Lucien Goldmann Essay - Critical Essays

Goldmann, Lucien


Lucien Goldmann 1913–1970

Rumanian-born French critic and sociologist.

Greatly influenced by the theories of Georg Lukács, Goldmann was a prominent figure in the critical movement known as "Marxist Humanism" which emerged and gained a respectable following after World War II.

Most of Goldmann's work was written more than a decade before it was translated into English, which may have contributed to views that his theories were outmoded and redundant. Le Dieu caché (The Hidden God), Goldmann's first work to be translated into English, presents one of his most important concepts: vision du monde, or "world view"—a concept of the world as it is defined by a given social group. As Goldmann perceived it, a writer's world view is directly related to the world created in the work of art. Tragedy results from the writer's rejection of the world and the sense that God, if not absent, is a "hidden," silent observer.

Le Dieu caché and Pour une sociologie du roman (Towards a Sociology of the Novel) are probably Goldmann's best-known works. In Pour une sociologie du roman, a study of the novel from André Malraux to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Goldmann attempted to demonstrate that the form of a literary work is the result of the predominant social structures of the writer's world. Goldmann called this method "genetic structuralism."

Goldmann's last work, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy, is considered important, yet flawed and inconclusive. In this compilation of lectures, which also includes an introduction he had been writing at the time of his death, Goldmann asserted that Heidegger's Being and Time is, at least in part, a response to the work of Lukács.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols 25-28 and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

George Lichtheim

[Although considerable liberties have been taken in translating the text of The Hidden God], M. Goldmann is himself responsible for some of the resulting obscurities, since his terminological usage wobbles dangerously between neo-Kantianism, Marxism and 'religious atheism', so that he is able, in one and the same breath, to disclaim any theological attachments and yet to describe both 'tragic' and 'dialectical' forms of thought as 'philosophies of incarnation'. (p. 322)

[Goldmann] regards Pascal and Racine as the key figures in the politico-theological crisis which convulsed mid-17th-century France: a crisis involving (a) the disintegration of the traditional social order, (b) the dissolution of the Thomist worldview, and (c) certain mundane conflicts between the Court and the social stratum to which Pascal and Racine belonged…. His treatment of this admittedly very complex theme probably struck his French readers in 1955 as a particularly enlightening example of the Marxian approach to the problem of historical 'totality'. Jansenism as the ideology of the noblesse de robe is indeed an excellent subject for a Marxist. This was proved as early as 1934, when the late Dr. Franz Borkenau published his unfairly neglected work on the philosophy of the 17th century, Der Übergang vom feudalen zum bürgerlichen Weltbild. The thesis that Pascal (without being aware of it) acted as the spokesman of a whole stratum of society whose tacit support lay behind the Jansenist near-revolt was there set out at some length: along with a number of highly original and pertinent reflections on the social role of theology in an age of crisis. M. Goldmann (without ever mentioning Borkenau) goes over the same ground in rather more pedestrian fashion, and in the end comes up with the identical conclusion: Jansenism is to be understood as the ideology of the noblesse de robe in its struggle against the Court and the Jesuits.

This may well be the case. But it raises an awkward problem to which he does not seem to have quite found the answer: if the dilemma of a group of theologians around Port Royal accounts for the well-known inconsistencies in Pascal's thinking, and if this dilemma itself was rooted in a particular political situation—the inability of the noblesse de robe to make...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Oleg Mandić


[Goldmann's] main conclusion [in Pour une sociologie du roman] is that the novel's form is directly connected with the structure of the social environment in which it originates. He calls this genetic structuralism, and stresses that the relation between "the creator group," to which an author belongs, and the work of art follows mostly this model…. (p. 639)

The most important problem of this kind of sociology is to study the connections between the economic structures of capitalistic society and the literary phenomenon called the novel. Certainly, from the Marxist point of view this main affirmation is true. But the author overemphasizes it, losing touch with other elements that interact in the formation of the literary work. He does not pay due attention to the relative independence of diverse elements of the social superstructure, particularly in the domain of culture, in regard to the economic infrastructure. In this way he approaches the border of economic materialism, a tendency criticized by Marx and Engels, which tries to explain all social phenomena exclusively by the activity of economic factors.

