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The Narration of an Unhappy Consciousness

The Narration of an Unhappy
Consciousness: Lukacs,
Marxism, the Novel, and
Beyond
Keith Ansell-Pearson
Parmenides said, ‘one cannot think of what is not’; – we are at the other extreme, and say, ‘what can be
thought of must certainly be a fiction.’ – Nietzsche (1)
Introduction
J. M. Bernstein has written a book that merits our
attention (The Philosophy of the Novel: Luk~cs! Marxism and the Dialectics of Form, Harvester Press, 1984,
286pp, 1:..22.50 hc), for it attempts a major rehabilitation
of Georg Lukacs’s pre-Marxist work of 1914-15, The
Theory of the Novel (2). Furthermore, the intentions
behind the book are neither ahistorical nor politically
regressive. Although he is not the first to recognise
the importance of Lukacs’s early writings, Bernstein’s
approach is unique in that the aim is not to retrieve
the tragic and existentialist vision of TN for contemporary philosophY, thereby discarding the path to Marxism Lukacs was to take; rather, the aim is to open up a
hermeneutic dialogue between TN and History and Class
Consciousness, in order to locate the meaning of Marxism in narrative and pr axial terms.

Bernstein wants to make substantial claims for the
importance of Lukacs’s pre-Marxist essay. He wants to
show that Lukacs’s theory of the novel is a Marxist
one, or, more tentatively, that a Marxist theory of the
novel can be excavated from Lukacs’s essay. For Bernstein Lukacs’s early essay is much more than an exercise in romantic anti-capitalism. It shows us, he argues,
that the novel is the site where the alienated, unhappy
consciousness of the bourgeois era reveals itself and
points beyond itself for its fulfilment; the disclosure of
the ‘truth’· of the novel points to the necessity of making the transition from the’!’ to the ‘we’, from contemplation to praxis.

I think it would not be unfair to say that Lukacs’s
standing in the history of Marxist aesthetics has been
overshadowed in recent years by figures such as
Adorno and Benjamin. No doubt there are certain historical reasons for this elision of Lukacs; the theories
of certain Marxist modernists have come to be regarded as more conducive to the complexities of cultural
and political revolution than the simple, dichotomous
choices presented to us by Lukacs in his championing
of realist art, a commitment which has strained his
relationship with cultural modernism ever since.

Bernstein’s book enables us to redress the balance. Firstly, he notes that TN was regarded by a generation of leftist philosophers(Adorno, Benjamin, Goldmann, etc.) as a decisive piece of work in establishing
the philosophical framework in which an understanding
of modern art and its predicament could be situated.

Thus, the essay’s revered place in certain quarters
needs to be explained. Secondly, he argues that Lukacs
later underestimated the achievement of the essay in
exposing the novel to be an impossible, contradictory
practice. Lukacs’s achievement was largely to do this
through an analysis of the dialectics of form found in
novel writing, an approach that he later abandoned and

22

•which was consistently pursued by Adorno in his analysis of modern works of art. And thirdly, Bernstein
uses the insights of TN to show that the assumption,
shared by literary and philosophical modernism, that
there is something intrinsically radical about aesthetic
modernism is philosophically naive and fundamentally
ahistorical. Thus, Bernstein’s book should be regarded
as an achievement on several fronts – one, it reintroduces Lukcks from the margins to the centre of contemporary debates; and two, through a painstaking reconstruction of Lukacs’s early, enigmatic essay, Bernstein is able to problematise our whole postmodern condition and offer a constructive basis for a Marxist political praxis. The book is an original attempt to take up
Lukacs’s challenge of developing a distinctly Marxist
philosophical culture (3), and of thinking through the
antinomies of bourgeois thought: the aim of the book is
to show that the novel gives ‘phenomenological expression’ to those same antinomies.

. .

The following review essay is divided into five
sections, with the aim of conveying the fundamental
point – only implicit in Bernstein’s argument – that the
claim that ‘the validity of the arguments put forward
in TN require premises that are explicitly Marxist’ (p.

xiiOcan only be demonstrated and appreciated by a
phenomenological and hermeneutic exposition. In section one I attempt to present Bernstein’s arguments for
readingTN as a Marxist account of the novel, in a way
which wilJ serve as a general introduction to Lukacs’s
essay; in section two I turn to a detailed presentation
of what is the centrepiece of Bernstein’s reconstruction, the claim that in TN Lukacs is arguing that the
novel is ‘Kantian’ in form, reflecting our contemplative
relation to the world where freedom has become exiled
within subjectivity, and where imagination has replaced
praxis; in section three I trace Bernstein’s claim that
irony is the figure or trope that reveals the limits of
the novel and its enterprise: the disclosure of the novel
as a ‘pseudo-praxis’; in section four I discuss Bernstein’S objection to the modernist and post modernist
understanding of the novel and modern art; in section
five I present Bernstein’s construal of the meaning of
Marxism in the light of the revelation of the ‘truth’ of
the novel, and his arguments for a narrative Marxist
praxis; and, finally, in the conclusion, I offer an assessment of the strengths and the weaknesses of the book.

I

Introduction to The Theory of the Novel

As a historico-philosophical essay TN is dependent upon
a specific tradition of modern German philosophy Hegelian hermeneutics. However, its arguments are a
coming together of various strands and schools of
thought that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the changed conception

of the identity and role of philosophy that took place
after the demise of Hegel’s speculative idealism, and
the return to Kant. In one short work Lukacs employs
the insights of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Schlegel, Dilthey,
Simmel, Weber, and Kierkegaard. Needless to say, this
does not make for a harmonious combination: in his
1962 preface to the essay Lukacs described it as a fusion of left-wing ethics and right-wing epistemology.

