I can't believe it's more than two years since I finished the last chapter. At this rate, I'll be sixty before I finish. Again, this is heavy philosophy. Virtually anyone who reads this blog will want to skip it. But it's there, if only as monument of my hard work for no one but me to appreciate.
Georg Lukács 1914
The Theory of the Novel
The Forms of Great Epic Literature examined in Relation to Whether the General Civilisation of the Time is an Integrated or a Problematic One
2. The Problems of a Philosophy of the History of Forms
As a result of such a change in the transcendental points of orientation, art forms become subject to a historico-philosophical dialectic;
Okay. There were shifts in literature from the epic, in which no transcendence was needed, to the tragedy, where man reaches to meaning and finds it untouchable because it exists in a separate world of meaning, to Plato’s theory of the forms, where the philosopher-hero grasps the forms, including the form of the good. As a result of these shifts, art forms became subject to a historico-philosophical dialectic. Dialectic is questioning something logically, criticizing it and reconstructing it. So as we go through history and learn, our philosophical outlook changes and we change the genres of our art to match our changes in mindset.
the course of this dialectic will depend, however, on the a priori in ‘home’ of each genre.
So the idea that is “given” in each genre will be the factor that shapes the development of each genre. I’m worried about the word “home” in this usage. Is this the same sort of “home” in which Novalis says we wish to feel at everywhere, or is this just a source or origin?
It may happen that the change affects only the object and the conditions under which it came be given form, and does not question the ultimate relationship of the form to its transcendental right to existence; when this is so, only formal changes will occur, and although they may diverge in every technical detail, they will not overturn the original form-giving principle.
I think the idea above is something like this: Over time, what we are telling stories about may change. That may lead us to very different techniques that we may have been using before, but this can occur without upsetting the genre at all, because the fundamental worldview we hold may be the same in its basic assumptions about how the world should work from the vantage point of constructing meaning.
Sometimes, however, the change occurs precisely in the all-determining principium stilisationis of the genre, and then other art-forms must necessarily, for historico-philosophical reasons, correspond to the same artistic intention. This is not a matter of a change in mentality giving rise to a new genre, such as occurred in Greek history when the hero and his destiny became problematic and so brought into being the non-tragic drama of Euripides. In that case there was a complete correspondence between the subject’s [i.e., the creator’s, the artist’s] a priori needs, his metaphysical sufferings, which provided the impulse for creation, and the pre-stabilised, eternal locus of the form with which the completed work coincides.
Oh! So clearly I have it all wrong. This isn’t like the succession of genres he was discussing before. This is a different idea.
The genre-creating principle which is meant here does not imply any change in mentality; rather, it forces the same mentality to turn towards a new aim which is essentially different from the old one. It means that the old parallelism of the transcendental structure of the form-giving subject and the world of created forms has been destroyed, and the ultimate basis of artistic creation has become homeless.
Well, wait a second. Didn’t the Greeks have to develop a new genre each time their worldview ran into a stumbling block on its route to meaning? That sounds like what he was describing above. The Greeks believed that meaning was immanently graspable. They started with the epic, then encountered tragedy and finally grasped Plato’s transcendence. Their worldview wasn’t changing. Rather, their genre changes could be viewed as different strategies to make that worldview “work out” each time it encountered an obstacle.
German Romanticism, although it did not always completely clarify its concept of the novel, drew a close connection between it and the concept of the Romantic; and rightly so, for the novel form is, like no other, an expression of this transcendental homelessness.
Okay. So the novel, romanticism and transcendental homelessness are related somehow.
For the Greeks the fact that their history and the philosophy of history coincided meant that every art form was born only when the sundial of the mind showed that its hour had come, and had to disappear when the fundamental images were no longer visible on the horizon. This philosophical periodicity was lost in later times.
This makes good sense to me. Before you’re learned too much and life gets complex, the stages seem to follow naturally, as if they were meant to follow a specific order, when in fact it’s just you don’t have many ideas to mix and match and no others to observe. It is complexity and awareness of the other that gives an individual a grasp of the complexity of human experience.
Artistic genres now cut across one another, with a complexity that cannot be disentangled, and become traces of authentic or false searching for an aim that is no longer clearly and unequivocally given; their sum total is only a historical totality of the empirical, wherein we may seek (and possibly find) the empirical (sociological) conditions for the ways in which each form came into being, but where the historico-philosophical meaning of periodicity is never again concentrated in the forms themselves (which have become symbolic) and where this meaning can be deciphered and decoded from the totalities of various periods, but not discovered in those totalities themselves.
So the form of the genre no longer is fundamentally tied to our existential quest for meaning. It becomes an option or choice. The form of a given genre is no longer a timeless vehicle for leading us to meaning in a given stage of our life.
But whereas the smallest disturbance of the transcendental correlations must cause the immanence of meaning in life to vanish beyond recovery, an essence that is divorced from life and alien to life can crown itself with its own existence in such a way that this consecration, even after a more violent upheaval, may pale but will never disappear altogether.
An immanently graspable meaning can be banished, can be lost, whenever its basic assumptions seem invalid to us. So when our worldview changes, we can easily lose the notion that meaning is just out there to grasp. But if we believe that meaning is in a different realm of ultimate reality, one that is difficult for us to understand, then the difficulty we have grasping meaning is no longer problematic. The problem becomes a lifelong journey slowly apprehending and coming to terms with the true nature of meaning.
That is why tragedy, although changed, has nevertheless survived in our time with its essential nature intact, whereas the epic had to disappear and yield its place to an entirely new form: the novel.
We are no longer able to grasp transcendental meaning as if it were immanent and palpable. Hence the epic is impossible, because it is the story about grasping immanent meaning and we can’t grasp it, at least not by simply reaching out. Yet, we can feel that we ought to be able to grasp immanent meaning, so tragedy can still make sense in the present time. But to take the place of the impossible epic, we now have the novel.
The complete change in our concept of life and in its relationship to essential being has, of course, changed tragedy too. It is one thing when the life-immanence of meaning vanishes with catastrophic suddenness from a pure, uncomplicated world,
The passage above represents the old Greek tragedy.
and quite another when this immanence is banished from the cosmos as though by the gradual working of a spell:
And I would assume this next passage above is the new tragedy. The new tragedy takes the form, apparently, of modern disenchantment.
in the latter case the longing for its return remains alive but unsatisfied; it never turns into a hopelessness rooted in certainty: therefore, the essence cannot build a tragic stage out of the felled trees of the forest of life,
So it appears that the new tragedy does not have reversal as one of its essential features.
but must either awaken to a brief existence in the flames of a fire lit from the deadwood of a blighted life,
But isn’t tragedy usually short? Reversal happens quickly. The imagery reminds me of Brünhilde. So how is Brünhilde fundamentally different from Oedipus?
or else must resolutely turn its back on the world’s chaos and seek refuge in the abstract sphere of pure essentiality.
Then how is this still tragedy? Where is the hubris leading to reversal?
It is the relationship of the essence to a life which, in itself, lies outside the scope of drama that renders necessary the stylistic duality of modern tragedy whose opposite poles are Shakespeare and Alfieri.
It would probably help if I had the vaguest idea of who Alfieri was.
Greek tragedy stood beyond the dilemma of nearness to life as against abstraction because, for it, plenitude was not a question of coming closer to life, and transparency of dialogue did not mean the negation of its immediacy.
Because Greek tragedy featured a meaning which seemed immanently palpable and graspable, it never had to be concerned with the fact that meaning seems to exist only in a world of abstraction, a world of ideas that seemed much like the heaven of Plato’s forms. Speech occurs in time, whereas the world of the forms is a world of timeless perfection. Speaking, in a sense, pushes the individual out of this timeless realm of forms back into the material world of time and of imperfection. Because the Greeks thought meaning was immediately graspable, they simply never had this problem.
Whatever the historical accidents or necessities that produced the Greek chorus, its artistic meaning consists in that it confers life and plenitude upon the essence situated outside and beyond all life. Thus the chorus was able to provide a background which closes the work in the same way as the marble atmospheric space between figures in a relief closes the frieze,
I haven’t read any Greek tragedy since undergraduate. Let’s see. The chorus suspends the actions in the play into a sort of tableau, a suspended, transcendent moment. Sort of like that scene in Troilus and Cressida where Shakespeare paints Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus into their mythological, transcendent roles, whereas in most scenes they are allowed to be persons,
yet the background of the chorus is also full of movement and can adapt itself to all the apparent fluctuations of a dramatic action not born of any abstract scheme, can absorb these into itself and, having enriched them with its own substance, can return them to the drama.
