On Lukács on Madách

Arpad Kadarkay

While still at the Evangelical Gymnasium, Lukács had risen like a dysangel against Imre Madách’s national classic The Tragedy of Man. What roused his wrath was the Byzantine scene. It centers on the theological squabble among Christians concerning the proper spelling of the word for the Holy Trinity. Should it be spelled “homousian” or “homoiusian”? When Lucifer says that the “i” is crucial, Adam is called upon to decide who is the heretic. He advises the Christians to forget about the “i” and unite to fight the infidels:

Give up, my friends, the “i”.
A greater blessing awaits the sacrifice
In battling for the Holy Sepulchre. [42]

Adam is incredulous that the Christians are ready to die for an “i.” But for Lucifer, the mysterious thing called faith overrides everything. Though a self-professed atheist, Lukács supported Lucifer, who exclaimed, “For what else would a Christian die than for faith?” [43] In the end, Lucifer sides with those who, fettered and scorned, “rush into martyrdom.”

42  Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, tr. William Loew (The Arcadia Press, New York, n.d.), p. 89.

43  Lukács, Magyar irodalom — Magyar kultúra [Hungarian literature — Hungarian culture], ed. Ferenc Fehér (Gondolat, Budapest, 1970), p. 131.

Here Mann encapsuled well Lukács’s mind, which, under the spell of Bildung, advocated character formation through exemplary art. Indicative of this was his 1955 review of a National Theater performance of Madách’s dramatic poem The Tragedy of Man, a national classic which in his teens he had already derogated. Originally, Révai had been scheduled to comment on the play. But, when his failing health prevented his doing so, Lukács wrote the review. It created a literary uproar. Again the central issue was Hegel, who had a profound influence on Madách, though Madách's concept of history was cyclical rather than linear. But the issue of Hegel is not of great importance here. More important is the fact that Madách turned into drama Hobbes’s dark pessimism. Having traversed and sampled civilization from Athens to Rome and London (the “ugly face” of capitalism), Madách’s Adam finds in socialism a faceless bureaucracy. Like Hobbes, Madách laid siege to human ideals:

The goal is death, life is struggle,
And man’s goal is struggle itself.
                                   (Scene xiii)

Lukács compared Madách’s pessimism to that of Flaubert in The Temptation of St Antony. Now, it is interesting that Flaubert’s Temptation, which Sartre called a modern Bruegel—an artist much admired by Lukács—is about an early Christian hermit in Egypt, the point being that Madách’s drama, which reminded Lukács of Mill’s and Burckhardt’s suspicion of the masses, is anti-democratic. [13] And Lukács in particular declaimed against Madách’s statement that “among coward people the great men weave history.”

It was of course a coincidence, but nonetheless an interesting one that Lukács’s analysis of Madách took place on the eve of Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” in February 1956, at a closed session of the twentieth party congress on the subject of Stalin’s “cult of personality and its consequences.” The “secret speech” sounded the death-knell of Eastern European Stalins. In Hungary, Rajk’s widow, Júlia, emerged from hiding and demanded the rehabilitation of her husband. By the summer of 1956, the captive mind had lost its customary humility before the party and had become instead an ancilla vitae. And, for the Hungarian nation, nauseated with cant, suspicious of the party’s pretensions to sanctity, and still smarting from Rákosi’s tyranny, Lukács carried the torch.

13  Lukács, Magyar irodalom — Magyar kultúra [Hungarian literature — Hungarian culture], ed. Ferenc Fehér (Gondolat, Budapest, 1970), p. 563.

SOURCE: Kadarkay, Arpad. Georg Lukács: Life, Thought, and Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 38, 424, 474, 512.

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