Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (2)



The central charge Lukács raises, however, is that of ontologism, a charge through which he tries to link all of avant-garde literature to Heidegger’s archaistic existential categories. Granted, Lukács himself, in line with current fashion, accepts the notion that one must ask “What is man?” (19), without being put off by the direction the question implies, but at least he modifies the question by referring to Aristotle’s familiar definition of man as a social animal. From that definition he derives the hardly debatable assertion that the “human significance,” the “specific individuality” of the characters in great literature “cannot be separated from the context in which they were created” (19). “The ontological view governing the image of man in the work of leading modernist writers,” he continues, “is the exact opposite of this. Man, for these writers, is by nature solitary, asocial, unable to enter into relationships with other human beings” (20). He supports this with a rather silly statement by Thomas Wolfe, one which is in any case not definitive for his literary work, about man’s solitude as an inescapable fact of his existence. But certainly Lukács, who claims to think in radically historical terms, ought to see that in an individualistic society that solitude is socially mediated and essentially historical in substance. In Baudelaire and all categories like decadence, formalism, and aestheticism ultimately date back to him—it was not a question of an invariant human essence, of man’s solitude or “thrownness” [Geworfenheit] but of the essence of modernity. In Baudelaire’s poetry essence is not some abstract thing in itself but something social. The idea that is objectively dominant in his work aims at what is historically most advanced, what is newest, as the Ur-phenomenon it wants to conjures up; it is, to use Benjamin’s term, a “dialectical image,” not an archaic image. Hence the Tableaux  Parisiens. Even in Joyce, the foundation of the work is not the timeless man-as-such that Lukács would like to assume it is but a most historical man. All the Irish folklore that appears in it notwithstanding, Joyce does not create a fictional mythology beyond the world he represents but rather tries to conjure up that world’s essence, or its essential horror, by mythifying it, as it were, through the stylistic principle the Lukács of today holds in contempt. One is almost tempted to judge the stature of avant-garde writing by the criterion of whether historical moments become essential in them as historical moments rather than being flattened out into timelessness. Presumably Lukács would dismiss the use of concepts like essence and image in aesthetics as idealistic. But their status in the realm of art is fundamentally different from their status in philosophies of essence or archetypes, from any refurbished Platonism. The most fundamental weakness of Lukács’ position may be that he cannot maintain this distinction and applies categories that refer to the relationship between consciousness and reality to art as though they simply meant the same thing there. Art exists within reality, has its function in it, and is also inherently mediated with reality in many ways. But nevertheless, as art, by its very concept it stands in an antithetical relationship to the status quo. Philosophy reflected this in the term “aesthetic semblance.” Even Lukács will hardly be able to get around the fact that the content of works of art is not real in the same sense as social reality. If this distinction were eliminated all work in aesthetics would lose its foundation. But art’s illusory character, the fact that it became qualitatively distinct from the immediate reality from which it sprang in the form of magic, is neither its ideological fall from grace nor an index imposed upon it from the outside, as though it were merely reproducing the world without claiming to be immediately real itself. This kind of subtractive conception would be a mockery of dialectics. Rather, the difference between empirical existence and art concerns the intrinsic structure of the latter. If art offers essences, “images,” that is not an idealistic sin; the fact that some artists were adherents of idealist philosophies says nothing about the substance of their works. Rather, vis ŕ vis what merely exists, art itself—where it does not betray its own nature by merely duplicating it—has to become essence, essence and image. Only thereby is the aesthetic constituted; only thereby and not by gazing at mere immediacy, does art become knowledge, does it, that is, do justice to a reality that conceals its own essence and suppresses what the essence expresses for the sake of a merely classificatory order of things. Only in the crystallization of its own formal law and not in a passive acceptance of objects does art converge with what is real. In art knowledge is aesthetically mediated through and through. In art even what Lukács considers to be solipsism and a regression to the illusionary immediacy of the subject does not signify a denial of the object, as it does in bad epistemologies, but rather aims dialectically at reconciliation with the object. The object is taken into the subject in the form of an image rather than turning to stone in front of it like an object under the spell of the alienated world. Through the contradiction between this object that has been reconciled within an image, that is, spontaneously assimilated into the subject, and the real, unreconciled object out there in the world, the work of art criticizes reality. It represents negative knowledge of reality. In analogy to a current philosophical expression, we might speak of “aesthetic difference” from existence: only by virtue of this difference, and not by denying it, does the work of art become both work of art and correct consciousness. A theory of art that refuses to acknowledge this is philistine and ideological at the same time.

Lukács contents himself with Schopenhauer’s insight that the principle of solipsism is “only really viable in philosophical abstraction,” and even then “only with a measure of sophistry” (21). But his argument defeats itself: if solipsism cannot be maintained, if what it initially “bracketed out,” to use the phenomenological expression, is reproduced within it, then there is no need to fear it as a stylistic principle either. For objectively, in their works, the avant-garde writers moved beyond the position Lukács ascribes to them. Proust decomposes the unity of the subject by means of the subject’s introspection: the subject is ultimately transformed into an arena in which objective entities manifest themselves. Proust’s individualistic work becomes the opposite of what Lukács criticizes it as being: it becomes anti-individualistic. The monologue intérieur, the worldlessness of modern art that Lukács is so indignant about, is both the truth and the illusion of a free-floating subjectivity. The truth, because in a world that is everywhere atomistic, alienation rules human beings and because—as we may concede to Lukacs—they thereby become shadows. But the free-floating subject is an illusion, because the social totality is objectively prior to the individual; that totality becomes consolidated and reproduces itself in and through alienation, the social contradiction. The great avant-garde works of art cut through this illusion of subjectivity both by throwing the frailty of the individual into relief and by grasping the totality in the individual, who is a moment in the totality and yet can know nothing about it. In Joyce, Lukács thinks, Dublin, and in Kafka and Musil, the Hapsburg Monarchy, can be felt—hors programme, so to speak—as an atmospheric “backcloth” to the action (21), but that, he says, is a mere by-product; for the sake of his thema prohandum, he turns the negative epic abundance that accumulates, the substantial, into a secondary issue.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. “Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in Our Time” (1958), in Notes to Literature; Volume One, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 216-240. Extract: pp. 223-225.

Alternate translation: Adorno, Theodor. “Reconciliation under Duress,” translated by Rodney Livingstone, in Aesthetics and Politics, by Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Bertolot Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno; afterword by Fredric Jameson; Ronald Taylor, translation editor (London: NLB, 1977), pp. 151-176.

Note: The other key, related essays in these two volumes are:

“The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel” (vol. 1, pp. 30-36), 1954
“Trying to Understand Endgame” (vol. 1, pp. 241-275), 1961
“Commitment” (vol. 2, pp. 76-94), 28 March 1962


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