CRITICAL IRREALISM / Michael Löwy / The Room 2


Michael Löwy

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The concept of  critical realism has a long tradition in Marxist and radical litterary studies.  One can trace its origin to Marx and Engels own – scattered  but insightfull –  remarks on Balzac,  Dickens,  the Brontë sisters,  and other novelists admired for their gift to document the reality of bourgeois society much better than  –  according to Engels in his  Letter to Miss Harkness,  from  April 1888  –   « all the professed historians, economists and statisticians»  (Marx and Engels,  1973 : 115) .   It is Georg Lukacs who more systematically  –  but also dogmatically – developed the aesthetic theory of critical realism,  represented in his eyes by the great classic litterary tradition,  from  Honoré de Balzac to Walter Scott,  and  from Tolstoy to  Thomas Mann.   There is much relevance in the concept of critical realism,  but it tends to become  exclusive and rigid :  too often  –  and this applies certainly to Georg Lukacs –  realism appears as the only acceptable form of art,  and the only one that can have  a critical edge towards the existing social reality.   

    Are there not many non-realist works of art which are valuable and contain a powerfull critique of the social order ?   In other terms :  does it not exist  a category of litterary and artistic creations that could be defined as  critical irrealism ?     This term obviously does not exist in any dictionary nor in any established litterary terminology,  but I would argue that it is helpful in describing a vast area of the litterary landscape which has been neglected,  despised or ignored by (most of)  the  partisans of critical-realist aesthetics.  Of course,  there is an element of provocation  and  irony in  manufacturing   this expression,  but I think it has a deeper meaning.   

    What do I mean by  Irrealism ?   Obviously it is conceived as  the counterpart  to Realism,  in the ordinary meaning of the word for aesthetics .  In order to define the former,  we have to briefly survey the usual definitions of the later,  not according to the specific theoretical arguments of  one or another scholar,  but in the established use of the word,  codified by dictionaries and encyclopaedias.  Interestingly enough,  the main scholar writing on the history of realism,   Erich Auerbach,   did not try to  define the word in his  great classic work Mimesis (1946)  :  in the postface to the book,  he explains that he deliberately  avoided  any attempt at systematic description or  theoretical elaboration of the term « realism » . In fact,  Auerbach does  refer to  some characteristics of modern realism,  such as taking daily life,  in its historical context,  as the subject of serious,  problematic and even tragic  presentation. ;  but this stops short of any  substantive definition . Auerbach,  1946 : 494, 496).

According to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English  (1995),  « paintings,  films,  books,  etc,  that try to represent life as it really is are in the artistic tradition of realism ».  One could therefore argue that  paintings,  films,  books that do not try to represent life as it really is belong to the realm of irrealism.   Irrealist works of art can take various forms :  gothic novels,   fairy tales,  fantastic stories,  oneiric narratives,  utopian or dystopian novels,   surrealist art,  and many others.     Usual definitions of realism insist on the importance of « precise detail » :  according to the Oxford English Dictionary  (1989),  realism is  « the close resemblance to what is real ;  fidelity of representation,  rendering the precise details of the real thing or scene » ;   similarly,   the Webster Third New International Dictionary (1981) defines realism as  « the theory or practice in art and literature of fidelity to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealisation of the most typical views,  details and sourroundings of the subject ».   Now,  this may be misleading :  it is not the  « details »  that distinguish realist from irrealist works.  For instance,  in a fairly tale like,  say,  « Sleeping Beauty »,  most of the details are very precise  and very « accurate »,  but the story is certainly not  « realistic » :  its logic is not that of  « fidelity to real life »,  but a logic of imagination, of  the marvelous,  the mystery or the dream.    Of course,  all these definitions of realism suppose there exists  such a thing as an “objective” natural and  social reality,  independent of human subjectivity  –  a pressuposition which I share.  This does not mean,  it seems to me,  that subjective aspects – culture, ideology, individual feelings – no not enter  necessarily into our perception or knowledge of this reality,  not to speak of its literary or artistic  representation.

