Philosophy of the Novel V: Lukács and the Theory of the Novel from Nietzsche to Benjamin

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

Nietzsche does not write in detail about novels and he does offer a theory of the genre of the novel. However, the novel is important for Nietzsche. Like Kierkegaard, he wrote as a philosophical novelist himself, though it is only Thus Spoke Zarathustra that can be placed in this category. It is a very strange novel, but a lot of novels are and the ones most discussed in defining the genre are often very strange examples (Rabelais, Cervantes, Defoe, Sterne). In addition, novelists are referred to at important moments in Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky as a psychologist, Stendhal as a the source of a theory of aesthetic pleasure. The reference to Stendhal in On the Genealogy of Morality is with regard to On Love, rather than a novel, but it is difficult to keep an absolute distinction between this essay and Stendhal’s novelistic output.

In addition, Nietzsche has a theory in The Birth of Tragedy of the birth of the novel from the death of Attic Tragedy, which should be seen in the light of Hegel’s reservations about the genre of the novel. The Socratic death of tragedy provides two sources of new philosophical-literary inspiration: the philosopher who plays music; the dialectician who writes dialogues.  Socrates returns to the Dionysian, Plato creates a new unity from the genres of Greek literature. On one side the Euripidean tragedy forms the basis of the novel, through the low characters such as the Graeculus, the cunning servant who is a debased form of Odysseus ; on the other side the Dionysian returns underground in a tradition of rites and excesses.  Plato’s dialogues form their own basis for the novel, which seems to be an ambiguous legacy.  The dialogue rises above the Aesopian fable where it begins, and which was the only literary form Socrates admired, through bringing in all other forms.

It is possible to formulate a Nietzschean goal of philosophical literature after the death of tragedy.  A literature which emphasises the plurality of styles within one style, the impossibility of natural forms, the contradictory nature of any naïve approach, the conflict between particularity and universality, the ideal of the hero caught between particularity and universality in necessary crime, the struggle with the empirical self, the struggle with the death and nothingness necessary to rise above mere sensibility and given laws, an individuality torn between itself and community, a representation exploring its unrepresentable origin.  Philosophical writing in Nietzsche is dialectic and music, dialogue and poetry, law and intoxication.  The Socratic combination of rational criticism and the daemonic is the model and counter model of Nietszcheanism. Nietzsche’s discussion of the birth and death, and return of tragedy, gives many pointers to philosophical aesthetics and the study of literary genres.

Through The Birth of Tragedy, it is possible to look back to Vico’s interpretation of law and history through Homer in The New Science (Vico, 1984); and forward to Lukács on Epic and Novel, the appropriation of Homer in Joyce and the philosophical reflection on the novel and genre in Ulysses (Joyce, 1968) and Finnegans Wake (Joyce, 1975). Nietzsche himself contributed to the writing of novels, even in a marginal form in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which will be discussed with regard to how it fits with what Nietzsche says about literature.

Particularly in the early work of Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin, in the tradition of German Idealism and Romanticism, literature appears as forms which contain the essential contradictions of consciousness in general, and through stages of history. Lukács and Benjamin, literature is embedded in historical consciousness, reflecting or expressing the essential capacities of language in the consciousness of an era.  The German Idealists and Romantics are all interested in, or are troubled, by how literary-aesthetic consciousness is subjective and inward, so expressing essential aspects of individual consciousness, but also supporting the differentiation of subjectivity from objective world.

The connection of aesthetic-subjectivity with world may require the world to be seen as determined not only by the rational ideas of reason, but by its subjective inner self-reflection.  This may allow a metaphysical realism in which individual consciousness is determined by an objective, it might also only allow an internal realism in which the reference of our conscious constructs to an outer world is uncertain. The tensions round these questions have developed to the point where it is no longer plausible to conceive of literary history and aesthetic theory as joined in the Idealist enterprise of reducing literary texts to the categories of historical concepts which reflect the inner structure of consciousness.

These tensions were already at issue in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. This is reflected in a style of writing, continued in Benjamin and Lukács, which is daunting but is a literary achievement in itself, an achievement of dialectic, in which the connections between ideas are established through the power of writing, with a sensitivity of style which also allows for precision in the use of concepts.  The limit for both is world and consciousness are chaotic.  They can only be grasped in terms of contingency, accident, forces, conflict, perspectives, changing experience.

Lukács and Benjamin in the end are maybe more Idealist and Romantic than Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so while exploring their contribution to the understanding of the genre of the novel, it will be necessary to discuss how far they fall back to the Idealist position which failed to recognise the importance of the novel as a literary genre. The key texts here are Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel. The key texts by Benjamin are his essays on Proust and Kafka, along with other essays dealing with poetry and the short story, and his study of German Tragic Drama.


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