So the chorus is a more sophisticated tool, as it can pull you into the experience of timeless transcendence while leaving you in time to appreciate the action. The story doesn’t have to stop for you to appreciate the meaning.
It can make the lyrical meaning of the entire drama ring out in splendid words; it can, without suffering collapse, combine within itself the voice of lowly creature-reason, which demands tragic refutation, and the voice of the higher super-reason of destiny.
I’m not sure I understand why he uses the terms “creature-reason” and “super-reason.” I interpret the above sentence to mean that you, as the audience, can experience the ultimate reality of the world of religion, forms and meaning while remaining in the mere mortal world of everyday life. As the audience, one essentially gets to have one’s cake and eat it, too.
Again, this reminds me a little of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. You, the audience, watch the chorus, who in turn watches the hero. Of course, the chorus interacts with the hero, whereas the audience never interacts with the chorus. But the chorus is supposed to be the hero’s link to the world of ultimate reality. Ostensibly, the hero does not know that he is dealing with any world other than the mundane world (hence the possibility of reversal when he realizes that he has been after something entirely different that he thought and his story is not in the same genre as he believed—no one in a tragedy knows that he or she is in a tragedy until it is too late—that’s what makes tragedy tragic). But the chorus, apparently, grounds the hero in the world of meaning for us, the audience.
Speaker and chorus in Greek tragedy are of the same fundamental essence, they are completely homogeneous with one another and can therefore fulfil completely separate functions without destroying the structure of the work;
Okay, so once more I’m misunderstanding Lukács. The speaker and the chorus are both part of ultimate reality, the world of meaning. The speaker really isn’t in our world of mundane reality. Oh, wait—maybe this is it: The hero thinks that he or she is in the mundane world, but surprise!—they’re in the world of tragedy, in ultimate reality, the world of meaning. That’s the problem. The hero doesn’t know that he or she is in a tragedy until it’s too late—that’s what makes tragedy tragic! But the reason why the chorus can play the role of grounding the action in ultimate reality is because it is really part of that world. The hero is also part of that world, so he or she shares the chorus’ essence and can make sense in the story. The trick is that he or she doesn’t know it. But they can work together in a meaningful way for the genre because they belong to the same conceptual world.
It’s like the genre difference between writing science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction has a rational accountability. While clearly the author is inventing technology, he or she must make it appear to be consistent in the same way the rules of science appear to be logically consistent, knowable and ultimately manipulable. Fantasy rests on magic. Magic, in order to have its transcendent, other worldly and even mystical quality, must always remain out of reason’s grasp. While magic may show itself in mundane reality at any time, it is not graspable as part of mundane reality. It belongs to, well, ultimate reality.
I think what Lukács is after is that tragedy works because the hero, however embedded in mundane reality he or she may be, finds himself or herself enmeshed in ultimate reality, just as magical stories can feature characters who don’t believe in magic, but suddenly find themselves enmeshed in a world where magic suddenly penetrates his or her reality. But the story isn’t a realistic story. It’s a magical story. You really can’t have a story where the mundane world retains its own sensibility and yet you simultaneously find yourself on the plain of ultimate meaning.
all the lyricism of the situation, of destiny, can be accumulated in the chorus, leaving to the players the all-expressive words and all-embracing gesture of the tragic dialectic laid bare — and yet they will never be separated from one another by anything other than gentle transitions. Not the remotest possibility of a certain nearness-to-life such as might destroy the dramatic form exists for either: that is why both can expand to a plenitude that has nothing schematic about it and yet is laid down a priori.
Life is not organically absent from modern drama; at most, it can be banished from it. But the banishment which modem classicists practise implies a recognition, not only of the existence of what is being banished, but also of its power; it is there in all the nervous words, all the gestures outbidding one another in the endeavour to keep life at bay, to remain untainted by it; invisibly and ironically, life nevertheless rules the bare, calculated severity of the structure based a priori on abstraction, making it narrow or confused, overexplicit or abstruse.
So one type of modern tragedy is the tragedy that depicts life as meaningless. So you get the sort of Waiting for Godot abstractions, because all you really can do is gesticulate at the meaninglessness. I may be summing this up too quickly and missing something. I just feel like pushing on now.
The other kind of tragedy consumes life. It places its heroes on the stage as living human beings in the midst of a mass of only apparently living beings, so that a clear destiny may gradually emerge incandescent from the confusion of the dramatic action, heavy with the weight of life — so that its fire may reduce to ashes everything that is merely human, so that the inexistent life of mere human beings may disintegrate into nothingness and the affective emotions of the heroic figures may flare up into a blaze of tragic passion that will anneal them into heroes free of human dross. In this way the condition of the hero has become polemical and problematic; to be a hero is no longer the natural form of existence in the sphere of essence, but the act of raising oneself above that which is merely human, whether in the surrounding mass or in the hero’s own instincts.
This is Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Siegfried. We are freed spiritually on the funeral pyre of our physical destruction.
The problem of hierarchy as between life and essence, which, for Greek drama, was a formative a priori and therefore never became the subject of dramatic action, is thus drawn into the tragic process itself; it rends the drama into two completely heterogeneous parts which are connected with one another only by their reciprocal negation and exclusion, thus making the drama polemical and intellectual and so disturbing its very foundations.
The Greeks never had this problem because meaning was never alienated from the material world for them. They had the luxury of naïveté. They could, at least some of the time, believe that essence was palpable, to be grasped on the high road of adventure. They had the epic and we lack the epic.
The breadth of the ground-plan thus forced upon the work and the length of the road which the hero must travel in his own soul before he discovers himself as a hero are at variance with the slenderness of construction which the dramatic form demands, and bring it closer to the epic forms;
Fuck, that one’s hard. Let’s think. In the modern tragedy, the hero has to have a longer journey to even realize that he is a hero. Perhaps this is because the modern tragic hero lives in a more complicated, realistic world of details. Discovering meaning or the absence of meaning is much more difficult. Perhaps this is directly related to disenchantment. It’s much more difficult to get a modern character into a fantasy world of magic than it is for the prince or princess in a fairy tale to encounter magic. Theirs is the world of the epic. They just reach out and there it is, magic and meaning wait around the corner. They almost expect magic. When their world became the world of the tragic in Greek times, they still weren’t coping with much disenchantment. They reach out and realize, oops, I can’t grasp meaning. That doesn’t mean that world is necessarily meaningless. You’re just having trouble orienting yourself toward it. Then Plato comes to teach you the forms, and suddenly, you can orient again. But you can only have the rinse-lather-repeat procedure so many times when you realize that you are permanently separate from the world of meaning and may, in fact, be inventing meaning as you go. Meaning is something that you invent, not something that transcends you. That realization is the traumatizing aspect of the experience.
Getting the modern hero to encounter tragedy is harder now because our art is so realistic. But drama requires a simplified world—clean, uncluttered sets—simple streamlined stories. The long journey in the simplified world makes the modern tragedy look like an epic—a long journey in a simplified world.
and the polemical emphasis on heroism (even in abstract tragedy) leads, of necessity, to an excess of purely lyrical lyricism.
According to OED, something that is lyric is—
Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung; pertaining to or characteristic of song. Now used as the name for short poems (whether or not intended to be sung), usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet's own thoughts and sentiments. Hence, applied to the poet who composes such poems. lyric drama, lyric stage, the opera.
—so the emphasis on heroism leads this new type of tragedy to over-rely on short passages that directly express the hero’s own sentiments and thoughts. These plays are too much about the inside of the hero’s mind, about him or her expressing their inner meaning.
Well, given the way that this genre must work, it would have to by lyrical, as it could never express anything other then the individual’s experience. There is no world of general meaning to latch on to.
Such lyricism has, however, yet another source which also springs from the displaced relationship between life and essence. For the Greeks, the fact that life ceased to be the home of meaning merely transferred the mutual closeness, the kinship of human beings, to another sphere, but did not destroy it: every figure in Greek drama is at the same distance from the all-sustaining essence and, therefore, is related at his deepest roots to every other figure; all understand one another because all speak the same language, all trust one another, be it as mortal enemies, for all are striving in the same way towards the same centre, and all move at the same level of an existence which is essentially the same.
