Ivan Sanders

Lukács and Hungarian Literature

It is somewhat awkward to discuss, in English, György Lukács’s relationship to Hungarian literature, if only because his writings on this subject seem to be the least important chapter of his oeuvre. Even though the volume containing Lukács’s collected essays and studies on Hungarian writers and literary problems runs to over 600 pages, he never became a specialist in Hungarian literary history; most of these writings were the by‑products of his other scholarly activities. They were incidental, rather than central, to his preoccupations as critic, philosopher, and ideologue. As Lukács himself points out in his introduction to this volume of essays on Hungarian literature, published one year before his death, he did not attempt to capture in them the truly significant “objective essence” of certain literary trends and phenomena something he did try to do in his studies in world literature. “The motivating impulse behind this chronological selection”, he writes, “is subjective; it tries to show how I had turned intellectually from a protester imbued with a sense of alienation to an active oppositionist”. 1

Most of these essays, then, are occasional pieces, more or less improvised forays into Hungarian culture, not organically connected to Lukács’s main literary and theoretical concerns. Indeed, from the beginning of his career Lukács considered Hungarian literature as lying somewhat outside the mainstream of Western literary developments. For example in A modern dráma fejlődésének története (A history of the development of modern drama), his first major work of literary criticism, he treats


Hungarian drama in a separate chapter and does not hesitate to point out that Hungarian dramatists have not made an original contribution to Western dramatic literature. What is more, he predicts (in 1911) a rather bleak future for Hungarian drama. 2 Non-Hungarian readers of Lukács can find out next to nothing about Hungarian writers and literature from his many literary essays and theoretical writings, because in them he hardly ever refers to Hungarian writers—not even in passing. As is well known, Lukács wrote most of his works in German, and very little of what was originally written in Hungarian has been translated into other languages.

This brings us to the question not only of Lukács’s relationship to Hungarian literature but to the question of how Hungarian writers view Lukács and his work. Hungarian intellectuals always had a hard time with Lukács. Their reaction ranged from distant respect to open hostility. Because of his extraordinary intellectual gifts which were in evidence from the beginning; and later, because of his stature as a critic and thinker of international importance, and still later because his work represented, for a while, the officially-sanctioned Marxist approach to literature, they could not dismiss him. But he had always been seen as an outsider, an alien phenomenon on the Hungarian turf—too abstract, too philosophical, too German, too one‑sided, or simply a bad writer. In an ironic and rather caustic story published not so long ago, the writer Ferenc Karinthy, who often takes a provocatively anti-intellectual stance in his fiction but who is no philistine, presents a satirical portrait of a narrow‑minded and pompous Marxist philosopher, an ideological enemy, it so happens, of Lukács. In this connection Karinthy reflects on Lukács’s role as a critic of Hungarian literature, considering this role “unfortunate”. “I am ashamed to admit”, he writes, “that although I can read, well and not so well, some eight or ten languages, have a doctorate in linguistics, and what is more, have made a conscientious effort more than once to master his works, still I have great difficulty following what Lukács and his disciples and adversaries are saying. It’s no doubt my fault, but their polemics seem so removed, as though they were taking place on the


moon, in some strange bird language”. 3 Karinthy’s attitude is not at all atypical. Other Hungarian writers with different backgrounds and orientation have shared this view and indeed expressed similar sentiments over the years.

A little volume entitled Lukács Győrgy és a magyar kultúra (György Lukács and Hungarian culture), published in Budapest in 1982, contains a number of brief essays on various aspects of Lukács’s connections with Hungarian writers and Hungarian literature; and even though most of the essays tactfully tone down the more troubling and acrimonious aspects of this relationship, the unhappiness or dissatisfaction over Lukács’s activities with regard to modern Hungarian culture does come through. For example, in his comments on Lukács’s postwar presence in Hungarian cultural affairs, the literary historian István Sőtér points out the “regrettable” omissions and distortions in Lukács’s literary views, but agrees, almost dutifully it seems, that Lukács’s very different perspective did have a galvanizing effect on postwar Hungarian criticism. 4

