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Return to Mimesis: Georg Lukcs and Erich Auerbach

in the Wake of Postmodernity

Christophe Den Tandt

Universit Libre de Bruxelles (U L B)

In his recent scholarship, Ihab Hassan pleads for a re-evaluation of

the discredited project of realism (Beyond; Realism).2 He argues
that the objections levelled against mimesisnot only in 20th-century
aesthetics, but also in philosophy and in contemporary sciencelose
some of their strictures if we endorse an attitude of pragmatically
based cognitive trust.3 Hassan means thereby that a shared will to
truth4 can still express itself in a cultural context that invalidates
such previous anchoring points of realism as the truth of corre-
spondence or of coherence, of authority or of revelation, of ideologi-
cal conformity or of factual precision.5 In his view, there is room in
contemporary culture, if not for a nave, snapshot-like reproduction
of reality, at least for discourses that oppose falsity and pretence.6
This broadened concept of realism, Hassan contends, still fits
within the perimeter of postmodernism: Important aspects of post-
modernist artAllen Ginsbergs acceptance of world immanence or
even Samuel Becketts harrowing search for truthcontribute to the
project. Still, it seems obvious that the call for a new mimesis breaks
with the scepticism of poststructuralist authors whose writings have
shaped postmodernist theory (Jacques Lacan, Jean-Franois Lyotard,
Jacques Derrida). For the latter philosophers, the subjects capacity

This paper was first published in Return to Postmodernism: TheoryTravel
WritingAutobiography; A Festschrift in Honour of Ihab Hassan. Eds. Klaus
Stierstorfer.Heidelberg: Universitstverlag Winter, 2005: 61-78.
Ihab Hassan, Beyond Postmodernism: Toward an Aesthetic of Trust in Klaus
Stierstorfer (ed.), Beyond Postmodernism: Reassessments in Literature, Theory,
and Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 199-212; Ihab Hassan, Realism,
Truth, Trust in Postmodern Perspective, Third Text 17:1 (2003), 1-13.
Ihab Hassan, Beyond, 206.
Ihab Hassan, Beyond, 206; Ihab Hassan, Realism, 20.
Ihab Hassan, Realism, 12.
Ihab Hassan, Beyond, 208.

to grasp the real through discourse is burdened by a feeling of aliena-

tionthe sense of strangeness of the world, as Richard Rorty
evocatively puts it.7 Hassans endorsement of pragmatic truth stand-
ards implies, on the contrary, that there is no reason to believe that a
gulf separates discourse, consciousness, and the world. Poststructur-
alist scepticism is, in this view, an unfalsifiable metaphysical claim.
In the present essay, I wish to contribute to this re-evaluation of
realism by revisiting two mid-twentieth-century theoreticians
Georg Lukcs and Eric Auerbachwhose legacy is still discernible
today. Hassan praises Auerbachs Mimesis, while neo-Marxist and
neo-historicist theorists regard Lukcs as an inescapable interlocu-
tor.8 In general terms, Auerbach and Lukcs demonstrate, against the
pressure of twentieth-century formalism and modernism, that mime-
sis remains a serious concern of philosophical aesthetics. It is no
outdated aesthetic whose epistemological claims may be ignored.
Discussions of mimesis, Lukcs and Auerbach argue, must investi-
gate the function of literary texts with regard to the social world and
its historical development. The two critics approach is admittedly
tied to a quasi-metaphysical confidence in historical progress that
can hardly be emulated in a post-deconstructionist era. Yet they
wrestle with key issues that formalist readings cannot address. At the
end of the present essay, I will indicate how turn-of-the-twenty-first-
century works still have to devise new solutions to problems
broached in their writings.

1. Georg Lukcs: Realism and totality

Realism has been an awkward topic for twentieth-century criticism
because it postulates an affinity between literary texts and truth.
There are admittedly many legitimate objections against a truth-
based literature. Plato, in The Republic, already pointed out the
paradoxical status of literary fictions claiming to imitate the world.9
Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 129.
Hassan, Beyond, 207. For neo-Marxist appraisals of Lukcs, see June Howard,
Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill and London:
University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 22-26; Fredric Jameson, Marxism and
Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1971), 194; John Frow, Marxism and Literary History
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 9-17.
Plato, The Republic, ed. and trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin, 1987), 92-

In the wake of Russian formalism and the New Criticism, many

scholars have attempted to bypass these difficulties by divorcing
literature from truth claims. Twentieth-century readers have often
been content to endorse I. A. Richardss contention that literature
does not rely on referential statements.10 Formalist approaches have
reduced mimesis to rules of representation and technical protocols
the principles of verisimilitude or referential illusion.11 Tzvetan
Todorov, in his structuralist poetics, contends that realist verisi-
militude amount to a texts adequacy to the rules of a genre: It is
merely one aspect of the texts literariness, affording no privileged
anchorage in a non-semiotic world.12
Admittedly, the concept of verisimilitude has allowed critics ap-
propriately to point out that realism is a historically situated dis-
course with ascertainable structural features. Admirable essaysIan
Watts The Rise of the Novel, for instancehave been written on the
hypothesis that studying mimesis requires identifying the features of
a formal realism.13 Yet Watt makes exorbitant concessions to
formalist aesthetics when he argues that formal realism is [] only
a convention and that there is therefore no reason why the report
on human life presented by it should be [] any truer than those
presented through the very different conventions of other literary
genres.14 Such epistemological agnosticism will, I think, not suffice
in this matter. If verisimilitude endows fictions with the capacity to
simulate the real, one still needs to clarify how this simulacrum can
be effective enough to trick readers into mistaking the word for the
world. Similarly, discussions of realism, unless they seek to dismiss
the genre altogether, need to trace a dividing line between texts
aiming to do justice to specific perceptual or social contexts and, on
the other hand, those that pursue other goals. Hassan remarks that the
scientific records elaborated by travellers to the South Seas, though
undeniably determined by ideology and pre-existing artistic conven-

