Hard on the heels of Lukács’s two books, The Historical Novel (1962) and The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1963), comes Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art: a Marxist Approach. Divided between two publishers—Merlin Press and Penguin Books—the succession is yet a meaningful one, for Fischer, an Austrian Marxist, owes much to Lukács, and Vienna is not far from Budapest. That the debt is not immediately apparent—indeed, there are important divergences, and Lukács’s name is not mentioned once—may be due to the fact that the book was originally published in Eastern Germany where Lukács is out of favour. On the other hand, since the present translation differs in some significant respects from the original, being geared to an English readership, Lukács’s name could no doubt have been mentioned, alongside other Marxists, had the author wished. Previous studies by Fischer, such as Dichtung und Deutungfootnote1, lean heavily on him. However, that is not the point. What really matters in this book are the divergences from Lukécs, particularly those involving definitions and assessments of Romanticism and Realism. A real confrontation is needed here, now that we have this body of Central European literary criticism newly before us—and a further confrontation, indeed, between this and our own Marxist critical tradition. In the present article, I cannot hope to do more than throw out a few ideas and questions.
The actual division of publishers is in itself significant. Fischer’s is a popular book; Lukécs is unbendingly intellectual. Further, Fischer is a poet (and a translator of Baudelaire) for whom the ‘magic’ of the word is an unresisted temptation, while Lukécs’s thought almost rebukes the sensuousness of language. The ‘magic’ of the word is both Fischer’s strength and undoing.
It makes him say fundamentally two things: art is spellbinding; art proceeds from the magical beliefs which assisted and inspired early man in his conquest of nature. The second proposition is the more fruitful. Imitation is man’s magic. To seize the likeness of an animal is to seize the animal itself. To enact the hunt in advance is to heighten the powers of the hunters. Yet imitation had still to become art. The hunter was too close in evolution to his prey. Identification contained the danger of regression; and the latter Fischer illustrates with an attractive
Fischer opens this section, entitled The Magic Cave, with the question: ‘ . . . how do we explain the magnificent cave paintings of the Middle Stone Age, admirable works of art produced by an extremely undeveloped society?’ Later he remarks: ‘There was no question here of aesthetic creative pleasure—the thing was deeper, more serious, altogether more terrifying than that, a matter of life and death or of the existence or non-existence of the collective.’
Thus the paintings are magnificent works of art and yet art as such had not yet been born: there is ‘no question here of aesthetic creative pleasure’. The imitation is too near the real thing. Fischer’s confusion over the relationship between magic and art is apparent throughout the book. Sometimes art is magic, sometimes it has detached itself from magic. Fischer can never make up his mind. Where he calls the art of advanced societies ‘magical’, he simply surrenders to the metaphor.