So, even with the advent of Greek tragedy, it was assumed that all the characters related to the same world of meaning. So all of them could communicate with one another effectively and count on one another to play their acknowledged role in a story in which the existence of each character could make sense.
But when, as in modern drama, the essence can manifest and assert itself only after winning a hierarchical contest with life, when every figure carries this contest within himself as a precondition of his existence or as his motive force, then each of the dramatis personae can be bound to the destiny that gives him birth only by his own thread; then each must rise up from solitude and must, in irremediable solitude, hasten, in the midst of all the other lonely creatures, towards the ultimate, tragic aloneness; then, every tragic work must turn to silence without ever being understood, and no tragic deed can ever find a resonance that will adequately absorb it.
The new tragedy features characters who never really can understand one another. The characters, moreover, can equally not be understood to the audience. The only understanding that can unite them is the understanding that no genuine understanding is possible, and this is simply too little in common to create a genuine shared ultimate meaning.
It’s sort of like Lisa Wedeen’s description of the simulacrum state in
But a paradox attaches to loneliness in drama. Loneliness, is the very essence of tragedy, for the soul that has attained itself through its destiny can have brothers among the stars, but never an earthly companion; yet the dramatic form of expression — the dialogue — presupposes, if it is to be many-voiced, truly dialogical, dramatic, a high degree of communion among these solitaries.
So the bit above is about Greek tragedy. Yes, the tragic hero is alone in the sense that only the extraordinary man has a destiny. Yet, he faces the world by speaking to a chorus, which assumes that he has soul mates, that he can be understood.
The language of the absolutely lonely man is lyrical, i.e. monological; in the dialogue, the incognito of his soul becomes too pronounced, it overloads and swamps the clarity and definition of the words exchanged. Such loneliness is more profound than that required by the tragic form, which deals with the relationship to destiny (a relationship in which the actual, living Greek heroes had their being); loneliness has to become a problem unto itself, deepening and confusing the tragic problem and ultimately taking its place. Such loneliness is not simply the intoxication of a soul gripped by destiny and so made song; it is also the torment of a creature condemned to solitude and devoured by a longing for community.
In contrast, loneliness is not simply the problem of the tragic hero when we arrive at modern tragedy. It is the universal problem of the human being. The genre itself does not deal with loneliness as a side-effect of destiny. Rather, it deals with loneliness as the quintessential problem that haunts humanity. The question of loneliness has displaced the question of destiny.
Such loneliness gives rise to new tragic problems, especially the central problem of modern tragedy — that of trust.
So trust is now the central issue of modern tragedy. Is this because no one shares the same essence and we always look to someone we can know and predict when we must trust?
The new hero’s soul, clothed in life yet filled with essence, can never comprehend that the essence existing within the same shell of life in another person need not be the same as his own;
When the new hero starts his journey, he doesn’t know that he is irremediably alone. He discovers this along the way.
it knows that all those who have found one another are the same,
It knows that common identity exists and that this is the cure to its dilemma of loneliness.
and cannot understand that its knowledge does not come from this world, that the inner certainty of this knowledge cannot guarantee its being a constituent of this life.
Is Lukács saying that, basically, this “knowledge” is faith, but like all faith, the hero’s soul clings to it uncritically, taking power from his inner certainty?
It has knowledge of the idea of its own self which animates it and is alive inside it, and so it must believe that the milling crowd of humanity which surrounds it is only a carnival prank and that, at the first word from the essence, the masks will fall and brothers who have hitherto been strangers to one another will fall into each other’s arms.
In the sea of strangers, the soul believes that behind the masks, there must be kindred spirits, if only it learns how to find them.
It knows this, it searches for it, and it finds only itself alone, in the midst of destiny. And so a note of reproachful, elegiac sorrow enters into its ecstasy at having found itself: a note of disappointment at a life which has not been even a caricature of what its knowledge of destiny had so clairvoyantly heralded and which gave it the strength to travel the long road alone and in darkness.
So this form of tragedy then is mourning the loss of faith, of losing the strength of believing that one day you will find that special someone whose soul is cut from the same cloth. Boy, this guy is a real downer.
This loneliness is not only dramatic but also psychological, because it is not merely the a priori property of all dramatis personae but also the lived experience of man in process of becoming a hero;
This last bit is a little harder for me. His word ordering here is problematic. The loneliness being dramatic seems to link well with it being an a priori property of all dramatis personae, at least on the surface in the sense that the terms “dramatis personae” (the persons of the play, i.e. the characters) and dramatic go together. However, isn’t it only the hero in the play that feels the isolation? Moreover, the choice of word ordering would mean that the psychological, that is, the understanding of humanity when taken as individuals is supposed to link up with “the lived experience of man in process of becoming a hero.” But we don’t all become heroes. In fact, the term would be meaningless and obscene, sort of like the Communist chorus from Nixon in China—the people are the heroes now/Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” Heroes are meant to be extraordinary. By definition, the ordinary cannot be heroic. Heroism is always elevated, extraordinary. Perhaps this is linked to the dilemma of modernity, which seems to promise exactly what the Communist chorus is preaching—that we can all become heroes. So perhaps we are now all coping with the fact that we cannot engage in a journey that brings us into a spiritual communion with love.
It does make me wonder about fairy tales. Why were people so interested in stories about princes reaching out and touching meaning when so clearly their world offered them no genuine encouragement that they could reach out and grasp that heroic, even palpable world of meaning? Granted there is an explosion of interest in these stories in the 19th century as, with the rise of social mobility, many people start to believe that they too can reach out and be heroic. Indeed, Marx’s fantasy of communism is the ultimate expression of this desire—a world where we can all be creative heroes.
Yet, the stories are older than capitalism. I wonder why they endured so well? Perhaps the small number of literates could identify with princes, as literacy did betoken an elite status. And perhaps, even if we can’t touch meaning, it is still reassuring that at least someone can.
and if psychology is not to remain merely raw material for drama, it can only express itself as lyricism of the soul.
So if psychology is not just a plot point, but rather, if human psychological needs are a genuine motivator for the problems literature is to address, then the means of expressing those meanings must be lyrical, as clearly we are all alone and all we can really express that is comprehensible to one another is that loneliness.
Great epic writing gives form to the extensive totality of life, drama to the intensive totality of essence.
OED give us:
Intensive: Of, relating, or pertaining to intensity, or degree of intrinsic strength, depth, or fullness, as distinguished from external spatial extent or amount; of or pertaining to logical intension. Econ. Applied to methods of cultivation, fishery, etc., which increase the productiveness of a given area: opposed to extensive in which the area of production is extended.
Extensive: Of immaterial things: Far-reaching, large in comprehension or scope; wide in application or operation; comprehensive; also, lengthy, full of detail.
A total is either “Constituting or comprising a whole; whole, entire” or refers to an aggregation of smaller elements without the notion that, whether or not they are the whole in a larger sense, they are all that we possess.
So the epic tells us about life, the activities that we undertake, and not really about the meaning of those activities. It is an uncritical (would that be the correct word here?) artistic expression of what we do. Drama (presumably tragedy) is about meaning. There are fewer actions encompassed, but we understand the meaning of life more fully.
Of course, one wonders that any work of art could express the totality of life or essence. But perhaps the illusion that life and meaning can be encapsulated and handled is what is at stake in these types of writing. We would like to believe that life and meaning are not somehow greater than us and our capacity to understand them.
That is why, when essence has lost its spontaneously rounded, sensually present totality, drama can nevertheless, in its formal a priori nature, find a world that is perhaps problematic but which still is all-embracing and closed within itself.
Tragedy was always about the unreachable meaning. We can always return to this genre, because meaning can always become ungraspable for us. We can always be filled with hubris and have it knocked out of us by the unexpected nature of reality. However, for the epic to work, we must be innocent. Once one loses innocence, one can never have it back again. Therefore we can have and attain the epic as a genre only once. Once we are no longer innocent, there is no turning back the sun dial.
Tragedy provides a world of recognizable forms, but then complicates them, filling us with doubt. But it is a recognizable world. We may become alienated from it in the end, but we never start out the play that way.