Ivor Armstrong Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Routledge,
2002), 249-53.
Tzvetan Todorov, Potique (Quest-ce que le structuralisme 2), Seuil Points 45
(Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968), 36-37; Jean Ricardou, Le nouveau roman, Col-
lection Microcosmes: Ecrivains de toujours 52 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1978),
Todorov, Potique, 37-38.
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Har-
mondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 35.
Watt, Rise of the Novel, 35.

tions, enjoy a separate status from such deliberately anti-mimetic

modernist works as Vassily Kandinskys or Piet Mondriaans paint-
ings.15 Likewise, late-nineteenth-century readers legitimately as-
sumed that William Dean Howellss A Hazard of New Fortunes
(1890), a social novel of urban life, and Lewis Wallaces Ben Hur
(1880), a historical romance, rely on incompatible epistemological
assumptions. Such distinctions can hardly be made without acknowl-
edging that texts may fulfil some sort of truth function, even if the
latter is understood differently from the capacity to offer full-fledged
epiphanies of the real.
Surprisingly, the term truth seldom appears in Lukcss writings
on realism. Instead, when Lukcs seeks to designate what makes
both literature and human experience worthwhile, he mentions the
concrete totality of meaning and experience. Totality is central to
Lukcss thought. Yet the Hungarian theorists attitude towards it
famously shifted from his early writings to his 1930s and 40s essays
on realism. His first textsSoul and Form (originally published in
1911) and The Theory of the Novel (1920)are proto-modernist and
existentialist in tenor. On their logic, the totality of life is ardently
desired, yet can no longer be perceived as an immediate given.16 This
philosophical pessimism, Lukcs contends, informs the very struc-
ture of novels. Unlike ancient epics, which managed to express the
plenitude of a rounded world, (TN 33) novels make the immanent
meaning of the [] world (TN 84) the object of a demonic quest
(TN 88). They depict problematic individual[s] (TN 78)
Cervantes Quixote or Frdric Moreau in Flauberts Lducation
sentimentaleembarking on an irrepressible yet unfulfilled pursuit
of authenticity. Realism is not discussed in these early essays. For
the proto-modernist Lukcs, the depiction of the phenomenal world
would indeed only yield snapshots of a degraded realmthe map of
a bad infinity (TN 81). In this, the early Lukcs anticipates the
high-modernist disparagement of phenomenal experience: His Jere-
miad of the lost totality is comparable to the stance of authors who
locate the wellsprings of meaning beyond the phenomenal realmin
the inner self (Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce); in an

Hassan, Realism, 7.
Georg Lukcs, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the
Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin Press,
2003), 49. All subsequent quotations from this edition will be given in the text,
abbreviated as TN.

afterworld of aesthetic perfection (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound) , or who

argue that being eludes any movement toward presence (Martin
Lukcss conversion to Marxism and his participation in the post-
WWI proletarian insurrection in Hungary brought about his break
with modernist / existentialist scepticism.17 His political commitment
expressed itself in a new-found devotion to realism, set forth in such
essays as The Historical Novel (originally published in 1937), Stud-
ies in European Realism (1948), or The Meaning of Contemporary
Realism (1957). These works, based on Hegelian Marxist principles,
no longer present authenticity as a hidden god. Lukcs now argues
that the essence of the totality of life expresses itself rationally in
human experience in the form of the dialectic development of histo-
ry. Realist art must make plain the presence of this historical logic
within specific human situations. Concern for totality is the pivot of
this vision of [t]rue, great realism.18 Authors should strive to depict
man as a whole in the whole of society,19 thus rejecting the mod-
ernist drift toward exclusive introspection.20 In Lukcss view, the
modernists focus on a specialized segment of human experience
condemns their works to abstraction in the Hegelian sense of the
termto incompleteness, fragmentation, and impoverishment. Only
fiction that portrays the totality of the world in its contradictory
dynamics is concrete, namely able to reveal the immanence of
historical meaning through social phenomena.21 Instead of exploring
subjectivities, novels must point out how personal destinies []
interweave within the determining context of an historical crisis.22
One might infer from this that the Marxist Lukcs rushed to real-
ism with the fervour of the convert, smothering his previous scepti-
See Lucien Goldmann, Postface: Introduction aux premiers crits de Georg
Lukcs in Georg Lukcs, La thorie du roman, trans. Jean Clairevoye (Paris:
Denol, 1968), 183; Arpad Kadarkay (ed.), The Lukcs Reader (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1995), 213.
Georg Lukcs, Studies in European Realism, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York:
Grosset and Dunlap, 1964), 6.
Lukcs, Studies, 5.
Lukcs, Studies, 6.
Georg Lukcs, Narrate or Describe in Georg Lukcs, Writer and Critic and
Other Essays (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1970), 143. All subsequent quota-
tions from this edition will be given in the text, abbreviated as ND.
Georg Lukcs, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Har-
mondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 42. All subsequent quotations from this edition will
be given in the text, abbreviated as HN.

