Lucien Goldmann

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Alan Swingewood

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3203

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 concretely by Goldmann in his research to specific social, economic, and political structure. (p. 64)

From Lukács, too, Goldmann derives his concept of the world vision ('vision du monde') which, he argues, all great philosophical and literary work embodies, investing them with internal coherence and external 'validity'. A world vision is defined as 'a significant global structure', a total comprehension of the world which attempts to grasp its meaning in all its complexity and wholeness…. In the absence of a fully worked out typology of world visions, Goldmann suggests as examples empiricism, rationalism, and the tragic vision—total complexes of thought in which reality is grasped as a whole; moreover, world visions are forms of consciousness closely bound up with social classes—a world vision is always a vision of a social class.

An obvious objection to this conception of world vision is that it is no more than an ideology. However, Goldmann argues, the essence of an ideology lies in its partial, one-sided view of the world, in its falsity, a distorting rather than 'true' picture of reality…. (pp. 65-6)

A further difficulty arises over the precise nature of a world vision. Goldmann states that it is not 'an immediate empirical fact' but rather a structure of ideas, aspirations, and feelings which serves to unite a social group vis-à-vis other social groups. A world vision is therefore an abstraction; it achieves its concrete form in certain literary and philosophical texts. World visions are not 'facts', have no objective existence of their own, but merely exist as theoretical expressions of the real conditions and interests of determinate social strata. Goldmann in fact calls world visions a form of 'collective group consciousness' which function as a kind of cement, binding individuals together as a group, giving them a collective identity. World visions are, moreover, not only the expression of a social group but of social class also. Why class? Because, argues Goldmann, the most important social group to which a writer can belong is a social class, since it is through a class that he is linked with major social and political change. (p. 66)

Goldmann makes extravagant claims for his concept. A world vision, he writes, will enable the researcher to separate the accidental from the essential features of a work and to focus on the text as a significant whole. This latter point leads him to make the usual distinction between the 'great' and the 'inferior' writers, arguing that only a great writer's work will have an internal coherence constituting a significant whole. This distinction is based on internal criteria and not on external factors … for what Goldmann is arguing here is that the internal coherence of a particular literary work depends exclusively on the world vision held by the writer. The concept allows the researcher to grasp fully this inner coherent structure. It should be noted that Goldmann is not claiming sovereignty over traditional literary criticism, for the world vision does...

(This entire section contains 3203 words.)

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not supplant aesthetic judgement of style, imagery, syntax, etc., but merely acts as the main methodological tool in theunderstanding of the whole text.

A world vision, then, determines the internal structure of a text. What Goldmann calls 'valid literary works' are thus characterized by an inner coherence which allows them to express a 'true universe', and a 'rigorous and unified genre'. The question of what actually constitutes a valid literary work brings Goldmann close to traditional literary criticism and to positivism. For Goldmann, a valid literary work is one which expresses the basic and universal human condition…. The mediocre writer merely reflects the historical period and his work has only documentary value. But great literature tackles the major problems and it achieves its inner unity because only the 'exceptional individual', the truly great writer, identifies with the fundamental social tendencies of his time in a way which allows him to achieve coherent expression of reality—the average writer, the average member of a group, will also grasp the social tendencies but in a confused and vague manner. What Goldmann seems to be saying is that only good sociological-cum-philosophical literature is worth studying, since it is only within these texts that a world vision is expressed, based on the human condition and an exceptional awareness of major social trends.

These, then, are Goldmann's main terms. It is important to see the manner of application in concrete research. His method, which he calls 'generalized genetic structuralism' (historical structuralism) seeks firstly to identify certain structures within particular texts, and secondly, to relate them to concrete historical and social conditions, to a social group and social class associated with the writer and to the world vision of that class. The emphasis throughout is on the text itself as a whole and on history as a process. Goldmann's approach is to extrapolate from the social group and the text under analysis an abstraction, that is, a world vision, which then becomes a working model. He returns to the texts seeking to explain the whole, that is, their structures, by reference to his model. In essence the method is a continual oscillation between texts, social structure (social groups and classes), and the model, between abstractions and the concrete, Marx's 'pre-given, living, concrete whole'. Thus, in his analysis of the philosophy of Pascal and the plays of Racine. Goldmann is able to connect the tragic vision which these works express with an extreme religious social group, the Jansenists, and a social class, the Noblesse de Robe. (pp. 67-9)

Goldmann's concrete research has always been problem-oriented. His study of Pascal set out initially to explore the reasons for Pascal's transition from a philosophically optimistic point of view, in his Provincial Letters … to the far greater philosophical speculation in his pessimistic Pensées…. Similarly, in his study of the French novelist André Malraux, the problem lay in explaining the 'qualitative' change from the early allegorical fantasies … to the great novels of China…. In both cases the answer is a world vision.