But this is impossible for the great epic. For the epic, the world at any given moment is an ultimate principle; it is empirical at its deepest, most decisive, all-determining transcendental base; it can sometimes accelerate the rhythm of life, can carry something that was hidden or neglected to a utopian end which was always immanent within it, but it can never, while remaining epic, transcend the breadth and depth, the rounded, sensual, richly ordered nature of life as historically given.
The epic cannot survive as a viable genre past our innocence. It fundamentally relies on the fact that meaning is never out of reach, that meaning is just waiting there to be discovered.
Any attempt at a properly utopian epic must fail because it is bound, subjectively or objectively, to transcend the empirical and spill over into the lyrical or dramatic; and such overlapping can never be fruitful for the epic.
You could try to write a utopian epic, but you can’t reach out and grasp a utopia. The world of meaning and the real world are separate with that strategy. For the epic to work as a genre, the reader must assume that meaning is palpable, like an apple on an apple tree, waiting to be grasped.
There have been times, perhaps — certain fairly-tales still retain fragments of these lost worlds — when what today can only be reached through a utopian view was really present to the visionary eye; epic poets in those times did not have to leave the empirical in order to represent transcendent reality as the only existing one, they could be simple narrators of events, just as the Assyrians who drew winged beasts doubtless regarded themselves, and rightly, as naturalists.
The world of the imagination is imaginary to us. What makes the epic work is that the imaginary world is assumed to be real and not removed.
Already in Homer’s time, however, the transcendent was inextricably interwoven with earthly existence, and Homer is inimitable precisely because, in him, this becoming-immanent was so completely successful.
Homer’s epic was a success because it came at the exact moment that its vision reflected the era’s perceived reality. It could only be achieved at that moment of innocence. No one has done it since because no one can turn back the clock.
This indestructible bond with reality as it is, the crucial difference between the epic and the drama, is a necessary consequence of the object of the epic being life itself. The concept of essence leads to transcendence simply by being posited, and then, in the transcendent, crystallises into a new and higher essence expressing through its form an essence that should be — an essence which, because it is born of form, remains independent of the given content of what merely exists.
In a sense, morality is the result of reality not matching our image of a world with immanent meaning. This is the birth of the idea of ultimate reality.
The concept of life, on the other hand, has no need of any such transcendence captured and held immobile as an object.
The epic was about life where meaning was palpable. Transcendence was not needed to arrive at meaning. You just reached out and picked the apple.
The worlds of essence are held high above existence by the force of forms, and their nature and contents are determined only by the inner potentialities of that force.
This is a reference back to Plato again. Potentiality is a latent capacity. So the world of meaning is not some independent, transcendent world. The potential of any world of meaning is latent in its explicit forms, which are created ideal types.
The worlds of life stay as they are: forms only receive and mould them, only reduce them to their inborn meaning.
The ideal types are constructs in our mind. They assign meanings we have created to the world that we experience.
And so these forms, which, here, can only play the role of Socrates at the birth of thoughts, can never of their own accord charm something into life that was not already present in it.
Not being transcendent, the forms can call reality into being. They simply reflect reality from our viewpoint.
The character created by drama (this is only another way of expressing the same relationship) is the intelligible ‘I’ of man, the character created by the epic is the empirical ‘I’.
So the constructed self, the identity that we build, is the self that exists in drama. The body is the self in the epic. I presume this is the case because we are not yet aware that meaning is outside of ourselves, so a body/soul distinction did not yet exist in the epic.
The ‘should be’, in whose desperate intensity the essence seeks refuge because it has become an outlaw on earth, can objectivise itself in the intelligible ‘I’ as the hero’s normative psychology, but in the empirical ‘I’ it remains a ‘should be’.
Meaning exists in the constructed world of ideals, a world that Plato believed was transcendent, more real than reality. So meaning is a refugee in the physical world, seemingly harassed and harried by mundaneness and emptiness of its life.
For objective, OED gives us: That is or belongs to what is presented to consciousness, as opposed to the consciousness itself; that is the object of perception or thought, as distinct from the subject; (hence) (more widely) external to or independent of the mind.
So meaning can make itself independent of the mind in the constructed self as the tragic hero’s normative psychology. I guess that means that meaning is the object of the hero’s quest, his or her encounter with this removed world of meaning. The epic never had another world to deal with. Meaning was an apple. But meaning for the body remains an ideal, something that ought to be, something to be lived up to. This is the idea of ultimate reality. If we live our life in this shadow world in accordance with the forms, we will find meaning and lead a happy life.
The power of this ‘should be’ is a purely psychological one, and in this it resembles the other elements of the soul; its aims are empirical, and here again it resembles other possible aspirations as given by man himself or by his environment;
Man’s normative drive is not related to the existence of an ultimate reality. Rather, this is a psychological drive. It is not different from other impulses and other human goals. I think this is perhaps Lukács’s way of saying, “In case you didn’t notice, God has been killed beneath the weight of all that we have said.”
its contents are historical, similar to others produced in the process of time, and cannot be severed from the soil in which they have grown: they may fade, but they will never awaken to a new, ideal existence.
Our norms are cultural products of a specific time and place. They cannot lead us to some sort of transcendence because, as much as they may seem to belong to a transcendent, perfect reality, the emotional experience we feel is simply one feeling that is part of our psychological repertoire of emotions, one that has been triggered by an experience that is bound to a time and a place.
The ‘should be’ kills life,
The ideal kills life because it rejects what is in favor of what ought to be but is not. It rejects life as it is.
and the dramatic hero assumes the symbolic attributes of the sensuous manifestations of life only in order to be able to perform the symbolic ceremony of dying in a sensuously perceptible way, making transcendence visible;
The word “sensuous” here reminds me strongly of Marx. I don’t know if I really knew what Marx meant when he used the word either. “Of or appealing to the senses.” When I read this, I think of Brünhilde, burning on the pyre with Siegfried’s body. Her death had a mythical meaning, not a literal one. The hero dying is not a literal death, but an allegory of transcendence.
yet in the epic men must be alive, or else they destroy or exhaust the very element that carries, surrounds and fills them.
The epic does not require transcendence, because in the epic, meaning is palpable, graspable. The reason the epic is no longer written is because we can’t be naïve enough for the effect the epic created to work. Meaning belongs to a world of forms and gods. Tragedy is about the discovery that we cannot touch meaning, that in order to touch it, we must transcend.
(The ‘should be’ kills life, and every concept expresses a ‘should-be’ of its object;
This is Plato. To know a knife is to know its virtue, to know a good knife. To know a man is to know man’s virtue, to know a good man. Recognition is based on understanding the form of the good. But, for Lukács, this means knowing is to believe in a transcendent world that destroys reality, because reality cannot transcend itself.
This, perhaps, is why Brünhilde must burn. If what is real has entered into the realm of the transcendent, it should no longer exist in the realm of the visible form. Death is the gateway to eternal life.
that is why thought can never arrive at a real definition of life, and why, perhaps, the philosophy of art is so much more adequate to tragedy than it is to the epic.)
We can’t define life because, in creating a “form” for life, we create an ideal up to which reality cannot live. I would guess that we can understand the tragic better than the epic because the tragic seems to endure for us, whereas the epic is moribund.
The ‘should be’ kills life, and an epic hero constructed out of what ‘should be’ will always be but a shadow of the living epic man of historical reality, his shadow but never his original image,
We may return to the epic in our present day, but we would paint the epic hero as an ideal to be lived up to. This ruins the effect that the original epics of ner H Homer had. The point of Homer’s epics is that one could reach out and touch meaning. We really can’t believe that story, because we are not naïve enough for it to work. As a result, we translate the new epic hero as an ideal to be lived up to. But the ideal kills the real. It leads us to reject what actually exists, taking us away from the notion that meaning is palpable and graspable in the physical world. This is totally in contravention of what made the genre so satisfying in its original inception.
Moreover, in a sense, the new hero is a tragic hero in the sense that he finds meaning in an ultimate reality. Or perhaps the new epic hero is really that Platonic hero, who reaches across the gap to the realms of the forms and, in apprehending the form of the good, allows man to once again (at least as far as he can realize) reach out and touch meaning again. He learns to reach out of the mundane world and grasp the forms.
and his given world of experience and adventure can only be a watered-down copy of reality, never its core and essence.