cism. Yet the value of the Hungarian critics discussion of realism

consists precisely in the fact that it still wrestles with his earlier
proto-modernist sensibility. Beyond his brazen metaphysical confi-
dence, Lukcs implicitly portrays realism as a problematic praxis.
His relentless emphasis on the totality imperative betrays his aware-
ness that realism remains vulnerable to the modernist suspicion that,
in the contemporary field, essences, being, or concrete meaning
seldom shine through the surface of phenomena. On this light, what
Lukcs found in Marxism is the ability to depict the modernist com-
plaint over the emptiness of life as an offshoot of historically
determined socio-economic processes (ND 147). In The Theory of
the Novel the loss of authentic values was rather unsatisfactorily
attributed to the gradual working of a spell (TN 42). In the Marxist
Lukcs, it stems from changes in modes of production.
The reification of human experience induced by the increasing
complexities of capitalism is, for Lukcs, the factor that makes
realism both a necessary and a problematic pursuit. In History and
Class Consciousness, Lukcs bases his discussion of reification on
the theory of alienation and commodity fetishism articulated in
Marxs early writings. Marx describes the alienation of labour as the
process by which members of capitalist societies lose the capacity to
view themselves as human subjects, in control of their historical
development. This evolution is triggered by the increasing division
of labour. As capitalism grows increasingly complex, observers are
no longer able to view their social environment as a totality of mean-
ingful human relations. Instead, they perceive a fragmented social
field where subjects are reduced to the status of a human commodi-
ty,23 and are tossed about by economic constraints seemingly en-
dowed with the implacabilitythe thingnessof natural laws.24
Human history is thus disguised as natural history, acting as an alien
force.25 In both Marx and Lukcs, alienation and reification are of
course not irreversible. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukcs
claims that it can be counteracted by direct proletarian action, of the

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin
Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 121.
See Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. Clemens Dutt
, in Clemens Dutt (ed.), Collected Works, Vol. 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart,
1975), 46-48; Georg Lukcs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marx-
ist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 83-110.
Marx and Engels, German Ideology, 48.

kind developed in post-WWI Germany by Rosa Luxemburg.26 Lu-

kcss advocacy of insurrectional socialism was, however, con-
demned by communist party authorities. In his later essays, Lukcs
therefore entrusts the struggle against reification to realism itself.
The chief aim of realism is, on this logic, to retrieve the human, lived
meaning of social phenomena.
The gesture by which Lukcs makes realism the antithesis of rei-
fication implies that mimesis is neither an effortless mirroring of the
real nor an aesthetic resource equally available to all authors at all
times. Firstly, realism is not achieved merely by representing social
life in its extensively complete totality (HN 43). Realist authors
must see through the social process that turns their life-world into a
mystified environment. They must therefore connect the observation
of possibly misleading or inert social superficialities to a totalizing
grasp of the real driving forces of their epoch (HN 212). On this
logic, local-colour realismGustave Flauberts and Emile Zolas
obsessive accumulation of factual details, for instanceremains cut
off from concrete meaning. By sticking to such an abstract factuality,
writers turn their texts into a lifeless, kaleidoscopic chaos, thus
unconsciously abetting the reification process (ND 133).
Secondly, the possibilities open to realism at given historical
moments are conditioned by the development of capitalist modes of
production. In particular, Lukcs argues that socio-political changes
from the first to the second half of the nineteenth century restricted
the window of opportunity for realist praxis. Walter Scott, Honor de
Balzac, or Leon Tolstoy were able to draw up literary maps of a
world in which the bourgeoisie was the engine of revolutionary
change, and were therefore able to grasp historys essential driving
forces (HN 245). However, the bourgeoisie turned against the
working classes during the 1848 revolutions. Late-nineteenth-century
realists lived in societies where bourgeois and workers were two
separate nations (HN 205). From then on, bourgeois authors
remained alien to popular life (HN 376). Late-nineteenth- and
twentieth-century novels display dysfunctional traitslifelessness,
dehumanization, abstract symbolism, irrationality, a predilection for
senseless violencetestifying to their creators inability to overcome
reification and grasp concrete meaning. Zolas naturalism is, on this
logic, as complicit with reifying forces as modernism. It exhausts

See Goldmann, Introduction, 184.

itself in producing dehumanized panoramas of an ill-understood

social scene (ND 132). Occasionally, Lukcs nuances his critique of
twentieth-century literature. He praises democratically inclined
authors for producing political fiction fostering anti-Fascist human-
ism (HN 345). His later essays attempt to co-opt Thomas Mann as a
genuine realist.27 Yet, his standard for evaluating literary representa-
tion never wavered: Realism must seek a totalizing grasp of the
essence of the historical moment if it hopes to escape dehumaniza-

2. Auerbachs Mimesis: The Tragic-Problematic Dignity of

Everyday Life
Though Lukcs mentions dozens of authors in his essays, he cannot
lavish praise on a wide gamut of objects. His readings constantly
revert to the small set of authors (Balzac, Scott, Tolstoy, Mann) he
regards as truly great (M 6). The Hungarian critics ambitious defini-
tion of realism, as well as his obsession with the obstacles facing
realist praxis, account for his narrow sympathies. Only exceptional
writers in the proper historical context can, in his logic, retrieve the
essence of the real. On the contrary, Auerbachs monumental essay
on the [r]epresentation of [r]eality in Western [l]iterature strikes its
readers by its inclusiveness.28 Not only does Mimesis stretch over
more than twenty centuries, from Homer to Virginia Woolf, but it
tackles textsthe Old and the New Testament, notablywhose
realist affiliation is not self-evident. Auerbachs critical openness and
Lukcss censoriousness are noticeable in their contrastive responses
to Zola. For Lukcs, the author of the Rougon-Macquart cycle is an
unwitting precursor of avant-garde anti-realism. (M 17)29 Auer-
bach, on the contrary, praises Zolas determination and courage,
(Mim 515) as well as his Balzacian ability to do justice to the whole
life of the period. (Mim 515) Similarly, the Marxist Lukcs profess-
es a doctrinal, though well-informed, hostility toward modernism.

Lukcs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (London: Merlin Press, 1963),
78-79. All subsequent quotations from this edition will be given in the text, ab-
breviated as M.
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,
trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), iii. All
subsequent quotations from this edition will be given in the text, abbreviated as
See also Lukcs, Narrate, 140.

