An Ezraized Little Review Will Have No Appeal to Young America

Here is an early (and, as was the case with the most recent Lillian Smith post, really rather different) introduction to the Wyndham Lewis chapter of Literary Obscenities.

Using his first editorial in The Little Review to settle old scores and foment new antagonisms, the newly appointed Pound both disclaimed his hampered involvement hitherto with Harriet Monroe’s Poetry and intimated that Margaret Anderson’s little magazine would prove to be the more tractable instrument of his peculiar blend of scholarship, enthusiasm, and pedagogy.  Importantly, this tractability was to be understood as extending to ongoing adjustments within the journal of the hierarchies governing the relationship between aesthetics and religiously-inflected notions of morality:  “If any human activity is sacred it is the formulation of thought in clear speech for the use of humanity; any falsification or evasion is evil.  The codes of propriety are all local, parochial, transient; a consideration of them, other than as subject matter, has no place in the arts.”[i]  Pound’s emphasis here is not on the purgation of morality altogether from the pages of The Little Review, but rather on the necessity of interfusing moral codes with compositional principles thereafter capable of guiding one’s discriminative judgments of good and evil, with evil understood as manifesting itself in thoughts that are poorly expressed.  Pound subordinates the moral to the aesthetic, thereby neutralizing one of the era’s more widely-used means to control objectionable cultural objects.  According to Pound’s editorial, immorality and impropriety are not reducible to transgression as such; correlatively, charges like those of obscenity can no longer meaningfully be made, whether in the popular press or in the courthouse, because their grounds are too particular and ephemeral when measured by the universalizable assessments that art properly demands.[ii]

For Pound, therefore, the antagonism to be pursued at all costs is that between The Little Review and those of its readers who would presume to possess their own critical standards.  If up to 1917, as one modernist scholar has recently argued, The Little Review had actively and successfully targeted American youth markets, then the advent of Pound as foreign editor marked a formidable attempt to liquidate whatever hold those markets might have had on the journal from here on out[iii]:  “The shell-fish grows its own shell, the genius creates its own milieu.  You, the public, can kill genius by actual physical starvation, you may perhaps thwart or distort it, but you can in no way create it.”[iv]  Tellingly, Pound turns his back not only on the magazine’s practice of niche marketing but also on the market altogether, at least rhetorically, for the value model Pound evokes is analogous to feudal prestige and obligation rather than capitalist profit.  The artist should, according to his virtue, receive a just tributary reward.  Marketplace competition does not drive the innovative development of the arts; only artists and their own independently pursued creative efforts can do that.  The patron provides the artist with a welcome service rather than the other way round.[v]

Yet the primary figure evoked here is not economic so much as ecological.  According to Pound, the artist-as-shellfish is the absolutely autonomous creator and master of his environment, save for the small matter of food, for which the mollusky demiurge in no way incurs a debt payable by him to his provider.  If anything, Pound argues, the patron-as-subsistence-provider (and precisely not the provisioned artist) is the parasite in this ecosystem because it is the artist who gives his patron and the world-at-large something neither would have otherwise had.[vi]  Moreover, it is this belief in the improbable self-sufficiency of the artist in his calcareous shell that motivates Pound’s final “humanist” blast against the mob in favor of “detached individuals,” which echoes throughout the complementary prose pieces contributed by T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis to the May 1917 issue of The Little Review.[vii]

Although the replacement of a fleshy and pliant epidermis with the dead, hardened exterior of a shell was already a privileged emblem of sorts in his visual and literary work, Lewis’ inaugural contribution to The Little Review focuses instead upon a popular classical intertext, the Circe episodes of The Odyssey, in the first of his “Imaginary Letters” in order to convey the effort required not to yield to the mimetic drift operative in consumerism and mass politics.[viii]  For instance, among the squibs aimed at “the gentleman-animal” and those who would prize happiness above all other worldly pursuits, Lewis has his fictional William Bland Burn write disenchantedly to his wife of their shared Circean circumstances:

I feel that we are obviously in the position of Ulysses’ companions; and there is nothing I resent more than people settling down to become what is sensible for a swine.  I will stalk about with my stumpy legs, and hold my snout high, however absurd it may be.  We must get through this enchantment without too many memories of abasement.  We most need, in the inner fact, changing back into men again!  And I don’t want the “happiness” of the swill-pail, but a perpetual restlessness until the magic is over![ix]

