This is a revisiting of the post on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen and the essay Georg Lukacs wrote about them. When I read the essay last week, I saw it as a cunning proto-deconstruction (ie. deconstruction before deconstruction was invented) of Kierkegaard’s gesture of renouncing Regine to ensure her future happiness. Over the weekend, I discovered a biographical essay about Lukacs, “Georg Lukacs: The Antinomies of Melancholy” by Levee Blanc in Other Voices, v.1, n.1 (March 1997). What we find out here is that while Lukacs was writing about Kierkegaard’s “real” reasons for dumping Regine, Lukacs himself was dumping Irma Seidler for the same reasons he attributes to Kierkegaard, ie. that happiness and domestic union might interfere with his philosophical work. In his notes from this period, Lukacs wrote:
Scruples: the impossible nature of marriage…Dread of the destructive influence of happiness, dread that it is beyond my capacity to get my bearings in a broader-based life.
And in a letter to Irma that positively reeks of the freshman romantic poseur and macho intellectual bravado, he writes:
There are people who understand and do not live, and their are others that live but do not understand. The first kind cannot ever really reach the second even though they understand them, and the second can never understand the essence, but then, it doesn’t matter. The feeling of love or hate, the liking somebody or the possibility of learning to like someone, exists, but the categories of understanding do not exist for them.
The message loop then is that in the Lukacs essay on Kierkegaard, Lukacs writes Kierkegaard as channeling Lukacs, but who knows what Kierkegaard really thought?
Regine Olsen eventually married and survived Kierkegaard. Irma Seidler was not so fortunate. Just a few years after Lukacs dumped her, she killed herself by jumping off a bridge in Budapest.
I am trying to draw some lessons from this.
- No matter how hard we try, we never leave high school behind.
- There is still something to Lukacs’s critique of the gesture, the pose: all tragic heroes will have terrible home lives because their grand gestures never take into account close human relations. Think, King Lear. Think, Oedipus.
- There is, on the other hand, something insidious about the barely tacit premise that women and marriage somehow interfere with a man’s ability to think. I am reminded how in one of his novels Lawrence Durrell has a character say, “Women are incapable of categorical thought.” Lukacs seems to be coming close to this in his letter to Irma. There is some evidence here that testosterone causes brain damage. Many women, I think, have remarked on this in the past.
- And this is not to mention the broken symmetry of Lukacs’s argument about gesture. Somehow deciding to renounce a woman so you can think better is a gesture, a heroic self-creating choice, while the alternative, opting to hang with a someone and think at the same time, is not a gesture, not a heroic self-creating choice, but a kind of muddled life-chaos. There is something fuzzily tautological about what he gets to call a gesture. And this is one of the basic problems with Existentialism as a philosophy; it cheats by surreptitiously applying a secondary value system. Existentialism says choice creates value. But then some choices are better (more authentic) than other choices. (Not, of course, that Lukacs was an Existentialist, but his analysis of Kierkegaard and gesture is about the roots of Existentialism and he works within the premises.)
- Finally, avoid bridges.
Thank you Doug! This fascinates me to no end. First of all, I thought Lukacs was a Hegelian. Is it simplistic to think of Hegel as the muddled life/ chaos defender and of Kierkegaard as the defender of the clarifying gesture (tragic or not)? (I’m reminded of a famous conducting teacher who always told his students “Take a decision!” As in “Any Decision” — because of course, gesture is what conducting is all about. The more time the conductor spends interpreting the composer’s intentions, or course, and understanding the orchestra’s capabilities and mechanism, the more wonderful and less ridiculous her/his gestures/decisions should be). Anyway, all this leads to too much thought for a comment.
We never leave high school. Here’s the epigraph from Richard Bausch’s latest short story collection, “Somewhere Out There:” (This is an advertisment. The stories live up to the epigraph in the most wonderful and often sad ways.) “Perhaps you know Malraux’s Anti-memoirs? His priest tells us that people are much more unhappy than one might think. . . and that there is no such thing as a grownup.”
By the way, unfortunately, woman are also capable of worrying that commitment and domestic happitness will interfere with their individual pursuits.
And finally, congratuations for being from the same country as Virtue and Moir, I mean Tessa and Scott. Did you see them ice dance to Mahler?
Yes, I can’t quite figure out where the life argument comes from. There is more about “life” in Lukacs’s dialogue essay about Laurence Sterne in the same book. It’s as if Lukacs uses the life argument to subvert Kierkegaard’s gesture without actually attaching himself to it systematically. In the Sterne essay, he argues both sides of the case. There he seems to come down on the side of “richness” and complexity of life against tiresome “form.” Form and gesture are the same thing.
No, please, the comments are there for your thoughts. They don’t have to be terse or truncated.
Missed the ice dancing. I don’t have television.