Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lukacs: The Theory of the Novel

Today I read Lukács’ The Theory of the Novel. It’s a fascinating book. I’d started it some time ago in an airport (because it’s slender and light), which was a terrible idea. I always wonder, when I like one part of a book like this better than other parts, if it’s an artifact of my attentiveness or energy while reading rather than the text itself. In this case, though, I’m fairly certain that it isn’t. I like the last chapter of the first part best. It was breathtaking—dense, energetic, captivating. The first chapters were a warm-up, and the whole last part is typological, which bores me pretty badly. Of course I’m not ready to give any kind of broad summary—I don’t think it’s that kind of book. But three things to point out.

First—in the preface, written in 1961, he talks about how his “conception of social reality was at that time [circa 1914] strongly influenced by Sorel” (18). The index (which is actually pretty good) gives this as Albert Sorel. This is obviously wrong—it’s my guy, his cousin Georges. I’ve seen this before: in Compagnon’s Brunetiere book, for instance, there was a similar mistake in the index. In that case, I think it really is minor. Compagnon certainly knows the difference, it’s just a confusion on the part of whoever did the copy-editing, the reference is anyway an aside, nothing to do with the main line of discussion. (I realize I’ve fallen to quibbling over index entries) Lukacs is different. Sorel’s influence in the period was great, and if it isn’t surprising that Marxists in the 1930s and later (Sartre, say, very influentially in 1961) want to disown him—well, it’s still a politically motivated rewriting of history. Indeed, later on in The Theory of the Novel, Lukacs says things that to me echo a Sorelian understanding of the structure of description as such: “the objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality” (88). I would make the argument that this is Sorel’s understanding of the relation of social description (meaning) to social reality. Lukacs, then, is translating into the literary-philosophical sphere the epistemological moves Sorel made regarding social science. Of course, even wikipedia mentions that Lukacs knew Sorel. I should get a good secondary source on Lukacs. It’s fascinating. I’ve no choice now but to read History and Class Consciousness next.

Number two very fast: Brownstein’s argument about the novel enacting the becoming of the heroine—the convergence of realism and idealism (empirical woman and feminine ideal) in the body of the heroine—finds a real precursor here, “the inner form of the novel has been understood as the process of the problematic individual’s journeying towards himself” (80). Now, it’s quite possible that B actually cites L, or more likely, that there’s a much larger critical tradition making this observation. I’ve returned her book to the library, or I’d look. Anyway, naive me was surprised.

Last, having to do with something I wish I’d put in my paper on Ranciere. David Bell, in a recent essay on Rancière, uses the word ‘tact’ to describe his ability to balance philosophical generalization and historical specificity (or something to that effect). Lukacs uses the same word—or the translator does—to describe the novel’s balancing act between various impossible completenesses. Zizek also is obsessed with politesse, which is almost the same thing as tact. I guess it’s interesting because it is a widespread, totally common phenomenon of a code of behavior with sometimes strict enforcement methods, which absolutely cannot be expressed or codified. It’s a sub-legal legal order. I suppose Norbert Elias would have a thing or two to say about manners—but tact is a bit different. Hmm. To consider, at any rate.

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