The Young György Lukács and Dostoevsky
Zsuzsanna Bjřrn Andersen,
University of Copenhagen
In 1922-1923 György Lukács published about twenty short articles in the daily newspaper of the German Communist Party
Die Rote Fahne. Among these articles which form a series, there are two book reviews dealing with Dostoevsky: one of them with
Stavrogin's Confession, (1) the other one with Three Short Stories, a volume containing
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, A Christmas Eve with Christ, and A Wicked Story.(2)
The articles were actually conceived in a period when Lukács was dedicating himself to his work on
History and Class Consciousness. Being now a professional revolutionary and philosopher, he was in the process of studying and describing the Communist movement. He changed his field of interest and started to deal with an entirely new topic, so new that the aesthetician Lukács appeared to be lost. It is therefore interesting to point out that at the same time as he was deeply involved, both empirically and theoretically, with the Communist movement, he turned to his earlier self and wrote on Dostoevsky. The Dostoevsky articles show a clear affinity with an earlier stage in his spiritual evolution - the 'young Lukács' the aesthetician makes a come-back.
There are now a few questions which need an answer. Is there a resemblance between these articles and Lukács' earlier writings on Dostoevsky? And if so, which features show an affinity with the young Lukács' Dostoevsky criticism? And last but not least, why did Lukács write the mentioned reviews in the period of his Marxist breakthrough?
To answer these questions, it will be useful to give a short account of the young Lukács' attitude to Dostoevsky, of his understanding and reception of the novelist.
Lukács' writings on Dostoevsky arose in a unique intellectual environment. A group of young idealistic thinkers were brought together under Lukács' leadership around a. philosophical journal,
A Szellem (The Spirit). The goal of the journal was presented in an opening article: "We wish to provide people with food for thought, and we want to show them a path to themselves and to inner life."(3) The group's manifesto recognized the spirit as a primary reality - they all confessed to be "quite simply seekers of a spiritual outlook on the world and of a spiritual life of a higher order."(4) The leading theme in the journal was deeply bound up with religion and mysticism. It was actually in a general religious context that Dostoevsky emerged in the thinking of the group. In the intellectual back-; ground to Lukács' criticism of Dostoevsky we find a central feature: the idealistic aspiration for a cultural renaissance - on a personal level and on a theoretical level as well.
kacs associated Dostoevsky with a cultural and philosophical tendency that opposed
the bourgeois world and embraced a utopian ideal.
However, the journal's religious tone was by no means a return to dogma and
theology. It wanted to activate the mind, to create a new philosophy, a new
culture, a new world. This whole spiritual background is present in Lukács' earliest writings, especially in his Dostoevsky-related essays such as "On the
Poverty of Soul" (5)
and "Aesthetic Culture".(6)
In 1922, after the failure of the journal
and a number of personal misfortunes,(7)
Lukács left for Heidelberg, where he became
acquainted with Max Weber, a man with a good knowledge of Russian literature.
During his years in Heidelberg
Lukács met a great number of Russian emigrés.
These exiled liberals were able to establish a close contact with Weber. At the
met Nikolaj von Bubnoff who was known for his
interest in mysticism and for his works on religious philosophers including
Dostoevsky. On a personal level this Heidelberg period also played a great role.
It was here that Lukács
met Elena Grabenko, a former revolutionary, who
became his wife. Béla Balázs,
Lukács' closest friend in these years, notes
in his diary: "Lena was a remarkable example of a Dostoevskian hero. All her
stories, all her ideas, all her feelings seemed to come from one of the most
fantastic chapters of Dostoevsky."(8)
this intellectual environment Russian literature was quite naturally a
significant topic. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy received special attention. Ernst
Bloch, who shared Lukács'
deep involvement with these authors, later remembered
that they were actually present. Due to their religious ideas about the
salvation of the world, Lukács
and Bloch represented a kind of romantic "left
wing" in Heidelberg. This explains the significant role that Russian orthodoxy
played in their thinking.
two men formed a united front in their admiration of Christian mysticism and an
eschatological vision of the future. No doubt, Bloch had a great influence on
And not few of the Hungarians in Heidelberg were
worried, seeing their countryman in a visionary pose which they found unbecoming
to his sober and sound thinking.