The first part of the work offers a historico-phllosophical approach to the novel, and represents a continuation of the insights of Hegel’s aesthetics; the second
part of the work develops a typology of the novel and
shows the neo’-Kantian influence on Lukacs’s theory.

Lukacs later said that the work represented his move
from Kant to Hegel, and Bernstein argues that a Marxist theory of the novel will obviously have to be sought
in the first half of the book. Moreover, Bernstein’s
contention is that not only is a move from Kant to
Hegel evident in TN but that, without Lukacs himself
knowing it, his later move from Hegel to Mane has
already been reached in the argument of TN.

Bernstein commences his reconstruction with a
chapter on ‘Lukacs’ Aesthetic’, an examination of
Lukacs’s contrast between the epic and the novel. The
originality of Bernstein’s reading lies in its stress that
in TN we have an attempt to determine the historical
speCIficity of the novel; Lukacs is presenting us with ‘a
hermeneutics of the novel rather than a theory of the
novel embedded in a putative universal philosophy of
history’ (p. 47). Thus, Lukacs’s concept of the epic is
not to be regarded as a utopian construct based on
some longing for a Greek world of Apollonian sweetness and light, but, rather, it is to be seen as a hermeneutical construct, ‘an act of historical awareness
from the perspective of the present by which that present can begin to come to self-consciousness of its historical situation’ (ibid.). The intention, then, is to trace
the change in literary forms as a response to changing
socio-historical conditions. The novel represents the
epic of modernity. It is to modern society what the
epic was to the~ integrated world of the Greeks.

Once Lukacs’s intention has been recognised, then
we can begin to appreciate that the central problem
for him in TN is the autonomous status of art in modern society-.-Art – the ‘visionary reality made to our
measure’, as Lukacs eloquently put it – has become
severed from its relation to life. It is no longer a copy
but a created totality; all the models have gone; art no
longer has anything to do with a world that is
immanently complete in itself. Lukacs’s fundamental
point is that this is not for any artistic reasons but for
historico-philosophical ones. For Lukacs, literature is
to be understood as a cultural practice and not in
terms of an essentialist or naturalist theory, where
some fundamental properties are considered constitutive of the ‘literariness’ of all literary artefacts. The
rules of literary activity have a historical substratum.

In the age of the Homeric epic, art possesses an
immediate reality. It requires no preliminary justification on the part of the writer; the story to be told
needs no background in time because the culture knows
no history; social institutions are not regarded as external traditions. In sum, the work of art possesses a
concrete basis in the life of the society. By contrast,
works of art in the modern epoch are characterised by
a whole set of different elements. They are now autonomous; they reveal an ethic of creative subjectivity;
telling a story has become problematic, its meaning no
longer immanent but transcendent; the author displays
an ironical self-consciousness; the hero of the novel is
the problematic individual who stands in opposition to
society, tradition, and history. In a word, the work of
art has become abstract (4).

Bernstein argues that Lukacs’s major point is not

simply that art has become autonomous but that (i) this
autonomy is historically specific to capitalist society,
and (i1) the autonomy of art is determined by the fragmentation and reification which accompanies the capitalist mode of production. It is this that renders the
novel such a problematical and contradictory practice.

The relation of the novel to the world, and how the
novel conceptualises the world, are governed by the
reified condition of that world. The autonomy of art in
modern society represents a dialectic of freedom and
impotence, where the novel is free to experiment
(form) but where its freedom remains trapped in subjective consciousness. The freedom of the novel is
entirely fictional.

11

Kant and the Novel

One of Bernstein’s great achievements is to show that
in TN Lukacs conceives the novel in Kantian terms.

Thenovel is written against a background of Kantian
assumptions that are constitutive of the form of the
novel. Here lies the point of contact between the preMarxist Lukacs (TN) and the Marxist Lukacs (HCC).

In HCC Lukacs’s aim was to show the neo-Kantian
origin of modern sociology and of orthodox Marxism
which conceived itself in terms of an empirical science
of society. Lukacs argues that both are based on a representational epistemology of subject and object where
the former ‘represents’ the latter, and that, consequently, our current modes of thought cannot overcome
the ‘givenness’ of reality. Representational thinking
relates statically and contemplatively to its object,
seeing it as something external to itself. Orthodox
Marxism (the Marxism of Anti-DGhring and the Second
International for Lukacs) makes a philosophy of praxis
(the transformation of the world) impossible (5).

For Lukacs it is primarily Kant’s philosophy that
both testifies to and sanctifies the emerging separation
of private and public life, work and leisure (labour and
culture), etc. that defines the moment of capitalism.

Kant’s philosophy expresses its fundamentally antinomic
character in a series of dualisms: subject and object,
freedom and necessity, is and ought (facts and values
in modern parlance), and so on, and in the positing of
an irrational and unknowable thing-in-itself. The positing of a thing-in-itself reflects Kant’s failure to penetrate to the heart of modern, bourgeois society and its
contradictions (6). As reflected in Kant’s philosophy,
the subject of modern society is one that can only
exist in a fictional world (noumenal reality) radically
divorced from empirical life (phenomenal reality). The
reified world of capital provides the historic substratum of Kant’s antinomic thinking, of his two-world
thesis of a phenomenal world of cause and effect and a
noumenal world of causality through freedom. Freedom
in Kant is placed in a world beyond the self which is
forever striving for fullfilment, but whose purity of
moral will renders it incapable of realising its ethical
vocation in the empirical world. The Kantian moral
subject can only stand in contradiction to the world;
the Kantian self is a divided self which expresses its
critique of society in terms of a self-perfecting moralism. ‘Human freedom,’ Bernstein writes, ‘remains exiled
within SUbjectivity unable to determine or shape the
objective world in terms appropriate to itself’ (p. 21).

