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 hypothesis about primitive sexuality. Prehistoric man confuses woman with the animal world. For evidence Fischer points to the suckling of animals in primitive tribes today. ‘The woman suckles the animal, the man kills it; thus many hunting tribes came to believe in a mysterious bond between their women and their prey, with all the contradictions and fears that this implied.’ Sexual intercourse and the killing of the prey blended in the mind of prehistorical man. He thrust a spear in the ground outside his hut, and the spear was his symbol of the phallus. Hence the sexual excitement collectively roused before a hunt, when sexual intercourse was forbidden. Hence the sexual rites which attended initiation ceremonies in the caves of the great prehistorical paintings. Discussing the paintings of the Trois Frères cave, Fischer concludes: ‘The sorcerers were also considerably helped by the fact that their “identification” with the original—the collective merging of subject and object—was extremely intense. An atmosphere of collective sexual excitement increased “identification” still further, and a state of collective sexual ecstasy may have preceded the actual work.’

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.

The surrender is serious because it allows metaphor to replace reality. Implicitly, Fischer often puts himself in he position of those Romantics and Symbolists whom he so subtly (and lovingly) criticizes for their escape into an ideal, harmonious world of art. For his own periodization of art comes essentially to this: are springs from the magic of the primitive collectivity, fully emerges with social fragmentation and returns to the collectivity under a mature and differentiated Communism. The account or rather prophecy of this last phase, in the final chapter The Loss and Discovery of Reality, is the least satisfactory, for reasons which will appear presently. But it is the second which most perturbs. For here art is defined essentially as a substitute. It restores the lost unity of man. ‘Art can raise man up from a fragmented state into that of a whole, integrated being.’ What happens then in the third phase, when man is reunited with himself? Fischer’s answer is lame: art re-unites him still further. It remains therefor a substitute: ‘the permanent function of art is to re-create as every individuals experience the fullness of all that he is not, the fullness of humanity at large.’

What about the fullness of all that he is? In an unclear phrase Fischer grapples with the problem: ‘In the second period of development—the period of the division of labour, of class distinction, and the beginning of every kind of social conflict—art became the chief means of understanding the nature of these conflicts, of imagining a changed reality by recognizing existing reality for what it was, of overcoming the individual’s isolation by providing a bridge to what all men shared.’footnote2 The twin strands of the problem: what could be and what is, are knotted in that italicized phrase. Discussing the Trois Frères painting Fischer connected the two: the greater the realism, the more effective the hunt. But in his ‘second period of development’ ‘what could be’ separates off from ‘what is’ to become the dominant characteristic of art, determining the nature of art in the third phase, too.