Sunday, October 4, 2015

Notes on Lukacs and Benjamin: Parallel lives

Benjamin was a unique and idiosyncratic embodiment of his own princi-
ple: life as a disrupted continuum which does not acknowledge evo-

Lukacs.... a representative evolution.... being educated by others, for 
example by the rising workers
of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
.abandonment of the role of the intellectual as redeemer, embracing the 
intellectual' s role as
a neo-Socratic educator who is also educated by non-intellectuals in a
communication free of domination.

.Benjamin had no time for Hegel, nor for Max Weber for
that matter, but he was eager to embrace the recommendations of The
Theory of the Novel, a work he clearly and rightly regarded as Nietzsche's
match. This book was Benjamin's Virgil on the thorny paths that led to
the discovery of the special claims and the distinct features of modern,
non-tragic drama, the Trauerspiel. In the wake of his self-selected para-
digm, Benjamin conceived the Trauerspiel as the adequate self-
expression of a "godforsaken world" (the latter was Lukacs' term and
the actual aura of Benjamin's subject matter, the baroque drama .. )
"Godforsakenness" is the exact opposite of the constellation that
Nietzsche described as one caused by the death of god. Godforsaken-
ness is enveloped in a melancholy atmosphere which Nietzsche would
have regarded contemptuously as the typical result of Semitic weak-
ness, instead of Aryan resolution....

The main motive of Benjamin's criticism was the transformation of
myth and tragic man into an entirely aesthetic phenomenon beyond
moral consideration....

.there had always been a distinct set of works
in the history of literature, from the ancient culture of India through
Euripides to Calderon up to the most modern theatre, of which we feel
with instinctive certainty that they are important works but, without
doubt, not tragedies. The positive term for this genre is the "romance."
I ts most conspicuous formal feature is the happy ending.

.The "romance" regains the metaphysical depth lost by the fable in 
building up a dramatic, indeed near-tragic tension which is finally deflected 
by the interference of external
factors, of which Euripides' famous deus ex machina is but the most con-
spicuous version. In that sense, the "romance" is an irrational genre.
In it, there is no rational explanation, in terms of characters and plots,
for the relieving intervention of benevolent external powers. Tragic
drama is rational, it is based on necessity, it is immanent and symbolic,
while the "romance," the non-tragic drama, the Trauerspiel is always
irrational, transcendent and allegoric....

.Benjamin ….was clearly not bothered by what could not escape his 
attention: namely, that the author himself not only abjured his masterpiece, 
but had undergone a subsequent radical metamorphosis.

[Lukacs] he made, in the worst Hegelian
fashion, a reconciliation with reality which increasingly became
Stalin's reality. Nor can, however, any aversion to him eliminate the
equally undeniable fact that in this reconciliation there were constant
and important elements of a revolt in gestation which the inquisitors
correctly sensed, and which, in the last fifteen years of his life, made
him the representative figure of a critical and oppositional Marx-

.show it as one of the most problematic, if not
outright reactionary pieces of modern art criticism. The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction.... "Aura"
is the emanation of the original art work which undergoes reproduc-
tion, the hallmark of the unique and authentic personality, and this
sign of an intolerable autonomy has to be eradicated. The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a conscious manifesto of what Ben-
jamin terms "progressive mass culture" as against "reactionary in-
dividual art work." A further function of the elimination of "aura" is
the abolition of tradition. This should take place through the destruc-
tion of cult or ritual....
."masses" want to bring art works "closer" to themselves
as they "bring closer" water closet, electric ovens, gas heaters and the
like to their everyday practices. In this sense, the elimination of"aura"
is emancipation. It was photography that made the crucial step in sub-
stituting exhibition value for cultic value.
.The actor or actress no longer plays in any traditional sense, rather obeys and "per-
forms" sensu stricto. This is why screen actors and actresses need the
external "exhibition value," the star image, as a necessary addition to
their "non-auratic" personality.... Benjamin
is provocatively emphasizing that the attitude sui generis of this society is
reception in a state of distraction.

