1930s onward is to read him very much against the grain, for it would seem to suggest that lurking beneath the surface of his essayistic works from this period were a variety of unrealized modernist impulses that were otherwise smothered in his larger-scale works, like The Historical Novel, published the same year as Adorno’s essay on “late style” in Beethoven.  Although he was careful to distinguish his career as a dialectical and historical materialist from the early sociological writings that Adorno admired so greatly, it is useful to bear in mind here Lukács’s essay on the genre of the essay itself in Soul and Form, where the occasional and fragmentary mode of essayistic composition indicates its role as precursor to a fully fleshed-out account of art.  The incompleteness of the essay as such does not speak for itself but rather calls out for the value and form only achievable in the prospective elaboration of a system, precisely of the sort embodied in The Historical Novel, for instance.  Thus, even if Lukács’s essayistic writing from the 1930s may appear to be incomplete from time to time, that need not belie the teleological relationship sketched in by Soul and Form, where essays as such are merely means to an end, are only stops alongside the road leading to a destination, to a system that will retrospectively abolish and preserve the makeshift quality of those stops, of those means, of those essays through its fulfillment of their implicit values, hierarchies, and desires for order.  Adorno’s trajectory for “late style” is thus preemptively reversed in the early Lukács:  instead of going from mastery of form to a deformation of mastery, the Lukácsian arc from essay to system would seem to indicate a far more familiar Bildung of growth and integration, whereby the probing efforts of essayism give way ultimately to the totalizing organization of an aesthetics as such.

To be sure, the actual trajectory traced by Lukács’s career does seem to approach a developmental model very much like this.  Bracketing for the moment the rather evocative fact that they were all left in various states of incompletion, his final ambitious works (the aesthetics, the ontology, and the ethics) do indeed adumbrate a system of values not yet fully satisfied by the essays produced throughout his career.  However, what reading Lukács along the grain in this way omits are two key features of his essayistic writing.  The first is the social context in and by which his literary criticism for much of the 1930s was shaped: on the one hand, by his recantation of the “Blum Theses” in 1929, which marked Lukács’s abandonment of political theory for art and culture; and on the other, by the Great Purge and the show trials, which made a confrontation with one’s own mortality due to the potential or inadvertent expression of ideological errors an impending feature of any Party intellectual’s life, especially of a dogged survivor whose essays were perhaps staging an occulted resistance to the Party line, as we have seen Lukács retrospectively claim with respect to his own work from this period.  Thus, what the richness in contradiction self-attributed to his 1930s essays suggests is that in these thoughts indirectly occasioned by the all-pervading experience of death and sacrifice in Moscow and beyond there persisted an unyielding negativity, a refusal to be co-opted or synthesized into any grand totalizing scheme.  In fact, another feature of Lukács’s early sense of the essay genre itself suggests that perhaps such an attitude of irresolution and such a refusal of reconciliation can be extended beyond the aberrations of Stalinism as such toward Lukács’s own impulses or tendencies to totalize and systematize.  For after all, the essay, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” ends by de-instrumentalizing the role of essayistic writing itself in the gradual elaboration of an aesthetic system.  The essay, in other words, is not merely the application of a system that has yet to be found or that has yet to come into being but is instead “always a new creation, a coming alive in real experience [Erleben (34).  Thus, “The essay is a judgment [Gericht], but the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging” (34).

Process, not judgment, is the specific intellectual activity performatively staged by the essay itself, which thereby calls forth from us a greater deal of attention to the forms made use of by essayistic writing than we might otherwise be accustomed to bring to bear on Lukács’s publications of the 1930s.  At the very least, it is from within the mortally threatening social context provided by Stalinism that the conceptual frameworks of early Lukács start to dovetail into those of Adorno on “late style,” and it is on such premises that I would now like to indicate what such an attentiveness to “late style” in Lukács might mean by looking more closely at one of his most notorious and totalizing polemics of the Moscow period, 1936’s “To Narrate or Describe?”.  After all, at first glance, this essay certainly seems to enact the same sort of sclerosis of dogmatic content polemicized against by Adorno in “Reconciliation under Duress.”  At the very least, the acerbic counterposing of realist compositional practices to literary naturalist ones would appear to suggest that, much like the show trials themselves, Commissar Lukács’s judgments had already been passed.  Hence the ruthlessly hierarchical nature of the essay’s oppositional structure, already contained within its title:  whereas nineteenth-century realist narratives once made a necessity of chance by dynamically developing the social relationalities to which contingencies give rise, naturalist descriptions represent chance statically through the abstract imposition of formalizations that are as arbitrary as the social content those descriptions seek to depict; whereas realist texts once provided autotelic norms and measures by which to assess the social significance of typical characters in a given text, naturalist works instead relativize such proportions, thereby eliding selective principles from their stock of compositional methods along with the possibility of perspectives able to credibly make the distinction between characters and inanimate objects in the first place; and whereas the objectivity of realism once narrated and modeled a sociability implicitly generative of a renewed vita activa, the naturalist attempt to make literature scientific succumbs to a total objectivization whereby the possibilities of just such a renewal devolve instead into passive suffering and atomized social anomie.