However, the young Lukács
showed a fundamental difference with Bloch in the
concept of religion and its function.
religious perspective was linked with an interest in revolution. This interest
was even more nourished by his personal situation: his wife Elena's
revolutionary past. "She was a terrorist. She spent years in prison. She
destroyed her nerves, stomach, and lungs by working so hard."(9)
Another major element of Lukács's
position in his most intense "Dostoevskian"
period was a strong belief in collectivism. For him culture in the real sense
existed only if based on collectivist values. This was not a new element in
thinking. It had already been formulated in his
History of the development of modern drama,(10)
but it was not until
the Heidelberg period that it became a part of his ethical thought. It became so to speak a basic element of his philosophy of a "new ethics" and an important factor in his understanding of Dostoevsky.
The Heidelberg years were predominantly Lukács' "literary critical" period. But now Ibsen was forced into the background by Tolstoy and even more by Dostoevsky. There is every indication that Georg Brandes, the Danish literary critic and "Cultur-Missionär", as Nietzsche used to call him, played a certain role in Lukács' reception of Dostoevsky. As Brandes had cathalyzed the young Lukács' interest for Scandinavian literature, Kierkegaard and Ibsen, he might also have introduced him to the Russian realists. In Lukács' private library, looking up the Brandes volumes, one gets the impression that Lukács had been studying them. The markings and notes bear witness to his thorough interest. Thus he seems to share Brandes' enthusiasm for
Poor Folk. The following phrase by Brandes has been duly marked by Lukács: "um diese Überraschung und diese Begeisterung (for Poor Folk) verstehen zu können, muß man sich erinnern,
daß die russische Literatur noch keinen einzigen Versuch dieser Art enthielt außer Gogol's
Mantel und daß Turgenev's Tagebuch eines Jägers erst fünf Jahre später erschien." (11)
From a letter to Max Ernst we know that in 1915 Lukács was working on a book on Dostoevsky: "At last I started on a book on Dostoevsky. I let aesthetics rest for a while. The book will contain much more than just Dostoevsky: the greater part of my metaphysical ethics and philosophy of history."(12} Béla Balázs was enthusiastic about Lukács' plans: "I am very glad about your Dostoevsky book", he wrote to his friend. "You are actually obliged to write it, because I often had the feeling that you took it out of my hands. Once I wanted to
write about him as well (...) But now everything is left in your hands. I am very glad that you will try to write once again in the way you did in the old times."(13)
However, Lukács abandoned the planned book. Later the same year Dostoevsky's name is present again in a letter to Max Ernst, where he doubts whether he will ever get around to finishing the Dostoevsky book. He thinks that the only thing that remains for him is to put it aside as a legacy. The proposed book became a long essay published in 1916 under the title
Die Theorie des Romans, (14) which he dedicated to Elena Grabenko. Lukács himself describes his work as the "Einleitungscapitel zu einem aesthetisch-geschichtsphilosophischen Werk über Dostoevsky."(15) Of Lukács' ambitious plans concerning the Russian writer we can still get an impression from the Dostoevsky notes, which are kept in manuscript form in the Lukács archives in Budapest. (16)
In 1915 Lukács returned to Budapest where he was almost immediately involved with the "Sunday Society",(17) a discussion Club of young intellectuals, among whom Lukács became a central figure. Here, according to one of the members, Dostoevsky was one of the guardian saints. Another society, "The Free School of Human Sciences", (18) was organized in 1917 with the goal of spreading the world-view of the new spiritualism and
idealism. In Dostoevsky they saw one of their historical forbears.
The Hungarian revolution in 1918 and the short-lived Republic of Workers' Soviet marked a conflict in Lukács' ethical idealism, and laid the foundation of a new revolutionary ethics. This change in views, i.e. his conversion to Marxism, can be interpreted even if it was sudden and complete, as a consequence of his previous philosophical position. Dostoevsky played an essential part in his transition to the new ideology, and he did not abandon his deep interest in him. At the same time it should be mentioned that some of his fellow Communists were dismayed at his deep attraction to Dostoevsky.