In The Hidden God, Goldmann shows that the philosophy of Pascal and the theatre of Racine constituted the theoretical expression of a 'marginal' social group, the Jansenists, and a 'marginal' social class, the Noblesse de Robe. Both Pascal and Racine express a tragic view of life, what Goldmann calls the 'tragedy of refusal', that is, a rejection of the world coupled with a desire to remain within it and thus not a retreat to some form of other-worldliness, such as mysticism. Pascal's Pensées are characterized by this extreme position: the world is no longer in harmony with God and man, for although God is not absent from the world, he is silent, he is hidden; in order for man to live, therefore, he must 'wager', man must gamble on God's existence and thus on his own salvation.

This tragic vision, argues Goldmann, could only have occurred at a particular historical moment. All forms of tragic thought share a common characteristic, for they all 'express a deep crisis in the relationship between man and his social and spiritual world'. The crisis of the social world lay in the inability of the emerging bourgeois groups, the Noblesse de Robe, to break royal absolutism and its centralized state bureaucracy and thus develop capitalist society. Goldmann succeeds in showing how the extreme Jansenist creed, 'a refusal both of the world and of any desire to change it historically', was bound up closely with the social discontent of the Noblesse de Robe…. [The highly ambiguous position of Pascal's world,] originally recruited from the Third Estate and ennobled by the monarch to form part of the administrative structure of the state bureaucracy, the Noblesse de Robe constituted a deliberate counterweight to the power of the traditional aristocracy, the Noblesse de Cour. But with the consolidation of the Crown and thus the absolutist state, the Noblesse de Robe's power and prestige waned considerably although it remained tied to the Crown economically. Goldmann suggests that this highly ambiguous position, entailing both opposition to and need for the Crown, produced a philosophy and a literature dominated by a tragic outlook: a bourgeoisie which was in opposition to and economically independent of the monarchy would have developed a more active, worldly philosophy, rationalism, and empiricism, as indeed occurred in the eighteenth century.

The concept of the tragic vision, then, enables Goldmann to explain the shift between the 'moderate' philosophical position occupied by Pascal in his Provincial Letters and the tragic extremism of the Pensées: it was in no sense a question of individual psychology but rather the development of a particular, historically specific world vision. World visions appear thus as the key to literary history. We would expect, therefore, great novelists to express world visions in their work since without it, on Goldmann's terms, their novels would lack coherence, validity…. (pp. 69-71)

Goldmann's definition of the writer's function as 'one of critical opposition … a form of resistance to the ongoing development of bourgeois society' brings us to the crucial problem: for if the novelist embodies this critical consciousness, then he is most unlikely to express through his work an abhorrent class consciousness. Similarly, he is unlikely to be part of the working class, since most writers originate and remain within a middle-class environment and rarely identify with a social class they hardly know. The utility of the concept of world vision as the master key to world literature is surely challenged by the writer's ambiguous class position after the revolutions of 1848, when, with the European bourgeoisie as the dominant class, it became progressively more difficult for the writer to be both critical and enthusiastic for bourgeois values. Flaubert typifies this increasing social alienation in his hatred of both bourgeoisie and proletariat, in his conception of the writer as an impartial spectator withdrawing from active participation in the society he depicts artistically.

In his discussion of the problems of the sociology of the novel, Goldmann is clearly aware of these difficulties. There is nothing surprising, he argues, about the development of the novel as a literary genre, since it embodies, above all else, a search for values in a world emptied of 'authenticity', a world 'degraded' and dominated not by human but by exchange ('use') values. Lukács, in his Theory of the Novel had argued that the novel (the romanesque form—a significant structure) was characterized essentially by a radical antagonism between the hero and the world…. [The hero] is bound not to the conventional values of the empirical world but rather to 'authentic' values, and thus the novel becomes a quest for authenticity in a world where authentic values remain implicit. The novel is a 'literary form of absence' with the hero searching hopelessly for values which constantly elude him, and it is the problematic character of these values which leads ultimately to the novel form.

Goldmann extends Lukács's idealized, wholly internal interpretation to the socio-economic sphere: the novel form develops as a result of class development and he proposes a 'rigorous homology' between economic and literary structures. The novel is fundamentally to do with man's alienation from the social world; it is the artistic expression of a society in which money takes precedence over man, and where man is degraded to the status of an 'object' in that his labour, his essence, is defined as a commodity to be bought on the market by the highest available bidder. But this definition leads to a problem: for if great art is wholly the expression of the world vision of a social class, then the novel must constitute, in its origins and development, the vision of the bourgeoisie against whom the hero must be in opposition. In other words, the 'problematic hero' must draw his inspiration from his opposition to the 'collective consciousness' of the bourgeoisie. Goldmann's answer is to argue that since no social group can 'effectively defend' capitalist 'exploitation', or at least can do so only through ideology, through the distortion of truth, then great literature ceases to be bound up exclusively with the fate of social classes. Capitalism, he suggests, has succeeded not merely in 'degrading' the world but in transposing directly its economic activity into mental life: 'In market geared societies the collective consciousness progressively loses all sense of active reality and tends to become a simple reflection of economic life.' (pp. 71-3)

