The Texture of the Real
Confessions of an Original Sinner
By John Lukacs
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields
Pages: 328 pages
Review Author: Will Hoyt
John Lukacs doesn’t just deal in paradox, he breathes it. He’s a little like G.K. Chesterton in this regard. As with many of Chesterton’s works, whole sections of Lukacs’s Confessions of an Original Sinner seem almost to have been written solely in order to round out, justify, and in general deepen a handful of seemingly contradictory assertions. The prologue, for example, is a play on the difference between romantic and theological notions of originality: The thoughts of an original sinner, suggests Lukacs, are by definition unoriginal. Chapter Three explores the distinctly Old World feel to ostensibly New World Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania, and Chapter Five describes the nationalist character of American internationalism. Even the asides in this book communicate paradox. During one rest stop Lukacs draws the reader’s attention to the hidden link between sentimental tenderness and brutality; during another, he delivers a throwaway treatise on the bourgeois aspects of romanticism. It’s rather relentless, this attention to paradox, and it can get a little wearying — not least because Lukacs’s oracular style, being both less smooth and more frankly combative than Chesterton’s, tends less to energize a reader than to drain him. Yet Lukacs wins you over. The way he always looks you in the eye and has his feet squarely planted on the ground commands respect, and he tells some good jokes. Also, he’s got an eye for luminous detail, as when he writes of the “waterfall” sound of expended anti-aircraft shells landing on the tile roofs of his native Budapest in 1945. But the real reason Lukacs wins you over is that his use of paradox works. By forcing the reader to trade in his customary point of view for one through which a given paradox no longer seems paradoxical, Lukacs succeeds in jolting the reader into a fresh appreciation of a very powerful perspective — namely, that of a person who is at once a reactionary, a “displaced person,” and a devout Catholic.
As its title suggests, Confessions of an Original Sinner is an autobiographical work; as such, it represents a departure of sorts for Lukacs, who has written some 12 other books on historical subjects like the Cold War, Philadelphian character, and the meaning of “historical consciousness.” I say “autobiographical,” but perhaps I really ought to say “auto-historical,” seeing as how Lukacs everywhere draws attention to how our thoughts and deeds are in some fashion determined by our location in place and time. Be that as it may, Confessions of an Original Sinner is an account of a life: Beginning with his political and amatory allegiances as an adolescent in war-torn Hungary, Lukacs proceeds to recount both his emigration at age 22 to America just as the Iron Curtain dropped, and, too, his subsequent lives as citizen, historian, social critic, parishioner, and professor (he has taught for the last 40 years at a small Catholic women’s college near Philadelphia).
There are really two distinct books here, and they are as different from each other as night and day. Whereas during the first 150 pages Lukacs quite definitely tells a tale (if he’s not recounting his physical journey west, he’s writing about becoming a reactionary), during the second 150 pages Lukacs lets go of the narrative thread and gives himself over to a project that can only be called stock-taking. Is it for this reason that the first half of his book is as energetic and condensed and cheerfully cantankerous as the second half is flat and listless and safe? In any case, the two halves do belong together. According to Lukacs the book is whole because its author is everywhere conscious of living “during the end of an age,” and he may well be right. But to this reader’s mind there is a larger theme. So far as I can tell, the main thing holding this book together is that its author is everywhere stressed by and concerned with virtues like decency, honesty, and uprightness.