Because Kant conceives of the empirical world in
terms of a Newtonian necessity, so that teleology can
only be thought as a regulative idea, ethics is restricted to SUbjectivity. It is at this conjunction that the
modern novel assumes the ethical task of making the
world intelligible to the alienated, Kantian (bourgeois)
consciousness, for in a world of transcendental subjectivity ethics can only be objectivised as art: ‘the aesthetic can be ethical only because the ethical has already been rendered aesthetic (fictional)’ (p. 100).

’23

Instead of history, tradition or society, it is now the ‘I’

of transcendental sUbjectivity that becomes the formgiver which renders life intelligible.

Kant’s philosophy results in a contemplative relation to the world. The universality of this relation between man and the world is argued by Lukacs to be the
specific result of a capitalist mode of production.

Under capitalism the social world comes to appear as
an object externally related to the self living in that
world, a process Lukacs named ‘reification’. For Bernstein TN can be construed as a Marxist theory of the
novel because it ‘locates the antinomies of the novel in
a grammar of contemplation’ (p. 42). The central aesthetic problem of the novel is the separation of form
and life, the fact that meaning is no longer immanent
in the world itself. ‘Form’ and ‘life’, the two key categories of Luka’cs’s theory, are employed to show that
the problem of novel writing is that of synthesising the
radical heterogenity of life in accordance with the dictates of form. Novel writing issues from a world where
forms of intelligibility and meaning are no longer authorised by tradition and custom. In this context the
novel shows itself to be a contradictory practice, for
the formal imperative, let life be made intelligible,
results in the world of the novel being totalised in
aQstract terms owing to the radical disjunction that
exists between form and life. Thus: ‘the novel is characterised by a dialectic of form-giving and mimesis
where form demands immanence and the world mimetically transcribed resists form’ (p. 107). As a result
totality becomes a normative postulate, remaining valid
only as an ideal.

Because of the disharmony between form and life,
and the retreat into subjectivity, the task of rendering
ethical life intelligible has thus fallen to the imagination. In a chapter entitled ‘The Novel’s Schematism:

Binding Time’ (pp. 109-46) Bernstein shows how the
novel devises strategies and procedures for overcoming
the disjunction between form and life and making the
latter intelligible. The symbolist techniques of the
novel indicate to what extent the immediate meaning
of the objects of the world has disappeared. Because of
the separation between form and life the novel adopts
a vast schematising procedure which represents ‘a
search for modes of temporal ordering which would
glve our normative concepts access to the world’ and,
moreover, ‘a consti tuti ve role in our comprehending
existence’ (p. 113). For the novel schemata (Kant’s procedure for determining how transcendental categories
can be applied to objects of experience – the task of
synthesising concept and intuition) become what Bernstein calls ‘narrational strategies’ that are capable of
rendering normative concepts empirical. The more the
disjunction between form and life becomes manifest,
the more fragile, artificial and purely literary will the
schemata employed by the novel appear. The novel,
argues Bernstein, is the literary form of our time
because it takes up the task of the ‘temporalising of
form’ which the secularised, disenchanted modern world
Simultaneously demands and refuses (7).

24

In this section of the reconstruction Bernstein
presents a reading of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education
as a way of both revising Lukacs’s original inadequate
account of the problem of time in the novel, and as a
way of showing how the novel and writing naturalise
our inability to transform the world by presenting all
attempts at historical change as d]oomed from the start.

In the novel Flaubert continually undermines the hero’s
(Frederic’s) attempts at meaningful action by a process
of ironising his hopes and dreams. To be sure, Frederic’s
hopes are without ground in reality, but what Flaubert
does is to present a novel in which all attempts,
whether well grounded in reality or not, to translate
hopes and dreams into praxis and action are seen as
illusory. For Bernstein the ideological perspective of
Flaubert is determined by his act of transposing the
‘time’ of the defeat of the (1848) revolution into the
revolutionary period itself (p. 140). The environment of
post-revolutionary defeat is thus responsible for
Flaubert’s mistaken perspective that all history is
doomed to meet a similar fate. Thus Bernstein writes:

‘Sentimental Education may be “a novel about nothing”,
but it is written from a determinate perspective which
makes its very meaninglessness, its denial of meaning,
significant. Not to take this step outside the experience of the novel is to accede to Flaubert’s ideological
perspective, to treat the moment of 1848 and its failure as nature’s givens rather than as moments of history’ (p. 145). The result of Flaubert’s naturalisation of
the impossibility of history and praxis is the reduction
of reality to illusion and the retreat into fiction as the
only valid form of subjective freedom. In this ‘romanticism of disillusionment’ we have perhaps the model of
our latter-day post-structuralist prophets of despair
and defeat.

Throughout, the aim of Bernstein’s reconstruction
is not simply to show how the novel invents strategies
and styles for dealing with the problems of the form of
its enterprise, but to pose the fundamental question
why we can project the image of our life as a whole
only through an act of imagination (p. 115) (8). It is
necessary, he argues, that we are able to grasp the
historical meaning of Kant’s separation of sensibility
and intellect and thereby recover ‘the historical meaning of the claim that it is the imagination that mediates between the two’ (p. 114).

Bernstein’s insights have far-reaching implications
for our understanding of philosophical modernism. The
world has become for us modern subjects, we might
say, a world of as-if; we can only comprehend our relation to the world in regulative and not in constitutive
terms (9). Contemporary reason, the reason of Kant,
argues Bernstein, is contemplative. It becomes contemplative when it finds itself unable to determine its
empirical reality. In philosophy, positivism is the effect
of this contemplation and reification of reality; in
ethics contemplation forces Reason into a beyond; in
culture this beyond finds a home, a social site, for itself in ‘socially controlled acts of the imagination’ (p.