    Georg Lukacs also defines « the literature of realism » as  one that aims at  « a truthful reflection of reality ».  But he seems to have a much narrower concept of this « truthful reflection » since he rejects as  belonging to « modern anti-realism » some of the most important authors of the 20th century :  Joyce,  Kafka,  Musil,  Proust,  Faulkner,  Virginia Woolf,  and many others.   It is because of their « subjectivism »  – which consists in  « exalting man’s subjectivity,  at the expense of the objective reality » –  that this modernist  literature is « anti-realist ».  Lukacs’ discourse  is  exceedingly dogmatic in its exclusion of « subjectivism » from realist literature :  as if art,  in all its forms,  was not necessarily « subjective ».  Moreover,  it is seriously corrupted by typical Stalinist arguments :  for instance,  that  Modernist  works of art based on the subjective feeling of angst cannot avoid  « guilt by association with Hitlerism and the preparations for atomic war » ! !   (Lukacs , 1971 : 23,  24,  81). The argument is not only politically and aesthetically  absurd,  but has a sinister ring,  since  « guilt by association » was a standard Stalinist argument in the Moscow  Trials of the 1930’s…Lukacs book from 1956  has little in common with his brilliant early Marxist  writings,  such as History and Class consciousness (1923) :   it is probably one of his worst pieces,  but the authors’ culture and intelligence is such that even his weakest writing raises interesting questions.   It  was ferociously criticised by Theodor Adorno,  in an essay entitled  « Forced Reconciliation »,  which takes the  defense of  the modernist authors and  rejects  Lukacs  viewpoint  that  true art should be the  « reflection of objective reality »  –    or  the  « copy  (Abbildung) of empirical reality » – as a fetishistic adherence to   vulgar materialism   (Adorno,  1965 : 153).  

 Anyhow,  what I understand as « irrealism »  has little in common with   Lukacs’ concept of « anti-realism » :  not only because most of his « subjectivist » authors are not,  in my view,  foreign to realism,  but also because  « irrealism » does not  oppose realism ;  it is not  « anti », it just describes the absence of realism. 

To some extent,  the concepts of realism and irrealism should be considered as ideal-types  in the Weberian sense,    i.e. as entirely coherent and « pure » epistemological constructions :  in the empirical literary world,  works  are often an « impure » combination of both.  In fact,  there is hardly an irrealist work that does not contain elements of realism,  and vice-versa.  Moreover,   many  important literary œuvres –  for instance,  Franz Kafka’s novels  and tales –  defy such classifications :  they establish themselves  in a no-mans land,  a border territory between reality and  « irreality ».  Kafka’s writings  do not  follow the classical realistic cannon,  because of their  disquieting oneiric atmosphere :  the author seems to erase –  silently,  discretely,  unnoticed –  all distinction between dream and reality.  For instance,  in the astonishing fragment found in his Diaries,   where the main character dreams that an ancient knight plunges a sword  in his spine.  Once awakened,  he discovers that effectively a great and ancient knightly spear is thrust in  his back.  He will be saved only thanks to his friends,  who,  standing on a chair,  pull it slowly out,  milimeter by milimeter…This marvelous confusion between dream  – or nightmare –  and reality is also present,  in a less direct form,  in  his novels,  such as The Trial.    According to Lukacs,  Kafka’s  « vision of a world dominated by angst,  and of man at the mercy of incomprehensible terrors »,  is typical of modernist anti-realism :   « an essentially subjective vision is identified with reality itself » (Lukacs,  1971,  p. 36,  52).   What Lukacs doesn’t seem to realize is that Kafka’s visionary power flows precisely from this subjective approach,  which,  without being either « realist » nor « anti-realist »,  illuminates social reality from within.   (I have developped this interpretation in my book on Kafka, see  Löwy 2004).   It is true that  some of Kafka’s short stories ,  such as The metamorphosis,   or   Josephine the singer and the people of the mouses,  are decidedly on the side of irrealism.