In turn, the first part of Eliot’s agonistic dialogue, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” also revolves around the problems presented by contemporary liberal and democratic ideologies to those who would obstinately remain individuals.  At one point in their spectatorial and analytic tête-à-tête, Eeldrop even concedes to Appleplex, “The ‘individualist’ is a member of a mob as fully as any other man:  and the mob of individualists is the most unpleasing, because it has the least character. . . . We cannot escape the label, but let it be one which carries no distinction, and arouses no self-consciousness.  Sufficient that we should find simple labels, and not further exploit them.”[x]  Whereas Pound’s editorial appears able to define and defend the humanism of valuing “detached individuals” because it has no trouble presupposing that such a separation from the vulgar rabblement is even possible in the first place, the Lewis and Eliot submissions unveil the tenuousness of such a distinction.

Seldom taken for granted by these three writers, individuality instead remains an ever-unfolding processual project, and consequential first steps toward the development of something like a successful individuation appear to involve the sorts of antagonistic relations instantiated by Pound in his opening editorial.[xi]  Accordingly, the “Ezraized Little Review” soon enough estranged longtime subscribers to Anderson’s little magazine.[xii]  Starting with the June 1917 issue, the pages of “The Reader Critic,” the section of the journal devoted to reprinting letters from readers and responses to those letters by the editorial staff, became the site both for indexing this tense breach between publisher and consumer as well as for staging the journal’s programmatic inflexibility when it came to giving readers what they thought they wanted.  Despite two letters voicing their unwavering support of the new Little Review (including one quick missive from James Joyce in Zurich), the correspondence in the June “Reader Critic” expresses worries about the potentially deleterious effects of Pound’s notions of art on American artistic life and the troubling ramifications for the little magazine of his capriciously Manichean approaches to artistic production.[xiii]  A group of New York subscribers threaten to withdraw their “moral and financial support” unless “The Reader Critic” reappears in future issues of The Little Review (it was excised in the May 1917 issue due to lack of space), presumably because they wish to have a reliable public forum in which to register their increasing dissatisfaction with the journal.[xiv]  In addition to complaining about the mere announcement of Pound’s foreign editorship in the April 1917 issue, the final letter in the June “Reader Critic” attempts to undercut the adversarial poses adopted by The Little Review in apparent collusion with Pound:  a reader from Massachusetts writes, “You see it is a fact that your ‘art for art’s sake’ cannot exist without supporters:  nothing is free from economic conditions which are the creators and destroyers of people’s tendencies and deeds.”[xv]  Contrary to Pound’s shellfish, milieu rather than genius ultimately determines the destruction and creation of art.

These letters, as well as those selectively included in subsequent installments of “The Reader Critic,” only partly reveal what Pound’s inauguration into the pages of The Little Review represented to its editorial staff.[xvi]  In her August 1917 essay, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” Margaret Anderson takes stock of Poundian influences on the journal by comparing them favorably to the more directly interventionist stances officially assumed by the little magazine in its first three years of publication.[xvii]  In particular, Anderson refers disparagingly to the proletariat and anarchist sympathies voiced in early issues of The Little Review as youthful follies distracting her and the journal from what really matters:  “Art and good talk about Art.”[xviii]  According to Anderson, only these two things are worthy of attention, and in comparison, anarchism and class politics are “ideas [that] were not interesting enough to have bothered about.”[xix]  This differentiates The Little Review from the masses because “the curious thing about America is that while she thinks such insipid and pleasant and harmless ideas [i.e., anarchism and class politics] are abominable and dangerous, she also thinks they are interesting!”[xx]  What the public is presumably incapable of finding interesting are not the actions of an Emma Goldman, but rather the works of a Pound, an Eliot, or a Lewis (Joyce had not yet started serializing Ulysses in her journal).

