So, I wore two hats. No, I'm not talking about a Marxist hat and a baron's hat (shhh); I'm talking about the fact that I was a Marxist political thinker and a literary critic. Here, I focus primarily on my talents as a critic. Here are my thoughts on books and art.
A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the "Grand Hotel Abyss" which I described […] as "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered." [From the Preface to The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature]
In the world of Marxist thinkers, what I said here is the equivalent of flashing a red cloth around at an angry bull. A lot of members of the German intelligentsia were my comrades, and I long considered them allies in the people's cause. People like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and other Frankfurt School thinkers were fighting the good Marxist fight.
But then some of them went soft—at least I thought they did. They just lost their hardcore sizzle and started to become bourgeois idealists who didn't care about having an active hand in the fight against political exploitation and oppression. Now that they were famous and kind of moneyed, they were sitting at their cozy desks at the luxurious Grand Hotel writing about Marxism, but they were becoming increasingly detached from its political cause.
I'm pretty much accusing them of hypocrisy—of living like fat-cat capitalists and losing focus. It's easy to lose focus when you're comfortable and you've got some moolah in your pockets.
"Philosophy is really homesickness," says Novalis: "it is the urge to be at home everywhere." That is why philosophy, as a form of life or as that which determines the form and supplies the content of literary creation, is always a symptom of the rift between 'inside' and ' outside', a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed. That is why the happy ages have no philosophy, or why (it comes to the same thing) all men in such ages are philosophers, sharing the utopian aim of every philosophy. [From The Theory of the Novel]
Ah, this is what I'm talking about when I talk about "transcendental homelessness."
The industrial era detached us from history and turned citizens and workers into fetishes, just objects or commodities for rich people to use and throw away. Here, I talk broadly of the human condition as lived and as portrayed in literature. We all need a sense of belonging, and it is my firm belief that before industrialization and capitalism and modernization, we all had that feeling of belonging to something. Then we lost it.
To me, the Greek epics of Homer had heroes with a clear purpose and sense of commitment. These heroes knew where they were from and where they were going. Of course, it may have helped that the Olympian gods were there to firm everything up, but why conjecture?
Over time, people started to realize that things weren't so clear—and when industrialism put the final nail in the coffin, the world started to seem fragmented and imperfect, a world without gods or God. People still long for that sense of a complete world, though, so our novels reflect the fact that fact that 1) the world is imperfect and 2) we long, nostalgically, for that feeling of belonging in a complete, perfect world.
From the ethical point of view, no one can escape responsibility with the excuse that he is only an individual, on whom the fate of the world does not depend. Not only can this not be known objectively for certain, because it is always possible that it will depend precisely on the individual, but this kind of thinking is also made impossible by the very essence of ethics, by conscience and the sense of responsibility. [From "Tactics and Ethics"]
I had to get this little Marxist gem in here. One of my biggest beefs with life in the modern era is that people try to avoid collective responsibility. We don't go through life like single entities, never impacting other people. We do not and should not live like that. We must all take responsibility for our actions and for how we affect others.
As a Marxist, I believe we must act for the good of all, not like selfish protagonists, each in our own stories. That's why I don't like modernist novels. Authors like James Joyce have these individual characters who float around and experience everything from a wildly subjective point of view, never considering how their lives impact others' lives. I'm not having it.
Even with the most abstruse anti-realistic writers, stylistic experiment is not the willful twisting of reality according to subjective whim: it is a consequence of conditions prevailing in the modern world. Modernist forms, like other literary forms, reflect social and historical realities—though in a distorted, and distorting, fashion. [From "Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?"]
Let's just piggyback this remark onto my previous one. Realist novels are superior to Modernist experimental novels because they show, quite simply, a more accurate depiction of life. It's not one person's story filtered through his or her kooky psyche, with all sorts of run-on sentences, self-reflection, and kaleidoscopic ideas about one city at one time. (I'm talking to you, Kafka.) Those kinds of stories are too individualistic and subjective; they blatantly ignore the totality of history.
As I suggest here, we can't just blame the books—they are simply reflecting the degraded conditions of life in the modern era. When life becomes distorted, the art depicting life simply reflects that distortion.
In the historical novel "in matters little whether individual details, individual facts are historically correct or not […] Detail is only a means for achieving […] historical faithfulness […] for making concretely clear the historical necessity of an historical situation. [From The Historical Novel]
I believe that we must understand history as a long narrative—of which we are just one tiny part. Responsible writers know this. We must not allow our egos to become so bloated that we imagine our moment in time to be more important than and separate from all other moments in human history.
Historical novels may serve up lots of details, but they do so as a way of describing the big picture of social reality. They show things like class conflict, the struggle of the working class, the work of the people, and the flow from the past into the future. Books that focus only on details—at the expense of "historical faithfulness"—are simply decadent nonsense. What do we get out of reading all sorts of abstract impressions of random things and random events? Nada.