Realism in the Balance  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Realism in the Balance is a treatise in defense of literary realism by György Lukács first published in 1938.

The initial intent of György Lukács's “Realism in the Balance”, stated at its outset, is debunking the claims of those defending expressionism as a valuable literary movement. Lukacs addresses the discordance in the community of modernist critics, whom he regarded as incapable of deciding which writers were Expressionist and which were not, arguing that “perhaps there is no such thing as an Expressionist writer.”

But although his aim is ostensibly to criticize what he perceived as the over-valuation of modernist schools of writing at the time the article was published, Lukacs uses the essay as an opportunity to advance his formulation of the desirable alternative to these schools. He rejects the notion that modern art must necessarily manifest itself as a litany of sequential movements, beginning with Naturalism, and proceeding through Impressionism and Expressionism to culminate in Surrealism. For Lukacs, the important issue at stake was not the conflict that results from the modernists’ evolving oppositions to classical forms, but rather the ability of art to confront an objective reality that exists in the world, an ability he found almost entirely lacking in modernism.

Lukacs believed that desirable alternative to such modernism must therefore take the form of Realism, and he enlists the realist authors Maxim Gorky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and Romain Rolland to champion his cause. To frame the debate, Lukacs introduces the arguments of critic Ernst Bloch, a defender of Expressionism, and the author to whom Lukacs was chiefly responding. He maintains that modernists such as Bloch are too willing to ignore the realist tradition, an ignorance that he believes derives from a modernist rejection of a crucial tenet of Marxist theory, a rejection which he quotes Bloch as propounding. This tenet is the belief that the system of capitalism is “an objective totality of social relations,” and it is fundamental to Lukacs’ arguments in favor of realism.

He explains that the pervasiveness of capitalism, the unity in its economic and ideological theory, and its profound influence on social relations comprise a “closed integration” or “totality,” an objective whole that functions independent of human consciousness. Lukacs cites Marx to bolster this historical materialist worldview: “The relations of production in every society form a whole.” He further relies on Marx to argue that the bourgeoisie’s unabated development of the world’s markets are so far-reaching as to create a unified totality, and explains that because the increasing autonomy of elements of the capitalist system (such as the autonomy of currency) is perceived by society as “crisis,” there must be an underlying unity that binds these seemingly autonomous elements of the capitalist system together, and makes their separation appear as crisis.

Returning to modernist forms, Lukacs stipulates that such theories disregard the relationship of literature to objective reality, in favor of the portrayal of subjective experience and immediacy that do little to evince the underlying capitalist totality of existence. It is clear that Lukacs regards the representation of reality as art’s chief purpose—in this he is perhaps not in disagreement with the modernists—but he maintains that “If a writer strives to represent reality as it truly is, i.e. if he is an authentic realist, then the question of totality plays a decisive role.” “True realists” demonstrate the importance of the social context, and since the unmasking of this objective totality is a crucial element in Lukacs’ Marxist ideology, he privileges their authorial approach.

Lukacs then sets up a dialectical opposition between two elements he believes inherent to human experience. He maintains that this dialectical relation exists between the “appearance” of events as subjective, unfettered experiences and their “essence” as provoked by the objective totality of capitalism. Lukacs explains that good realists, such as Thomas Mann, create a contrast between the consciousnesses of their characters (appearance) and a reality independent of them (essence). According to Lukacs, Mann succeeds because he creates this contrast, conversely, modernist writers fail because they portray reality only as it appears to themselves and their characters—subjectively-- and “fail to pierce the surface” of these immediate, subjective experiences “to discover the underlying essence, i.e. the real factors that relate their experiences to the hidden social forces that produce them.” The pitfalls of relying on immediacy are manifold, according to Lukacs. Because the prejudices inculcated by the capitalist system are so insidious, they cannot be escaped without the abandonment of subjective experience and immediacy in the literary sphere. They can only be superseded by realist authors who “abandon and transcend the limits of immediacy, by scrutinizing all subjective experiences and measuring them against social reality;” this is no easy task. Lukacs relies on Hegelian dialectics to explain how the relationship between this immediacy and abstraction effects a subtle indoctrination on the part of capitalist totality. The circulation of money, he explains, as well as other elements of capitalism, is entirely abstracted away from its place in the broader capitalist system, and therefore appears as a subjective immediacy, which elides its position as a crucial element of objective totality.

Although abstraction can lead to the concealment of objective reality, it is necessary for art, and Lukacs believes that realist authors can successfully employ it “to penetrate the laws governing objective reality, and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible of relationships that go to make up society.” After a great deal of intellectual effort, Lukacs claims a successful realist can discover these objective relationships and give them artistic shape in the form of a character's subjective experience. Then, by employing the technique of abstraction, the author can portray the character’s experience of objective reality as the same kind of subjective, immediate experience that characterize totality’s influence on non-fictional individuals. The best realists, he claims, “depict the vital, but not immediately obvious forces at work in objective reality. They do so with such profundity and truth that the products of their imagination can potentially receive confirmation from subsequent historical events. The true masterpieces of realism can be appreciated as “wholes” which depict a wide-ranging and exhaustive objective reality like the one that exists in the non-fictional world.

After advancing his formulation of a desirable literary school, a realism that depicts objective reality, Lukacs turns once again to the proponents of modernism. Citing Nietzsche, who argues that “the mark of every form of literary decadence…is that life no longer dwells in the totality,” Lukacs strives to debunk modernist portrayals, claiming they reflect not on objective reality, but instead proceed from subjectivity to create a “home-made model of the contemporary world.” The abstraction (and immediacy) inherent in modernism portrays “essences” of capitalist domination divorced from their context, in a way that takes each essence in “isolation,” rather than taking into account the objective totality that is the foundation for all of them. Lukacs believes that the “social mission of literature” is to clarify the experience of the masses, and in turn show these masses that their experiences are influenced by the objective totality of capitalism, and his chief criticism of modernist schools of literature is that they fail to live up to this goal, instead proceeding inexorably towards more immediate, more subjective, more abstracted versions of fictional reality that ignore the objective reality of the capitalist system. Realism, because it creates apparently subjective experiences that demonstrate the essential social realities that provoke them, is for Lukacs the only defensible or valuable literary school of the early twentieth century.

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