When this new epic hero is adventuring, he is reaching out to touch the forms, so his adventure becomes allegorical. He is never adventuring in the real world.
Utopian stylisation of the epic inevitably creates distance, but such distance lies between two instances of the empirical, so that the sorrow and majesty created by this distance can only make for a rhetorical tone.
The tone of this type of heroic narrative relies on the fact that the hero traverses from the world of ordinary life to the realm of meaning (the forms, ultimate reality, etc.), both believed to be real places. Traversing this vast, if not insurmountable, distance lend this new kind of epic sorrow (because the distance is too far away and, I would assume, most people cannot cross it) and majesty (in that making it across confers the hero who crosses with a sort of dignity rooted in their ability to gain insight from suffering).
This distance may produce marvellous elegiac lyricism,
An elegy is a song of lamentation, often for the dead. We already decided that the word lyrical referred to “short passages that directly express the hero’s own sentiments and thoughts.” So the distance between the palpable world and the world of ultimate reality gives this new epic the quality of being a song of the hero’s personal sorrow, possibly for his own death. Perhaps this is the result of gaining wisdom by means of suffering. The wisdom can only be gained a terrible cost.
but it can never, in itself, put real life into a content that transcends being, or turns such content into self-sufficient reality.
But this new kind of epic always finds meaning outside of ordinary life. It cannot create ordinary life into a self-sufficient world of meaning. It always refers to another reality, one that we might reach, but not without the suffering of the hero’s journey.
Whether this distance leads forward or backwards, upwards or downwards from life, it is never the creation of a new reality but always only a subjective mirroring of what already exists.
Here we find the cold reality of trauma theory. Because the experience of meaning seems profoundly empirical and transcendent, we assume that it comes from a world more real than our own. But trauma theory would teach us that we create our own meaning and the terms of what we find meaningful, as a result, must be created from our own experience of the world around us. As a result, it never transcends that reality, but is the direct product of our interaction with that reality.
Virgil’s heroes lead a cool and measured shadow-existence, nourished by the blood of a splendid ardour that has sacrificed itself
Aeneas sacrifices his passionate love for Dido. This nourishes a “cool and measured shadow-existence.” I really wish I’d had the discipline to wade through Homer, as so much rests on that now. I did read the Aeneid. If Aeneas lived a “shadow existence” compared with Homer’s heroes, it is probably because unlike Homer’s heroes he is not following his desire and, as a result, not directly throwing himself into a passionately lived life. He resigns his passion because it is his fate to do so in order to found the Roman state. The refined resignation of patriotic duty had displaced passion in creating meaning for Aeneas. I would imagine that Lukács believes that this sacrifice negates life and living. Passion for Lukács makes life. Duty, an ideal, kills it.
in order to conjure up what has vanished forever:
Perhaps this is a reference to ultimate meaning. We know that the frankly palpable meaning that is of the world and of us that guarantees that our life has not been lived in vain if gone. Attempts of heroes to cross out of ordinary life into the realm of ultimate meaning are always illusory, always a naïve attempt to do what, by now, we ought to be mature enough to know is impossible—to justify our lives by an objective, transcendent standard.
while Zolaesque monumentality amounts only to monotonous emotion in face of the multiple yet simplified complexity of a sociological system of categories that claims to cover the whole of contemporary life.
Émile Zola’s great work was a novel that covered several generations of two families’ lives in
So does Lukács believe that there is any point in writing at all?
There is such a thing as great epic literature, but drama never requires the attribute of greatness and must always resist it.
I wonder what he means by greatness in this context? If drama is still tragedy, tragedy is always about the hero’s flaws. In this sense, the hero is not very heroic. That’s just a stab in the dark. I have no idea what this means.
The cosmos of the drama, full of its own substance, rounded with substantiality,
When something in rounded, it is an enclosed perfect world. So the tragedy is a world which is self-sufficient in the sense it provides a world of complete meaning.
ignores the contrast between wholeness and segment, the opposition between event and symptom: for the drama, to exist is to be a cosmos, to grasp the essence, to possess its totality.
The way the drama achieves its “perfect world of meaning” is by taking a fragment and presenting it as a whole, in much the same way that the epic does. The difference is that the epic apparently was able to get away with explaining the totality of life, whereas drama explains the totality of a fragment in a way that is made as satisfying as the epic was, by reducing the scale of the and presenting it, if not as life written large, than as the full aesthetic experience of someone’s life.
But is this drama Greek tragedy anymore? This seems more like Ibsen than Sophocles.
But the concept of life does not posit the necessity of the totality of life; life contains within itself both the relative independence of every separate living being from any transcendent bond and the likewise relative inevitability and indespensability of such bonds. That is why there can be epic forms whose object is not the totality of life but a segment of it, a fragment capable of independent existence.
Presumably there is no reason to think that anyone’s life is “like” anyone else’s life. Each life is indeed unique. That said, we have a deeply rooted need to belong to a group, to know that we aren’t alone. The idea of this new epic form is to share an individual’s life and not the totality of life. Strange, but this “fragment epic” sounds like a novel. Presumably also to share one person’s encounter with meaning, not all that it meaningful. But reducing the scale of the “amount of meaning” one is supposed to find in the work can make meaning seem frankly palpable again. Sharing the one person’s voyage contextualizes the reader to share the meaning that the one person finds. The novel is an epic that is not on an epic scale.
But, for the same reason, the concept of totality for the epic is not a transcendental one, as it is in drama; it is not born out of the form itself, but is empirical and metaphysical, combining transcendence and immanence inseparably within itself.
I’m having some trouble with the chunk above. “But, for the same reason” grammatically refers to “life contains within itself the both the relative independence of every separate living being from any transcendent bond and the likewise relative inevitability and indispensability of such bonds.” Why does the fact that we can separate every individual’s story from every other story, yet have some need for common identity and meaning give the epic its nature? The drama, he says, offers a form of totality that is born from the form itself, from the genre itself. This is not the case for the epic.
The concept of totality in the epic is empirical and metaphysical. Well, isn’t this just because the epic is the story of a naïve people? While meaning is a human creation, meaning appears to be metaphysical because of the emotions it evokes. But we are too young when reading the epic to realize that meaning belongs to a world of forms. We find it palpable, and hence empirical. But then look at his word order in the next phrase! He says transcendence and immanence, and not the other way around. This would suggest that “empirical” and “transcendence” marry up, as would “metaphysical” and “immanence.” I would have thought that should be the other way around.
I may be reading too much into the word order here. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the epic, subject and object do not coincide as they do in drama, where creative subjectivity, seen from the perspective of the work, is barely a concept but only a generalised awareness; whereas in the epic subject and object are clearly and unequivocally distinct from one another and present in the work as such.
In the epic, the hero goes off and discovers. He is always a subject. He never gets discovered. In the epic, the hero is never the victim of fate. Being a creative subject in drama is more problematic. In a tragedy, you think you are an actor but, surprise! You’re not. You’re a victim of fate and the plaything of the gods. To the extent that you are creative, it’s in learning and becoming aware of your real situation.
And since an empirical form-giving subject follows from the empirical nature of the object seeking to acquire form, this subject can never be the basis and guarantee of the totality of the represented world.
Oh, fuck! That one’s a nightmare. What could it mean? Well, in the epic, the human is never the object, so we have to be instead in the tragedy. So if, with our tragic awareness, we seek to discover the meaning of life, we know that we are an object, not a subject. Fate buffets us and there isn’t much we can do it about it. Clearly, we aren’t the subject. We want to acquire form (is this self-awareness, knowledge of the self?), so we deduce that there must be a God. After all, we can apprehend that there must be a meaning for life. Meaning presumes intention. Someone with agency must have intended us. So it follows that if we, sad objects that we are, can still believe that our life has meaning, someone who is a subject must have created us to find that meaning.
We know it’s a puzzle, but we’re no longer duped by the epic. We know the answer isn’t “just there” for us to grasp. Yet, we have this drive toward meaning. So perhaps meaning is in the realm of forms with the gods.
In the epic, totality can only truly manifest itself in the contents of the object: it is metasubjective, transcendent, it is a revelation and grace. Living, empirical man is always the subject of the epic, but his creative, life-mastering arrogance is transformed in the great epics into humility, contemplation, speechless wonder at the luminous meaning which, so unexpectedly, so naturally, has become visible to him, an ordinary human being in the midst of ordinary life.