In 1922-1923, Lukács got the opportunity to publish in the daily newspaper of the German Communist Party. The Austrian paper
Kommunismus, in which Hungarian emigrés used to publish after 1919, had been closed down by then. Béla Balázs, who lived with Lukács in exile in Vienna, notes in his diary: "Die Rote Fahne and with it the entire German movement calls us, Gyuri and me. The situation has become ripe for us and they have very few people. The winning over of the German intelligentsia, influencing their way of thinking, turning them in our direction, are great and glorious goals which are excitingly close."(19) Balázs adds: "I think that I ought to write about the "Demons" of
this revolution, just as Dostoevsky used to write about those of the the other. I ought to describe the witches' sabbath of the disillusioned intelligentsia."(20) As seen from the quotation, Dostoevsky's name was present in the consciousness of Lukács' closest circle.
Even though Lukács did not move to Berlin, he devoted himself to shepherding the left-wing intelligentsia in the right direction. This is shown by the articles in
Die Rote Fahne, which are composed on the basis of a desire to lead the way to a "new world", to a "Golden Age".
In 1962 Lukács remembers this period saying: "Man mag mit vollem Recht diesen primitiven Utopismus belächeln, er druckt aber nichtsdestoweniger eine damals real vorhandene geistige Strömung aus."(21)
Lukács' life was one which apparently changed at the command of history. However, there is a certain feature which did not change: his search for man's moral scope. This was a constant source of inspiration throughout his life. He had an image of the world in which he saw the possibility of renewal. At the same time, he thought that the proletariat and its consciousness would be able to break through the walls of the estranged world and in this way the new world would be no further away than the reach of one's arm. "Die Theorie des Romans", Lukács later explained, "ist nicht bewahrenden, sondern sprengenden Charakters. Allerdings auf der Grundlage eines höchst naiven und völlig unfundierten Utopismus: der Hoffnung, daß aus dem Zerfall der leblosen und lebensfeindlichen ökonomisch-sozialen Kategorien ein naturhaftes, menschenwürdiges Leben entspringen könne."(22)
This messianic and somewhat naive notion illuminates the
articles published in Die Rote Fahne. The two Dostoevsky book reviews, especially, are pregnant with it. Undoubtedly, the tenor of these writings is reminiscent of the young Lukács' reception of Dostoevsky.
The first review deals with Stavrogin 's Confession. With an unmistakable sympathy Lukács introduces the so far unpublished chapter from the novel
The Possessed which "the much malign 'barbarism' of the Soviet government has finally made accessible". (23) He makes his point in the opening of the review that he finds
The Possessed contradictory and distorted by its tendentiousness. The politician and pamphleteer Dostoevsky seems to be in disharmony with the novelist: "The honesty and fearlessness of his vision (...) forced on the novelist some aspects which strongly contradicted the intentions of the pamphleteer". (24) In spite of that, Lukács considers the novel as one of Dostoevsky's most interesting works, because "the inner discord of his personality (...) here becomes clear through the contradiction between political tendentiousness and poetic vision."(25) Lukács explains that Dostoevsky's greatness as a writer lies in his ability to condense every figure and concentrate on its purely psychological kernel, to condense every conflict, stripping off effortlessly the outer cover, "depicting them in a visionary-spontaneous way, thus showing a world in which all the inhuman, mechanistic, soulless and exterior aspects of capitalist society are simply no longer present."(26) But he nevertheless includes the deepest inner conflicts of our time, says Lukács, which are at the same time the source of his Utopian conviction. This is "the conviction that the redeeming principle for every distress can be found in the purely human relationship of men to each other, in the recognition and love of the human kernel in every man (...) in love and in goodness."(27)
Lukács states that Stavrogin's Confession demonstrates "the greatness of the writer more powerfully than his inner contradictions". (28) The reviewer then gives a description of the fragment: "The two poles of Dostoevsky's world: the man of contemporary society - corrupted and corroded by inner doubts: and the proclaimer of Christ's message of love" (29) confront each other in a solitary nightly dialogue - and they recognize each other as brothers in an inner sense, where "love and goodness take effect in an intuitive grasp of the kernel of the personality in the other man."(30) "This goodness", Lukács says further, "may illuminate the dark existential cause for despair, it may lift the darkness out of the inner centre of man and suffering, sin and error into the light of the conscious (...) redeeming act."(31) Lukács points out that the often repeated argument of Dostoevsky's genuine religiosity here finds its clearest expression. The intuitive grasp of the kernel of personality in the other man is the help which is offered when setting one's own course in the soul of the otherwise errant person. Dostoevsky's Christianity is based on the 'unlimited power of love', Lukács says. "Soul turns to love. Loving perception reveals the suffering and shows the right way, even if social causes are responsible for losing one's way. Redemption occurs independent of all commitments which are not those of the soul."(32) He concludes
