Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Reading Sontag reading Lukacs reading the Modernists
Lukacs The Ideology of Modernism. Lukacs’s criticism of Modernism is the result, as Sontag says, of a mimetic theory of art which is simply far too crude and which does not acknowledge the alienation caused by the new awareness of the relation between consciousness and actuality (It is always merely a fragment, a phase: Lukacs) which came into being during the first decades of the century. There was a new awareness of the most secret places of life as Lawrence called it, and it was thought suitable to analyse them as the subjects of literature. This was the Modernist project.
Lukacs’s whole argument is based on a false premise which is so shockingly obvious: how could he not have seen it? Man is indeed a social animal but he is not only a social animal: he is also a conscious animal, and rather than the city being a mere backcloth as Lukacs says, it is the interaction between it and consciousness that is the Modernist theme.The communist Lukacs is blind to the individual. His argument is full of holes (not to mention the most unfortunate ironies of choice: the communist literary critic basing his arguments on the Nazi Heidegger’s definition of existence). What is the use and correctness of his distinction between the solitariness described by realist literature as a social fate and that described by Modernism as a condition humaine? Is not the condition humaine precisely man’s interaction with society? Is not social fate precisely the condition humaine? Lukacs not only appears to be blind to the ramifications of his own argument, but also ironically forgets Marxism’s own dictum that man’s social being determines consciousness. In other words, his position in society causes his solitariness.
Darkness is an absence of light, cold an absence of heat, dry an absence of wet: each absence defines a presence through its absence and thus becomes present in absentia. Likewise solitariness is defined as the absence of society or the absence of a perceived, a felt link with society. For Lukacs then to say that by concentrating on the solitariness of the individual, the Modernists excluded or denied society is both philosophically inept and patently wrong. What they did is focus on the individual’s experience of loneliness, on the felt experience of an absence or a breakdown of the link between the individual and society. How else can it be? Here he also gives a dishonestly false interpretation of Woolfe: solitariness is the inescapable central fact of human existence. Solitariness can only be experienced as an increased inwardness.
Moreover, to say as Lukacs does, that Joyce and Musil only use their respective cities as backcloths begs the question of whether Lukacs has done his homework and actually read them at all. Ulysses, by its very nature and intention is as much about Dublin as about the consciousness of the characters: it is an Odyssey around and through the city, and the city is reflected and created for us through the consciousness. A backdrop? To what? To the characters musings about the city... Dubliners by its title alone situates the individual and the city on an equal footing: the characters defined by place, nothing else. And Ulrich and his cronies spend the pages of Musil’s oeuvre debating endlessly about how the city shall celebrate the extraordinary year.
Finally, a critic who denies the genius of Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky? Really!), calls Conrad a short story writer and who criticises Neitzsche as a Nazi (and Heidegger then?) has no business being a critic, but should have become a journalist instead. As Sontag so wonderfully puts it: Lukacs is a radical failure of an entire sensibility and should be consigned to the madhouse.