His defence of Thomas Mann assumes that the German novelist

defers only superficially to twentieth-century currents (M 78-79). By
comparison, Auerbachs attitude towards experimental twentieth-
century fiction is best described as circumspect. He is troubled by the
new aesthetic, yet manages better than Lukcs to locate realist fea-
tures in modernist writersin his case, Virginia Woolfwithout
negating the specificity of their practice.
Still, Auerbach concurs with Lukcs on key issues. In his chapter
on Stendhal, Auerbach states in quasi-Lukcsian fashion that modern
realism must portray the embedding of [] events in the general
course of contemporary history. (Mim 491) Realism must include in
its scope the lower strata of the people (Mim 497) without relegat-
ing them to the status of background figures (Mim 497). Like
Lukcs, Auerbach voices the Hegelian belief that the spirit of history
is embodied in social phenomena. Realism must trace the deep
subsurface movement of unfolding historical forces (Mim 44) as
they manifest themselves in the depths of the workaday world and
its men and women (Mim 444). Specifically, Auerbachs concept of
realism resembles Lukcss Hegelianism in that it links the realist
portrayal of historical development to a totality imperative. Auerbach
tests the value of realism at each historical period by its capacity to
overcome social and aesthetic fragmentation. The greatest impedi-
ment to realist practice, he contends, is the prejudice, expressed in
Aristotles Poetics and in all ancient and neo-classical literature, that
only the upper strata of society and major political events (Mim
444) deserve a tragic-problematic literary representation, formulat-
ed in the elevated style (Mim 40). Realism, on the contrary, re-
quires the serious treatment of everyday reality (Mim 491). It
cannot fully develop in the works of authors who regard the de-
scription of random everyday life as worthy only of a comic (or at
best idyllic) treatment (Mim 44). The most arresting expression of
this credo appears in Auerbachs reading of the New Testament. The
Gospels, he contends, differ from all ancient texts in that they stage
the most solemn narrativethe sacrifice of the son of Godamong
the random fisherman or publican or rich youth, the random Sa-
maritan or adulteress (Mim 44). Peter, in the Gospel according to
Mark, is a protagonist of singular weakness, (Mim 42) who nev-
ertheless rises from the mundane to the sublime. Thus, the New
Testament serves as a paradigm for all texts that provide a serious

representation of contemporary everyday social reality against the

background of a constant historical movement (Mim 518).
Auerbachs call for a realism that includes the less privileged is
rooted in his concern for the proper understanding of history. He
makes this point in remarkable readings of Latin historiansTacitus
and Ammianus Marcellinus. The two authors chronicles include
narratives of revolutionary movement[s] from the depths, respec-
tively among first-century legions and in fourth-century Rome (Mim
33). Yet in each case, aristocratic conservatism and the adhesion to
the elevated style impedes any consideration of whether the soldiers
and the plebeians demands might hold social legitimacy or historical
significance (Mim 37). From Tacitus perspective, Percennius, the
insurgent legionary, is not spurred on by world-moving ideas
(Mim 50). His motives are the orgiastically lawless instincts of the
mob (Mim 50). Symptomatically, any concrete representation of the
revolt is screened out by Tacitus oratorical style: Percennius does
not speak his own language, he speaks Tacitean (Mim 39). Like-
wise, Ammianus superficially realistic narrative of the [a]rrest of
Peter Valvomeres carries little historical enlightenment (Mim 50).
Ammianus reports how Leontius, the prefect of Rome, tames a riot
by wading into the mob in person and by having its leader strung up
and flogged. In this, the author only offers a stark spectacle of chaos
and repression, formulated in a language that, through its parasitical
emphasis on the gruesomely sensory, makes the incident uncanny
and distant (Mim 60): Ammianus idiom is paradoxically vivid and
overrefineda baroque version of the elevated style (Mim 59). It
highlights the authors virtuosity and obscures the object of his
narrative. Intriguingly, Auerbachs critique of Ammianus distorted
realism castigates the very flaws Lukcs discovers in Zola (Mim
60). Thus, Lukcs and Auerbach do not disagree on the possible
failings of realist practice, only on the authors affected by them.

3. Tentative Mimesis
The genuine difference separating Auerbach from Lukcs consists in
the fact that the latter never envisages the concrete possibility of a
perfected, absolute realism: No text will grasp a totality of meaning
immanent in phenomena. This is the import of the often-cited first
chapter of Mimesis (Odysseus Scar), in which Auerbach contrasts
Homers representation of the world with the depiction of Abrahams
sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament. These pages are inspiring to

postmodern readers because they stir echoes of Jacques Derridas

semiotically informed phenomenology. Auerbach argues indeed that
realism revolves around the issue of presentificationhow to make
world and meaning present within a text. As he handles this task,
Homer quixotically writes as if all phenomena could be brought to
light in perfect fullness, leaving no lacuna, [] gap or glimpse
of unplumbed depths (Mim 6-7). In his text, men and things stand
out in a realm where everything is visible (Mim 3). The narrative of
a scar incurred in Odysseus boyhood morphs seamlessly into the
account of the heros incognito return to Ithaca at the end of his
journey back from Troy, as if these moments were not inscribed in
differentiated time frames. In the Old Testament, on the contrary,
everything is fraught with background (Mim 15). The protago-
nists main interlocutor is a hidden God (Mim 15) whose motives
and purposes remain unexpressed (Mim 11). Dialogue is made up
of fragmentary speeches interspersed with silences (Mim 11).
Time and place are sketchy and therefore call for interpretation
(Mim 11). In this, Auerbach contends, the Old Testament is faithful
to the structure of human experience. Unlike Homers epics, it does
not ignore such key phenomenological constraints as the apprehen-
sion of the real through a limiting perspective and the correlative
need to interpret a partly enigmatic empirical given. Above all, it
acknowledges the existence of historical time. For, as Heideggers
and Derridas phenomenological reflections suggest, the inscription
of experience in time is the most irrevocable obstacle to the percep-
tion of stable meaning. Time spells the death of Homers pure,
uniformly illuminated present (Mim 3). Caught in the transit from
the fading past to an undefined future, the present is always framed
by shadows. Its meaning (or signified, in Derridas terminology) is
always liable to be reconfigured by new perceptions arising in the
temporal flow (by new signifiers). Accordingly, Homers style []
of the foreground, (Mim 12) as it portrays a world frozen in pure
presence, may at best aspire to depict the quiet existence and opera-
tions of things;30 it may even capture the lives of ancient heroes and
gods. Yet it cannot render the time-bound human perception of
Readers of Auerbach usually note that the author of Mimesis fails
to elaborate on his initial reflections. If he had, his essay would rank