    Of course,  not all  irrealist  literature or art is critical.   Fairy tales,  for instance,  can be quite conformist,  in their ethical and social values.    Critical irrealism can be said of œuvres that do not follow the rules of « accurate representation of life as it really is »,  but nevertheless are critical of social reality.  Their critical viewpoint is often related to the  dream of another world,  an imaginary,  idealised,  or terrifying one,  opposed to the gray,  prosaic,  disenchanted reality of modern (capitalist) society.   Even when it takes the superficial form of a flight from reality,  critical irrealism can contain  a powerful implicit negative charge challenging the philistine bourgeois order.    The word « critique »  should not be understood as a rational argument,   a systematic opposition or an explicit discourse :  more often,  in irrealist art,  it takes the form of protest,  outrage,  disgust,  anxiety,  angst –  the feeling so thoroughly dismissed by Georg Lukacs ;  sometimes  the critique is only present in an indirect way,  through  the idealized images of  a different,  non-existing  « reality ».   

           Most –  or at least a very substantial part –  of irrealist critical art belongs to Romanticism,  and its later manifestations,  such as   Symbolism or Surrealism.   This has to do not only with literary style,  but also with social,  political and philosophical views.   Erich Auerbach did not consider the  Romantic novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau  as realistic,  because  their view of social reality was too much determined by his belief in Natural Rights   (Auerbach,  1946 : 413).   There is certainly a sort of elective affinity between Romanticism and critical irrealism.     In order to understand it,  we have briefly to discuss the meaning of Romanticism as a cultural phenomena.

          The established view of Romanticism  is based on the apparently obvious assumption that we are dealing with a literary movement of the early XIXth century.  For instance,  the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary  defines it at  « the late 18th century and early 19th century revolt against classicism or neo-classicism to a more picturesque,  original,  free and imaginative style in literature and art ».   Much of  the Romanticism scholarship shares this approach,  albeit in a less superficial form.   Just to mention one exemple :  in his well known essay  Natural Supernaturalism  – an outstanding book,  by all standards –  M.H.Abrams asks the question :  « what can properly be called Romantic ».  His answer is that the major Romantic figures  are those poets  « who came to literary maturity during the crisis precipitated by the course of the French Revolution »,  namely Wordsworth,  Blake,  Colerdige,   Schiller and  Hölderlin.
This assumption is doubly wrong :  Romanticism is much more than a literary phenomenon  – although of course it has an important literary component – and it did not come to an end either in 1830 or in 1848.    Romanticism  is a worldview   – in the German meaning of Weltanschauung   –  which manifests itself in all spheres of cultural life :  literature,  poetry,  art,  religion,  philosophy,  political ideas,  social theories,  historiography and   social sciences ;  its history  extends from Rousseau – to mention the name of a Founding Father – to the present,  i.e. from the second half of the 18th to the beginning of the 21st century. One could formulate its concept  –  Begriff –  in the following terms :  Romanticism is a cultural protest against modern industrial/capitalist civilisation, in the name of values and ideals drawn from  precapitalist, premodern societies.   The nostalgia for an idealized  past can take regressive forms  –  in conservative or reactionary Romanticism  –  but also revolutionary ones,  when the aim is not a return to the pre-modern times,  but a detour by the past towards an utopian future.  Rousseau himself is a good exemple of such revolutionary Romanticism,  as are William Morris or Gustav Landauer.   (For a systematic discussion of this issue see Löwy and Sayre,  2000).  

The Romantic opposition to capitalist-industrialist modernity does not always challenge the system as a whole, but rather reacts to a certain number of its features  that are experienced as  inhuman or particularly repelent.  The following are thematic constellations that most frequently appear in Romantic works:

  1. The Disenchantment of the World.    In a famous passage of the

Communist Manifesto (1848),  Marx  and Engels observed that “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism” of the past had been killed by the bourgeoisie, “drowned . . . in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”.  (Marx, Engels,  1975 :  vol. 6,  487).   Seventy years later, Max Weber noted in a celebrated talk, “Science as a Vocation” (1919) :  “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 

‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendent realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and person human relations.” (Weber,  Max,  1994 :  302). 