102). According to Bernstein the fact that the novel
has assumed such a central place in bourgeois society
and culture is to be explained by its imaginative function for a fragmented and individualistic (non-)community. ‘The novel,’ he writes, ‘is the crisis of modern culture because it is the space, and the only space available to contemplative reason, where ethical reason and
empirical reality can meet. It is then neither through
accident nor arbitrary ideological assumptions that contemplative consciousness has so often chosen literary
culture, and in especial the novel, as a site for ethical
argumentation and ideological debate’ (pp. 102-03).

What is frequently overlooked by defenders of modernist culture is that this site is predetermined by the
confinement of ethics to a realm (noumenal) unspoiled
by reification, and, moreover, that this realm is itself a

I
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product of reifica tion. Instead our fictional status, our
inability to transform the world, is celebrated.

III

,I

Irony and the Limits of the Novel

In the novel freedom expresses itself in terms of an
ironic subjectivity. The freedom of subjectivity lies in
that it is defined as a ‘nothingness’, it can only define
itself in relation to what it is not, its freedom is entirely negative: freedom from rather than freedom to.

This negative freedom is the freedom of the unhappy
consciousness (10).

As Bernstein points out, the primacy of individual
exper ience is the ideology of modern times, of bourgeois philosophy. Forms are no longer given by tradition or religion (the death of God); instead, subjectivity
proclaims itself to be the only authentic substance of
experience and volition. The self has become form.

Romantic irony, as theorised by Friedrich Schlegel,
represents an attempt to bring to self-consciousness
the alienation of the self from the world. However, for
Bernstein, irony, the trope of the beautiful soul whose
consciousness of its predicament deprives it of its ability to act, reveals the ideological boundaries of the
present:

Because of its distance from both theory and
action the novel is inevitably tempted to
underplay the intractability of reality or to
divinise the powers of language and imagination. Ironic structuring, so pervasive in modernist writing, represents a way of avoiding
these extremes without abandoning novel
writing altogether; but this is no more than a
recognition of the limits of the novel, it is
not a real solution to the world’s fragility.

(p. 118)
In modernism the resolution of self and world is
achieved on the level of fiction, and because it is
language that makes possible the distancing of the
transcendental or fictional self from the empirical self,
the self is transformed into a linguistic self whose
authentic existence is a fictive one: ‘Authentic subjectivity has been reduced to a moment in a linguistic
trope; the self has become no more than a figure of
language’ (p. 214). The delusion of realism is that
interpretation is taken to be representation, the novelist becomes a social scientist and the novel social
theory. Modernism, by contrast, recognises the delusion
and treats fiction (illusion) as fiction (illusion) and is
therefore, we might say, true. However, it is necessary,
argues Bernstein, to distinguish between different
strategies modernism has developed in response to the
illusions of realism.

Accordingly, Bernstein locates two types of response the novel develops, in the form of exemplary
ironic strategies where it comes to self-consciousness
and questions its removal from experience. The first,
characterised as ‘negative’ irony, uses the problematical status of the self generated by the alienation of the
individual from the world in order to promote ‘a derealisation of the real (empirical), an ethics of fiction’.

That is, the forms produced by the author in order to
show the disjunction between form and life are treated
as fictions and deprived of any represent~tional power.

A novel employing this type of irony will be marked by
an absence of authorial authority and by the loss of
subjectivity in-forming the discourses of experience. It
signifies ‘the discontinuity in absolute terms between
fiction and reality’, and it results in a self ‘which
appropriates language to itself and thus through
language reality’ (pp. 216-17). The second type of
strategy, characterised as ‘positive’ irony, will be an
attempt to overcome the novel’s irony ironically in
order to show the limits of the novel. Whereas the former represents a valorisation of the fictional over the

empirical, the latter reveals the novel to be a pseudopraxis. The first strategy is associated with an author
like Flaubert, the second strategy with Thomas Mann in
Doctor Faustus.

For Bernstein, Mann’s achievement is that, while
he concedes the modernist critique of realism he does
so without falling prey to modernism’s glorification of
its ironic status. Both realism and modernism fail to
recognise the radical historical nature of the novel
form, and affirm a contemplative conception of reality.

Form remains ‘an ideality, an expression of what ought
to be in the face of recalcitrant reality’ (p. 219). It is
Thomas Mann, argues Bernstein, who shows writing to
be an ethical act, an interpretation of history and in
history. He thus returns the novel form in its selfconscious mode as an act of narration to history. This
return, however, is subject to a final irony, one that
reveals the limits of the novel:

the affirmation of the historical and interpretive moment of the text is itself textualised ••• the figure of the text’s historicality
becomes, ironically, a statement of its negativity, of its distance from its object and
from its practice.

Thus, we can read Mann’s text (Or Faustus) as ‘an emblem of the novel as a pseudo-praxis, as an unhappy
consciousness at home neither in the idealities of fiction nor in the realities of history’ (p.” 220).

Mann’s overcoming of the novel’s irony not only
reveals the novel to be a pseudo-praxis but also discloses to us the identity of the transcendental subjectivity. The question of identity – who am I? – the question that has been the controlling question of the
Western metaphysical tradition since Descartes (the
novel, Bernstein aims to show in Chapter V, can be
construed in terms of a Cartesian narrative) is shown
to be the crisis point of the novel, for it cannot
answer this question: ‘Its unanswerability was guaranteed by the ahistorical and unnarratable character of
the cogito’ (p. 221). Mann’s ironic overcoming reveals
the negativity of art: ‘its power to preserve itself and
its forms against the “destructive power of the whole”.’