Friedrich von Schiller, qtd. in Auerbach, Mimesis, 5.

in between Lukcss existentialist/modernist Theory of the Novel and

the founding texts of deconstruction. As it is, Mimesis quickly
switches to the less aporetic analysis of stylistic and social fragmen-
tation discussed above. Yet the insights expressed in the first pages
affect the whole volume in so far as they make Auerbach sym-
pathetic to imperfect, unfulfilled forms of realism. The Odysseus
Scar chapter acts as an epistemological warning sign, denying the
possibility of absolute mimesis. This leads Auerbach to devote most
of his discussions to non-classical varieties of mimesis. His succes-
sive readings focus on what we might call defective mechanics of
immanence: They reveal how authors, as they trace meaning in
phenomena, succeed only partially, depending on the discursive tools
available to them and the social configuration of their time. The
figural realism of popular medieval drama illustrates this tentative
mimesis (Mim 157). The twelfth-century Mystre dAdam is realistic
in so far as it makes the everyday experience of medieval townsmen
the figurethe concrete allegorical tokenof the sublime themes
of Christian teleology, which constitute the bedrock of the medieval
audiences world view (Mim 156). This allegorical realism is, of
course, compelling only to communities where the Christian view of
salvation history goes unchallenged. Likewise, in his reading of
Gregory of Tours History of the Franks, Auerbach shows how the
historians crude early-medieval Latin prevents him from expressing
links of cause and effect adequately, making his chronicle barely
comprehensible. Yet, Gregory, who writes after the break-up of the
ossified elevated style of the late Roman empire, is in a better posi-
tion than his Latin predecessors to depict practical activity in the
practical world (Mim 92) and to offer his readers the sensory
apprehension of things and events (Mim 95).
I do not mean to argue, by way of contrast, that Lukcs takes for
granted the possibility of a realism of immanent presence. Only in
his pre-WWI writings does the Hungarian critic describe literary
forms approaching this goal. His main exemplum is Homers epics,
which The Theory of the Novel analyzes in terms similar to Auer-
bachs. Yet the Theory also assumes that the plenitude of
[i]ntegrated [c]ivilizations such as ancient Greece is irrevocably
past, eclipsed by the problematic life-world of modernity (TN 29).
Admittedly, one would expect Lukcss post-WWI endorsement of
totalizing realism to make utopian fulfilment available again to
human societies: Realism, in this Marxist-Hegelian light, should help

humans reclaim the rounded cosmos, in the form of a society freed

from reification. Yet, as I pointed out above, there is a gap between
Lukcss dogmatic statements and the literary method his texts
actually advocate. The aesthetic miracle of totalizing realism is more
a ceaselessly receding goala potentialitythan a concrete option
(M 115). Specifically, it takes Lukcs painstaking critical and politi-
cal circumnavigations to avoid making socialist realism the perfect
embodiment of mimesis. In arguments that play hide-and-seek with
communist orthodoxy, the Hungarian critic still suggests that the
worthiest literary idiom is critical realism (M 93). The latter liter-
ary methodBalzacs in the Comdie humaine, for instancedoes
not depict phenomena as if they were self-evidently meaningful. It
constructs instead an intensive totalityportraying fragments of
the world and making them significant by anchoring then in a global
understanding of social conditions (M 100). This praxis therefore
calls for a sense of distance and perspective (M 55). As they connect
facets of the real to totalizing meaning, critical realists must practice
poetic selection (ND 128), screening out the essential elements
from the ballast (ND 128).31 Their literary idiom differs in this
respect not only from Homers style of the foreground but also
from naturalism, both of which attempt to map the extensive totali-
ty of extant phenomena (M 100). It is also distinct from the propa-
gandistic allegories of socialist naturalism that travesty as reality
itself what are only abstract communist dogmas (M 124). Though the
intensive / extensive dichotomy allows Lukcs to rephrase his cri-
tique of naturalism (and of modernism) in elegant terms, it is, I
believe, not entirely consistent: Why would writers who manage to
display the intensive totality of their world be unable to evoke a self-
immanent cosmos? The intensive totality is therefore best interpreted
as a necessary paradox allowing Lukcs to project his ideal of an
accomplished realism that still maintains its critical edge.
In spite of Lukcss tendency to defer the advent of utopian real-
ism, his vision of literary history remains tied to a teleological narra-
tive with well-defined articulations: As a Hegelian Marxist, Lukcs
knows exactly when the bourgeoisie was a vital force and when it
became decadent. His readings are predicated on the belief that the
future belongs to socialism. It is, I think, on this plane that the speci-
ficity of Lukcss and Auerbachs visions should ultimately be

See also Lukcs, Meaning, 123.