         Romanticism may be viewed as being to a large extent a reaction on the part of “chivalrous enthusiasm” against the “icy water” of rational calculation and against the Entzauberung der Welt—leading to an often desperate attempt to reenchant the world.   From this standpoint,  the well-known verse “die mondbeglanzte Zaubernacht”  (the moonlit enchanted night) from the German 

Romantic poet Ludwig Tieck can almost be read as the philosophical and spiritual program of Romanticism.  It contains,  at least implicitly,  a  critical distance towards the modern disenchanted world,  illuminated by the blinding sun of instrumental rationality.  

    Religion—both in its traditional forms and in its mystical or heretical manifestations—is an important  means of “reenchantment” chosen by the Romantics. But they also turned to magic, the esoteric arts, sorcery, alchemy, and astrology; they rediscovered Christian and pagan myths, legends, fairy tales, “Gothic” narratives; they explored the hidden realms of dreams and the fantastic—not only in literature and poetry, but also in visual arts, from Füssli and Blake in the 19th century to Max Klinger and Max Ernst in the 20th.  The connexion to critical irrealism is obvious.

  1.  The Quantification of the World. As Max Weber sees it, 

capitalism was born with the spread of merchants’ account books, that is, with the rational calculation  of credits and debits. The ethos of modern industrial capitalism is Rechenhaftigkeit, the spirit of rational calculation.

    Many Romantics felt intuitively that all the negative characteristics of modern society—the religion of the god Money (Carlyle called it Mammonism), the decline of all qualitative, social, and religious values,  as well as of the imagination and the poetical spirit, the tedious uniformization of life, the purely “utilitarian” relations of human beings among themselves and with nature—stem from the same source of corruption: market quantification. 

    3. The Mechanization of the World.  In the name of the natural, the organic, the living, and the “dynamic,” the Romantics often manifested a deep hostility to everything mechanical, artificial, or constructed. Nostalgic for the lost harmony between man and nature, enshrining nature as the object of a mystical cult, they observed with melancholy and despair the progress of mechanization and industrialization, the modern conquest of the environment. They saw the capitalist factory as a hellish place and the workers as damned souls, not because they were exploited but because they were  enslaved to the machine.    We will see below how  critical irrealist works deal with this issue.

    4. Rationalist Abstraction. According to Marx, the capitalist economy is based on a system of abstract categories: abstract work, abstract exchange value, money. For Max Weber, rationalization is at the heart of modern bourgeois civilization, which organizes all economic, social, and political life according to the requirements of goal-oriented-rationality (Zweckrationalität, or instrumental rationality) and bureaucratic rationality. Finally, Karl Mannheim shows the connection between rationalization, disenchantment, and quantification in the modern capitalist world.  According to him, “this ‘rationalizing’ and ‘quantifying’ thinking is embedded in a psychic attitude and form of experience with regard to things and the world which may itself be described as ‘abstract’ . . . [This} rationalism . . . has its parallel in the new economic system” oriented toward exchange value   (Mannheim,  1986 : 62).

    The Romantic opposition to rational abstraction is often expressed as a rehabilitation of non-rational and/or non-rationalizable behaviors. This applies in particular to the classic theme of Romantic literature: love as a pure emotion, a spontaneous attraction that cannot be reduced to any calculation and that is in contradiction with all rationalist strategies of marriage – marriage for money, marriage “for good reasons.” There is also a revalorization of intuitions, premonitions, instincts, feelings –  terms that are intimately associated with the usual image of “Romanticism”.   

    5. The Dissolution of Social Bonds.     The Romantics are painfully aware of the alienation of human relationships, the destruction of the old “organic” and communitarian forms of social life, the isolation of the individual in his egoistic self, which taken together constitute an important dimension of capitalist civilization, centered on urban life. Saint-Preux in Rousseau’s  The New Heloise is only the first in a long line of Romantic heroes who feel lonely, misunderstood, unable to communicate in a meaningful way with their fellow men, and this is the case at the very center of modern social life, in the “urban desert”.