So, in the epic, we can only find the meaning of life in the contents of the great task to be achieved. The meaning of life is above and beyond the hero. Since it is a revelation and a grace, it is clearly not something the epic hero creates, but is, in the end, given. The epic hero is arrogant and life-mastering. He thinks he can achieve anything. But the experience of attaining (receiving?) meaning moves him to speechless wonder. He never knew that such meaning could exist in the midst of ordinary life.
I’m finding this passage difficult. In the epic, the hero can attain his goal. But meaning still is above and beyond him. But perhaps that is only clear to the epic hero because when confronted with meaning in all its glory, he is abashed. He feels humility. He feels reverence. He knows it is greater than himself. But he worked so little to find meaning, that while it is greater than him, metasubjective even, that his image of the transcendent is naïve. He can believe that the gods literally live on
In the minor epic forms, the subject confronts the object in a more dominant and self-sufficient way. The narrator may (we cannot, nor do we intend to establish even a tentative system of epic forms here) adopt the cool and superior demeanour of the chronicler who observes the strange workings of coincidence as it plays with the destinies of men, meaningless and destructive to them, revealing and instructive to us;
If the “minor epic form” is indeed the novel, as I suspect, what Lukács describes here sounds familiar. The narrator narrates his story with omniscience.
or he may see a small corner of the world as an ordered flower-garden in the midst of the boundless, chaotic waste-lands of life, and, moved by his vision, elevate it to the status of the sole reality;
I’ve read that one.
or he may be moved and impressed by the strange, profound experiences of an individual and pour them into the mould of an objectivised destiny;
Yup. I’ve read that one, too.
but whatever he does, it is his own subjectivity that singles out a fragment from the immeasurable infinity of the events of life, endows it with independent life and allows the whole from which this fragment has been taken to enter the work only as the thoughts and feelings of his hero, only as an involuntary continuation of a fragmentary causal series, only as the mirroring of a reality having its own separate existence.
Is the narrator here literally the author, the inventor of the story? The minor epic form is clearly created by the author in a way that the epic is not. Was the epic the product of revelation? Whatever the case, the world outside the minor epic only enters into the story when the hero allows his attention to wander to them.
Completeness in the minor epic forms is subjective: a fragment of life is transplanted by the writer into a surrounding world that emphasises it and lifts it out of the totality of life; and this selection, this delimitation, puts the stamp of its origin in the subject’s will and knowledge upon the work itself : it is, more or less, lyrical in nature.
Wow. I actually understand that one without mulling it over. Blow me away!
The relativity of the independence and the mutual bonds of all living beings and their organic, likewise living associations can be superseded, can be elevated into form, if a conscious decision of the creative subject brings out an immanent meaning within the isolated existence of this particular fragment of life.
I don’t know where it would have been more appropriate to say this, but it seems to me that we want a world where meaning is empirical, outside ourselves. A world where we are not making meaning up as we go along, but rather one where we find it in a totality far greater than ourselves. We want to enter into the world of creation and find God Himself. But we must remain naïve to believe that we will find and know God absolutely.
Undoubtedly, we will stumble into the constructed realms of others and discover their subjectivities, which differ from our own. Their symbols are not ours. We can withstand this to some extent. We may believe that we have a destiny while others do not and, as a result believe that our own, narrow vision is that true empirical reality, that true meaning that can be discovered. We can believe that, while we have not yet seen the face of God, it is we who are on the correct quest, the true path; we can believe that it is we who will one day see it. But this sublime, sad, arrogant faith that is begotten of youthful innocence can only withstand so many setbacks. Eventually, we must admit that we have not discovered meaning. We made it up as we went along. While I do not believe that this means all faith is sad and arrogant, I have come to believe that this faith of the young has its limits. There is another faith, but I don’t know how to articulate this feeling right now. I feel it, for what that’s worth.
The only form in which we can possibly retain the emotional “feel” of not having made it up as we went along is created by elevating our fragmentary consciousness as a story—a world that another can discover by reading. For the writer, it is the only world which can truly seem to cohere, because it is a world that reflects our inner experience in which all feelings and their stimuli quite naturally appear to “fit together” or “belong together.”
Having lost our innocence, we know that we have not found objective reality. Yet this is no way affects our deep and profound need for meaning. If the world is not meaningful, we will go mad. So we lift our experience as a novel. We share it and others read it, both reader and writer hoping to find that we are not alone. Perhaps if in these shared experiences we find shared meaning, we also find that empirical meaning for which we yearn.
Plato. We yearn to know as Plato would have us know—perfectly. It is a deep impulse, one we cannot set aside easily, even after we believe we have set it aside completely.
The subject’s form-giving, structuring, delimiting act, his sovereign dominance over the created object, is the lyricism of those epic forms which are without totality.
This makes good sense. The lesser epic forms don’t claim to reproduce the whole world. The limited experience of totality they provide is the experience not of the world, but of a specific person’s worldview. It must be lyrical, as only the person who experiences the worldview can express it coherently in a way that makes it seem as if it were a world.
Such lyricism is here the last epic unity; it is not the swallowing of a solitary ‘I’ in the object-free contemplation of its own self, nor is it the dissolving of the object into sensations and moods; it is born out of form, it creates form, and it sustains everything that has been given form in such a work.
I imagine that the individual’s worldview is the last epic unity because it is the root of our bias that made it seem as if the unity and perfection of the original epic is possible. We now know that the extent to which we share forms is the extent to which we have been socialized to those forms as a group. The forms are not common to us all because they are universal. They merely seem to be universal because they happen to be common to those in a given group. But our internal world seems coherent to us unless we are traumatized. The fact that we can be traumatized suggests that, as a view, our identity is typically coherent insofar as we are unaware of any contradictions that exist in it. As a result, it is a “natural” unity of sorts. There is no possibility that the individual could exist if the self were to dissolve completely. It must perforce be a unity that we accept. We cannot live without it, even if we know nothing objectivates it for others.
The immediate, flowing power of such lyricism is bound to increase in proportion with the significance and gravity of the life-segment selected; the balance of the work is that between the positing subject and the object he singles out and elevates.
Strange that there is no reference to the reader here. Surely for the lyricism to have power, it is not enough that the writer believe that the life-segment he or she shares is significant and grave. It must in some sense appeal to the reader as well. Otherwise the reader would never bother with it.
As disparate as one person’s worldview is from another, they must share something in common for the reader to find meaning in the author’s experience.
In the short story, the narrative form which pin-points the strangeness and ambiguity of life, such lyricism must entirely conceal itself behind the hard outlines of the event; here, lyricism is still pure selection; the utter arbitrariness of chance, which may bring happiness or destruction but whose workings are always without reason, can only be balanced by clear, uncommented, purely objective depiction.
It’s not a problem for the text to have a third-person narrator. The author’s choices in the story expresses his or her worldview to the reader. That said, as the short story tends to have chance as the antagonist, the author conceals his or her voice behind objective description. The “objective” narrator “conceals” himself or herself behind the façade of objectivity created by his or her tone. The desired result is for the reader to feel as if he or she had an experience of the story world that feels as if it were a real world the reader had experienced not through the narration of some other, but directly, through his or her own senses. The success of this illusion is among the best estimates of the author’s skill. No matter how successful the illusion, however, we must be frank. The reader has encountered only the constructed worldview that the author has created for the him or her.
The short story is the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood, as the very sense and content of the creative process, but it is rendered abstract for that very reason.
Short stories, in rendering an experience of life in what is, by definition of the genre, a small number of words, have to force through a point that is very abstract and comprehensible across a number of contexts. There aren’t enough words to contextualize an outsider. You simply ground the reader in a feeling.
It sees absurdity in all its undisguised and unadorned nakedness,
I don’t know if I get this one. The short story sees absurdity. But what’s the antecedent of “its” in “in all its undisguised and unadorned nakedness”—is Lukács talking about the “the undisguised and unadorned nakedness of the short story” or “the undisguised and unadorned nakedness of absurdity?” Well, the “it” at the beginning of the sentence definitely refers to the short story. The most recent noun before “its” is “absurdity,” so let’s pick that meaning initially.