In effect, Anderson was telling her readers that The Little Review was trading in its social revolutionary pretensions for a more assertive role in projects of cultural revolution extending beyond the provincially localized concerns of the United States into more comparative and cosmopolitan fields.  The Little Review was to be thus transformed from a somewhat fashionably politicized organ within an increasingly fractured liberal public sphere into a more outspoken agent striving to dissolve that multiform sphere and reconstitute it into a more unified totality.[xxi]  Despite what the New York subscribers referred to above might have assumed, therefore, “The Reader Critic” was no longer going to be a place for endless discussion and negotiation.  Instead, it would function as an ad hoc tribunal of sorts, sniffing out unreconstructed elements among its old contributors, subscribers, and readers.  Of these contributors, Maxwell Bodenheim received the brunt of such criticism, even though his essays and creative works continued to appear in The Little Review after May 1917.  For instance, immediately following a letter from Bodenheim in the June 1917 “Reader Critic” chastising Pound for his spurious autocratic propensities, Anderson responds by summarily putting Bodenheim in his place:  “Now it is a fact that one particular kind of brain can put forward this claim and establish its legitimate autocracy.  It is the brain that functions aesthetically rather than emotionally.  Most artists haven’t this kind.  Their work drains their aesthetic reserve—and they usually talk rot about art.  There are thousands of examples—such as Beethoven treasuring the worst poetry he could find.  There are notable exceptions, such as Leonardo, such as Gaudier-Brzeska.  Ezra Pound seems to have this kind of brain.”[xxii]  The implication, of course, is that Bodenheim does not share with Pound, da Vinci, and Brzeska the exceptional kind of brain that is rich in “aesthetic reserves.”  Instead, he is an illegitimate autocrat whose artistic and critical precepts no longer necessarily coincide with those of The Little Review; hence Bodenheim’s criticism appeared in “The Reader Critic” rather than in the body of the journal.  In the final item included in “The Reader Critic” three months later, Bodenheim came in for an even more explicit drubbing, this time in bullying schoolyard doggerel:  “Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / And Johnny Rodker too.”[xxiii]

Similarly, Jane Heap used “The Reader Critic” to assail those readers still expecting to find something of the old Little Review in the Ezraized journal.  The June 1917 issue begins with Heap’s “Push-Face,” a diffuse essay critical not only of U.S. involvement in World War I but also seemingly of any political action whatsoever:  “And it’s all right, this game of push-face:  everyone plays it.  When you’re little children you play it and call it push-face; nations call it government; the ‘people’ are playing it now in Russia and call it revolution.”[xxiv]  The response in the pages of “The Reader Critic” was characteristically violent.  A reader from Pennsylvania wrote, “After reading your article ‘Push Face’ [sic] in your June number I have torn the magazine to pieces and burned it in the fire.  You may discontinue my subscription.”[xxv]  A more temperate, but no less critical letter from Illinois raises similar objections:  “Why should one be a Democrat or a Christian or a Militarist or a Mrs. Potter-Palmer or a push-face policeman to believe in our cause for entering the war. [sic] I wish every paper and magazine might inspire the right sort of war enthusiasm. . . . Anyway I would rather give a dollar and a half to the Red Cross than subscribe for The Little Review.  And also I’m not intellectual enough to enjoy it.”[xxvi]  Though Heap’s reply to this letter mechanically repeats the magazine’s motto (“No Compromise with the Public Taste”), her response to an inquiry in the following month’s “Reader Critic” proved to be more expansive with respect to the relationship between The Little Review, World War I, and this Russia business.  A reader from Kansas succinctly observes, “The Little Review is the only magazine I have laid eyes on in months that hasn’t had a word in it about this blasted war.  How do you do it?”[xxvii]  In her rejoinder, Heap boldly asserts the illegitimacy of war as “an interesting subject for Art” because it is not “the focal point of any fundamental emotion for any of the peoples engaged in it.”[xxviii]  Soberly assessed, war comprises little more than a surface disturbance in our affective lives, the depths of which it can hardly plumb.  While she is quick to concede that revolutions and civil wars are perhaps different in this respect, Heap is no less insistent in pessimistically observing that “[t]here never has been a real revolution yet” and civil wars always devolve into “the fight of the self-righteous uncultivated against the cultivated and the suave.”[xxix]

In short, then, this was the context in which Wyndham Lewis discharged his “indecorous” Cantleman at the world in October 1917.[xxx]  In the pages of The Little Review, the project of replacing moral precepts with aesthetic ones was said to be in the process of reducing propriety to a content or mere subject matter like any other.  Moreover, the journal was pursuing (artistic) individuation both by cultivating pro forma right-wing herd animus and asserting artistic self-sufficiency, despite adverse contemporary conditions for the production of art.  This autonomously generative creativity was expressed through the autocratic stances taken in The Little Review’s creative and critical work, both of which were meant to demonstrate to the little magazine’s readers that freedom from historical and economic determinisms was not only possible but also being achieved monthly in its pages.  Finally, the Great War may have been causing a big stir in the mainstream American press of the day, but one could have read The Little Review up to June 1917 and hardly known a World War was then being fought.  When this war finally did appear in The Little Review in the bilious and uncompromising form of Cantleman, however, it presented the occasion for negating almost all of these projects and hopes of Anderson’s journal from within.

