Communism’s Man of Letters

J.P. Stern

  • Georg Lukács: Life, Thought and Politics by Arpad Kadarkay
    Blackwell, 538 pp, £45.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 55786 114 5

He was born György Bernát Löwinger on 13 April 1885 into one of the richest Budapest families. His father, the son of a quilt-maker from southern Hungary, left school at 13, was made branch manager of the Anglo-Austrian Bank at 24, and changed the family name to Lukács when the boy was five; in 1901 he bought the title of minor nobility, and in 1906 was appointed director of one of the largest credit institutions in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Georg dropped the ‘gentry-bureaucratic’ designation of von only on his conversion to Communism in 1918. The mother came from an ancient family of rabbis and licensed moneylenders to the Habsburg emperors, and remained contemptuous of her self-made financier husband. She had been brought up in Vienna, for which, like many similarly placed ladies from the provinces, she yearned throughout her life. To annoy her and as a sign of protest against her attempts to cultivate a Viennese salon in Budapest, Georg, her second eldest son, insisted on addressing her in Hungarian, which she spoke with difficulty. It seems that throughout his adolescence the boy couldn’t make up his mind which of his parents he loathed more. If Professor Kadarkay is to be believed (and he is obviously accurate and detailed on facts even though he is not very good at organising them, and ill at ease with most of the other things which the biography of an intellectual requires), there was only Georg’s sister Mici to negotiate cease-fires in the family.

Lukács attended the Budapest Evangelical Gymnasium and in 1907 converted to Lutheranism; he doesn’t seem to have taken his baptism very seriously. Well-read in contemporary Hungarian and Western literature and immensely ambitious to contribute to literary and cultural history in the footsteps of Wilhelm Dilthey, the young man was active in a circle around Endre Ady, the greatest Hungarian poet of the age. Jószef von Lukács’s great wealth allowed his son to take a good many friends on journeys abroad, mainly to Italy, and to support a number of literary and theatrical ventures. Ill-favoured in his looks, he seems to have been frightened of attractive women and given to hiding his shyness behind huge metaphysical statements. He acquired several doctorates without submitting a dissertation, and his plans to submit a Habilitations-schrift – to the philosopher Georg Simmel in Berlin, then to Max Weber in Heidelberg – never came to anything. Amateur manager of a small privately-financed theatre where Ibsen and Strindberg had their Hungarian premières, frequent visitor to Florence and Paris, he acquired a somewhat esoteric reputation as the author of literary essays in a high metaphysical mode without showing much interest in politics. Repudiation and denial of his origin and background are the tenor of the first 33 years of his life; Professor Kadarkay doesn’t report a single statement of his on the fate of the Jews in his time.

Throughout this biography the reader is importuned with all sorts of ingenious but irrelevant comparisons between Lukács and the great heroes of Western intellectual history, yet the historical setting is defective: what is not said is that much of this story is set in the most nationalistic and politically aggressive province of the Habsburg Monarchy. Many characterisations of the hero are given – he is ‘fundamentally lonely’, a saviour of Western culture, an ascetic, a stoic and a voluptuary, a lofty spirit and a Dostoevskyan super-sinner. But actually it is just good old-fashioned Magyar nationalism that informs large parts of the book.

The Budapest world Kadarkay presents is not wholly unfamiliar. When one of Lukacs’s women friends commits suicide by jumping into the Danube, the man who fails to rescue her because he isn’t allowed to use a private telephone to call the police turns out to be Alexander Korda’s friend, the scriptwriter of The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Thief of Baghdad. And when Lukács feels guilty about the woman’s death, ‘he tries to translate his own inadequacies in love into a philosophy. Hence the Socratic irony and drama that pervades these essays.’ Why ‘Socratic’? Well, ‘Lukács once said that Socrates had no philosophy, he was it. Hungary lacked a philosophy or philosophic culture, Lukács was it.’ At this point, though, where ‘guilt’ turns into ‘philosophy’, we enter a more mysterious world: ‘Hunting for female flesh in Paris in 1911,’ the biographer observes, Lukács’s closest friend, Béla Bálazs, meets Ljena Grabenko, ‘ugly, emaciated, neglected’, a half-crazed survivor of the 1905 Revolution who had carried a baby borrowed for the occasion to hide a bomb in its blanket. Having induced Lukács to marry her, the Russian girl and her lover moved into Lukács’s house in Heidelberg and proceeded to turn it into ‘a brothel of shame’ and him into a nervous wreck. Whatever may have been Lukács’s need for self-punishment, expiation and redemption, it was this weird experience, typical of the Dostoevsky-dominated decade of the Great War, which brought him into contact with revolutionary politics. As to the disastrous affair itself, Lukács was rescued from it in 1917 by Gertrud Bortstieber, the daughter of a rabbi from the Slovak region of Hungary, a Catholic convert. ‘Ever since I met Gertrud,’ he wrote many years later, ‘it became the central concern of my life that she approved and seconded me.’ Ljena Grabenko disappeared in a gulag, and Lukacs’s second marriage lasted until Gertrud’s death. The family included two boys from her previous marriage as well as their daughter, and it provided him with all the equanimity and serenity he was ever to know.

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