Goldmann suggests that a direct causal link exists between the forms of the modern novel and society as a whole. Indeed, he goes further, arguing for a similarly direct relation between the novel and particular phases of capitalist development. He describes three broad historical periods, beginning in 1880, and ending with the present time. The first period, corresponding to the growth of cartels and monopolies and colonial expansion (1880–1914), is reflected in the decline of the hero within the novel; between 1918 and 1939, the period of 'crisis capitalism', the hero more or less disappears from the novel, a process which 'consumer capitalism', 1945 onwards, completes. Goldmann, then, is suggesting that social class as the focal point of genuine literary creativity becomes relatively unimportant, and that society as a whole, especially its economic structure, is the determining factor. And, if he is to be wholly consistent with his stated method, there is the further problem that on his own terms the only genuine world vision which can find expression in an advanced capitalist society must be that of Marxism, given the world vision's oppositional character—all else must surely be mere ideology, sheer perspective. How does Goldmann deal with these problems in his study of the novels of André Malraux [in Pour une Sociologie du Roman]?

Malraux's fiction falls into three distinct phases, beginning with the three allegorical fantasies written in the early twenties, and ending with the philosophically pessimistic Walnut Trees of Altenburg…. In between lies the great creative period embracing the novels of the Chinese and Spanish civil wars, Man's Estate and Days of Hope. Goldmann argues that it is in this second stage that Malraux creates a genuine novel form ('une structure proprement romanesque')…. Goldmann's method is to work through the novels and show how the waxing and waning of the authentic values parallels the emergence and the decline of a genuine novel.

In Man's Estate, usually regarded as Malraux's greatest work, the orientation is 'towards the replacement of individual heroes by the collective personality'…. The novel sketches the relation between the 'problematic community' of revolutionary communists, problematic because their values and actions were challenging capitalist society, and the Stalinist policies of the Chinese Communist Party which eventually doomed the revolutionaries to defeat and death. As long as Malraux was critical of the policies followed by the official communist leadership he could create a novel of 'authentic values', although one in which the hero has been replaced by the community. In the later Days of Hope, when Malraux had come to accept uncritically the policies of international communism it was impossible for him to depict any kind of 'authenticity'.

Goldmann's argument is that a coherent structure is dependent on the 'global vision' expressed in a novel and its resultant values. Thus in Man's Estate the world vision of communism enables Malraux to depict love between men and women only where the characters are organically connected with a community; in Days of Hope, a novel which has neither problematic hero nor problematic community, love, eroticism, family life, are portrayed as obstacles to the disciplined direction and success of the Communist Party. Structure and value are closely bound: the values of the revolutionary community in Man's Estate are compared with the value of discipline in Days of Hope in a way which suggests that human values, love, and the human community are possible only if a problematic dimension of some kind is present. In Days of Hope there is none, only the Communist Party, disciplined and dogmatic, with its 'correct political line' opposed to any spontaneous revolutionary action. (pp. 73-6)

It should be clear from this brief discussion of Goldmann's analysis of Malraux's fiction that the link between the novels, social groups, social class, and world vision seems the simple one of critical fraternity with communism producing 'authentic values', while a dogmatic relation yields only a non-problematic and 'non-authentic' fictional universe. But what precisely was Malraux's relationship with communism and therefore with the working class whose vision he expresses? Goldmann is unclear…. There is, too, the question of ideology. If the world vision of Marxism provides the inner unity of Man's Estate, what of the vision expressed in the Stalinist Days of Hope, for here the Spanish Civil War is depicted in purely technical and military terms, not as a problem of policy and values. The absence of any kind of problematic element implies not a world vision but rather an ideology—in this case, Stalinism. Thus it seems that a world vision becomes an ideology in a writer's own time.

Many of these problems remain unanswered in Goldmann's brief discussion [in Pour une Sociologie du Roman] of the Nouveau Roman. The novels of Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute fit perfectly into his schema of the modern novel; as realistic novels their literary structures are in every way analogous to the social reality of consumer capitalism. The hero and the human community have been eclipsed totally by a world of objects, and external things that now dominate man. Objects in the classical novel existed merely in terms of their relations with individual characters; but in the new novel, with its origins in Joyce, Kafka, Musil, they take on the appearance of autonomy, having their own structure and laws but at the same time expressing 'in a certain measure human reality'…. Man is an object, dominated by economic and social self-regulation; the world is a hostile, alien place, where individuals have neither the wish to intervene, to act positively, nor to transform life qualitatively. These writings, argues Goldmann, carry 'a realistic, critical, and perfectly coherent vision of contemporary society' and constitute 'valid and authentic literary works'.

This seems a strange conclusion: world visions by definition strive towards totality, to grasp the whole: the trend of contemporary fiction (and this applies with force to Robbe-Grillet and the practitioners of the new novel) is away from literary totalities towards a wholly private, individual, subjective world—a partial rather than total view. But Goldmann raises more questions about the sociological study of literature than he provides solutions. (pp. 76-7)

Alan Swingewood, "Literature and Structuralism," in The Sociology of Literature by Diana Laurenson and Alan Swingewood (copyright © 1971 by Diana Laurenson and Alan Swingewood), MacGibbon & Kee, 1972, pp. 59-77.∗


David Caute


Robert Sayre