             Several of these issues can be found in critical irrealism:  in fact,  to a large extent,  this form of art is  part and parcel of the Romantic movement,  as here understood,  and its critical attitude towards the modern industrial society is often  inspired by the topoi of the Romantic protest.   Obviously,  in the 20th century,  irrealist art takes different forms as in the early XIXth century Romanticism.    Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s  extraordinary film L’Age d’or  (1930) is a good exemple of a new,  Surrealist,  form of critical irrealism :  in a dream-like succession of images,  bourgeois conventions,  the social order,  and the established religion are unmercifully teared into pieces,  while eroticism and mad love are immoderately celebrated.  Some of the scenes,  such as the love-making couple that disturbs a pompous official ceremony,  or the bishop,  a burning tree and a giraffe thrown by the window ,  have become  classical images of Surrealist black humour.   The ironical and subversive power of this Surrealist –  i.e. irrealist – piece was such that it triggered a political and cultural scandal,  and was forbidden by the police for half a century !    

    In what follows we are going to discuss a  few examples of  irrealist  œuvres  which have as one of their central (critical) themes the nightmare of a totally mechanized life.    While the dominant ideology of bourgeois society celebrated,  since the Industrial Revolution,   the virtues of Economic Progress,   Technology,  Mechanisation  (later Automation),  the unlimited expansion of Industrial Production and Consumption,  these artists voiced a radically dissident attitude.   This applies also to Romantic authors that can be described as realists such as Charles Dickens : in his industrial novel Hard Times (1844)  he describes the dreadful fate of the workers forced to adapt their movements to the uniform rhythm of the steam-engine’s piston,  “which worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”. (Dickens  1965 : 22).   By the way, a beautyfull poetical  image,  but hardly realistic,  considering that even the maddest of elephants could not keep as  deadly  monotonous a movement  as a steam machine…                

      Let us begin  our brief survey of critical irrealist works with some of the fantastic novels,  the Märchen,  by the great German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Curiously enough,  Georg Lukacs hesitates in classifying  Hofmann as “anti-realist” :  in his novels,  “realism in detail goes hand in hand with a belief in  the spectral nature of reality”.   However,  “with Hoffmann the supernatural was a means of presenting the German situation in its totality,  at a time when social conditions did not as yet allow a direct realistic description”.   This is of course questionable,  since other contemporary German writers such as Kleist,  were quite realistic,  while several Romantic authors from England and France  – where social conditions were more advanced,  according to Lukacs –  did also use supernatural elements in their writings.     Hoffmann’s world,  argues Lukacs,  is  “for all its fairly tale,  ghostly ambience –  an accurate enough reflection of the conditions in Germany”  (Lukacs,  1971 : 52).  One can agree that Hoffmann’s fairy tales relate to the social conditions in Germany,  but one cannot,  by any stretch of the word,  define them as “realist”.  They are not “accurately describing real life”,  but  creating a fantastic,  supernatural,  imaginary world,  which contains a typically Romantic protest against the emerging bourgeois society.

    A striking exemple is The Sandman,  one of Hoffmann’s most famous and popular novellas,  and a piece which has become,  thanks to Offenbach’s operetta Les contes d’Hoffmann,  a sort of modern myth.  As we know,  its subject is the sad story of a young man,  Nathanael,  who fell in love with Olimpia,  a perfect dancing-and-singing-life-sized doll manufactured by two disreputable characters,  Professor Spalanzani and Mr. Coppelius,  the diabolical Sandman that haunted Nathanael’s childhood and killed his father.     Fascinated by the marvelous puppet,  which he mistakes for a living creature,   Nathanael  declares his love for her, takes her in his arms for dancing and even  kisses her ice-cold lips. His friend Siegmund  tries to warn him :  Olympia,  inspite of her beautiful features is “soulless”,  and her eyes are  “utterly devoid of life”.   Convinced of her artificial nature,  he insisted :  “She is strangely measured in her movements,  they all seem as if they were dependent upon some wound-up clockwork.  Her playing and singing have the disagreeably perfect,  but insensitive timing of a singing machine,  and her dancing is the same”.  Desperately  in love with Olympia,  Nathanael rejects this friendly warnings,  and keeps adoring and courting the automaton,  until the day when the two perverse  magicians quarrel and tear their masterwork into pieces in front of her lover.  Nathanael  becomes totally mad and kills himself.   (Hoffmann 1967 : 32).  In a commentary on Hoffmann, Walter Benjamin observed that his tales are based on an identification of the automatic with the Satanic, the life of modern man being “the product of a foul artificial mechanism governed by Satan from within.”  (Benjamin,  1930 : 644) The tale is “irrealistic”,  in so far as only thanks to supernatural powers could the two  diabolic manufacturers create a puppet so perfect as to be mistaken for a living beauty by an over-sensitive and innocent young man.   And it is critical in so far as it gives form to the Romantic angst,  or rather,  terror,  of the modern process through which everything,  including the human beings themselves,  is becoming mechanical.   