So why does the short story see absurdity in a way that is undisguised and unadorned? Why does absurdity appear to be naked in a short story? Well, in the few sentences before, we’ve been talking about how we lack forms that are transcendent. We’re all stuck in our subjective skulls. The short story works on what we share, which is an occasional common emotion. I imagine this should suggest to us that shared meaning is in itself absurd. The most we realistically share, the most that could be thought of as universal is a set of emotions. Those emotions are as likely as not to be triggered to different stimuli because we do not share the same set of symbols to trigger them.
So trying to share a common world is absurd. It won’t work perfectly. Although people actually bother to read short stories, so they have to work to some extent. But the extent is not perfect and we do not arrive at universal meaning. And I guess we’re very attached to perfection here.
and the exorcising power of this view, without fear or hope, gives it the consecration of form; meaninglessness as meaninglessness becomes form,
What all share, apparently, is a guarantee that we will never share the same set of forms. This commonality in itself is like a form because it is universal. We are abased before our weakness in awe. It is as divine as a form, as a god, if ever so much less beneficent. We do experience catharsis as a result of experiencing it. It is a tragic element.
it becomes eternal because it is affirmed, transcended and redeemed by form.
I don’t understand the bit above. Does he mean that because we yearn for forms, we realize that we are powerless to arrive at forms and this then gives us the only common truth we can hold? If we didn’t care about forms, i.e. if we were as naïve as the Greeks for whom Homer was a natural worldview, we would need neither forms (the product of the shattering of that epic worldview) nor as a result, would we come to learn that we cannot arrive at forms. None of that could happen if we weren’t bent as a species on this trajectory that required ultimate meaning.
Between the short story and the lyric-epic forms there is a clear distinction. As soon as an event which has been given meaning by its form is, if only relatively, meaningful in its content as well, the subject, falling silent, must again struggle for words with which to build a bridge between the relative meaning of the event and the absolute.
I think I can get it if I ground it in the practical experience of an author writing his or her experience of life. Say I am an author and I experience something that, in the cosmology of my life, is deeply meaningful and moving. I choose to elevate it into a story. But in order for that story to make sense, I must translate it into a language that has some universal meaning. A symbol that is personally meaningful in my cosmology may mean something else or even nothing in someone else’s cosmology. I must find words we hold in common to bridge that gap.
In the idyll such lyricism merges almost completely with the contours of the men and things depicted; it is this lyricism that endows these contours with the softness and airiness of a peaceful seclusion, of a blissful isolation from the storms raging in the outside world.
That peacefulness makes sense. The author provides a world where the forms match the experiences. The reader can lose themselves in a world where the forms actually work. The world isn’t real, but reality can be overrated. The world of theory is delightful because it is simple and clean and it works. Empirical reality is such a fucking mess.
Only when the idyll transcends its form and becomes epic, as in Goethe’s and Hebbel’s ‘great idylls’, where the whole of life with all its dangers, although modified and softened by distance, enters into the events depicted,
So some writers (Goethe and Hebbel, apparently—boy, I wish I were well read!) push their idylls into the realm of the epic. The hero reaches out for meaning. This is always dangerous, but provides us with plot. Only when this happens, apparently—
must the author’s own voice be heard and his hand must create the salutary distances, to ensure that the hard-won happiness of his heroes is not reduced to the unworthy complacency of those who cravenly turn their backs on an all-too-present wretchedness they have not overcome but only escaped, and, equally, to ensure that the dangers of life and the perturbation of its totality do not become a pale schema, reducing the triumph of deliverance to a trivial farce.
Okay, I think I’m beginning to get this. If the author has the characters reach out for meaning he has a genuine writer’s dilemma. He must personally commit to the notion that the meaning he allows the characters to find does not appear to the reader to be a lame, unsatisfying answer. If the reader isn’t impressed enough to find meaning where the characters do, then the author is seen as lazy and having given his characters an easy escape from life’s suffering. The reader can’t follow the character on his or her journey and hence can’t share in the redemption. And why would the reader bother with the story if the reader can’t at the end be redeemed?
We can’t have the reader reach out for the Greek forms because the reader is not that naïve. But the reader clearly shares the naïve hope of finding a world of forms, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading. The reader must be seduced into believing that he can find a meaning that links his life to (1) eternity and (2) other people. The reader does not like to be cheated and won’t forgive the author unless the author can give him or her at least the hope of forms, the hope of redemption.
And such lyricism develops into a limpid, generously flowing, all-embracing message only when the event, in its epic objectivation, becomes the vehicle and symbol of unbounded feeling; when a soul is the hero and that soul’s longing is the story (once, speaking of Charles-Louis Philippe, I called such a form ‘chantefable’);
For this form of lyric narrative to have its impact on the reader and be interpreted as a rich and desirable narrative that pulls the reader along its perfect flow, the event must become epic in the reader’s eyes. That is, the event it describes must offer a world of meaning that the reader can just “discover.” To do this, the event has to become a means for expressing the reader’s feelings of longing.
when the object, the event that is given form, remains isolated as indeed it should, but when the lived experience that absorbs the event and radiates it out also carries within it the ultimate meaning of life, the artist’s sense-giving, life-conquering power.
The challenge of this form of writing is that for the story to have this power, it must present itself as a complete world where the forms are uncomplicated and just waiting to be picked up. We know the universal story doesn’t work and that any story will have to be idiosyncratic. Having done this, however, the novel must also do what it is most unlikely to do—point at universal truth while using a completely idiosyncratic vehicle!
Strangely, however, the meaning of life is apparently, “the artist’s sense-giving. Life-conquering power.”
This power, also, is lyrical: the artist’s personality, conscious and autonomous, proclaims its own interpretation of the meaning of the universe; the artist handles events as though they were instruments, he does not listen to them for a secret meaning.
A prophet would interpret reality, discover its meaning. An artist assigns it. The story is a tool for assigning meaning.
What is given form here is not the totality of life but the artist’s relationship with that totality, his approving or condemnatory attitude towards it; here, the artist enters the arena of artistic creation as the empirical subject in all its greatness but also with all its creaturely limitations.
The author can’t give us a perfect knowledge of the universe and its meaning. What he or she can give us, however, is his relationship with the universe—what this encounter has meant to him. The author gives us meaning while admitting his own limits.
Neither can a totality of life which is by definition extensive be achieved by the object’s being annihilated — by the subject’s making itself the sole ruler of existence. However high the subject may rise above its objects and take them into its sovereign possession, they are still and always only isolated objects, whose sum never equals a real totality.
The approach of assigning meaning, however, can only give meaning to a small slice of experience. The real world is too large and complex for an artist to get away with simply assigning it a meaning.
Even such a subject, for all its sublime humour, remains an empirical one and its creation is only the adoption of an attitude towards its objects which, when all is said and done, remain essentially similar to itself; and the circle it draws round the world-segment thus selected and set apart the limits of the subject, not of a cosmos complete in itself.
The comedian attempts to provide meaning through domination, through imposing meaning on the world. But even when he or she does this, he or she only succeeds in assigning meaning to just a portion. I imagine this is why comedy travels so poorly out of its context. Of all genres, the situational comedy is this least portable from one culture to another.
The humorist’s soul yearns for a more genuine substantiality than life can offer; and so he smashes all the forms and limits of life’s fragile totality in order to reach the sole source of life, the pure, world-dominating ‘I’., But as the objective world breaks down, so the subject, too, becomes a fragment; only the ‘I’ continues to exist, but its existence is then lost in the insubstantiality of its self-created world of ruins. Such subjectivity wants to give form to everything, and precisely for this reason succeeds only in mirroring a segment of the world.
The reason why the comedian does his or her own thing is because he or she wants universal meaning. The violence with which he or she imposes that meaning, shows, in a sense, how badly the person needs that universal meaning. Someone who needs for everything to have a clear form and meaning is driven to control. Humanity, being finite, can only impose meaning on a small corner of reality. Generalizability is too much to hope for.
This is the paradox of the subjectivity of the great epic, its ‘throwing away in order to win': creative subjectivity becomes lyrical, but, exceptionally, the subjectivity which simply accepts, which humbly transforms itself into a purely receptive organ of the world, can partake of the grace of having the whole revealed to it.