As we have seen, however, Adornian “late style” cues us to be on the lookout both for places where the integrity of such structural logics break down and for the return of conventions that remain unsynthesized or unintegrated within the late work itself.  Notably, then, even an essay as overtly polemical as “To Narrate or Describe?” refuses to solve the contradictions it raises about the continued distorting influence of naturalist modes of composition on contemporary Western bourgeois fiction and socialist realist writing.  Thus, rhetoricity and conceptuality do not manage to come together in a way that would resolve the incompatibility of a philosophical history of forms with an empirical history of forms, making this essay an unexpected re-inscription of the problems raised by Theory of the Novel.  In fact, with its opening words, “To Narrate or Describe?” directly evokes the epic traditions so forlornly depicted in Theory of the Novel:  “Let’s begin in medias res!” [“Gehen wir gleich in medias res!“] (197).  On the face of it, this opening seems not simply to ratify the precedence of narrative over description preemptively through its positing of epic form as a self-referential model for essayistic organization, but also to raise the question as to what the preconditions for offering a dialectical account of the genesis of narrative modes are in the first place.  If, as Lukács argues, naturalist novels can be understood to disrupt or impede the narrativity of forms as such, then from its opening sentence “To Narrate or Describe?” seems to make that disruption or impediment integral by means of epic narrative form itself.

In other words, the beginning of Lukács’s essay presents us with the meta-critical return of a convention (the epic) he once forcefully claimed was no longer available to us novel-writing moderns.  At one level, this return manifests itself in terms of characterization.  As Ferenc Feher puts it in his exegesis of Theory of the Novel, “‘Collective individuality’ offers great advantages to epic representation.  First of all, there is no danger of privatization:  Achilles’ wrath is just as much a public matter as a private one.  Secondly, as a result of the functional and ‘non-unique’ character of the epic hero, it is never a question how certain men become capable of fulfilling such and such tasks.  The question raised in the epic is always the following: is there someone to fulfill a certain function” (64).  Accordingly, in the opening section of “To Narrate or Describe?”, Lukács counterposes description and narration, naturalism and realism, Zola and Tolstoy, Zola and Balzac, Flaubert and Scott, etc. in terms of a civic function that remains unquestioned:  what art is for publicly is education, the making knowable of norms to social subjects.  Art, in other words, models the historically situated standards by which we can measure our actions against proportionate effects in the world.  However, given the gap that exists between historical processes and individual life in modernity, there does not seem to be any popular mode of writing that can fulfill this function today.  The slavish reproduction of inhumanity in naturalist writing does not afford an adequate picture or model of that inhumanity but instead reconciles itself to it because the compositional methods of naturalist description attempt to encapsulate in mortifying tableaux the actively unfolding degradations that exceed their capacities of representation altogether.  Such methods reify partial views on reality.  Literary naturalism (along with its twentieth-century subjectivizing complement and heir, modernism) therefore carries out the degeneration of the novel’s ability to play socially regenerative roles.  The model they provide instead for their readers is finally that of a submissive acceptance of (and identification with) horrors that fitfully subsist and reproduce themselves beyond any one person or perspective’s ken:  “We do not watch a man whom we have come to know and love being spiritually murdered by capitalism in the course of the [naturalist] novel, but follow a corpse in passage through still lives become increasingly aware of being dead” (146).  Consequently, the modeling that naturalist compositional methods present their readers is that of how to become a self-aware zombie.  Naturalism provides the means by which the zombie in-itself may reflexively become a cynical (or happy-go-lucky or obstinate or perverse or complacent or disaffected, etc.) zombie-for-itself.

It would seem, then, that much as is the case in epic narratives, everything has already been decided in advance for “To Narrate or Describe?”:  art has a clear civic function to fulfill, and the novel—be it bourgeois or socialist realist—ought to turn away from ambient naturalist methods and back toward legibly realist ones, a point that Lukács’s graphic evocation of epic narrative modes in his initial structuring of the essay is meant to convey self-referentially (there are still normative and active public roles to be fulfilled by creative writing, the form and content of the opening sections seem to be insisting, despite what naturalist models might suggest to present-day readers in the West and in the U.S.S.R.).  However, Lukács’s initial epic emplotment of the relationship of naturalism to realism does not work itself out consistently; the empirical history of forms does not get brusquely subsumed by the philosophical history of forms by the essay’s end, when Lukács turns his attention to the socialist realist novel.  Instead, “To Narrate or Describe?” climaxes with the corruption of Soviet novels by naturalist premises that are impeding the cultivation and reproduction of new men.  Just as the narrative content of the socialist realist novel often hinges upon the revelation of the saboteur in the factory or the collective farm, so too the form of the socialist realist novel is sabotaged by unreconstructed naturalist compositional elements.  The kulak in the woodshed, then, is the embodiment or objective correlative (if you will) of the naturalist remainders to be found in the form of the socialist realist novel itself.  Yet despite these regrettable holdovers, Lukács still manages to end the essay affirmatively:  such a naturalist remainder in Soviet writing “can and will be overcome” (242).

Yet, even as “To Narrate or Describe?” passes absolute judgments such as these, its epic structure breaks down completely.  For if we start in medias res, then we end in medias res as well, suggesting that the argument elaborated here is not in the service of exalting the prospective fulfillment of normative expectations but of leaving them pointedly in suspense.  The self-referential model provided by the epic, in other words, remains unmetabolized by Lukács’s essay—it exists there as an unredeemed convention or tradition, a naturalized, descriptive fragment that may speak for itself but certainly not for Lukács nor for the fully realized socialist realist novel.  What Lukács’s “late style” in “To Narrate or Describe?” performatively enacts, then, is the transformation of epic certainty into the disquieting ambivalence of early twentieth-century novelistic forms, which cannot be assuaged or resolved by dictatorially resurrecting the characters, forms, and functions specific to the classical epic and the harmonious community that made it possible in the first place.  At the height of the Great Purges and the beginning of the Moscow Show Trials, what Lukács’s deformation of epic mastery in this essay indicates is that, despite the apparent certainty of the judgments being passed within (and, later, on) it, the jury was in fact still out as to whether bourgeois-democratic culture could be reconciled with Stalinism without literary naturalism coming to the rescue.

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