Time and Epic

I’ve recently decided to read through a series of works that could be described as ‘romantic anti-capitalism’ (or subjectivist anti-capitalist, vitalist anti-capitalism, though none of these really capture the nature of this constellation, often Marxist but also proto-Marxist, but whatever): the writings of the young Lukács, young Gramsci, Lucien Goldmann, Ernst Bloch, etc. Lukács’ The Theory of the Novel, written in 1914-15 but unpublished until the 1960s, the work I’ve just finished reading through. It’s an interesting work, and one that is fairly surprising when measured against his better known History and Class Consciousness.

Towards the end of The Theory of the Novel, Lukács lays out the difference between three different literary forms—the epic, the drama, and the novel—in terms of a topic near and dear to this blog’s heart: the question of time. Each of these three forms is situated within a particular historical matrix, with the novel itself inhabiting the modern, bourgeois epoch. Yet at the same time, each articulates a temporal dynamism that is unique to itself (and thus, by extension, to its historical era). Lukács, importantly, has not seized upon the dialectic framework that he would later introduce after his much-touted ‘conversion’ to Marxism”—and at one point disavows dialectics directly, opting instead for a method that unveils a profound heterogeneity of possibilities and linkages.

It’s not Hegel-Marx that is key here: it is Bergson. There’s a fascinating history of the neglected importance of Bergson on the development of what is now called ‘Western Marxism’, and in particular of his impact on the Sunday Club group that Lukács participated in. While Bergson would become something of a persona non grata in some Marxist tendencies (denounced as an idealist by the Soviet Union, labeled the source of ‘irrationalist Marxism’ by others), the influence of the thinker would continue beyond young Lukács’ avant-garde sensibilities, and appears reworked within the pages of History and Class Consciousness. The line linking the two, however, is frayed: besides the shift from ‘romantic anti-capitalism’ to Marxism proper, the way that Lukács uses Bergson too changes perspective. The result is an interesting tension, one that perhaps becomes productive if we read The Theory of the Novel anachronistically, through the lenses provided by his later work—but also through the other direction and order as well.

In The Theory of the Novel, the Bergsonian inheritance becomes clear is the description of the novel as being the first form to make ‘real time’—duration—one of its constituent, most vital elements. Time-as-duration, for Lukács, is an “ungraspable, moving substance” which encapsulates life, which unfolds within the flow of time (there’s an provocative parallel to Boris Groy’s discussion of the relationship between art and temporality in his Into the Flow that could be done here). Life, understood from this interior position, is suddenly thrust into confrontation with finitude. The Idea, previously held as a forth that moves history, is unseated: that fundamental modernist construct of the gap, which Lukács does not allude to by name but includes implicitly, rises here and works to snap the great chain that links together the Idea and history. Time thus humiliates the human; it “robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it.

The flow of time, the Bergsonian duration, is held up by Lukács as a force of great melancholy, and he takes care to mention that for the Romanticists, time itself is corruption. This perception underscores the novel, which depicts life as it moves through time—it resigns itself to time. Such an is itself a major transvaluation of Bergson’s philosophical effort, as he had written in what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘entropic paradigm’ or the ‘epoch of decadence’. This was civilization confronted with the double humiliation of thermodynamics, which offered a vision of the cosmos slowly running down to an inert zero point; and the global shockwaves of protracted, seemingly eternal economic stagnation. Bergson’s attempt to unwind a quasi-Platonic notion of time (real duration) from its spatialization and cultivate the elan vital was to find a way out of entropy,  so uncover the laws that overcome its fundamental tendency towards disorganization (this is why Deleuze, writing under the sign of Bergson as much as Kant, would identify the so-called supremacy of entropy as a transcendental illusion). Yet for Lukács, this becomes inverted, with duration being that which compels humanity towards its death.