This leads Bernstein to argue that it is the ‘whole’,
what Hegel calls the ‘universal language’ of a time’S
customs and laws, which is the ultimate concrete subject: ‘Transcendental subjectivity is concrete social
practices as the bearers of history, a “we” which brings
about the unity and separation of “I”s.’ But, although
the identity of the alienated, unhappy consciousness
can be located, Bernstein recognises that
The specificity of our time is that this unity
appears not as our self-possession but as an
externality, a negativity against us, making
our separation not a moment of individuation
and self-realisation, but a moment of isolation
and diremption from the totaI’ity we are.

(pp. 222-23)
IV

Modernism and the Novel

The objection that is most likely to be raised against
Bernstein’s book is that it displays a fundamentally
nostalgic diagnosis of modernity, a failure to come to
grips with the possibilities of pluralism and play opened
up by the disintegration of traditional society and the
challenge of modernist experience. Indeed, could not
Lukacs’s lifelong career be construed as representing in
pristine form such a failure?

Bernstein is astute in pointing out that it is not
simply a question of choosing between modernity and
anti-modernity but of showing the equivocal nature of
our condition and not shirking our historical responsibility.

The superiority of a historico-philosophical
approach is readily apparent when we compare it to

25

formalist and post-modernist approaches. Panegyrics on
modernism are usually based on modernism’s break with
realism – ‘the time of 1848’. Modernism, it is argued,
no longer seeks a harmony of sign and meaning as did
romantic art, but represents a demystification of
romantic delusions concerning the nature of art. But
this, in turn, is based on certain delusions which reveal
the ahistorical nature of theoretical modernism. Referring to one leading theoretical modernist (Paul de
Man), Bernstein writes, ‘He takes the historical experience of modern literature to be such as to allow a privileged insight into the true metaphysical nature of literature generally’ (p. 66). Theoretical modernism is
based on a hypostatisation of certain specific historical
features in modern art, and it thus fails to find anything problematic in the dissonance between sign and
meaning. The ideality of transcendental subjectivity has
been replaced, Bernstein argues, by the ideality of
linguistic effectivity (p. 235). There has taken place a
reification of writing and of the literary text.

This reification of writing is clearly evident in
the work of Roland Barthes and his progeny. As a
defender of literary modernism, Barthes champions the
liberation from realist representation as a realisation
of writing’s ‘true, “fictive” and scriptual vocation’. But
this view is naive in several respects. Firstly, its error
lies in conceiving the constituting feature of modernity
– against which aesthetic modernism rebels – to lie in
representation. As Bernstein points out, representation
has never been primary or innocent within the tradition
(p. 234~. Descartes, regarded by Lukacs and Heidegger
alike, as instituting the permanent crisis of modernity,
establishes the autonomy of the thinking subject from
nature, society, and history, only to be left with the
problem of representation, that is, the truthfulness of
his thought. Modernism and postmodernism simply replace the thinking subject with the writing subject
whose sole essence and reality is to be a fictive being
within the play of language. Secondly, the error lies in
reducing the constraints of representation to ‘pure
textual productivity’. Against this view, Bernstein
wants to argue that
the discourses of experience are already constrained and moulded, not artificially or
arbitrarily (like the arbitrariness of the sign
in Saussure), but consistently by the complex
material and semiotic processes by which
(capitalist) society continually produces and
reproduces itself.

(p. 234)
Lukacs can be seen in TN to prefigure certain
modernist insights, in particular the recognition that
the problem of the novel is the problem of· its form.

However, Lukacs goes one stage further by showing the
dialectics of form: the autonomy of art is affirmed by
its attempted negation. The novel expresses its negative power (which could perhaps be viewed as the ~
of the negative, by contrast with Hegel’s ‘labour of the
negative’) in relation to reality, but reveals an impotence to change the world in other than fictional
terms. And, as Bernstein puts it: ‘We cannot produce
another reality for ourselves simply by producing different fictions’ (p. 234). Both literary and philosophical
modernism have taken up Lukacs’s insights by elevating
the agnostic historical pessimism of TN into a selfperfecting style, a general epistemological scepticism,
a deconstructive strategy that fails to ask after the
historical ground of the transition from metaphysical to
metaphorical truth, a reification of writing that fails
to ask why the modern self has become language bound
– as Bernstein says, no more than ‘a linguistic trope’.

The success of Bernstein’s focus on the dialectics
of form is that it enables him to show that modernism
does not represent an epistemological break with realism but rather inherits and exacerbates all the funda26

mental antinomies of realism. He is thus able to avoid
the twin pitfalls of empirical reduction ism (realism) and
metaphysical reification (modernism), and present the
antinomies of fiction in their historically specific context, and in a way that points to their philosophical
and pr axial transcendence.

V

Marxism and beyond the Novel

Frederic Jameson has alerted us to the fact that
Lukacs’s work can be seen as a lifelong meditation on
narrative, on its basic structures and its relationship to
the reality it expresses (11). In the final chapter on
‘Practical Reason’, Bernstein argues for a narrative
construal of the meaning of Marxism. Marxism, he
holds, is the only philosophy of praxis that is capable
of overcoming the pseudo-praxis of the novel,. the exile
of form into fiction (that which gives life its meaning
and coherence), the limitations of transcendental subjectivity and the ironic consciousness, and hence the
contemplative standpoint of much contemporary art and
philosophy.