It is proper to praise every attempt to throw some light on tortuous and concealed ways by means of which an artistic work comes into being. Such is the case with the study under review. But it is likewise correct to draw attention to the fact that the methods used in this book can create a false image of the interaction of factors contributing to the formation of the work of art: the creator's class and group membership, his social standing and psychological conformation, the social motives which induced him to choose a particular theme and hero, personal reasons for which he made the choice, particularities of his social environment influencing him in the course of the creative effort, the way in which all these influences are refracted through the prism of his individuality,...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

David Caute

The structure of Goldmann's thought, and his epistemology, owes a great deal to Lukács, but his general ideological posture and temper, as well as his attitude towards psychoanalysis, belong to the French school. (p. 210)

M. Goldmann has been profoundly influenced by the work of Lukács. In his early Theory of the Novel [Theorie des Romans], Lukács described a certain number of timeless essences or 'forms' which corresponded to the literary expression of coherent human attitudes…. Although Lukács, in his later History and Class Consciousness, abandoned the idea of timeless structures in favour of a Marxist dialectical concept of dynamic structures, the original premise about the novel form has survived. Goldmann has virtually adopted it. Likewise he has accepted Lukács's emphasis on consciousness as a positive force, as a partial awareness of the possible, and not simply as a mechanical reflection of events. Above all, Goldmann has adopted the stress on literary form.

What, he asks, is the novel? He answers: 'the transposition on the literary plane of daily life in the individualist society born from production for the market'. The novel is characterized by an insurmountable rupture between the hero and the world.

Yet a difficulty immediately presents itself, a difficulty which threatens to strike at the heart of the whole theory. For is not this definition in reality one of content? The novel, as a literary form, might be defined as a continuous, fictional, non-dramatic narrative in prose. And if such a work is not inevitably fully a novel (as Goldmann suggests with regard to Malraux's L'Espoir) then do not our doubts arise precisely because of the content of the work?

Goldmann regards the problematical individual, or hero, as essential to the novel…. The existence of the problematic hero is symptomatic, he writes, of a liberal-capitalist society where an ensemble of generally recognized values—liberty, tolerance, political equality, etc.—exists, but in which these values are in practice frequently denied. When the free market gives way to cartels and monopolies, says Goldmann, we observe the gradual disappearance of the hero from the novel. (But here again a problem poses itself and remains unanswered: if the problematical hero is essential to the novel, then by what right does Goldmann term the works of Kafka, Joyce, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet 'novels'?)

The theory of the novel propounded by him differs from the mainstream of Marxist thought in one important respect. Although the novel is certainly linked with the development of the bourgeoisie, it is not, he believes, the expression of the real or possible consciousness of that class. In other words, the bourgeoisie has not succeeded in creating its own literary form. This is certainly an original hypothesis, but, like M. Goldmann's fictional hero, a highly problematical one.

Goldmann describes his general method as 'genetical structuralism', and claims that it is a 'turning-point' in the sociology of literature. Here he gives credit to Lukács. The method, he writes, synthesizes the most fruitful trends of both Marxism and psychoanalysis. In so far as science is an attempt to describe the necessary relations between phenomena, so attempts to examine literature in its relationship with social groups prove more fruitful than attempts to consider the individual as the true subject of creation…. Once this canon is accepted, he argues, two problems arise: to determine the exact relationship between the social group and the work in question; and to know what are the works and the groups between which relations of this type can be established.

Genetic-structuralist research consists of delineating the groups which constitute structures and 'relative totalities'. M. Goldmann has illustrated this method in his Le Dieu caché, where he relates the tragic structure of Pascal's Pensées to the history of extremist Jansenism in France. Extremist Jansenism he relates to the overall history of Jansenism, and the latter, as an ideological movement, to the history of the noblesse de robe in the seventeenth century. Similarly he has related the development of Racine's drama to the fortunes of Jansenism and also to the fluctuations of Louis XIV's foreign policy. From these social roots, he suggests, sprang the tragic vision.

He adds—and here he is no doubt closer to M. Sartre than to Lukács—that the psychoanalytical element in the method, though of relatively minor importance, helps us to explain why a particular individual in a particular situation has been able to create a conceptual or imaginary universe with a power and cohesion of its own. One assumes that this aspect of the analysis becomes more difficult the further back in time the critic travels, and the less he knows about the writer's life.

To sum up, Goldmann enumerates three principal features of a sound Marxist literary criticism. First, it regards the novel as reflecting a dynamic social reality, and it examines actual consciousness in the light of possible consciousness. Furthermore it views the novel as not simply a reflection of a social situation, but also as a positive, formative element within it. Secondly, it insists that the relation between great works of literature and collective thought resides not in an identity of content, but in a more remote, mediated coherence, a transformation of actual conditions into imaginary terms. Thirdly, it does not regard the consciousness of a social group as autonomous, but...

(The entire section is 2326 words.)

Edward W. Said

Goldmann has a very marked interest in the rationale of his enterprise; this, among other things, is what makes The Hidden God, his first book to be translated into English, a virtuoso performance by an energetic critic. Goldmann is not a gifted stylist … and so the book seems at first to be a somewhat scrappy affair. It is nevertheless a substantial, complex achievement, because Goldmann knows what he is doing, does it thoroughly and tells us why he did it. Every step along the way is carefully and perhaps laboriously reasoned, so that if one accepts the terms of his argument one stands in the center of a highly challenging and flowing pattern, a "dialectic" whose every detail sustains and is sustained by...