[i] Ezra Pound, “Editorial,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917):  3-6, here 4.

[ii] In the very next issue, Pound linked his editorial comments to the problem of legal obscenity more explicitly.  See Ezra Pound, “An Anachronism at Chinon,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 14-21.  At one point in this dialogue between Rabelais and an early twentieth-century student disgusted with the state of learning in his own era, Pound has the surly young scholar discourse at length about the hypocrisies and category errors made possible by contemporary obscenity law:

Your work is a classic.  They also print Trimalcio’s Supper, and the tales of Suetonius, and red-headed virgins annotate the writings of Martial, but let a novelist mention a privvy, or a poet the rearside of a woman, and the whole town reeks with an uproar.  In England a scientific work was recently censored.  A great discovery was kept secret for three years.  For the rest, I do not speak of obscenity.  Obscene books are sold in the rubber shops, they are doled out with quack medicines, societies for the Suppression of Vice go into all details, and thereby attain circulation.  Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public, but let an unknown man write clear and clean realism; let a poet use the speech of his predecessors, either being as antiseptic as the instruments of a surgeon, and out of the most debased and ignorant classes they choose him his sieve and his censor. (18)

Pound’s student is more than willing to concede the existence of obscenity, but he grants it little status beyond that of a sordid sort of commodity (“they are doled out with quack medicines”) or an unseemly and predatory promotional tactic (“Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public”).  In any case, obscenity has little to do with good writing (“clear and clean realism”).  After the student stridently threatens any institution of power that would attempt to interfere with his pleasures (wine, women, and tobacco), the dour and pointedly un-Rabelaisian Rabelais cuts the dialogue short by confessing to the agitated youth, “I am afraid you would have burned in my century” (21).

[iii] For more on the importance of American youth cultures and niche markets during the early years of making and selling The Little Review, see Mark S. Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 133-66.

[iv] Pound, “Editorial,” 6.

[v] For more on Pound, patronage and the market, see the pathbreaking account provided in Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).

[vi] Much as it was for Pound at the time (“the genius creates its own milieu”), it ought to be noted here that the mere ability of the artist to re-make the world around him briefly became an article of faith for Wyndham Lewis as well in the immediate aftermath of World War I.  See esp. Wyndham Lewis, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where Is Your Vortex?, ed. Paul Edwards (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986).

[vii] The May 1917 issue of The Little Review was the first time work by either Eliot or Lewis had ever appeared in the journal.  Pound in fact begins his editorial in this issue by insisting that he took the foreign editor position with The Little Review so as to secure a dependable means of disseminating the work of Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce.  See Pound, “Editorial,” 3.

[viii] Lewis’ first published novel, Tarr (1918), which was serialized in The Egoist from April 1916 to November 1917, anticipates Pound’s artist-as-shellfish at a number of points.  As discussed later in the chapter, Lewis’ preoccupation with carapaces was no passing fancy.  For a suggestive reading of the defensive functions such shells serve in Lewis’ writing, see Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), esp. 49-54.  For a comprehensive discussion of the Cubist-influenced geometrical and armored forms populating many of Lewis’ early paintings and drawings, see Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), esp. 53-137.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, “Imaginary Letters, I (Six Letters of William Bland Burn to His Wife),” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 19-23, here 21-22.

[x] T.S. Eliot, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 7-11, here 11.

[xi] For a persuasive analysis of the gendered inflections such antagonisms often receive in the critical work of Lewis, Eliot, and Pound, see Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 185-93.

[xii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32: “An Ezraized Little Review will have no appeal to Young America.” More of this letter is quoted in footnote 16.