that Stavrogin is a superfluous man, a member of the Russian intelligentsia who possesses strength and abilities, but who can do nothing with them. "Consequently, these qualities must lead, if they are not to fizzle out into nothing as with Turgenev's and Goncharov's characters, to pointless, senseless, unworthy and even ridiculous crimes."(33) Dostoevsky opens up "a whole abyss of despair, of the purposelessness of life, which turned the honest amongst the Russian intelligentsia into revolutionaries at such an early stage."(34) We see, says Lukács deeply moved, how these people had no way out except suicide, depravity or revolution. Finally he points out that Dostoevsky's "political damning of the revolution is transformed unintentionally into the poetic glorification of its absolute psychological necessity."(35)
In the other essay Lukács discusses why Dostoevsky - like so many of the great Russians - was a preacher of suffering. Why does he see "no other way out of the injustices of capitalistic-feudal society, except through a reformed Christianity, a new church of the oppressed and those who suffer?"(36) And why would he, despite his Christian faith or rather due to it, recognize in the Bolsheviks the actual, legitimate Christ? Lukács goes on to say: "Be that as it may, the last resort is not the most important question. It is not necessary that proletarians who read Dostoevsky should discover him as a true prophet of the workers' cause, a forerunner of the revolution. That he was not. But they must inevitably learn to understand him as a giant wrestling for inner truth, who was personally limited and often did not pay attention to the social roots, but who always gave of his innermost being with unmatched sincerity and devotion. Consequently, as a forerunner of man living an inner life, liberated socially and economically, he tried to describe the soul of this future man. Dostoevsky's individual problems are human problems, which, however, - as psychological leftovers of class society - can be resolved only in a future society in that depth and purity which he attempted."(37)
This hidden face of Lukács, the moral philosopher, we encounter in his earlier writings - especially in
The Theory of the Novel, where the same grandiloquent train of thought appears at the end of the essay in an ambitious sketch of Dostoevsky:
"(...) Bei Tolstoi waren Ahnungen eines Durchbruchs in eine neue Weltepoche sichtbar: sie sind aber polemisch, sehnsuchtsvoll und abstrakt geblieben.
Erst in den Werken Dostojewskijs wird diese neue Welt, fern von jedem Kampf gegen das Bestehende, als einfach geschaute Wirklichkeit abgezeichnet. Darum steht er und steht seine Form außerhalb dieser Betrachtungen: Dostojewskij hat keine Romane geschrieben, und die gestaltende Gesinnung, die in seinen Werken sichtbar wird, hat weder bejahend noch verneinend etwas mit der europäischen Romantik des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts und mit den mannigfaltigen, ebenfalls romantischen Reaktionen gegen sie zu tun. Er gehört der neuen Welt an. Ob er bereits der Homer oder der Dante dieser Welt ist oder bloß die Gesänge liefert, die spätere Dichter, zusammen mit anderen Vorläufern, zur großen Einheit verflechten werden, ob er nur ein
Anfang, oder schon eine Erfüllung ist: das kann nur
die Formanalyse seiner Werke aufzeigen."(38)
In the introduction to the 1963 edition of Die Theorie des Romans Lukács explains himself that "das Buch in der Analyse Tolstois gipfelt, sein Ausblick auf Dostojewskij, der bereits
'keine Romane geschrieben' habe, zeigt deutlich, daß hier nicht eine neue literarische Form, sondern ausdrucklich eine
'neue Welt' erwartet wurde."(39)
Lukács' position as to the genre of Dostoevsky's works - that they are epics rather than novels, is based on the aesthetic notion that the work of art, in this case the epic, is the creation of an immanent Utopian harmony. This is a concept which goes back to Lukács' idealism and in part to Bloch's thinking. (40) A Hungarian critic, Sándor Radnóti, (41) has pointed out that while both Bloch and Lukács regarded Dostoevsky as a major turning point in art, Bloch considered him an apocalyptic figure, whereas Lukács considered him as the first modern epic poet.