Yet, when one examines Lukács’s various autobiographical fragments, especially the last one, Gelebtes Denken, and the long interview based on these notes, it becomes clear that he was much more than a guest, a curious loner in Hungarian literary life; that for all his gestures of denial, for all his estrangement, he did have deep roots in that culture. It is true that he spent almost one‑third of his life outside of Hungary and several times in his career contemplated accepting a university post abroad, and he did speak and write in a rather graceless, convoluted Hungarian that was as much affected by the high abstractions of the German philosophical tradition as it was by the careless colloquialisms of his early upper‑class Budapest environment. But from each of his sojourns abroad he returned to his native Budapest and considered himself a Hungarian writer throughout his life. Of his contemporaries the man who had the greatest impact on him by far was the poet Endre Ady. As a literary critic, it was with Ady’s work that Lukacs dealt most extensively; it was Ady’s genuine radicalism, his totally uncompromising stance toward the established Hungarian order, that appealed most to the young Lukács. Compared


to him even the German philosophers he was reading at the time seemed conservative. In the interview recorded by István Eörsi and Erzsébet Vezér, this is what Lukács had to say about his encounter with Ady: “[His] Új versek (New poems, 1906) had an absolutely overwhelming impact on me; to put it bluntly, this was the first work in Hungarian literature which enabled me to find my way back to Hungary and which I thought of as a part of myself ... It could be said... that in my mind Hungary itself simply meant Ady’s poetry ... My encounter with Ady’s poems, quite apart from their literary significance, was one of the turning points of my life”.  5

We could say that Lukács’s attitude toward Hungarian culture began with almost total rejection. Along with his family and class he rejected as provincial and conservative almost an entire cultural tradition, for all of it seemed to him tainted by a social order he despised. Then he went through the process of rediscovering individual writers—those whom he could situate in his emerging system of values. The aesthetic and intellectual criteria and categories changed, but as far as his likes and dislikes were concerned, he remained surprisingly consistent. The Hungarian literary figures he admired most, the ones he considered truly revolutionary, were, besides Ady, Petőfi and Attila József, and really no one else. And he saw these poets as isolated figures with no real backing or supporters, no real movement behind them. He felt for instance that Ady, although the leading poet of the Nyugat (West) generation, was isolated even within the Nyugat circle which didn’t understand, or didn’t pay attention to, Ady’s thoroughgoing radicalism. Lukács didn’t think too highly of the journal Nyugat and the whole Nyugat movement; he felt it was too limited, too eclectic. He liked to quote one of its founders, Ignotus, who said he wanted to ensure a place for Nyugat beside the dominant Hungarian culture of the day—he didn’t intend to replace that culture. (Ironically enough, the other Hungarian writer who held similar views about Nyugat was László Németh, who was different from Lukács in every conceivable way. Németh also felt that Nyugat produced outstanding personalities but not a coherent cultural tradition.)


An important thesis of the Marxist Lukács about Hungarian literature, which he elaborated on in a number of articles and to which he adhered to the end of his life, was that after 1849 Hungarian culture declined and did so even more after 1867, with the advent of capitalism in Hungary, which followed the Prussian path, i.e., it was based on an alliance or an accommodation between the remaining feudal system and the rapidly rising, coopted and gentrified bourgeois classes. The political compromise of 1867, according to Lukács was also a cultural compromise, and literature remained essentially conservative even after the turn of the century, and did not give rise to a genuine, indigenous philosophical tradition. in Lukács’s view no one apart from Ady really repudiated this compromise, and what characterizes even the best literature of this period is “machtgeschützte Innerlichkeit”—power‑protected intimateness. Lukács borrowed the phrase from Thomas Mann who used it in his essay on Richard Wagner.)

We need not emphasize here that this thesis, though perhaps neat as a general scheme, is a vast oversimplification. It does not take into account a number of other factors shaping literary development, and it ignores individual writers and works that do not fit into it. We know that Lukács, an original thinker and a man of awesome erudition, could be indifferent or insensitive to purely literary values—he did not always have an eye for literary quality. In searching, at first, for ethnical‑spiritual essence, and as a Marxist for ideological content, he saw through works of art, often missing the art itself. It is also undeniable that because of his own background and origins he couldn’t relate to certain Hungarian writers and to the world they evoked. And if as a Marxist critic he did respond positively to others—to Tibor Déry’s works, for example—he did so not only because he agreed with their politics but also because—as in the case of Déry—he understood and felt close to the world they depicted.