               In a much less know tale,  significantly titled  Automata,  Hoffmann describes a mysterious (supernatural ?) automaton  in Turkish costume,  who answers,  with oracular insight,   questions from the public.   The Turk seems to have some link to a strange  (supernatural?) Professor X,  the owner of an astonishing collection of music-playing automata.   One of the heros of the tale,  Lewis,  gives free rein to his feelings of terror toward such artificial constructions,  in a way that seems a direct comment on the events described in The Sandman :  “ The fact of any human being’s doing anything in association with those lifeless figures which counterfeit the appearance and the movements of humanity has always,  to me,  something fearful,  unnatural,  I may say terrible,  about it.  I suppose it would be possible,  by means of certain mechanical arrangements inside them,  to construct automata which would dance,  and then to set them to dance with human beings,  and twist and turn  about in all sort of figures;  so that we should have a living man putting his arms about  lifeless partner of wood,  and whirling round and round with her,  or rather it.  Could you look at such a sight,  for an instant,  without horror ?”  (Hoffmann,  1967 : 95).   Combining realistic detail with a fantastic atmosphere of supernatural forces, Hofmann’s irrealist critical tales gave voice and form to the deep-seated Romantic rebellion against the industrial/capitalist  mechanization of life.  

           Almost  one century later,  Franz Kafka wrote a short story,  The Penal Colony   (1914),  inspired by similar feelings.   This disquieting piece is,  as often  Kafka’s writings,  simultaneously and inseparably realistic and irrealistic.   It  describes,  in extremely realistic terms,  a non-existing,  purely imaginary machine,  invented by the Commander of a penal colony in order to torture and execute prisonners  by writing on their body the sentence that condamned them.  The whole narrative turns a round this deadly appliance,  its origin,  its social and political meaning,   its automatic functioning :  there is no need to move it by hand,  since “the apparatus works entirely by itself”.   The other characters in the story play a rôle only in relation to this central device.   The machine,  whose “each movement is calculated with precision”,  appears,  more en more,  during the explanations of the officer  in charge of the execution,  as an end in itself.  It is not there to execute a person,  its rather the victim which is there for the apparatus,  to furnish it a body where it can write its masterpiece,  a bloody inscription illustrated by “a very great number of ornaments”.  The officer himself is only a server of the machine,  which finally sacrifies his life for this insatiable Moloch.  (Kafka,   1996 :  164-198).   Fetisch manufactured by human beings,  the mechanical thing becomes a power in itself,  that dominates  and destroys them.  The story clearly belongs to the Romantic tradition of protest against the growing and sinister power of modern machinism.   

         Of which specific human-sacrificing “machine” was Kafka thinking ?   The penal colony was written in October 1914,  three months after the beginning of World War I…The war was for Kafka a mechanical process,  in two ways :  a)  in so far as it was the first really modern war,  the first one were the confrontation of killing machines had such an important rôle.  In a document he wrote in 1916 –  a call for the building of a hospital for nervous illnesses produced by the war –  Kafka observed :  “the enormously intensified role of machines in the war operations  today generates the most serious dangers and suffering for the nerves of the soldiers”. (Kafka,  1976 : 764) ;  b)  the world war itself was a sort of blind system of gear-wheels,  a murderous and inhuman mechanism escaping any human control.