Ironically, the form of the novel is designed to create a world that is narrowed sufficiently so as to be detailed enough to appear real to a modern palate. The narrowing allows the author enough control to create the illusion. Without the narrowing, there is not enough detail to satisfy the contemporary palate. Strangely, the illusion such a controlling author is trying to create is that he or she is receiving the real world, when in fact, he or she as actually creating a fake, limited world. Strangely, this fake world is in some senses more satisfying that the real world.
This is the leap that Dante made between the Vita nuova and the Divina commedia, that Goethe made between Werther and Wilhelm Meister, the leap Cervantes made when, becoming silent himself, he let the cosmic humour of Don Quixote become heard;
And this is where I really wish I were well-read. I can only surmise that Dante, Geothe and Cervantes were good at creating this illsion…
by contrast, Sterne’s and Jean Paul’s glorious ringing voices offer no more than reflexions of a world-fragment which is merely subjective and therefore limited, narrow and arbitrary.
…whereas it sounds as if Sterne and Jean Paul couldn’t even be bothered. Either that, or their goal was to show that the illusion is only that, an illusion. The point is, one way or another, they didn’t advance this façade.
This is not a value judgement but an a priori definition of genre:
So it sounds as if the correct interpretation is the latter. Sterne and Jean Paul, for whatever reasons, chose not to write in this defined style. Lukács isn’t taking shots at them. But what follows is his definition of the genre (perhaps the novel, I’m not quite sure):
the totality of life resists any attempt to find a transcendental centre within it, and refuses any of its constituent cells the right to dominate it. Only when a subject, far removed from all life and from the empirical which is necessarily posited together with life, becomes enthroned in the pure heights of essence, when it has become nothing but the carrier of the transcendental synthesis, can it contain all the conditions for totality within its own structure and transform its own limitations into the frontiers of the world. But such a subject cannot write an epic: the epic is life, immanence, the empirical. Dante’s Paradiso is closer to the essence of life than Shakespeare’s exuberant richness.
The irony is that the epic always wants the realm of meaning to be the realm of the palpable. If you want meaning, you pretty much need to enter the world of abstract thought. And if you want to write an epic, you need to find a way of suffusing the real world you are going to describe with the meaning you discover in the realm of the abstract. Dante’s Paradiso is a story of theological abstraction. In contrast, Shakespeare gives us a very tangible world. Paradiso comes closer to giving us actual meaning. But I can’t help thinking that the way Lukács is describing Shakespeare and Dante, he must think that Shakespeare does a better job. This is true, even though Shakespeape may be more of a cheat.
Apparently, the reader wants the impossible. Or, at least, the reader wants to be seduced into believing that the impossible is possible, to feel again as he or she felt when he or she was young and innocent. The reader wants to lose himself or herself in the magic that the loss of innocence has destroyed.
The synthetic power of the sphere of essence is intensified still further in the constructed totality of the dramatic problem:
The created emotional impact that the author creates in his or her abstract becomes more intense when it is moved and expressed in the concrete world of the problem described in the novel.
that which the problem decrees to be necessary, whether it be event or soul, achieves existence through its relation to the centre;
Is the center, in this case, the realm of meaning and reflection?
the immanent dialectic of this unity accords to each individual phenomenon the essence appropriate to it depending on its distance from the centre and its relative importance to the problem.
The cosmos of the novel is ordered according to a set of values that is derived from the moral center of the specific problem.
The problem here is inexpressible because it is the concrete idea of the whole, because only the polyphony of all the voices can carry the full wealth of content concealed in it. For life, the problem is an abstraction; the relationship of a character to a problem can never absorb the whole fullness of that character’s life, and every event in the sphere in life can relate only allegorically to the problem.
I think the bit above is explaining how the illusion works. But suffusing the abstract thought behind the problem into a whole created world filled with voices, the problem avoids looking abstract. Moreover, there is still a real, concrete palpable world being described (Shakespeare not Dante). While there is allegory and abstraction involved, the allegory and abstraction are set among myriad other details which gives the whole “problem world” a very real feeling. The world has the epic’s “real world” feel because of the detail. Yet because this world of detail is nonetheless constructed around the problem, meaning feels everywhere palpable.
Perhaps the effect appeals to those of us who are given to want to see magic in the world, to see signs. We feel as if meaning were just out of reach. The idea is to provide enough obscuring detail to make the reader feel as if he or she were situated in the mundane world of reality. But, ultimately because the goal of the novel is to find meaning through exploring the abstract problem, the incidence of meaning hiding behind the façade of mundane reality is much higher in the novel.
Indeed, it would have to be. When we discover meaning lurking behind the façade of the mundane world, we don’t discover it. We create it. Creating meaning is hard work. In this sense, the novel, when done well, is truly a gift. It gives rich meaning without labor. It provides the world of the epic, where one can reach out and touch meaning, guzzle it in greedy gulps, like pop from a soda fountain. No abstract philosophy, no racking of the brain is needed. This is why we die inside when a good novel ends. A good novel allows us to live in a realm of palpable meaning, a world where the promise of meaning peeking out from behind every façade is kept and honored. Who can bear to leave such a world? The only solace is that the mundane world contains some people who will touch you back.
It is true that in the Elective Affinities, which Hebbel rightly called ‘dramatic’, Goethe’s consummate art succeeded in weighing and ordaining everything in relation to the central problem, but even these souls, guided from the start into the problem’s narrow channels, cannot attain to real existence; even this action, narrowed and cut down to fit the problem, fails to achieve a rounded totality; to fill even the fragile shell of this small world, the author is forced to introduce extraneous elements, and even if he were as successful throughout the book as he is in certain passages of supremely skilful organisation, the result would not be a totality.
I don’t know the novel, but Wikipedia says that it had an impact on Weber’s sociology, of all things! Now I’m deeply curious. I’ve felt for some time as if I were caught in the middle of an old argument between Weber and Lucács from late imperial and
The novel does seem to relate everything philosophical to everything happening in the mundane world, Lukács tells us. But he still has to admit that there are things unrelated to the novel’s problem that are in the novel. It’s not perfect.
I guess it shows how far gone I am from the expectation of universal transcendence that I’m excited about something as a satisfying illusion!
Likewise, the ‘dramatic’ concentration of Hebbel’s Song of the Nibelungs is a splendid mistake which originated pro domo: a great writer’s desperate effort to rescue the epic unity — disintegrating in a changed world — of an authentically epic text.
So Lukács considers the myths surrounding Siegfried as a real epic that Hebbel tries to reformulate for modern use. He wants to import the epic into the sensibility of his age.
Brunhilde’s superhuman figure is here reduced to a mixture of woman and valkyrie, who humiliates her weak suitor, Gunther, and makes him completely questionable and feeble; only a few fairy-tale motifs survive the transformation of Siegfried the dragon-killer into a knightly figure.
Siegfried and Brunhilde wind up losing their epic appeal in this process. I guess I can see that. It’s been a long time since I read the Nibelungenlied and naturally I remember Wagner far better.
The work is saved by the problem of loyalty and revenge, that is to say by Hagen and Kriemhild. But it is a desperate, purely artistic attempt to create, with the means of composition, structuring and organisation, a unity that is no longer organically given: a desperate attempt and a heroic failure.
That is actually true. The real characters are Hagen and Kriemhild, as they actually are the movers and shakers of the story and the ones with deeper emotions. They have less noble emotions than Brunhilde and Siegfried, but are nonetheless more rounded (to steal Lukács’ word) characters. Nobility of character lacks depth of character in that piece. It makes sense, though. The values of the receiving world of the audience really don’t have a place for the values of Vikings.
For unity can surely be achieved, but never a real totality. In the story of the Iliad which has no beginning and no end, a rounded universe blossoms into all-embracing life. The lucidly composed unity of the Nibelungenlied conceals life and decay, castles and ruins, behind its skilfully structured façade.
The Nibelungenlied, in translating the myth, has wound up only changing the genre. But it hides this well. It’s art, but it’s no longer an epic. The epic, Lukács tells us, is dead.
I don’t know quite why, but I feel an overwhelming urge to say, “You may have killed the epic beneath the weight of all you have said. But do not believe that you will create a genre that means more than it has.”
Maybe I have more peace with our need for transcendence and yet our utter inability to ever fully transcend. I dunno. Heavy stuff.