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

Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.

Georg Lukacs praises the novel Lost Illusions by stating that “its portrayal of the time rises to a solitary height far above any other French literary work of the period” (Lukacs 49). Lukacs also states that “Balzac’s many-sided, many-tiered world approaches reality much more closely than any other method of presentation” (Lukacs 58).

Of course it is important to Mr. Lukacs and for the Marxist side of his argument that this novel has the solid stamp of realism. If he is to show that the world of literature is being commodified by a capitalist structure, then he needs to demonstrate how this has come to be. To do so, he uses Lost Illusions and shows us how “the writers and journalists are exploited” and that “their talent has become a commodity, an object of profiteering by the capitalist speculators who deal in literature” (Lukacs 50).

But, for the purpose of the discussion here, we will be using this “portrayal of the time” and its realistic nature to look at a few specific comments made by several of Balzac’s characters as it relates to critics and reviewers.

Many readers, such as myself, are drawn to Balzac’s novels because his characters are so wonderfully drawn. To quote Mr. Lukacs again: “The bond which links each character with the whole of the story is provided by some element in the make-up of the character itself . . . but it is the broader inner urges and compulsions of the characters themselves which give them fulness of life and render them non-mechanical, no mere components of the plot” (Lukacs 54).

So let me start this discussion with a brief summary of the plot and the two main characters.

This novel centers on Lucien de Rubempré, who is new to the world of authorship and publishing—and to Parisian life. When Lucien comes to Paris, he leaves behind in the provinces a boyhood friend, David Sechard. Although this friend does not play a direct role in Balzac’s criticism of reviewers, David Sechard does play an interesting role in the world of publishing.

This novel takes place during that great period when the public had a growing interest in books, mainly because of their availability, and that in turn sprung an even greater book printing industry. However, paper at that time was made from linen and cotton rag. Books were expensive, but not so much that they were out of purchasing range for the middle class or the growing bourgeois, nor were they priced so high as to halt their demand, but because of the expense and growing demand for linen and cotton rag, a substitute material, one that was more economical to produce, was desperately being sought after. And if a new product was discovered, the inventor would become quite wealthy. Balzac portrayed David Sechard as such an inventor. I only take the time to mention this because of Sechard’s ingenious ideas for a substitute product for cotton rag. And what kind of pulp does this provincial genius use to make paper? Ragweed and thistle.

So let us move on to the cynicism which so many of his characters openly express through the conversations between publishers and critics and, for our purpose, conversations with Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac, as an authoritative narrator, sums up his theme late in the novel:

   Criticism of today, after making a burnt-offering of a man’s book, proffers a
   hand to him. The victim must embrace the officiating priest under penalty of
   running the gauntlet of pleasantry. If he refuses, a writer passes for an un-
   sociable man, quarrelsome, eaten up with self-conceit, unapproachable,
   resentful, full of rancour. Today, when an author has received treacherous
   stabs in the back, avoided the snares set for him with infamous hypocrisy
   and suffered the worst possible treatment, he hears his assassins wishing
   him good-day and putting forth claims to his esteem and even his friend-
   ship (Balzac 441).

A reviewer for a small newspaper, Etienne Lousteau, explains to Lucien how their world works. The next quote shows how petty a newspaper reviewer can be when he does not get an extra review copy to sell on the side.

   ”I am forced to bark at the publisher who sends too few copies of his books
   to the paper: the paper takes two and Finot sells them; I also require two
   for sale. Even if he brings out a masterpiece, a publisher stingy with copies
   gets a drubbing. It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds
   of others. And don’t imagine that the political world is much cleaner than
   the literary world; in both of them bribery is the rule; every man bribes or
   is bribed. When a publisher is bringing out a more or less important work,
   he pays me not to attack it. And so my income is in direct ratio to the
   prospectuses of forthcoming books” (Balzac 246).

Later, the reviewer Lousteau explains how he writes the review for a non-fiction book:

   ”Pooh! You’ve no idea how they’re dashed off. Take Travels in Egypt: I opened
   the book and read a bit here and there without cutting the pages, and I
   discovered eleven mistakes in the French. I shall write a column to the
   effect that even if the author can interpret the duck-lingo carved on the
   Egyptian pebbles they call obelisks, he doesn’t know his own language – and
   I shall prove it to him” (Balzac 246).

Of course the remark about not cutting the pages meant that he could resell the book as if it were new. This newspaper reviewer also had an interesting way to review novels, by letting a friend read them in his stead.

   ”As regards novels, Florine is the greatest novel-reader in the world. She
   analyses them for me, and I knock off an article based on her opinion. When
   she’s been bored by what she calls “literary verbiage” I take the book into
   serious consideration and ask the publisher for another copy. He sends it
   along, delighted at the prospect of a favourable review” (Balzac 259).

And to this Lucien protests.

   “Great Heavens! But what about criticism, the sacred task of criticism?”

Lousteau goes on to explain:

   “My dear chap,’” said Lousteau. “Criticism’s a scrubbing brush which you
   mustn’t use on flimsy materials – it would tear them to shreds” (Balzac 259).

Several pages forward, a reviewer discusses a critical review he wrote on Lucien’s own work and the column length of that review, by which a reviewer’s payment is measured.

   ”One hundred francs a column,” Blondet replied, “It’s not a great deal when
   ones’s obliged to read a hundred books in order to find one worth writing
   about – like yours. Your work gave me great pleasure, you have my word
   for it.”

   ”And it brought him fifteen hundred francs,” said Lousteau to Lucien”
   (Balzac 269-270).

Again, in Balzac’s world, it all comes back to getting paid.

At one point in the novel, Lucien was asked to review a book, a well written book, for which he exclaimed, “It is a fine book!” And then he was given this advice:

   “Oh come, my dear, learn your trade,” said Lousteau with a laugh. “Even
    if the book’s a masterpiece, your pen must prove that it’s a piece of
   stupid nonsense, a dangerous and unwholesome work.”

   “How can I do that?”

   “By making every quality a defect” (Balzac 355-356).

Lousteau goes on for several lengthy paragraphs to explain exactly how Lucien should do this.

There are many other comments concerning critics and reviewers in the novel. Most of them pertain to the theater, noted actresses, and playwrights; and demonstrate that they too were not immune to this world of bribery where “every man bribes or is bribed.”

With a title such as Lost Illusions, one can guess how the exploits of these characters will end. For a hint, half way through the novel, we are told:

   ”It is difficult to keep illusions on any subject in Paris,” answered Lucien
   as they turned in at his door. “There is a tax upon everything —everything
   has its price, and anything can be made to order—even success”
   (Balzac 387).

~  ~  ~

Project Gutenberg has this novel online free to read or download, but I prefer the more current Penguin 1971 version. I am not sure which is a more accurate translation. However, in most cases, I found the language more expressive and engaging in the Penguin edition. I also like the periodic breaks with the inserted chapter headings.

For an interesting website on the history of paper, go to:

Works Cited:
Balzac Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth,
   Penguin, 1971.
Lukacs, Georg. Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction

by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf