Georg Lukács – Soul and Form

Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviews.
by Stephen Randorf.

Since I first read Soul and Form in 1980, I have always been impressed by the insight of this Hungarian author, Georg Lukács (1885-1971). I may not share his political leanings, but I have always found, on each page of his essays and in his various books on the novel, something to think about. Very few critics have spoken so passionately or so eloquently about literature than he has. In his opening essay, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” he stated:

  The critic’s moment of destiny, therefore, is that moment at which things become
  forms–the moment when all feelings and experiences on the near or the far side of
  form receive form, are melted down and condensed into form. It is the mystical
  moment of union between the outer and the inner, between soul and form. . . . Form
  is reality in the writings of critics; it is the voice with which they address their
  questions to life (8).

I decided to include the specific essay, “Richness, Chaos, Form. A Dialogue Concerning Laurence Sterne” because of its unique dialogical form. With his stage directions included, this review could easily be performed as a play.

The three main characters are: two young men, Vincent and Joachim, and a young woman, referred to as “the girl” or “she”. Both men are vying for her affections, and they compete by putting forth their best arguments for and against the English author, Laurence Sterne and the 1808 volume of his work which contained A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. You might think of this competition as a form of intellectual dueling.

The chapter opens with a description of the location: “The scene is a simple furnished middle-class girl’s room where new and very old objects are mixed together in a curiously inorganic fashion.” The young woman of college age is described as “a strikingly handsome girl.” The doorbell rings and she lets in a fellow student, who is “slightly younger: a tall, well-built, fair-haired young man of twenty or twenty-two.” And we are told that he is in love with her (124).

The opening discussion, which gives us insight as to the character of these two people, centered around homework and its purpose. She asked, “Why take so much trouble . . . who’ll notice if anything is lacking?” And he replies as a rebuttal, “Joachim,” the young man who will soon be entering this scene (124). He goes on to explain his personal interest and what he gains from this intellectual curiosity:

  I do it for my own sake. I enjoy working, just at the moment. I like it. It’s nice
  to deal with little facts. They bring me face to face with many things which
  otherwise I should have been too lazy to notice (124-125).

And he added: “I lead a comfortable life–and call it my ‘scientific conscience’. And I like to be called a ‘serious scholar’.” And her reply? “Don’t be cynical, Vincent.” and thus we learn his name (125).

Before Vincent’s competitor entered, the main topic was introduced: “I’ve brought the Sterne along. As you see, I didn’t forget it.” And a quick description of the book as a physical object followed: “A beautiful edition” she said as she stroked the binding. Vincent added: “Have you seen the Reynolds frontpiece? Splendid, isn’t it?” She responded by saying it’s “pretty” (125).

Joachim arrived and immediately asked, “What are you reading?” And then the competition between the two began.

In this discussion, I believe Lukács is setting up the criteria, a sort of road map, a method for us to read and evaluate literature in a rational manner. Goethe’s ideas regarding form were brought up in the discussion, and I believe the purpose of that was to show how opinions of well-established authorities, such as Goethe, can be used to set objective parameters for how a book should be judged.

Joachim interjected Goethe when he asked:

  What would he have said to this? Wouldn’t he have resented this confusion of
  heterogeneous bits and pieces? Wouldn’t he have despised what you were
  reading, on account of its raw, disordered state? . . . and makes no effort
  to unify them, to give them form, however imperfect?(126).

Vincent argued back, “Goethe was never a dogmatist” and then he quoted Goethe: “‘let us be many-sided!’” (126). The interjection of Goethe (and later Cervantes, Carlyle, Swift) laid the groundwork for much of their discussion, specifically on form and chaos, using Tristram Shandy and other literary works as examples. For those who are familiar with Tristram Shandy, know how well this novel is suited for such a strong back and forth discussion on form.

Unfortunately, Joachim sabotaged the whole argument for using an outside authority when he said, “Quotations support everything and, in reality, are at the basis of nothing” (127). And Vincent agreed, “but you’re right about one thing: let’s not argue in his name. We can’t prove either of us right,” but to salvage part of the argument, Vincent added, “he can only supply us with ammunition” (127).

The two men moved on to the aspect of “playfulness,” a quality which both agreed was in the novel. But how does it contribute to the story? And to what end?

This topic arose from their discussion on unity and whether or not Sterne’s playfulness aided or hindered the story’s sense of unity. Vincent found value in the playfulness and defended it, “Playful will give gravity,” he said (136). Joachim took the opposite side, that its use was “a clever cover-up for weakness” and only when everything is said, presented, can we then “break off and begin playing” (137). Here, Joachim is referring to the books fragmentation and incompleteness. To sum up Joachim’s argument, the author would need a unified whole, before he can be playful inside the story structure.

Joachim also believed that whenever Sterne came to a dramatic part in Tristram Shandy, he turned the story into play “because he can’t give it serious literary form, he pretends that he doesn’t want to” (138). Consequently, there was no building up to an idea or proposition that leads to a solid conclusion, but only a point and counterpoint.

Out of this came an interesting definition of “artistic form,” one that echoes back to the above opening quote from Lukács. This is offered by Vincent:

  . . . . form is the essence of whatever has to be said, condensed to a point
  where we are conscious only of the condensation and scarcely of what it is a
  condensation of. . . . form gives a rhythm to what has to be said, and the
  rhythm becomes . . . something abstractable, something that can be experienced
  by itself (144).

Later, Vincent returned to the idea of unity through fragmentation. He gave it purpose, defended it against Joachim’s negative view, and concluded: “only the ability to create order, to make a beginning and an end; for only an end can be the beginning of something new, and only by constant beginnings can we grow to greatness” (149-150).

Let me note here that it was only Vincent and Joachim, who took part in these discussions, and “the girl” or “she” sat quietly and listened. Ironically, it was only when the two young men stopped talking and the room was filled with the other’s mutual silence, did the misunderstandings occur. The narrator told us that one of them “interprets the silence still more incorrectly” and then “once more each of them misunderstands the other’s silence” (150). Of course the reader is aware of these misunderstandings, and perhaps if there is a moral (I doubt the author intended to be one), it would be: Don’t give up, keep talking.

After the discourse on Sterne broke down and the room was set in silence, one of them quietly leaves. The two remaining characters revert to being nameless again and are referred to as “he” and “she”. It was as if their intellectual discourse had given them a name and an individual identity. Now lacking discourse, they also lack an identity.

Oddly, it was not the argument that won “the girl” over, but the words of the author in Tristram Shandy as the remaining young man read it aloud to her. And when he stopped reading, the story ended with a kiss.

Who won the argument? Who finally won the girl over? For that you will need to read Soul and Form.

Even though Soul and Form was translated (Anna Bostock) and published in 1974 & 1978, these essays by Georg Lukács were written between 1908 and 1910. Other essays in this book concern the writings of Rudolf Kassner, Novalis, Theodor Storm, Stefan George, Charles-Louise Philippe, Paul Ernst.

~ ~ ~

Works cited:
Lukács, György. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf