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Limiting Effects of Historicization in Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel

A major problem of this theory of the novel is that as Lukács presents it, it is much less universally applicable than it could be and may seem. Its basic idea is one that could possibly explain every novel, or even most art in the developed world: that art as self-expression relies on interiority, on a breaking-off of the individual from the rest of the world. This core, this most basic, original idea, defines and explains most novels remarkably well; as Jonathan Arac says in his 2009 review, Lukács’s theory “does what we expect a theory to do—it illuminates cases beyond those that it knew about.”1 But The Theory of the Novel does not stop at simple definition or philosophy—instead it is determined to place its ideas within a historical structure. The feeling is that Lukács first develops a philosophical idea, and only then sets that idea within a historical justification: “However thin the history, nonetheless, this theory does not set itself against history but instead always historicizes.”2 By thus “historicizing”, Lukács ties the novel to Greco-Roman antiquity, to the Roman Catholic Church, and to the Renaissance—essentially, to Western Europe; and this makes it erroneous to extend Lukács’s theory of the novel to any literary tradition outside that region.

It is true that criticizing Lukács on a historical basis may seem entirely inappropriate—after all, he makes no pretense of accuracy when rhapsodizing on the totality of the ancients or making sweeping generalizations about the modern state of interiority. From this point of view, disallowing any single historical inaccuracy or idealization opens up so many opportunities for criticism that the theory loses all its power. However, there is a difference between criticizing Lukács’s history in general and criticizing his extension of European history to that of Russia, since this move is logically important within the context of the Theory alone, not simply within the context of reconciling the Theory with what is now considered true and accurate. The statement that the Russian novel is not a product of Lukács’s account of the development of interiority is to take issue with the internal inconsistency of discussing Russian novels without addressing their fundamentally distinct history; this is a logical objection and not an essentially factual or historical one. A brief review of the history behind Lukács’s theory reveals just how strongly it relies on the history of Europe, and to what extent the Russian novel is excluded.

Lukács’s theory begins linking interiority with Europe from the very beginning, as his view of the European novel begins in Greek antiquity, with the “Great Epic” of Homer and the tragedy and philosophy that followed it. The creators of these works lived in totality, but it is important to note the kind of totality this was: it was a precarious totality that created realistic art, mused on abstract concepts, and only saved itself by including the thinker in the bounds of that life which he pondered. After the Romans conquered Greece, this particular totality was spread throughout the entire Western European world by the Roman Empire. Though the center of power, culture, and art was always at Rome, the patrician class of the entire empire entered into Greco-Roman culture with an ambition and vigor that ensured the foundations for novel were laid not only at the capital, but throughout the regions that would eventually become Europe.3 Furthermore, the empire provided these elements of Greek culture, these seeds of interiority, with centuries of a stable, prosperous environment in which to flourish—an environment in which it was possible to spend time and resources on artistic and philosophical pursuits. Indeed, it is hardly possible to state with certainty that the aristocratic, literate echelons of Greco-Roman culture might not have entered interiority on a significant scale—in fact, the Romans created works that are now often called novels. At the very least, it is clear that Greco-Roman culture was well on its way toward interiority even while it remained in the world of totality and epic, making interiority a European cultural product even before it had fully developed. In keeping with this history, Lukács depicts not a stable totality with a sudden transition to interiority and novel, but a progression towards interiority (epic, drama, philosophy) that was interrupted.

Lukács identifies the rise of the Christian church as the cause of that interruption, or more specifically the Roman Catholic Church of “Giotto and Dante, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Pisano, St. Thomas and St. Francis.”4 By prioritizing the redemption of the spirit over the life of the earthly self, and by insisting on the uniqueness and urgency of the salvation it offered, Roman Catholicism removed the focus of Western European thought from the precursors of interiority and placed it on the struggle for eternal redemption. Roman Catholicism is in itself an element of Western European culture; but Lukács’s analysis becomes still more specific to this region in view of the fact that Catholicism was not only the guardian of totality throughout the Middle Ages, it was also a vital factor in the evolution of interiority: ecclesiastical establishments such as monasteries served as the continuity between the developing interiority of Greco-Roman antiquity and its rediscovery in the Renaissance by becoming the repositories of classical scientific and literary manuscripts. The Latin language of these texts was preserved by the education and scholarship that in the medieval era was inseparable from religion.

When this rediscovery took place, Western European thinkers were able to return their focus to the secular. After a period of direct imitation of the ancients gave way to a genuine resumption of their progress toward interiority, the novel form began to develop; with its first instances being such works as The Princess of Cleves, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe, placing the period of the novel’s emergence between the mid-sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries. Lukács indicates this era (the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment) with a short but decisive paragraph:

Once this unity between earth and heaven disintegrated, there could be no more spontaneous totality of being. The source whose flood-waters had swept away the old unity was certainly exhausted; but the river beds, now dry beyond all hope, have marked forever the face of the earth.5

Thus Lukács’s account of the evolution of interiority is not a universal description of how self-expressive art came to be, but a very specific story that repeatedly limits itself to Western Europe: it progresses from the fragile totality of classical Greece and Rome, to medieval totality defended by Roman Catholicism, to the emergence of interiority from religion that took place in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The history of interiority in Russia cannot be reconciled with this sequence, as can be illustrated by a brief and sweeping overview of Russian history and its philosophical consequences regarding the novel.

Not much is known about the peoples that populated what is now Russia while the Classical era was flourishing in Europe. What is known does not reach much farther back than about the 8th or 9th century CE. This is because up to that point Russia was inhabited mostly by various illiterate tribes,6 which in itself signifies an entrenched totality much more robust than that of ancient Greco-Roman culture.7 Although it may be argued that this period in Russian history has little import to the style or content of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, it is precisely this fact that actually makes it of importance: since the ancient history of Russia did not provide Russian culture with an impetus toward ever more interior forms of literature, it cannot function as an analogue to the Classical era in Lukács’s history of the European novel.

The written history of Russia begins in about 860 CE,8 according to the Russian Primary Chronicle’s account of the founding of the first Russian state. The Chronicle states that the earliest Slavic tribes had no order or system of government, and after decades of resisting Scandinavian demands for tribute, they finally entreated the Scandinavian people known as the Varangians to settle in their land and create government and order. Within a few centuries the Slavic tribes and their Scandinavian rulers became a more or less homogeneous Slavic culture,9 and the city of Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, became the capital of the first Russian state, the Kievan Rus’. With a geographical situation that was almost ideally suited to agriculture and commerce, the Kievan region entered a golden age of peace and prosperity. Farming was successful enough to produce profitable surplus, the Dnieper and Volga Rivers facilitated vigorous trade,10 and there was extensive cultural contact with the rest of Eastern Europe, particularly with the Byzantine Empire. Although the Kievan Rus’ and the Byzantine Empire did engage in a number of short-lived military conflicts, their relations were always close and often friendly. By the time their rulers signed a peace treaty in 907 (according to the Primary Chronicle), many of the Kievan signers used Christian rather than pagan language, swearing to a single God,11 and in 987, Prince Vladimir I officially declared Byzantine Christianity to be the sole Kievan religion. Christianity solidified a union not only spiritual but also cultural between Russia and the Byzantine Empire, the effect of which is palpable even today; the Cyrillic alphabet and the strict stylization of iconic art are examples of Byzantine contributions that have become defining elements of Russian culture. It is to this period of peace, prosperity, and cultural interaction that Frederick Copleston refers when he states that “if her development had proceeded smoothly, Russia might conceivably have given birth to her own philosophical tradition.”12 The trajectory that the Kievan period projects can make it seem as though early Russian culture joined onto the evolution of the European novel in the medieval period, and is thus explained by Lukács’s sequence; that although the evolving Russian culture did not have the background of Greco-Roman civilization to draw upon, the extent of its relations with cultures that did eliminated this obstacle to interiority and novel. But in truth, a number of factors combined to end the interaction and distance Russia from Europe irrevocably. Over the next few centuries, Russia and Europe became distant and alienated from another, to the extent that speaking of “Europe” as including Russia can be considered as quite literally erroneous in many contexts.

As mentioned above, the Christianity of Russia came from Byzantium. Even long before the 1054 Great Schism divided Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, there were considerable differences between the two principal traditions of Christianity. Most significantly (from a cultural rather than a doctrinal standpoint), Eastern Christianity tended to conduct its liturgy in the vernacular languages of its various congregations, rather than in the Latin used by the Christianity of the former Western Roman Empire. This enabled the Slavonic-speaking people of the Kievan Rus’ to understand their religious ceremonies, but it also excluded Russia from the Latin intellectual culture of Europe.13 Every educated person in Roman Catholic countries understood Latin, which thus became the standard language not only of liturgy but also of knowledge. It was a means for disseminating every momentous idea, whether theological, artistic or scientific; and as discussed above, it was the element of continuity between the proto-interiority of the ancients and the eventual emergence of true interiority that resulted in the European novel. With a language barrier between Russia and the scholarship of Classical texts, Russia remained outside of the progression Lukács presents as the universal story of the novel.
But even beyond this language barrier, another significant consequence of the Schism was that when the churches split, each became heretical to the other. This caused the culture of the Rus’ (and later of Russia) to develop a strong tendency toward xenophobia. The attitude toward Catholic countries and all that they represented became extremely suspicious: in the Russian Orthodox view, these countries did not simply differ in doctrine, but were apostate; and as such their influence was a definite danger to the Russian people. In order to protect its “link between the soul and its impossible yet certain redemption,” Russia began to deliberately distance itself from Catholic Europe, and consequently, from the interiority that would later develop there.