Bernstein is arguing for a hermeneutic comprehension of the meaning of Marxism. On the one hand he
argues that the question of a post-literary form of narration is not a matter of idle speculation for its outlines are already contained in HCC in the account of
class praxis. On the other hand, however, he finds it
necessary to turn to the insights of Hannah Arendt and
Hans-Georg Gadamer in order to give Marxism the narrative dimensions he wants. Marxism, he argues, cannot
be construed as a universal philosophy of history for
the simple reason that the space for epic history has
gone. Moreover, he argues, all universal philosophies of
history are disguised secularisations of theology (from
heaven to earth, from God to man, etc.) which imply
that there is a,n ‘end of history’, thus reducing historical praxis to a contemplative position. He further argues
that all talk of the cunning of nature (Kantr or the
cunning of reason (Hegel) is decidedly made redundant
by the catastrophes of the twentieth century. If Marxism is not to be understood in terms of a universal
philosophy of history then neither can the proletariat
be viewed as the subject-object of history, assigned a
messianic role, ‘as if history had been waiting for the
arrival of the proletariat in order to redeem it’ (p. 25).

The ‘meaning’ of Marxism needs to be understood as
historically specific and historically relevant.

Where Bernstein differs from a straightforward
hermeneutic position is on the need to make the transition from contemplation to praxis. Gadamer’s critique
of modernity fails to recognise the social and historical
basis of the crisis of reason (what Gadamer calls, from
Aristotle, phronesis). Nevertheless, Gadamer’s notion of
an effective historical consciousness can be used to
give Marxism the praxial specificity less hermeneutic
accounts fail to provide.

The possibility of a collective narrative that will
replace the narrative of the bourgeois era stands,
argues Bernstein, at the boundaries of the novel and at
the centre of Marxism’S self-understanding. However,
he believes that it must be construed in a way that
does not make the Marxist narrative transcendent to
concrete social practices, that is, transcendent to the
world we inhabit: ‘To urge at this juncture,’ he argues,
‘that there is a collective history, an unfinished plot,
breaks the fundamental connection between collective
narratives and social identity’ (p. 261). Thus, he is particularly sensitive to the problems confronting a collective narrative. On the one hand, he argues that the
novel points to the need for a different storytelling in
which the novel itself cannot participate, for its story
is the absence of a collective subject that would give
its many stories the meaning that would make their tellings redundant (p. 262). On the other hand, he wants

to alert us to the ‘truth’ of modernism that tells us
that there is no longer one single, great collective narrative within which our individual fates can be narrated. He contends that today we are witnessing the ‘becoming of anti-narrativity, the story of the undermining
of the conditions for storytelling altogether’ (ibid.).

However, where he parts company with the ideology of
modernism is in arguing that the antinomies of the
novel prefigure not the death of narrative but the necessity for a new, non-literary form of narration.

It is in Arendt’s linking of identity with narrativity that Bernstein sees the possibility of developing a
narrativeMar~ism that is capable of forming a collective subject. He borrows the notion of ‘the worldliness
of the world’ in order to argue that the background in
and against which narratives are written is a world:

‘the temporal structure of a life, an individual fate, is
bound to the world order ••• the meaning of an individual fate depends for its coherence on communal destiny’ (p. 259). (It is Descartes’ rejection of a world and
a history – a past – as necessary conditions of selfidentity that made it impossible for him to provide an
account of his identity.) Still, this leaves the question
of praxis in abeyance. For Bernstein, praxis needs to
be understood as a world narration.

In TN, which offers us a tragic vision of the
world, Lukacs had posed the question of social change
in terms of an unhridgeable gap between the reality
that is and the ideal that should be. There have been
many critiques of the position Lukacs later came to
hold in HCC (usually charges of idealism), and it is a
point of controversy whether Lukacs’s standpoint is a
form of neo-Fichteanism with the categorical imperative of ‘proving the truth in practice’, or whether
Lukacs’s standpoint is a more speculative one, a
(Hegelian) revolutionary realism, where the future is
conceived, dialectically to be sure, but not in terms of
a teleological finality and an ought of natural law, but
as an active praxial reality informing and determining
the present (12).

Bernstein argues that the great weakness of
Lukacs’s position is that it is based on an assumption
concerning the possibility of class consciousness and
without identifying what he calls the ‘becoming’ of
that consciousness. Lukacs’s account, he argues, is
marred by an unwarrantable optimism. The sign of his
·optimism is the assumption ‘of the existence of a class
,whose narrative was yet to be written, his assumption
-that the minimal consciousness of the alienation of proletarian individuals could be transformed into a class
~subjectivity’ (p. 263). Lukacs’s optimism can be further
explained, he argues, by the absence in his presentation
of ‘a mechanism of narrative production, a mechanism
whereby the “I” of the individual proletarian and the
“we” of the collectivity could be intersubjectively
mediated’ (ibid.). He argues that the continuation of
Lukacs’s project would be the construction of a theory
of praxis as a theory of political narration: ‘a theory
of the formation and re-formation of a collective identity through narratives whose telling would be at once
a collecting and a making’ (ibid., emphases added). He
argues that the premises of pr axial action, of a collec·tive narrating of experience, neither presupposes the
actual existence of. a class consciousness nor represents
a search for a subject capable of completing itself.

Rather, he concludes by arguing:

In learning to see political action in terms of
a collective narration we realise the truth of
the pseudo-praxis of the novel and simultaneously overcome the exclusion of form from
non-literary domains. Praxis is a political narrating of experience; political narrative collects experience by collecting subjects into a
collective subject; that collective subject

becomes itself ‘by producing a world in which
it can say who it is.

(p. 266, emphasis added)
Conclusion
The achievements of Bernstein’s reconstruction are
substantial. In this concluding section, I would like to
offer an appraisal of what I take to be some of the
strengths and some of the possible weaknesses of the
argument.