[xiii] See “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 27-28.  The Manichean criticism came from Maxwell Bodenheim (a longtime contributor to The Little Review), who asserts that Pound has “too great a longing to separate poets into arbitrary teams, of best and worst:  Poets are either black or white to him—never grey” (28).  For more on Bodenheim’s letters in “The Reader Critic” and the aggressively critical reception they encountered there after the advent of Pound to the foreign editorship, see endnote 23.

[xiv] Ibid., 29.

[xv] Ibid., 32.

[xvi] To be sure, The Little Review had always received, printed, and responded to pan mail.  What differentiates the attacks published in “The Reader Critic” after Pound’s arrival from those printed before it, however, is the degree to which the new Little Review seemed to be alienating precisely those readers who had hitherto been favorably disposed towards the little magazine’s artistic and political tendencies.  For instance, see “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32:  “For surely the spirit of the old Little Review is dead.  You seem to be proud of your evolution, of the graves of your old gods that loom in your eyes like stepping-stones to those heights where you bask in the wisdom of Ezras.  I hope your new faith is as sleeve-deep as your former acquired creeds.  For the beauty of the old Little Review, the secret of its magnetism and appeal to Young America, lay in its youthfulness, its spontaneity, in its puerility, if you wish.  For puerility mates with originality.  The Ezras know too much.  Their minds are black, scarcely smouldering logs.”

[xvii] A notorious example (for her contemporaries at least) of Anderson’s suspect political enthusiasms was her conversion-like experience at a lecture given by the anarchist, Emma Goldman, in 1914.  See Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years’ War: An Autobiography (New York: Covici, Friede, 1930), 54:  “May [1914] . . . and the third number of the Little Review was going to press.  I heard Emma Goldman lecture and had just time to turn anarchist before the presses closed.”  Cf. Margaret Anderson, “The Challenge of Emma Goldman,” The Little Review, 1, no. 3 (May 1914): 5-9, here 9:  “And whatever one believes, of one thing I’m certain:  whoever means to face the world and its problems intelligently must know something about Emma Goldman”

[xviii] Margaret Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” The Little Review 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 20-22, here 20.  Exactly one year earlier, Anderson had expressed a homologous self-criticism about the political turn The Little Review had taken.  See Margaret Anderson, “A Real Magazine,” The Little Review, 3, no. 5 (August 1916): 1-2, here 2:  “Now we shall have Art in this magazine or we shall stop publishing it.  I don’t care where it comes from—America or the South Sea Islands.  I don’t care whether it is brought by youth or age.  I only want the miracle!”  Accordingly, the next month’s issue infamously included thirteen blank pages “offered as a Want Ad” for art.  See The Little Review, 3, no. 6 (September 1916): 1-13, here 1.  Within eight months, Pound had answered the ad.

[xix] Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” 20.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Cf. Tyrus Miller, Time-Images: Alternative Temporalities in Twentieth-Century Theory, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 84ff.

[xxii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 29.

[xxiii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 34.  Like Bodenheim, Rodker comprised part of the old guard of contributors to the journal.  I would note in passing here that the real end of Bodenheim’s life reads like an impossibly bleaker alternate conclusion to Lewis’ Self-Condemned (1954).  Penniless, forgotten, and living on the streets of New York City at the age of sixty-one, Bodenheim was murdered in 1954, along with his wife, in an apartment not far from the Bowery by a psychopathic dishwasher who had taken them in for the night.  Bodenheim awoke before dawn to find his wife in flagrante delicto with the dishwasher, and during the ensuing altercation their good Samaritan shot Bodenheim multiple times before stabbing his wife to death as well.  At the trial, their murderer requested a medal in exchange for the service he had provided the United States government by slaying two Communists.  He was later sent to a state mental institution.  As it turns out, Ben Hecht (and not Anderson’s Little Review) ended up burying “bloody Bodenheim.”  Also once part of the old guard of contributors at The Little Review, Hecht is said to have paid for Bodenheim’s funeral service in New Jersey.  See Jim Burns, Radicals, Beats, and Beboppers (Preston: Penniless Press Publications, 2011), 173-82.

[xxiv] Jane Heap, “Push-Face.” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 4-7, here 7.

[xxv] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 3 (July 1917): 25.

[xxvi] Ibid., 26.

[xxvii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 25.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] The adjective is Lewis’.  See Timothy Materer, ed., Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions Book, 1985), 108.

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.