.art and reception of art is not a process of taming the art

III.Parallel Lives

There were features conspicuously in common between Georg
Lukacs and Walter Benjamin. These features, not psychological in
nature, were established by the overarching fact that both belonged to
the last.fin de siecle generation in the sense that both of them lived their
formative-socializing experiences before World War I, the end of the
19th century. The first feature in common becomes manifest precisely
on this basis: Benjamin and Lukacs were paradigmatic and self-
conscious specimens of the celebrated cluster of"free-floating intellec-
tuals." Both made half-hearted attempts at self-integration into vari-
ous institutional forms open to intellectuals. Lukacs and Benjamin
both wanted to be habilitated as German private docents. To the
greater glory of Holy Academia, both failed to achieve this title, each
with a masterpiece: Benjamin with the Trauerspiel essay, Lukacs with the
Heidelberg Aesthetics, whose condescending assessor was Rickert. For a
while, Lukacs was even a paid functionary of first the Hungarian, later
the German communist party. At an old age of sixty, he was appointed
university professor in Budapest but, for political reasons, could only
teach for five or six years. Clearly, neither Benjamin nor Lukacs was
capable of adjusting to any kind of organization. This in itself would
not have been unique. Rightist and leftist radical movements of the
post-World War era were full of intellectuals who failed in their career.
However, and this is what I term the self-consciousness of the free-
floating intellectual, neither Lukacs nor Benjamin became internally
frustrated professional failures. They simply accepted their marginal-
ization by the institutions with good grace and went ahead with what
they regarded as their mission or vocation. They did not even have the
usual self-compensation: the cult of their own genius. In both cases, a
stoic private ethics of enduring adversities, poverty, lack of security
and recognition belonged to this self-adopted way of life of the para-
digmatic free-floating intellectual.

A second feature in common was the firm initial belief in the redemp-
tive, or Messianic role of the intellectual. The intellectual's duty for
them was not "spreading the light." Both the young Lukacs and the
young Benjamin were more than sceptical about the Enlightenment
project, if in different ways and at different levels of approach. The task
given the intellectual by History in a godforsaken world is to be the
vessel for redemption. "Redemption from what" and "redemption in
what form" were, of course, questions which Georg Lukacs and Walter
Benjamin answered in their own idiosyncratic manners. For Lukacs,
the inauthenticity and the mechanically lifeless culture of modernity
was the main target of his cold passion. Walter Benjamin's warmer
spirit was targeted on unspecified human suffering, from which one
day even the dead should be redeemed. Lukacs made several attempts
at practical redemption, failed on schedule and withdrew into the
niches of an adverse reality. In this respect alone, Lukacs had an
eminently practical spirit. The hysterical suicide committed by Benjamin,
an unforgettable portrayal of which we owe to Arthur Koestler,
could never have been committed by Lukacs. His maxim was that he
would not have minded to be hanged, as long as he was not around.
For Walter Benjamin, practical redemption was simply not the intel-
lectual's task. But they held two firm beliefs in common concerning
redemption. The first was that redemption must not be mixed up with
ruling. Although Lukacs had, time and time again, misconceptions
about becoming a potential advisor to the Practical Redeemer or the
Ruling Philosopher, luckily, he never came close to the actualization of
this pipe-dream. On his part, the bohemian Walter Benjamin was too
lucid to entertain such self-deluding ideas, even for a moment. Second-
ly, both Lukacs and Benjamin believed that culture, above all art and

literature, are not mere "super-structural appendages" to the "more
important" facets of life, rather they are the groundsuigeneris on which
the battle, for and against redemption, will be fought. The concept of
"culture" was interpreted by them in entirely different ways. Lukacs
always remained under the spell of the quest for classicist harmony,
constructivist order and an embarrassed Platonic detachment from
the body. Benjamin gradually became a precursor of postmodernism;
he was open to everything novel, to the point that feminists of today
discover in him an apostle of the female principle. But their common
belief in culture as redemption remained unshaken and unassailable
to their dying day.

The third feature in common was that both Lukacs and Benjamin
were essayists: the first an unintended, the second an intended one.
Max Weber, whose sharp eyes detected this feature in his young and
brilliant friend, Lukacs, tried to translate the whole problem, in a good
protestant manner, into the language of professional ethics. Either

.that between obsolete "systems" and
the incoherence of apercus, essay is the royal road to truth.

.His last work, The Ontology of Social Being, apart
from being a complete fiasco and an unreadable book, is also an
unfinished one which he wrote and rewrote until the pen literally fell
out of his hands.

.first main difference.... struggles against the bygone and the coming relativism.

.second difference between Lukacs and Benjamin can only be
understood if we grasp it at its common root: initially both men were
cosmopolitan and uprooted. The "natural" way of belonging, the
desire of which never left either one was blocked for them: neither
Lukacs nor Benjamin could become "assimilated" or a nationalist.

.final difference ….life as a disrupted continuum which does not acknowledge evo-
.abandonment of the role of the intellectual as redeemer, embracing the intellectual' s role as
a neo-Socratic educator who is also educated by non-intellectuals in a
communication free of domination.

From: Luk√°cs and Benjamin: Parallels and Contrasts by Ferenc Feher
New German Critique, No. 34 (Winter, 1985), pp. 125-138

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