The novel is contrasted to the drama (which curiously acts as the literary form that captures the Bergsonian dynamic of the spatialization of time) and the epic, which is the form that interests Lukács the most. In contrast to the novel’s indexing of the individual subordinated to merciless time, the epic depicts a situation which time does not exist. This is clear in the epics of Homer: symbols that might today be apprehended as indicators of time—a person’s age, most specifically—functions simply as another attribute, like beauty or courage. There is no reduction here of the human under time, and the Greek world, which birthed the epic, was free from the anxieties of modernity. The modern world is fragmented, broken, pulverized by the relentless onslaught of development processes (reflected not only the malaise that Lukács found in the form of the novel, but in the Dionysian intoxication of Dada, Baudelaire’s paradox of the crowed, the madness of the Futurists…). The Grecian world—or at least the mythical Grecian world of Lukács—appeared, by contrast, as one free from fragmentation. The human, culture, and nature all intertwine as a realized totality, and it is from this basis that the timelessness of the epic emerged.

The epic is not simply relegated to the past. The novel itself begins with the resignation to time, but what it aims itself towards is a re-establishment of the epic in new form. This is the notion of pre-Marxist liberation that Lukács seems to find, in a curious form of the avant-garde sensibility. We may, it seems, grasp the timelessness of the epic once again.

In History and Class Consciousness, these positions all shift despite the persistence of the Bergsonian influence. In one remarkable passage, Lukács glides swiftly from Marx’s declaration, found in the critique of Proudhon, to Bergson to the analysis of the working day as described in Capital Volume I:

“…Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the incarnation of time. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything: hour for hour, day for day…”

Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable things ‘the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space. In this environment where time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space, an environment at once the cause and effect of the scientifically and mechanically fragmented and specialized production of the object of labor, the subjects of labor must likewise be rationally fragmented.

When Marx speaks of this process in the Grundrisse, he uses a language that instantly conjures specter of Bergson, then yet to arrive, into one’s mind: he calls it the ‘spatialization of time’. Time itself is reduced down and organized, arranged in a manner appropriate to the direct production process—a regimented time that enframes the proletarian within the gears of the monolithic industrial complex. Dispossessed of quality under the regime of quantification, the time of life undergoes the process of reification, where the rule of the commodity begins. Pure Bergson: in Time and Free Will, space was associated with quantity and time with quality. The former is expressed in magnitudes (and in Marx, it is the amounts of socially-necessary labor time that determined value’s magnitude), and the latter as intensity. In the Bergsonian framework, empirical reality is constituted through composites, the inter-mixing of these ideally-separate things. At the same time it is always time and quality, a real duration, that maintains the ultimately primary position. Lukács, by filtering this through Marx’s historical materialism, once again has inverted Bergson by identifying capitalism with the domination of time by space—the subordination of duration itself.

If in The Theory of the Novel, Bergsonian duration is recast as a sign of modernist dissolution, in History and Class Consciousness it becomes the one of the sensuous life that capitalism is obliterating. There is a sense that prior to capitalism (and this is the repressed Romanticism coming back through), life was an experience of expressive, a floating world of heterogeneous things and vital powers. The loss of this world is connected directly to the exploitation of the proletariat, which further opens the analysis to the sort of critique of instrumental reason—the great disenchanter of worlds—offered by the Frankfurt School. For the ever-controversial Paul Piccone, the response to the challenge thrown down by Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment is to rediscover Romantic sensuality through early Lukács, early Gramsci, and Bloch. For the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, a different option is sorted: that of revolution, derived from the unique standpoint of the proletariat. It is clear that this option does not intrinsically foreclose the other (and it is precisely for this reason that Lukács himself would later condemn this very work).

The parodoxical positions in relation to time, modernity and liberation suspended between The Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness are rendered in new light when we consider the nature of capitalist temporality presented by Marx in the Grundrisse and the three volumes of Capital. Capital faces two directions, as Deleuze and Guattari would later note: on the one side, it moves outwards, in an escalating spiral of permanent expansion, and on the other, the internal limit that is capital itself. The first direction ensures expanded reproduction, and the second is the value-form, socially-necessary labor time as the ultimate source of profitability. Each has a kind of temporality connected to it. In the expansion of capital, carried out through the intensification of production, rapid innovation, and the development of all kinds of transportation and communication systems, we find the temporalization of space, or the dissolution of space—and by extension, fixed forms, cultures, etc—into a compressive time-vortex. In the interior heart of capital, which we find when we go through the factory’s doors, it is the spatialization of time that reigns supreme. Temporalization of space and spatialization of time are dual tendencies that are fundamentally intertwined; capitalist temporality emerges in the dialectical interplay of the two.