located: The two critics differ slightly yet crucially in their concept
of historical time. In an eloquent passage of The Meaning of Con-
temporary Realism, Lukcs argues that realist praxis must start out
from a hypothesis about the time sequence in which historical socie-
ties fit. The very meaning of social phenomena depends on the shape
of history: It requires a temporal perspective making it possible to
gauge the present with regard not only to the past but also to the
future (M 55). Auerbach does not disagree with this principle. His
discussion of Christian figuration shows indeed how certain forms of
realist praxis make the mundane, everyday world meaningful by
connecting it to a world historical narrative (Mim 158). Yet it is not
clear whether this figural realism determines the whole history of
mimesis. Overall, Auerbachs handling of time is far vaguer, less
thematized than Lukcss. Mimesis assumes the existence of a gradu-
al processa constant historical movement (Mim 518)leading
to the withering away of the unnatural class structure of society
(Mim 440). In this, Auerbachs argument resembles a non-theoretical
Marxism that acknowledges the existence of Hegelian sequences of
historical periods without committing itself about the mechanics of
the dialectic. At bottom, the central point of Mimesisthe celebra-
tion of everydaynessis determined by Auerbachs unwillingness to
shape his literary-historical narrative in hard-edged terms. Lukcs, by
comparison, distrusts the literary representation of a contingent life-
world peopled with what Auerbach approvingly calls random
characters. The Hungarian critic contends that this literary choice,
illustrated in Franz Kafka or Albert Camus, is typical of writers who
abdicate the critical duty to reveal the core logic of history (M 58).
On the contrary, Auerbachs intimation that mimesis remains a
tentative practice, inscribed in a sketchily defined historical logic,
leads to his positive appraisal of works where the contingency of
everydayness is allowed to reveal itself.

4. Mimesis Today
Auerbachs concept of a tentative mimesis of contingent everyday-
ness seems to meet the demands of postmodern realism better than
Lukcss Marxist-Hegelian literary historical metaphysics. Still, I
believe that Lukcss and Auerbachs approaches remain comple-
mentary. Lukcss essays are inspiring by their urge to ask over-
whelming questions about meaning and historical development. I
indicate above that these grand issuesthe status of truth, notably

cannot be silenced if realism is to remain useful as a literary term.

Regardless whether one shares Lukcs historical faith, these over-
whelming questions retain a heuristic value, provided their aporetic
nature is properly acknowledged. Specifically, I think it important to
maintain a space of discussionin criticism or within meta-realist
textswhere the ultimate ends of mimesis are investigated. Lukcs
compellingly shows that realism is simultaneously an aesthetic and a
political concern. Its object is not only how the real is perceived, but
also what it means, and how we wish it to evolve by human action.
In other words, realism is in need of regulatory utopias. The arena for
such discussions should not be monopolized, as is the case today, by
spokespersons either of endless commodification or of a return to a
polity of faith-based charisma.
Lukcss greatest contribution to contemporary debates is argua-
bly his emphasis on historically determined obstacles to realist
praxis: In his view, the windows open to literary representation vary
according to political configurations and time-bound class systems.
Admittedly, Lukcss Hegelian-Marxist view of literary-historical
opportunities needs to be recast in more flexible terms for it to have
present-day relevance. One might start from the recognition that
realism has never been a literary gaze indifferently open to all as-
pects of the world. Different cultural periods have been dominated
by what we may call realist problematicsspecific issues, topics,
and strategies of representation texts had to handle in order to test
their clear-sightedness. Late-nineteenth-century realists could not
afford to ignore the pathologies of urban poverty. Sexual candour in
literature was likewise regarded as a benchmark of realist integrity.
Lukcss notion of a historically constrained realist gaze therefore
helps us realize that the centre of gravity of mimesis has moved
toward new issues. Among present-day concerns, two topics domi-
nate, I think, the twenty-first-century realist problematic. The former
is the reconfiguration of phenomenal experience induced by the
information societythe genesis of a world where the perception of
space and time is interwoven with virtual images and codes. The
latter is the deepening of multicultural experience, encouraging
contemporary observers to believe that several realities now coexist
in the social field.
The information society has been a major concern of postmodern-
ist theorists and artists (one thinks of cyberpunk, the science fiction
of the virtual experience). For Fredric Jameson, the new technostruc-

ture is the embodiment of the economic structure of postmodernity.32

In this logic, the virtual polity is the ultimate fulfilment of the reifica-
tion process denounced by Marx and Lukcs. It is so vast and elu-
siveor, as its theoreticians like to label it, sublime33that it
seems to outgrow its status as a human creation. Instead of enhancing
human experience, it creates seemingly autonomous pseudo-living
creaturesthe fetishized commodities of advertising, the media
biospheres of reality TV, cyborgs, or artificial intelligences.
Postmodern technology thwarts realist praxis because it blurs the
definition of what counts as phenomena. In his typology of postmod-
ernist fiction, Brian McHale argues that postmodernist culture is
dominated by ontological anxieties, distinct from the epistemological
uncertainties of modernism.34 Modernist protagonists approach the
world they live in from plural perspectives. Postmodernist subjects,
by comparison, live at the crossroads of several worldsin spaces
McHale, after Foucault, calls heterotopia[s].35 Postmodern tech-
nology makes the resulting ontological dizziness quite concrete.
With computerization and digitalization, the concept of a world
intuited through phenomenal perception becomes problematic.
Subjects interact with virtual entities enjoying little definition in
space and time. Information is exchanged through barely traceable
electronic connections. Digital recordings capture the accents of
famous performers singing alongside anonymous musicians whose
sampled voices are triggered at the touch of a keyboard, regardless of
when and where these musical gestures were initially carried out.
Heterotopia evokes subjects living in-between worlds, always
within the territory of the other. The term is therefore a proper meta-
phor for contemporary multicultural experience. Due to migratory
flows and the speeding up of travel, new modes of co-existence of
ethnically diverse populations have reconfigured postmodern social
spaces. On the face of it, multicultural societies offer a new territory
for realist praxis. Cross-ethnic exchanges often occur in contexts of
inequalities and racism. As such, like nineteenth-century proletarian

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 38.
Jameson, Postmodernism, 49; Joseph Tabbi, The Postmodern Sublime: Technol-
ogy and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1995), 1.
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 1987), 9.
McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 18.

