Ihave occasionally wondered why certain essays by Georg Lukács, although they contain so much valuable material, nevertheless have something unsatisfying about them. He bases himself on a sound principle, and yet one cannot help feeling that he is somewhat remote from reality. He investigates the decline of the bourgeois novel from the heights it occupied when the bourgeoisie was still a progressive class. However courteous he is in his treatment of contemporary novelists, in so far as they follow the example of the classic models of the bourgeois novel and write in at least a formally realistic manner, he cannot help seeing in them too a process of decline. He is quite unable to find in them a realism equal to that of the classical novelists in depth, breadth and attack. But how could they be expected to rise above their class in this respect? They inevitably testify, too, to a decay in the technique of the novel. There is no less technical skill about; it is merely that technique has acquired a curious technicality—a kind of tyranny if you like. A formalistic quality insinuates itself even into realistic types of construction on the classical model. Some of the details
The formalistic nature of the theory of realism is demonstrated by the fact that not only is it exclusively based on the form of a few bourgeois novels of the previous century (more recent novels are merely cited in
I shall continue in a personal vein so as to provide concrete material for my argument. My activity is, as I see it myself, much more diverse than our theorists of realism believe. They give a totally one-sided picture of me. At the present time I am working on two novels, a play and a collection of poems. One of the novels is historical and requires extensive study in the field of Roman history. It is satirical. Now the novel is the territory of our theorists. But I am not being malicious if I say that I am unable to get the slightest hint from them for my work on this novel: The Affairs of Herr Julius Caesar. The procedure borrowed from the bourgeois novel of the last century of massing all manner of personal conflicts in long, broadly depicted scenes with interior settings, is of no use to me. For large sections I use the diary form. It has proved necessary for me to change the point of view for other sections. The montage of the points of view of the two fictitious authors incorporates my point of view. I suppose that it is possible that this sort of thing might not have proved necessary. At any rate, it certainly does not fit a preordained scheme. But this technique has proved to be necessary for a good insight into reality, and I had purely realistic motives in adopting it. My play, on the other hand, is a cycle of scenes which deals with life under the Brown dictatorship. So far I have written 27 separate scenes. Some of them fit roughly into the ‘realistic’ pattern X, if one shuts one eye. Others don’t, absurdly enough, because they are very short. The whole work doesn’t fit into it at all. I consider it to be a realistic play. I learnt more for it from the paintings of the peasant Breughel than from the treatises on realism. I scarcely dare to speak about the second novel, on which I have been working for a long time, so complicated are the problems involved and so primitive is the vocabulary which the aesthetic of realism—in its present state—offers me. The formal difficulties are enormous; I have constantly to construct models. Anyone who saw me at work would think I was only interested in questions of form. I make these models because I would like to represent reality. As far as lyric poetry goes, there too a realistic point of view exists. But I feel that one would have to proceed with extreme caution if one wished to write about it. On the other hand, there would be a great deal to be learnt about realism in the novel and drama.
While I am looking through a stack of historical tomes (they are written in four languages, in addition to translations from two ancient languages) and attempting to verify a particular fact, full of scepticism, rubbing the sand from my eyes the whole time, I have vague notions of colours at the back of my mind, impressions of particular seasons of the year; I hear inflections without words, see gestures without meaning; think of desirable groupings of unnamed figures, and so on. The images are extremely undefined, in no way exciting, rather superficial, or so it seems to me. But they are there. The ‘formalist’ in me is at work.
I am at an early stage of my work.
Since the artist is constantly occupied with formal matters, since he constantly forms, one must define what one means by formalism carefully and practically, otherwise one conveys nothing to the artist. If one wants to call everything that makes works of art unrealistic formalism, then—if there is to be any mutual understanding—one must not construct the concept of formalism in purely aesthetic terms. Formalism on the one side—contentism on the other. That is surely too primitive and metaphysical. Looked at purely in terms of aesthetics, the concept presents no special difficulties. For instance if someone makes a statement which is untrue—or irrelevant—merely because it rhymes, then he is a formalist. But we have innumerable works of an unrealistic kind which did not become so because they were based on an excessive sense of form.
We can remain entirely comprehensible and yet give the concept a further, more fruitful, more practical meaning. We have only to look aside from literature for a moment and descend into ‘everyday life’. What is formalism there? Let us take the expression: Formally he is right. That means that actually he is not right, but he is right according to the form of things and only according to the form. Or: Formally the task is solved means that actually it is not solved. Or: I did it to respect the forms. That means that what I did is not very important; I do what I want, but I preserve outward forms and in this way I can best do what I want to do. When I read that the autarky of the Third Reich is perfect on paper, then I know that this is a case of political formalism. National Socialism is socialism in form—another case of political formalism. Here again we are not dealing with an excessive sense of form.