Interview with the editors of Gyorgy Lukacs's Soul and Form

Soul and FormThe following is an interview with Jack Sanders and Katie Terezakis, coeditors of the new edition of György Lukács’s, Soul and Form.

Q: Why publish a new edition of Lukács’s early essays now?

Jack Sanders and Katie Terezakis: Lukács first published the Hungarian version of Soul and Form in 1910, so this is its centennial. In the hundred years since the first edition, consider how vastly the world has changed; even Lukács’s own thinking went though profound transformation after penning these essays. Yet the essays still speak to us powerfully: of the difficulty of meaningful communication and the forms though which it can be achieved, of the need to criticize forms of authority without taking on the mantle of authoritarianism, of the sort of suffering that characterizes human alienation and of its honest assessment. In other words, these essays engage ideas that continue to trouble and encourage us, not merely as topics in aesthetic or political theory, but as matters of binding human concern. In a way, one wants to insist that these essays are searching, evocative, and often downright beautiful, simply in themselves. Yet Lukács also addresses a diverse set of thinkers, including his favorite author-heroes, among them Plato, Novalis, Kierkegaard, and Stephan George. And as he does, Lukács inaugurates a unique approach to aesthetics and literary criticism. From the perspective of our distance from that inauguration, we can appreciate where the thought presented here indicates a serious challenge to well-known readings of Lukács as well as to common approaches of our contemporary literary criticism. So, for us personally, when we began rereading these essays we were struck by the perspective they allowed on Lukács’s thinking and on subsequent developments in criticism as well as by their contemporary relevance.

Q: Did you bring anything new to this edition?  

JS and KT: Yes, beyond updating the language and adding scholarly references, we included an additional essay-dialogue, “On Poverty of Spirit,” written at about the same time as the others and bearing a vital relationship to them. Judith Butler contributed the book’s introduction, which situates Soul and Form among Lukács’s other works as well as contemporary movements in criticism and draws out the internal dynamics of the essays. Butler analyzes the historical, expressive character of literary forms according to Lukács and probes the conditions of their emergence. She also evaluates the transition these essays chart, from Lukács’s early romanticism to his version of realism, and she connects Lukács’s furor over the social conditions that suppress expressive capacity with similar appraisals of the young Marx. Perhaps most vitally, Butler’s introduction provides an incisive account of Lukács’s vision of form as the index by which historical life, in all its complexity, becomes distilled and known. We’ve also added an afterword, written by Katie Terezakis. It connects Lukács’s early account of form with his appropriation of elements of Kantianism, then looks forward at the morphology of the concept of form as it develops in Lukács’s work, in the work of his Budapest School students and in theory and criticism after him.

Q: Lukács is famous for changing his mind a lot or, to speak less playfully, for engaging in as much self-refutation as new production. Are these essays fundamentally different from his better-known works in the field of Marxist aesthetics?

JS and KT: No and yes. What’s interesting about these early essays is how faithfully they mirror Lukács’s later concerns with human emancipation or with the forms that allow for it and the mechanisms that undermine it. One could condense these essays into a set of questions about human possibility and the role of artworks and then read Lukács’s subsequent works as systematic responses to them. At the same time, Lukács was twenty-five years old when Soul and Form was published; most of the essays were written in his early twenties. Here then we have the considerations of a categorically brilliant mind, formulating the passions and judgments of a very young man, still years from conversion to Bolshevism, from serving in government, from exile, from working as a professor, and from serious involvement in Communist Party politics. These essays tell a palpable truth about why Lukács became a militant and how he became so disposed toward Marxism, but they are bracing works of criticism on their own.

Q: Would you say then that Lukács’s early aesthetic theory can be judged apart from his later political position?

JS and KT: It isn’t possible to depoliticize Lukács. There is good reason neither to excuse his apologetics nor to ignore the truly radical, always political nature of his aesthetic theory. Even at its most conceptual and speculative moments, Lukács’s aesthetic work is about action; it is a call to action and a questioning of the intellectual, historical, social conditions of action.

Q: Is there a good, paradigmatic example in Soul and Form of how “soul” and “form” function, or what role they play in Lukács’s aesthetic criticism?

JS and KT: According to Lukács, for example, Plato is the greatest essayist who ever lived or wrote. Plato as much as invented the form of the philosophical dialogue, and in so doing he gave form to the myth of Socrates. We have “Socrates” thanks to the fortitude of Plato’s invented form. Yet Lukács says that Plato used Socrates’ destiny as the vehicle for the questions that he, Plato, harbored. Lukács appreciates that Socrates must have been full of the deepest longings––for truth, beauty, goodness––but such longing is simply longing without the right form in which it can manifest and be shared. Indeed, Plato captures the very nature of longing in a concept, along with the incommodious interruptions and disruptions that life imposes on it. So Plato’s achievement, according to Lukács, is form in its true sense: the bringing into communicative being of an individual life, an independent soul.

Q: How did you come to work on Lukács?

JS and KT: Jack first became acquainted with Lukács’s work in 1972, when he was asked to translate “On Poverty of Spirit,” along with a commentary on the piece by Lukács’s Budapest School student Agnes Heller, for a special issue of The Philosophical Forum commemorating Lukács’s death. Katie studied with and subsequently wrote on Heller. So each of us was long aware of Lukács’s importance and each of us wanted to see his thought discussed still more by our contemporaries. Lukács is a thinker who asks us to apprehend the relation of otherwise obscure social forces; he also asks us to consider the conditions of great works of philosophy and literature (including great lesser-known works) and thus speaks of thinkers like Plato and Kierkegaard with an intimacy and insightfulness seldom encountered in the secondary literature. Yet Lukács also tells us not to settle on being merely theoretical when we can be committed to and engaged in emancipatory struggle. So we think it’s worth putting him squarely in public view.

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