life, they constitute a prime object for writers aiming to provide an

uncensored account of social conditions. On the other hand, tradi-
tional mimesis seems ill-fitted to a heterotopian perception of social
space. Realism is expected to develop a voice of cognitive authority,
privileging a dominantsupposedly Western, rationalisticworld
view. Lukcss Marxist realism, which seeks to capture the essence
of social phenomena within an organically consistent literary idiom,
embodies this monovocalism. Even Auerbachs flexible concept of
mimesis is partly grounded in it. In his discussion of modernism,
Auerbach voices concerns about a situation where a violent clash of
the most heterogeneous ways of life and kinds of endeavor removes
the grounds for the recognized community of thought on which
nineteenth-century realists built their representation of the world
(Mim 550). Fragmentation, in Auerbach, is no vector of liberation: It
is the mark of the social and aesthetic inequality of aristocratic
cultures. Mimesis, in this view, is threatened by the suggestion that
the social sceneand, especially, the disempowered constituencies
on which realism focusesmight be rifted by irreconcilable differ-
ences, separate world views, and incompatible idioms.
Logically, then, postmodern strategies addressing technological
and social change forsake mimesis, or, at best, secure its precarious
survival in modified form. Jean Baudrillard argues that the familiar
frameworks shaping human experienceindeed the very concept of
a social worldare immaterial to postmodernity.36 Only large-scale
technosemiotic forces are worthy of scrutiny, and they no longer
obey the reflectionist logic of reference.37 Similarly, cyberpunk
theorist Scott Bukatman advocates a culture liberated from its an-
choring in human nature, and dedicated to producing posthuman
hybrids of organic bodies and computer systems.38 In less radical
terms, multiculturalist critics suggest that realism might survive if it
becomes plurivocal. In this view, multicultural constellations can
only be represented adequately in hybrid genres (magic realism,
historiographic metafiction) mingling reference-oriented discourses

Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 5.
Baudrillard, America, 3-4.
Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science
Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 8-9.

with the mythology of pre-industrial societies.39 This solution does

mark out a place for realism in the cultural spectrum, and it has
arguably spurred more interest among general readers and academics
than the flight into a cyberpunk future. Yet it begs the question of
how mimesis may remain epistemologically valid when it is put on
the same plane as discourses that previous realists regarded as fables.
Mimesis itself suggests a different reclaiming of realism. Auer-
bachs aesthetic of contingent everydayness may serve as model for a
gesture of phenomenological refocusing: There should be room for a
cultural praxis that cautiously appraises the newly reconfigured
contemporary life world. Wayne Wangs and Paul Austers film
Smoke illustrates this realist attitude. One of the film's protagonists,
Augie Wren (Harvey Keitel) is an amateur photographer whose
hobby consists in taking snapshots of the crossroads in front of his
Brooklyn cigar store. With his old Leica, he has accumulated more
than four thousand pictures of the intersection of 3d Street and
7thAvenue in all kinds of weather, with any combination of traffic
and pedestrians.40 One senses a double impulse in the cigar-store
owners obsession. On the one hand, it betokens the need to be
reassured about the solidity of everyday experience, which, if one
trusts postmodern theorist, has been emptied out of meaning. On the
other, his watchfulness is rooted in a hankering after epiphanies that
might revitalize his life world.
By calling Augies attitude phenomenological, I use this philo-
sophical term loosely, with no wish to enter the technicalities of
Edmund Husserls thought. I only mean to point out that Husserl
fosters trust in the world [] on handa stance that might prove
beneficial even to the supposedly shattered early-twenty-first-century
culture.41 Husserl assumes that the world given to our perception is
there for [us] not only as a world of mere things, but also with the
same immediacy as a world of objects with values, a world of goods,

See Jose David Saldivar, Postmodern Realism in Emory Elliott, Cathy Da-
vison, et al. (eds.), The Columbia History of the American Novel (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1991), 524; Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmod-
ernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), 60-73.
Smoke, script by Paul Auster, dir. Wayne Wang, perf. Harvey Keitel, William
Hurt, and Forest Whitaker (Miramax-Nippon, 1995).
Edmund Husserl, Phenomenology as Transcendental Philosophy: 5. The Basic
Approach of Phenomenology in Donn Welton (ed.), The Essential Husserl:
Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology (Bloomington and Indianapo-
lis: Indiana University Press, 1999), 61.

a practical world.42 In this view, radical change and instability

cannot be taken for granted in human perception. Stable elements of
meaning (mathematical principles, for instance) are given to human
consciousness without mediation.
Husserls credo resonates evocatively with Auerbachs appraisal
of everydayness and with Hassans concept of a realism stance based
on pragmatic trust and attentive empathy.43 At bottom, there is no
reason to believe (and no way to establish) that the world is out to
trick us. This does not entail, however, that we should return to the
metaphysical certainties that Husserl himself aimed for, and that
Jacques Derrida so perceptively deconstructed.44 Simply, faced with
prophecies of dislocation and infinite change, one feels a need for a
counter-perspective. The twenty-first-century context may still be
mapped to good effect by realist approaches focused on the complex
interaction of continuity and change, rather than on evidence of
endless cataclysms. This call for a circumspect phenomenological
realism is motivated in part by the evolutions of postmodernity itself.
Though this might sound odd at a time of seemingly hopeless politi-
cal violence, I believe that the great sociological metamorphoses of
postmodernity already belong to the recent past. It makes therefore
sense to draw up charts of the resulting landscape. The evolution of
cyberpunk novelist William Gibsons fiction registers this diminish-
ing pace of change. Gibsons mid-1980s stories (Burning Chrome
and Neuromancer) depict a mid-21st-century world revolutionized
by computer technology and new population patterns.45 Instead, his
recent novels (from Virtual Light to Pattern Recognition) are located
in a barely futurized present.46 They offer a form of practical tech-
nosociology, making visible shifts in human experience that are
currently running their course.
The phenomenologically refocused realism I discern in Smoke
and Gibson seems to dispense with the hankering after total
knowledge that characterizes Lukcs writings. It starts out from the