In some ways Lukács was aware of his limitations and realized from very early on that the right ethical conduct in a writer does not necessarily give rise to great works. For example, in Gelebtes Denken he talks about the writer Marcel


Benedek who was a classmate of his. He also mentions Elek Benedek, Marcel’s father, a folklorist and a well‑known writer of children’s stories. Lukács greatly admired the elder Benedek’s moral integrity and unassuming lifestyle, but he admits that the latter’s works meant absolutely nothing to him. 6 As we said, Lukács’s disdain for most Hungarian intellectuals of his day; his aversion to what he saw as pseudo‑liberal political values and superficial cultural values didn’t change—didn’t have to change—with his Communist conversion. He simply found more concrete ideological justifications for this disdain and aversion. It is interesting to note that his negative appraisal of specific writers and works didn’t change either. For example, an article he wrote about Imre Madách’s Az ember tragédiája (The tragedy of man) in 1955, in which he calls the celebrated Hungarian drama an inorganic, storybook-like illustration of Madách’s pessimistic world view, echoes comments he made about the play in his 1911 monograph, A modern dráma fejlődésének története (The development of modern drama). His 1947 article on Ferenc Molnár harks back to his 1918 appraisal, and so forth.

There is no question that Lukács alienated a great many of his contemporaries with his strictures and his often dissenting opinions on Hungarian literature, but it is not true that he had no friends or contacts in turn‑of‑the‑century Budapest, and that the culture of that city had nothing to offer him. He himself stresses in Gelebtes Denken that he was nothing like a lone wolf. 7 He contributed to Nyugat and to Huszadik Század (Twentieth century). In fact, his early activity in Hungary—his association with the Thália theater, his membership of various intellectual groupings—was a way of reaching out, of finding allies, and of forming friendships. Among his early Hungarian literary connections his close friendship with Béla Balázs 8 stands out. Lukács’s championing of Balázs’s poetry and plays, his overestimation of Balázs’s importance for Hungarian literature, is usually cited as the most glaring example of Lukács’s misjudgment. Most other Hungarian critics agree that Béla Balázs was a minor poet at best. It is quite clear that Lukács’s writings on Balázs are an expression of a spiritual


kinship and not just a literary critic’s preference for a body of work. Significantly enough, after 1918, when the two of them parted ways, Lukács had almost nothing further to say about Balázs. But with other writers, as we said, there was continuity. Lukács never really lost interest in Hungarian literary affairs. Indeed, when he had the chance—as he did between 1945 and 1949—he was actively present in Hungarian literary life—as an editor, teacher and critic. Perhaps his most interesting—and certainly his liveliest—studies and articles about Hungarian writers and literature date from this period. But even some of the polemical articles he wrote in Moscow in the thirties and early forties, for the émigré journal Új Hang, reveal how closely he followed literary developments in his native country, and how carefully he read the literary journals published in Budapest at the time.

Today, although lip service is paid to his major ideas, György Lukács’s influence on contemporary Hungarian literature and literary criticism cannot be said to be very great, although interest in Lukács the man, in his dramatic and eventful life, and especially in his early biography, runs high. This interest has been intensified by the posthumous discovery of his diaries and other manuscripts which shed light on his intellectual and moral development before 1918. In many ways the young Lukács remains a fascinating subject, an enigma, for both foreign and Hungarian students of his career. As a young Hungarian critic recently put it: “The fact that the son of a Jewish banker in turn‑of‑the‑century Hungary becomes a philosopher and an aesthetician is not that unusual ... But the story of how this promising historian of ideas, a philosopher busying himself with exquisite metaphoric‑idealist lace making turns within a few years into one of the leaders of a proletarian dictatorship and then, for the rest of his life, into a theoretician of the Communist movement—that really is a mystery and a sensation”.  9

Actually, we may speak today not only about Lukács on Hungarian literature but Lukács in Hungarian literature. He has already appeared in fiction, and not only in Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, 10 but also in Hungarian novels, or rather, fic-


tionalized autobiographies, by such writers as Bela Balázs, Anna Lesznai and Ervin Sinkó. 11 I shall mention just two recent examples: István Eörsi’s highly irreverent but also touching play about Lukács, His Master’s Voice, 12 András Nagy’s essay-novel Kedves Lukács (Dear Lukács) whose subject is Lukács’s relationship—his tentative, ill‑fated love affair—with Irma Seidler. 13