Bernstein’s reconstruction affords us the opportunity of revaluating Lukacs’s contribution to Western
Marxism. Sensitive to the richness of Lukacs’s standpoint, he shows us that Lukacs cannot be easily assimilated to idealist or utopian positions. For example, he
warns us against viewing Lukacs’s conception of the
proletariat in HCC in terms of a simple transposition 6f
a Fichtean absolute subject into the proletariat through
the addition of history and class. This, he argues,
would simply reduce Lukacs’s position to the contemplative one his theory of praxis attempts to sublate (p.

25). Bernstein wants to argue that class consciousness
exists as a possibility, and that some kind of formative
(educative) process is needed to initiate and develop
this potential revolutionary consciousness into a practical one, able to conjoin praxis and action in a way that
is not open to the type of criticism Marx made in the
third thesis on Feuerbach concerning ‘educators’ and
‘educated’. He is astute in pointing out that ‘what the
social placement of the proletariat does not do is causally guarantee that class consciousness will be
achieved’ (p. 30). Even if Lukacs did not completely
succeed in his account of class praxis, it remains clear
that we must take our starting-point from his attempt
because the account he gives of the transition from
partial to full class consciousness through praxis and
action does at least provide us with ‘an image of how
class consciousness can be formed without presupposing
what the content of that consciousness is to be’ (p.

264). Although there are undoubtedly weaknesses in
Bernstein’s ‘narrative’ solution, his book, I would argue,
must be seen as one of the few genuine attempts since
Lukacs to develop further the problem of the nature of
class praxis, a project that remains essential to Marxism. Indeed, it is such a project – the attempt to bridge
the seemingly unbridgeable gap between theory and
practice – that makes Marxism superior to all other
philosophies of practice.

It is possible to see Bernstein’s narrative construal of Marxism as a response to Habermas’s advocacy of a social theory able to initiate what he calls
‘processes of enlightenment’. Indeed, what is striking
about this narrative construction of Marxism is its
affinity with Habermas’s general project of enlightenment. As a result of this affinity, Bernstein’s thinking
suffers from certain weaknesses which also occur’ in
Habermas. His theory of praxis as a political narrative
which allows us to say ‘who we are’ is very reminiscent
of Habermas’s desire for some ideal-speech situation. In
both we. find a yearning for some lost immanence of
meaning and experience (identity). Bernstein wishes,
above all, to emphasise the praxial nature of narrative,
and yet, along with Arendt, he turns narrative into a
new ontological foundation, almost a transcendental
condition of possibility of meaning and experience.

Once the idea of narrative is onto logically grounded
then Marxism is simply brought in to make the transition from contemplation to praxis. This may not be
what Bernstein intended, but it seems to follow from
his eclecticism. There is certainly a lack of clarity in
his final argument, and it is to be hoped that the
author will be able to develop further the idea of narrative and explore how it relates to a Marxist praxis in
what he tells us will be his next book, on ‘Identity and
27

Totality’. It is clear that the account of praxis in
terms of a ‘world’ narration is open to charges of
idealism: Bernstein’s argument is susceptible to a deconstructionist reading which would have no problem in
locating a metaphysics of presence in this construal of
Marxism.

However, Bernstein is at pains throughout to disassociate himself from such a utopian and eschatological standpoint. His construal of a narrative, Marxist
praxis is grounded in the view that the truth of Marxism is a practical one which can only be demonstrated
and realised through its making and creating. Praxis,
therefore, is a constituting medium which enables the
subject to see itself in the world (object) he/she
creates. But, this praxial account of Marxism is also
susceptible to the criticisms that have been brought
against a Fichtean Marxism, for it is evident that
Bernstein’s narrative project does reveal a certain similarity to a Fichtean standpoint vis-a-vis actuality, despite his own attempts to liberate Lukacs from such a
position. What the author would need to show and
argue is that one could only escape the unmistakeable
dangers of Fichteanism – and, it could be argued, the
unavoidable dangers, given the fact that the reality of
Capital persists in determining the antinomical character of our thinking and equally our attempts to think
beyond those antinomies – by sinking into the political
quietism and impotence, of wanting ‘a revolution without revolutionaries’ (13).

Having located what I see as some of the weaknesses of the book, let me conclude by emphasising its
importance in the current intellectual situation. The
book should be widely read and discussed amongs.t those
engaged, in whatever way, in post modernist and poststructuralist debates. For its lesson is that to surrender
subjectivity to the prison-house of language and to

condemn the world to textual play is tantamount to
political nihilism. This is what can be learnt from Flaubert’s reduction of reality to illusion and his celebration of the freedom achieved through fiction. Bernstein
shows us that no narrative is politically neutral, and
here represents the book’s advance over several others
which have recently argued for the necessity of a
story-telling that wiU inform us as to our moral destiny
(14). His politicisation of narrative reveals that narrative is the telling and re-telling of our political fate
and destiny. It is Marxism, he shows, that can provide
the framework in which a political narrative able to
make life under the rule of capital comprehensible can
be constructed. Such a narrative leads us from the confines of what he calls the ‘categorial contemplation’ of
philosophy to the open spaces of political praxis.

Like many other reappraisals and revaluations of
the Marxist project in recent years Bernstein’s leave us
at the point of the problem of formation, of a ‘culture
(Bildung) of politics’ (15). The ‘truth’ of Marxism, Bernstein aims to demonstrate, resides not simply in the
certainty of its object (Capital) but in the experience
of its praxis (Culture). Narrative for Bernstein needs to
be construed as a self-formative process which is politically educative. Whatever its difficulties, this is a
challenging and instructive vision of what Marxism
might mean. On the question of whether reading of TN
on which it is based is a correct or legitimate one, I
hope I have succeeded in showing that Bernstein’s
claims must be understood in phenomenological and hermeneutic terms. The author has given us an immanent
interpretation whose practical intent is to in-form us
of our historical responsibility and our political fate.