Husserl, Phenomenology, 61.
Hassan, Realism, 13.
See Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserls
Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1973).
William Gibson, Burning Chrome (London: Grafton Books, 1988); William
Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984).
William Gibson, Virtual Light (London: Penguin, 1993); William Gibson,
Pattern Recognition (London: Penguin, 2003).

quasi-certainties of a limited perimeterthe field of available phe-

nomena and the socially-bound conceptual framework that makes
them meaningful. Symptomatically, Fredric Jameson, in his major
article on postmodernism, surrenders to the Lukcsian instinct of
calling for a realist idiom endowed with a superlatively inclusive
gaze, and thus presumably tailored to the challenges of technological
alienation and social heteroglossia. Yet Jameson is led to concede
that this perspective is presently unavailable.47 At the risk of break-
ing all ties with the Lukcsian tradition, I believe that this re-
totalizing impulse, though legitimate in a utopian perspective, never
fitted the praxis of realism. Auerbachs approach follows, in this
respect, the only workable path: it implicitly focuses on what Amy
Kaplan, in a seminal reading of U.S. realist novelist William Dean
Howells, calls a knowable community.48
Reading Lukcss essays against the grain, it is equally possible
to show that the Hungarian critics discussion of realism, though it
pays lip service to the totality imperative, is covertly centred on the
proximate world. The narrative method that, according to Lukcs,
brings [its] objects to life (ND 138) resembles what Grard Ge-
nette calls internal focalization.49 Scenes, Lukcs claims, must be
portrayed not from an impersonal documentary vantage point, but
from the perceptual horizon of specific charactersprovided, of
course, these protagonists participat[e] variously and actively in the
great social struggles of their times (ND 118). More fundamentally,
Lukcss constant use of the term lifeor, conversely, lifeless
as a gauge of realist integrity designates in many cases a limited
perimeter of perception (ND 133). I cannot within the scope of the
present essay discuss the momentous role life plays throughout the
Hungarian critics works. I will limit myself to mentioning Guy
Haarschers remark50 that Lukcs uses life in two apparently
opposite meanings. In early works such as Soul and Form, the term
means, on the one hand, authenticity (the lived embodiment of the
essence), and, on the other, contingent, empirical existence. Lukcss
Jameson, Postmodernism, 65-66.
Amy Beth Kaplan, The Social Construction of Realism (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1988), 47.
Grard Genette, Figures III, Collection Potique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972),
Guy Haarscher, Postface: Approche des crits de jeunesse de Lukcs in
Georges Lukcs, Lme et les formes [Die Seele und die Formen], ed. and trans.
Guy Haarscher (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), 281.

later allusions to life implicitly interweave these two ideas, gener-

ally to the advantage of the empirical connotation, which is more
easily grasped in human terms than the pure living out of the abso-
lute. Thus, Lukcsian liferegardless of the authors emphasis on
totalityoften resembles what is, I think, the object of Auerbachian
phenomenological realism. It designates a field of human praxis
the locus of the characters interaction [] with world events
where meaning may emerge or be constructed by dint of pragmatic
commitment (ND 124).
The specific objects of this non-totalizing contemporary mimesis
are, I think, the concrete complexities of the proximate life world.
The postmodernist mapping of the social world has notoriously been
addicted to large-scale vistas and hyperbole. The contemporary
world system is routinely depicted as enormous, threatening,
and dimly perceivable.51 It is proverbially subjected to the feroci-
ty of the transformations lived in daily life.52 Though such formulas
are in some respect useful markers of change, they also replicate the
ideology of information capitalism, which reaps profits out of the
fantasy of continual novelty. Likewise, in the field of ethnicity, the
celebration of diversity has yielded discourses that fail to address the
intricacies of concrete human relations. Multiculturalist critic Paula
Moya criticizes the abstract handling of otherness in postmodernist
authors.53 She recommends instead a postpositivist realist approach
that does not gloss over the specific social obstacles based on ethnic
difference, or, conversely, that disregards the empowering potential
of the concept of identity.54 Several types of realist works embody
these precepts. Film-makers such as Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing,
Clockers) 55 and John Sayles (City of Hope; Passion Fish, Lone

Jameson, Postmodernism, 38.
Donna Haraway, Modest _Witness@ Second _Millenium. FemaleMan
_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge,
1997), 4.
Paula Moya, Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural
Struggles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 9-11.
Moya, Learning, 12.
Do the Right Thing, dir. Spike Lee, perf. Dany Aiello, Spike Lee, Ruby Dee, and
Ossie Davis (40 Acres and a Mule - Universal, 1989); Clockers, dir. Spike Lee,
perf. Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, John Turturro, and Isaihah Washington (40
Acres and a Mule - Universal, 1995).

Star)56 excel at giving visible shape to configurations that are neither

clichd, nor too defamiliarizing to be perceived as alien to the film
audiences own environment. Their works favour differentiated
representations of social situations and the intelligent use of counter-
stereotypes. They have the capacity to indicate that, due to the
changing configurations of everydayness, the complexity of actual
conditions is not self-evident enough to be a mere object of reflec-
tionist representation: It should also be actively imagined. A contem-
porary cultural praxis that performs this task fulfils one of the most
intriguing goals Lukcs attributes to critical realism: asking of the
real the reasonable question (M 69). Under this term, borrowed
from Anton Chekhov, Lukcs designates the gesture that seeks to
determine the status of reason in a problematic environment.

City of Hope, dir. John Sayles, perf. Vincent Spano, Joe Morton, and Tony Lo
Bianco (Samuel Goldwyn, 1991); Passion Fish, dir. John Sayles, perf. Mary
McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, and David Straithairn (Samuel Goldwyn, 1992);
Lone Star, dir. John Sayles, perf. Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Clif-
ton James, and Kris Kristofferson (Columbia Pictures, 1996).