Monday, March 5, 2018

Walter Scott by Georg Lukacs

[Many summaries and critical analysis of this book are available on line, for example :]

“In Scott’s life-work we find marvelous scenes and characters from the life of the serfs and the free peasants, from the fortune’s of society’s outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, professional soldiers, deserters and so on. Yet it is in his unforgettable portrayal of the survivals of gentile society, of the Scottish clans where to poetry of his portrayal of past life chiefly lies. Here in material and subject-matter alone, there is present such a powerful element of the heroic period of mankind, that Scott’s novel’s at their height do indeed approach the old epics. Scott is a giant discoverer and awakener of this long vanished past. It is true that the eighteenth century already loved and enjoyed the poetry of primitive life. And in the wave of enthusiasm for Homer, in Homer’s ousting of Virgil as the model, there is undoubtedly a dawning of awareness of this infant period of mankind. Important thinkers such as Ferguson even saw a relationship between Homeric heroes and the American Indians. Nevertheless this predilection remained abstract and moralizing in quality. Scott was the first actually to bring this period to life, by introducing us into the everyday life of the clans, by portraying on this real basis both the exceptional and unequalled human greatness of this primitive order as well as the inner necessity of its tragic downfall.

In this way, by bringing to life those objective poetic principles which really underlie the poetry of popular life and history, Scott became the great poet of past ages, the really popular portrayer of history. Heine understood this quality and saw, too, that the strength of Scott’s writing lay precisely in this presentation of popular life, in the fact that the official big events and great historical figures were not given a central place. He says: ‘Walter Scott’s novels  sometimes reproduce the spirit of English history much more faithfully than Hume.’ The important historians and philosophers of this period , Thierry and Hegel, aspire to a similar interpretation of history. But with them it goes no further than a demand, a theoretical pronouncement of this necessity. For in the field of theory and historiography only historical materialism is capable of intellectually unearthing the basis of history, of showing what the childhood of mankind was really like. But what in Morgan, Marx and Engels was worked out and proved with theoretical and historical clarity, lives, moves and has its being poetically in the best historical novels of Scott. For this reason Heine very rightly stresses this side of Scott, his popular side: ‘Strange whim of the people! They demand their history from the hand of the poet and not from the hand of the historian. They demand not a faithful report of bare facts, but those facts dissolved back into the original poetry whence they came.’

We repeat: this poetry is objectively bound up with the necessary downfall of gentile society. We experience in the various novels of Scott the individual stages of this downfall in all its historical concreteness and differentiation. Scott did not- in the pedantic sense of Gustav Freytag’s Ahenen ( Our Forefathers)- wish to make a coherent cycle of his novels. But in regard to the fate of the clans this great historical connection, the inexorable necessity of their tragedy emerges into colossal relief - if only because their fortunes always spring from a living interaction with the social-historical world around tem. They are never presented independently or in isolation, but always in the context of a general crisis of Scottish or English-Scottish popular life. The chain of these crisis extends from the first great struggles between the rising Scottish middle class and the nobility, from Royalty’s attempt to use these struggles in strengthening central power (The Fair Maid of Perth – end of the fourteenth century) to the last attempt of the Stuarts to turn back the clock of history, to restore outdated Absolutism in an already far advanced capitalist England (Rob Roy- end of the eighteenth century).

The clans are, of historical necessity, always the exploited, the cheated, the deceived. Their very heroic qualities which stem from the primitiveness of their social being, make them to toy of the humanly far inferior representatives of the ruling powers of the given stage of civilization. What Engels shows scientifically, namely how civilization achieves things beyond the powers of old gentile society, this Scott portrays. In particular, he portrays the contrast in the human sphere, which Engels stresses in his analysis of this inevitable collapse of gentile society in the face of civilization: “but it achieved them by setting in motion the lowest instincts and passions in man and developing them at the expense of all his other abilities.”

AS soon as absolute monarchy appears as a force within the class struggles of feudalism, it ruthlessly exploits the unimportant feuds of the clans, turning them into mutual massacre. The mutual extermination of all the able-bodied men of two clans which forms the action of the first of the above-named novels is admittedly a crude and exceptional case of this and only Scott’s great art is able to extract it from the typical. But Scott can do this only because, on a spontaneous, more isolated and episodic scale, the inability of the clans to defend their common interests against nobility or bourgeoisie and the dissipation of all their energies in the local insularity of such petty struggles are an inevitable result of the basis of clan life. The body guard of the French King, Louis XI, already consists of member of the old clans who have been more or less forcibly scattered and thrown off their own resources (Quentin  Durward). And the parties in the later civil wars, Parliament as well as the Stuarts, are already ruthlessly and extensively exploiting the courageous, devoted clan warrior as cannon fodder for political ends totally foreign to the clans (A Legend of Montrose, Waverly, Rob Roy.)

With the suppression of the uprising of 1745 –which is depicted in Waverly – the real downfall of gentile society begins, says Engels. Several decades later (in Rob Roy) we see the clans already in a state of complete economic dissolution. One character in the novel, the shrewd merchant and bailiff of Glasgow, Jarvie, clearly sees that it has become a matter of economic necessity for the clans to wage their desperate and hopeless battles on behalf of the Stuarts. They are no longer able to maintain themselves on the basis of their primitive economy. They possess a surplus population, permanently armed and well-seasoned who cannot be put to any normal use, who must resort to plunder and pillage, and for whom an uprising of this kind is the only way out of a hopeless situation. Thus we have here and element odd dissolution, the beginning of class-uprooting which were as yet absent from the clan picture of Waverley. . .

[The dissolution of gentile society in Scotland was already in full swing by 1745. Historically, it is doubtful that  ‘clan governance’ was ever a stable mode of production in the regions of northern England and Scotland since  the time of the Norman Conquest. There were always disparate elements that  hardly conformed to the ‘nostalgic image’ of old gentile society which by 1745 had in many respects already become a mere caricature  of itself. At any rate, bands of ‘outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, professional soldiers, deserters and so on’  were already a presence in the borderlands at the time of Henry the Eighth, when the term ‘red-neck’ first came into use.  James the first enlisted  members of these bands to settle Northern Ireland beginning in 1601. The question is ‘wither gentile society?” It did not simply disappear  into the dark pages of history but was transformed into a form of society and culture the traces of which can still be found in the present day; still representing a  ‘regressive’ and reactionary component in American society (beginning with the mass migrations after 1745- though certainly  before that) that has both been served and served the bourgeois, centralizing American Polity in diverse ways, heroically as well as progressively.]

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