Lukács focused on the ethical and revolutionary importance of Dostoevsky. The ethical part of Lukács' understanding of the novelist does not merely overlap and complement the aesthetic part: it actually provides its very foundation. In Dostoevsky's world Lukács saw the artistic expression of a new culture. This does not mean art, literature, philosophy or religion, nor does it denote human civilization. Culture is an ethical concept with a concrete reference to existence. The ethical aspect of Lukács' Dostoevsky criticism goes back to a contrast between two entirely different cultures or ethical systems. The first is the bourgeois ethics, the other is Dostoevsky's ethics, that is, the young Lukács' interpretation of the existence which Dostoevsky portrays in his works.(42) In daily life Lukács observed that human interaction exists only in terms of social co-existence. It brings men together superficially leaving the individual isolated. However, in the Dostoevskian ethical aspect "the good men meet one another on the level of their spiritual essence. Their interrelation is dictated by God's ultimate demand that the forms of interhuman understanding be destroyed. The only duty the ethics recognizes is with regard to the soul. "(43) "The good man does not explain the other's soul, he reads it as in his own; he becomes one with the other."(44) And this interrelationship Lukács found in the dialogue performed in
Stavrogin's Confession. The concern of the individual community acts here as a leitmotif. Lukács saw the Russian concept of community as the most profoundly democratic, the highest form of unalienated existence. In contrast to other concepts of community, the Russian one means the 'consummation of the soul' - "in des von Gott gewollten und erschafften Gemeinschaft der anderen Seelen."(45)
In a letter to Max Ernst Lukács explains the difference between the tragic hero and the political man - the revolutionary. While for the former the search for community involves finding the path between souls, for the latter the soul is aimed not at itself but at humanity. It is the ideal of community in its metaphysical concept that enabled Lukács to see the revolution
in Dostoevsky as a truly positive idea of human liberation.
The ideas discussed above are as much a part of Lukács' early philosophy in general as they are the foundation of his Dostoevsky criticism. Moreover, many of the ideas in their specifically Dostoevskian context, played a role in Lukács' personal life: from Balázs' diary we know that Lukács and his wife Lena Grabenko pictured their relation as a spiritual community, much along the lines that Lukács developed in his criticism.(46) The feeling of the soul-plane quality was also present in the atmosphere created in the Sunday Society. For most of Lukács' closest friends the Dostoevskian community meant a grand synthesis of all men, a universal brotherhood, a cosmic unity of the world, a religious unification of mankind.
It is obvious from the young Lukács' earliest writings that he received both intellectually and empirically deep impacts from Dostoevsky. Every real encounter with a work of art helps men to assess their own practice of life and to develop a new moral awareness, and a new way of life. This is how ethics comes into the aesthetic structure of works of art. Lukács' Dostoevsky criticism in the early twenties had an ethical, quasi didactic function. In this interpretation lies the notion that Lukács wanted to influence and reshape the moral orientation of the left-wing intelligentsia and the proletariat, possible readers of
Die Rote Fahne. Lukács was not a moralist. None the less, he makes an ethical approach and fulfils a hidden mission, which is characteristic of his early works on Dostoevsky.
In the essay "Aesthetic Culture" Lukács summarizes this, in a final, solemn sentence: "And it is filled with awe that I conclude, as the only possible final chord of what has been said, with the name of the mightiest man who was ceaselessly on my mind while writing these pages, the sacred name of our greatest epic poet, Dostoevsky."(47)