(The entire section is 1416 words.)

Geoffrey Brereton

[In Le Dieu Caché, an interesting theory on Racine] has been put forward by a Marxist critic which has general implications going well beyond the one particular case. M. Lucien Goldmann derived Racine's 'tragic vision' directly from his Jansenism, and related this religious creed in turn to the discontent of a particular social class. This was the noblesse de robe, the higher ranks of the legal profession which (he argued) saw its powers and prerogatives curtailed by the development of a centralised bureaucracy directly responsible to the Crown. Whence came, not open opposition, but a half-conscious 'attitude of reserve towards the life of society and the State'.

In his analysis of the...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Peter Demetz

Lucien Goldmann thinks in terms of totalities, comprehensive tendencies, representative figures…. [He] began as a student of law and, while still in his native Rumania, turned to dialectical materialism. During his subsequent exile in Prague and Zurich (where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Kant), he devoted himself to history, sociology, and philosophy. (p. 85)

Goldmann elaborates general descriptions of social groups in their reactions to the historical changes which they must confront, and the characteristic thoughts and linguistic constructs by which they respond. As cultural critic, Goldmann attempts to define the relationship between group consciousness and the work of art: a given...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)

David Caute

Structures mentales is the richest and most rewarding [of Goldmann's latest works]. It contains three sets of studies. In the first he discusses 'global models' and the 'significant structures' (another favoured term) of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and also of certain works by Valéry, Sartre, Gombrowicz, Genet, and Chagall. In the second group of essays, Goldmann, supported on occasion by a team of research assistants, attempts to explain the relevance to 'global models' of 'microstructures' within literary texts…. Marxisme et sciences humaines presents recapitulations of Goldmann's basic theoretical premises and methodology, offers brief studies of the young Marx, Lukács, Sartre and Marcuse,...

(The entire section is 2258 words.)

Alan Swingewood

Goldmann's approach to the sociology of literature is highly idiosyncratic, fusing structural analysis with historical and dialectical materialism. It is important to note that while Goldmann develops a specifically Marxist theory, many of his key concepts and much of his inspiration derive from the early pre-Marxist writings of Lukács…. [Lukács's] most important concept, one which Goldmann has carried over into his sociology, is that of 'totality', a concept which, like those of alienation and reification, had been ignored by orthodox Marxism. (p. 63)

[Two] of Lukács's dynamic structures, tragedy and the novel, total complexes of thought about the world and man's position within it, are related...

(The entire section is 3203 words.)

Robert Sayre

Goldmann appears to us … as an isolated figure. Throughout his career his thought was met with hostility or indifference by competing trends which in all cases held a dominating position. To many he remained little known or unknown. It is just this apparent isolation that must be explained in terms of Goldmann's relation to the whole.

Goldmann belongs to the same intellectual tradition—and historical project—that much of his work takes as its subject: the German tradition of dialectical thought, from Kant and Hegel to Marx and Lukács. Goldmann discovered in the tragic vision of the seventeenth-century French Jansenists—Pascal and Racine—a precursor to dialectical thought. His own...

(The entire section is 4396 words.)

Michael Phillipson

[Cultural Creation] gathers six papers written between 1965 and 1970, and adds a dialogue between Goldmann and Adorno and two brief tributes to Goldmann by Piaget and Marcuse. Addressed to different audiences the papers nevertheless have a methodological, substantive, and, above all, a moral unity that displays Goldmann's own sense of theory in the human sciences as a specific human practice. The papers' varying topics circle around Goldmann's concern to institute aesthetic practices as the paramount subject matter of sociological analysis and to pursue this project through his dialectic of genetic structuralism.

Works of art (primarily literature in Goldmann's own work) provide us with the...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

David Couzens Hoy

Since the subtitle of Lucien Goldmann's Lukács and Heidegger is Towards a New Philosophy, the expectation is that the book will advance not only historical but also philosophical theses. Unfortunately, Goldmann died before writing more than an introduction, and these expectations are disappointingly answered only by a summary of Goldmann's lectures for the 1967–68 academic year. The transcripts of university courses are rarely worth publishing, and these are no exception. Perhaps it was not a disservice to Goldmann for the French to publish this work since they could assume that most readers would be familiar with his works of careful scholarship like The Hidden God. The danger of an English...

(The entire section is 3198 words.)

Roger Scruton

[Lucien Goldmann] envisages the whole course of philosophy from Kant to the existentialists in terms of a single problem, describing the problem with so little respect for the various arguments which the terms "subject" and "object" conceal that he is unable to see that there is no single problem to which he is addressing himself, and no genuine alternatives in the "answers" that he discerns in Lukács and in Heidegger.

He asserts in [Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy] that "the traditional philosophy of the progressive and revolutionary bourgeoisie, as well as that of the bourgeoisie in power, had radically separated the subject of consciousness and the action of...

(The entire section is 421 words.)