NOTES

2

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power. trans. WaIter Kaufmann and R.

J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books~ 1967, section ’39.

The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-phllosophical essay on the forms
of great epic literature. Merlin Press, 1978. Henceforth abbreviated to

TN.

3

,
,

7

28

‘iiIitory and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Merlin
Press, )971, will be abbreviated to HCC.

See Georg Lukacs, Record of A i:’ii’e. edited by !stvan Eorsi, Verso
Editions, 1983, p. 77.

The problematic or abstract status of art in capitalist society first
becomes evident in the philosophical tradition that is the background of
TN in Kant, where the autonomy of art receives its ideological justificiiTon (what is ideological is the claim to universality on the part of the
aesthetic judgement), and is recognised’ as a distinctly historical process
by Schiller in his The Aesthetic Education of Man. trans. R. Snell
(Frederick Unger, New York, 19635. In this context Nletzsche’s Birth of
Tragedy of 1872, trans. Waiter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1967) gains a
new re evance. In section 23 of that work Nietzsche speaks of modern
abstract man, untutored by myth, and who possesses only ‘abstract
morality; abstract law; the abstract state’; in a word, an abstract culture. However, the choic’e between the two traditions of Schiller/Nietzsche and Hegel/Matx is clearly between an aestheticised politics
and a politicised aesthetics, between a politics of culture and a culture
of politics.

For a defence of a Lukacsian philosophical position within the pages of
Radical PhilOSOPh~ see lan Craib, Lukacs and the Marxist Criticism of
tciOlogy In RP 1 ,Summer 1977.

he danger here of course is that Kant’s philosophy is being reduced to
an epiphenomenal status, ~nd .Kant reduced to being merely a spokesperson for the rising bourgeoisie. Although it is a danger Lukacs perhaps succumbed to in wrltil)gs like the Young Hegel, the achievement of
the approach in HCC is that it precisely avoids such reductionism.

Lukacs shows thatmn the most progressive and radical of bourgeois
thinkers were not able to resolve the contradictions (antinomies) of
their theories because they failed to penetrate the contraClictory character of reality itself.

On page 89 Bernstein points out some of the distinctive features of a
‘philosophy’ of the novel. According ~o Bernstein TN is to be construed
neither as a work of literary criticism nor as an exercise in the sociology of the novel. Rather, it is a theoretical and conceptual argument
which is ‘the interpretation of a practice’ as opposed to ‘the representation of an object ~ nove!)’. He goes on to say: ‘Like any interpretation of a social praCtIce the result is very general… since Lukacs is
interpreting the practice of novel writing, his theory is not such as
would allow one simply to !P.I!!.l the theory in order to interpret any

8
9

10

11

12
13

particular novel. The meaning of, a social practice should not be confused with the interpretation of the products of that practice.’ Bernstein is resisting any attempt that will reduce Lukacs’s theory of the
novel to an epistemological and empirical account of the novel.

Throughout he remains faithful to Lukacs’s project of a Hegelian Marxism in HCC.

In cultural terms, Bernstein argues, the novel can be read as a kind of
‘societal transcendental imagination’ (p. 116).

For Kant’s own undermining of the distinction made in the Critique of
Pure Reason between constitutive and regulative knowledge see section
70 (Book Two) of the Critique of Judgement.

Hegel’s classic definition of the unhappy consciousnt!ss runs as follo ….s:

‘Consciousness of life, of its existence and activity, is only an agonising
over this existence and activity, for therein it is conscious that ·its
essence is only its opposite, is conscious only of its own nothingness.’

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford
UP, 1977), Section 209.

See Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton UP, 1971).

For an excellent account of the complexity of Lukacs’s position see
Michael L6wy’s intelleCtual biography of Lukacs, From Romanticism to
Bolshevism (Ne …. Left Books, 1979), pp. 168-93.

This is Habermas’s judgement of a Hegelian position: ‘Hegel desires the
revolutionising of reality, without any revolutionaries.’ See ‘Hegel’s
Critique of the French Revolution’, in Theory and Practice. trans. John
Viertel (Heinemann, 1974), p. 139.

See for example Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue: a study in moral
teory (Dickworth, 1981); Hannah Arendt, Kant’s Political Philosophy
Harvester Press, 1982); and Bernard Williams, EthlCS and the Limits of
Philosophy (Fontana Paperbacks, 19″). One should also consult the
excellent work of Richard J. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and
Political Theory (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1976). in my opinion it is this book that provided the inspiration behind
the central thesis of After Virtue, but which itself is far removed from
the ahistorical character of Maclntyre’s ‘Nietzsche or Aristotle?’ argument. See also by the same author, ‘From Hermeneutics to Praxis’ in
Review of Metaphysics. Vol. XXXV, No. 4, June 1982, pp. 823-4′. Also
relevant is the work of perhaps the most interesting of all the French
post-modernists, at least from the perspective of the ‘political’, JeanFrancois Lyotard, who is very much concerned with the idea of narrative as It relates to politics. For a good introduction to Lyotard, and
one which does ‘justice’ to his position, see David Carron, ‘Rephrasing
the Political with Kant and Lyotard: From Aesthetic to Political Judgements’, in Diacritics, Fall 1984, pp. 74-90 (special issue on the work of
Lyotard).

The phrase ‘culture of politics’ is borro….ed from George Kelly’s HegeJ’s
Retreat from Eleusis (Princeton UP, 1978), p.

2‘.

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