The later Lukács himself was extremely reticent about his early life. Forever preoccupied with “objective reality”, the thing in itself, purely personal matters never seemed important enough. His reluctance to elaborate, even when pressed, on his feelings about his family or his Jewish origins is so conspicuous so as to make it suspect. Lukács liked to boast that he never experienced frustrations or any sort of complex in his life. 14 “ I am lucky in that I have no inner life”, he liked to say. 15 A statement such as this is as disarming as it is disingenuous. Only robots have no inner life. One doesn’t have to be a Freudian to sense profound traumas and repressions behind such reticence. Lukács of course, hated Freud and had no use for psychoanalysis either in his literary criticism or in his theoretical writings. When dealing with a writer who is not introspective, we can turn to the works which may reveal a great deal about his character. In general, Lukács as a critic, was attracted to literary works whose heroes are usually from a doomed social class and who experience profoundly the rifts, disruptions and social tensions of their day. According to his own admission, the two literary works that had the greatest impact on him as a child were The Iliad and The Last of the Mohicans. And in the Iliad he identified with Hector, not Achilles. 16

The critic Gyula Hellenbart comments in one of his Lukács essays, what a shame it is that Lukács never seriously examined, never offered a systematic critique of, the culture, the social reality of his despised turn‑of‑the‑century, early‑twentieth‑century Budapest. 17 It is indeed a shame, all the more so as there is nowadays so much interest—sympathetic interest—in that time and place. If Lukács didn’t subject his immediate environment to any kind of rigorous analysis, either philosophi-


cal or sociological, he did have some devastating things to say about some of his contemporaries who felt closer to, and were more forgiving towards, Budapest than he was. About no other Hungarian writer did Lukács write quite so contemptuously as he did about Ferenc Molnár—not even about some of the right‑wing populists whom, one would think, he had much more reason to dislike. Lukács considered Molnár a mediocre naturalist, a playwright of cheap tricks. In both of his Molnár essays he examines lesser‑known or unsuccessful works by the famous Hungarian writer—a long‑winded and pretentious early novel, Andor, 18 and a totally insignificant late novel, Isten veled szívem (Farewell my heart). 19 In his specific criticism of these works, Lukács is right on target, but what is remarkable about these essays is the sheer contempt and the patrician hauteur with which he dismisses a writer who, he felt, catered exclusively to petit‑bourgeois tastes.

In his essays, other Budapest writers of Jewish origin fared no better, especially if they dealt with Jewish themes in their works. In an interview with Péter Nagy, conducted in the late sixties, Lukács said: “You can believe me that I am not motivated by anti‑Semitism when I say that the novels of Tamás Kóbor that were considered important in my youth, are Jewish novels and not Hungarian novels”. 20 It is as if Lukács couldn’t conceive of a Hungarian writer dealing with the Jewish, the Hungarian Jewish experience. But in the case of Lukács, the questions posed, and the choices made, had to be radical. For him it was always either/or, all or nothing. 21 During his idealist, utopian period, he was very much attracted to Martin Buber’s reinterpretation of the Hasidic tradition, and he was ready at one point to embrace a kind of messianic Judaism. 22 But in later life Lukács didn’t much allude to this phase of his development. On one of the rare occasions when he did talk about Jews and Jewishness—in a long interview he gave to three German university professors in the 1960s—he cautioned against the fetishizing of the Holocaust which, he said, was just one aspect of Fascism. In this interview he quotes admiringly a character from a Jorge Semprun novel, a German‑Jewish


Communist who falls as a partisan and says: “I will not die a Jewish death”. 23

Yet, paradoxically enough, the thing that has struck so many people about Lukács is that whatever he was involved in, he was never in the mainstream; he remained an outsider, a solitary figure. He suffered from this, but he also made the best  of it and relished the role—relished the fact that no one was ever quite satisfied with him. Gábor Bonyhai sums up well this characteristic of Lukács in his essay, “Lukács mint közvetítő” (Lukács as mediator):