To Lukacs, for whom the “attribution of motives” is the “most pestilential intellectual habit of the 20th century,” all of us have more than just a measure of control over our actions. Contra-Darwin, contra-Marx, contra-Freud (as he is fond of saying), we are all accountable for our actions. No one, according to Lukacs, just blows with the wind. If people blow with the wind it is because they choose to; if they claim otherwise someone ought to call their bluff. Needless to say, Lukacs rises to the occasion — and with considerable dispatch. Irving Kristol and the New York intelligentsia, Hungarian Party officials, Reaganites and McCarthyites, Hannah Arendt, various Harvard academics — all pass before Lukacs’s withering stare, and not a one of them returns with a clean bill of health. Sensitive as he is to hypocrisy and “opportunism” of all kinds, Lukacs is clearly the right man for the job. Also, he enjoys his work. (Words like “imbecile,” “idiot,” and “sclerotic” crop up with delightful frequency.) But what about himself? After all, isn’t he also a “turncoat,” turning as he does from right to left and back again? Luckily, Lukacs has beat against the wind all his life. In 1945, while most of America still looked on Russia as an ally, Lukacs was an “anti-Communist.” During the McCarthy era, when the Cold War was at its height, Lukacs moved to the left. (Owing to his experiences in Hungary, he judged the Soviet Union to be not quite the power most ideologues were making it out to be.) During the 1960s, while looking on New Left radicalism as beneath contempt, he nevertheless opposed the Vietnam War. And during the 1980s, as Reagan triumphed, Lukacs broke with the conservative movement he’d helped to foster: He saw Reagan policy as a betrayal of the traditionalist conservatism he had worked for. Unlike most people, in other words, it seems that Lukacs has never forgotten that we’ve all got destinations in mind, and that categories like “left” and “right” aren’t so much ends in themselves as navigational aids. It’s as if he’s turned right, left, and then right again simply because he’s had his eye on a place where men might live with decency and honor, and he’s had to tack into the wind to get there.
If there is any real problem with this book, it’s that while Lukacs’s gaze may be unswerving, his actual vision could at points be keener. It’s not that he isn’t blessed with wit. Nor is it that he isn’t capable of penetrating insight (even a cursory reading of his analysis of Hitler’s appeal shows Lukacs to be a seer of considerable power). It’s that, perhaps in direct proportion to the frequency of his boasts about how he can grasp truths that, say, “neither Marx nor Freud, nor perhaps even Henry James or Evelyn Waugh…properly understood,” Lukacs’s logic is at points plodding and at times even absent without leave. Consider, for example, the following take on Russia and things Russian occasioned by encounters with the Stalinist army that “liberated” Budapest in 1945: “Unlike the Germans, the Russians seemed to me to be a people utterly without pride. At their worst, the Germans were shameless; among the Russians one could occasionally sense the shamefulness of the brute. They were probably less inhuman than the Germans at their worst, but their humanity appeared only on a few unexpected occasions, somewhat like the sentimentality of a suspicious peasant. In 1945 I lost whatever respect I had for the self-professed Christianity of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; among the Russians I found not only the Catholic convert Chaadayev but agnostics such as Turgenev or Chekhov infinitely more humane and Christian than these great bearded fake puritans belonging to the Russia that produced Rasputin.”
When I read a passage like that I lose confidence in the person who authored it — not because its individual claims happen to be offensive or pugnacious but because, considered as a whole, it’s incoherent. Leaving aside the fact that elsewhere (in his dislike for “systems”) Lukacs shows a great debt to Dostoevsky’s “self-professed Christianity,” one can’t help but ask how the actions of Stalinist soldiers and bureaucrats bear on the properly Christian aspects of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s faiths. The connective thread just isn’t there.
By itself, of course, such a passage would be of little account. But seeing as how the book contains other, similarly unfocused passages, it is possible that some readers, after a certain point, will find that their trust in Lukacs has suffered a mortal blow. The last chapter, despite some fine talk about “the fuglemen of the cosmocrats of the dark aeon,” is particularly garbled.
At first it struck me as ironic that this book’s ending should prove less than strong. Isn’t Lukacs a historian — a man who, of necessity, appreciates the importance of beginnings, middles, and ends? But here, I came to realize, John Lukacs has something important to teach us. He claims not to be interested in plot! The Narnia and Father Brown stories, War and Peace, indeed any and all tales in which, by definition, something happens — these hold no interest for him. Why? Because he’s a historian. According to Lukacs a passion for history isn’t so much a desire to learn what happened as it is a hunger for the texture of the real, that mystery we all try to name when we say here, now. I realize, of course, that this does not excuse the weakness of the ending to Lukacs’s memoir. Nevertheless it’s a striking claim, and luckily for the rest of us Lukacs supports it well. He conceived his passion for history while huddling with false papers in a bombed-out cellar in Budapest, waiting for the Russians, and I suspect that for many readers this image of love in the ruins will continue to linger long after this book’s last page has been turned.
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