[Bibliography] [Relevant Link] [Other Theories][Marxism] Kate C.W. Liu

Lukacs on Realism:
Summary and Comments

From his The Theory of the Novel to essays on realism (in Writer and Critic and Essays on Realism), Lukacs shows the continuation of his thinking in terms of his concern with the problems of form and content, the artist and his world (society), and the historicity of the art forms as well as the dualistic (or dialectic) mode of his discussion. From these later essays, I find the word "dialectic" to be central to Lukacs's aesthetics. Since "only through dialectics is it possible to overcome the incompleteness, the rigidity and the barrenness of any one-sided conception of reality" (WC 28), to Lukacs, the "objectivity" and comprehensiveness of literature consists in the dialectics in its content, of its form and content, and between the literary subject and its world. "The artist," therefore, "depicts reality dialectically" (ER 41) on these three levels.


I. The dialectics in content and between form and content

What the artist depicts is life in motion and the objective reality with its real driving forces and real developmental tendencies. The movement of this dynamic reality is dialectical, or "a living and moving unity of contradictions." In order to be objective, therefore, the artist does not completely dominate his characters and plots, but let them have their own dialectical movements.

The artist, on the other hand, must convert the breadth and depth of his subject matter into a self-contained and decisive form, and thus there is a dialectic between content and form, or mimesis and representation. Besides letting his characters gain a certain degree of autonomy, the artist regulates their actions through plot arrangement and provides these actions with a self-contained and complete context so that the chracters' developments in this context reflect the totality of life.

This dialectical creative process, in other words, resolves the contradiction between appearance and reality, the particular and the general and merge the two into a spontaneous but artistic integrity. Art, therefore, is not only a reflection of reality, but "a truer, more complete, more vivid and more dynamic reflection of reality."

II. The dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity

The dialectic in the creative process is also that between writer and reality. Instead of echoing the dominant views of the era of decay, the artist must impress on his works his own view, but at the same time he must rise above the level of subjective formality and maintain a certain social and ideological content. Genuine objectivity, therefore, "depends on a dialectical definition of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity." Both the artist's introspection and social criticism are needed in an artistic creation. Only with his objective correctness and subjective sureness can a real penetration to the sources of life be achieved. And inherent in his genuine portrayal of reality is partisanship--demands that grow concretely out of the class struggle.

III. Realism v.s. pseudo-objectivism and pseudo-subjectivism

Realism, to Luk cs, is the model of this art as a dialectical depiction of reality. A realist shows his love of life and human being and so exposes in his art the wealth of human relationships. In contrast, a pseudo-objectivist merely reduces life to and a pseudo-subjectivist presents a pure internality.

A. Narration v.s. Description

A major difference between realism and naturalism as a form of pseudo-objectivism is that between narration and description. While a realist recounts the past, which allows for selection and gives us a sense of variety and proportion, a naturalist contemporarizes everything and levels them down to a series of static and monotonous pictures. The former presents characters concretely through action and relates them to each other through plot, but the latter reduces the characters to inanimate objects or components of still lives.

B. Reflection v.s. Expression

A realist examines his own experiences in their conflicts with the objective forces of social life, whereas an expressionist gives vent only to his own passions. A realist art reflects life in its totality and richness; the content of expressionism is necessarily atrophy. Joyce's and Dos Passos' art, to Luk cs, is the extreme form of subjectivist art, which transforms the entire inner life of characters into something static and reified. Paradoxically, this manifestation of extreme subjectivism is close to that of pseudo-objectivism.

IV. The historicity of art forms

"Every new style is socially and historically determined" (WC 119). All the art forms mentioned above are conditioned by and respond to the contradictions of capitalist life. These contradictions may be reproduced uncomprehended, in a one-sided philistine manner such as naturalism or expressionism. These contradictions may also be resolved through the dialectical art of realism. The artists' choice of literary modes is not only determined by the objective, historical situation, but also by their personal situation or attitudes. While the great realists are critical of the capitalist world outlook but participate actively in life, the general decay of the other literary forms results from the writers' distancing themselves from the society and their lack of criticism of the capitalism.


Luk cs does show a lot of insights in his concept of realism (its dialectical principle and its theoretical basis). However, I find him blind to the merits of the other artistic forms. Luk cs believes in history as an evolution, and in the possibility of dividing it into different stages. History, however, can be told differently by different people. Different writers and art forms, likewise, provide different answers to the question asked by their historical age. The totality of life is only the realist's (or Luk cs's) vision, but not a reality. Regarding realism as the only "correct" answer, Luk cs ignores the criticism the other art forms gives to the capitalist society.

Also, I don't agree with Luk cs's criticism of Flaubert's view of climax (that climaxes only exist in art; WC 121-22). Plotting is a schematization of life. Artistic form is not only "the highest condensation" of content as Luk cs puts it, but a creation of order out of the disorderedness of life.