Meanwhile, political instability, so poisonous to art and abstract thought, was growing within the Rus’ itself throughout the eleventh century. Power struggles within the royal family culminated in civil wars, which not only injured Russian prosperity but also weakened its capacity for defense.14 As a result, when the Mongol Empire launched a series of deliberately destructive invasions of the already-crumbing Kievan Rus’ in 1223 and 1240, the city of Kiev itself fell quickly, and the Mongols tore the entire city to the ground. In an effort to better defend the remaining Russian states the capital of the Rus’ was moved from Kiev to Moscow—a fateful decision for the development of interiority, since Moscow was less suited to trade and agriculture and more geographically distant from Western Europe than Kiev had been, making prosperity and cultural exchange more difficult. Moscow was protected by a wooded, northerly location, making it better suited to defense; but nevertheless, within a few decades the invaders established the period of Mongol rule in Russia known as the Golden Horde or the Mongol Yoke. Russia entered a period of colonization, during which it was cut off from Europe.15

According to most accounts, the invaders were not interested in making Russia into a Mongol culture, only in profiting from taxation. The new Russian state, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, was directly governed by Russian rulers who only answered to Mongol authority in the event of a rebellion or a refusal to pay tribute.16 Still more significantly, the Golden Horde did not attempt to convert large numbers of Russian Orthodox people to Islam. By 1480, when Russian forces drove out the Mongols and established the Tsar as supreme ruler of Russia, it was a thoroughly Russian culture that remained, complete with Orthodoxy and its accompanying totality. However, the extent of cultural contact with Europe that had existed in the Kievan Rus’ did not resume, primarily because this turmoil in Russia was coincident with the fall of Byzantium. The decline of the Byzantine Empire began circa 1203 with the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople and culminated in the 1453 Ottoman siege. Because of the extent to which Russia’s membership in medieval Europe depended on its relationship with the Byzantine Empire, the fragmentation and declining prosperity of Byzantium was as inimical to Russia as to Byzantium itself. As trade with Byzantium decreased and as the Crusades opened up alternative trade routes, the Russian control of the Dnieper River lost most of its value, depriving the Rus’ of a major source of its wealth, and with the downfall of Russia’s primary European cultural relative, the xenophobia that was already present in Russian Orthodoxy became invested with a sense of sacred duty. In the minds of Orthodox Russians, the Russian capital at Moscow became the new center of true Christianity, the “Third Rome”:17 Rome itself had become Catholic and Constantinople been conquered, leaving Moscow as the last great stronghold of the true faith.

Cut off from Europe by ideological, geographical, and cultural barriers, the Russia of the next few hundred years was largely rural rather than urban; religious and superstitious rather than philosophical or scholarly. Russian culture as it developed in the region of Moscow, with its poor soil, short growing season, and lack of important trade routes, had neither the inclination nor the luxury to spend time on abstraction or interiority. The one group of people that did concentrate on non-material things was the monastic class, which of course put all its effort toward totality-encouraging religious pursuits. This period in Russia may not be so easy to describe as a “happy age,” but it is a true example of totality, as its literature bears witness: it consists almost entirely of religious poetry, oral folk epic, lives of saints, and Christian legend.18 Not only do most of these forms exhibit the union “between earth and heaven” that marks them as products of religious totality, but also their lack of distinction between fact and fiction and the absence of the concept of an “author” make them examples of the totality Lukács describes as having existed in Ancient Greece. Chronologically, though, this Russian “integrated civilization” was the contemporary of the Western Europe that was awakening artistically and scientifically at this time. This was the High Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment, the birth of the novel; and Russia was largely oblivious.

