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Aesthetics of the "third way": Realisms in the modern European cinema

Carol Ann Donelan, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Lukacs has addressed the problem of how to portray the complete human self in relation to nineteenth-century European literature. Between the aesthetics of naturalism and psychologism, realism, he argues, represents a "true, solution-bringing third way." Naturalism fails to portray the complete human self because it depicts social being at the expense of private being; similarly but conversely, psychologism fails because it depicts private being at the expense of social being. Realism represents a solution to the problem because it renders both the social and private being of characters. Although Lukacs arrives at a notion of realism based on close readings of novels by Balzac and Tolstoy, I believe his approach can contribute to our understanding of aesthetics in the modern European cinema. Implicit in Lukacs's approach is the dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; naturalism and psychologism are synthesized to produce realism. I adopt the form but not the content of this triplicity in order to argue that various realisms in the modern European cinema--the "neo-neorealisms" of Fellini and Pasolini, the "spiritual realism" of Bresson, the "theatrical realisms" of Godard and Fassbinder, and the "neorealistic expressionism" of Herzog--are the result of syntheses between various objective and subjective aesthetics. There is not just a realism, as Lukacs implies; nor is realism necessarily a synthesis of naturalism and psychologism. Rather, I argue that there are multiple, historically-contingent realisms, all of which are the result of syntheses between objective and subjective aesthetics--whatever those aesthetics might be. In addition, I argue that filmmakers in the modern European cinema are motivated to employ "both/and" as opposed to "either/or" aesthetics for the same reason as their nineteenth-century literary counterparts: they are striving to portray the complete human self. And yet, they are undertaking this task at a time when the notion of a complete human self is no longer theoretically tenable. Thus, in addition to considering how each filmmaker portrays (or attempts to portray) the complete human self (even if only from the standpoint of irony or nostalgia), I also consider why the notion of a complete human self is (still) compelling.

Subject Area

Motion Pictures

Recommended Citation

Donelan, Carol Ann, "Aesthetics of the "third way": Realisms in the modern European cinema" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9909162.