    In spite of all his criticism against the Prague writer,  Lukacs aknowledges that  “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism,  and man’s impotence in the face of it,  is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writings”.   The problem,  according to Lukacs,   is that,  instead of realism,  Kafka uses an allegorical method,  and in allegory,  as Walter Benjamin (quoted by Lukacs) emphasized, “the facies hippocratica of history looks to the observer like a petrified primeval landscape” (Lukacs,  1971 : 41,  77-78).   Lukacs is right to insist that allegory is not a realistic style,  but if it is able to convey “the diabolical character of modern capitalism”,  the facies hippocratica of history,  why should it be disqualified ?   Kafka’s  tale The penal colony is precisely a remarkable exemple of  the powerfull insights on the sinister side of reality offered by  an allegorical piece.    

     A few years later,  Aldous Huxley provided ,  in his well known novel Brave New World  (1931),  a new  artistic expression for the Romantic angst  of  mechanization.   This brilliant dystopia  is irrealist,  not because of any supernatural presence – as in E.T.A. Hoffmann –   but simply because it describes an imaginary future world which does not exist anywhere.  Without doubt,  many details of the book were inspired by tendencies which existed already in modern society at his time,  but all of them are products of imagination that do not have any accurate correspondent in reality.  To give an exemple :   the  glorification of industrial manufacture,  of machinery,  is so great in this imaginary society,  that Henry Ford became the God or the Prophet of the Brave New World.   The ancient prayer to  “Our Lord” is replaced by  “Our Ford”,  the sign of the cross by the letter T  (as in Ford’s famous flyver model) and the historical chronology is divided in two periods:  BF,  “Before Ford”,  and  AF,  “After Ford”.   In one of the chapters,  Mustapha Mond,  the chief Controller of the “New World”,   explains the historical rôle of the new prophet :  “Our Ford (…) did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.  Mass production demanded the shift.  Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning,  truth and beauty can’t”.   The reason why traditional religion had to be replaced by the cult of  “Our Ford” is one of logical coherence  :  “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness.  You must make your choice.  Our civilisation has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness”  (Huxley,  2004 :  210, 205). The critical/ironical intention is obvious,  but the Ford-religion imagined by the author –  a most insightful  and amusing literary invention –  does not pretend to “represent life as it really is”.    The same applies to other aspects of this extraordinarily “advanced “-  in terms of scientific-technical performance –  civilisation :   for instance,  children are not conceived by sexual relations,  but manufactured in a biological plant,  and destined to become members of distinct social castes.  At the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre,   mentally different individuals are produced,  in a rigid hierarchy which goes from intelligent Alpha to semi-moron Epsilon;  their embryos are placed in bottles and those disposed in racks :  “each rack…was in a conveyor traveling at the rate of thirty-three and a third centimeters an hour”. The result is a series of identical  human  (?) “products” :   “standard Gammas,  unvarying Deltas,  uniform Epsilons”   (Huxley 2004 : 22).  Huxley’s dystopia  does not pretend to reflect,  reproduce or faithfully describe existing reality  :  by inventing an “irreal” world,  he critically illuminates the present,  confronting it with the possible results of its worst tendencies.   While ETA Hoffmann was terrified with the confusion between the living human bodies and the soulless mechanical artifacts,   Aldous Huxley fears the industrial chain-production of human beings,  thanks to the unlimited power of modern technology.  However,  both share the Romantic protest against the mechanization of life,  and both create an irrealist narrative which powerfully conveys their angst .

    These anxieties can be found not only in literature,  but in the plastic arts and in cinema.  One striking exemple of cinematographic critical irrealism,  which has much in common with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandman is Fritz Lang’s picture Metropolis  (1927).  In this remarkable film,  certainly one of the masterpieces in the history of cinema,  a terrifying mechanical under-world,   inhabited by masses of enslaved workers,  is ruled by an elite of rich owners,  living confortably above the surface.   Several of the subterranean laborers become victims of the monstrous machinery,  which appears,  in one of the most impressive scenes of the picture,  as a sort of pagan idol  claiming human sacrifices.   The only hope of the modern slaves is a young women,  Maria,  who preaches them love,  social justice and self-emancipation;  but she is replaced,  in a sinister elite-inspired conspiracy,  by a clone,  an automaton manufactured by a perverse scientist.   The artificial  doll,  in appearance identical to Maria,   instigates the workers to blind violence,   almost leading to catastrophe (the flooding of the subterranean world).   The plot concludes  with a – highly artificial  –  “happy end”,  but the images of the terrifying and murderous Power Plant,  and of the diabolical puppet replacing the angelical Maria,  are extremely powerful and suggestive,   and have become,  as much as E.T.A. Hofmann’s   Olympia,  part of  modern imagination.  