Overcoming capitalism will entail the overturning of this interplay—the abolition of these distinct temporalities, transformed through reification into a naturalism, and the realization of a new sense of time. This dynamic, then, returns us from History and Class Consciousness to The Theory of the Novel, where the form of the epic (the timeless) stands beyond the drama (spatialization of time) and the novel (temporalization of space). The escalation of the novel, striving to rise to the level of the epic, parallels another essential aspect of Marx’s own analysis of capitalism: the elements that are generative of the temporalization of space are those that Marx find as capitalism’s revolutionary bleeding edge, which tends towards, but never is capable of achieving, value’s overthrow. It remains precisely checked by that dynamics that spatialize time. Culturally, the sense of stagnation or decadence checks the developmental sublime. The exultation of relentless change inevitability reverses into time infiltrating the human as a source of worldly corruption.

The third point, the epic, as premature reflection of a social order to come, can be glimpsed from this side of things as akin to what Nietzsche described as the ‘untimely’, or what for Charles Péguy—the great Catholic Bergsonian who was inclined to class struggle—called the aeternal. Taking up both Nietzsche and Péguy, Deleuze and Guattari write in What is Philosophy? that this future temporality “is not a historical future, not even a utopian history, it is the infinite now, the Nun that Plato distinguished from every present”. It is important, then, that for Alexander Dru, “[t]he term for Péguy’s poetic work is the poetic synthesis which takes form in the epic”.


That young Lukács was influenced by the first ‘Marxist-Bergsonian and theorist of French revolutionary syndicalism, Georges Sorel, is no new knowledge. As Michael Löwy has noted in a very interesting essay on the pair, Lukács encountered Sorel’s work around the time he was publishing Soul and Form (1910), and provided a few passing references to the thinker in The Theory of the Novel. Lukács in his middle period—the era of History and Class Consciousness—would disavow the flirtations with Sorel as something like a youthful dalliance, though as Löwy notes there was a curious set of reflections that emerged towards the end of his life. Lukács wrote:

I had tried reading contemporary social-democratic theorists, but Kautsky gave me a disgusting impression; and, at that moment, neither Plekhanov nor Mehring inspired me. Ervin Szabo, whom I asked for advice to further readings on this issue, recommended me the French syndicalists. Among them, Sorel was also mentioned, although, of course, with a certain sceptical reservation. But it was precisely him (Sorel) who exerted the strongest influence over my spiritual evolution. Positive on the one hand, to the extent that it reinforced my rejection of any revisionist and opportunist interpretations of Marxist theory; negative on the other, insofar as it provided Party conception which mystified the pure and direct class struggle had become dominant in my theoretical perspective.

One of the great contributions of Lukács’ dialectical Marxism is the theory of the standpoint of the proletariat. The consciousness required to “[restructure] the foundations of [mankind’s] existence”, Lukács wrote in History and Class Consciousness, arises only when “the proletariat becomes conscious of its own class point of view”. One surpasses the veil of immediacy, where the limited perspective of the individual reigns, in order to grasp the totality (Matt Colquhoun/Xenogothic has recently written a blogpost on this very topic in relation to the current whirlwind of riotous protest movements, describing a ‘puncturing’ of “the crisis of the negative” in order to “see the system for what it is in its totality”). And it is only through this movement of ‘consciousness-raising’, the passage from immediacy to totality, that the world itself can be transformed—the real movement that abolishes the present state of things. The other side is that this also serves to draw an absolute cleavage across the ground, pitching forward an irreparable gulf of opposing sides: the political, in the strictest sense of the word, conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Interestingly, despite the attempts to build a non-dialectic Marxism, Sorel also offered the a theory approaching that of the standpoint of the proletariat. It comes in various guises throughout works like Reflections on Violence. He makes much, for example, of the unique ‘education’ of the proletariat, which is fundamentally derived from its class position, and which makes it capable of administering the future world. He spoke at length of what he described as the “morality of producers”, a “primary motivating power” that underpins both the “sentiments of the general strike” and the progressive development of the means of production (Löwy suggests that when Lukács, in the 1920s, wrote articles describing “the role of morality in communist production”, he was drawing on Sorel despite by this point having made his ‘break’).