The extreme totality and isolation of Russia throughout the late medieval period and the Renaissance make it seem almost impossible that novel could ever have developed there at all. And yet, not only did novel emerge in Russia, but the Russian novel quickly became one of the most developed, and even most interior, expressions of the novel form. This happened largely because of one pivotal event: the reign and reforms of Tsar Peter I the Great, who came to power in 1682. Though it was against Orthodox tradition for a ruler to step outside Holy Russia, Peter wanted to gain allies in his effort to expand Russian coastal land holdings and oppose the Ottoman Empire. Thinly disguised, he embarked on his famous Grand Embassy to Europe in 1697. In terms of diplomatic results the embassy was not terribly successful, but in terms of its effect on Russian culture it cannot be overestimated. In the interval between the end of the Byzantine Empire and the Embassy of Peter the Great, Europe had been culturally reborn. The rediscovery of Classical literature, the invention and popularization of the printing press, the rebirth of portraiture and realistic art, the Protestant Reformation, the invention of the secular and the self, and the emergence of the novel had already taken place; the Renaissance had come and gone and its developments had become part of the fabric of European cultures. Nobles dressed and acted according to complicated codes of elegance; royals were almost invariably lavish patrons of the arts; the upper classes placed a high, abstract value on art and education. Peter the Great was of course impressed and astonished. On his return to Russia, he implemented a series of reforms intended to accomplish the goal of “joining Europe,” among them a legally-mandated conversion to European clothing and grooming fashions, use of the Julian calendar, and a restructuring of the provincial government. He established a planned city (St. Petersburg) as a new capital and a cultural center; founded schools and a Moscow newspaper; and established a precedent of traveling to Europe that the Russian nobility soon followed en masse. But these were merely the trappings of interiority, the results that followed it; not interiority itself. Peter I introduced them out of a sense of being embarrassingly behind the times, not due to an interiorly-motivated personal desire to foster Russian intellectual and aristocratic culture.

But despite the Russian hostility to foreign elements, and despite the degree of totality that preceded their introduction, the education and travel that began to be expected of nobles had a definite effect. Instead of progressing slowly and naturally from totality to interiority and novel (the progression Lukács describes), the newly literate and educated aristocratic sector of Russian culture went from profound totality to profound interiority in just over a century and a half—the blink of an eye, in terms of the usual timescale for the evolution of literature. Thus the history of the novel form in Russia is not the Lukácsian sequence of Great Epic-drama-philosophy-Church Epic-novel, but a separate sequence of complete and static totality in folk and church epic, followed by the introduction of interiority in the form of the European literary tradition (which by then had already progressed through every stage in Lukács’s sequence) followed almost immediately by novel.19

Lukács himself realized that the Russian novel was perhaps not as completely explained by his theory as the European novels he examined, such as those of Flaubert, Goethe, and Balzac. For instance, at the very end of Theory of the Novel he declares that “Dostoevsky did not write novels,” which may be a reference to his feeling, stated in his notes for a book on Dostoevsky (never written), that Dostoevsky’s oeuvre lies somewhere between epic and drama, not squarely in the shattered world of the novel.20 Tolstoy’s work, he says, aspires to a “great and truly epic mentality.” Similarly, he calls Gogol’s Dead Souls “authentically epic,” which is either contradiction or hyperbole in light of his earlier declaration that epic is solely the product of an ancient world of totality that has disappeared irrevocably (in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment). Lukács treats the Russian novel almost as a thing apart, nearly separate from his definition of the novel; he seemed to sense that while the Russian novel was quite as much a product of interiority as the European novel, there was something in the Russian novel that was closer to totality and even to Great Epic than any of its European contemporaries or predecessors.

That something was a uniquely Russian approach to the problem of interiority and totality. This came from the fact that interiority in Russia had its source in the cultural changes and education introduced by Peter the Great and his successors, allowing the survival of a large part of Russian totality due to the fact that these changes were enforced by the government. Interiority was grafted into Russian culture and its totality like a specimen plant on a wild stock; initially at least, it was not the flower of natural popular changes in Russian culture and opinion. The motives and execution of the reforms problematized interiority in a way that could not have been caused by a more natural cultural shift (as in the Renaissance); they created interiority in Russian culture as a foreign element, an unfamiliar and new issue that required a specialized approach. This is the essential difference between a conscious introduction to a concept and its development as an element of national culture. Historical and cultural divergences make Russian and European novels different enough that they require different theories.