    The above exemples refer to the issue of mechanical de-humanisation,  but of course there are many other aspects of the modern bourgeois/industrial civilization  which are the object of the anger,  the protest and the fear of “non-realist” artists.   Critical irrealism is not an alternative,   a substitute,  or a rival to critical realism :  it is simply a different form of literature and art,   which does not attempt,  in one way or another,  to “reflect” reality.   Why choose,  as Georg Lukacs vainly tried to argue in 1956,  between Kafka and Thomas Mann,  i.e.  between “an aesthetically appealing,  but decadent modernism,  and a fruitful critical realism”  ?  (Lukacs,  1971A : 92) .   Are they not both fruitful,  but in distinct  manners and using distinct methods ?     Cannot critical irrealism be conceived as complementary to critical  realism ?   By creating an imaginary world,  composed of fantastic,  supernatural,  nightmarish,  or just non-existent  forms,   can it not critically illuminate aspects of reality, in a way that sharply distinguishes itself from the realist tradition ?

    I would plead for the introduction of the concept of critical irrealism,  because it permits to define a large and important territory in the aesthetic sphere and give it a  positive content,  instead of just ignoring  it,  or rejecting it into the tenebrae exterioris of  realism.   Adepts of  the  realist cannon often seem to consider non-realist art as a residual category,  a dust-bin of aesthetics where one must dump all irrelevant,  unimportant,  or inferior works,  disqualified by the lack of the most important requisite of accomplished art :  “fidelity to real life”.   This is a serious mistake,  not only because it leaves out important works of art,  but because it is blind to the capacity of critical irrealist art to help us understand and transform reality.  

                                                                           MICHAEL  LÖWY

References and Further Reading

          Adorno,   Theodor  (1965),   Noten zur Literatur II,  Frankfrut am Main,  Suhrkamp Verlag.

         Auerbach,  Erich   (1946)  Mimesis.  Dargestellte  Wirklichkeit in der Abendländische Literatur,  Bern,  A.Franke AG Verlag.

    Dickens,  Charles  (1965),  Hard Times,  New York,  Harper and Row

         Hoffmann,  E.T.A.  (1967),   The Best Tales of Hoffmann,  New York,  Dover Publications.

    Huxley,  Aldous  (2004),   Brave New World,   New York,  Harper/Collins.

             Kafka,  Franz, (1976),  Briefe an FeliceFrankfurt am Main,  Fischer Verlag.  

          Kafka,  Franz,  (1996),  « In der Strafkolonie », Die Erzählungen,  Frankfurt am Main,  Fischer Verlag  

    Löwy Michael and Sayre,  Robert  (2000),  Romanticism 

Against the Tide of Modernity,  Duke,  Duke University Press. 

    Löwy,  Michael  (2004)  Franz Kafka, rêveur insoumisParis,  Stock

      .Lukacs,  Georg   (1971),  Realism in Our Time.  Literature and the Class Struggle,    New York,  Harper & Row.

          Mannheim,  Karl  (1986),  Conservatism. A contribution to the sociology of knowledge, Edited by David Kettler,  Volker Meja and Nico Stehr,  London,  Routlege and Kegan Paul..

    Marx,  Karl and Engels,  Friedrich  (1973),  Marx and Engels on Literature and Arts.  A Selection,  edited by Lee Baxandall  and Stephan Morawski, St.Louis,  Telos Press.

        Marx, Karl and  Engels, Friedrich (1975),   Collected Works,  trans. R. Dixon et al.,  New York: International Publishers

          Weber,  Max   (1994),  “Science as a Vocation,” 1919,   trans. Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, in Sociological Writings, ed. Wolf Heydebrand , New York: Continuum


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