For an essayist he was too scientific and philosophical; for a scholar he was too essayistic. For an aesthetician he was too historical and concrete, but for a literary critic he was too much of a theoretical aesthetician with schemes that were too contrived. He didn’t make a good ideologue or politician in charge of art: for that his aesthetic sense was too refined; but he wasn’t an ideal critic, either, because for that he was not sensitive enough to living art. He couldn’t very well be called a bourgeois philosopher because he was a Marxist. But he wasn’t a perfect Marxist either—for that he was too bourgeois. For a cosmopolitan he was too Hungarian, for a Hungarian he was too international, etc., etc. 24

“In my case everything is a continuation of something else”, Lukács said late in life. “There aren’t any non‑organic elements in my development”. 25 Not everyone would agree with this estimation of his career. But one can discern recurring patterns in both his life and works; important leitmotifs run through his writings on Hungarian literature as well. The intellectual dramas of his life are played out, in minor key perhaps, on the pages of these essays, too. In a sense, then, these writings may not be such a modest chapter of Lukács’s lifework after all.


1 György Lukács, Magyar irodalom ‑ magyar kultúra (Hungarian literature ‑ Hungarian culture), (Budapest: Gondolat, 1970) p. 5.

2 György Lukács, A modern dráma fejlődésének története (A history of the development of modern drama) , (Budapest: Franklin Társulat, 1911), vol. 2, pp. 494‑531.


3 Ferenc Karinthy, “Vaskor” (Age of iron) In his Mi van a Dunában? (What’s in the Danube?), (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1980), p. 240.

4 István Sőtér, “Realizmus és demokrácia; Lukács György a felszabadulás után” (Realism and democracy; György Lukács after the Liberation) , In: István Szerdahelyi, ed., Lukács Gyorgy és a magyar kultúra (György Lukács and Hungarian culture), (Budapest: Kossuth, 1982), pp. 109‑119.

5 Georg Lukács, Record of a Life—An Autobiographical Sketch (London: Verso, 1983), p. 39.

6 Ibid., p. 30.

7 Ibid., p. 41.

8 See György Lukács, Balázs Béla es akinek nem kell (Bé1a Balázs and those who don’t want him), (Gyoma, 1918).

9 Péter Sz. Nagy, “Proust vagy Mann?” (Proust or Mann?) Új Írás, vol. 25, January 1985, p. 123.

10 See Judit Marcus-Tar, Thomas Mann und Georg Lukács (Köln-Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1982).

11 See Béla Balázs, Unmögliche Menschen (Frankfurt, 1930); Anna Lesznai, Kezdetben volt a kert (In the beginning was the garden), (Budapest, 1966), Ervin Sinkó, Optimisták (Optimists), (Novi Sad, 1965), 2 vols.

12 See Emery George’s recent English translation of István Eörsi’s play in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture (Ann Arbor, Mich.), No. 4, 1985, pp. 209-275.

13 See András Nagy, Kedves Lukács (Dear Lukács , (Budapest., Magvető, 1984).

14 Georg Lukács, Record of a Life, p. 181.

15 See Gyula Illyés, In Charons Nachen (Berlin: Aufbau, 1983), p. 215.

16 Georg Lukács, Record of a Life, p. 28.

17 Gyula Hellenbart, “Lukács György és a magyarok” (György Lukács and the Hungarians), Új Látóhatár, vol. 26, no. 6, 1975, pp. 503-513.

18 György Lukács, Magyar irodalom ‑ magyar kultúra, p. 143.

19 Ibid., p. 433

20 Ibid., p. 639.


21 See Zoltán Kenyeres, “Lukács György és a magyar kultúra” (György Lukacs, and Hungarian culture), Kritika, vol. 7, December 1970, pp. 11-10.

22 See Lee Congdon, The Young Lukács (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 78.

23 Theo Pinkus, ed., Gespräche mit Georg Lukács (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1967), p. 54.

24 Gábor Bonyhai, “Lukács mint közvetítő” (Lukács as mediator), In: István Szerdahelyi, ed., Lukács Gyorgy es a magyar kultúra, pp. 20-21.

25 Georg Lukács, Record of a Life, p. 81.


SOURCE: Sanders, Ivan. “Lukács and Hungarian Literature,” in Hungary and European Civilization, edited by György Ránki & Attila Pók (Budapest: Akad. Kiadó, 1989), pp. 399-410.

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