In one of his more interesting pieces, George Ciccariello-Maher describes Sorel as offering a theory of ‘proletarian one-sidedness’. Everything revolves around the separation of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. As Sorel wrote in Reflections on Violence: “Oppositions, instead of being glossed over, must be thrown into sharp relief… the groups which are struggling against one another must be shown as separate and compact as possible” (hence his rejection of ‘parliamentary socialism’, which appears as the capitulation of the revolutionary impulse to the hand-wringing of bourgeois humanitarianism). What Sorel aimed to theoretically establish, Ciccariello-Maher writes, is a “frontier of antagonist separation”. There is indeed something of a distance between this and the standpoint of the proletariat described by Lukács (a distance generated by the contrary means of reading Marx), but there is also a proximity in that both are fundamentally bound up not only with separation, but with social praxis. Maybe it is Gramsci who closed the gap when he, writing through the lenses of a spectral Bergsonianism, argued that it was not the impetus towards the general strike itself—ultimately a “passive activity”—that was important, but in the organization of the proletariat’s “collective will” through the formation of institutions.

Gramsci’s comments occur in the context of a reflection of the Sorelian myth, and instead of discarding this concept as idealism, ties it intimately to this question of will and social practice (later it will enter into his theory of hegemony via the notion of the ‘historical bloc). Ciccariello-Maher, for his part, seems to downplay the importance of the myth by placing it as secondary to the separation. But the two appear in Sorel’s work as fundamentally joined to the point where there is no separation without the myth, and not myth without the separation: they are constitutive of one another, and is what allows the social cleavage to take on a revolutionary dimension. The myth, in other words, reinforces the standpoint of the proletariat, and allows it to begin to articulate itself as a class-for-itself.

Importantly, the myth and the morality of producers—and this is where the extent of Sorel’s influence on young Lukács becomes most pertinent—is linked directly to the epic. As he wrote in Reflections:

…the idea of the general strike (constantly rejuvenated by the feelings aroused by proletarian violence) produces an entirely epic state of mind, and at the same time bends all energies of the mind to that condition necessary to the realization of the workshop carried on by free men, eagerly seeking the betterment of industry; we have thus recognized that there are great resemblances between the sentiments aroused by the general strike and those which are necessary to bring about a continued progress in methods of production.

Elsewhere in the same book, religious enthusiasm—viewed as akin to the impulses of the proletariat—is drawn into a parallel with “the epic[s] of… wars”, while the bourgeois workings of the parliamentary socialists is denigrated as “helping to ruin the epic, whose prestige they wish to maintain in their speeches”.

The myth, much like the epic of The Theory of the Novel, has its own unique temporality. There is something almost traditional about Sorel’s understanding of the proletariat, though it is the very paradoxical form of such tendencies that Harold Rosenberg found coursing across modernity: the “tradition of the new”. It is, then, a tradition that is unwound from the burdens of the past. Yet, as this orientation to the new would suggest, the proletariat is neither content with the present: in its radical separation from the bourgeoisie, it looks to the future. The myth is this futural function, a mode of reasoning about the indeterminable future—a “framing of the future” that is generative of motives underpinning social practice. This schema—tradition without the past, the future into the present—is a model of timeless temporality, a confrontation with the untimely

2 thoughts on “Time and Epic

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! The whole time I was reading through The Theory of the Novel (and revisiting bits of H&CC) in light of it I kept thinking back to you saying that Mark Fisher described Lukács a presenting a ‘psychedelic’ perspective on consciousness, which in my mind opens all sorts of doors in considering the temporal models presented in his various text. But that’s for another time!


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