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Enemies made or enemies born?

April 13, 2009, 5:45 pm

On this day in history, two men—one of whom would say that the other’s life work represented “the utmost human degradation[:] an idiot’s vegetative existence”—were born. In 1885, the author of that statement, Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács, dewombed in Budapest. Often cited as the founder of Western (or philosophical) Marxism, Lukács can be considered the grandfather of the armchair academic activists who fought the radical fight from tenured positions at illustrious institutions. I only half-kid here: his claim in The Historical Novel (1937) that the role of the literary critic was to examine “the relation between ideology (in the sense of Weltanschauung) and artistic creation” (147) allowed otherwise sedentary scholars to label as revolutionary action an exegesis on Dickensian realism.  Anyone whose work analyzed critical or socialist realism, i.e. literature which displayed “the contradictions within society and within the individual context of a dialectical unity,” could consider him or herself a soldier in the Great Class War Against Mystification. Like Susan Sontag, I find his definition of realism—socialist, critical or otherwise—unnecessarily reductive and his dismissiveness of non-realist works short-sighted (if not out-right anti-intellectual).

In 1906, the same year Lukács received his Ph.D., was born the man whose work depicted “an idiot’s vegetative existence.” That Samuel Beckett’s novels, plays and poetry trafficked in “human degradation” was reason enough for condemnation: unlike realists novels, which were capable of creating dialectical conversations between singular narratives and the social totality of history, modernist novels wallowed in the singularity of their narrators:

Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare. Beckett’s Molloy is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this development. (152)

If an author grounds that nightmare in “the Aristotelian concept of man as zoon politikon” (151); that is, if an author provides a reference against which the consequences of the actions of social animals can be judged: only then can reader or critic differentiate between the concrete potentialities (what happens) and the abstract potentialities (what the character thought could have happened). Authors who refuse to declare what happened—who mess in the pseudo-realization of abstract potentiality—create readers who will never know from dialectical. They will not be social animals critically examining the societal structuring of their lives through the power of realist narratives; they will be unwitting dupes forever mired in the pathological subjectivity of Molloy, forever sucking pebbles. Their lives, such that they are, will be spent in the Grand Hotel Abyss, which Lukács describes as

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (qtd. 22)

Needless to say, I disagree.

I’ll close on an historical odditiy: not only was Lukács born on April 13th, so too was the French psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan. It’s as if the day conspired to give birth to the thought of Louis Althusser (which, as you can probably guess, is one part Lukácian, one part Lacanian and three cans of crazy).

(x-posted.)

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