1 Arac, Jonathan. “What Kind of History Does a Theory of the Novel Require?” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 41 (2009). Fortieth Anniversary Conference special issue. p. 191.
2 Ibid., p. 191.
3 “Everywhere cities were growing in wealth and magnificence…fusing provincial and Roman together into a single Greco-Roman commonwealth” in which “the local aristocracies…felt a pride in the culture of Homer, Menander, and Virgil.” Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity, pp. 165-166. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986.
4 Ibid., p. 37.
5 Ibid., p. 38.
6 This is illustrated by a quote from the Russian Primary Chronicle: “We understand neither Greek nor Latin. Some teach us one thing and some another. Furthermore, we do not understand written characters nor their meaning. Therefore send us teachers who can make known to us the words of the scriptures and their sense.” (This is from a request from the Moravian Slavs to Emperor Michael of Byzantium, circa 888. According to the Primary Chronicle, Michael responded by sending the scholars Methodius and Constantine, who developed the first Slavic alphabet; they are now venerated in Orthodoxy as Saints Cyril and Methodius.) Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text, p. 62. Trans. Cross, Samuel and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Olgerd. Cambridge, Mass.: The Medaeval Society of America, 1953.
7 This strength of this totality is illustrated by observations of similarly oral cultures to this day; for instance, in an illiterate, purely oral culture the literature almost always (sometimes even consciously) deprioritizes the singular artist in favor of culture and unanimous expression—no matter how idiosyncratic his interpretation, the teller will say that he speaks as he grew up hearing, word-for-word as he received the story from older members of his culture. Albert Lord’s study of South Slavic bardic tradition is filled with examples of this, of which this is one: “One of the best accounts of the learning process is to be found in Parry Text 12391 from Šećo Kolić...Here are his own words: ‘When I was a shepherd boy, they (singers of tales) used to come for an evening to my house...Then a singer would pick up the gusle (a stringed instrument for accompanying sung epic), and I would listen to the song. The next day when I was with the flock, I would put the song together, word for word, without the gusle, but I would sing it from memory, word for word...’” –Lord, Albert: The Singer of Tales, p. 21. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
8 Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text, p. 59. Trans. Cross, Samuel and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Olgerd. Cambridge, Mass.: The Medaeval Society of America, 1953.
9 "In 839 the Rus were Swedes; in 1043 the Rus were Slavs."—Logan, F. Donald: The Vikings in History, p. 184. New York: Routledge, 2005.
10 Ragsdale, Hugh: The Russian Tragedy, p. 6. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
11 Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text, pp. 64-68. Trans. Cross, Samuel and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Olgerd. Cambridge, Mass.: The Medaeval Society of America, 1953.
12 Copleston, Frederick: A History of Philosophy: Russian Philosophy, p. 1. London: Continuum, 2003.
13 Ragsdale, Hugh: The Russian Tragedy, p. 9. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. Ragsdale’s comparison of Russia’s scientific development with that of Poland, a similarly-located but Catholic country which produced such luminaries as Nicholas Copernicus, is particularly revealing on the subject of how the Latin language facilitated European intellectual development.
14 Ibid., p. 10: “Royal relatives murdered each other and raised revolts that maintained the society in a state of perpetual civil war and anarchy.”
15 Raeff, Mark. Peter the Great Changes Russia, p. x. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972.
16 Ibid., pp. 11-12.
17 “The current thinking and external outlook of the Russian Orthodox Church have three main roots. First, and most important, is the traditional concept of Holy Russia. Surrounded by Catholicism and Islam, Orthodox Christian Russia has endured for a millennium in spite of invasion, oppression and occupation. Holy Russia is further defined by the concept of messianism – that Moscow is the ‘Third Rome’ and that Christianity finally finds its true expression in Russia after degeneration in Rome and Constantinople. The faith of the Slavs brings a deeper meaning to Christianity from which the rest of the world can profit. The idea that Russia is a sacred space protected by Orthodoxy supports both a superpower mentality and xenophobia: Russia is a special spiritual space where faith, nation and culture are linked, and Russia will endure aggression from both East and West.”—Evans, Andrew. “Forced Miracles: The Russian Orthodox Church and Postsoviet International Relations.” Religion, State and Society 30.1 (2002): 33-43.
18 Miliukov, Paul. Outlines of Russian Culture: II—Literature in Russia, pp. 1-24. Trans. Ughet, Valentine and Davis, Eleanor. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1960.
19 Lyric was the first literary form to become popular in Russia after the reforms, but interiority is not as much of an absolutely necessary prerequisite for this genre. Novel itself began in Russia with unremarkable light and romantic “entertainment literature,” but progressed to its pioneering nineteenth-century level remarkably quickly with Evgeny Onegin and Dead Souls appearing in 1833 and 1842, respectively. See Miliukov, Paul. Outlines of Russian Culture: II—Literature in Russia, pp. 22-24. Trans. Ughet, Valentine and Davis, Eleanor. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1960.
20 Tihanov, Galin. "Ethics and Revolution: Lukács's Responses to Dostoevsky." The Modern Language Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), p. 609.


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